In the spring of 1970, The Christian Science Monitor’s travel page ran a series of articles called “Going Places.” Fred Hunter, the Africa Correspondent, was in the neighborhood of Victoria Falls. The travel editor asked for a report. Here it is:
There is really only one way to see Victoria Falls: drenched and with droplets of water hanging from your eyebrows. So take a bathing suit. And wear it.
Forget the plastic raincoat. Leave the collapsible umbrella. Skip those mackintoshes on rent at your hotel. None of them will do you a bit of good. Leave the binoculars in their case. Keep the camera where it’s dry. Buy your slides at the curio kiosk. And if you must take your wallet and travelers checks, wrap them up in plastic. Take your bathing suit and wear it. You’re going to get wet.
Visitors to the falls walk along a cliff edge directly across from the cataracts. The view dazzles their eyes. The roar pounds their ears as the yellow Zambezi plunges into the narrow gorge. The gorge hurls back an upspray of mist, and it in turn falls back onto the cliff edge as rain. Heavy, tropical rain.
So wear your bathing suit.
Of course, you may feel conspicuous. You may wonder: “What will people think?” But I can answer that. They will think: “Now why didn’t I do that?”
At least that’s what my wife and I thought as four bathing suited hikers came our way. We envied them. We had eschewed the plastic raincoats, you see. We had left the umbrella behind. We had disdained to rent mackintoshes – and we were sopping.
The hikers drew near, stepping lightly in the rain. We ploshed through it – squush, squush, squush – our shoes overflowing at every step. They greeted us with grins. We smiled back, wet-puppedly, teeth-grittingly. They passed and went on down the trail. We watched the water splash off them while we continued to absorb it.
“Now why didn’t we think of that?” Donanne asked. She slapped at her ankles, imagining that she was Katharine Hepburn tugging leeches off her legs in “The African Queen.”
“Yes, why didn’t we?” I took off my polo shirt and wrung it out.
“Why are you doing that?” she asked through the rain.
“I don’t know,” I said. There was no logical explanation. When I put the shirt back on, it hung down to my knees.
“I’m not sure that was a good idea,” she said.
We squushed – plosh, plosh, plosh. “Do you think Dr. Livingstone got wet when he found the falls?” Donanne asked.
“I’m sure of it. He and his Scotch tweeds got drenched!”
“At least we have wash ‘n’ wear things.”
It was important to believe that the intervening years had wrought some progress. Still, we didn’t have wash ‘n’ wear travelers checks or wash ‘n’ wear shoes.
We walked out to an overlook, made what children might call “pretend binoculars” with our hands and peered into the mist. We heard and felt the falls. And now and then wind cleared the spray enough for us to see them.
As we stood there, another object joined us. It looked at first like a filled plastic laundry bag stumbling around on two thin legs. It turned out to be a lumpy little lady completely encased in plastic. She pulled open the hood of her raincoat, stared first at the mist and then at us as if we were apparitions.
“How sensible of you not to bother with rainwear,” she finally said. She joined us in scrutinizing the spray.
“Here I’ve come all this way,” she told us, “and you know how I feel? As if I’m slogging around my shower bath all caught up in the curtain.” She pulled back the hood, wiped rain from her face and made “pretend binoculars” just as we did.
“You know what I’m going to do next time?” she asked. “I’m going to bring a bathing costume. And I’m going to wear it!”
And next time so are we.
Donanne and I returned to Victoria Falls in early January, 2002. It’s interesting to see the difference in water levels between early January and mid-March, the time of our 1970 visit, when Victoria Falls truly looks like “the smoke that thunders.”
Next post: To Ghana for one of the last great tribal rites of the 20th century.