Last Friday (26 August) was Heroes’ Day in Namibia, which meant a long weekend. Sunday was also the date of the Victoria Falls Marathon. So my friend Janice, a Peace Corps volunteer here in Katima, and I went to Victoria Falls for the weekend and to run the marathon (me) and half-marathon (her).
Although perhaps longer by kilometers/miles, it is easier and faster to travel through Zambia by public transport. And we both have multiple entry Zambian Visas, so Friday morning we met at the border, walked over to Zambia, and found a taxi that would drive us into Sesheke. When we got to the taxi rank there, we very quickly found a car going to Livingstone that was nearly full. In fact, before we even put our bags in the back, another woman walked up and we were set to go. The drive was mostly uneventful until we arrived in Livingstone and ran into police checkpoints at which time we discovered that our driver did not have his license on him as it had been taken away by the police in another area. . . Fortunately, he somehow convinced a police officer to get in the car and accompany us so he could drop the three of us left at that taxi rank where we can get another taxi to the border. Despite that little hiccup, that all worked out. Having met at the Namibian border a bit after 8am, we reached the Zimbabwean border before 1pm, very good time.
We passed through the Zambian border and then had to walk a kilometer or so through “no man’s land” at which point we came upon the bridge over the Zambezi, the middle of which is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. I was unprepared for this and as we stepped onto the bridge, I looked up and said, “holy sh** that’s the Falls!” Both of my cameras were buried in my pack, but luckily my phone was handy. This was my first look at Victoria Falls. Wow!
While we were on the bridge, we checked out the bungy jumpers. The woman jumping was doing a lot of praying. Personally, this is as close to bungy jumping as I ever care to get. After the bridge there was the Zimbabwean border control where we were happy to see that the Zimbabwean Visas were the kind that are stickers (much more colorful) rather than stamps. Another kilometer or two brought us to the town of Victoria Falls and the first hotel we saw was the Kingdom Hotel, where marathon registration was taking place. We decided to pop in and handle that since we were there. We also stopped at the bank so I could change money (ironically for President Mugabe, the currency of Zimbabwe is now the US dollar). Finally, we made it to the Victoria Falls Rest Camp, where we were staying. It was advertised as quiet, cheap and clean and for the most part, it lived up to this reputation (we were annoyed by having to pay $2 each to have a mosquito net). The Rest Camp is one of the closest places to town, which meant we could really walk anywhere. We checked in, found our dorm, chose our beds and unpacked and it was only around 3pm!
Having not eaten anything all day, I was rather hungry, so we went out to see the town and find food. Luckily, since we never had a chance to get back to this place, we decided on a restaurant called Mama Africa which was very nice. I had a local beef stew which was delightfully spicy “but not hot” just as the waiter said it would be. After our meal, we wanted to find the local market and our waiter connected us with the pastry chef who was just leaving for the day and heading toward the market. Not only did she show us the way, she accompanied us into the market which was great since it gave us the opportunity to ask about all sorts of unusual things we saw there. The market was not very physically large but there was probably 10x the amount of food as in the Katima market. Tons of tomatoes, avocados, squash, oranges, bananas, greens, onions, locally produced peanut butter and honey and all sorts of others things. We bought some supplies, thanked our guide and headed back to town. We checked out the local SPAR supermarket (unimpressive) and the large TM supermarket (pretty impressive). The TM had, in their liquor cage, single malt scotch. My eyes lit up. This is something that I’ve not been able to find either in Katima or Windhoek. The prices were very, very good (lower than the Nairobi airport) and I learned later, TM takes Visa cards. So, that warranted a stop on our way out of town.
We also found the offices of Lion Encounter and walked in to see what they were about. As part of a program to rehabilitate the lion population in Africa which has been decimated in recent years, Lion Encounter is a program that allows people to walk with young lions as they are getting acclimated to the bush. It wasn’t cheap, but Janice and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity so we signed up for the encounter on Monday morning. We now had a totally full schedule—Saturday morning we would go see the Falls, at noon we were off to do the Flying Fox (a sort of zip line over the gorge), in the afternoon we would have our “Wine Route” canoe down the Zambezi. Sunday would be the marathon (starting at 6:30am) followed by hanging out at the Victoria Falls hotel and the marathon after-party in the evening. Monday morning we would do the Lion encounter and then head back to Katima. In the end, the tour company screwed up our Wine Route reservation and we had to reschedule it for Sunday, but this turned out to be much better because it was a couple of kilometer walk to the Victoria Falls hotel and I could NOT have managed that after the marathon! And this was a wonderful, not-to-be-missed experience. Sitting in a canoe, being paddled by our guides while enjoying a glass of white wine was a perfect post-marathon activity.
It is amazing how well everything worked out in our schedule. Saturday morning broke lovely and calm and we headed to the Falls around 8am. Both Sunday and Monday were very windy, which would have generated much more spray from the Falls, reducing visibility and photo opportunities. I nearly filled my 8GB memory card in a couple of hours so, needless to say, we were not wanting for photo ops! Go check out my Flickr page where I’ll post a sizeable selection: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tlongacre The Falls were awesome. We started at the north end and walked the whole length of them and they opened up to us in all their glory. Because it is nearing the end of the dry season, we didn’t get too wet and we had great views from the ground (definitely not the case in March or April). It was amazing to try to consider that this massive flow of water was the lowest of the year. Nonetheless, there was some spray, as the photos attest. We also saw two rainbows, one at the north end where we began and one at the southern end at “Rainbow Falls”.
The Flying Fox activity was fun. I thought it would provide some photo opportunities, but it’s not really an ideal set up for taking pictures. However, the spot where the activities are has great views of the gorge. But this was fun and not heart-attack generating, though it does give a good adrenaline rush, particularly when you realize that you are hanging 140 meters above the gorge.
After ascertaining the tour company screw up, we decided to head to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Wowee. If you want the “colonial” experience, this is the place to go. The hotel sits on the gorge with a direct view of the bridge. It has a lovely lawn and a garden of Shona sculptures (for sale of course). We sat on the Stanley veranda and Janice had a proper British High Tea (scones with clotted cream, cucumber sandwiches and cakes) while I ate crocodile tail salad.
Sunday morning we were up before dawn for the marathon. It was chilly, but warmer than early mornings in Katima. As we walked down to the start, there was a strong breeze. This turned out to be a great thing. Though there were a few places on the course where we headed into a pretty fierce wind, the heat would have been pretty bad without the cooling effect the wind provided. You can read my full race report on my running blog: http://revruns.blogspot.com. Though the last 10k were very hard, I finished in a PR time of 4:24. The thing that got to me were the hills. Katima Mulilo is flat, flat, flat. Even though the marathon didn’t have any major hills, the course was consistently up and down and up and down and after about 18 miles, my quadriceps gave out. Ouch!
Hence, the great timing of the switch of our canoe trip down the Zambezi. We were picked up at the Rest Camp and driven back into the park we had run through during the marathon to the spot where we put the canoes in the water. There was one other pair, so we had two canoes and two guides. It was lovely and peaceful, even though the wind caused the water to be rough. We saw a few small crocodiles, many birds, a bush buck and several hippos (nicely in the distance). While we floated along, we enjoyed a glass of wine and at one point we stopped on an island and has a snack. A lovely evening “cruise.”
Monday morning we were again up early as our Lion Encounter pickup was at 6:30am. The organization breeds lions in captivity and removes the cubs from their mothers when they are quite young. Once they are several months old, they are taught to acclimate to the bush and it is in this first phase that they allow people to come and walk with the lions. The two lions we walked with were about 14 months old. In the later phases, the lions have no human contact so that they learn to live in the wild before they are eventually released . It’s an interesting effort and the Lion Encounter really only exists in order to raise money for the work. 14 month old lions are pretty big, but not yet full sized. The two that we walked with spent time playing with each other, chased a goose and spotted and chased an antelope (in addition to just walking along with us and letting us pet them). Though I’ve been on safari many times, I’ve never seen lions in their natural habitat before and it was a great experience. (Again check Flickr for a bunch of photos.)
We returned to the Rest Camp and then headed out for the trek back to Katima. The return trip did NOT go as smoothly as the trip down. The first taxi driver, from the Zambia border into Livingstone town, tried to rip us off. When we found a car driving back to Sesheke, the car eventually filled all with women, but once we started driving, it was clear that our driver was likely a bit drunk and clearly very, very tired. (He actually asked me to drive as soon as we started moving, to which I agreed if he returned my money.) Sitting in the front seat next to him, I felt the need to remain hyper-alert and even had to grab the wheel at one point to prevent us driving off the road into the bush. After an hour or so, he stopped and got some chips and water which seemed to make a difference in his ability to stay awake. Then, after getting back to the Namibian side, we again got a bad taxi driver who both tried to rip us off and put a third person in the front (which, in addition to being unsafe, is completely illegal in Namibia). Janice had the fortune to have exact change, so she just gave what she should have paid and left. I didn’t have exact change and ended up in a huge argument that nearly looked like he would actually assault me. It took many hours for my adrenaline to return to normal. Sheesh. The good news was that we did get back to town in time to do some food shopping, which both of us needed to do, so despite the agony, things turned out okay.
All in all it was a fantastic weekend. If you want to visit Victoria Falls, you must go to the Zimbabwe side. Livingstone, in Zambia, is a bustling city, but it is 10K from the Falls and you only have access to a very small part. Victoria Falls town, in Zimbabwe, is a tourist town that really only exists for the Falls. It is smaller and more quiet and very easy to get around and all the focus is on the Falls. I highly recommend: http://www.victoriafalls-guide.net for info.