by garybembridge

The town of Livingstone, Zambia, near Victoria Falls, was named after Doctor David Livingstone, the missionary born in Blantyre, Scotland, where I once lived as a child. It is illustrative of how much the world has changed, in such a relatively short time, that it was a mere 150 years since he had become the first white person ever to see the Smoke That Thunders, as the natives had named it. Now there were hundreds of us milling around. The Zambezi Sun Hotel there, only a few minutes walk from the Falls, was one of the most unusual I have stayed in. It consisted of a circle of chalets surrounding an outdoor central area containing a swimming pool, bars, restaurants and shops. Zebra and monkeys roamed freely in the grounds, the latter regularly making off with any items of food, or anything else they could carry, which were left unattended. A Zambian reggae band provided loud late evening entertainment for the drinkers in the bars beneath the unfamiliar stars of the southern hemisphere. People trying to get to sleep in the chalets could also not have failed to hear them.

My previous major waterfall experience had been Niagara Falls on the Canada/U.S. border. While both were spectacular, I thought Niagara the more impressive simply because of the greater volume of water thundering over the cliffs. On the other hand, Victoria was far less commercialised and more in keeping with its natural surroundings. Unofficial freelance guides were offering walking tours to the uninhabited Livingstone Island, located, somewhat hazardously, in the middle of the Zambezi, close to the plummeting water. It was only after I had paid the guide, and set out on the perilous tightrope-like walk across a weir to the island, that I noticed the handwritten sign warning Beware of the Crocodiles. (I don't recommend, incidentally, that anyone repeats this escapade, as it was potentially quite dangerous).

Although a poor country, Zambia felt like a reasonably contented one. The same could not be said of its southern neighbour, Zimbabwe. The Zambezi Sun was offering a day trip to the town of Niagara Falls just over the border. When I turned up in the foyer at the appointed departure time, I was slightly disconcerted to find that the transport was a car rather than a coach. I was even more disconcerted to discover that I was the only passenger. The driver cum guide asked what country's passport I was travelling on and, when I replied British, clapped his hands to his forehead and exclaimed Oh my God! He hurriedly regained his composure and explained that Zimbabwe used to be a good country, but was no longer so and I should be careful what I did or said there. I reassured him that I watched the television news and read newspapers and was, therefore, aware of the situation. It was probably just as well that I hadn't seen a TV or read the papers that week, though, as Zimbabwe had been suspended from the British Commonwealth the day before.

The grim faced Zimbabwean border police were less than welcoming and demanded a £30 sterling gift before I was granted the dubious privilege of entering their country. As soon as I stepped out of the car in Niagara Falls town, I was approached by a group of three men, two of whom were asking for money on behalf of the third who was, seemingly, blind. I didn't mind donating a few Zambian Kwachas (I didn't have any Zimbabwean currency and they probably wouldn't have wanted it anyway), but was concerned at being asked to write my name and address on what appeared to be some species of sponsorship form. I decided that a false address would be in order. It was apparent, from many of the buildings, that the town had been prosperous in the past and equally apparent, from most of the people, that it was prosperous no more.

In unhappy contrast to the bustling Zambian side of the Falls, the Zimbabwean side was virtually deserted, in spite of the arguably superior views to be enjoyed. Until a couple of years previously, most overseas tour operators had used the hotels there, but had defected to Livingstone due to the economic and political problems in Zimbabwe. I wandered around looking at the Falls for a couple of hours and took a photograph of the David Livingstone statue, on the spot from which he first saw them, before returning to the car. Nothing untoward actually happened, but there was a palpably bad atmosphere about the place. I was relieved to cross the Zambezi bridge back to Zambia, about £50 poorer for the experience and the passport stamp.

When I saw TV footage later, of Robert Mugabe railing against the British government and his country's expulsion from the Commonwealth, I realised that I hadn't picked the best day to visit Zimbabwe. But, in 2003, there probably wasn't one.