Africa from the air showed the long-eroded, gently rolling surface of an ancient continent. All of that changed abruptly as we arrived in Zambia, a deep gorge scored the ground beneath us. White water rushed along through the gorge and a large waterfall cascaded down the cliff along one wall of the gorge. I was looking for Victoria falls and wondered if this was it. Then suddenly a huge waterfall appeared from under the wing of the plane, a mile wide river dropped over the edge of a gorge erupting in a huge plume of mist. This was Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders, Victoria Falls.
The gorge of the river zigzags along fracture lines in the thick basalt lava flows that cover the landscape. The falls drop 110 meters (over 360 feet) twice as high as Niagara Falls. They have tremendous erosive power. A new fault is starting to erode zig zagging across the river at the far end of the falls in the above picture.
We landed at Victoria Falls airport and entered the brand new terminal. Since Noel had obtained business visas for us, our progress through customs was easy. We also received our official Zambian press credentials. I was now an official reporter.
Judy Helmholz and her husband Arthur were our local super guides. They drove us from the airport to the Tongabezi Lodge via the "back road." Along this road we knew we had entered Africa. Hippo tracks marked the dirt road, Arthur said that they traveled up to 30 km from water to get food at night. Piles of cut brush along the roadside were the local caution signs, they meant slow down there is a hole in the road ahead. Judy and Arthur kept filling us in on the plants and animals...I had a lot to learn about traveling in the African bush, even in a car, on a "road."
We arrived at or lodge and settled in: Noel the head of our expedition/writer/editor, Lowell our videographer/photographer/web guru, and I the scientist/reporter.
Our job was to visit Zambia and to report our experiences on the web in short daily dispatches. We got up early in the morning, before dawn to take river trips to look for birds and large mammals. We also visited the local village and school where I taught lessons about eclipses and eclipse viewing safety. We also visited Victoria Falls and took a game drive.
Our guide on the river was the legendary Bob "the birdman." In America and Sweden I know some of the best birders in the world such as John and Bill Bousman, and Klas Fresk, Bob was certainly their equal. As we motored along the river at sunrise he brought us to the exact spot where we could easily see the birds of Zambia. Once we saw each bird he would fill us in on its special behaviors. He pointed out the Pied Kingfisher and the way it hovered in midair before plunging into the water to get a minnow, the hooded vulture and the shape of its beak that made it well adapted for extracting difficult-to-reach bits of meat from carcasses, the nests of the local weaver birds that always hung on the west side of the tress, protected from the prevalent east winds, and many more. He also gave us our first close up views of Elephants, Hippos and Crocodiles. Bob set a high standard for our future guides.
Later in the day we visited Victoria Falls. On the ground next to the falling water the full sensory experience of Victoria Falls is overwhelming. The mist is an impossibly bright white in the tropical sunshine, two colorful bright rainbows arced around the shadows of our heads, and the thundering made by the huge volume of water hitting the rocks far below shook our bodies with continuous noise. The images of the falls do little to suggest the full experience of visiting the falls.
Here I am with my long pants and long sleeve shirt and hat all in safari tan colors to avoid attracting insects and to protect me from the tropical sun. I also sport crossed bandoliers supporting a slide film camera and a digital camera so that I could take images for this website. The temperatures in Zambia during the day were pleasant, in the low 80's so that wearing long sleeves and long pants was OK.
There is a trail that allows visitors to walk out on the ridge that parallels the falls. We walked out the trail it is very wet! As we crossed the bridge it felt like people were dumping buckets of water over our heads. I wore my raincoat, and put my cameras into plastic bags. But my nylon pants got completely soaked... luckily they dry fast in the African sun. We all noted the fantastic completely circular rainbow that formed in the mist that surrounded us as we crossed the bridge, but none of us had a waterproof camera or a wide enough lens to actually photograph it.
At the end of the path we came to a viewpoint right across from the center of Victoria Falls. Mother nature sure had created a spectacular falls and viewpoint by having the river carve out a gorge perpendicular to the main flow of the water. The river fell over the far side dropping twice as far as water drops over Niagara falls, to the right and to the left the falls stretched away a half mile in each direction. The ends of the falls vanished in the mist that erupted when the water hit the rocks below. We just stood there in awe letting the sound of falling water pound our bodies.
After Victoria Falls, we visited the game reserve which holds the five living rhinos in Zambia. Our driver/guide Mike drove us past a herd of zebra immediately. They were followed by one of the rare rhinos using its lips to pull grasses into its mouth, two giraffes grazing trees, a herd of elephant walking along next to the road with babies running beside their mothers, many waterbuck grazing, and also wart hogs. Mike called "antennas up" when we saw the warthogs. It took me a while to figure out what he was saying. When warthogs run, they stick their long tails straight up in the air. The tails look like the antennae on SUVs. We saw so many animals in such a short time I was overwhelmed. As we drove back to our cabins I realized that I still had a lot more to see, I hadn't seen any large predators yet, no lions, or hyena, or leopards.
Dinner at Tongabezi lodge began with drinks and appetizers around a fire. The guides and senior staff joined us at dinner and helped bring out ales of adventure from all of the guests and each other. I loved to listen to the tales of fellow travelers to Africa. I even contributed a few stories of my own.
Sunset was followed by an amazing dinner. With fresh baked rolls, leading to soups made from scratch and entrees of superbly flavored meats, pastas and vegetables. Dinner was followed by more conversations. Eventually, our machindas walked us back t our cabins helping us to avoid large animals and snakes. As I walked back I started to ask my guide about the stars and he responded by asking me questions about UFO's and the possibility of life in the universe. This lead to a wonderful conversation standing on the grass beneath the dark skies of Africa. The perfect ending to a day.
Go To The Dance of the Earth and the Moon
Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty
6 June 2001