As soon as we get to the plane door, it hits us: dry heat mixed with the smell of the bush. It is instantly recognisable, our senses confirming what our minds already know. We are in the middle of Africa! Specifically, Livingstone, Zambia. The small Harry Mwanga Nkumbula Airport, just outside the town, is surrounded by the bush. A few kilometres away, the ‘Smoke That Thunders’ drifts up to heights of over 400 metres, a plume clearly visible from the air.
From the airport, we head straight to Victoria Falls, one of the world’s greatest waterfalls, and immediately glimpse the famous rainbow over the spray that rises several dozen metres above the wide Zambezi River.
The sheer width and height of the falls (1,708 metres and 108 metres, respectively), along with the enormous volume of water cascading down, are an breathtaking spectacle. Taking in the falls, framed against the deep blue, cloudless sky – an awesome spectacle of nature – I am certain that the sight will stay with me forever.
Rainbows and Moonbows over the Smoke That Thunders
The Victoria Falls are known to the locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya (“Smoke That Thunders”) and thunder they certainly do! As we make our way down a walkway facing the falls, we are alternately kissed by gentle droplets of mists rising from the gorge below and soaked by each unexpected gust of wind.
From our perch on the Zambian side, the falls produce the most dazzling rainbows, one of nature’s many exquisite phenomena that occur when the spray catches the reflection of the sun’s rays. But the Victoria Falls are also one of the very few and special places on the earth where a once-a-month moonbow, or lunar rainbow, occurs around the full moon. This unique event is visible the days before, during and after a full moon, when the light of the moon is refracted through the mists. The park stays open late during these three days to allow visitors to witness this amazing and mystical happening.
The View ‘Out of Africa’
Livingstone is a busy and bustling African town, and the locals create a friendly and peaceful atmosphere. We’ve picked one of the more unique Livingstone accommodations, an unconventional hideaway known as Mama Out of Africa. Lying right on the banks of the river under a huge sloping thatch roof, it’s an old bus, now in its final resting place, that has been converted into lodging for two to four people.
Originally known as the ‘Okavango Mama,’ the bus has an interesting history. Driven in from Munich, Germany, in the 1970s by Peter Kermer, it travelled many miles across Africa and once even served as a dressing room on the set of the famous movie Out of Africa. Kermer, still the owner, covered the vehicle with the thatched roof and added an outside bathroom, seating area and game-viewing platform. The ‘Mama’ endearment stuck, though her name has now been slightly adapted to her illustrious connections in the movie industry.
Well, if Meryl and Robert could do it, so can we! We settle down happily with a sundowner on the deck, literally metres from the swirling waters of the Zambezi, about 280 metres wide at this point. On the opposite banks, impala come down to drink. Slowly the sounds of the African night surround us: the shriek of a startled bird, the cackle of a hyena or a jackal. As the sun sets, we hear a fish eagle nearby, and hippos grunt contentedly just down the river.
Local Animal Encounters
Right on Livingstone’s doorstep are several game reserves, where breeding projects allow visitors up-close-and-personal encounters with cheetahs, lions, elephants and crocodiles. Of course, heedless of reserve borders, elephants often wander through town, while local residents patiently wait for these huge mammals to cross the road. Elephants are known sometimes to create a bit of havoc in gardens of the lodges and homes along the river. The night before we arrived, in fact, a herd helped itself to the vegetables in the patch behind our lodge!
Our first organised adventure is walking with lions and cheetahs! We find Simba and Tchungu, two enormous lions, one white and one tawny, lazily eyeing us as we approach. Ranger Ian Ngwenya introduces us to them, and to the two experienced handlers who will walk with us. The handlers are clearly much loved by the 14-month-old lions and are considered ‘part of the pride.’ As Ian, who hand-reared them as cubs, proudly puts it, “I am their mother!”
The magnificent animals are part of a carefully monitored program to reintroduce lions into their native Zambian habitat, where their numbers have dwindled by up to 80 percent in certain areas. By the time the cubs reach the age of three, they are released into a large holding area and learn to fend for themselves without human help. Their offspring will be totally wild, though, taught life skills exclusively by their parents. These offspring are the ones that are eventually reintroduced into the planned 80,000-hectare Mukuni Game Reserve just north of Livingstone, as well as other areas in Zambia.
Simba is one of two white lions at Mukuni, and only one of about 300 white lions in Southern Africa. He and his sister Luba are originally from the Timbavati, from which most of the white lions come. They joined the Mukuni lion project as three-month-old, white, woolly balls of fluff, and settled in happily with mummy Ian and his handlers.
When we’re ready to begin our walk, Simba and Tchungu get up slowly from their comfortable resting places, stretch languidly and amble off with our small group into the bush. Each of us has been given nothing more than a stick with which to distract the lions in case they get a touch overenthusiastic. They ramble alongside us, climbing into trees, pushing each other and playing, sinking their impressive incisors into each other’s fur. We are amazed that we are so close, much more accustomed to the lofty security of a sturdy vehicle.
When the lions flop down for a little rest, we are encouraged to touch them, always approaching from behind. After the first hesitant pat, we relax. We are even allowed to scratch Tchungu’s tummy – soft, wobbly and covered with downy hair. But they don’t like their paws tickled, we are told, so we wisely stay away from those!
After some time, we bid our new best friends a fond goodbye and find three eager cheetahs awaiting their turn for walks. Unlike the lions, each cheetahs wears a collar and we are given turns walking with them. We are told to let the cheetahs lead us, not the other way around. Graceful, purring loudly and without batting their beautiful eyelashes, they show us the way.
These three felines are part of the Mukuni Big 5 Cheetah Breeding Program. The cheetah population once moved freely all around Zambia, but is now on the brink of near-extinction. The breeding program improves the cat population by reintroducing young cheetahs into Zambia’s national parks and conservancies.
Lisa, one of the two female cheetahs taking us for a walk, is rather partial to the menfolk among us and makes no bones about her dislike of fellow females of any species. The handsome McGuyster on the other hand, fierce and proud, is very happy to have a female hanging on to his lead and steps up the pace when he feels like it. He poses beautifully with us and I am lucky to get a quick kiss on my cheek! I am smitten.
Real African Adventures
In addition to its wildlife attractions, Zambia is famous as the Adventure Capital of Africa. Extreme activities are popular, including bungee jumping into the swirling gorges below the falls, hurtling down the Zembezi’s rapids in sturdy inflatable rafts and swimming in the Devil’s Armchair right on the lip of the falls.
Eager to experience some of this adventure ourselves, we take a boat to Livingstone Island, where we are told to swim out to some rocks and clamber over them. That’s how we end up near a gurgling rock pool no more than five metres from the very edge of the falls!
“Just jump in,” instructs our guide. What? We look at each other, aghast. Nobody told us about this! One of the group, the most courageous, takes a leap, disappears into the churning water and resurfaces with a huge grin on his face. I close my eyes, say a quick little prayer and jump, popping up immediately. I happily join the others on a rocky ledge, now just an arm’s length from the 400-metre drop into the gorge below.
We behave like children, pushing and pulling each other, laughing and grinning and posing for pictures. The guide lets us lie on our stomachs and, while he holds our ankles, peep over the edge. Now this is something I never imagined seeing – a waterfall from this angle!
We round off our stay with yet another stunning sunset, this time from the decks of the African Queen, where we settle in with our drinks and snacks. We’re still full of the day’s adventures and the many firsts that we’ve experienced on our short stay in Zambia.
We are sad to leave this magical part of Africa. But the sounds, the smells and the sights will stay with us – and will no doubt bring us back!