We parked opposite the Victoria Falls national park and our guide instructed us not to talk or buy anything from the locals behind the steel fencing. They’re not supposed to harass tourists, she said. There were four stalls lined in a wooden hut selling refreshments and the typical fare found beside the seaside. It confused us when our guide told us to make sure we brought a raincoat and pointed towards the first hut. Zimbabwe’s a hot country. Not humid, but clear skies with clouds always gathering far away enough to call it another country. None of us knew what to expect from the falls, but we didn’t think we’d fall in. That’s the only way we thought we’d get wet.
‘I can’t make you do anything,’ she said. ‘But it will rain, and I won’t drive you back if it means getting my seats wet.’
Our guide made us laugh as we travelled dusty roads stretching over horizons lined with trees and acres of human-free land except for a few small villages and residents selling watermelons. The three of us, and this lady had driven from northern Botswana in a small car that never felt roadworthy, and every pothole we bobbed over caused something to creak or clang outside the vehicle, but she worried about a bit of water on her seats. We still didn’t know where this rain would come from, waterfalls by definition, fall, and the sky shone blue.
‘Help us. We’re poor. Are you American?’ Men cried behind the fence. We weren’t the only tourists who might pass as American, but their pleas sounded as though they targeted us. They offered wooden toys and necklaces, but our guide stopped us from approaching them. It’s hard to ignore beggars, some people may disagree, as our guide did, but in London, I feel guilty sipping a cappuccino as I turn down a homeless person asking for the change I don’t carry. I can’t imagine the lives of homeless Londoners, but in Zimbabwe, poverty equates to a death sentence. I should’ve brought a two-dollar piece of tat.
Across the road, ageing faces from across the globe formed a queue that stretched away from a wooden hut shrouded by trees, but our guide led us to the front of the line and recited the prices listed in English. Twenty dollars each, she said, and we glared at her again. We’d spent most of our time staring inquisitively or laughing along with her.
‘Can we pay in Pula?’ Will asked. ‘We don’t have dollars,’ he said, on account of none of us have ever visited the states.
Our guide smiled, remembering the campsite she picked us up from in the middle of a Botswanan national park and pointed to the listed price. The park, like the rest of the country, accepted US dollars, South African Rand, Botswanan Pula, and currencies from the surrounding nations. With our tickets and raincoats in hand, we passed through the barrier and left our guide who agreed to meet us in the same place three hours later.
A short walk and a set of steps later, we found ourselves in a forested area with an open space. In the centre stood a bronze statue mounted on a squared mound of rock. It was none other than Dr Livingstone, the first European explorer to discover the falls, which he named for his queen.
Dr Livingstone watched over Devils Cataracts, the first and smallest of the Victoria Falls. A small staircase between the trees spiralled into a viewpoint where we gazed in awe as water from the Zambezi river crashed into the rocks below. Cameras clicked and flashed as the sun shone over the trees. Mist floated in the distance. If we had ended our adventure here, we would’ve left content.
The main route guided us through an area dubbed The Rainforest. Densely packed trees lined the walkway. American and Japanese tourists wrapped themselves in plastic as they strolled along the cliff edge tucked beneath green vegetation. Ben draped his raincoat over him. Will and I mocked him as the sun glared over us although the treetops shielded us from its light. The shade cooled us, but the heat penetrated the forest’s roof.
The three of us followed the path, shielded from the water by the towering trees. Will and I wondered why we needed our jackets. ‘I bet she receives a commission from her friend in the shop for every raincoat she sells,’ Will said. ‘Think about it. She told us what shop to go to.’
Ben said nothing.
The ridicule continued as we edged towards the end of the rainforest. Water trickled through the trees, but the sun still shone above. Clouds were elusive. We had walked half a kilometre and remained dry, but as water seeped through the canopy, Will worried about his camera and zipped it away in his backpack. ‘Are you wearing your raincoat?’ he asked me.
He wrapped his camera bag with one of the jackets, and draped the other over his back, keeping his arms exposed, and allowing the hood to hang from his head. Will could never protect his camera too much, the trickle of rain was manageable for us, but his camera was fragile. Thus, Will was fragile. Ben laughed and boasted that Will and succumb to the need for a raincoat, but Will reminded him his body was still free to experience the droplets of water settling on his skin by waving his bare arms.
Then it hit us. The drizzle morphed into a downpour. Torrential rain filled the sky as we passed out of the rainforest, and into the open air. It was Bens turn to laugh, but Will and I remained cheery as water soaked through our clothes and turned my white t-shirt into a thin see-through sheet.
We ducked our necks into our chest and shivered but found the strength to pose for selfies on Wills phone, his camera too valuable to use in the deluge. My skin tightened. My clothes could hold no more liquid. The monsoon continued. Will’s childlike smile was energetic and proud, ‘I’m still not wearing a raincoat,’ he said, then his eyes shot towards Ben and his smile burst into laughter.
The pathway led to a cliff’s edge, but water fell on us as though we’d fallen below the Waterfall. Mist surrounded us. Ben struggled to peer over the with the protection of the raincoat. Will and I, too proud to wear a waterproof jacket, found ourselves rushing through the final stage, desperate to find ourselves on dryer land without spare clothes.
Our last sight of the Falls was the travellers hurling themselves from a bridge over the Zambezi river. I had wanted to do it, as scary as it looked diving headfirst into the heavy current with nothing but a rope between me and a final swim, but money prevented me. It was expensive, but you can’t quantify the cost of experiences. However, I was younger and didn’t have much money. We still had three weeks of our trip left, but next time, I’ll save a little extra.
And that was it. The end of an adventure, one we felt was spent underwater. The last leg was a walk along a drier path between vibrant grass that had overgrown with the water flowing from the sky. The trickling streams returned. The further from the cliff’s edge we were, the slower the rains fell, until nothing and the heat returned. Our time in the downpour was short, but it was long enough to forget the sun existed. We froze, now we cooked within our skin.
We stopped in a small seating area where we could buy refreshments and relax before we exited the park. Water pooled in our shoes. We wrung our socks and laid them across a bench underneath the sun. ‘You should’ve worn a coat,’ Ben said, smiling. His t-shirt had splash marks throughout where the rain had penetrated through his jacket. Will and I squeezed our t-shirts and puddles formed on the scorched earth.
‘Maybe so,’ I said. ‘But then again, we’re covered in a Natural Wonder, how often do you get to say that?’
‘Never,’ Will said, with his cheeks glowing.
‘Do you think our driver will let us back in the car?’ I asked.
Will stared at the sky. The sun beat down on us, and our shorts had already begun to dry. ‘I doubt we’ll be wet much longer,’ he said.
And he was right. The natural wonder dried within minutes. Sweat rolled over my brow. If only we could’ve turned around and felt the rain pouring over our skin again. Oh, the heat.