The smoke that thunders

After settling in at the dusty dirty town of Victoria Falls, we planned the following day’s activity at reception before heading out to the falls for the afternoon. The group decided to splurge out and book a 15-minute helicopter ride the next day. Expensive but unmissable. I managed to Skype Benison before heading out to the falls.

‘We’re in Zimbabwe.’


‘At Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe side.’

‘I didn’t know you were going there. Be careful.’

‘Actually we are going on a helicopter ride over the falls tomorrow.’


Victoria Falls, by far the largest waterfall on the planet, was a planned highlight of our trip. We’ve been in Africa over two months now, but the moment of its first sighting seemed to rush up on us, like the broad and mighty Zambezi rushed up on the nearly two kilometre long gaping chasm in the Earth’s surface, over and into which a million litres of water plummet every second.

The water falling over the one hundred metre clean drop, which we were seeing just off the peak of the Zambezi’s flood season, created a roar that you had to shout over, a force that literally thumped and hit you in the chest, and a beauty, that as Livingstone described in 1855, was ‘so lovely (it) must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.

We looked and listened, felt and smelt the falls. I was in awe, Sam was too, we all were. You couldn’t help it.

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Cruising along the cliff line opposite the falls, the viewing points became progressively wetter and Sam became progressively more bored. He liked the falls, but he wanted out. I made a deal; half a bonus point for the day if he completed the whole five kilometre walk and went to all the lookouts.

‘Make it a whole bonus point.’

‘Half is plenty. All you have to do is walk, that’s not hard.’

‘Half a point is weird and odd. Let’s round it up to a whole point.’

He wore me down and I relented. A whole bonus point it was. As we exited the mist and rain from the falls and re-entered the sunlight of Zim, now soaked to the bone, we visited the last viewing point, which looked over Victoria Falls Bridge, spanning the second gorge.  Seizing the opportunity, Sam took off back up the path we had just come down. I half jogged after him. Well, there is nowhere for him to go, I thought to myself.

I came to a fork in the path: at left a shortcut back to the exit, at right another path to viewing points along the cliff line. I went left, and soon passed an African couple resting on a bench.

‘Did a teenage boy just come past here?’

He hadn’t. Bugger. Welcome back Captain Anxiety. I jogged back to the exit, where he hadn’t been sighted either, and asked the woman at the exit to not let him out. Another quarter hour of anxiety as I explored the maze of paths around the lookouts before finally finding he’d returned to the exit. Not as bad as previous losing Sam episodes, but still not pleasant.

The next morning the group met at reception and were bundled into the minivan of the helicopter company for a very different view of the falls. At the heliport, we were drilled on the safety protocols and procedures. Sam started to worry.

‘I am not going to die. I am not going to be chopped.’

‘No Sam, just keep calm and keep your head low. I will look after you.’

As we approached the incredibly loud rotors, Sam bent lower and lower as we walked under the blades. He was practically crawling the last yard or two but I got him on board OK; headphones and mike in place, and away we went.

Neither Sam nor I had ever been on a helicopter before. Within two minutes we were doing figure-eight loops over the ‘smoke that thunders’,  granted unforgettable visual images of the plunging torrent. You were able to appreciate how the wide flat river was compressed into a deep narrow first gorge before the washing machine-like waters, frothing and swirling, would tumble through the subsequent series of gorges gouged out of the arid landscape. Wild rapids raced down the alley ways, zigzagging into the distance.

Sam was remarkably calm and cool, and smiled the whole time, like he so often does. But when we landed I had to stop him running into the safety of the terminal. Fair enough.

It was a complete buzz.