We had two days off in three weeks. It is something I try hard to avoid now. In the heat, the difficulty of the terrain and the heavy workload and responsibility you have when working abroad, I try to take at least one day off in a week. I can go two weeks in a row without a break, but only if that is the full extent of the trip. In fact in Zimbabwe that first time, even one of the days off was a bit of work, as we had to drop Bob off at Hwange airport, and Judith insisted on capturing a couple of survey points first. I finally persuaded her that since we were going all that way that we try for Victoria Falls itself. Although there had been many amazing sites in this trip, I thought to come all this way and not see “Smoke that thunders” would be sad. Judith took a lot of persuading but in the end I got there. Logistically the day was a nightmare. We had to pay Bob so we first drove to the small mining town of Hwange. The Zimbabwean name is far less of a problem than calling by its old colonial name, Wankie, but many old codgers in the country still refer to it in that way. “ I’m going to Wankie today” they would boom in a loud voice, and their wives would say “Not in public you aren’t”.
Hwange looks like Wigan without the charm, surrounded by derelict tailing piles and goods yards, but the town centre itself was approached along a very well kept dual carriageway with brightly coloured flower beds. We got some money changed in the bank, even then the exchange rate meant you often were given a wad of money in a paper clip that just represented so many hundred Zimbabwean dollars. Bob stuffed it in his bag, and became incredibly cheerful and full of bonhomie. Despite our difficult start, he became part of the family. Knowledge in particular had clung to Bob and improved his botanical knowledge no end.
Our next stop was Hwange airport, not the small airfield near the town but the tourist airport out in the famous National Park. To do that we had to drive some forty miles back the way we came, past Dete Crossing and our turn off to Binga, and on to the road to the Main Camp. We dropped Bob off at the near deserted airport. He didn’t really want us to leave until his plane was ready to go, but knew I wanted to get to Vic Falls and it was already afternoon.
He graciously said he would probably find a lift to Main camp and have a drink with whoever he would find there before his flight. We bade him farewell and started for the falls. First we had to traverse the same bit of road back to Hwange for the third time that day, and then on, another 70 miles or so. Judith almost stopped the vehicle and turned us back, but the hypnotic effect of the road and the draw of the great falls kept us going. The same repetitive scenery passed us by, but you were always aware that you were losing height. Almost imperceptibly the road was heading down to the Zambezi River. On and on we went. I began to think we would never reach before nightfall. The road rose slightly about ten miles out to a small plateau on which sat Vic Falls airport. Out of the bush the fuselage of a jet reared incongruously out at us before it was lost behind more bush. As we reached the edge of the plateau we saw the final drop. Although the town itself was hidden, a great white cloud speckled with rainbows loomed above the trees, stark against the clear azure sky. Even Judith had no thoughts of heading back to work now. We reached the town, which then was still saved the mass commercialism that spoilt it later. There were several visitors dotted around but it was not overcrowded. We grabbed a late lunch in a fast food joint in town… OK so it was beginning to get commercialised, but it was fast food African style. I remember little about the meal but I remember the waiter’s name was Truth, and he had a brother called Peace.
Then we went to the falls themselves. Everywhere in the town, the roar of water could be heard in the back, and the clouds of spray blossomed up above the trees. Many people will have visited the falls and can report on their experiences more eloquently that I can. Suffice it to say, that I found it the most incredible experience, partly from the anticipation and then from the realisation of seeing the huge quantities of water fall helplessly into the gash in the earth. And in 1993, the park was so well run, none of the hawkers that spoil so many other parks; once away from the car park in the rainforest, you are left alone to experience the sheer force of nature. The rain forest is a product of the fall; here and nowhere else in Zimbabwe is there so much year round water. The spray which billows up out of the gorge falls like rain on the surrounding land. Out of the dark forest the rumbling of the falls comes through and your legs tremble as the earth is shaken.