Manhandled By Africa’s Beauty: The Smoke That Thunders*

Beauty in these wild places of Africa comes in two guises. There’s the filigree of a camelthorn tree against the dawn. Or in the rainforest the old-growth trees holding up in reverence a canopy that suffuses the underlay in green light. The only sounds: the rapping of rain from a shower striking the giant leaves of the ground cover and a distant pandemonium of parakeets. Or consider the delicate trill of doves in a courtyard strewn with a carpet of jacaranda. It steals over you – possesses you – ever so gently.

But there is a second species of beauty, crushing in its scale and power, that takes the senses by storm, sweeping away everything in its path. Watch a lioness burst from cover and close upon its prey, grasping it in mighty embrace while predator and prey go down midst dust and cry. Or there you are, parked in an open vehicle as a herd of elephant amble by rumbling in mysterious conversation, the great continent-sized ears flapping in contentment, tusks brilliant in the sunshine.

The Zambezi drains a wide swathe of the southern Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and parts of Tanzania. Here it sweeps off the central plateau of Africa and begins in spectacular fashion its descent toward the Indian Ocean. Its flood plain is rich with herds of wild life – cape buffalo, giraffe, elephant, zebra, antelope and their predators, the hyena and lion, as well profuse bird life. The river is also home to hippo and crocodile. Unfortunately, the river’s upper reaches have been seriously overfished. Downstream lies the Kariba reservoir and its dam that supplies power to the region.

Such is the stupefying beauty of Mosi Oa Thunya, the ‘Smoke that Thunders’, known around the bucket-list world as Victoria Falls. The approaches to all such wonders are hedged about with insistent, savvy entrepreneurs. Of note at the Falls are those who rent raincoats to tourists – on perfectly sunny days, mind you. You push your jaded way past them while they call and cajole. As you hustle down the lush trail, you can’t help but notice those returning from the chasm’s rim. They look as though they have been dragged through the surf, water squishing in their track shoes. Too late to retrace your steps now.

The roar from the precipice ends all conversation. The very ground beneath seems to shudder. Mist shrouds the undergrowth, the trees shedding a non-stop monsoon. You vainly tuck a digital camera beneath your shirt. Then, through a gap in the greenery you catch a glimpse of the Zambezi plunging wildly through the mist and disappearing into an abyss as columns of vapor rise on thunder to enfold you.

The 1905 Victoria Falls road-rail bridge now connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia is testament to Cecil Rhodes’ ambition for a Cape-to-Cairo railroad. It was officially opened by the son of Charles Darwin. In more recent times it was the location of dialogue (1975) between the apartheid regime and Kenneth Kaunda, then-President of Zambia. In addition to international traffic today, it offers heart-stopping bungee and zipline thrills.

There before you flows a vision of such power that there is no resisting the baptism of its spray, the command of its sound, the scruff-of-the-neck way it manhandles you. How it dwarfs the self. Makes the knees give. Strips away all pretense.

And it keeps coming. Has no season. Remorselessly, day and night, summer and winter, the river rushes to the brutal edge and flings itself over, frantic to find the distant sea. It remains unperturbed by the march of events, the ebb and flow of fortune and fate. Even the pathos of drought and epidemic fail to rob it of its majesty. You find yourself reborn, cleansed, restored, measured against such raw grandeur.

The noteworthy detail in this scene is the minute silhouette of a nonchalant fisherman standing on the upstream brink of the Falls. A philosopher might ponder the Zen-like dilemma of a fish swept along by the gathering current making the existential choice between the hook, and the cascade. Or one might just ponder in silence the majesty of a natural wonder!

You turn and make your way back up the trail toward the exit, shoes squishing, clothes drenched. You don’t miss the raincoat. Better – far better – to have been there without it.

* This is an edited form of a piece appearing in an earlier collection of the writer’s travel pieces, “These Are the Footings: A Kalahari Journal” (Roaming Pen Press, 2009) Editor, Esther Harder.


3 thoughts on “Manhandled By Africa’s Beauty: The Smoke That Thunders*

  1. Oh yes, the memories of seeing this, crossing the bridge between the two countries and viewing from both sides. My son was too small to do the bungee jump although he has done some and voweled he would return to do it which almost happened when he returned to Africa when a little older but he ended up in South Africa and he is some bungee jump there instead. The swinging bridge on the one side and the mist coming up in your face as you walked across watching your possiessions with little children bugging you to take picture etc. These are all the memories tucked away in the mind to hold on and know you got that bucket list items checked off!!! Ha!! Thanks for sharing about this and all your very good descriptive writing.

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  2. Jonathan, I didn’t leave a comment. Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate and enjoy your Traipse pieces. Keep ‘em coming! Virgil Miedema Sent from my iPhone

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  3. This sure fits my memories of these thundering falls – the omnipresent mist, even in drought; the wet, awe-struck people, many returning in silence, as though seeing a vision; the squishing sounds of our shoes as we trudged through the puddled trail; the birds gathered in that dripping environment, taking advantage of the food in this special place; and my own sense of the thunderous voice of this river as it plunges away and away, yet speaking of a wonder that leaves me with questions a sense of presence. In all these years, that voice has not yet departed.

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