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Pole to Pole

Day 115: Livingstone

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleA half-mile walk through the well-watered gardens of the hotel takes me out onto the Upstream Trail which leads to the placid waters of the Zambesi as they flow gently, this being the dry season, towards a 250-foot precipice. In March and April the river floods and, as the brochure describes it, 'the greatest known curtain of falling water', one mile wide, spills into this massive split in the basalt rock, formed by cooling volcanic lava.

I walk, unhampered by fences or warnings of any kind, across a river-bed, sculpted by the action of stone and water into a weird and wonderful honeycomb of bore-holes and clefts and pipes and basins, to the very edge of the falls, where what is left of the river makes its way innocently towards the void. Defying stomach-tightening vertigo, I stand as close as possible to the rim and peer over. Far, far below the falling streams accelerate into an inferno, smashing against the fissured black rock which streams with foam as the water is flung forwards, repulsed and hurled back again at the cliff. The spray that is the debris from this massive collision of rock and water is flung in all directions, blown by its own momentum skywards, way above the top of the gorge. In the flood season this cloud - 'the smoke that thunders' - can be seen twenty miles away, and it was this that drew Livingstone to the falls in 1855, apparently the first white man to set eyes on them. As I turn back, reluctantly, to pick my way home across the river-bed, I appreciate for once the laid-back, shambolic arbitrariness of Zambia, which has allowed me, with no fuss or bother, unhindered access to this gigantic, enthralling sight.

It even enables me to accept, without chewing the carpet, the news that my bags have been located and have reached Lusaka airport, but have not been put on a plane.

I can't wear my T-shirt in this state for a third day, so I soak it, wash it and go down to dinner dressed in clothes Basil has lent me. It is fish night in the restaurant and all the waiters are dressed in straw hats.

Jake asks where the fish is from.

'America!' is the happy reply.

'America? How does it get here?'

'By sea . . . '
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 115
  • Country/sea: Zambia
  • Place: Livingstone
  • Book page no: 256

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