Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Incredible Zimbabwe (3) - Victoria Falls

Our third and last big stop in Zimbabwe was the world famous Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. However, just before that, we spent one night in Bulawayo to visit the Matopos Rhino Park. We were lucky enough to get a very close encounter with the elusive white rhino. This was the only one of the established big seven wild animals in Africa that we hadn't already seen. It was a fantastic encounter, and the behaviour and character of both the mother and baby rhinos was amazing to see.

Victoria Falls is renowned as the biggest waterfall in the world and one of the world's seven natural wonders. However, our visit to Vic Falls wasn't primarily about getting back to nature but was more about taking advantage of Victoria Falls position as one of the best adventure sights in Africa.

On the night we arrived, I lay awake in my tent at the campsite listening to the distant roaring sound of the falls (which i had yet to see). Though it wasn't the background noise that was keeping me awake. I had signed up to do the third largest bungy jump in the world the next day and was more than a little pre-occupied with the idea.

Went into town the next morning to send a few amusing 'farewell, I'm bungying' emails and then a group of about ten of us took the long walk down to the bridge.

And then there was a 90 minute wait after signing up when i had plenty of opportunity to see others jumping off - take about pressure...

The Victoria Falls bungy is a 111m (350ft) jump off the Zimbabwe-Zambia bridge. A jump which takes you to within touching distance of the Zambezi river. The third highest bungy in the world, you get a full seven seconds of falling at speeds of up to 140kmph.

I've always always turned down chances to bungy in the past. When I toured New Zealand years ago I refused point blank, particularly when everyone else on the tour were doing the Pipeline, the - then - highest bungy in the world at a mere 102m.
But there's something about just being in Zimbabwe that makes the truly terrifying just a little less daunting. Actually I was really pumped for the jump itself. I knew that the only way I could be sure of doing the jump was to just follow every instruction without thinking about what I was doing! I managed a quick smile at the camera as the countdown ran from five to one. Managed a good dive (!), headfirst with arms outstretched. The first second was fine (!) and then the g-forces kicked in... after a few seconds of which the bungy started to slow me down.

The bungy pulled me back up towards the bridge to a height of about 60m at which point I effectively had another fall, bigger than most bungy jumps. I then had plenty of time to admire the largest waterfall in the world as I dangled upside down, 50m about the Zambezi River.

It's hard to get a good impression of the bungy from still shots but Alex tried his best as seen in the following pics! You can also see a pic of someone doing the jump on youtube - awesome!

Was it a thrill? Yeah - even bigger than parachuting. In fact, I can't imagine what other adrenaline activity could match it.
Would I do it again? No! Jumping off a bridge just feels like something you only need to do once...

As if bungy jumping wasn't exhilirating enough, the next day a big group of us headed back to the Zambezi Gorge for 'adrenaline day'. Flying fox (RIGHT), abseil and rappelling were great fun but the highlight was the gorge swing (LEFT). This was very similar to a bungy jump in some ways. Stepping off a cliff and dropping 60m at up to 80mph before being swumg back and forth across a gorge was just a little less terrifying than the bungy.

Got a huge buzz from this but unfortunately also strained my back slightly. I didn't feel the full effects of this until the next morning when I woke up in pain and had to cancel my rafting trip.

On the third day in Vic Falls I was delighted to get a break from jumping off things. I crossed over to Zambia (twenty-first country visited on the Bigtrip and my passport now has just two free pages left for Botswana, Namibia and South Africa) and did a microlight flight over the Victoria Falls. I got a CD made of the photos and will put an update on sometime soon.

Next stop Botswana.

Incredible Zimbabwe (2) - Antelope Park

(Unbelievably close to lions. No fences, no zoom. Just a few feet from sleepy lions!)

Antelope Park is a private wildlife reserve and conservation site. The park concentrates on looking after and breeding lions with a view to re-introducing them into the wild. Though not a zoo, Antelope Park is a going-concern and pays its way through wildlife and other activities aimed at travellers and tourists.

(Start of the lion walk and I am 'part of the pride'.)

The place is beautiful and one of the best sites we've stayed at on the whole trip. I get the impression that it was originally geared towards the middle and upper parts of the tourism market but as that business has melted away in Zimbabwe, they are now catering mostly to overland tours. This is to our benefit as the prices were reasonable for activities which were just awesome.
(Brock and lions)

The first activity was a lion walk, where a small group of us got to walk across fields with three lions. The lions have been brought up in captivity and though they are encouraged to hunt, mate and do other activities which will prepare them to return to the wild, they are accustomed to humans. In fact, as we walked along they treated us as part of their pride. In order to keep this illusion up though, we were warned not to stray away from the group, in case we were suddenly seen as an outsider, whether potential competitor.. or dinner.

(Two of the lions on our lion walk 'playing'! Luckily they didn't play with us like this, if only because we were warned not to turn our back on them, crouch down, or get separated from anyone else!)

Walking with the lions, petting them and watching them play with each other was just incredible. And this was just the first activity. After the lion walk, we had an encounter with two four-month old lion cubs, then we went to the breeding centre where we saw a large number of adult lions and lionnesses being fed. This was the only part of the lion experience where the lions were behind bars - and just as well! However, in spite of the barrier, we could still pet the lions through the wire mesh, though this rather back-fired (no euphemism intended) when one of the lionesses marked her territory all over my jeans, t-shirt and face!
(Right - lions run for their dinner)

As well as lion watching, I had a chance to go horse-riding and spot wild game. Really got the hang of horse-riding (trotting at least) and spotted Wildebeast, Impala, Warthogs, Ostrich and Dik-Diks. Also had a close encounter with elephants, which was pretty special.

But the big highlight was the lion and cub viewing. At one point, I had two lion-cubs on my knee. I had no fear at all of the lions and couldn't spend enough time with them. I'll never forget the experiences I had at Antelope Park. They say it's unique in the world and I can believe it. I'm hoping to get a few pics from friends on the truck as some people got some great shots but I've posted a few of my own for now.

Two Incredible Weeks in Zimbabwe (1)

(One of Zimbabwe's amazing 'tourist attractions'.)

Zimbabwe is the most intersting, disturbing, chaotic and confusing (esp. these last two) country I've been to in the whole of my travels. By turns beautiful, exciting and draining, the last two weeks have been completely different and much more rewarding than I would have hoped for.

From the Mozambique border we had a long drive into our campsite in Harare. We spent two nights there and had one full day in Harare. The full day in Harare was welcome to me. Most of our time in Zimbabwe would be spent in tourist places doing tourist activities (not that there are many tourists around any more) and I was keen to see some of the Zimbabwe that matters to the 13 million (but falling) Zimbabweans.

Harare is quite unbelievable. Many tour groups dont come to the country any more because the situation has deteriorated so much. A few random observations...

I bought a bottle of smirnoff and it cost me 520,000 dollars...which is much cheaper than in the UK... the shops are packed today because there is bread for which you could have to queue for hours... taxi costs are determined almost entirely by the distance, not by the time, so scarce is petrol... a pizza at the black market exchange rate is about US$2, at the official exchange rate about US$1,000.

(Me, Sami, Rod, Caitlin, Kate and Brock)

There is a tense atmosphere in town. I didn't find it threatening but it was definitely not relaxed either. Jane, Nikki, Alex, Brock and I went for lunch and then shopping for booze. We each bought one of the aforementioned bottles of Smirnoff. As we were walking along, a drunk guy grabbed Brock's bottle and ran off with it. To be fair - and as a tip to Brock - it probably isn't a good idea anywhere to approach a clearly intoxicated and alcoholic person on the street conspiciously carrying a bottle of vodka...

(Rod and Alex)

Unfortunately I don't have any photos of Harare as I was advised it wasn't safe to carry my camera with me. Probably true. So instead here's some pictures of our big fancy-dress party.

After leaving Harare, we went to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. Supposedly one of the greatest archaeological site in Africa outside Egypt but I just wasn't impressed. Reminded me off the tors in South-East Peru... which weren't very interesting either. But that night, after a long long afternoon drive we reached Antelope Park, and I was extremely excited by the promise of visiting the best place to see lions in the world...