As I settle in to my emergency exit seat (with extra leg room), the pilot makes an announcement:
"Ladies and gentlemen, could you all please check the exit stamps on your passports. It seems that one of the visa agents set their stamp to November 16th 2011."
It's December 16th. Fair mistake. It's South Africa after all. About 12 people leave the plane to be re-issued new stamps. Thankfully I'm not one of them.
As per usual I introduce myself to the people sitting next to me. They're a young couple off for a romantic weekend in Zambia. I'm also on my way to Zambia but expect my 5 days there will be more adventure than romance. I am right.
The plane touches down in Livingstone, Zambia (named after Dr David Livingstone of "Dr Livingstone I presume" fame, an English pioneer, medical missionary and African explorer).
The airport has just one gate and is effectively just one room. I wait in line for one hour at immigration and after scanning my fingers and taking photographs of me, I am welcomed to Zambia.
Backpack in tow I exit to find a man standing with a sign "Welcome Joseph Chedrawe - Jolly Boys Backpackers".
"I thought you weren't going to make it!" says the large Zambian driver with the sign. I smile and introduce myself. He does the same. I expect his name to be something very African sounding as I have found is the case with most South African Blacks.
He says, "Hello. My name is Dennis." I subsequently learn that most Black Zambians have a Christian name and a "local" (or African) name. (My taxi driver to the airport went by Micah (from the Bible) but his local name was Thingunye which means "the founder".)
On the drive to the hostel I meet a group of five travelers from France and take the opportunity to practice my French. It turns out they are all working in Johannesburg. They're a great group and encourage me to sign up for a "Booze Cruise" and White Water Rafting with them. So I do.
Jolly Boys Backpackers Hostel is a very charming and colourful place to stay. It's the busiest accommodation in Livingstone with hundreds of backpackers passing through their doors each week.
I check into my room and head off to the Booze Cruise on the Zambezi River. It's 4:00pm. We board the boat along with around 50 other people and the booze starts flowing. It's the cheapest alcohol available and even still I'm quite certain it's watered down. But the vibe on the boat is good. We see dozens of hippos and crocodiles and even an elephant!
After the Booze Cruise we make our way to the Royal Livingstone Hotel, the most luxurious hotel in Livingstone for what is meant to be the best sunset in town. It's breath taking. After a quick game of checkers (It doesn't matter who won ... but it was me) we head back to Jolly Boys for bed.
I wake up early the next day for a 7:00am departure to the white water rafting starting point. After a quick safety de-brief, our instructor asks, "Easy Boat or Crazy Boat?"
Crazy Boat, please.
Life jackets and helmets in tow, we walk down the rocks to rapid 1 of 25. It's going to be a long day. I'm with a great group of seven and we give each other nicknames: lazy, pinky, frenchy, hotty, beardy, hairy and bossy. (Apparently I like to tell people what to do...)
Our guide is Malvin. After missing rapid 1 the first time, we sail through on our second attempt and easily navigate rapids 2 through 6.
Then comes rapid 7 the most difficult of the day. Malvin says, "the most important thing is that we avoid the gap." As we begin to make our way through the rapid, a large wave pushes the raft to a near-vertical position. Lazy (so-called because he often neglects to row) falls out and is dragged under the water.
When the raft settles we begin looking for him and finally see him 50m ahead with a panicked look. We row furiously to him and pull him into the boat. He is shaken but uninjured.
It then becomes clear that one of the other rafts is in distress. They did not avoid the gap and their entire boat flipped dumping the rafters into the rocky rapid. I set the pace: "Row! Row! Row!" We make it to the first person. It is a girl and she is sobbing uncontrollably. "The rocks! They crashed into the rocks!"
We begin to collect other drifting rafters. One has deep scratch marks on his right leg extending from his hip to his ankle. Another has a deep gash in his shin that is seeping blood and we wrap it with a t-shirt.
Two other boats manage to collect the remaining drifters and we proceed to the shore. All but one (she decides to walk back) return to their rafts and we continue on.
After a quick lunch on the shore, we manage to complete the remaining rapids. Many fall out (me included) but the dips are quick and easy. The day is beautiful. The perfect sun, the lush green mountains, the crystal blue water and the adventure make my second day in Zambia very special.
From rafting, we proceed to Cafe Zambezi, a traditional Zambian restaurant, where we order Mosi (a Zambian liquor), fried caterpillar and grilled crocodile, among other less daring foods. Gloria and Allison (two Canadian lawyers with the CBA/CIDA Young Lawyers International Program working in Namibia) arrive at the restaurant (not coincidence, this is planned) and we make our way to a night club down the road.
At the club, the DJ does play "One of these things is not like the other" but we are thinking it. It is clear we are different. We are the only non-Zambians there and we are dressed in flip flops, shorts and t-shirts. The local Zambians are decked out in tight-fitting cocktail dresses for the ladies and trousers and long sleeved dress shirts for the men.
We begin to dance under the red lazer lights and groove to the African house music and stares of the local club go-ers. Then back to the hostel for bed.
On the third day we decide to explore the Zambia side of Victoria Falls. We sign up for the 3pm Walk to Livingstone Island to take a dip in the Devil's Pool. We catch the free shuttle to the Falls and walk a couple of hiking paths.
We follow 600 steps down to the Boiling Point which offers an exciting view of the rapids and of Victoria Falls Bridge where we watch zip liners, bungee jumpers and gorge swingers.
On our walk back up, Allison is robbed. Her assailant is swift, relentless and covered in fur. Upon seeing around a dozen baboons blocking the path, we decide to wait for them to move away before crossing. In the meantime, we take lots of photos. When they finally clear, we start walking but one large male baboon has other plans. He runs up from behind a bush and grabs Allison's tote bag.
After a brief tug-of-war she gives up and he begins to loot through the bag - sweatshirt, Lonely Planet, dry sac and a chocolate bar. The baboon ably un-wraps the chocolate bar and essentially swallows it whole licking his fingers and the wrapper. He begins to nibble at the other items but realizes they are not food. But instead of leaving he just sits with the strewn about items as if waiting for something. We take photos.
Finally two men come and shout something at the baboon and he flees. "You speak baboon?" I ask. They laugh. We'd been warned not to feed the baboons but nobody told us that they mug you.
After the robbery a not-so-very distraught Allison declares the need for something nice. So we dine at The Falls Hotel. My lunch: a Monkeygland Burger. Monkeygland is delicious.
We then head to the meeting point for the walk to Livingstone Island. We arrive at The Shop that Thunders (the local Zambian name of Victoria Falls translates as "The Smoke that Thunders").
"Please do not bring anything you don't want to get wet."
"That's weird," we think, since most of it is a walk. So we throw our valuables into Allison's dry sac and off we go. One guide. 15 walkers.
"Okay, everybody please hold hands and make sure you only walk on the rock ledge and not the river bed."
It turns out that the walk to Livingstone Island takes place at the top of the Falls less than 5m from the edge. Sure. No biggie. That's cool. (Gulp.) The walk takes more than 2 hours. Many slip (me included) into the rushing water but the team hand-holding saves us from being dragged into the current and over the falls.
I offer to hold Allison's large bag for her and having a self-admitted aversion to danger she quickly accepts. I slip on a rock and drop the bag. It is carried away by the water, but I chase it down and catch it, mere metres from the edge of the falls.
We finally arrive at Livingstone Island just before we must swim to the Devil's Pool. After a brief history lesson about Dr Livingston, we get into our swimsuits and swim across the current (again, mere metres from the edge of the Falls) to the giant rock adjacent to the Devil's Pool.
The Devil's Pool is a 3m deep "pool" (basically, a dip in the river bed) just before the edge of Victoria Falls. Our guide demonstrates how to enter by jumping in and points to the pool's boundaries saying "This side you are safe. This side you lose your life."
Only half of the group of 15 dares to dip and most slide in. You can feel the current trying to pull you over the falls but you swim, sit, smile for the photos, and revel in the adrenaline rush. It is incredible. They throw us a rope to pull us back onto the rock. I don't want to leave. But I do. Reluctantly. I subsequently learn there have been 17 fatalities in 50 years.
After swimming against the current back to Livingstone Island we catch a speedboat to the shores of the Royal Livingstone Hotel and take taxis back to the hostel where we enjoy a meal of curried kudu and chocolate banana smoothies followed by a game of 30 Seconds (a very popular boardgame in South Africa).
My first three days in Zambia are nothing short of exciting and I can't imagine it will get much better, but days 4, 5 and 6 do not disappoint. Stay tuned.