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Zimbabwe revisited - The Smoke That Thunders

Updated: Apr 3, 2021


It’s when we reach the thatched gatehouse to the National Park that a whisper of something brushes across my eardrums, registering in my sub-consciousness. It’s not a sound is it? Maybe it is. I hear it, then can’t hear it, then feel it again. Gill and Piet are involved in some sort of debate on the merits of hiring the plastic ponchos that woman is trying to persuade them to take. Gill’s telling Piet she wants to keep her hair dry, and that I will too, and Piet’s laughing at her.


I move a little away to where I can sense the whisper again. It’s still there, but then it’s not. There’s too much interference – cars passing on the road to the bridge and the border post with Zambia, curio sellers calling from the gravel car park opposite where baboons are stalking around the assortment of passenger carrying vehicles and private cars, tourists in conversation with the ticket officer. If it is a sound, I know what’s causing it, and my squirm of anticipation increases.


We set off along the path ahead. I want to visualise, in the time-warp of my imagination, a sweating nineteenth century explorer and his native guides hacking their way through the bush, listening in wonder to the whisper that becomes a breath and finally a roar and then stumbling upon the unbelievable sight of a river plunging over a seventy metre high cliff. We’re told that David Livingstone had already known for some time of the existence of Mosi oa tunya – The Smoke That Thunders – but now I need to pretend that I do not. That I’ve never seen the photographs or the films, that I cannot possibly guess what awaits me at the end of this path.


“Here we go. Watch your footing, Kitten,” you breathe into my right ear. I have a subtle dusting of spray droplets on my face, and a super-sized Livingstone up here on my left, on his rock plinth, is slick and shiny like the paving beneath my feet. I devote no more than two seconds of my time to the good Doctor. Ahead, through the spindly bushes, I can see rushing white foam. You’re tugging my hand, urging me on.


“Come.”


We are poised above Devil’s Cataract, where a part of the broad and hither-to peaceful Zambezi nearest to the south bank is compelled forward in a frenzy down an angled incline. It’s not particularly wide. Beyond it is a thickly vegetated island mass.


“This is actually the very head of the falls,” Gill shouts at me over the thunder of water. “That island there separates this section from the remainder of the river, and one almighty cliff. Come on, we can go down lower and get this stunning view along the whole gorge.”


Below the promontory on which Livingstone’s statue stands watch is a shelf, essentially just a ledge on the cliff opposite the creaming falls. It’s reached by a series of deeply cut, treacherous steps. In front of us, Gill is hanging onto Piet’s arm.


“We’re below the level of the river here,” Piet yells as we reach the bottom.


We’re all drenched now. The hoods of these hired ponchos aren’t going to prevent our hair from getting wet at all and Piet’s beard is all silvery round the edges. Devil’s Cataract is thundering and terrifying on our left and the main body of the Falls stretches out before us. The incessant roar of millions of gallons of water, the sound and sight of such enormous power, takes complete command of the senses. There’s a rainbow arching through the mist, its bright spectrum so intense that it appears solid enough to climb.


I’m asked what I think, how I feel, and ‘humbled’ is the only word I can dredge up after some scratching around.


Extract from Chimurenga, by Wendy Wright


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