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.
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.
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.
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.