Exclusive for Vagobond by Carl Grooms
You feel the rumble in the earth before you hear it. You see wisps of mist rise high into the sky as if a forest fire has commenced. As you draw closer your ears begin to pick up the roar, you feel it in your soul. The locals call it the Smoke that Thunders. You have arrived at Victoria Falls, one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World.
The falls are a UNESCO World Heritage site that straddles the boarders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. Here the Zambezi river drops almost 400 feet across a 1 mile wide face into a remarkably small cut in the earth, making it the largest falls in the world. The attraction is part of two national park systems. Mosi-ao-Tunya (translated to the Smoke that Thunders) National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe.
I awoke before the sun, on my first day. Eager to capture the falls in good light from the Zimbabwe side, I hired a taxi to fetch me and get me to the entry prior to opening. The silence enveloped us as we sat in the dark, waiting. I began to question my safety. Alone, with a strange driver, holding over $15,000 in camera gear could prove to be a poor idea. Young men walking past, AK-47’s on their shoulders, interrupted the silence. They were on their way to relieve the night shift guarding the border and bridge to Zambia. I’m starting to imagine the headlines that the western press will print when they find my body later today. Undeterred I await the arrival of the park attendant to let me in.
The Zimbabwe side of the falls is far more developed than the Zambian side. However, with the political strife and humanitarian crimes being brought upon the population by Robert Mugabe, their leader (in no sense of the word), hotel occupancy is low. The Zambia side has record occupancy and capital investment in facilities is up. An argument could be made that the falls are just as beautiful from that the other side, but I want to photograph them coming straight at me. So I’ve come to Zimbabwe.
This is the second journey of my life to this region of the world. I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia 450 miles and a 12 hour drive north, in the mid-80’s. This was during the civil war that turned Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and during apartheid in South Africa. The ‘freedom’ fighter, Robert Mugabe lived in exile in my Lusaka neighborhood. Too bad he survived to release so much human tragedy upon his people. When I lived here the first time, we couldn’t come to the falls because of the war. Today, my first, I’ve come to photograph for my book, “Portraits of Our World”. The book is meant to build schools for the poor children in this region of Africa. The perceived risk sitting on this border today is worth it.
Perhaps the idea that this trip is allegedly risky is the point. I do not believe it is. The people of Zimbabwe are very warm and hospitable. They are often delighted to have you. The preponderance of the crime that occurs in this region is related to economics, motivated by the need to eat and feed one’s family. The Mugabe regime itself will not hassle you, as you bring hard currency and commerce. The hotels are at low capacity, meaning great rates. Now is a good time to visit.
The Vic Falls lookout area is not all that large. Big enough only to face the main body of the falls, it is easily walked carrying whatever gear you decide to bring. In reality you will be left surprised that there isn’t more too it. As you pay your small entry fee and move through the gates you are greeted with a spectacular rain forest made possible by the water spray of the falls. You will see mahogany trees, ferns, palms and various vines that you cannot see anywhere else in the area.
As you emerge on the other side your senses are inundated. The roar resonates at a bass level that you feel in your bones. Depending on the wind and time of year, you may not be able to readily see the falls because of the great mist it generates. The resulting, and always present, rainbow serves as the crowning jewel. Keep moving along the face and you will eventually find the perfect spot.
For the true adventurer you can hire a helicopter to fly up over the falls. We did this and were able to capture the most amazing images as you can see here. Don’t spend your entire time behind the camera. It is too easy to be caught up in capturing your surroundings and forget to actually enjoy the experience yourself.
There are a number of things you can do in the area to further enjoy the destination when you are done with the falls. White water rafting on the Zambezi is very popular. The river is very violent be forewarned. Don’t miss the chance to sample wild game meat. My favorite is the The Boma Restaurant, located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The $50 charge per person is worth it. Note that Zimbabwe no longer has it’s own currency. They rely on the US Dollar, South African Rand, Botswana Pula and the Euro instead.
In order to more fully appreciate my adventure I departed Zimbabwe via the bridge over the Zambezi to cross into Zambia. With loaded backpacks, together with my wife and children (11 and 12 at the time) we made the crossing. After stamping our passports upon departure, the border guard let us across the barrier.
We crossed the bridge, a one mile long no man’s land between the countries. We had a surreal feeling as we walked towards the Zambian side, their armed border guards looking on. We were readily welcomed, cleared through and on our way.
Traveling is a matter of pushing all your senses beyond the daily norm. New people and cultures, new food, new smells, even new fears. Sometimes the fears are unfounded which allows you to open your eyes a little wider and gather the courage to head off to another life changing destination that is mistakenly avoided by the masses. Sometimes your new reality simply serves to open your mind to the world you live in daily. Either way, a journey to Victoria Falls can be much more than simply visiting the Smoke that Thunders.
Carl Grooms is the editor of the island focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines. He produced his latest book, “Portraits of Our World” after a one year trip around the world. He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions. At last count Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the Bulls in Pamplona, braved the highest bungee jump in the world in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner. He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.