Part 2: adventures in Vic Falls

Two things I forgot in Part 1:

1. To help you better visualize where we were, here’s a map!  We didn’t go on this exact red line route – I just got this picture from Google…  But it’s close!  We started out in Johannesburg, took the bus to Bulawayo, and then took the train to Victoria Falls.  In this next blog, you’ll read about how we went to Livingstone also.

map of southern Africa

2. When we were at the Trade Fair in Bulawayo, apparently the president, Mugabe, was also there on the same day!  But I heard that everyone hates him…and that he’s always surrounded by a million body guards…  Anyway, one of the girls from the other group that’s traveling with us saw him.

from Google

from Google: a kid with the money he would need just to buy a few groceries

The story of our week, continued….

At 1:00, the train finally arrived in Victoria Falls, and as soon as we all got out, baboons and monkeys invaded the train.  Simply walking to our hotel camp was definitely a cultural experience!  We asked a man where Rest Camp was, and he ended up walking us all the way there (10 minutes), but not only out of the kindness of his heart… He was one of the artists at the nearby market, and he wanted us to drop off our stuff at the camp and then come back with him to the market.  “You don’t have to buy stuff – just look!”  We told him that we just wanted to rest for a bit and that we would come later, but it took a lot of convincing for him to finally leave.  On the whole walk there, so many vendors bombarded us, trying to sell us old Zimbabwe money (trillion dollar bills) or offering us deals on the activities to do in the area, and there were even a few children asking us for money or clothes.  People literally walked up the whole street with us, not stopping no matter how many times we said no!

the biggest bill they printed before the currency was scrapped - now sold as souvenirs

I really liked the place we were staying.  It was set up like a campsite, and we were staying in a double chalet (a building with two little bedrooms in it) with a big community bathroom a 30-second walk away.  The campus was beautiful, and we were able to relax and take nice warm showers after we felt disgusting from the train.  At about 3:00, we left to explore Victoria Falls Town.  The feel of it was SO different than the rest of Africa that we had experienced.  The second we left the hotel grounds, three guys were waiting there to make us buy Zimbabwe money (I ended up buying the $50 trillion bill for $2 American, just for a cool souvenir).  Zach and Tyler went to different places that ran activities in the area (like elephant back safaris and gorge swings) to negotiate the lowest prices, while Renna and I explored the little tourist shops.  We then went to the bank to withdraw American money, but for some reason, we couldn’t get it to work.  A black Zimbabwean guy was waiting in line behind us and heard about our problems, so when he was able to successfully get money out, he made a joke about how he got money and we didn’t.  Tyler jokingly said, “Can we have some, then?”  The guy looked at his money, paused for a second, then handed Tyler a $20 and walked away.  That made Tyler’s day.

Next we went to the market – huge cultural experience.  Everyone was SO pushy!  Americans think car salesmen are pushy, but you have NO idea until you see Victoria Falls market people.  They would find ways to get you to stay, saying things like “Oh, I like your hair tie.  I want to give it to my sister.  I’ll give you something for it.”  Then they would take my hair tie off my wrist (this happened about four times) and then ask me what I wanted.  When I suggested a trade, they would say yes, but ask for money as well.  They asked to trade other things as well, telling us to come on our last day with our old clothes.  They found ways, like that, to trick us into buying things (or in my case, almost buying things – I walked out of there at the end of the day spending no money!).  I thought we had become good at bartering from all our practice in South Africa, but this was like advanced level bartering!  I can’t explain it – it was ridiculous.  I kept telling Renna, “It’s like drugs – just say no!” and I’d help pull her away from people trying to convince her that she needed a wooden bowl or that she needed to support them.

After Renna started practically hyperventilating from claustrophobia, and after I was tired of saying “no, sorry” about fifty times in a row, I pulled Renna out into the open area in the middle of the square market.  Vendors kept trying to talk to us, so I said loudly and determined “Let’s just get some fresh air!  We need fresh air!”  We stopped in the center, held hands, and breathed deeply in and out – while almost every vendor stared at us (probably because I was talking so loud).  Again, I was doing that thing where I see situations as funny when in reality they’re terrible.  I was finding the humor in the ridiculousness of it all, and was rather enjoying the whole experience because of that.  After a minute, we decided to walk back in on the other side.  The first vendor who spoke to us said, “They’re very pushy over there, over here is better.” …and then proceeded to do the exact same things that the other guys had done.  We found the booth of the guy who had walked us to our hotel earlier, Gorden.  Renna curiously asked him how much a little wooden giraffe spoon was in Rand, and he said 180 ($25).  Renna: “What?!  I got a spoon just like this in Pietermaritzburg for 12 Rand ($1.75)!”  The guy: “Oh, but this is special wood.  It’s made from the roots of the trees.”  -_-  Really…  She eventually got the price down to 15 Rand ($2).  Ridiculous.  Tree roots became a reoccurring joke between us during the rest of the trip.

the market

We ate dinner at the Rest Camp’s place (where I tried warthog meat – the “Pumba Burger”), and had a meeting about what we wanted to do the next few days.  One big question was about whether to go to Botswana or not, and after a frustrating meeting (it’s amazing how there can be such differing opinions with only four people), we decided not to go because of the extra cost and because we didn’t have a solid idea of what to do there.

Sunday, May 8 – I woke up after only 6 hours, but couldn’t go back to sleep so I decided to make myself useful.  I took a little walk to the local grocery store.  Well, the main grocery store hadn’t opened yet, so I just got bread and cereal from a convenience store (called Seven to Eleven) and walked back.  By then, Renna was up, so half an hour later we both walked to the actual grocery store to finish the shopping, now that it was open.  It was actually a fun experience getting to see the store and how different it was from what we were used to.  There were barely any choices, and all of them were different than what we were used to.  The main grocery store didn’t have any jelly/jam, so we went to the convenience store to get some.  Renna stood in line with a jar labeled “jelly” before I realized that it was jelly for meat!  We then found what I think was the single jar of actual jam in the whole country.  Milk was either “long life milk,” which was in cartons that were not in the fridge, or else it was in bags.  I saw some cartons in the fridge, but they were labeled “full cream” so I didn’t want to risk what could be inside and just decided to go for the long life stuff.

milk in bags

It was also a cultural experience when we saw shelves FULL of Green Bar soap – unwrapped bars that are each more than a foot long.  Stacks upon stacks.  And they smell, well, not so good.  Sadly, we soon realized that almost everyone in Victoria Falls Town smelled of Green Bar.  This also became the subject for a running joke between us.  A few days later, I remember some guy crashing into Renna on a crowded street – “That’s the closest contact I’ve ever made with Green Bar.”  Side note: We thought it was body soap the whole time, but when I got home and looked it up online, I realized it was laundry soap.  But regardless…same thoughts still apply.

the Green Bar shelf

Our big adventure that day was….Zambia!  Yes, we actually went to another country for the day.  It was about a 15-minute walk to the border post.

before leaving Zimbabwe for the day

After getting our passports stamped out of Zimbabwe, we entered the “no man’s land” bridge that goes over the Zambezi River.  We could feel a slight mist from Victoria Falls, which was cool because it was so far away.  The road had puddles all over it, but it was crazy to think about how that wasn’t from rain!

walking into "no man's land" - puddles made from the mist of the Falls! (you can see a tiny bit of the mist on the top left)

In the middle of the bridge (which people could bungee jump from) there was a line where Zimbabwe and Zambia met, so it was fun to take pictures being in two countries at once.  When we got past the Zambia border post and bought a day pass visa, I was suddenly the most unsure I’d been the whole trip.  I had done so much research and asked for so much help for all the details of the trip, but in Zambia I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do!  Luckily, though, Tyler and Zach were excited to figure things out.  The place seemed deserted, and there were just a few taxi vans and some people sitting in a dusty open area.  Two Zambian guys seemed to claim us all as their next customers, so they helped us find a taxi (“combie”) that wouldn’t rip us off, and then rode with us to the town of Livingstone.  I knew that the guys were going to want a tip after this, but at the same time, I knew that we would be lost without them.  The combie ride was also a unique experience – the seats seemed barely attached to the bottom of the van, and there were of course no seatbelts, but it got us there!  The Zambian guys came out with us, took us around the markets, bought us water bottles, gave us lots of interesting facts about Zambian history and culture, and helped us not get ripped off (that had been Ben’s only warning for us before we got on the train – “Whatever you do, don’t get ripped off.  Cut the price in half and then start bargaining.”).  They were interesting people, and it always surprised me what they had to say – one could even recite the names of the US presidents backwards!

Livingstone, Zambia

I asked if there were any foods that we needed to try, so the guys took us to a place where we had a filling lunch of nshima, the country’s staple of cornmeal that you eat by rolling around in your palm and then dipping in a sauce or with vegetables.

digging in to our traditional lunch

We told the guys that we wanted to go on a gorge swing sometime, so they took us to a place.  We weren’t too excited about the location, though (it was over random bush instead of over the river), so we decided it would be worth the extra money to go in a more fun location.  Next, our tour guides brought us to the entrance of Victoria Falls, where we said goodbye to them.

the baboon that they called Michael - I loved how casually he was just sitting on the curb like a human would do!

Michael turned a bit to look at the camera

I had been excited to see Victoria Falls, but I honestly wasn’t expecting to love it as much as I did.  I’ve never really been the kind of person to marvel at beautiful nature scenes, which was what I thought the Falls would be, but I never imagined it being so much fun!  First of all, the Falls were beautiful, huge (obviously  – largest in the world), and it was crazy how the mist coming from it would sometimes block our view of it.

our first beautiful view of the side of Vic Falls

However, the fun started as soon as we got into the “rain forest.”  While Tyler and Zach went shirtless, Renna and I got out the ponchos we had rented from the stand outside the park.  It was absolutely CRAZY!  Water was pouring down on us, even though the sky was blue!  We found out from several people that the river was the most full it had ever been, meaning that the Falls were HUGE!  And because it was so huge, the water would come from every direction and just pour on us, even though we were pretty far away from it.

the "rain" pouring down on us!

Renna and I with a barely visible view of the Falls

There was a little bridge that was part of the trail, and it was my favorite part.  The water POURED down on this bridge, probably harder than any actual rain I’ve ever felt in my life!  It was like being in a giant rain storm…even though the sky was blue.  I opened my mouth and was literally able to “taste the waters of Africa” (our program director’s catch phrase that was written on our semester shirts: “Once you have tasted the waters of Africa, you will always be thirsty until you drink them again.”).

rain/mist POURING over the little bridge, with a rainbow and blue sky up above

Then we hiked down a long trail to the “boiling point,” where we ate our packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, granola bars, and apples while looking at the beautiful view of the water swirling in whirlpools in the river below the Falls.  We then hiked back up the trail and headed back to Zimbabwe, and happened to see the group of six other Americans while on the bridge in no man’s land!

the reunion in no man's land

in two countries at once!

Back at the chalet, the power was out, but we managed to get out the cards and play Rummy (our nightly activity) again with our headlamps.  The power outage put some people in a bad mood, and along with problems from earlier in the day, tensions were high.  Plus, as Zach pointed out, the middle day on week-long trips is always the worst.  But through it all, some good conversations managed to happen.  Tyler and Renna took a walk outside and talked while Zach and I had a really good conversation (I love those), and then later we all helped a really-excited Zach come up with awesome ideas of things to do with his freshmen hall next year (he’s going to be an RA).

Monday, May 9 – Undeniably the best day of the trip.  And guess what?  It was also Renna’s 18th birthday!  We had booked our elephant back safari the day before, and sure enough, a van was at our hotel at 7am to pick us up.  After a short ride, we arrived at the place where we each got our own elephant to sit on (well, we each shared one with one of the workers).  The ride was 45-60 minutes, and it was pretty relaxing – more comfortable than a horse.  It was a cool experience because it was on my list of things to do before I die, and just because we were riding on elephants, but it was also weird because it honestly got a little boring up there after a while…haha.  But it was great. : )  We saw warthhogs, other elephants, and crocodiles (which we walked right next to through a little pond) on our safari, which was more than I was expecting to see (they had told us that the focus wasn’t really on seeing other animals, but on the whole elephant experience).  After the ride, we got to take pictures with and feed the elephants.  It was so funny to feed them by putting things in their trunk, and them bringing that to their mouths – I loved that.  But I didn’t really get to feel what their skin was like – it was caked with so much dirt that I couldn’t tell what was actually skin!  Oh, and something really neat – they usually have a guy who follows the customers around and videotapes everything, but we told him we were not planning on buying anything.  Instead, he asked if he could just use my video camera so that we could get a video for free.  Umm…yes!  He was great, running ahead of us and then crouching down to get cool videos of us riding around on the elephants.  After getting a free breakfast and giving them a tip for everything they did, they dropped us off back in town.

my elephant!

feeling the trunk

going through the pond with crocodiles

There we booked our next activity – a gorge swing for later that afternoon.  We then walked down the road to see the beautiful Victorian-style Victoria Falls Hotel (where Renna and I once again had a good conversation while looking at the beautiful view) and also the Kingdom casino next to it (where we were planning to take Renna later that night as a typical 18th birthday thing to do).

view behind the Victoria Falls Hotel - you can see the no man's land bridge and the mist from the Falls!

Zach and Tyler then went to the hotel camp to swim in the pool while Renna and I decided to look in all the shops that we hadn’t had a chance to check out.  It was only 9am, which was so weird because we had already ridden elephants and been on a safari and we still had the whole day ahead of us!  One of my very favorite times of the day was when Renna and I stopped to get ice cream after our window-shopping.  It was just so nice to simply sit down, eat ice cream, and talk.  Renna and I had been friends before the extra week, but we hadn’t really been that close.  This extra week, however, brought us SUPER close, and we found out that we had so much in common, including a lot of the things we had been feeling and learning during the semester.  “Why weren’t we friends before?!”  Seriously…she definitely became the person I got closest to out of all the 55, but it’s sad that that really only started during the extra last week.  We finished our talk as we went to the little grocery store again to stock up on our rations (definitely excluding Green Bar).  Renna and I then joined the guys back at camp for a little while before we were all picked up for our 2:00 gorge swing.

Right when we saw the location of the swing, right over the river, I got super excited…but more freaked out.  It was so high!  We all did it tandem because it was cheaper, but it also ended up being a lot more fun that way.  Tyler and Zach went first, free falling the 71 meters (233 feet) down and swinging across the river.  It looked crazy!  Just like at the elephant safari, the guy offered to use my video camera instead of making us pay for their’s!  While he video taped, Renna had Tyler’s nice camera to take pictures of the guys, but as soon as they jumped, she freaked out and completely froze.  I actually had to take the camera from her to make sure that the guys got pictures of them swinging!  Then it was our turn, and we were both freaking out.

freaking out on the edge of the jumping platform

Right when the guy started counting down for us to jump, I remember hearing Renna say “I can’t do this” at the same time as I said “Wait, how exactly do you jump off?” and then somehow we were both off the platform, falling 233 feet towards the river and screaming our heads off.

right after jumping off

angle from the video camera man

The free fall was only 3 seconds, but the swinging after it was fun.  Renna continued to scream the whole time, while for some reason I was just cracking up in laughter.  To get up, we were pulled from the top and we used our legs to sort of walk up the cliff.  At the top, we awkwardly got smashed against the rocks and both ended up with bruised knees, but it didn’t take anything from the experience.  Renna said it was the most fun thing she’d ever done in her life.  People have asked me how that compared with bungee jumping, but I honestly don’t know how to compare them.  They were just very different things, with bungee jumping being way higher (more than 3x) and the gorge swinging having much more of a flying sensation, rather than falling and bouncing.  Although, I have to say that I loved not hanging upside down by my ankles screaming to be pulled up…

Back at the hotel, the guys taught Renna and I how to play Blackjack (preparing us for the casino later), and then we finished off with our traditional game of Rummy.

stop looking at my cards!

At 5:00, Tyler said we would leave for the casino.  Zach and I knew the real plans – there was an amazing birthday dinner ready for Renna – but she had no idea.  She was like, “Okay…sure…” and as soon as the guys were out of the room, she looked at me and said “Why are we going to the casino at 5 o’clock?!”  When we walked outside and there was a taxi waiting for us, Renna finally realized that something was going on.  Tyler made her close her eyes as we drove to Safari Lodge, a beautiful hotel and restaurant up the hill that we had seen a glimpse of from our elephant back safari (and Zach and Tyler had booked it while I had been talking to Renna at Victoria Falls Hotel).  Renna was finally able to open her eyes when we were looking out on the balcony of the Lodge with the sun about to set.  The place was gorgeous – the multi-level huge thatch roof building overlooked a view of African bush, a waterhole, and animals like quail, warthog, and elephants.  As the sun set, we watched an elephant drink from the waterhole.

see the elephant?

By request of Renna’s mom (whose credit card I had been told to steal straight from Renna’s wallet), we had a wonderfully fancy dinner (the kind where you can’t pronounce most of the things on the menu), including an appetizer of crocodile meat and a meal of ostrich steak.  When the waiters delivered a chocolate cake with her name on it, she told us this had not only been the most amazing birthday of her life, but probably the best day of her life, period.

The last thing on the list of epic things to do on Renna’s birthday (so far: elephant back safari, ice cream and shopping, gorge swing, and fancy dinner) was the casino.  Definitely a weird experience.  The only reason we went was because it was one of those 18th birthday things to do, and I’m proud to say that I personally did not spend a penny…although I did press a button on a slot machine for someone else haha.  But after the whole experience, Renna and I decided that gambling was one of the most pointless things ever (Renna: “I can’t even describe how stupid I felt just pressing buttons on the slot machine.”), and I even thought about how we could have fed a poor child in a 3rd world country for more than three months with the amount of money that had just gone down the drain.  At one point while we were there, I decided I couldn’t take the stupidity of it all (along with the smell of alcohol and cigarettes) and I just took a refreshing walk outside, getting some nice God time and touring the fancy hotel next door.  When we got back to the hotel, Renna and I had our last adventure of the day – trying to rescue a giant beetle from drowning in the toilet.

To be continued…


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Lynne Gammon
    May 22, 2011 @ 19:20:23

    I love how you tell the good, bad and the gross! Victoria Falls looks amazing! Didn’t bring home any monkeys for pets?


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