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Oh! So Victoria(n)

Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal


"Oooooh, ain’t that stunning? That is the smoke that thunders….” Looking dapper in beige overalls and aviator glasses, Bruce, the lithe helicopter pilot, was gushing; his guttural ooohs getting lost in the roar of the rotor. Buckled, topped with a heavy headphone and flying 500 ft above the ground, my jaw dropped. Below me was the world’s largest sheet of falling water. Wow! Mosi-oa-Tunya, I mumbled. No, my tongue had not turned Tongan, Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders) is what the locals call the Victoria Falls. And boy! If this ain’t stunning, what is? The mighty Zambezi river was thundering down a narrow basaltic abyss, frothy in countenance and hurried in pace, the black of the basalt shrouded in mist. “Charlie, Alpha…Over… Victoria Falls is almost twice the height and width of Niagara Falls…” Oooh! Bruce and I repeated almost like a refrain.

Exactly 153 years ago when Dr David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer, became the first European to see the Victoria Falls, there was no Bruce; he had Susu and Chuma, his loyal Zambian tribal porters. He did not hover in a helicopter; instead he paddled a canoe on the Zambezi. He did not drawl an oooh either; he wrote, “No one can imagine the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes…” He gave the waterfall a new name: Victoria Falls, in honour of his Queen. And the land that he paddled into borrowed his name: Livingstone.

I was in Livingstone, Zambia, curled up in a hammock in the Royal Livingstone resort (the name seems everywhere!) and thinking of, who else, Dr Livingstone, the medical missionary who one day heard his calling loud: Explore. He forgot all about spreading the word of god, coaxed the British government for funds and set out on the Zambezi Expedition to find the source of the Nile river. “That man must have been gutsy; 150 years ago only a braveheart could have ventured…” My thoughts were interrupted by the squeal of a zebra. I looked askance only to find a pack of Burchell’s zebras trotting by. A few inches away the Zambezi river ambled over boulders and naughty Vervet monkeys sat on the White Seringa trees with biscotti stolen from the lavish breakfast. Oh! So Africa, I thought. I borrowed the catapult from the liveried attendant to shoo away the monkeys, but what I thought would be as easy as throwing a dart seemed more than rocket science. The stone kept dropping off the catapult and every time I failed the Zambian waiters giggled about my slippery fingers.

“From where we set sail, on April 11, 1947, King George VI sailed too…” That evening I was on a sunset cruise and the captain of African Queen was piping imperial glory. The King and the Queen were on a barge called Nalikwanda, while I was on a 70ft catamaran furnished with Rhodesian teak and beech wood; its bar stacked with cocktails and the river abounding with hippopotamus and crocodiles. As the summer breeze flirted with my long hair, I could see African darters and Reed cormorants returning home and when the sun dipped into the river, I headed back to Royal Livingstone for a Zambian meal that Indian chef Anuj Ovalekar was rustling up. The impala stew looked tempting but the vegetarian that I am I settled for nshima (maize porridge), the most Zambian off the platter.

There is not much to the town of Livingstone which was founded in the 1890s; the main street flanked by a few colonial buildings, with the wealth of a few interspersed by the anguish of many. There is the 98-year old High Court building which was a prefab with wood and furnishings imported from England; the Livingstone Museum that stashes memorabilia of the explorer, a cinema built in 1931, a century-old golf course, blue taxis, men selling curios at bends and women going about their chores languorously. That Livingstone would have such strong Indian connections I certainly had not expected that. I saw a Bobilli Jeweller, a Bhukkan’s and a Bridgelal & Sons. Everyone in Livingstone seemed to know at least one Patel and everyone seems to have tried the chicken tikka in Kamuza, an Indian tandoori restaurant.

But I wanted to see the real Livingstone, the one beyond the luxury of a five-star resort. “Want to go to a 700-year old village?” I jumped at Cephas Sinyangwe’s idea. Cephas who works for the Royal Livingstone resort threw a caveat, though. “You should not go alone,” came the warning. So, I hopped into the colossal open-top Land Cruiser, as Tim manoeuvred through muddy tracks and past bulky baobab trees to take me Mukuni village where lives the Leya tribals, still ruled by a chief and still seeped in traditional mores.

“That’s the Mukuni jail,” Aubrey, my guide, was pointing at a two-roomed building that looked smaller than a roadside kiosk. The barbed wire was broken and a tiny, rusted lock hung on a limp latch. “Drunk men and petty thieves get locked for a day or two…” As Aubrey continued I looked at the falling plaster and wondered whether the jail could even hold a sparrow! Mukuni is made of thatched homes, with only the King affording a larger enclosure and a pit toilet. I walked into a hut to find men chipping ebony to make masks, in another a woman was cooking beef with onions and tomatoes while a hen pecked on the nshima that lay uncovered in a wooden bowl.

Driving back from the village, I saw gigantic African elephants darting across the deserted street. Back in the resort, as I sat on the verandah to dig my fork into dainty choux, puffs and filos lined up for high tea, I thought of Dr Livingstone, the man to whom an entire town owes its existence, the man…A mischievous monkey interrupted my thought again; in Livingstone I picked up a catapult.

Published in Mint, 2009

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