Hell or High Water
The sound was deafening. The whitest of noise. I was at it’s mercy, unable to touch the bottom. A strong current clawed at my legs, pulling me as I kicked and spiralled my arms. Nothing slowed the motion. I could see the place where the water fell away, mist beyond obscuring the chasm.
We’d planned the side trip to Zambia more than six months earlier. Just one day, hours really, to swim in one of the worlds most dangerous places – Devil’s Pool on the edge of Victoria Falls. It involved crossing a border, boating through crocodile infested waters and then navigating the river’s edge. I’m not the strongest swimmer, but hey, if you’re going to practice, why not do it in the Zambezi.
The journey started in a small wooden hut. Our taxi let us out at the door and drove alongside to wait. I watched it go, creeping past a half dozen armed men lounging in the shade. Inside, we were greeted by a stern-faced official sitting at a table covered with photographs. I stopped to look. It was an Ebola checkpoint. He was observing us. Comparing our eyes, our skin, to the images in front of him. It had worried our families, that we were travelling through Africa during an outbreak. This was the first evidence we’d seen that there was a reason to be wary.
A few feet away, a woman behind the counter had started hand writing our visas. There was nothing to do but watch, and pay. It cost me a lot. J managed a smaller fee by entering the country under an alternate passport. It’s like travelling with James Bond. He shuffles through them and picks the best one for the situation.
Thirty minutes later we were back in the taxi and headed for Livingstone Island – aptly named after the good doctor himself. The Royal Livingstone Hotel sits on the spot where he got his first look at the smoke that thunders. It’s spectacular. Colonial, with vaulted ceilings, overstuffed furnishings and lush gardens. Walking across zebra hide rugs, we made our way to the veranda and ordered a round of liquid courage.
Boats arrived within the hour to carry us the rest of the way. Our guide prodded the water periodically, watching for submerged hippos. They’re considered the most deadly large land mammal in the world and responsible for about 500 deaths in Africa each year. I spent the entire ride watching for ripples on the surface. Thankfully, it wasn’t far.
The edge of the falls are lined with rocks. If you’re carrying anything – bags, hoodies, small children – this is where you leave them behind. We lightened our load, taking only hats and a small waterproof camera. I tried not to think ahead. After walking a ways, the guide pointed to an indentation in the rocks that led into the river. It was time to get wet.
I watched the group ahead. One-by-one they stepped in and swam up current a few hundred feet to a rope. Then they inched along, hand over hand, eyes trained on the person ahead. Let go here and there was good chance you wouldn’t have long to regret it.
As my toes sought purchase in the depth, I started thinking about the last time I’d almost drowned. The mind is a wonderful thing. The swim to the rope was exactly as I expected. Hard. I clutched it, feeling every tiny fibre as I slid my hands forward. My palms would have been sweating if they weren’t submerged. There were eight in our group. Our foursome, another couple and two girls travelling together. We moved in unison. Watching out for one another.
Reaching the end was a celebration. Except it wasn’t, because that meant it was time to climb over the last bit of rock between us and the pool. I sat down, legs a little shaky. There was a man already in, his wife standing on the ledge, afraid to jump. We cheered her on. There was no danger, he was there to catch her. She had come all this way, what was another fifteen feet. I honestly think the smile on her face when she reached him gave me courage.
Then, it was our turn. J jumped. Made a spectacle of it. I didn’t. I slid. Part trepidation, part weakness in the knees. The current was stronger than I expected. In the high season, five-hundred million gallons of water flow over the edge every minute. The pool is hidden under white water. In the low season, a guide goes in first to keep ungainly tourists from plunging to their death.
The fear was tremendous. I pulled my legs up under me and fixed my gaze on the liquid horizon. Three squeaky breaths was all I got. My knees bumped up against the rock first. Makes sense, considering I was basically in the fetal position. And that guide I mentioned…seeing the whites of my eyes as I drifted by, he reached out a hand that I held the whole time.
You’d think getting to the edge, bracing yourself against the lip and leaning over to look down would be the scariest moment. It’s not. It certainly gets your heart pumping. The drop is 355 feet. But then I started thinking about small cracks in the rock. The pressure they’re under. The assumption that one day, they’re going to fail. People would be taking selfies one minute, washed away the next. All bad. And that wasn’t it. To get out of this pool, I was going to have to let go, turn my back on that edge and swim against an unrelenting current.
It took some dog paddling and I swallowed at least a litre of the Zambezi, but I persevered. We ended the day with an ‘I escaped death’ luncheon served under a gazebo not far from the falls. It was good. And I felt like a badass. Not something I experience often. The next day we walked along the opposite side, seeing the falls from the Zimbabwe side. I was glad we waited. If I’d seen it, raging rapids cascading down slick, jagged rock, I would definitely have backed out.
Devil’s Pool isn’t for everyone. It cost me several hundred dollars and likely a few grey hairs. I was uncomfortable the whole time, the mental ask far more significant than the physical one. Doing it was a group decision. One that forced me to face some deep-rooted issues with water. Every experience changes me. Makes me bigger. Bolder. More likely to step off solid rock and let the current take me to the edge – hopefully not over it.