Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Smoke That Thunders

On December 8, 1840, a 27 year old missionary named David Livingstone departed his native England on an expedition funded by the London Missionary Society to bring Christianity to southern Africa. He wouldn't return home until December 9, 1856. In the sixteen years he was gone, he had established three missions (all destroyed); met with and befriended a number of native tribes and chiefs in a way no other white man had; converted almost nobody to Christianity; and walked across the entire continent from his landing point at Luanda, Angola to the end of his journey at Quilimane, Mozambique. Along the way, on November 16, 1855, he discovered a great waterfall, which he named Victoria Falls after England's reigning monarch at the time of his journey.

Of course, Livingstone's discovery is a matter of perspective. He was certainly not the first person to lay eyes on what he named Victoria Falls; people living around the the Zambezi River had known about and feared the Falls for generations and stone age tools as old as 50,000 years have been discovered near its location so it's not like folks didn't know it was there. Livingstone was merely the first European man to see the falls, which we white people naturally have a tendency to confuse with actual discovery, although I'm sure Livingstone would not think this way. It is very likely that he knew exactly when he was going to find it since the natives he had stayed with on his trek likely told him all about it, using the name they had given the place: Mosi-Oa-Tunya or "the smoke that thunders."

On August 20 of this year, a 47 year old architect (me) departed his adopted United States for Africa on a trip that promised to be a vacation of a lifetime (so far). And Mosi-Oa-Tunya was my first stop after arriving at my final destination. Like pretty much literally my first stop. A quick check in at the hotel for a clean shirt and we were off on the half mile trip (we drove...or more accurately rode) to the famous Falls. It didn't take a 15 year journey, although the 28 hour plus trip might have seemed that way to me at the time (and hence the clean shirt), and for darned sure I was in no way any sort of discoverer of anything other than myself on this trip. But two hours after arriving in Zimbabwe, I was on my way to a place that meant the start of an eye-opening journey for me.

When I think of amazing waterfalls, I think of Niagara Falls, probably because that was the only truly awe inspiring waterfall I'd visited in person prior to last month. And by Niagara, I mean a wide river flowing fast and deep over a massive drop into a large-ish body of water all of which is in plain view. Basically a cliff with a ton of water flowing over every second and minute. Pretty much your classic waterfall.

Victoria Falls is not Niagara. And by that I mean my preconceived notion of what this waterfall would look like was nothing like my ideal large waterfall based on my past experience. Instead of falling off a large drop into an open pool like the water at Niagara does, the water at Victoria Falls drops into a slice in the Earth and then zigzags down a tight fast canyon which snakes its way along the border between Zimbabwe to the south and Zambia to the north. I'll try my best to explain how this happens and how it's not as easy to appreciate as Niagara.

The land under the Zambezi River (which is the river that drops over the falls) is made up of alternating vertical layers of basalt and sandstone which form "stripes" perpendicular to the flow of the river. These "stripes" of course are not visible to the eye below the river but sure enough they are there. I'm not sure why it is this way but somehow, somewhere way back in time some sort of geological action must have formed this sort of phenomenon.

Basalt is hard. Sandstone is not. So over the millions of years that the Zambezi has been flowing over the riverbed, the action of the water is gradually eroding the sandstone layers. The result at the location of the Falls is that the softer sandstone has been washed away to form canyons which the river dives into while the basalt around the sandstone remains in place. This appears to the first time tourist as a gash in the land about 350 feet below the upper riverbed everywhere there used to be the softer stone.

Looking east at the Falls from just west of the Devil's Cataract.
The way Mosi-Oa-Tunya was formed makes it extremely difficult to understand for the first time visitor and I spent the majority of my time walking through the national park on the Zimbabwe side trying to wrap my head around how this part of the waterway was created. The park itself is one of the basalt layers that make up some of the riverbed and millions and millions of years ago, the Zambezi actually flowed over where you are walking. It doesn't now because time eventually caught up with the sandstone layer north of the park and created a new canyon for the Falls to drop into. Make sense? If not look at the picture above the one above. Hopefully that helps.

Victoria Falls is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world yet it claims to be the largest. At its highest point of 360 feet it is more than twice as tall as Niagara which tops out at just less than 170 feet but it is nowhere near the largest drop of over 2,600 feet you can find at Angel Falls in Venezuela. And despite it being just over a mile wide (Niagara is about 25% narrower), it is significantly smaller than Iguazu Falls which separates Brazil from Argentina and is over 1.5 times as wide.

So why is it the largest? Well that's just not clear to me but I suppose it has something to do with the amount of water dropping at any one time which would be a combination of height, width and depth. Despite searching for hours on the internet, I was unable to find a satisfying answer. I can say having been there that Victoria Falls is so wide and the viewing angles are so few that it is really hard to comprehend just how big the Falls is. It would be a lot simpler if the drop was just like it is at Niagara. But the fact that the water dies into a canyon so suddenly makes it almost impossible to see the whole thing from one spot on foot. I was more impressed by Niagara.

The Main Falls. Pretty strong in winter. Imagine the flow in summer.
For those of you reading this post who have made a visit to Niagara Falls and hate it, please understand that I love Niagara. I could stare for hours at the enormous amount of water flowing over the Canadian side of those falls. And the geography there makes that viewing angle which is so awesome just so perfect. You don't get that same view of Victoria Falls and so it doesn't seem as powerful. Don't get me wrong here, Victoria Falls was gorgeous and there are so many different places to see the Falls from and it just keeps going and going as you walk through the park. And I've also never seen so many rainbows in my life. But it didn't impress me like Niagara always has. Maybe I need to go back to the U.S.-Canadian border to make sure I'm remembering things correctly.

I suppose at this point I may need to offer a disclaimer. One of the difficulties for us in visiting southern Africa to see Victoria Falls and also spend time on safari was that those two concepts are fundamentally opposed. To see the animals I grew up loving in zoos and books, you need to go in August to September when the water levels on the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers are low. The lack of water in the bush draws wildlife to the riverbanks  for ideal game viewing. To see Victoria Falls at its most powerful, you really need to visit in April when the rains have been falling for a few months and the Zambezi is at its highest water level.

We visited Zimbabwe after essentially three to four months of solid drought so it shouldn't have been any surprise to me that the Falls were less impressive than they could have been. I can imagine if we went at a different time of the year, I would have come away from the Falls a lot more enthusiastic. You can see where the water flows in wetter times by looking at the face of the drop; anywhere the rock is without plant life is a spot where there is water in the summer months (August is winter in the southern hemisphere). There were a lot of plant-less areas on the basalt face, especially on the Zambian side. I can imagine just how powerful the curtain of water is at full force. You apparently get soaking wet during this time, which I suppose is an advantage to when we visited.

The east side of the Falls, getting close to Zambia and no winter flow.
The town of Victoria Falls is all about "the smoke that thunders." It is clear from spending a day or two there that this is a unique spot on the African continent and the entire economy revolves around tourists coming to look at the Falls, or raft the lower Zambezi or bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge (350 feet down? uh, no thank you). I suppose if the Falls weren't there, the local Zimbabweans would survive off the game that is all around the river and sometimes found wandering around town. I still think it's odd to find baboons and warthogs roaming the streets. I can imagine it would be a little freaky seeing an elephant or hippo on the sidewalk on the way home from a bar. We stuck to the hotel at night.

Our choice (or maybe better said as what was chosen for us) of hotel in Victoria Falls was the Ilala Lodge, which is located about a half a mile from the Falls. The balcony in our room looked toward the Falls and from the moment that you opened the balcony doors in the morning to the time you closed them at night, you can hear the rush of water from Mosi-Oa-Tunya. Coming from the United States it's easy to mistake it for the roar of traffic, only there isn't any traffic to make such a noise. The spray from the drop apparently can rise a half a kilometer or more into the air and I completely believe that. We got up before sunrise the second day we were in town to look for wildlife on the hotel lawn before daybreak. We were disappointed in the animals (just more warthogs…sigh!) but the spray was always visible, shifting like smoke in the air against the emerging light.

Early morning view of "the smoke that thunders."
In addition to the natural wonder of the Falls, there's something else to see in the national park adjacent the waterfall: a statue of David Livingstone. I think it's worth spending a few moments considering Livingstone's presence in Africa. 

Before I started researching this trip, I always thought of Livingstone as an explorer who "discovered" Victoria Falls and crossed Africa for the glory of Britain. I honestly had no idea that he was a missionary. Call me ignorant. Last September I visited the outside of the Royal Geographical Society in London which features a statue of Livingstone prominently in a niche on the outside of their headquarters which reinforced my impression.

In the late nineteenth century, David Livingstone acquired almost mythological status in Great Britain. While he was away, the public was fed stories about his complete isolation for years in a foreign world; accounts of the distances he traveled and things he saw; and too good to be true tales like him surviving a lion attack (true, by the way). For a population that rarely had any opportunity to leave their hometown let alone the small island they lived on, I can imagine how their imaginations were captured by Livingstone.

Statue of David Livingstone at Mosi-Oa-Tunya.
Livingstone was a missionary AND an explorer. His initial visits to the dark continent were funded by the London Missionary Society; later on, when he could no longer secure cash from his first sponsor, the Royal Geographical Society picked up the tab. From reading stories about Livingstone before leaving home for Africa last month, I believe he genuinely believed in the good of Christianity and went to Africa with the intent to convert as many people to the faith as he possibly could. I'm not convinced he ever really wanted to explore and find things for the glory of queen and country, however.

But his real reason for spending so much time away from home was that he firmly believed opening the continent to trading in goods unique to that land would be able to halt the east African slave trade. And this really became his life's work. Indeed his first trek across Africa was to find an overland route for passage of goods which could bring the tribal chiefs who were selling their own people into slavery the riches that they so desperately sought.

Livingstone made three major trips to Africa. The first one may have started out as a missionary trip but there's no doubt the end of that journey and the entirety of the last two were to find any way to halt the movement of humans from the African mainland to the slave market at Zanzibar off the coast of present day Tanzania. Over the course of his life, he tried to find new paths for trade, gave speeches that fell mostly on deaf ears on his return trips home and eventually found a way to try to embarrass the crown into taking action by feeding accounts of the government's inaction to the New York Herald via Henry Morton Stanley, who found Livingstone when everyone thought he was dead with the now famous greeting "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" 

Eventually his efforts paid off, but he wouldn't be around to see it. He died on May 1, 1873 from malaria and dysentery in present day Zambia. In 1874, the British government, mostly through threats of force, brokered a treaty with Zanzibar to close the slave market on the island and end the trade in that portion of the world. Four years later, all human trade had been essentially squashed. Livingstone was an integral part of that effort and I'm sure he would be prouder of the progress he made toward that goal than anything else he accomplished in his lifetime. His statue at Victoria Falls has a series of words around the base, including "Explorer" and "Missionary." The most signifiant is "Liberator."

Victoria Falls was a great way to start our Africa trip but it's sometimes difficult to have it all. Since I returned to the U.S. I've looked for aerial shots of the Falls online and they truly are spectacular. Maybe one day I'll get to go back at a different time of the year and see the full force of the Falls. Or if I ever make it back in winter, I'll have to take a helicopter ride above the Zambezi to get the view of the whole thing that you can't get from the ground. It's only $162 for a 12-13 minute ride. A bargain, right?