The Devil’s In The Details
“Do you know,” said the elderly woman at the edge of the Victoria Falls, “that the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel was a woman?” I looked at her carefully. She didn’t have a barrel with her and this wasn’t Niagara, but she had the air of someone pondering a big decision.
I peered over the edge with her, at how the calm, dark Zambezi dawdles wide and shallow and then falls away in a sudden white vertiginous thunder – Mosi-oa-Tunya – that makes your heart hammer in your chest. “She survived,” said the old lady, frowning at the chasm. “But I don’t think she would have survived this.”
I think she’s right. You can see the Falls from a long way away, long before you ever spy a drop of flowing or falling water. The spray rises like the smoke of a canyon fire, a column of white in a sky so flawless and blue it seems carved from stone, looking something like the great pillar of cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt. Up close, the Falls are breathtaking, primally satisfying, so much more like a waterfall should look than any other waterfall I’ve seen. Niagara, Iguazu – by comparison they’re like the overflow in a bathtub when someone slightly too large gets in.
There’s a story that when the railway bridge was built across the Batoka Gorge, Cecil Rhodes ordered that it be placed close enough to Victoria Falls so the spray would dapple the carriage windows to delight the passengers as they completed the long haul up from Cape Town. We weren’t in a railway carriage, we were at the lookout point in the mist-forest on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls, and I wasn’t dappled, I was drenched.
I walked the old lady back along the dirt track to The Victoria Falls Hotel. She had visited when she was small, travelling the world with her diplomat father and mother, and now she was taking a last tour of the places she’d most loved as a girl. She was scheduled to move on soon, but she thought she might change her schedule and stay for a while. “I feel younger here somehow,” she said. “I feel more alive. Do you know what I mean?”
I did know what she meant. Perhaps it’s something to do with altitude or ionisation but the air at Vic Falls has a higher octane. Even on a hot, drowsy day when the sun falls heavy on the dark-green bush and the high hawks are only lazy, black, slow-wheeling specks, there is something otherworldly and energising about being there.
I walked from the hotel back to the river to find the Big Tree, the 24-metre tall baobab, 22 metres in circumference, where David Livingstone carved his initials in 1855 after paddling down the Zambezi in his dug-out mokoro. As I walked through close bush, I heard a rustling and stopped to let a buffalo bull cross in front of me. Afterwards I couldn’t decide if it had been real or if I had dreamed it.
The next day I went rafting down the Zambezi. The walls of the gorge climbed sheer on either side, so steep in places that they blotted out the sun. The rapids were strong and had fearsome names – the Muncher, Gnashing Jaws of Death, the Terminator, Oblivion, the Devil’s Toilet Bowl – and I held on through each assault, muscled and knuckled it through the rocks and white water. I made it through each time, and each time, as we turned gratefully into the flat waters and spun with slow grace like a leaf in the gentle eddies between the drops, that’s when I relaxed and fell like an imbecile backwards into the river. This happened not once or twice: this happened three times, until I was finally so embarrassed that I considered swimming the rest of the way.
“You made it through the hard times and fell over in the calm spaces in between?” said the old lady that night when I told her about it. “That sounds a lot like life.”
The devil comes up a lot at Vic Falls. There’s the Devil’s Cataract on the Zim side, and the Devil’s Pool at Livingstone Island near the Zambian side, where in the dry summer months you can swim right up to the edge and cling to the natural rock lip of the 100-metre drop and try not to faint with vertigo and terror. I met a barman in the hotel who told me that his grandfather had seen the devil one night at the jetty at Jungle Junction, where the BOAC Short Solent flying boats used to moor on their long journey between Southampton and Cairo and the Vaal Dam. I thought about the devil as I stood at the bungee platform halfway across the railway bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“Go on,” said the bungee operator. “Give it a try. It’s very safe.”
I imagine that’s what the devil would say when he comes tapping on your window in the small hours of the morning with a contract for you to sign. I watched as American college girls on gap years jumped screaming off the platform, plunging toward the silver-green river where it swirls through, all dazed and stunned from the fall down the side of the continent.
I have never bungee jumped. I don’t like heights. That morning when I’d taken a helicopter flight over the Falls, I’d looked down through the glass bottom of the helicopter and seen the shallows and islands of the upper river, with its ilala palms and hippos and crocodiles, and I’d seen the titanium churn of the cataracts and I’d tried to tell myself that we wouldn’t drop out of the sky, that everything was smooth and calm. Then I’d remembered that those were precisely the conditions in which I kept falling out the raft.
“Come on!” said the bungee guy. “You’ve come all the way here. Give it a try.”
That evening I sat with the old lady on the lawn of the hotel as the blue shadows lengthened and the rainbirds called from the cloudforest and the sky turned a bright beaten gold. We sipped pink gins, and I told her I was feeling guilty that I hadn’t jumped.
She nodded and sipped her drink and asked me what I had done instead of jumping.
I told her that I had taken a walk and I had sat on a rock over the gorge and I had watched the river and I had thought about things, about decisions and destinies. I had seen a python in a tree and I had spoken to the barman whose granddad had seen the devil. I had read a book in the shade of a sausage tree and sat with the old lady in the cool of the afternoon and shared a pink gin and spoken about life and watched the sunset.
“Well,” she said, “when faced with a difficult decision, I always say choose the bigger life.”
“I think I did,” I said, and she smiled and placed her hand on my arm.