Routine days in Livingstone: rafting level 5 rapids, eating bugs and breaking 2 trucks in one day.

Livingstone is named after Dr David Livingstone, a 19th Century explorer who, in the early 1850’s, became the first European to reach Victoria Falls (of course, he also renamed them). Today, it is the Zambian side of the region’s main touristic attraction, Victoria Falls, and all the adventure sports industry that has developed around it. The city on the Zimbabwe side is simply called Victoria Falls.


As you can see, Livingstone has become a big enough destination for the Fairmount chain to open a hotel there. In hindsight, I should have walked in and tried to exchange some of my Fairmount President Club vouchers, just for fun.


I settled into (i.e. squatted) the house my friends were staying in and we all decided to go for sunset drinks in a very fancy hotel. My friends got the impression we were competing for a taxi with a local woman and the driver was asking her if she would mind letting him take us, as we were going much further. We would have none of that. We left her the front seat and piled in the back: Ollie, myself, Piers and birthday girl Rosie.


That fancy hotel was a bit of a zoo.


Drinks were drunk and we headed for dinner at Cafe Zambezi, a place popular with the locals (well, probably the well-off locals). Here’s a plate of alligator bites. I had had alligator before, deep fried, in the Florida Everglades, but this dish was much better. Very flavourful and not chewy at all.


Another appetizer, Mopani caterpillars, sun dried and deep fried with mild African spices. I also had had insects before. The Montreal Insectarium, an entomological centre/museum, use to hold an annual “cooking with insects” week. I remember having chocolate-covered ants, which didn’t really taste like anything but chocolate with a little Rice Krispies-like texture in the centre, and crickets, which were also fine, although I forget how they were prepared.


So, Mopani caterpillars: do they taste like chicken? Hum… no they don’t. They actually have a very surprising fishy taste. I highly recommend having them with a very large glass of strong antidepressants crushed and dissolved in vodka. Have the drink first. It won’t make the dish any less revolting, but at least you won’t remember it the next day. I only had a few beers and sadly, I remember everything.


Speaking of revolting; you do know that beer bottles don’t get “recycled”, they get “re-used”, right? That means the last lips to touch that cold one you are drinking probably belonged to a homeless heroin addict with tuberculosis. You don’t care because they get washed really well? Perhaps in North America they do, but in Africa, they apparently don’t get washed well enough to remove the previous label! That left me with only two options: stop drinking beer or drink more until I didn’t care. I chose option 2 and made my immune system stronger.


The next day we headed to the Falls. This bridge over the Zambezi River goes from Zambia to Zimbabwe. If you look closely, you can see some bungee cords hanging under the bridge. At the risk of sounding prejudiced, if I had to try bungee jumping, I’m not sure Sub-Saharan Africa would be my first choice of location. Let’s just say safety standards are not at their most developed. That being said, I did not have to make a decision, as the attraction was closed after the rope broke and sent a 22 year old Australian woman crashing in the Zambezi 364 feet below. The impact may not have been that great, as it broke on the rebound. However, she did fall in a fast flowing, crocodile infested river with her feet tied together, dragging the bungee rope, so it is fairly surprising that she survived.


The Falls, from the Zambian side. This was towards the end of the dry season and the Falls had a very low debit. Apparently, in the rainy season, the misty cloud produced by the river reaches high in the sky. I was surprisingly uninterested in the Falls themselves, and we didn’t go to the Zimbabwe side.

However we did spend some big money to go rafting on the Zambezi. I don’t know much about rafting, having only done it once before in Iceland, but the Zambezi is supposed to be one of the best place in the World to do it. If memory serves, we went through 21 or 25 rapids, including several class 5. We only had to portage once, around a class 6, which two of the rescue guides ran down in small kayaks.


Credit: Safari Par Excellence


Rafting is a team sport. Let me explain the role of each participant. The guide, at the back, steers the boat. The two front people, Ollie and I, paddle to move the boat forward. 6 people have to hold their paddles up in the air to compensate for the rotation of the Earth, while Rosie the superstar looks for the camera. We were a killer team!


Credit: Safari Par Excellence

Until we met reality.

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

This is why they call it “whitewater”.

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

I’m holding on tight…


But at some point holding doesn’t help much.

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

Once more, I give myself a point for not giving up, but we all know where this is going.

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

Credit: Safari Par Excellence

Yes, we all paid to be there. I must say, I don’t have a lot of experiences to compare it to, but this was an impressive river to raft on.

But all was not fun and games. My friends were volunteering in Zambia, providing medical care to people in remote villages. They would go in the bush for a week, and then come back to Livingstone for a break. They were a little discouraged by the situation in the villages. Accessibility of care is a major problem, but getting people to actually accept the care and follow the advice is another challenge.


One thing we speculated about was nutrition. Basically, most villagers are anemic and many have hemoglobin counts which, in the West, would warrant immediate hospitalization. No wonder they can sometimes look a little lethargic, in the same situation, the average Westerner probably couldn’t stand-up! The obvious answer is that all the animals we saw are owned by a few people or a single person, the meat gets sold in the city and the villagers don’t eat any protein. The fact that in villages where most are completely destitute one man has a truck would support that theory. However, villagers also seemed reluctant to eat certain things, didn’t drink milk and mostly ate n’shima, the bland maize paste you see in the picture. For sure, it is dirt cheap and very filling, but I couldn’t help wonder if beyond the issue of poverty, some of the malnutrition was perhaps due to the bad habit of relying only on n’shima, and thus suffering from a kind of self-inflicted protein deficiency. The way some poor people in the West will eat french fries and potato chips everyday, because they are cheap and filling, but lack so much in nutritional value. Anyways, this was hardly an academic study of local diet, just a few uninformed impressions, but it was interesting nonetheless. By the way, n’shima is not very good if you ask me. It is also messy to eat. You are supposed to roll a little bit in your hand and scoop up whatever you are eating with it (assuming you have something to eat with it, of course). Not as easy as with pita bread.

Often, when Governments spend money on things “non-humanitarian” (defence, space exploration, international conferences, etc), idealists will come up with ridiculous comparisons like: “With a million dollars, you could give a $1 treatment to a million sick children”. I hate to disappoint, but that it utter non-sense. You cannot. Sick children in Third World cities probably already have that $1 treatment. Those in remote areas probably do not. But how do you get the million pills to them? You do that by spending tens of thousands of dollars on renting fleets of 4X4 with local guides, fuel, food, etc. Double that if your supplies have to be kept refrigerated, like vaccines. And that’s if you’re working with volunteers. For a Government program, multiply costs by 10. And then, if the kids you want to help happen to be in Somalia, South Sudan, the DRC, etc, don’t forget to add $100 million a month for the Western Army that will establish enough security for your 4×4’s to drive around the country side. In the end, your cost per treatment is not exactly $1.

All this ranting is to illustrate one point about the charity my friends worked for. You can find doctors to volunteer their time, you can probably find cheap or donated medical supplies, but you cannot get around the major expense of a 4×4. In the case of the very small NGO they were volunteering with, the old beat-up Land Rover they had bought pretty muchwas the NGO. Without it, nothing happens. Unfortunately, during the last clinic in the villages, the transmission had started malfunctioning. Following the advice of their guide/cook, they stopped at a village where a “mechanic” tried to fix it. After a few hours the final verdict came: “Now, it is completely broken”.

So, before heading off on more fun and games, we had to get it back. The $1000 quote to get it properly towed by a mechanic was too much for the NGO’s administrators, so a local guy was hired for $400 to tow it with his 4×4 and a tow bar. Zambians are very friendly people and always keen to help. The problem is that they don’t like to say “no”. So they say “yes, no problem, trust me”, even if the answer really is, no. We got up early in the morning and discovered the tow bar was a home-made, point welded thingy, and the 4×4 was in fact, a beat-up Toyota Camry sedan with two inches of ground clearance. Having done the village road, I am quite confident such a vehicle would never make it to the Land Rover. To then think it would tow it back, uphill on a dirt track is just completely ridiculous. The automatic Zambian “yes” had not survived contact with reality and another day was wasted.


The next morning, we rented an actual 4×4, borrowed a tow bar from an actual mechanic and headed to the village. I say “we”, but I really didn’t do anything except tag along. It looked like hard work, but I think the two brothers were enjoying this little adventure together, even though one was recovering from a stomach bug. That’s them disassembling the drive train of the Land Rover to prepare it for towing.


Almost ready to go. The big brick building is a school. Strangely, it is a very large boarding school in a relatively small village. It actually enjoys a great reputation country-wide and people send their kids from the capital, Lusaka. Part of it is the quality education, but keeping the kids in a “wholesome village”, away from drugs or other “big city” problems is probably also a factor. Anyone who has travelled in Sub-Saharan Africa might notice something very strange about this picture. Four White people working on a Land Rover, and there is not a single villager around us. In my experience in Mali, Ghana, Ethiopia, etc, the whole village would have been there! Or at least the children. Heck, when I was a kid, I would have stopped to watch someone take apart a truck downtown Montreal!


And off we went. This is a screen capture of a small video I made. Just so you know, the tape is not holding the truck! It’s holding a pad to protect the bumper from scratches. The side bar tow worked much better than I thought. On the dirt road it was fine. On the paved road, it was a little more tricky, mainly due to the speed. Piers did a great job handling the Land Rover and we made it back, but barely. We had stopped at a small town to get diesel for the Land Cruiser. They has gas, but were out of diesel. We made in back on fumes.

The next morning, we went to buy diesel before towing the Land Rover to the garage, just in case we ran out. We made it to the pump, filled up, drove 10 seconds and the engine died, in the middle of an intersection, in morning traffic, with all the weight of the truck in a small hill resting on the automatic transmission, so we couldn’t put it in neutral to at least push it out of the way. It was awesome.

A very, very nice expat from Australia who runs a rafting and tour company got some chains for his truck and helped us get the weight off the transmission so we could move the truck to a back alley. He then towed the Land Rover to the garage and drove us to another car rental agency so we could get a car for our Lower Zambezi trip. I don’t know anything about his business, but considering all the help he gave us for free, I can’t imagine him giving you anything but the best service possible if you actually pay him! Rosie or Piers, if you remember the name of his company, please drop it in the comments.


The people who rented us the Land Cruiser said it was a diesel model, the cap on the gas tank was black and the writing around it was unilingual Japanese. As it turns out, it was a gas engine! Very lucky they didn’t have diesel at the remote town the day before, or both trucks, and us, would have been stranded there! In the pictures, guys from the agency (one under the truck), draining the diesel out of the tank. Their problem, we just walked away.


At the car rental agency, we learned that a small heard of elephants had walked across town the night before. Trying to scare them away, some locals drove around them honking and throwing firecrackers. A very smart idea indeed. The agency’s fence paid the price of pissing off a disoriented elephant. Luckily, nobody was hurt, although the night guard must have had quite the scare.

All administrative matters were now handled and we were off for some fun.


3 thoughts on “Routine days in Livingstone: rafting level 5 rapids, eating bugs and breaking 2 trucks in one day.

  1. Great story Colin! Love the detail as it feels like I am living it all over again but this time am able to laugh about it all. Thank you.
    The raft company is called ‘Raft Extreme’.

  2. Thanks Rosie. I hope our good Samaritan allowed you to drop off a case of beer at his office.

    See you next month on the other side of the World!

  3. Pingback: Bulgaria: From beautiful medieval towns to “typical communist neighbourhoods”. | Colin's Notes

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