One of the ‘wonders of the world’
It was an indulgence. Sitting comfortably on the top deck of the African Queen river boat making its sedate progress upstream, sipping a glass of cool white wine, listening to hippos snorting at the water’s edge, watching a flock of sacred ibis settling to the night’s roosting place, and waiting for the orange sun to sink below the trees in the distant west ... you could have no idea, unless you had already been there, of the tumultuous, thunderous event only a few hundred metres at your back.
Here, it is the Zambezi, wide and placid. There, it is the awesome Victoria Falls, where half a million litres of water every minute cascade over a cliff edge, send plumes of spray high into the air, and force their way through a series of steep, deep and narrow gorges.
David Livingstone, it is presumed, was the first white man to visit this place. In 1855, he was taken in a canoe to a small island right at the lip of the falls. He was able to look down to the churning waters in the abyss.
I think his Christian and benign beliefs got the better of him. “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England...” he wrote, “but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
Perhaps Livingstone was there in the dry season, when the water flow is reduced.
It couldn’t have been, as it was for us last week, towards the end of the rains, when the spray is so dense over the main cataracts that even an angel couldn’t have seen through it.
No, I reckon the people who lived in these parts had a less romantic and more understandable notion.
One community called it “Motse-oa-Barimo”– “the Pestle of the Gods”. Another called it “Mosi-oa-Tunya” – “the Smoke that Thunders”.
Whatever the name, the people saw this as a place where the gods showed their power and their vengeance, so the sensible thing to do was to make sacrifices to them on the very island that now bears Livingstone’s name.
Twenty-three years after Livingstone’s visit to the site of the falls, the French missionary, Francois Coillard, wrote in his diary how the local inhabitants, “believe it is haunted by a malevolent and cruel divinity”.
And, some years later, after the traveller and author, Lionel Decle, had peered over the edge of the aptly named Devil’s cataract, he described it as “hell itself, a corner of which seems to open at your feet: a dark and terrible hell, from the middle of which you expect every moment to see some repulsive monster rising in anger”.
There was nothing so tumultuous or frightening about the hotel where we were staying, quietly upstream from the falls and about 10 kilometres from Livingstone town.
This is the Royal Livingstone, opened only in 2001 but built and furnished in a Victorian style. It must be the most elegant hotel along the Zambezi waterfront, whether on the Zambian or the Zimbabwean side.
I have this prejudice against anything imitation: like a wallpaper that pretends to be bricks, a plastic dashboard that pretends to be leather – or a hotel built in the 21st century that pretends to be built in the 19th.
But the Royal Livingstone is a really sumptuous place. When you sample the food and the service, you forget the prejudice and can almost forgive them for charging for an Internet connection.
I’m too embarrassed to tell you what it costs to stay there; if you really want to know you can Google it – but note that somehow we managed to get half the published rack rate.
I have been lucky to see the falls three times now – and have seen them in both their dry and wet season moods.
But, counterpointing the horrific way the water cascades into the abyss they call the Boiling Pot, each time there has been a rainbow, which you see arching high in the spray when you stand with the sun at your back.
The Victoria Falls must be on most lists of “things to see before you die”. And, along with the Grand Canyon in the States, Mount Everest in the Himalayas, and the Great Barrier Reef off Australia, it is Africa’s entry in the CNN list of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.