Like many great waterfalls of the world, Victoria Falls straddles the border of two countries. This position inevitably stirs up debate about which country offers the best view. We were staying on the Zimbabwe side of the falls, which apparently (as the argument goes) offers better views of the falls from land. But, wanting as we did to maximize our experience of this natural wonder, we decided to make a trek over to the Zambia side as well, which (again, as the argument goes) offers better views of the falls from the water.
Our very nice Zimbabwe hotel – within whose confines it was possible to briefly forget that we were surrounded by grinding poverty – made the arrangements for us to be driven to the hotel in Zambia where the excursion departed. But when our friendly driver pulled up at the Zimbabwe-Zambia border checkpoint, which consisted of a fence across the road and a tiny hut with armed guards, he informed us that he couldn’t take us any farther because he wasn’t authorized to drive in Zambia, and we would have to walk the rest of the way. “It’s only 500 meters straight down the road,” he explained.
My friend and I both protested. All we had heard about this road between Zimbabwe and Zambia was that baboons roamed freely and had been known to steal food from women and children. But it also seemed, in general, like a Very Bad Idea for two young women to set off on foot on an unpopulated road in rural Zambia. Fortunately, we hadn’t yet gotten out of the car when he told us we could go no further, so we simply and resolutely stayed put in our seats. After a few minutes, he caved and called another driver to pick us up on the Zambia side of the border fence.
And just for the record, although my knowledge of the metric system is limited and I am notoriously bad at estimating distances, I’m fairly positive that our destination was a lot more than “500 meters” from the checkpoint.
When we finally arrived at the launching point for our excursion, a speedboat zipped us out into the Zambezi River to Livingston Island, which sits smack dab in the middle of the river and right at the edge of the massive falls (called the “smoke that thunders” in indigenous terms). In the rainy season, the island is unreachable and mostly underwater, but this being the dry season, we were able to trek across the tiny island to the lip of the falls.
As perilous as it felt being almost abandoned at an international border crossing, somehow standing at the edge of a 354-foot waterfall did not feel dangerous at all. Looking back at the pictures now, I’m amazed by how close to the edge I was: close enough to capture the rainbow in the water droplets as they splashed over into the abyss. Even though I know my feet were firmly anchored to solid rock and that my guide wouldn’t have led me astray, those pictures make my palms start to sweat. But at the time, I was completely sure of my footing and I felt no fear at all. I wanted to clamor over rocks, see every angle of light, feel the water rushing over my fingers. The beauty and power of the falls obliterated all fear, anxiety and worry. Being absolutely and completely in the moment, my inner fearless explorer took charge.
By the time we were returned to our driver for the trip back to Zimbabwe, the logistical difficulties of the morning had evaporated. This time, we were prepared for the hand-off from Zambian driver to Zimbabwean driver, and we were calm and collected as the men in military uniforms, rifles at the ready, stamped our passports multiple times. Our Zambian driver stayed with us until the next driver arrived, and when we thanked him for waiting with us, he responded, “I can’t leave you here by yourselves!” It was a matter-of-fact statement, but with a dash of astonishment that anyone would think it was okay to leave us here, alone, at the edge of two countries.
* My first Travel Throwback Thursday post on Instagram featured my palm-sweat-inducing pose at the edge of the falls; you can check it out here.