A portrait of Victoria Falls

JENNIFER ENNION
Last updated 09:09 06/11/2013
VictoriaFalls_Landscape
photos.com

PICTURE PERFECT: Victoria Falls' flow varies dramatically throughout the year.

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As I waddle to the pool side, my pale skin aglow, the eyes of African children, teenagers and adults follow my steps.

Despite spending a week under southern Africa's glaring sun, my skin remains ghostly.

It's a foreign shade to the families around me, who are Zimbabwean, with skin as dark as cacao.

As the children watch me approach in my bikini, they splash about giggling in the large pool.

A few men rest at the sides, their large bellies only partly submerged. A group of women is seated nearby, chatting loudly around a wooden table.

I am craving cool water to wash off the dust, sunscreen and mozzie spray buried deep in my pores.

When I hear there's a pool at Victoria Falls Rest Camp and Lodges, I make a beeline.

The water is refreshing, calming. I swim lazily past the happy children and before long they take no notice of me.

I put out of mind the slime covering the walls and floor of this aquatic haven. Hygiene is something you tend to ignore when roughing it in Africa; something you allow to melt away when confronted with harsh heat every day.

I arrived in the town of Victoria Falls hours before, having spent the past seven days traversing the dry heart of Botswana, to the south, with Intrepid Travel.

Most Westerners travel to this part of Africa to view the impressive Victoria Falls, from which the town takes its name.

The falls drop 108 metres into a narrow gorge in the Zambezi river, and can be seen from either side of the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

As beautiful as the waterfall is, I am more curious about the town that has sprung up around it.

Victoria Falls consists of two streets. On one is Victoria Falls Rest Camp and Lodges.

Here, budget travellers set up their own tents, sleep in permanent tents with single beds and lighting or crash in simple lodges, with kitchens and bathrooms.

Next to the campground is a pub that grows noisy by nightfall. Across the street are tour agencies selling jet-boat excursions ($113) and bungee jumping ($144), and fast-food outlets serving pizza, fries and ice-cream.

The other dusty artery running through town, a few hundred metres away, is lined with more tourist shops stocked with ceramic bowls, wooden salad servers, clothing and ornaments.

The souvenirs are surprisingly costly for such a poor country but are an indicator of how much this town relies on, and embraces, tourism.

Many of the souvenirs can also be bought at the local market. Walk a minute or so further down the road, cross the railway tracks and turn left.

At the end of a cluster of small buildings you'll see the first signs of the market, or at least hear the calls from the male touts.

The men can be intimidating when they harass visitors for business, so it's best for women to explore the stalls with a friend, if only for peace of mind.

But most of the men are friendly and eager to please, especially when interest in their wares is shown.

Much of the market is open-air, with rows of wooden hippos and giraffes. There are a few halls, inside which women sit in the dark among patterned fabric, jewellery and bowls.

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After a thorough search, I leave with a smiling teak hippo (you can buy a medium-sized one for between $18-$54, depending on how hard you barter).

Hippos and giraffes are the most common souvenirs, however there is a third dominant souvenir that is intriguing and unexpected. On the streets, lanky men loiter with wads of Zimbabwean dollars.

They appear to be fairly successful with selling notes, given the currency is no longer in use in the country, and that the money often sells for more than its converted worth. My fellow travellers pay between $3-$18 for a few notes each.

The Zimbabwe dollar was suspended indefinitely in April 2009 because of economic decline under President Robert Mugabe, and the US dollar is now the official currency.

Although it feels strange to not be using the country's own currency, it also seems fitting for a town so reliant on tourism. And for those tourists only popping across the border for a day or two, it's incredibly convenient.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Intrepid Travel's Okavango Experience tour starts in Johannesburg and ends at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls township is about 20 minutes' drive from Victoria Falls Airport. Airlines that fly into Victoria Falls include South African Airways, British Airways and Air Zimbabwe. Look for other deals in South Africa.

STAYING THERE: Okavango Experience is a Basix tour, meaning budget accommodation (primarily camping) and optional activities. The tour is nine days and costs about $1375 (conditions apply). For departure dates and details, visit intrepidtravel.

For more on the campground, go to vicfallsrestcamp.

PLAYING THERE: The official currency in Zimbabwe is the US dollar. An ATM is near the markets in Victoria Falls.

New Zealanders need a visa to enter Zimbabwe, and they can be purchased on arrival at the Kazungula road border crossing from Botswana. They cost about US$30 ($36) for a single entry visa and you will need American dollars in cash.

Safetravel.govt.nz currently advises visitors to Zimbabwe to exercise a high degree of caution due to the risk of crime and the potential for civil unrest and political violence.

The level of HIV/AIDS infection in Zimbabwe is very high, and travellers should be vaccinated against typhoid.

 The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel.

- AAP

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