From Zambia to South Africa: Rivers to Dust

Zambezi River, Zambia. Photo by Joachim Huber
Zambezi River, Zambia. Photo by Flickr/Joachim Huber

Africa keeps some secrets — wild, private subtleties — that it would rather you not know.

You may see a lion here, like I did. The continent, in general, is glad. Spot a leopard, or catch a cheetah out of the corner of your eye, and all is well. Africa beams.

But what it knows and doesn’t explain is that none of these are its king. On a recent trip to Zambia and South Africa, I stumbled onto the truth. The real wilderness royalty here is not a ferocious Big Five animal at all.

It is water. Water from a river.

Livingstone, Zambia, where my wife and I spent most of a week, has this in spades. The Zambezi River, wide and strong near the lodge where we stayed, is Africa’s fourth largest after the Nile, Zaire and Niger. It quenches the thirst of hippos, elephants and squadrons of exotic birds before exploding into spray for the 300-foot bungee-jump of a drop at Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe border.

The local name for the falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya, means literally,”the Smoke that Thunders,” so Kathy and I arrive expecting a locomotive of sound. What we get is a roar but one that is eerie, echoing, like an animal at night. Since this is late fall, just the start of the rains, the flow is elegant, not loud. The rocks of the gorge display chutes of water that ripple and unroll like scarves.

For a game drive in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, we hire a guide who introduces himself as Chesmore Zulu.  “Look,” he says as we pass through the entrance gate. Posted here is a gilt-framed photograph of a chubby man with an air of sympathetic understanding. It is His Excellency Mr. Rupiah Bwezani Banda, president of the Republic of Zambia, which has been an independent democracy since 1964.

We discover a few shy zebra deep in the park and, eventually, a herd of sand-colored giraffe.  Zulu mumbles as he drives. In Zambia, he claims, it is legal to smoke anywhere “except in a bank.” Kathy and I trade glances. Is this a lead-in to Zulu lighting up in the car?

When we pass some huts that look like they have been systematically wrecked using bulldozers and steel balls, Zulu shakes his head with disdain. “Elephants,” he says simply.

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