Vic Falls’ bittersweet roar under lockdown

SOMETHING fascinating is happening to the Victoria Falls during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Amid the thunderous roar of unprecedented volumes of water, the “rain” generated by the back-spray and a vivid rainbow, waterbucks and warthogs have become the only regular visitors to the world’s largest waterfalls, as they freely roam the adjacent rainforest, unmolested by tourists.

The amount of water presently flowing over the Victoria Falls was last witnessed around 1951.

In a normal seasonal cycle, the high-water period begins around March, reaching a peak in June and July.

But, as if the Zambezi River has been angered by the “Victoria Falls is dry” story which have dominated tourism headlines for months on end since last year, the month of March has seen the river getting to over 80% full, a phenomenon which is unprecedented.

As one walks down from the usually bustling entrance towards Viewing Point Number One, where there is the statue of legendary Scottish explorer David Livingstone, all one can hear is a cacophony of various birds celebrating the quietude brought to this spectacular rainforest by the Covid-19 lockdown.

The shiny mukwa polish on the chairs and tables in a state-of-the-art restaurant by the entrance is the only sign of life at the food outlet. Jumpy squirrels and restless monkeys take turns to slide on the roof as one National Parks guard monitors the impromptu wildlife show with a supervisory eye.

There may be no tourists to witness the mighty Zambezi in all its power and glory, but the river continues roaring, as if oblivious of the global pandemic terrorising mankind.

The massive curtain of falling water spanning the Zimbabwe-Zambia cataract has not been seen in such full splendour in a long time.

As one stands at the Devil’s Cataract, just a stone’s throw away from Point Number Two, the first water channels roar right into the face, with the endless spray mixing with mud to form white rapids.

It is “raining” buckets in the rainforest. Within seconds, the “rainwater” obscures your view, filling the shoes and soaking the whole body. Cameras which are not waterproof are rendered useless in scenes that have not been witnessed in recent memory. This is the place where people of traditional faith come to “wash away” their sins and misfortunes using the Zambezi’s magical waters.

As the water pours from the top, a gaze to the right, towards the Main Falls, brings into view one of nature’s most mesmerising sights: a vivid rainbow. The rainbow stretches from the Zambian border to the Zimbabwean border with the prominent red hue overshadowing the rest of the colour spectrum.

This striking rainbow is also visible at night during full moon and is called a lunar rainbow. When the lockdown is finally over, this is the place to visit and savour pure, undiluted nature in all its magnificence.

As the water falls deep into the gorge, it splits into molecules which are carried by gushing air torrents, creating a cloud of fine spray visible several kilometres from the Main Falls. Small game in the rainforest, which include waterbucks, warthogs and baboons are seen fending for themselves in the grass and trees that have become green because of the massive water.

The Devil’s Pool, located right on the precarious lip of the waterfalls, where tourists on the Zambian side dice with death by skinny-dipping and frolicking with reckless abandon, is covered in mist. The islands upstream of the waterfalls are almost succumbing to the force of the roaring water as levels are rising every night.

The Zambezi River is so full, it is frighteningly beautiful.

But even as Africa’s fourth largest river continues swelling enchantingly, a stone’s throw away from the rainforest the scrum of traders who sell curios and other mementos to tourists are nowhere to be seen. The market is deserted.
There are no security guards, no hustlers, no bargain hunters, no human activity.

The traders left their curios in plain sight. Crafts depicting animals and various other figurines were left transfigured as their curio traders went into lockdown.

This is the story of Zimbabwe’s foremost tourist resort.

Victoria Falls town is known for its countless tourist activities and accommodation facilities but, instead of seeing tourists, one is greeted by doors chained shut.

Wild Horizons, Shearwater Adventures, Wilderness Safaris and the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge employ about three quarters of the town’s workforce. These companies shut their doors in compliance with the lockdown order.

Yvonne Jandles, the managing director of Routes Through Africa travel agency, described the closure of the iconic rainforest as an oxymoron.

“As I have mentioned before, it’s a bittersweet moment for us in Victoria Falls because the falls are reaching or will surpass record levels this year based on the volume of water levels at this moment and there is nobody to see it. The falls are extremely full, but the town is extremely empty,” Jandles said.

She said it was disheartening that the Covid-19 pandemic came at a time the Victoria Falls was recovering from the “Victoria Falls is dry” chatter.

“We saw that the beginning of the year was very quiet. I am sure that it was affected by that report. The falls are now at full glory and we do not have anybody to see it due to this pandemic,” Jandles lamented.

Some employees in the tourist town have had their contracts terminated, as companies get into survival mode, but those with special skills are guaranteed of a bright future once the situation returns to normal. All the activity desks are closed and there is no sign that these were centres of joy a few weeks ago.

One may see a lone security guard watching a premise from across the street. Seeing a human being on the streets is now rare. The stretch of the road from the Zambian border to Victoria Falls town, usually dominated by Zambian traders on bicycles, is completely empty.

One or two cargo trucks can be seen crossing northwards to the neighbouring country. A few taxi cabs, abandoned in town owing to a shortage of fuel, are the only cars parked along the main street.

However, only the supermarkets and a food court in town are open. The shelves are full of goods but most customers have no money to buy groceries. Most of the tourism employees were retrenched or had their contracts terminated so they are buying only the barest essentials.

Without church, beer outlets and soccer, the Victoria Falls residents now spend most of their time on social media.
In the high-density suburbs of Chinotimba and Mkhosana, what one sees are hoteliers and other employees in the tourism industry sitting on their home verandas discussing how the pandemic has affected their lives. Everyone is anxious, because the town thrives on tourism.

It does not matter whether one is an executive or a curio vendor, livelihoods in Victoria Falls depend on tourism.
The reason and justification for the lockdown are however fully understood. At the end of the day, lives have to be protected.

“The lockdown pronounced by the President was necessary in order to curb the spread of Coronavirus. However, I am a mechanic and now all the people who owed me cannot pay as they were retrenched. I can’t do any piece jobs nor can I get daily bread. This is bad,” a dejected Douglas Chihumbiri, a resident of Chinotimba, said.

Chihumbiri was visibly hungry and the only sign of his trade were the dirty overalls and two spanners in his left hand. A few days before the lockdown, hordes of tenants were seen travelling to Monde village, 12 kilometres from the town and to other rural areas as they could no longer afford the rentals in the resort town which are mainly charged in foreign currency.

WhatsApp groups are somehow keeping the community together. The need to protect life and avoid the spread of Covid-19 has brought the community together.

In the whole country, Victoria Falls is arguably the hardest hit town from a tourism perspective. With the borders closed and all aircraft grounded, the highly-mobile population is stuck at home. Most of the people who have maids who stay in the high-density suburbs have had their employees moving in to avoid unnecessary movement and the risk of infection.

All hope is not lost, though. Operators in the resort town see big opportunities ahead. It is their view that as long as significant measures are taken to preserve this pristine jewel of nature, Victoria Falls will continue playing a pivotal role in Zimbabwe’s economy.

Clement Mukwasi, is a director at Shearwater Adventures, a company in Victoria Falls.