Photograph by Annie Griffiths
From the August/September 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
I’m in southern Africa at the intersection of what I call “the boulevard of z’s,” the stretch of the Zambezi River where zebras drink and Zimbabwe and Zambia rub shoulders. Staring at spectacular Victoria Falls from a footpath in Zambia, I’m close enough to feel the spray but far enough away to appreciate the enormity of the scene as the Zambezi, helpless against gravity, becomes a foaming sheet of water a little over a mile wide. I’m walking along a path that parallels the contours of the gorge 350 feet below, lost in thought about Mother Nature’s might. Suddenly, my meditation dissolves, interrupted by the sight of a man headed straight toward the edge of the falls. Clearly he’s a lunatic, suicidal—or a daredevil without a barrel. I’m leaning toward option number one since he appears oblivious to danger, even as he climbs a rock formation that protrudes about three feet out of the river. (Trying to get a better view?) And then he jumps.
I stare in disbelief, expecting to see his helpless body come tumbling over the edge. Except it doesn’t. About a minute later, he scrambles back up to the same rocky outcrop. This time he adds a back flip to his death-defying leap of faith. Now I’m sure he’s crazy. I ask some bystanders, “Is that guy nuts, or is that precarious spot three feet from the edge of Victoria Falls really the local swimming hole?”
“That’s the Devil’s Pool,” they tell me, explaining that when water levels are lower (roughly September to December), a rock barrier in the river forms a pool where people can swim. Apparently a nook on the inside of that rock wall is known as the Devil’s Armchair. People can sit on the underwater “chair,” lean back, relax, and peek over the edge. There’s only minimal current in the pool, which means no one should get swept over, as people would if they were 15 to 20 feet to either side. As to the other part of my question: “Yes, that guy’s probably a little crazy,” one of the locals replies. “People have slipped and gone over the edge to their death. Not often, but it’s happened. I wouldn’t do it,” he adds. Since my trip is almost over, I have an immediate realization: I’ve got to come back and try this.
Five years later, I’m back, it’s the dry season, and a dunk in the Devil’s Pool is on the agenda. David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls (he’s the guy who named them for Queen Victoria), described their beauty by writing, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” I’m no angel, so I charter a micro-light aircraft to take me up for the aerial view—and to see the big picture that Livingstone could only imagine. But I’m not up here just for a beauty shot. I’m curious to see the shallow waters where the river widens in front of the falls, the area where I will take a dip in the Devil’s Pool tomorrow. I’m looking for crocodiles, which are known to patrol the Zambezi in large numbers farther upstream. I don’t see any, which confirms what I’ve been told, that the animals are too concerned about going over the falls to get that close to the edge. On one hand, their absence is comforting. But it’s also concerning, a reminder that even their little reptilian brains are warning them to stay away.
The next morning, ignoring the instincts of the crocs, we go to Livingstone Island, the same place the locals took David Livingstone for his first look at the falls in 1855. Guides lead us to an area where we can safely swim to the rocks that constitute one side of the Devil’s Pool. As we’re swimming, we still can’t see the falls, even though they are only a hundred yards or so in front of us. The escarpment is so flat, the drop at the gorge so sudden, that it looks as if we’re in the world’s most thrilling infinity pool. What we can see are the plumes of spray rising from the water where it explodes at the bottom of the gorge, and we hear the roar, too—sights and sounds that gave the falls their original name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders.”
A disquieting thought keeps flashing through my mind: What if we get caught in a surprise current that sweeps us over the edge? But then I see the vista, framed by a brilliant rainbow, and think, “This is going to be a day to remember forever.” We finally reach the rocks and walk to the spot I saw being used as a jumping-off point by that “crazy” guy five years earlier. Now it’s my turn.
A guide is sitting on the wall that forms the top edge of the falls. Behind him is nothing but emptiness. The message is clear: Jump, but not too far. So I vault myself, spinning, trying to take in as much as possible of this moment in time. I see the falls, the rainbow, the river. I’m pretty sure this must be the ultimate way to see Victoria Falls, an even better vantage than Livingstone’s angels had. As I swim over to the wall, it dawns on me: Sitting in the Devil’s Armchair is, as it were, a little slice of heaven on Earth. You might think heaven can wait. But if you’re a little bit crazy, and it’s the dry season, add the Devil’s Pool to your agenda. It may just be the world’s most spectacular swimming hole.
Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.