Oooooh, ain’t that stunning? That is the smoke that thunders...”
Cutting a dapper figure in beige overalls and aviator glasses, Bruce, the lithe helicopter pilot, was gushing, his guttural ooohs getting lost in the roar of the rotor. Buckled, topped with a heavy headphone and 500ft above the ground, I stared down at the world’s largest sheet of falling water.
Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders), that’s what the locals call the Victoria Falls, created when the mighty Zambezi river thunders down a narrow basaltic abyss, frothy in countenance and hurried in pace. “Charlie, Alpha…Over…Victoria Falls is almost twice the height and width of Niagara Falls…” Oooh! Bruce and I repeated almost like a refrain.
Victoria Falls. Preeti Verma Lal
Some 150-odd years ago, when David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer, first looked upon the Victoria Falls, there was no Bruce; he had Susu and Chuma, his local porters. He did not hover in a helicopter; instead, he paddled a canoe on the Zambezi. He did not drawl an oooh either; he wrote, “No one can imagine the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes…” He gave the waterfall a new name, honouring his queen. And the land that he paddled into borrowed his name, Livingstone.
Zambia then was not even a scratch on the map, but it stashed unending mounds of copper in its belly. It was for this shiny metal that the British came digging, setting up a trading post in the early 1890s and later occupying the landlocked patch as a protectorate of Northern Rhodesia. In 1964, the locals broke the colonial shackles, grouped themselves under a new country called Zambia and then slid into poverty when copper prices crashed worldwide in the 1970s. Everywhere I went, I saw a nation desperately trying to rise out of its own ashes. Bruised, but walking defiantly against fate.
It is helped, ironically, by the chaos in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Ever since the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe began driving the country into anarchy, it is to Zambia that the tourists head to soak in the mists and sprays of the Victoria Falls. The magnificent waterfall bridges the rapidly widening chasm between the two countries—once governed as one territory under the name of Rhodesia—but only geographically.
Ruminating on colonialism and a white man who sought to balance “Christianity” with “Commerce (and) Civilization”—as Livingstone’s statue at the falls is inscribed—I was suddenly interrupted by a squeal. I looked up, only to find a pack of Burchell’s zebras trotting by; that name, too, is a tribute to British naturalist William John Burchell. A few inches away, the Zambezi river ambled over boulders and naughty Vervet monkeys sat on the white seringa trees with biscotti stolen from breakfast. So Africa, I thought.
A curio shop in Livingstone (left), maize leaf figurines are popular souvenirs (right). Preeti Verma Lal
“From where we set sail, on 11 April 1947, King George VI sailed too…” On a sunset cruise, the captain of the African Queen was chanelling imperial glory. The king and the queen travelled on a barge called Nalikwanda, while I was on a 70ft catamaran furnished in local teak and beech. The river, though, possibly continues to be as rich in hippopotamus and crocodile, and as the sun dipped into the river, a profusion of homeward-bound African darters and reed cormorants swarmed on the horizon.
Much of the past lives on in the town of Livingstone as well. Founded in the 1890s, its main street is flanked by squat colonial buildings, stone churches and modern architecture, each making room for the other, the wealth of a few so obviously interspersed by the anguish of many. There is the 98-year-old high court building, a prefab structure imported from England, the Livingstone Museum, which stashes the explorer’s memorabilia, a cinema hall built in 1931, a century-old golf course, blue taxis, men selling curios at bends and women going about their chores.
Also See Trip Planner / Zambia (PDF)
And, bizarrely enough, a touch of India as well: I spotted a Bobilli Jeweller, a Bhukkan’s and a Bridgelal and Sons. Everyone in Livingstone seemed to know at least one Patel and everyone seems to have tried the chicken tikka at Kamuza, an Indian tandoori restaurant. As with the rest of Africa, Indians began arriving in Zambia in the early 1900s and are now well assimilated in the local population. Livingstone is like a ragtag of a past desperately trying to catch up with all that is contemporary.
Beyond Livingstone, though, it’s not entirely advisable to follow the beat of your own drum. “Want to go to a 700-year-old village?”—resort employee Cephas Sinyangwe’s suggestion came with a catch, “You should not go alone.” So I hopped into a colossal open-top Land Cruiser as Tim manoeuvred through muddy tracks and past bulky baobab trees to take me to Mukuni village, home to the Leya tribals.
Walking around Mukuni, I found men chipping ebony to carve figurines. In the craft centre, sellers hollered about their wares. The 700-year-old village still seemed seeped in traditional mores, its huts thatched, and its society matriarchal, where the price of a bride could be two cows. In a hut, a woman cooked beef with onions and tomatoes, while a hen peacefully lunched off nshima, cornmeal food that lay uncovered in a wooden bowl.
“That’s the Mukuni jail,” Aubrey, my guide, said, pointing to a two-roomed building that looked smaller than a roadside kiosk.
The barbed wire was broken and a tiny, rusted lock hung on a limp latch, its walls so frail that I wondered whether it could even hold a sparrow.
As I sat under the tree under which Livingstone purportedly met the Mukuni chief, that jailhouse somehow summed up the land for me: Fragile yet fearless, inclusive in spite of itself. Once the white man’s fiefdom, now one more country deciding what it wants to be.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org