There's a tiny dot in the middle of the Zambezi River where the boundaries of four nations come together. It's called a quadripoint, or more precisely the quadripoint, as it's the only place in the world where this happens. For a brief moment, a person floating downs the Zambezi might find their left leg in Zambia, their right leg in Zimbabwe, their left arm in Namibia, and their right arm in Botswana. The moment would be brief partly because the dot is small and the current strong, but also because the river is riddled with crocodiles and someone floating in its waters would lose one of those limbs pretty quickly.
Actually, this isn't true. The crocodile part, yes; the quadripoint part, no. People can get rather silly on the subject of boundaries, on matters of my-land-your-land, and for decades the nations surrounding the quadripoint have bickered over its existence and validity. Back when South Africa claimed ownership of Namibia (then Southwest Africa), the belligerent government insisted that Namibia owned this little point, that Botswana and Zambia actually didn't share a border, and in fact that the ferry running between Botswana and Zambia was illegally trespassing South African waters. Botswana disagreed and South Africa fired bullets at the ferry. Later, the Rhodesian Army sank it.
For a while, as Namibia gained independence and diplomatic and militaristic attentions turned elsewhere, the quadripoint hovered peacefully over the Zambezi. A new ferry was built, service between Botswana and Zambia resumed, and geophiles crossing the Zambezi could revel in the wonder of transiting across the intersection of two fairly arbitrary manmade lines. But ten years ago, plans emerged to replace the ferry with a bridge. A bridge partially existing in four nations would be a burden to manage, and so Namibia and Zimbabwe graciously agreed to nudge over a bit in their respective directions, just a hundred meters or so, to make way for the new crossing. The quadripoint was torn apart into two separate trijunctions: one spot where Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia touch, and another connecting Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Namibia and Zimbabwe, former neighbors, literally drifted apart.
Anyway. There's the river and the former quadripoint and the ferry that crosses both (there is a second ferry, but it's indefinitely out of commission). Just one single rusty barge chugging back and forth across the Zambezi with less surface area than a tennis court and a miles-long queue of trucks waiting at its ports. Literally, miles. We passed them on the way in to Kazungula, all parked alongside the road, drivers bathing and cooking and socializing outside. This is the main border between Botswana and Zambia, and there's a whole lot of exports to deliver, and the barge can only accommodate a single truck at a time, maybe two. The wait here is over a week.
What about that bridge?, you may ask. Well, there is no bridge. At least not yet. Ten years since the death of the quadripoint and many more years since the recognition that a land crossing between Botswana and Zambia would definitely speed up traffic and trade, the plans to begin building the bridge are just getting finalized. For the moment, the ferry is all there is.
Thankfully, bicycles are small, nimble machines and we don't have to wait a week to cross into Zambia. Lauren, Teresie, and I ride right to the front of the line, pay a few pula for our cargo, and cross into Zambia without much fuss. The border is a little hectic, as borders often are, but within the hour we land on the other end of the Zambezi, get visas, and are on the way to Livingstone.
Botswana was flat, almost obnoxiously slow. Flat cycling (at least without a headwind) is easy work, but it's tremendously boring too. There isn't much to look at, the cadence can get monotonous, and without climbing, there's none of the thrilling, freewheeling descents that make bike riding one of the most pleasurable pursuits in the world.
Zambia is not flat. Almost immediately we are confronted with climbs, and I hardly complain. I'm almost ecstatic to be cycling uphill, which I usually find to be one of the least pleasurable pursuits in the world. The air is a tad cooler and the trees a touch livelier and though the southern of edge of Zambia doesn't feel markedly different from Botswana, it is indeed different in more subtle ways.
We turn east, and our two-month long journey into the trade winds of southern Africa resumes. We arrive in Livingstone sweaty and exhausted and check into the first spot we find, a nice shady backpackers with wifi and free pancakes at 3PM.
Livingstone is a town kept afloat by its proximity to Mosi-oa-Tunya (Occidentally known as VIctoria Falls). Mosi-oa-Tunya is a world-renowned place, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an alleged seventh wonder of the natural world. It's the largest sheet of falling water on the planet, twice the height of Niagara Falls and wider too. In Tonga, Mosi-oa-Tunya means "the Smoke that Thunders," for its explosive power can be seen and heard from miles away. (Victoria Falls, meanwhile, is named not after the waterfall's tremendous might but after the strength of British imperialism and its nineteenth-century ruler, Queen Victoria. Though Zambia has since gained independence, encased its share of the falls in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, and we all [mostly] agree that colonialism was an abhorrent practice, plenty of people still insist on calling this place a title that celebrates our imperial past. But I digress.)
Because the Zambezi divides Zambia and Zimbabwe, and because the falls cascade into the Zambezi, one can actually see Mosi-oa-Tunya from two countries. The Zimbabwe side is known for the better view, the full-frontal postcard panorama of plunging water and ephemeral mist. The Zambian side, whence the falls originate, offers more of a side angle, much closer but also less direct.
It is not a good time of year to be seeing the falls from either side. It's the very end of the dry season, long after the last runoff has left the mountains. Water levels are low and entire sections of the gorge are without water. Mosi-oa-Tunya, for the moment, is less a falling sheet of water than a series of smaller, disjointed cataracts. But we can't exactly stick around until the rains come. On our second day in Livingstone, we must decide which side of the falls to see.
Initially, we were Team Zambia. We were heading through Zambia, purchasing Zambian visas, and it seemed the more practical choice. But then we learned of a joint visa that would allow us to visit both countries for the same price as a single Zambian visa. Entrance to the park on the Zim side of the falls would cost $10 more than the Zam side, but entry to the country wouldn't cost a cent extra. Our last week in Botswana, we switched to Team Zimbabwe.
Upon crossing the Zambezi and arriving at the Zambian immigration office, we were informed that the entire country (both countries, in fact) had run out of the requisite stickers needed to issue a joint visa. We were assured this was a totally unforeseeable and insurmountable sticker shortage and that there was simply nothing to be done to grant us joint visas in absence of the official stickers. Suddenly, an excursion to Zimbabwe would cost an additional $50 each.
Fifty dollars (one hundred for the two of us) is nothing to some people and a fortune for others. Our budget lands us somewhere in the middle. And money aside, we'd now have to queue up for an hours-long immigration line into Zimbabwe. There are still plenty of reasons to visit the Zambian side: better hiking, a greater range of viewpoints and vistas, and even (in the dry season) the opportunity to walk right above the waterfall. Lauren and I find we have different priorities for our time here, and we end up on different teams.
We mull our decision over during our first two days at the backpackers and everyone has opinions. Few come to southern Africa just to see this waterfall. It's often a brief excursion tacked onto a larger trip, like watching elephants in Botswana or doing game drives in eastern Zambia. And among the backpacker set, it's viewed as a checklist item to be done expeditiously and in as pubic a manner as possible. And so these opinions are appreciated but they're also biased, biased toward optimization and photo-sharing over experience and enjoyment. Oh, you must go to the Zimbabwe side , people say, you'll get the best photographs over there.
No, forget Zimbabwe, others assert. For just $100, you can take a tour to Devil's Pool and get a photo taken of yourself lying belly-deep in water at the edge of the falls.
I just want to, like, see things and walk around. I meet a man who iives in Livingstone and is about the only person I've heard from who isn't selling something or being sold something. He tells me to skip Zimbabwe and forget about paying a guide to escort me to Devil's Pool. He says anyone with a little bit of hiking skill and common sense can find their way to the top of the falls on their own. I like doing things on my own. I ask the staff at the backpackers if this is true, if I can legally and safely walk atop the falls, and they dodge the question and equivocate and try to sell me one of their tour packages. I ask a few hostel guests who have paid the $100 to walk above the falls if I could make it there on my own, and they claim I'd most certainly be arrested or killed. I'm doubtful.
In the morning, Lauren and I agree to, after two months attached at the hip, go our respective ways, see the falls from two different countries, and compare notes over dinner. We walk together to the bridge connecting Zambia with Zimbabwe, watch a tourist bungee jump into the gorge with a GoPro attached to their face, and head in separate directions.
I hike. I enter Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and stroll about the marked trails. They offer a few different vantage points of mostly dry canyon with a thundering cloud of mist further down the way. I stop at a picnic table and eat lunch. And then I climb toward the top of the falls, veering off from the trail at a hippo skull and walking along the edge of Mosi-oa-Tunya.
It's a strange place to walk. During the wet season, the ground on which I'm standing would be a riverbed, torrents of water carrying anything in its way, like me, straight over the cliff's edge and 108 meters down into the chasm below. But in late September, it's mostly stone-dry and smooth, with otherworldly indentations and hollowed-out bowls eroded into the bedrock over hundreds of thousands of years.
There's a man up ahead. We greet each other and make small talk and he asks if I'd like a guide. I tell him I'm okay just walking on my own. It's empty up here, just me and this man, and I enjoy the tranquility. I look across the chasm to the crowds in Zimbabwe, bustling about.
The man tells me I'm not allowed up here on my own. I don't doubt that there is some truth to this. A private vendor owns the area around Devil's Pool, and there are signs warning that it is unlawful to walk to Devil's Pool without an authorized guide. But I'm not heading into Devil's Pool, just toward it. The man tells me that if I hire him as my guide, he can show me around legally. I'm certain that there is no truth to this. Unauthorized guides are just as illegal as unauthorized visitors: either not at all illegal, or maybe moderately so. I pass on the offer, which incidentally is selling for about $70. The man insists. I offer $5, mostly to end the discussion and because having an unauthorized guide claiming to be authorized could work to my advantage in the unlikely event anyone cares that either of us are up here. He agrees.
I continue my walk and he follows and we talk a little but mostly just hop from stone to stone. (I don't want to suggest that this hike atop the falls could or should be done by anyone; solid footing and comfort around uneven surfaces are essential in preventing a broken ankle or a slip over the side of Mosi-oa-Tunya.) We near Devil's Pool, the $100 tourist trap where fly-in Westerners splash momentarily in some shallow water dripping over the edge of a cliff while a guide takes their photograph before rushing them off to make room for the next group, and my guide shows me a few other naturally-occurring pools up here where I can do the exact same, for some small portion of the $5 I've paid, at my leisure.
I've seen the falls from the top and I've seen the falls from the side. Next I head down into the gorge, along a steep rocky descent, to see the falls from below. I enter a small tropical pocket along the edge of the Zambezi with verdant palm trees and brilliant flora and a gorgeous view of the river and the towering scarred walls of the surrounding canyon. It's too dry for a view of the waterfall from this angle, but I sit here for a while anyway and take in the sight.
On the return hike, I'm surrounded by a troop of a few dozen baboons who have wandered onto the trail. I'd been warned about the primates here; they're big and bold and totally unfrightened by humans. I shout a little and wave a stick at the group of them, but they just bare their teeth and go back to picking bugs out of each other's matted fur. I spend about fifteen minutes standing here, baboons in either direction, doing my best to work my way around them without getting too close. A few chase me into the bushes, but thankfully I return to the trailhead, some time later, unscathed.
Satisfied with the day's hiking and having seen all I can see from Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, I hop on my bicycle and ride the ten kilometers back to Livingstone. It's my first day of our trip riding without weighty panniers strapped to the back, and the cycling is notably quicker. I breeze by baobabs and elephants, reach the town within thirty minutes, and make it back to the hostel in time for free afternoon pancakes.
Lauren, meanwhile, is in Zimbabwe. I can't speak to her experience, but when she arrives in Livingstone a few hours later, she says the views were phenomenal (and well-worth the ninety-minute customs line). We trade enthusiastic stories, show each other what we saw, and begin to discuss the road ahead over dinner.
It is September 21 and Lauren's birthday is September 27. Between us and Zambia's capital, Lusaka, there is not a whole lot in the way of places that would make for a good birthday celebration. Lusaka is five hundred kilometers away, and it is at least feasible to imagine that we may make it there in time for the 27th. If we push ourselves.
When we wake up the next morning, Lauren's feeling too ill to push herself. We decide to stay in Livingstone one more day, depart on the 23rd, and see if we can't crank out five consecutive hundred-kilometer days to arrive in Lusaka on the 27th. This will, of course, mean pushing ourselves even harder.
We give it a try.