Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
My coworker Teresa was the first person to draw my attention to Devil’s Pool at Victoria Falls, the infamous swimming hole on the edge of the waterfall that some call the world’s “ultimate infinity pool.” It was four or five years ago, and we were having one of those water-cooler conversations. As soon as I got back to my office I googled for images of the Devil’s Pool. And as soon as I saw it I decided that one day I would go there.
And finally I have.
From Nairobi I flew into Lusaka, Zambia’s nondescript capital. From the airport, at 2:45am, I shared a taxi with a Nigerian man to Lusaka’s Inter-City Bus Terminal. At 6:30 the bus left for the dusty eight-hour ride to Livingstone, the town on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls named after the famed missionary-explorer.
I had made preciously little plans before coming this way. Nothing really other than booking a room. But I had heard that, quite reasonably, one needed a guide to go to Devil’s Pool. So the next morning I went straight to the park area of the Falls. “I want to go to Devil’s Pool,” I said to the guard. “How do I do that?” He directed me back to the ticket office where, aside from the main ticket counter, two women sat waiting for customers.
I asked about booking a spot on the guided trip to Devil’s Pool. The women equivocated. It was 10 o’clock. The next tour would be at 11:15, but it was fully booked, or supposed to be. Come back at 11, they said, and see if anyone might fail to show up. Otherwise I’d have to go on the 2:15 tour.
I took the trail out toward Victoria Bridge, the 1905 feat of engineering spanning the gorge, before getting back to the ticket office before 11. A trio of young Italian women had shown up. A few minutes later a trio of young Danish women appeared in a taxi. I asked who else we were waiting for, as it was supposed to be a group of eight. After a quick phone call the ladies in the office explained to me that the two final guests were crossing the Zimbabwean border as we spoke, and that we had to give them five more minutes before I took their place. I would later find out how wildly optimistic the five-minute estimate was.
Meanwhile the six European women went ahead with a guide without me. At 11:05 I was finally allowed the privilege to pay $75 and join the group. Another guide now walked with me in the Europeans’ footsteps. “No problem,” he kept saying. “We’ll catch up.” Indeed we did. The Danes were backpackers ready to rough it. But the Italians were package tourists, and two of them negotiated the rocks under their feet slowly and awkwardly.
The rocks, my guide explained, would all be under water in wet season. Indeed we were walking along what is called the Eastern Cataracts. This is why Devil’s Pool is only opened now during dry season, when it’s accessible and the water levels aren’t so high as to make swimming in it impossibly dangerous. The catch-22 of Victoria Falls is that in dry season the Falls are also less impressive, with large stretches nothing but bare rocks.
The two guides and the seven of us arrived at a strong box. We got changed and put our belongings in the box. From here we jumped into the water—we’d have to swim across one pool to get to the other. The water was shallow enough in places that I kicked a few rocks. On the other side we climbed back on land and found ourselves standing on the edge of the very Devil’s Pool we’d all come to experience.
“Okay, this is what we’re going to do,” one of the guides said. “Go into the water in the groups you came with. The first group, go there,” he pointed at the precipice. “The others, wait over there,” he pointed at a corner of the Pool to the left.
The Italians went first while the Danes and I huddled in the corner. As soon as we got in the water we discovered that little fish bit at our heels. Now we kicked our feet in the water to fend them off. One of the guides now stayed with whomever was at the precipice, making sure that they didn’t slip over the edge and fall to certain death. The other stayed onshore and took photos for us.
As I was all by my lonesome, I was the last to get a turn at the precipice. It had been terrifying standing on the water’s edge looking down, but once we got in the Pool the fear dissipated, and the place felt like any other swimming hole. Now that I was at the precipice, I lay with my stomach on the rocks and stuck my head out into space, and somehow it didn’t feel like such a crazy thing to do. It was a straight drop to the bottom where the water crashed into white foams. But between me and death was a rainbow, brilliant and carefree. And it made me forget to be afraid.
After Devil’s Pool I hiked around the remainder of the park. But in dry season most of the water was on the Zimbabwean side. So now I resolved to go see it from the other side. I exited Zambian immigration and crossed Victorian Bridge, just in time to see a young woman bungee jump its 111-meter height. At Zimbabwean immigration I had to wait over an hour and pay $30 to be allowed in for the afternoon. The visa also took up a whole page in my passport, which, in light of my dwindling blank pages, made me wince.
But the Zimbabwean side of the Falls indeed proved a far more impressive sight than the Zambian side. The vast cascade, even now in its diminished form, equalled anything in Iguazu in South America or Niagara in North America. In wet season, in all its glory, Victoria Falls would easily exceed either of those rivals. And from there I could see the latest cohort of visitors braving the water of Devil’s Pool. So this was what I looked like that morning.
It’s unfortunate that it’s impossible to have the best of both worlds at Victoria Falls at the same time. I suppose that just means that I’ll have to go again.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."