VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe/Zambia To the west stretches a vast white plain with a hint of water, Botswana's Makgadikgadi, or Makarikari, salt pans. Below, the land is mostly a mottled mix of buff and green, the colors of southern Africa's bushlands.
And then, just ahead, appears a long column of what, at first glance, seems to be smoke, perhaps a range fire.
But no: From 30,000 feet or so, in a descending passenger jet out of Johannesburg, South Africa, what we are witnessing is a cloud of spray tossed hundreds of feet into the sky as the previously wide and placid Zambezi River at its wet-season height plunges over a basalt-plateau cliff and crashes into an elongated rift in the Earth, creating Victoria Falls.
Named for his British queen by explorer-physician-missionary David Livingstone a century-and-a-half ago, this is one of the world's most spectacular and unusual major cascades. To the region's native peoples, Livingstone had come upon Mosi-oa-Tunya: "the smoke that thunders."
"No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England ... " Livingstone subsequently wrote in "Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa." Scenes "so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."
On a map of Africa, this is the borderland where Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and a long finger of Namibia converge. In fact, our touring party and other travelers were about to land at an airport in politically and economically troubled Zimbabwe a matter of some concern, for presidential voting was under way.
Our group, in two small buses with baggage trailers, had to make its way through the small, depressed tourist town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, home of the gleaming 104-year-old Victoria Falls Hotel, which is prominently situated above the town, the falls and the equally venerable Victoria Falls Bridge over the gorge.
We squeezed through a long line of idling and parked tractor-trailers. Many were loaded with copper slabs. One truck, also headed toward Zambia, had slipped off the pavement and was stuck in the mud. We finally negotiated the border posts and crossed the narrow international ridge over the Zambezi gorge, which gave us our quick first glimpse of the falls themselves.
We stopped at a modern resort, the Zambezi Sun, on the Zambian side of the falls, near the town of Livingstone, Zambia's former capital.
We were on an adventure of a lifetime and our tour organizers were eager to get us started. Before we could even really nestle into our rooms at the Sun, we were loaded into a string of open-top Land Rovers to visit nearby Chief Mukuni Village.
The contrasts between our manicured riverside resort and the traditional village were striking.
I sat next to our driver, Purity, with her ever-bright smile, on the way to the village on a dusty side road. She pointed to a giant banyan tree (which featured a rickety viewing platform she later let me climb), waved at children and adults along the way, directed our attention to the village school on our left and stopped under a large shade tree in the village plaza.
Here Albina, a woman who lives in Chief Mukuni Village, took over as guide to the 10 people from our vehicle. We walked toward the vacant village jail, a small white building partially enclosed by a chain-link fence and then into a lane lined with the thatched huts that are home to the village residents. A larger walled enclosure across the way is the official, but only occasional, home to the chief himself, she said.
Chickens and roosters approached us without fear. A small pig, a dog and a goat wandered by. Children watched us from a distance. Women congregated at the village's central well, carrying water away in colorful buckets balanced on their heads.
Albina picked up nuts that had fallen from village trees, saying they were part of the villagers' diet. Some crops, including corn, appeared somewhat withered a result not of drought but rather a soggier-than-usual wet season, she said.
As we strolled, the curiosity of the children matched our own. They stared, grinned and sometimes followed us, at a seemingly safe distance. A few, having caught a tourist's eye, giggled and danced, but none came very close. Obviously, though tour groups are regularly brought through their home village, they are still shy and cautious.
Albina led us to a group of men chopping logs into smaller pieces and beginning carvings of hippos, giraffes, elephants and other African wildlife that they shape, sand and polish to sell to visitors.
In fact, the last, somewhat awkward stop on the village tour was an enclosure in which an array of carvings and crafts were laid out. Young men introduced themselves with English names, asked our names and tried their best to hawk their wares, with varying success. Such scenes are common on waysides and in cities and towns throughout the region and the crafts are similar despite the widely varying locales.
A constant shower
Evening arrived before we could even approach Victoria Falls on our first day and the excellent breakfast at the Sun seemed almost inconvenient when, the next morning, a tremendous, mist-generated rainbow appeared above our salmon-pink lodging units.
Finally, with friends I paid my first visit to the falls a mere five-minute walk from the Zambezi Sun.
Unlike Livingstone, who gazed over the falls first from a mid-stream island now bearing his name, we were across the chasm from the Eastern Cataract, on the edge of the chasm into which the falls plummet. The explorer's impressions, however, closely mirrored our own.
"In looking down into the fissure ... ," Livingstone wrote, "one sees nothing but a dense white cloud, which, at the time we visited the spot, had two bright rainbows on it. From this cloud rushed up a great jet of vapor exactly like steam, and it mounted 200 or 300 feet high; there condensing, it changed its hue to that of dark smoke, and came back in a constant shower, which soon wetted us to the skin."
On the rimside walk today, you can be in the sun one second and in the "rain" a second later, if you want to or not. The wind shifts the falling mist back and forth. The trees and foliage drip like a rainforest, which is indeed the case here.
Many visitors like ourselves had donned yellow raincoats, procured at the resort or rented from a vendor along the trail, to walk across Knife Edge Bridge even closer to the middle of the falls. My friends and I chose first to walk farther up the Zambezi for a side view of the plunging falls and the quieter water above, then returned later with raincoats to experience the unusual, continuous tropical storm.
The Victoria Falls are twice as high as those of the impressive Niagara Falls, between the United States and Canada, and are almost a third wider, though Victoria's waters can dwindle dramatically during the region's dry season.
Also, the familiar horseshoe-shaped Niagara cascades plunge over cliffs into a great open bowl before heading into the lower Niagara gorge. The views are panoramic.
In contrast, the Victoria Falls are right in front of you from the Zambian trails. The shifting mist is dense, and the experience can be more than a little claustrophobic, especially if you are encased in an oversized, yellow hooded raincoat. Some people head out to the dripping viewpoints without raincoats, usually wearing sandals or sneakers, fully expecting to get thoroughly soaked.
But that closed-in feeling can be remedied, too.
My friends and I sampled the aerial view from both open microlight, or ultralight, aircraft and helicopters. The two-seat microlights, like motorized paragliders, swoop over the river, the falls and the territory below, giving riders an opportunity to both feel the wind and see wildlife below, but not to take photographs; extraneous gear is forbidden.
I took a helicopter ride and got an excellent perspective of the calm Zambezi above the rift; the wide, wild falls, the villages, fields, rangelands and resorts in the area and the deep serpentine gorges that the river continues down after breaking through the basalt walls opposite Victoria Falls.
And whenever I could, at various times over the sunny days we were there, I would head out to the viewpoints to catch a glimpse of the rainbows, which would rise and fall above and within the chasm, depending upon the angle of the sun.
Tour companies and enterprises at the Livingstone resorts and in the town of Victoria Falls across the river in Zimbabwe offer plenty of other options as well. The Zambezi Sun, for instance, has a full-service restaurant, a gorgeous blue swimming pool and pool-side food and drink. Just upriver is an even more upscale, sister-resort, the Royal Livingstone Hotel, with multiple colonial-style buildings that front the calm Zambezi and which has great sunset views. And the century-old Victoria Falls Hotel sits elegantly above the falls on the Zimbabwe side.
There are other accommodations and shopping in Victoria Falls and Livingstone, which offer shops and craft markets. The major resorts and hotels also have shops, and a curio market sits just outside the Zambezi Sun.
The adventurous and brave can bungee jump (solo or tandem) from the international Victoria Falls Bridge or raft or ride a jet boat on the white water in the gorges below the falls or even ride an elephant. Lunch and evening cruises ply the calm upper Zambezi. Hikers can tramp down to the Boiling Pot, a rainforest trek to the edge of the whirlpools below the falls, or hire a guide for a walking safari.
Several members of our tour group opted to take a jeep safari into nearby Botswana, where they had some up-close and personal experiences with the wildlife in Chobe National Park. They saw jousting elephants and a mother elephant gave birth right in front of one set of tourists.
Ray Boren traveled to Victoria Falls and through southern Africa with Utah-based Fun For Less Tours and South Africa's Touch Africa Safaris.