Smoke Thundering in Zambia

Zambia was too much for me.

I think there is a limit to the amount of beauty and glory and nature that your eyes can take in before they go a little cross eyed.

With the enormity of Tanzania to come and the mass of Namibia behind, Zambia got a bit stuck in the middle.

One of my goals was to remain mindful in every day of this journey. Part of being mindful is knowing when you are looking but not truly seeing, when you are interacting but not truly engaging, when you are existing but not truly present.

And unfortunately, Zambia gets a bit lost.

Arriving overland from Botswana and crossing the border by boat, we were greeted by touts aggressively hawking their wares. Bracelets and carved figurines close at hand, it is a more touristy area with Victoria Falls being one of the larger attractions in the region. Due to its accessibility by bus, train, and plane, the number and demographic of visitors is high and varied.

P1020901From hotels costing over $500 a night to camp grounds, you will find it all. And with that, you find a crowd that has come for the thrills and activities the falls have to offer. White water rafting, booze cruising, bungee jumping, high gorge swings, helicopter tours, Victoria Falls is a veritable adrenaline playground.

And all of it is a bit too much for me.

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I find as I travel and move through the spaces of daily life that I relish the sheer joy that the simplicity of nature ignites inside me. Waking to the sounds of lions or feeling my body cool at the touch of gentle sea water, eating pineapples straight from the plant and warm from the sun, it does not get any better.

I love nature and the way it makes me feel. A tiny moving part in a universe of countless tiny moving parts coming together to become the world around us.

And these falls. My good golly these falls are astounding. While not the highest or the longest waterfall, it is considered the largest waterfall due to the sheer volume of rushing water. And oh is it a sight to behold.

The indigenous name for the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, which translates beautifully, poetically, and aptly to “The Smoke that Thunders.” Upon hearing that name, there is really no other way to describe it so poignantly. The length and force of these falls create a wall of misty “smoke” that soaks you to the core while it pounds through your every inch.

The spray and the sound and the reverberation through your body and the rainbow arching over all, its humbling.

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Unlike the US, where ropes and warnings and signs keep you well out of harms way, access to the waters around the falls is astoundingly easy. A little swim in a pool just above the drop? Sure thing. A walk across the semi-submerged rock path that crosses the mouth of the river? Why not. With all of that bungee jumping seems a bit excessive.

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I found myself troubling over the differences between moving through a defined and formulaic space as a tourist compared to embracing the unusual and unexpected traveler life. Tourists experience what they plan and expect and build into their itinerary, seeing only what comes to them. Travelers strike out and see and meet and taste what the new environment has to offer.

Perhaps because of how I had been traveling until this point (overland and in a tent), this is the first real interaction I have had with that juxtaposition. Perhaps that is also why Zambia didn’t quite sit with me. One of the most astonishing natural wonders and it felt as though a playground was formed with the expectation that every day should be filled with paddling and jumping and flying.

But, to each his own. If that’s your jam, Victoria Falls is a wonderful thrill-seeking adventure.

Not far from Livingston, it also offered a chance to interact a bit more with locals than I previously encountered. Rereading my journal I find talk of poverty and beauty in every line. Poverty and beauty. Beauty and poverty. Driving through the villages outside Livingston and the falls I find more of what I would have expected. More beauty and ever still, more poverty.

It is eye opening and something that stays with me throughout the trip as I see even more poverty in different forms and different places. It is something that once seen is never forgotten. It is the poverty but it is the smile and the kindness and the generosity of spirit that comes alongside it. Not always. And sometimes, not always genuinely. But sometimes, you see such happiness in the face of poverty that you wonder why we financially fortunate few find a way to be so unhappy. But we do. Over and over and every day, we have so much and worry still more. 

Zambia was different from what came before.

It had more people and more thoughts and more depth of cultural experiences than previously. It was corruption and tourism and poverty. And it was necessary to see. It was grittier than the pure beauty of Namibia. It was a grittiness that rubbed me wrong but also grabbed me and anchored me in the reality of my surroundings.

So go.

See Zambia.

See the Thundering Smoke.

But look beyond the adrenaline playground and see the real lives that pulse with the great Zambezi River.

And in the meantime, grab a beer and look forward to some real mishaps in Tanzania, same time next week…

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