Insight before a wall of water
DO we really need polls and websites and advertising campaigns to tell us what are the world's greatest wonders?
Is there anyone who has stood in front of the Taj Mahal or glimpsed Everest and not felt deep in their soul that they have seen something truly wondrous without being told this is the case?
But apparently this is not always so - hence the sometimes unseemly barracking among nations to have their special treasures declared a wonder - whether it be a natural, manmade or, if you're a bit short on truly awesome spectacles, even a wonder of just a regional grade ... natural wonder of Oceania maybe? If your country's wonder has been the topic of a slick advertising campaign and gets more votes is it really better than mine that's maybe had to simply speak for itself?
Which brings me to the Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe. It's categorised as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. And I've recently been fortunate enough to have seen them for myself; been soaked by their spray and made dizzy by sheer drops into pools of boiling foam.
As I stood close to the lip of the falls, watching the water slip into the abyss, heard the roar of its fall and felt the spray on my face I didn't need anyone to tell me this was one of the most amazing sights I would see in my lifetime.
We viewed the falls from the Zambia side. Before Zimbabwe's recent political troubles the Zambian side of the falls was probably the less visited of the two vantage points but now Zimbabwe's loss has been its neighbour's gain. If time and money are no object the ideal would be to experience the falls from both countries but although the overall panorama might be better from Zimbabwe, the Zambian side offers a more intimate perspective.
The falls had been named by and known to local tribes for centuries but it was missionary, explorer and anti-slavery campaigner David Livingstone who brought them to world attention. He had heard about Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, in 1851 but it wasn't until 1855 that he was able to make his way down the Zambezi River to see them for himself.
He named them, no doubt perfectly appropriately at the time, after Queen Victoria but when you see the falls for yourself you realise just how the local name is just so much more apt and poetic. Once one is through the entry gate on the Zambian side there is no immediate view of the falls - just the sensations of walking through mist, which drips from the thick forest that fringes the river and the noise, a constant roar.
We opted to see the falls first from the upstream side. From the first lookout point we could see the Zambezi plunging over a gash in the surface that extends for about two kilometres. Spray from the falls hid its full length but it didn't matter. This was a sight to render even the most voluble of travellers silent.
As it was the "dry" season the Zambezi was not tumbling over the precipice in a single sheet of water but was divided into a myriad of channels interspersed with water-worn rocky outcrops. At this time of year it is possible (if discouraged by the authorities) to wade and walk across the top of the falls as far as Livingstone Island, where the explorer first gazed at them. Up here the Zambezi is wide, placid, slow-moving - the transformation at the falls is astonishing, frightening even.
We weren't brave or foolhardy enough to do that but we did paddle in a small pool only about 10 metres from the lip. That was quite sufficiently exciting as the current was still strong and there was something extremely eerie about watching the water slipping into oblivion and tumbling more than 100 metres to the rocks below.
Retracing our steps to a fork in the path we took the trail that leads along the top of the cliff face and across a bridge directly opposite the falls. From here there is not only a view of the water tumbling, foaming and in some place seeming to fall in one single unbroken sheet, but also of the gorge below. Down there was a tumult of water, spray and the misty outlines of massive black basalt boulders.
Spray fell like rain here, drenching us, the path and the plants that clung to the sides of the cliff. There was one especially slipper section that was completely unfenced. Never good above sheer drops I had to force myself across this alone as my travel companions had gone ahead, oblivious. As is the want of anyone with vertigo I could see myself lose my footing, slide noiselessly over the wet plants and tumble over the lip and into the maelstrom of water below. It was all I could do not to traverse the path on all fours.
From the furthest point of the paths on the Zambia side the view opens up to include not only the falls but the cliffs on the Zimbabwe side and the arched railway bridge built in 1905 that links the two countries. It was the brainchild of Cecil John Rhodes who died before he got to see not only the bridge but the falls itself. But he did insist that it should be close that: "where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls".
Just as there's controversy over what constitute a world "wonder" there's also competition to claim the biggest waterfall - you can have the tallest, the widest, the one with the biggest volume of water - Victoria Falls is said to have the greatest single curtain of falling water.
But statistics are just statistics, like ratings. Much better to judge the falls by the way one's heart beats faster on that first glimpse, the frisson of fear as one peers over the edge and the sense of regret when one has to turn one's back on them.
Maybe no-one has described the wonders of the falls better than Livingstone (who did have the advantage of being the first recorded English-speaking visitor) who summed up his reactions by writing: "scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight".