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Neil Sawyer, Spontaneous Traveler, 05/12/13

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Victoria Falls: ‘Smoke that thunders’

By Neil Sawyer

In prehistoric times, the Zambezi River flowed southward in the area of what is now Victoria Falls, but a nearby volcano’s eruption changed all of that. The river now flows eastward, as it cascades around a pad of lava laid down by the volcano, cutting a chasm enjoyed by thousands every year.

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Our pilot announced, “Passengers on the right side can see smoke on the horizon …. ”

It was actually the mist rising from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and we were about 50 miles away.

Being listed as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World garners plenty of attention from travelers, naturalists and geologists.

The pioneer explorer David Livingston is credited with putting Victoria Falls “on the map.”

The Zambezi River, with headwaters in the neighboring country of Zambia, is one of Africa’s major rivers, 1,500 miles in length. On its course toward the Indian Ocean, the river drops approximately 5,000 feet in altitude and is one of Africa’s last remaining wild rivers, drawing many whitewater enthusiasts from around the world. However, much of the river is relatively smooth and great for casual boaters to enjoy numerous species of wildlife, offering some of the most spectacular sunsets ever seen. There is very little commercial boat traffic on the Zambezi.

On a typical river “float” in calm waters, wildlife — particularly hippos, elephants and the ever-present crocodile — can be viewed up close. On a couple of occasions we observed elephants relaxing, cooling off and playing in the shallow of the river. Once, we watched as a group of elephants playing in the water accepted a lone elephant that had been pacing back and forth on the riverbank — obviously wanting to join them. It became clear that there is a definite protocol among elephants to joining in a water game, probably much as we have in our various games.

The Zambezi River above Victoria Falls calms and widens, giving the appearance of a large lake. Across this “lake” is a tremendous bilious cloud of rising mist from the 354-foot waterfalls cascading into a very narrow canyon, causing what locals call the “smoke that thunders.” This is what we saw from the airplane on our approach.

Several walking paths are discreetly placed as near to the falls as possible for the best views. The roar of the falls is deafening, and at times the spray from the falls seemed akin to a monsoon, making a poncho and camera protection necessary.

A more spectacular view of the falls is from a helicopter. There has been nothing in my travels that quite matches the excitement of hovering over Victoria Falls observing the gaping chasm below being hammered by 150,000 gallons of water per second. The bird’s-eye view of the falls, the intrusion of a controversial railroad bridge over the chasm and the adjacent town of Victoria Falls is a once-in-a lifetime event.

The “Devil’s Cauldron,” a natural hot tub on the lip of the falls, is for brave hearts only. To see people actually enjoying being within inches, looking over the edge of a 354-foot freefall to the rocks below — held back only by a thin ribbon of limestone deposit — is enough to drive me to the poolside bar at our hotel.

Stay around for a sunset thrill of observing the backlighted “smoke that thunders.” Ever-present rainbows and changing patterns of mist in the orange light of the setting sun are spectacular.

A visit to Victoria Falls is a destination for some travelers, but it is more likely visited by those who are on a safari or other outdoor attraction in this beautiful part of South Africa. Please wave to the folks in the Devil’s Cauldron for me if you’re in the neighborhood, if they’re still there. Happy travels.

Neil and Karyn Sawyer have been residents of Crystal River for 28 years. They travel frequently, having been to 48 states, 66 countries and seven continents. Neil welcomes comments and questions about travel. Contact him via email to gobuddy@tampabay.rr.com.