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Hanging out at the falls

Published Mar 19, 2014


Victoria Falls town - Harold has no fear. “Ok, strip,” he says.

We’ve all come armed with bathing suits but without nerves of steel.

We’re standing on the banks of Africa’s fourth largest river – the mighty Zambezi in Zambia, which becomes the Victoria Falls. The falls straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

The Zambezi is croc-infested, uncontrollable and cold.

We watch as Harold, our guide, changes into a wetsuit while we all sheepishly undress.

“So everyone can swim, right?” he says, barely looking up.

It seems like a rather inopportune time to ask the question. A day earlier we – two South Africans and four Germans – had all signed up for a “walking safari” along the top of Victoria Falls. The 1km walk included a dip in Devil’s Pool, which by the look of the brochure pictures, was little more than a shallow puddle close to the edge of the falls.

“The water is five metres deep here,” Harold continues matter-of-factly. We all exchange nervous glances.

“We’ll swim around the current and reach Devil’s Pool,” he says.

That’s when the question has to be asked and my hand shoots up.

What about the crocs?

“Not to worry. I’ll go in front so if anyone gets eaten, it’ll be me,” says Harold, with a wink.

Cold comfort. It’s our second day in Zimbabwe. But today, we’ve crossed the border into Zambia. While the bulk of the falls are in Zimbabwe, it’s easy (give or take some passport stamps) to cross the border into Zambia to see the rest of them.

We’ve chosen to stay in Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe. Most people might frown at the idea of a holiday to Zimbabwe but while it may be troubled, rest assured that it is beautiful and worth the visit. And like all troubled souls, Zimbabwe has a surprising side to her that offers a lot more than you’d expect.

A short two-hour flight from OR Tambo Airport in Joburg takes you straight to Victoria Falls airport. With no visas required and with tickets relatively cheap, it’s the perfect short holiday getaway. The Victoria Falls National Park is open every day from 6am until 6pm. With useful trails and information boards, it’s easy to follow the pathways through the rainforest to all the key lookout spots.

From the first day we arrived in Zimbabwe and walked the muddy and gravelled streets, Victoria Falls loomed over the town. From a distance, water mist blurs your vision and the sound gives credence to its indigenous name: Mosi-oa-Tunya – the smoke that thunders. And it’s even more impressive up close.

Tentatively, two South Africans and four Germans take to the water following Harold. It’s cold against the skin but after a hike in muggy temperatures, a welcome relief.

Harold cuts through the fast-flowing water with his slender arms and we all follow, although we keep expecting to see something wild and reptilian emerge from the depths to the sound of a Jaws soundtrack.

Once submerged, your body disappears in the murky water. Harold continues to assure us that the Hippos and crocs “don’t like” this part of the river. Sure.

Mid-way, we stop to check all our limbs on some river rocks jutting out of the water before we make our final swim toward Devil’s Pool – a natural pool surrounded by large boulders with sharp edges. We all gather together and look at what is arguably, one of the most surreal things any of us have ever seen.

Devil’s Pool is barely 1m from the falls’ edge – with just enough space for our little group of six tourists to swim across relatively comfortably. But it’s not without trepidation. To assure us, Harold does a back-flip into the pool while we all watch open-mouthed.

“Don’t worry,” he says. “Nothing will happen. This is just home to some mudfish.” And the mudfish are welcoming hosts – except most have a serious foot fetish. We all yelp intermittently when someone’s toe finds its way into a mudfish mouth. The feeling is like having parts of your body sucked into a high-pressured vacuum cleaner.

Legend has it that Devil’s Pool is cursed after a tribal woman – married to an elder – ran away many years ago wanting to marry another man. She threw herself into the river and locals have reportedly said that sometimes she can still be heard calling for her lover from Devil’s Pool.

Harold beckons us all to the edge one by one. It’s hard to navigate the feeling between fear and fearlessness. Victoria Falls may not be the highest waterfall in the world, but it is the largest sheet of falling water (a width of 1 708m) with a drop of 108m.

Harold ushers me to the edge and I peer over. Face to face with Mother Nature – fierce and unbridled. It’s hard to breathe and I’m not entirely sure if that’s because the view is so awe-inspiring or because my life is flashing before my eyes. Then Harold holds my ankles and tells me to let go of the edge. And I do.

“You will want this for the camera,” he says.

My arms are outstretched and I’m hanging over the edge.

Our second tour guide, who has somehow managed to reach Devil’s Pool by jumping across the rocks in sandals instead of getting in the water, digs into his waterproof bag for the camera. Sports Illustrated has nothing on this. A smile. A pose. And I’m an apparent daredevil who literally lives on the edge.

The rushing water pummels past me but there is no fear. I am pure adrenalin. The others follow suit and I watch the expressions on their faces. From spine-tingling fear to exasperated jubilation.

As for the back flip? No thanks. The daredevil curse might just stick. - Cape Times


If You Go...

l Fly from Cape Town International Airport via Johannesburg OR Tambo to Victoria Falls airport. It’s easy to find a good package that includes accommodation in Victoria Falls town. A weekend away, all inclusive (without trips and tours) will set you back about R4 000pp.

l There are plenty of other things to do at Victoria Falls if Devil’s Pool is a leap too far. Ride an elephant through the bushveld or take a dinner cruise on the Zambezi and spot the crocs.

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