"What's the matter with his ears? I don't see nothin' wrong with 'em. I think they're cute."
"Hot diggety! You're flying! You're flying!"
-Timothy Q. Mouse in Dumbo
A shuttle van met us in front of Jollyboys at 6 AM. I was drowsy from aggregate sleep deprivation and mild deet intoxication. As we left Livingstone, the roads quickly became narrow and bumpy. My head bobbled between the seat and the window as the sun rose, and my Pixar "Cars" kids sunglasses shaded my eyes to aid rest. A few middle-aged American women shared the shuttle with us. They were on some kind of business trip, and rather chatty. The driver braked, let us out, while the chatty women continued onto something called "Lion Encounter." I had an underlying hope that the result of their encounter would somehow mute them permanently.
Rob, Karen, Nick and I walked over to some chairs and a table set in dewy green grass beside the Zambezi river. We signed in, sat, sipped coffee as the main guide went through the safety protocols. After a quick bathroom call, it was time. In a shady dirt clearing beside a 15 ft high wooden staircase, we waited for a long quiet minute. Then, mounted by men, out from the Zambian wilds, ten beasts came forth-- African Elephants, grey and mighty, pressing the earth with heavy steps. The lead guide halted the parade. The elephants formed a semi-circle around us, then the guide asked us to point to which one we wanted to ride. Rob and I, of course, picked out the largest in the herd. His name was Danny. Danny was comparatively reddish in color, and kind of tatty. Examining his rough skin I observed sporadic patches of hair and some wedges removed from his floppy ears. He had a few warts on his skin that looked like cantaloupe halves. Rob and I climbed the staircase to mount Danny. My legs spread across the padded saddle stretching my groin beyond its comfort zone. A kind Zimbabwean man joined us atop Danny, helped us find some balance and get our feet in the metal stirrups. Soon Nick and Karen were perched on their elephant, Matinda, and the beasts walked single file into the wild.
We led the way since Danny was the biggest. He stood about eleven feet tall. Add my three foot torso and we were 14 feet above the ground, cruising right through the treetops. Overall, Danny's stride was quite smooth, but since I was sitting in a split position, even the slightest jerk was magnified. It was easy to ignore the discomfort though, because goddam we were riding the grandest land animal on the planet! The whole time I found it difficult to fathom the fact we were riding a living creature with an independent brain. The best reminder that Danny was an animal just like us was his insatiable appetite. Danny was always hungry. Without breaking stride, his trunk would, without warning, shoot out to the side, curl around a thick branch, snap, rip it, bring it to his mouth. Then he would chew for the next 50 meters, or until he'd swallowed all his piece of tree. Trees and vegetation are mostly fiber, which goes right through the elephant digestive system, so they must compensate by eating an obscene amount each day--300 to 600 lbs! This also means that elephants probably poop about 300 to 600 lbs each day. Yes, we saw some big droppings.
As we rode, I touched Danny's skin. It felt like there was a one-inch callous all over. When I pushed with my finger, the whole section around my finger went inward instead of just where my finger was. Sometimes Danny would rest his moistened trunk on top of his head, probably with the hope the Zimbabwean man would feed him. When Danny did this, the opening of his trunk pointed right at me, so I received periodic blasts of stinky air in the face. I didn't mind it too much. Danny was easy to forgive since we was a well-behaved, smart, and peaceful elephant. His personality reminded me of the tall weirdo on the playground in middle school that no one got too close to, but everyone respected, whether they cared to admit it or not. Danny was an easy-going, independent thinker--kind of like Napolean Dynamite.
In a sunny clearing Danny cast a massive shadow with three humps on his back (the Zimbabwean, me, and Rob). Ahead we saw a herd of Springbok. They scrammed into the brush when our parade came through. Soon the path went alongside the muddy Zambezi riverbanks, leaving behind frisbee-sized footprints with toe contours. Rob and I watched Nick and Karen's elephant go in for a drink followed by a few baby elephants. Across the river we could see Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean riding Danny with us mentioned how he comes over to Zambia to work, and then goes back home to Zimbabwe where his family lives. The line of elephants tore through the woods toward the wooden staircase from whence we came, Rob and I ducking tree branches along the way.
When we returned, we dismounted via the staircase, then had a few minutes to take pictures, interact with, and feed our respective elephants. Danny sat down and put out his trunk, a lot like a kid holds out their trick-or-treat bag. Rob and I took turns grabbing handfuls of wheatmeal pellets from a burlap bag and put them in Danny's trunk. When I did this, I looked at Danny in the eye. He seemed old, wise, and thankful. If Danny wanted to, he could've mauled us with his hard white tusks or squashed us like watermelons, but he did not. The guide told us they rarely have to resort to rifles, just one or two times per year, to tame the grey giants. After the feeding, we waved goodbye to Danny and the others and watched them march, tails swinging freely, back into the jungle. They had earned some "wild time" after a good hard hour of porting humans around.
We sat at a long table for a nice hearty breakfast: Eggs, bacon, and toast, with a choice of juice. The tourists we sat with were mostly Americans on business or vacation. I spoke with a man from Colorado working in the mining industry. Said he loved how his job allowed him to travel. After breakfast, we watched the video of our elephant ride with Toto's "Africa" as the music. The video was nice, but we had already captured the moment just as well with our own cameras, so we did not make the purchase. We waited for the shuttle van to come pick us up. Meantime, Nick and I chased a little white monkey into a slanted tree along the river bank. In the distance, just above the treeline, we watched a rising cloud-swirl ascend to the heavens. The holy torrents of Victoria Falls were stirring a mere eight kilometers away.
The shuttle van, void of those chatty women (maybe a lion was fed?), pulled up. The driver agreed to drop us off at Victoria Falls instead of Jollyboys, sparing us valuable time. He let us out at a paved lot full of vendors. A wild "marimba man" provided a clangy soundtrack while we roamed the premises. Decorative cloths and jewelry hung from the makeshift roofs while an assortment of carved statues rose up from the ground. It was like entering a cave with stalactites and stalagmites. A second, more sedate marimba man called out to us as he played, asking us to buy a marimba. We walked over, Nick gestured, and the man handed him the mallets. He played a wicked smooth rain dance tune that won the ears of many. When we continued on our way, the man called out to us, "Hey, you come back soon, you remember my name is Stephen!"
We went to a small booth to pay an entry cost to see the all-powerful falls. When we saw a rack of shoddy ponchos for rent along the stone walkway we decided to take a moment to shift around our H2O-vulnerable items. We also went to a restroom to change into swimsuits before moving on. At the edge of a stone cliffside stairwell, there was a gap in the canopy. Behold! Mighty Victoria! A dangerous, unrestrained, uncontained, raging ocean of fury. We peered over the iron bannister and posed for pictures which were conveniently cropped by some hanging branches. Then we carefully bagged our cameras and started down the stairwell, into the vapor hurricane. Since it was the wet season, the total water accumulation was to the max--Vic falls flowed full force. And this hydroforce would spray gallons upon gallons of water back up into the air, creating some crazy acute weather changes. One minute it would be calm and pleasant. The next minute you'd get slapped in the mouth with a bucket of water. In no time we were drenched. I plodded along the puddly path, hunched over my bag of belongings trying keep them dry, but it was futile. Soon we came to small bridge, positioned in the thick of the storm, connecting two bare cliffs. We breathed deep, then walked the plank. The cold hard splashes, swimmer's ear, and bouts of perceived drowning were small sacrifices; we were getting closer to God.
Suddenly, standing soaked in the center of the bridge, came a fleeting moment of peace. The roar of the falls seemed to fade to the background. I lifted my head out of my hunch to see white cream pouring over black chocolate in a jungle of green lettuce. Looking down off the bridge glowing color stripes appeared, and my eyes followed it until I had spun in a full pirouette. This wasn't a rainbow. This was a rainhalo. And just as my lips bent into a cheshire smile, a gust of chubby water pellets brought me back to awareness. But, man, no amount of wind or water could wash off this grin. It was like I had just looked up Victoria's dress.
We retreated from the bridge to the next cliff and then ducked into the forest for some cover. The paths were mostly vacant, but occasionally we saw other folks. For example, we saw a pair of pale, male, shirtless, beer-gutted (you guessed it) Americans. We saw a few retired European couples, moving all slow and casual, checking off one of the "one thousand places to see before you die." We also saw some native Zambians visiting their backyard natural wonder of the world. One Zambian teenager asked to have his picture taken with us. Having a picture with four young white tourists was way cool. It undoubtedly made his day, perhaps his week.
We stopped at a lookout point a good distance from Victoria's vapor. We recuperated there. I removed my supersaturated shirt to get warm, and wrung it out. Meanwhile, we watched people jump from the great Victoria Falls bridge, the third highest jump in the world. From afar, it looked terrifying. I thought those bungee stunt people were insane. I wanted nothing to do with it. But Nick, Karen, and Rob thought it looked fun. They wanted the adventure, they wanted the rush. So, without further delay, we gathered our bags, and retraced our steps along the forest path, over the rainhalo bridge, back up the stone stairwell. In the vendor lot, a young black man approached us. He said he was from Zimbabwe. He wanted to sell us some hand-carved hippo and rhino statues. When we told him we weren't interested, he still lingered, so we mentioned the bungee jump to him, and he was delighted (just like the boy who led us to Jollyboys) to show us the way. We waved to Stephen, the marimba vendor, when we passed him and ambled down a broken road toward Victoria Falls bridge.
It happened so fast. Before I could mull it over, I had already handed over my money (and my life) to the Zambezi Adrenaline Company (ZAC). I blame peer pressure for this. I also blame ZAC's three for the price of one deal. Bungee jump, gorge swing, zip line. All for one irresistable price. The ZAC workers weighed us and scribbled our respective weights in kilos on our inner forearms with a red marker. My nerves hummed from deep within as our stunt quartet neared the bridge platform. The bridge was alive with a crowd of onlookers, pulleys, and dangling ZAC workers supported by ropes, harnesses, and carabiners. ZAC was in a hurry. They wanted to get our jumps in before their lunch break at 1:00pm. It was high noon. 111 meters high, to be exact.
The jump order was chosen arbitrarily by ZAC. Nick was first. He was shirtless. ZAC dressed him with a harness. They wrapped his ankles with towels, for comfort, then tied on a thick rubber cord. Nick stood up. He bunny-hopped to to the edge. Unsympathetically, without pause, the ZAC workers shouted: FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! BUNGEE! And Nick was gone. Karen was videotaping, watching her beau bounce n' bop like a rag doll beneath the bridge. Meanwhile, ZAC held me captive in a jewel-constricting harness. I was on deck.
On the platform, a young ZAC worker coached me as he wrapped layers of towels around my ankles. He said to just relax, hold my arms out, and most importantly, don't look down. After riding the largest land creature, and skirting the largest water feature, I was feeling quite insignificant. "I'm nothing. I don't matter. See this big animal. See this big waterfall. I don't matter." This realization, along with ZAC's advertised "100% safety!" rating, made it slightly easier for me to toss my body into the gorge. I jumped somewhere between "ONE" and "BUNGEE." I was, in the words of Tom Petty,
"F r e e e e e! . . . f r e e f a a a l l i n!"
Soaring headfirst into the gorge, I did not scream. The closer I got to the rushing water, the wider my grin became. The four full seconds of freefall were windy and long, then I sensed the stretch, which gradually slowed my fall to a halt. At the bottom there was a moment of trememdous tension between Isaac Newton and the Bungee and the discomfort concentrated in the tip of my head. The halt was short-lived. And I was slingshotted back out of the gorge 30 stories into the air. I lost all bearings. My body floppity flopped. Up and down became the same dizzying direction. After a good many bounces, I leveled out and hung. I felt my ankles start to slip through the towels so I flexed my feet and did an inverted sit-up to grab the bungee. I was hanging for so goddam long and I was so goddam disoriented. Then a ZAC worker slid down a rope to the rescue, and clipped me in. Together we maneuvered to the underbelly of the bridge, and he let me off on a steel-clad walkway with a railing. I climbed some stairs, opened a hatch, and was back up on the bridge.
And I was mobbed by a group of sellers. I thought to myself, "these guys know I just jumped, they know I'm disoriented, they know my judgement is out of whack--Andy, you mustn't buy a thing." Though one macho guy in the group impressed me by rhythmically reciting the names of all 44 presidents in order. When he finished, he kept saying "Obama!" over and over. Obama, the first African American president, had been inaugurated 18 days earlier. I ignored the sellers and got to the jumping platform just in time for Karen's jump. I snatched up the digital camera and started a movie. Karen made a mistake. She looked down. She stood on the edge trembling with fear, and I shouted that it would all be OK. When ZAC counted down, she didn't jump. So ZAC counted down again, and Karen, instead of jumping, leaned slowly forward until gravity took her. She screamed the whole way down and all through the first bounce.
It was time for my gorge swing. I put on a new harness and walked onto the small metal gorge swinging platform. The gorge swing is the same height as the bungee jump. The main difference is that you fall feet first, not head first, and enter an arcing swing, not a chaotic bouncing frenzy. On the platform, a ZAC worker told me to grab the rope and NOT to jump out or I would snap my neck. Instead of jumping out, he said I should "step off," and while he was saying this, shit shit shit! It was too late. I had looked down. After a lot of hesitation, the ZAC worker, while lending me a steady nudge, told me to "STEP OFF". The first half of the fall my feet were doing some kind of manic air pedal, then my groin straps tightened. The pain was bearable, and the pleasure of flying through Victoria Falls gorge, a sweet sweet miracle. Being right-side-up, I could see it all. Letting out a joyous "whoop!" I pumped my right arm above my head like twirling a lasso. ZAC retrieved me in time to see Rob's gorge swing. Rob let out a loud chesty howl, his legs flailing searching for solid ground. Rob may have had a tad too much hop in his "step off." When ZAC pulled him out of the gorge, he had two purple spots on his neck. Some blood vessels had burst. Rob was OK. When we convened on the bridge afterwards we saw that Karen, too, had some red spots on her cheeks from ruptured capillaries. We done some extreme shit, man.
Meanwhile the sellers on the bridge persisted. We were Americans with money of value. They were Zimbabweans with money of no value. But, for souvenirsake, we made the trade. I bought a set of $100 million, $10 billion, $20 billion, and $50 billion dollar bills. Only after the transaction did I realize my seller had omitted the grand $50 trillion dollar bill. But no matter since Karen, Nick, and Rob got a few. (Zimbabwe's currency was featured on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart shortly after we got back. He joked how Zimbabwe's economy was so bad that the conversion rate was $50 trillion ZIM dollars for about 33 US cents.) Nick also picked up four necklaces each with a pointy black spirally medallion. The medallion represents the spirit and God of Victoria Falls. We walked back to the Zambian side of the bridge to the ZAC headquarters escaping the sellers and the hot afternoon sun. We drank bottled water and sat at a wooden table. The ZAC men enjoyed lunch.
During the break I found a couch positioned in front of a movie screen. ZAC had filmed our jumps! The main camera angle was from the edge of the gorge, zoomed all the way in on the bridge. When they played the footage of our jumps in sequence, we were sold. While they edited the videos for us, we got ready for part three of the ZAC trifecta: the zipline. The zip from Zam to Zim. I went first. I dangled from the line in my harness for a minute, was given a go, shouted "I'M GOIN TO ZIMBABWE!!" My voice trailed and I was off like a shot. Hanging halfway, high above the green gorge with the brown river running below, the wind cooling my face, time and the zipline seemed to slow down. I was in love with the world.
A ZAC worker caught me, brought me to the bridge, then I had no choice but to step briefly into Zimbabwe. After the others made their peace with the world along the zipline, we took some pictures with the "You Are Now Entering Zimbabwe" sign. Back at the ZAC headquarters, we bought our completed bungee videos. Our original friend who had first led us to ZAC lingered still. Rob bought his hand-carved hippos and rhinos. As we tried to leave, a Zim boy approached me attempting to sell some carved wooden masks. Earlier, I accidentally broke my plastic Pixar "Cars" kids sunglasses, so I offered them to him, perhaps in exchange for a mask. The boy put the sunglasses in his breast pocket. When I said I'd buy a mask he explained that they must be bought in a set of two. I didn't want a set of two. I didn't even want the one mask. When I moved to put my money away, he threw me the one mask and snatched the paper bills from my hand. He didn't take all that much. I see it as a donation to his destitute village. Today I honestly can't look at the wooden mask without thinking of the desperation on that poor kid's face.
We haggled for a cheap taxi back to Jollyboys. Tired and high from the morning adventures, we immediately put in orders at the bar. I ordered an eggs & toast budget breakfast with my beer and we sat around the pool. Another beer. Soon Karen brought an important point to our attention. How are we gonna get out of here tomorrow? When's the next bus leave? Where do we catch it? Soon the four of us were out roaming the crowded streets of Livingstone searching for some kind of bus stop. Old women were selling fresh (and rotten) fruit along the sidewalks. We came upon a dirt field crowded with busy people and blue vans. I was damn nervous and made it my duty to adhere to my friends. Nick and Karen talked to people, gradually piecing together some information. After an hour or so, we arrived at a family-run bus kiosk. There we learned that buses left something like once every 12 hours. The next departure was at 3 AM. Waiting for a bus in the middle of the night in the middle of the city is dangerous. We really had no other options. That would be our bus.
We lounged at Jollyboys until dinnertime when we opted to go out and find a joint called "Fezbar". We had a hell of a time finding it. The creeping darkness of the night didn't help either. The tiny, misproportioned Jollyboys map we were using led us into an eerily quiet neighborhood, so we backtracked, made some more wrong turns and asked a couple schoolkids for directions. They never said a word. Just nodded and led the way. We trusted them. In the dark they took us between buildings, through yards, around fences. After a long minute or two, we stood in the lights of the Fezbar restaurant. Nick tipped the schoolkids kindly and they scurried off into the darkness. The Fezbar was empty. There were cushioned benches all around the edge of the high ceiling room. It had some party potential, but no party tonight. The four of us sat alone at a bar table in the middle of the floor. We ordered Sprites, Cokes, and Fantas to drink. To eat, Rob, Karen, and Nick all ordered cranberry, brie, and bacon sandwiches. I ordered a ham & cheese. From our table we sat patiently, tracking the progress of the two clowns in the kitchen. When the sandwiches finally came, we were disappointed. The sandwich bread was stale. And the four sandwiches were all the same. Four ham & cheeses.
Back at Jollyboys Nick and Karen reminded Rob and I to set our alarms to catch the 3 AM bus. Nick announced that he wasn't going to bother sleeping and invited Rob and I for a swim. We respectfully declined. Rob and I shared our eight person dorm room with two very attractive blond Swedish girls and a merry man who called himself "Broo". Against the wall next to Broo was a little old guitar. I asked if he played. He said he didn't know how, just liked having one, and asked if I played. When I said yes, he extended the instrument across the room to me. It was out of tune. While I was tuning it Broo asked me if I knew any Bob Dylan. So I played "Blowin' in the Wind." Then I played Springsteen's "Growin' Up." Then my own song, "Alice Lenanyokie." Broo and the girls loved it! Finally I played my most popular original, "The Coffee Song". Turns out Broo owns a coffeeshop in Zanzibar. Afterwards, we exchanged emails and he asked if I could send him a recording. I put the guitar down and asked the girls what they were doing in Zambia. They each said they've completed their Master's Degrees in Ecology and were spending some time in Zanzibar with Broo doing a ton of scuba diving. Now they were travelling around the continent. Rob and I told them we were from New Jersey in the United States and that we both graduated from college majoring in Biology. We talked a little about the Green Movement and agreed that we would each do our part to rescue the planet. We wished them well, said goodnight, shut out the light. Our bus was scheduled to leave Livingstone in just three hours.