Life on Edge
Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
165Trip End Ongoing
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"You see on the left. There is a rock. Do not jump there."
"There, in the middle, by the bubbles. Jump there."
It was about 9:30 in the morning and I was standing on the edge of Victoria Falls. Livingstone Island (so named because it was where the explorer David Livingstone first laid eyes on the falls) sits right against the edge of the abyss. During the high water of the rainy season, most of the island is covered in water that rushes towards a 1.7 kilometre wide, 100 metre deep drop and creates a curtain of mist visible for kilometres. During the dry season, it was possible to take a boat out to the island for a leisurely breakfast, and walk around the island snapping photos. If you were courageous, or particularly stupid, you could wade and swim across the rushing current trying to drag you over the falls to a pool where you could jump in and paddle about merrily, about 3 feet from certain death. While not particularly courageous, I did have the advantage of being remarkable stupid, so I decided to do it.
There was a mother and father with their seven year old son who came along to the island. While not willing to risk the trip themselves, they were more than happy to send little Kyle out to the falls edge on the back of a guide. At least there were people more stupid than me (or maybe the fact they didn't go, but sent their child made them smart. Being childless myself, I'll have to ask some friends.)
We stepped from rock to rock in chest deep water, and then the guide said "You see those rocks. Swim there. Try not to let the current take you too far." Like over the edge of the falls, for example.
Now, I am a reasonably strong swimmer, not a pretty one, but functional. Thanks to help of the older kids at the campground where I spent my summers as a child, I learned to swim from an interesting system called "We throw you into the deep end. You swim or you die." That was the extent of any lessons I ever had. Having said that, I swear to you, when I set off into the current towards those rocks, I was swimming so hard I could have swam UP the entire 100 metre drop from the bottom of the falls.
From the rocks, it was a short walk to a ledge overlooking a small pool that backed directly onto the edge of the falls. It was here our guide gave me instructions. I noticed a small group of people about 100 metres across the chasm on the Zimbabwean side. At least I would have witnesses who could tell my family that I died as I lived: like an idiot.
As I surfaced, one the guides who had jumped before me clapped his hands and then grabbed me. He dragged me over the wall separating us from the drop. The water rushed over us with a strong current, but leaning against the wall of the pool, we happily sat there, about a metre from sheer death. It was nice. Being alive was nice. Not shitting my shorts was nice. Everything was nice.
"Would you like to look over the edge?"
I wasn't sure that would be so nice.
"I will hold your ankles. You crawl out over the edge. Stick your hands over. Look down."
Fortunately, my capacity for stupidity seems to consistently outweigh my capacity for self preservation. I said "Sure strange man I've know for ten minutes, hold my ankles while I crawl out to face certain death. If it's not too much of an inconvenience, please don't let go."
Actually, I kind of laughed weakly and said "Okay."
For a year now I have been traveling through the Middle East and Africa. I have seen and done some incredible things. But there is no question that one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced was leaning out over the edge of Victoria Falls and gazing down into the chasm below. A rainbow started from floor of the chasm and lifted into the sky above. Water roared over the edge to my left and right as far as I could see. It was one of the most elemental moments I've ever had. Nature had carved out this rift in the earth's crust through the sheer, unrelenting force of pounding water. The force of the water hurling off the rim pounded in my chest. The sound roared in my ears, and I felt alive.
Then I waded back to the island to eat my breakfast like a civilized man. Eggs Benedict, with scones and jam. And it was very nice.