First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

First Foray into “Real” Africa: Traveling Livingstone, Zambia

“Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.” 
― Beryl Markham, West with the Night

My plane skidded above dried, toothpick-esque trees and skidded to a stop on a small landing field at the Victoria Falls airport, surprisingly small for servicing one of Africa’s top three attractions. I joined the hoard of wheeled suitcases, walked by a sign that denoted the area where ebola inspections should have happened, cringed at some nasty pictures of ebola symptoms and passed quickly through the immigration line. I scanned the hand-written signs of taxi drivers for various resorts in my area. Not seeing my name, I asked the information desk if there was a place I could call my hostel. “Ahh… the landlines are down. If you buy me airtime, you can use my cell phone”. I crossed the airport to the only airport shop, a lady who sold snacks, handicrafts and airtime in a space as small as a closet. “You want to call a hostel in Zambia? They won’t pick you up here. Cross the border and call them as soon as you reach Zambia side. Norman will help you”. She ushered me outside into Norman’s white cab. I skeptically followed.

Victoria Falls airport

Victoria Falls airport

“Welcome to the REAL Africa!” bellowed Norman after he heard an abbreviated version of my story. “I won’t move to South Africa if my life depended on it. More opportunities maybe, but no safety, man. You have to be alert at all times.” We passed through the small, touristy Victoria Falls village and he dropped me at the tired-looking gates of border patrol. The officers mechanically stamped my passport, gave me a white piece of paper, collected by a man 5 yards away then waived me to on the dusty road to Zambia. I jumped on the sidewalk to avoid laden, transport trucks and hopped behind a couple women with baskets on their heads, admiring the sexy hipsway that accompanied their walk. Meanwhile, I cringed under the weight of my backpacks and sweated, regretting the three layers of leggings, legwarmers and multiple shirts that I piled on back in the cold of Johannesburg. We walked across a rusted bridge, waived away the men trying to get me to bungee jump off of it and took a picture of the waterfall as I straddled the country line between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Entering Zambia on foot

Walking to Zambia

I repeated the border control procedure, then looked around the dirt parking lots for a phone to call my hostel. Someone directed me to the police station where a couple guys my age lounged outside in broken recliner office chairs. Eager for a distraction, they offered to help, “take a seat, take a seat”. I carefully balanced myself on a stool, and kept my bags close, since the guys advised me that the baboons that circled around us loved to steal things. Time flew as the guys gave me recommendations for my time in Zambia, advised me to check out their grandfather’s mountain resort (“you can stay for free”), taught me a few Tonga phrases and drooled with envy at my life. Kelly, the guy in the police officer, begged, “take me with you! I can fit in your backpack!”, he insisted as he yanked off his shoes and emulated climbing in. After about an hour, I remembered my mission and we called up my hostel. “What happened? He was waiting for you at the airport all afternoon. Usually we don’t pick people up from the border but we’ll send him along”. The driver came, and the two police station boys didn’t let me go without big hugs, elaborate handshakes and determined reassurance, “Katie, you’ll stay at the backpackers? Two days? We will visit you!”
After welcoming me with a cheek-to-cheek smile, the driver explained the confusion. Apparently he had been waiting at the Livingstone Airport… “we looked up your flight information- Hahn Airways arrival at 15:10 from Johannesburg. There were no planes landing at 15:10 and we never heard of that airline. We thought you might be arriving on a private jet, but even then it would be registered”. He dropped me at the hostel but not without a wink and a “what are you doing tonight?”. “Well, I definitely owe you a beer for waiting for me all day,” I replied. We made plans to meet back up and I entered the hostel where apparently my reputation preceded me. Everyone from the gatekeeper to the guy behind the booking desk to a random person staying there already knew that the driver spent the whole morning looking for me and that I may have a personal plane.

Zambezi waterfront

Zambezi waterfront

The next few days passed quickly and slowly, at the same time. Livingstone was a small town with dirt roads, where women leisurely strolled wrapped in bold fabrics, uniform-clad school children clogged the streets but never seemed to be actually in school and men slowly biked with cardboard boxes tied behind them, moving things to Zimbabwe or visa versa. I spent most of my time with Charlie, the driver who rescued me, and most of it was just hanging out. Sitting in restaurants of game parks on the Zambezi river, hanging out in the courtyard of the local bar watching football as people got funky with dance moves on the elevated terrace, meeting his friends for the local food (Nshima/milli pap… their mushy white staple food… chicken and cooked greens, like collards, eaten with hands), and watching the sunset. Everyone I encountered throughout my lazy days, from the changing security guards at the hostel, to Charlie’s friends, to the people I waited in line with at the grocery store greeted me like a long-lost friend, reaching out for an elaborate handshake and not letting me go without a “Shapshap (South African slang for good good). Cool runnings!” and lots of finger wiggling and palm slapping.
Livingstone felt noticeably more like Africa, but more in a “South Africa” way, as Charlie explained. It wasn’t a town that existed solely for tourism (like Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side) but there were a significant number of expats and volunteers stationed there, so you could find a variety of nice restaurants serving authentic international food, cafes with good coffee and wifi spots. It still was somewhat dysfunctional, with everyone constantly running out of cell phone airtime, or cell phone networks were down, and the power was out for 8 hours daily, on a rotating schedule for “load shedding”. But even the day that the power was out during the day at the hostel, everyone did basically the same thing they always do- lounge by the pool, reading books or outside the hostel, join locals playing checkers on boards using soda caps. With all the relaxed vibes, perfect weather (maybe 95*F during the day but it was a dry heat with cool breezes, cool nights and a nice temperature in the shade… Unfortunately, the mosquitos love this weather too) and the friendliest locals whose familiar faces you see reappearing around town, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so comfortable in a foreign place… the whole town kind of felt like summer camp.

Sunset on the Zambezi River

Sunset on the Zambezi River

Since most of Charlie’s friends were tied to tourism, I heard a lot about how drastically the number of visitors declined in the past few months. Right now should be peak visitation because the weather is perfect and dry season makes game viewing easy because the animals gather around manmade watering holes and sparse vegetation makes them easy to spot. However, the combination of the ebola scare, xenophobic violence in South Africa and terrorist attacks in Nairobi has considerably cut the visitors. It was apparent everywhere- the plane I arrived on was nearly empty, I was one of the few people staying at the hostel and we had all the nice restaurants by the riverfront almost to ourselves. I wanted to go to Chobe Game Park in Northern Botswana but they couldn’t find one other person at all five hostels in the town to join me.
After a rejuvenating few days, and waving to four elephants hanging out on the side of the road, Charlie dropped me back at the place he found me and I reverse-crossed the border. After entering the tourist town of Victoria Falls, it was an entirely different dynamic. It was also nearly abandoned and walking down the street looking at cheesy tourist restaurants and gift shops, everyone came up to me wanting to sell me tours, “show me around the town” and insisting that I come into their shops. My hostel was a village in and of itself, complete with a drum circle where they offered music lessons, several tents to house artisans at work, a restaurant, a full bar… but a place where everything cost something and the eager, extensive staff awkwardly outnumbered the guests. “Thank God, I chose to spend most of this time in Livingstone,” I thought again and again.
So here I am, regretting my decision to see East Africa with a tour group. The American who I traveled to Swaziland with raved about her trip (she did the same thing in reverse) and said she couldn’t imagine doing the trip on her own. With the rand exchange rate and the last minute discount, the trip was an absolute steal money-wise, and it’s hard to see many of the sights in Africa without hiring a driver (which gets expensive fast if you’re by yourself). But my love for travel rarely comes from seeing tourist attractions, it comes from interacting with locals, especially in more off-the-beaten path locations. So I have very mixed feelings and I’m a bit anxious about meeting the group tomorrow. I was slightly comforted when I picked up “Riding the Iron Rooster: Travels Through China” today by Paul Theroux, one of my favorite travel writers. He wrote about traveling with a group from Paris through Germany, Poland, Russia and Mongolia to his starting point in China. We’ll see how it goes.
Song of the Moment: Afunika & Chef 187- Kumalila Ngoma (Zambian song) & Dust– Tim McGraw
Book of the Moment: Riding the Iron Rooster: Travels Through China by Paul Theroux (awesome read, and it makes me feel better about going on a tour, but obviously not about Africa)
If YOU go to Livingstone: There’s a Livingstone airport that you can fly into! (It might be cheaper than Victoria Falls… I didn’t realize it was an option). If not, a combined Zimbabwe-Zambia visa costs $50 then you can go back and forth between countries. Zimbabwe accepts USD and South African Rands (but strongly prefers USD with the current exchange rates) and I’d advise getting some USD from an ATM in Zimbabwe because although Zambia has it’s own currency, they want USD for many tourist attractions. Generally, Zimbabwe and Zambia aren’t cheap- they import most of their food from South Africa so everything is more expensive, except for beer. If you’re looking for a place to stay, I’d highly recommend Livingstone Backpackers– central location, free wifi, swimming pool, rock climbing wall, HUGE library of books for bookworms like me to borrow and awesome staff. If you go, say hi to the gatekeepers for me! 😉

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