Monday July 22nd, 2024
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Where Devils & Angels Soar: Visiting Zambia’s Mighty Victoria Falls

High atop Victoria Falls, the Devil’s Pool is a natural basin that will grant you an incomparable view of Zambia through veils of mist and the arc of a rainbow.

William Mahfoud

Nothing could have quite prepared me for the might and majesty of Victoria Falls, a mighty waterfall straddling the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe. The wide, flowing waters of the Zambezi River spilled over the sheer lips of the black basalt gorge, plunging 100 metres below in a shower of mist, rainbow and thunder. The Mukuni people have long called it the Mosi-oa-Tunya, or ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, while  Scottish colonial David Livingston christened the 2-mile stretch of waterfall after his Queen Victoria. The waterfall is an impressive site from either nation, with plumes of mist visible 30 miles in every direction - but it is in Zambia where we immersed ourselves in its adventurous spirit.

In the beginning of September, I suddenly found myself in Zambia, a quiet country of vast landscapes and untouched bush, sedate cities, wild animals, and some of the kindest people I have ever met on my travels. Arriving from the hustle of Cairo into Zambia’s embrace was magical. All my cares, deadlines and pressures disappeared in the soft rhythms of the nation. Located in the former colonial capital of Livingstone, the Victoria Falls region has, in the last decade, recast itself as the adventure capital of Africa; a hub for whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, zip lining and, in my case, a casual swim to the famed Devil’s Pool, where I found arguably the most mesmerising view in the world.

During the height of the rainy season, the Zambezi pours an astonishing 10 million litres of water per second over the edge of Victoria Falls. Those famous pictures of white curtains of falling water and impenetrable mist are certainly iconic. During rains, it is at the impossibly suspended Knife Point Bridge where tourists experience the grandeur of the falls - the spray that soaks tourists to the bone while the deafening sounds roar through the air. Due to the seasonal flow of the Zambezi, the Victoria Falls is transformed throughout the year. For our part, we arrived in the midst of the dry season. Between May and November, the water is a robust trickle down the sheer face of the black rock. And while the view may be a little less than spectacular, I believe Mosi-oa-Tunya’s most impressive attraction is revealed only at this time - a dip in the Devil’s Pool.

It is at the Devil’s Pool where I experienced the thunder and majesty that gave the waterfall both of its names. My heart raced as we swam up to the edge, astonished as I looked into the silver mists, the water cascading wildly into the depths below, a rainbow suspended before my eyes. In 1855, upon witnessing The Smoke That Thunders, David Livingston declared that “a scene so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” It is at the Devil’s Pool that I fully understood those words. The rushing water, the cold spray and warm sunshine, the laughter and excitement of all those around, the adrenaline of balancing between life and death. It can’t be compared to the waterfall’s other activities; this is no stomach churning bungee jump (a 111 metre free fall from the heights of railway bridge spanning the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe) or tumultuous white water raft (a zigzagging adventure through the Zambezi tumultuous waters alive with hippos and crocodiles). A trip to the Devil’s Pool is not for the faint of heart, yet it can still be a friendly adventure for anyone keen to witness nature in its untamed splendour.

In the early hours of the morning, we set out in comfortable speed boats cutting through the Zambezi’s waters en route to Livingstone Island. The island, a wonder in itself, clings precariously to Victoria Falls’ edge, as the water boils and falls around.  Zambia is beautiful for the grand scale of its nature - Livingstone Island is but one of the many natural wonders contained within this country. Our group embarked onto the island as strangers and left as friends. Some experiences have that power. The guides were practised in charm, disciplined and friendly, allowing us to let down our hair, and regaling us with many stories from past guests and the the history of the island. They shared how, for centuries, this has been a place of great sacred importance: a gateway to the spirit world that is Mosi-oa-Tunya.  Depositing our things, eyeing each other nervous what to expect, we came to the Zambezi and one-by-one entered the chilly waters.

Stepping into a river will forever be a thing of beauty. Now imagine standing feet away from a free fall and your guide asks, “Who wants to go for a swim?” I was surely a mermaid in my past life, because I jumped straight into the fresh water and swam to the Devil’s Pool. Behind us fearless swimmers, our group (including seniors and teens) was guided through the waters to the other side. Upon reaching the small cluster of rocks that form the natural boundary of Devil’s Pool, our guide dove straight into the swirling waters. We screamed! Had he leapt over the edge? Up he came bobbing, smiling and laughing at having tricked us. “Come in, there is no reason to fear!”   The Devil’s Pool looks dangerous, but in reality is perfectly safe. The pool is a moment of fretful calm before the abyss.  Each of our guides - Boniface, Edward and Valentine - were experts, jumping effortlessly onto the lip of the fall, manoeuvring slippery rocks and harrowing falls with the grace of angels. The outlook garnered from the pool is the selfie opportunity of a lifetime and every guide is a perfect cameraman. “Lift up your arms, turn on your hip, look up, look down.”

Never having been one for pictures, I left my camera on the shore, and swam to the edge.  Leaning out all I could do was gasp. Mosi-oa-Tunya’s enigmatic rainbow was there to greet me. What could compare to the sound of the thunder around me, the swirling water, the spray of mist, and the staccato of falling water as it pounds the pool 100 metres below? Magic is a word used often in travel literature… but in this situation there can be no better word to describe the mystery of what we each saw.

I swam back to the rocks speechless, eyes still fixed on the view over the edge. All of us present felt the same. It was as if we had gazed upon the birth of Nature herself: elemental, powerful, beautiful. Adventure sports are always somehow about taming or conquering nature, whereas Devil’s Pool reveals to you just how mighty the natural world is. Sitting on those rocks in the morning sunshine I felt alive with wonder over the flowing river, the falling water, the improbability that such a place could even exist. And there, amidst the thunder, I felt my stomach growling.

Could there be a breakfast spot more divine than on Livingstone Island?  Swimming back to shore, we climbed onto the bank to the smell of frying bacon and freshly brewed coffee.  Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool are managed by the luxurious Tongabezi Lodge and as part of their offerings cooks up an incredible gourmet breakfast in Livingstone Islands leafy shade.  A morning of tense anticipation morphed into a relaxed breakfast amongst new found friends, each sharing stories of their Zambian adventures; of safaris and helicopter flights, of close calls with wild animals, and visits to ancient villages. And while I sipped my coffee, tucking into poached eggs and a bush-made hollandaise, all I could think about was that rainbow. So close I could have reached out and touched it.

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