The Life of a Celebrity
There is a debate among tourists over which side of Victoria Falls to visit, Zambia or Zimbabwe. I decided not to participate and visited both. I walked across the bridge between the countries and hopped in a minibus to the town of Livingstone, named after the first non-African to see and rename Victoria Falls.
The next morning I shuttled to the falls and unsurprisingly it is just as impressive from the Zambian side. Soon after I arrived I offered to take a picture of a large family from Lusaka. I snapped a few shots and then they asked me to join in the picture, so I said sure, why not. They thanked me and I kept walking. A little while later a group of boys asked me to take pictures of them on Devil’s Edge bridge and they insisted on taking a few group selfies. I figured it was just boys being boys. I sat on a log to rest and within a few minutes I heard a man say “excuse me, miss? Do you mind if I take a picture of my daughters with you?” I thought oh heck, at least he was polite enough to ask. We posed on the log and in front of the falls, smiling awkardly with my arms around the two girls.
I didn’t know how to feel about my new celebrity status as Lone White Woman at Victoria Falls. Everyone had politely asked to take my picture so I didn’t really mind, as long as it didn’t become a habit. On both sides of the falls I had been one of many foreign tourists, but only on the Zambian side was I picture-worthy. I can only imagine what they will say to friends and family when they show pictures of their visit to the falls, “Here are the Main Falls, they are 108 meters high. This is us in front of them, here is this random white lady that we found wandering by the falls…”
Welcome to the Jungle
Over the next two days I bussed across Zambia stopping in Lusaka, the capital, for a night. Each ride began with a twenty-minute religious sermon by a man who paced the aisle, shouting about his love for God. No one seemed surprised and after a few hours on the bus, I was ready to pray we would arrive soon. The second day I battled a nasty round of food poisoning in the last few hours of the trip, making it seem like a never ending ride. But 11 hours later I prevailed and arrived on the edge of the South Luangwa National Park.
The next morning’s monkey wakeup call thundered across the roof of my hut at 6am. The bathroom was attached to the thatch hut but they forgot the roof so I kept an eye on the monkeys while brushing my teeth. Sitting in a hammock by the river which serves as a boundary for the park, I could watch the elephants and hippos splash while baboons and vervet monkeys tried to steal my food.
That evening a German woman joined me for dinner and after two hours of getting to know each other we realized we had been at the same hostel in South Africa two weeks before and at the same dinner table, but never actually met. Now we were in the same corner of Zambia at the same time, though we took different roads to get there. We both chose the 6am walking safari which began as a drive through the park with lots of spectacular sightings. First were two Thornicroft giraffes, only found in South Luangwa park. After entering the park our car joined a clump of vehicles crowding around a tree with a leopard on top. She was tearing up her freshly caught breakfast while we frantically took pictures of every muscle movement.
We drove on past elephants, zebras, packs of impala, monkeys, hornbilled birds and birds of all colors, hippos and crocs. Our guide spotted a pride of lions and we drove in for a close up. We came to a halt and the lionesses decided to prowl even closer until they were only 5 meters (15 feet) away from our open-top, open-side truck. Luckily they did not look hungry for cameras and attached tourists. Once the pride had moved on, we walked through the bush to see more zebras and impalas before driving back to the camp for a rest and brunch.
In the afternoon we went out for a night drive with a woman named Rose, the only female guide in all of Zambia. She had been a cleaning woman at a safari lodge and then became a spotter, the copilot on night game drives who shines a large spotlight around the woods looking for noctural activity. She studied on her own to take the test to become a certified guide, and has been one for 9 years. We watched the sunset while the hippos sang to each other and continued our drive, spotting a few elephants and buffalo as they went to sleep.
That night I was in the self-cater kitchen getting dinner together and I heard a rustling in the trees. I knew that elephants sometimes walked through camp so I crept over to the reed fence on the edge of the camp and looked out. I saw 4 legs but no truck, and quickly realized those were not elephant legs. I steped back behind the fence, turned and ran, certain that the hippo didn’t see me but not taking any chances. One thing I learned from the game drives is that elephants are naturally curious and safe to be relatively near as long as you don’t disturb or distress them. Hippopotamuses are much more aggressive and dangerous, and they can run up to 45km/hour (30 miles/hour).
A $10 lesson
I left the campsite in South Luangwa in the dark at 5am to go to Malawi. Just before crossing the border I learned a lesson that cost me $10.
- Never change money with someone outside of an official exchange.
- If you do, know the exchange rate from one foreign currency to another, and know how much you should get back.
- Don’t trust when they say this is the only place you can change money, or there are no shared taxis.
- Don’t exchange money when you woke up at 4:30 in the morning.
I got off the bus in Chipata, the town before the border, and hopped in the wrong cab. He told me there were no shared taxis to the border and I could change money with his friend. Big red warning signs that my sleeping brain missed. I changed some money but the result didn’t seem right. I tried to change it back but he convinced me (again red flag) that he would give me some more bills. I counted it out and the amount seemed right. Driving away I realized that somehow I suddenly had fewer bills than I had counted when he had been there. Only when I was at the border I realized that he’d slipped some of them back once I had counted them. Fool me once, shame on me. I was upset about losing ten dollars but it could have been a much higher price to pay for the lesson. After 6 months on the road, I think that is the first time I was actually cheated.
NB: There will be fewer pictures in my blog posts over the next month until I return to the US as wifi is getting scarce and slower. I’ll add more pictures when I can!