Friday, October 02, 2009

follow the river

Written after a morally questionable professional trip to the Royal Livingstone resort on the Victoria Falls, Zambia.

The tiny airport at Livingstone, Zambia, is packed to capacity each time a flight lands. One waits in a snaking queue in the large, airy, inevitably bureaucratic arrival hall, awaiting the examination of one’s jaune fèvre card and the questioning of one’s credentials in good humour. The heat beats down on the red earth with a fierce intensity, and when you climb into your minibus and are regretfully requested to shut the windows against an oncoming dust storm, a twinge is inescapable. You are tired, thirsty, travel-stained and you realise that a lifetime of tropical acclimatisation on the Indian subcontinent is of scant use in this larger, older, alien part of the world.

And then, like in the Bruce Springsteen song, you see it lying there, a killer in the sun. The Zambezi. You have noticed it already from your flight windows, a snaking blue-green line on the oddly flat-looking landscape far below, the work of some cartographer’s lifetime on a map. In these lands, tribal nations have given way to colonies and colonies to republics: once, not too long ago, Zambia and Zimbabwe were Northern Rhodesia and Rhodesia respectively, named after the British businessman Cecil Rhodes, who literally razed his way through southern Africa in his frenzy of greed and misplaced patriotism. Underneath the surface, this earth glitters with copper, emeralds, other precious things. But defining it all, of its surroundings and above it, ancient and wide, silent and seemingly as endless as the ocean, is the river. Its effect is instant, like magic. A whiff of its air is capable of reviving the weariest and most blasé spirit to land a seat on a speedboat. There is a tranquil grandeur to the scene that can cause conversation to fade away, cameras to fall unheeded into laps, and eyes to mist over. And all of this is before you approach the broad, wispy cloud to your south and the distant roll of thunder and you try, somehow, to assimilate the information that you have finally made it to the navel of the world, the Victoria Falls. Weariness, what weariness?

At our luxurious, low-slung colonial-style resort, the legendary Royal Livingstone, we stop by – the Falls are calling, but one can't take one's suitcases as offering to the Devil's Pool – and are charmed instantly by the birds in the trees, the zebras and giraffes walking elegantly past our rooms, and the chimpanzees who are reliably cute, but have been known to fling themselves through unlocked windows with gay abandon in order to steal Mars Bars from the mini bar before this. We try to be discreet about how many gallons of the refreshing red rooibos tea we are slurping up as we triple-check those window locks and rush out to our boat again. The Zambezi changes colour before our eyes, shading from silver to a muted grey, to a rich, red orange under the afternoon sun. We hold our breath as we edge past an elephant fording a fork in the river, stopping from time to time to drink meditatively from the river. We are happy to note that he doesn't seem to notice us at all. The river and its environs have that effect on you: you want to camouflage yourself and become part of the surroundings, to shrink and fold away and be of as little nuisance as possible, not because the Great Outdoors makes you afraid, but because you are hyper-aware of a balance in nature that is so wholly independent of human existence.

The transcendental frame of mind comes in handy once we set foot on Livingstone Island, named, like the town, after the priest-explorer who was brought here by the Makololo people in 1855 to see what European eyes had never seen before in recorded history – the Victoria Falls, as he called ‘Mosi oa Tunya’ or the Smoke that Thunders; so lovely, he wrote later, that they ‘must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’. Today, the Falls are viewable from all kinds of angles: across bridges, in boats, via helicopter, and even, with some luck, from Zimbabwe, long acknowledged as the best side from which to view the Falls. The Falls themselves lie in Zambian territory, though, and to swim in the Devil’s Pool atop the mighty cascades, or to walk in the good doctor’s footsteps – or, and we admit to nothing, to enjoy a hedonistic champagne lunch on the edge of the Falls – it is to Livingstone you must go.

Time passes very quickly and very slowly here, like in Tolkien's Lothlórien. Communing with one of the loveliest landscapes the planet has to offer meshes surprisingly well with the old-fashioned decadence of the luxe holiday, as we discover when we give in to the pleasures of a massage on the banks of the river (as discreet and civil as the occasion demands), or watch the sunset leaning out of the refurbished carriages of the Livingstone Express, a delightful old steam train that takes us right out into the dusty river basin for an enchanted evening. We are still on tiptoe as we boat past hippos and elephants on our afternoon safaris, hoping not to disturb them, but our sense of self expands pleasingly as we suddenly discover ourselves as one with nature, completely cut off from the sybaritic pleasures of urban life and not, we come to realise, missing them very much. We have to leave, eventually, after too few sunrises and sunsets, too few friends among the elephants and boat captains, too few meals under the Royal Livingstone's ancient Monkey Tree. But the Zambezi, we discover, has a way of sticking in the mind. Africa’s fourth-largest river always rises to the spiritual occasion, as its residents of old have known. It rises as magnificently as it Falls.

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