Our Topdeck tour spent only two nights and one full day in Zimbabwe. We visited Matobo National Park, near the city of Bulawayo. The park has many amazing features, including black and white rhinos and rock caves containing ancient paintings.
Our guide for the day, Ian Harmer, was an intense and passionate man. He had lived his whole life in the Matobo National Park region, and he had spent many years trying to educate people on how to save Africa’s rhinos. They have been disappearing at an alarming rate as a result of poaching, and they will probably be extinct within a few short years. Another blogger who took the same tour earlier in 2017 explains the situation and Ian’s perspective in this article.
Ian drove us into the bush, then gave us instructions for our rhino tracking walk. We were to stay behind him and imitate his every move. If he stopped and crouched, then we also had to stop and crouch immediately. In the (very unlikely) event that a rhino were to start charging toward us, we were to completely freeze. As a last resort, we were to run and hide behind the first tree or rock we encountered, but only after he gave the “run for your life!” signal.
My heart was pounding out of my chest as we spotted and approached our first rhinos. They saw us, but didn’t seem overly concerned. They were white rhinos, which are known for being less aggressive than black rhinos.
Ian motioned for us to come even closer. You know, I was perfectly okay in my original spot! I followed him with some trepidation. In my mind, I knew I was safe under his guidance, but an underlying part of my brain was still sounding the “Danger! Danger! Danger!” alarm. I managed to keep myself calm. It was, in fact, extremely cool to be admiring these magnificent beasts from up close. But I was also happy when Ian told us it was time to go and we returned to the safety of our jeep.
Ian spent the rest of the morning driving us around the park and looking for more rhinos. We didn’t find any, but we had a great time admiring the landscape and rock formations. Right before lunch, Ian stopped the jeep by a lake where we could go swimming. None of us had our bathing suits, so we all waded into the water in our underwear. It only took about ten seconds to dry off afterward, since it was so hot in the middle of the day.
In the afternoon, we drove into the forest, then hiked up a short trail to one of the Bushmen caves. Ian showed us the old paintings, and explained how the Bushmen had lived virtually the same hunter gatherer lifestyle in the area for thousands of years.
Ian drove us to a village in the middle of the park, where the village chief explained their way of life. The chief led us into a house, where he showed us how people cooked and how the smoke escaped through the hole in the roof. That part of the tour stands out in my memory, but for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, I had been battling a lingering cold since arriving in Africa. The cold had gradually morphed into a cough that wouldn’t quit. While the chief was showing us around, I had a massive coughing fit that completely destroyed my vocal cords. I didn’t end up getting my voice back until two days later.
The next day, we drove to the Zimbabwe/Zambia border at Victoria Falls. Before crossing into Zambia, we took a walk along the path on the Zimbabwean side of the falls. We slipped and slid along the misty trail, and did our best to avoid the snack-stealing baboons. Since it was September and the dry season, a large portion of the falls looked like a giant rock face. The Zimbawean vantage point had the best view of the water that was still coming down.
The last campsite on our group tour was right on the river in Livingstone, Zambia. That evening, we boarded a boat and took a sunset safari cruise. We were able to spot hippos and crocodiles in the water, and elephants wandering through the forest. Livingstone is considered the adventure capital of Africa, and there are ample opportunities to take pricey excursions. Our guide joked with us about it. “You can try an activity called ‘swimming with the crocodiles’! It’s free! All you need to do is jump in the river!” Needless to say, we gave that one a pass.
The next morning, I said a sad goodbye to my tourmates and checked into my hostel in Livingstone. I had picked the hostel because it was called Fawlty Towers. I must admit, it’s a brilliant marketing strategy. Unlike the unfortunate hotel on the TV show, the Zambian hostel was beautifully managed by friendly (and competent) people.
I spent the day reading and relaxing by the pool, and tried to avoid talking to anyone to rest my vocal chords. The strategy seemed to work. When I woke up the following morning, my voice was about 60% better. However, I was still coughing constantly, and I felt terrible for my dormmates. I’m fairly certain one woman switched to another room just to get away from me. I couldn’t blame her!
I needed my health, because my plan for the morning was completely wild. I was finally going to fulfill my dream of sitting on the edge of the Victoria Falls! Between August and December every year, the water is low enough that a rock barrier forms an eddy in one tiny section of the falls. The eddy is known as the “Devil’s Pool”. I had been dreaming of going for a dip in the Devil’s Pool since 2011, when I first saw someone taking the plunge on YouTube. The only (reputable) Devil’s Pool tour provider is Tongabezi, which runs out of the luxury Royal Livingstone Hotel. I took a taxi to the hotel early in the morning, then hopped in a boat with my fellow tourees and our guide.
When we arrived at Livingstone Island, our guide led us along a path to the edge of the falls. We jumped in the water behind him and swam a short distance to the pool. What was running through my mind exactly? “This is soooooo awesome” and “man the water’s cold” and “ow I just scraped my leg on a rock.”
Up to 80 people a day visit the pool on the official tours between 8 am and 2 pm, so the guides have developed an efficient system. The whole experience amounted to “wait my turn-swim to the edge-pose for photos-swim back to the rocks-done.” It was all over in about three minutes. My brain didn’t have time to process anything. My first thought wasn’t “holy macaroni I’m sitting on the edge of a 108 m cliff!” It was “oh no, the guy taking photos doesn’t have the password on my phone!” It turns out he could use the camera function without having to enter the code. I didn’t know that was possible. Silly me!
As you can see, the guide was never more than arm’s length away from me at all times. The guides never let you sit alone on the edge of the pool, for very understandable safety reasons.
As I was lying horizontal, I could feel a very, very tiny current pushing me slightly forward. I managed to anchor myself firmly on the rock. I could also feel fish biting the bottom of my feet, which made me squirmy. The Devil’s Pool is just about the last place on earth you want to be squirmy!
Before heading back to the hotel, we ate a fancy breakfast in a cabin near the water. I had great fun visiting the outhouse, which had an open wall that faced the falls. So ingenious!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole Vic Falls experience. But it wasn’t at all how I imagined it would be. I guess I figured we’d all have more time to hang out on the edge and properly take everything in. Instead, it was all rush, rush, rush. In the end, the Devil’s Pool didn’t turn out to be the pinnacle of my trip. That honour goes to my one-day rafting adventure on the Zambezi river.
I had been rafting before near my home in Ottawa and in Costa Rica. However, those rapids only went up to class IV at most. In Zambia, I experienced the mighty class V, the highest level of commercially navigable rapids in the world. I had a total blast, but I can say with conviction that I’ve officially reached my aquatic thrill-seeking limit.
We had to choose a team name for our rafting group, and our guide, Henry, came up with “Oh Sh!t!” It seemed quite appropriate. I definitely said those words and much, much worse multiple times throughout the day. The trip started off with a bang. Or a splash, if you will. Our first major rapid was a class V called “Morning Glory”. As you can see in the video, we almost made it through …
Getting dumped into a class V is an unbelievably violent experience. I was stuck under the boat at first, then I got sucked underwater by the shear force of the rapid. There was absolutely nothing I could do to fight my way up. I could only patiently wait for my life jacket to do its job, while being pummeled by the brutally strong water. After what seemed like an eternity, I popped up on the surface. I had time to take one quick breath before a wave crashed over me and I was back in the whirlpool. I eventually floated out of the waves, and climbed into the other group’s boat. What a ride!
Our team wasn’t completely hopeless. We did manage to successfully navigate some class Vs. For instance, we ran “Stairway to Heaven” like bosses, and I have the video to prove it. We felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment (not to mention relief!) after conquering the rapid.
We came across one especially terrifying rapid that morning. Henry told us as we approached it that we absolutely could not flip this time. There was a giant rock in the middle of the rapid that could do some serious damage. We had to work as a team and paddle in sync, and everything would be fine. We hadn’t really been doing a stellar job of paddling together up until that point, so things were looking pretty dicey to me. “The cameraman is on the right” Henry told us. “Quite frankly, that’s the least of my concerns right now” I responded. Of course, I needn’t have worried. Henry expertly guided us around the offending rock, and we made it through in one piece.
I asked Henry later whether he had ever tipped into this particular rapid. “Once” he answered. “I sacrificed myself by falling onto the rock and making sure my clients landed on the other side of the boat.” He showed me the scar on his nose.
For Midnight Diner, we had the option of navigating a class III, IV or V rapid. “Class V! Class V! Class V!” we stupidly yelled. “The Class V rapid is called Star Trek,” announced Henry. “Woohooo!” “Live long and prosper!” we shouted, while making the Vulcan salute. I started humming what I thought was the Star Trek theme, but what turned out to be the Darth Vader music. This got me a stern reprimand from my fellow rafters. It was also probably bad luck, because it took about a millisecond for the delightful Star Trek to toss us overboard and send us on our merry way. “Well I guess that was to be expected,” I said philosophically, as we clutched onto a rescue kayak and drifted down the river.
The Zambians have a fabulous sense of irony, and it came across in the rapid names. For instance, “Gnashing Jaws of Death” is actually a relatively easy class III rapid. We got through it without any issues, then stopped at some rocks to eat lunch. While we were chowing down, a helicopter flew right over our heads and landed a short distance from us. It had come to pick up a client from another group who had broken his leg. It was quite sobering.
In the afternoon, most of the rapids were much calmer. There was only one truly memorable one. Usually, Henry would give us briefings as we approached the white water. He would tell us the class and give a few paddling instructions. But this time, all he said was “the next rapid is called Oblivion” in an ominous voice. And that was it. I knew we were in for it. And sure enough, unlike “Gnashing Jaws of Death”, “Oblivion” lived up to its name.
Later, as we were paddling along the still water, I caught a glimpse of something green and shiny on the rocks. “Um, is that a crocodile?” I asked. “Yes” Henry answered. “But don’t worry you only see small ones here. And they don’t get in the water. They don’t like the rapids.” Well, I guess I got to do a ‘swimming with the crocodiles’ excursion after all!
For one of the last rapids of the day, we all jumped out of the boat and swam through it. I loved just relaxing and being carried by the current. I make my grand entrance in the video at 0:29.
I still wasn’t feeling completely healthy, so I was pleased to find my dorm empty when I arrived back at the hostel that night. I sent the picture below to my boyfriend Chris with the caption “Guess who has an entire room to herself!” Alas, I spoke too soon. Not ten minutes later, a group of Japanese backpackers showed up and claimed their beds. But they were super nice, so it was all good. I hope my coughing didn’t disturb them too much.
I spent my last day in Livingstone doing vacation-y things. I read by the pool, and had a massage, manicure and pedicure. I wanted to look sorta-kinda-somewhat okay, since my final leg of my trip was a week in beautiful Paris!
When I finished my round-the-world tour in 2013, I wrote my plans for future travels in the wrap-up post for the trip. As of now, I have conquered the Inca Trail, journeyed to Everest Base Camp, explored the magnificent Petra, and braved the Devil’s Pool. The only thing left on the list is Boston. That seems silly, since Boston is the closest to Ottawa and most accessible of them all. Anyone up for a road trip?