Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Highlights of Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town has long ranked high among the cities I wanted to spend time in and, after a week exploring it and its environs in early 2019, my judgment was proven to be strong.

While a future article will deal with sites and sights within a few hours drive of Cape Town, here I’ll focus on the things I enjoyed most in what’s known within the country as the “Mother City” owing to its status of being South Africa’s oldest.

Table Mountain

I had a free ticket for the CitySightSeeing hop-on, hop-off bus that I took through the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront through the heart of Cape Town. It gave me perspective on distances and an idea of what I wanted to return to later on foot.

The bus eventually let me off at the base of Cape Town’s most famous landmark: Table Mountain. The lineup to get into the cable car to take you to the top of the mountain took more than an hour before the five-minute ride to the summit, but the cost was included in my package. There are different hiking routes to the top of Table Mountain, and I would have preferred that method of ascension, but unfortunately time didn’t permit it.

There were great views of Cape Town, the ocean and the surrounding landscape all around the perimeter of Table Mountain. I climbed part of the way down and then back up Platteklip Gorge before continuing my walk for another 1.7 kilometres to the far end of the mountain and Maclear’s Beacon, the highest point on Table Mountain at 1,086 metres. I was alone for much of the walk, which was nice since I hate being around crowds while soaking in nature.

I spent two hours exploring what I could and got in line to go back down in the cable car at 4:30 p.m. It was a process that took 105 minutes due to all of the people sharing that same goal. I had a 6:30 p.m. dinner reservation, which I obviously wasn’t going to make if I took the hop-on, hop-off bus back into the city. Luckily I met a British couple who agreed to split a taxi with me back to Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Karibu Restaurant

I was late for my reservation, but the restaurant thankfully held a balcony table for me, as this was one of the most interesting meals I had during my more than two weeks in South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Dinner started with a biltong salad, featuring slivers of cured meat with lettuce, plum tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pumpkin seeds and peppers topped with a piquant dressing. That was followed by a side order of potatoes as part of a massive main course meat platter featuring ostrich, warthog, kudu, venison, springbok and impala, washed down with a couple of Windhoek Draughts. I hadn’t eaten most of those animals before, and I was impressed with almost all of them.

Robben Island

Robben Island, located 6.9 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town, was used to isolate political prisoners, criminals and lepers from the late 17th century until its use as a prison came to an end in 1996. It’s most famous for holding former South African president Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid.

A 30-minute ferry ride from Nelson Mandela Gateway on Cape Town’s waterfront and over somewhat rough seas took us to Murray’s Bay Harbour on the east coast of Robben Island. A short walk took us to buses, from where we could see a variety of sites, before a former inmate took us on a walking tour of the prison.

Our guide told us moving stories of his years as a political prisoner at Robben Island that put a lump to my throat. It’s one thing to visit a historical place, it’s another to be able to chat with someone who has experienced that history.

It was an emotional 2.5 hours taking everything in before it was time to take the ferry back to the mainland. It’s no surprise that Robben Island has become a very popular attraction, and you’re advised to buy tickets well in advance to ensure you don’t miss the opportunity to take it in.

District Six and Langa Township

A local guide named Nelson from Camissa Travel & Marketing met me at a restaurant near my accommodations at Burgundy Apartments and drove his van to Cape Town’s District Six neighbourhood, which was once home to 60,000 people and is now barren due to the forcible evacuations of its former residents during the apartheid era in the 1970s. The former multi-ethnic area plays an important part in the history of Cape Town and apartheid, and Nelson effectively related its role. District Six was named a national historic area in 1996.

We drove on to Langa Township, a 487-hectare suburb of Cape Town that was established in 1927 and is now home to 80,000 people. Langa, which translates from the native Xhosa language into English as “sunshine,” was an area designated for Black Africans even before apartheid and is the oldest such suburb in Cape Town.

A young Langa resident named Simo took me on a walking tour of the area that included a visit to his ramshackle apartment that he shares with several other people. He told me of life in Langa and how he’s hoping to earn enough money from working as a guide to pursue further education. Simo pointed out local businesses, schools and customs during our walk, which ended at a memorial that was unveiled by the government in 2010 to honour those who lost their lives opposing apartheid. Nearby were apartment buildings with colourful murals covering full walls.

The visit to Langa ended with a lovely lunch in the home of Akila, a professional chef who quit her job to look after her mother and daughter and now earns money by hosting visitors in her home. She made a large meal that included a garden salad, a Thai pasta salad, butternut squash, chicken stuffed with cheese and spinach, roasted potatoes and, for dessert, a pavlova with strawberries and blueberries. It was as good as anything I ate in high-end restaurants in and around Cape Town.

A walk around Cape Town

I was able to cover quite a bit of ground (and fit in several beers during two pub visits) during an afternoon walk around the city of approximately 450,000 people that covered:

the very picturesque Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, the most heavily touristed area of the city, with a variety of shops, craft markets, restaurants and attractions; 
the Canal District;
Grand Parade and City Hall, which features a life-size statue of Nelson Mandela waving from a balcony;
St. George’s Cathedral;
Houses of Parliament and the neighbouring The Company’s Gardens;
The South African Jewish Museum and Cape Town Holocaust Centre;
the Bo-Kaap neighbourhood of brightly coloured houses;
and Long Street, which features a number of lovely vintage buildings housing a variety of restaurants, bars and stores.

Victoria & Alfred Waterfront
Canal District
City Hall
Long Street
 World of Birds

The largest bird park in Africa is in the Cape Town suburb of Camps Bay. It features more than 3,000 birds and small animals of 400 different species over four hectares in more than 100 walk-through aviaries. It wasn’t difficult to spend an hour observing the beautiful birds as they flew and walked around the grounds.

Two Oceans Aquarium

This aquarium is dedicated more to education than entertainment — with no performing dolphins, seals or whales — and is more aimed at children than adults. I’ve been to bigger and better aquariums, but this one had enough interesting things to hold my attention for an hour.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Celebrating the life of Dave Bookman

Thursday would have been Dave Bookman’s 59th birthday. While he passed on nine days before that, the Horseshoe Tavern hosted a celebration of his life that the singer, songwriter, longtime radio personality and part-time club booker who many knew as “Bookie” would have loved.

It was a night of music, recollections, hugs, laughs, tears, friendships renewed and started … and a Toronto Raptors victory over the Golden State Warriors in the first game of the National Basketball Association championship final.

While several people quickly banded together to organize the event to pay tribute to a lost friend, everything about the evening had Bookie’s fingerprints all over it.

Things started with Horseshoe co-owner Jeff Cohen talking about how much of his career he owed to Bookie, and then he played a recording of The Bookmen (Bookie’s ‘80s band with guitarist Tim Mech) covering Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.”
Other speakers came to the podium throughout the evening to speak of the impact Bookie had on them, including: 

  • representatives of the Bookman family;
  • broadcaster and former Air Canada Centre public address announcer Andy Frost;
  • The Pursuit of Happiness founder Moe Berg, who emphasized how important it is to tell people how much they mean to you now before it’s too late;
  • CARAS president and CEO Allan Reid, who said that a May 29 Indie88 12-hour radiothon in honour of Bookie had raised a remarkable $68,000 (a figure that’s still rising) for music education charity MusiCounts, smashing through the initial goal of $10,000;
  • Phoenix Concert Theatre partner and booker Zeke Myers; music executive Ryan Shepard;
  • Bookie’s former 102.1 The Edge and Indie88 colleagues John Davies, Maie Pauts, Josie Dye and Mike Religa;
  • and Horseshoe institution Willie McDonald.

And then there was the music. Event emcee Dave Hodge said it was the greatest collection of musicians to ever take the stage of the legendary 72-year-old venue in one night. And who am I to argue with a man who’s gained legendary status of his own through his long sports broadcasting career.

All of the musicians who took part in the celebration had a close connection to Bookie, and they reflected on that while also performing songs.

Blue Rodeo with Andy Maize, Andrew Cash, Chris Murphy and Kate Boothman.

When your opening act is Blue Rodeo, you know you’re doing something right. Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor and Bazil Donovan took the stage for two songs before inviting Andy Maize, Andrew Cash, Chris Murphy and Kate Boothman on stage to join them in a moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” that caused the first tears of the night to roll down my cheeks.

Skydiggers frontman Maize and singer, songwriter, musician and former (and hopefully future) politician Cash included a cover of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” in their two-song set.

That duo was followed by The Beaches, the female quartet that won this year’s Juno Award for breakthrough group of the year, who turned up the rock during their two songs.


Sloan’s three-song set was highlighted by “The Good in Everyone,” which I believe was something Bookie always saw.

Billy Talent frontman Ben Kowalewicz and former Death Cab For Cutie member Chris Walla just met before they walked on stage to perform Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.” You wouldn’t have known.

Bookie’s former Bookmen bandmate Mech performed a song solo, while Sarah Harmer’s solo two-song set opened with a cover of The Replacements’ “I Will Dare.”

Former Lowest of the Low member and now longtime solo artist Stephen Stanley performed a song before he was joined by The Rheostatics’ Dave Bidini on drums, Bazil Donovan on bass and UIC’s Dave Robinson on backing vocals to do “The First Saturday In May” by Midi Ogres, a short-lived mid-‘90s band comprised of Stanley, Bidini, bassist John DesLauriers and Bookie on lead vocals.

I’m sure Damhnait’s Doyle a cappella version of Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” had eyes of all colours crying with its beauty and power.

Chris Murphy played tambourine and sang backing vocals on the first of The Inbreds’ two songs, the second of which was a fine “Any Sense of Time.”

The Rheostatics with Stephen Stanley and Tim Mech.

The Rheostatics were joined by Stanley and Mech for two more Midi Ogres songs written by Bookie: “Little Mushroom” and “Huggin’ At My Pillow.”

Hayden played a song on his own before being joined by Billy Talent for a rousing rendition of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger.”

Danny Greaves, lead singer for The Watchmen, performed a solo a cappella version of Billy Bragg’s “Tender Comrade.”

Matt Mays joined July Talk to cover Wilco’s “I’m The Man Who Loves You.”

Broken Social Scene

A smaller than usual version of Broken Social Scene ripped through versions of Dinosaur Jr.’s “Feel the Pain” and “The Wagon” that had me thinking there’s a future as a cover band there if the group ever tires of writing and recording its own songs.

Hayden and Billy Talent joined up again to play Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” and the night’s second performance of Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back In Anger” (with Maize supplying backing vocals) before they delivered the song that helped launch Billy Talent to stardom, “Try Honesty.”

Hollerado was up next and the band invited members of The Beaches and July Talk on stage to join in singing Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” Mays picked up his guitar and joined them for Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

The night closed off with an electrifying four-song performance from UIC that opened with “Our Garage” and closed with “It’s Alright.”

It was five hours of great music and memories, and some of us would have been happy if it had continued even further into the next day. There was a special vibe in the bar that I didn’t want to leave behind.

But I also know that as long as the people who organized, took part in and attended Bookie’s celebration — and countless others who would have loved to have been there — are sill among us, we’ll forge on with the kind spirit of the evening.

There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. They’re beautiful things. Carry them with you and spread them.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Four Chords And A Gun brings back The Ramones

Fans of The Ramones — and shame on you if you don’t count yourself among them — should get to Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre to see Four Chords And A Gun before it ends on April 28.

I was curious when I first read about the play and was pleased to have been invited to Tuesday’s opening night performance. While not without some flaws — just like the four musicians, producer Phil Spector and girlfriend Linda Danielle who are portrayed in Four Chords And A Gun — they’re more than offset by its rough-edged charms.

Most deserving of praise is the script, written by John Ross Bowie, who’s best known for playing Barry Kripke on The Big Bang Theory. The dialogue has a sharp and often humorous edge and is frequently delivered in rapid fashion, just as you’d expect from The Ramones.

While Four Chords And A Gun is centred around the tension-filled 1979 Los Angeles recording sessions for the End Of The Century album with Spector, it also gives you insights into the quirky personalities of Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Hyman), Johnny Ramone (John Cummings), Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Colvin) and Marky Ramone (Marc Bell). 

Their particular traits — Joey’s obsessive compulsive disorder, Johhny’s anger and obsession with control, and the respective heroin and alcohol addictions of Dee Dee and Marky — may be overemphasized somewhat for dramatic effect, but that’s to be expected.

Sometimes the acting doesn’t live up to the material despite the impressive pedigrees of those delivering the lines. Justin Goodhand (Joey), Cyrus Lane (Johnny), Paolo Santalucia (Dee Dee) and James Smith (Marky) are all young theatre veterans with long resumes. But perhaps because they’re portraying characters who I started listening to in my early teens and have since read about and watched in videos, I sometimes had difficulty imagining them as the four New York musicians who helped introduce the world to punk rock in 1976 and had such an influence that they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.

The same can be said for Ron Pederson (Spector), since I was so familiar with his 1960s hits, “wall of sound” production techniques and ever-increasing erratic behaviour, which culminated with him being imprisoned for the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarkson.

While I knew that Danielle ditched Joey for Johnny, which created a conflict between the two men for the rest of their lives, I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what she was like. So, for that reason, I might have been most impressed with Vanessa Smythe’s performance despite her having the smallest role in the play.

While director Richard Ouzonian has served as artistic director of five major Canadian theatres and as an associate director of the Stratford Festival for four seasons, I’m most familiar with him for being the longtime theatre critic for the Toronto Star. From reading his reviews and articles over the years, I never would have thought of him as a Ramones fan or an appropriate choice to helm Four Chords And A Gun.

However, I have no issues with Ouzonian’s staging or pacing. And while the set design was relatively simple, it worked -- especially within the intimate confines of the Fleck Dance Theatre, where I was still within a few metres of the action from my fifth row seat.

Four Chords And A Gun concludes with an epilogue involving Marky telling the somewhat tragic tales of what happened to all of the players after End Of The Century.

While some Ramones songs are played in the background during the play, it should be emphasized that Four Chords And A Gun isn't a musical and no-one sings their lines. However, after the actors took their bows, the stage was quickly rearranged and four musicians came out to play a set of Ramones covers.

It seemed disjointed and the renditions of “Blitzkrieg Bop,” “We’re A Happy Family,” “Rockaway Beach,” “Pinhead,” “Danny Says,” “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,” “Beat On The Brat” and “I Wanna Be Sedated” weren’t particularly inspiring.

This component of the evening could have easily been left off. Or if the desire to keep it is strong enough, it probably would have been more appropriate at the beginning to get people into the spirit of things as they were taking their seats in anticipation of the main event.

And instead of the four musicians who played on Tuesday night, I would have gone with The Gabba Heys. The Toronto Ramones tribute band has been playing the club circuit for years and would have delivered more energy and street credibility.

I also noticed a couple of timeline incongruities in Four Chords And A Gun. Johnny mentions the death of John Wayne during his first meeting with Spector, which would have taken place before recording began on May 1, 1979. “The Duke” didn’t pass away until June 11 of that year. Johnny also talks about the new Blondie album including rap music, but Autoamerican — which featured Debbie Harry rapping on “Rapture” — wasn’t released until November 1980.

Aside from this nitpicking, I enjoyed Four Chords And A Gun and recommend it to anyone with knowledge of, or an interest in, The Ramones.

Saturday, March 02, 2019

March roared in like a lion at Toronto Winter Brewfest

The fourth annual Toronto Winter Brewfest moved east from the Enercare Centre to Evergreen Brick Works, which also hosts the Cask Days festival every fall, and I was invited to check out what was on tap on opening night.

With approximately 40 breweries offering almost 100 beverages, there was a lot to choose from. I narrowed my selections to 14 and, while I definitely enjoyed some more than others, I’m pleased to report that I didn’t have a bad beer.

I started with a Pixies-themed Here Comes Your Mango IPA from Brew Revolution. The mango flavour wasn’t as strong as the aroma, but it poured with a nice white head and was both robust and crisp. It registers a 52 on the International Bitterness Units (IBU) scale, and it had a pleasant happiness and clean finish, which isn’t always the case with a seven per cent alcohol by volume (ABV) beer.

I hadn’t heard of Brew Revolution, and that’s because I learned that the Stittsville, Ont. brewery won’t officially open until April or May. The folks behind the bar were friendly and told me about their plans, and I was enticed to try the two other beers they were offering.

The 6.7 per cent ABV, 38 IBU Lemon Daze Lemongrass IPA had a very evident and pleasant lemongrass flavour. I would have liked more body in the five per cent ABV, 39 IBU Smoke On The Porter porter, but it had all of the other elements I look for in a smoky porter.

Muskoka Brewery’s Pair of Wise Guys Weizenbock was my favourite beer at November’s Gourmet Food & Wine Expo, and the brewery came through again with my two favourite beers of this festival.

Black Raspberry Thunder was created in collaboration with Kawartha Dairy, and the six per cent ABV milkshake IPA looks like what you’d expect from the first two words in the name. It has a powerful bouquet and lovely raspberry and vanilla flavours, while the lactose infusion provides a rich mouth feel. I was happy to find out that it will be canned and served in LCBO and select grocery stores.

Like Pair of Wise Guys, Lunar Haze is  part of Muskoka’s Moonlight Kettle Series, which spawns a new recipe every month. The 8.5 per cent ABV, 75 IBU double IPA is made with lupulin powder, a purified concentration of all the resin compounds and essential oils that create hop flavours and aromas in a beer. It has an intense, fruit-forward hop flavour and bouquet, without being too bitter, and that high alcohol content is dangerously unnoticeable.

Ranking just behind those two beers was my last one of the evening: Side Launch Getaway. The 6.3 per cent ABV, 55 IBU IPA is just available in the brewery’s Collingwood, Ont. tap room at the moment, but I’m hoping it comes to stores at some point. It’s medium-bodied and has a solid, though not overpowering, hop bite that complements a citrus aroma. It’s bright, easy-drinking and has a clean finish.

There were also a few booths offering spirits, wines and ciders, and a handful of food vendors provided more solid sustenance. Judging by the way my notes became more scrawled as the night went on, perhaps I should have eaten something.

But I go to beer festivals for beer, and these are the other ones I drank, ranked in rough approximation from most to least favourite:

Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Lupulus Belgian Strong Golden Ale - 10 per cent ABV, 70 IBU
The Exchange Brewery New England IPA - Seven per cent ABV, 71 IBU
Orleans Brewing Co. Sid’s Vicious Imperial IPA - 9.3 per cent ABV, 110 IBU
Prince Eddy’s Dawn Patrol Raspberry Gose - 3.5 per cent ABV, 4 IBU
Prince Eddy’s So Many Friends IPA - Five per cent ABV
Double Trouble Brewing Co. Hops & Robbers Sucker Punch IPA - 6.5 per cent ABV, 38 IBU
A la Fut Matawin Brett Pale Ale - Five per cent ABV
Lowertown Big Wood American IPA - 6.9 per cent ABV, 42 IBU

Friday, February 15, 2019

Wine tasting around Cape Town

The Dutch aren’t acknowledged to be among the great winemakers of the world, but we have them to thank for the emergence of South Africa as a nation that’s earned respect for its viticulture and quality wines over the past few decades.

South Africa’s first grape harvest took place in 1659 on a farm managed by Dutch navigator, surgeon and colonial administrator Jan van Riebeeck near what’s now known as Cape Town. While wine has been made in this region of the country ever since, it wasn’t until the end of Apartheid in the 1990s that the world started paying attention.

The Stellenbosch region east of Cape Town is perhaps South Africa’s most internationally recognized winemaking area and produces about 15 per cent of the nation’s wine. Since I was spending a week in Cape Town, it was a no-brainer to spend a day on a Go Touch Down wine tour starting in Stellenbosch.

The first stop was Skilpadvlei, a 78-hectare farm with accommodations, a restaurant, event venues, a gift shop and a children’s play area. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, muesli and honey on the restaurant verandah, the wine tasting began at a picnic table around the corner at 8:45 a.m.

I’m a much bigger white wine drinker than red, which was the opposite of the three other people on the tour. This meant that I got to have the majority of the white for the rest of the day, since they just took a small sip and poured the rest into my glass.

Skilpadvlei has been in the Joubert family since 1917, and it’s been making wine for four generations. We sampled six bottles: three reds, two whites and a rose. My favourite was the 2018 Chenin Blanc, a mildly sweet wine with a hint of green apple in the flavour. I liked it so much I bought a bottle for 60 rand ($6).

We got back in the van and drove 10 minutes down the road to Neethlingshof Wine Estate, where wine has been made since 1692. A kilometre-long avenue of pines leads to the large property, which features an impressive manor house and other old buildings, and is flanked by the Bottelary Hills and Papegaaiberg Mountains.

Neethlingshof features a restaurant, tasting centre, event space and a store. Our server was excellent in explaining the history of the estate, the stories behind the wines and the flavour profiles of each of the three whites, one red and one dessert wine I sampled. My favourite was The Jackal’s Dance 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, a rich and full-bodied young wine with a tropical fruit aftertaste.

Franschhoek is another popular wine region in the area, so our next stop took us there and the 19-hectare Grande Provence Heritage Wine Estate, which dates back to 1694. This is another impressive property, which includes accommodations, a restaurant and bistro, a tasting room, event spaces, an art gallery, a sculpture garden and a very small cheetah reserve.

After sampling two whites, a rose and a Zinfandel, I was most satisfied with the very fruity aroma and flavour of the 2017 rose. I was even more pleased, however, with my lovely open-air, three-course lunch comprised of: a starter of cured beef, mustard, Boland cheddar, shallots and mushrooms; a main of duck leg confit, sweet potato dumplings, sultana and Chinese cabbage, served with an apple chutney; and a desert of chocolate fondant, peanut butter ice cream and apricot.

With a full belly, it was back in the van to drive to the touristy food and wine town of Franschhoek. I had an hour of free time and spent it walking around, looking at the Huguenot Monument and then sitting down to sample five beers at Tuk Tuk Microbrewery. I wasn’t particularly impressed with any of them, with the golden ale and pale ale being the best of the lot.

I enjoyed the countryside scenery on the way back to Cape Town and the final stop of the tour, a lovely multi-space restaurant called Blanko that’s part of the Alphen Estate in Constantia. The former farm has been converted to a high-end property with a boutique hotel and restaurant.

Still full from the large lunch, I ordered a local fish called kingklip that was topped with orange, herbs and pink peppercorns and served with saffron rice. I ate so well during my time in Cape Town and its surroundings that, while there was nothing wrong with the food, it may have been my least favourite meal. At least the glass of Brampton Sauvignon Blanc I had with it was very good.

While I didn’t partake in tastings at them, I had two other dinners at wineries. The first was at Cassia Restaurant, which is part of Nitida Wine Farm in the Durbanville Wine Valley. I enjoyed a mildly spicy soup with beef, sausage and vegetables, followed by a swordfish steak and roast potatoes, and accompanied by Nitida’s excellent 2018 Riesling.

The other dinner was at Durbanville Hills, where the restaurant terrace provided great sunset views of Table Mountain and Table Bay. Duck spring rolls followed by a sirloin steak hit the spot pretty much perfectly. In South Africa you’re allowed to buy a bottle of wine with a meal and take it with you if you don’t finish it, so I purchased a bottle of dry but effervescent Durbanville Hills Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc (which had notes of citrus and tropical fruit) for 85 rand ($8.50) and drank what I didn’t have there when I returned to my condominium.

I bought a few other bottles of cheap and cheerful Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc during my time in South Africa. They were certainly drinkable, if not exceptional, and I have no issue with paying 50 rand ($5) for a bottle of wine to accompany some quiet reading and writing.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Kicking off 2019 at Victoria Falls

The five cascades of Africa’s Victoria Falls extend for 1.7 kilometres, combining to create one of the largest waterfalls in the world.

I’d viewed the falls from Zambia, where 25 per cent of them can be observed, on Dec. 31. To kick off the new year, I crossed the border to Zimbabwe to see the rest.

A free shuttle from my base at Jollyboys Backpackers took me 10 kilometres and dropped me off where I’d began the previous day’s treks. On this day, I went through immigration, walked down a road, crossed the Victoria Falls Bridge, and continued to walk until reaching the Zimbabwean immigration office.

After being processed and a few more minutes of walking, I arrived at the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park and paid the U.S.$30 international visitor entrance fee.

A path takes visitors through a rain forest with clearances leading to 16 observation points to watch the water of the lazily meandering Zambezi River come splashing down. The first falls you’ll see belong to The Devil’s Cataract, the lowest falls at 70 metres in height, and you can climb down stairs into a gorge for a closer view.

Next up is the 93-metre-high Main Falls, the largest of them all with a peak water flow of 700,000 cubic metres per minute. Even with river levels at a relatively low level during my visit, the mist produced by the water and wind felt like a steady rain. With the water at its highest, it’s apparently next to impossible to see the falls due to all of the accompanying spray.

Moving farther along puts you across from Livingstone Island, where guides take visitors for tours when water levels are low enough. Those feeling particularly daring can use this as their jump-off point to take a dip in Devils Pool.

This deep natural pool has been created by thousands of years of erosion. A rock ledge on the lip of the falls, where the water is very shallow, forms a natural barrier and enables people to peer over the precipice without being swept over the edge. 

The 95-metre Horseshoe Falls, the section with the lowest water flow, is next. It’s followed by Rainbow Falls, the highest point, with a 108-metre vertical drop.

The last falls you’ll view is the 101-metre Eastern Cataract, which is located completely in Zambia. While the other viewpoints have flimsy wooden fences acting as barriers, when you reach the end of the line here at what’s known as Danger Point, you can climb on the rocks to the edge of the cliff. This spot also provides good vistas of Boiling Pot and the Victoria Falls Bridge.

I spent three hours in the national park before returning the way I came. On the way back, however, I stopped at the bridge to watch people zipline across the gorge and bungee jump off of the bridge. I’d like to say that the U.S.$160 cost to bungee was the only reason I didn’t do it, but that would be a lie.

I walked back into Zambia and paid 80 kwacha (U.S.$7.70) for a cab back to Jollyboys, where I spent an hour relaxing in the (not so) hot tub with a couple of beers before it was time to head out again.

I’d paid U.S.$65 to see the Zambezi from a different perspective, and a bus took a group of us to another part of Livingstone where we boarded a boat for a sunset cruise that included all the food you could eat and all the alcohol you could drink.

The sunset wasn’t particularly inspiring, the scenery along the riverbank wasn’t that interesting, and I didn’t see as much wildlife as I’d hoped to. There were several different kinds of birds, two crocodiles and multiple hippos, though only fleetingly when they’d raise their heads out of the river.

On the plus side, I was well fed on chicken wings, sausage rolls, mini pizzas, barbecued chicken and sausage, cole slaw and a bun.

I drank 12 ounces of cane spirit (similar to white rum) with cola and, when that ran out, four ounces of gin with tonic. I was the bartender’s favourite customer so, after we docked after two hours on the river, he gave me a beer even though he was supposed to stop serving so I’d have something to drink on the bus ride back to the hostel.

There were people hanging out at the Jollyboys courtyard bar, so conversations and beers flowed until bedtime.

I flew out of Zambia and returned to South Africa the next day. With flights, accommodations, activities, visas, food and drinks included, my 48 hours in Livingstone and visiting Victoria Falls cost me about $700. I’m a thrifty guy and that’s more than I’d normally spend, but it was a once in a lifetime experience and the memories from seeing my third of the seven natural wonders of the world in 14 months will be worth more than the money when I look back on it years from now.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

New Year’s Eve at Victoria Falls

Waterfalls have always enthralled me, and the bigger the better.

I’ve lived within a three-hour drive of Niagara Falls, which separates Canada and the United States, all of my life. In the fall of 2017 I had the pleasure of seeing Iguazu Falls from both the Brazilian and Argentinean sides. The last piece in my trifecta of visiting huge waterfalls dividing nations fell into place recently when I viewed Victoria Falls from Zambian and Zimbabwean soil.

It’s a less than two-hour flight from Johannesburg, South Africa to Livingstone, the nearest Zambian city to Victoria Falls. I’d purchased a Kaza entry visa, which granted me entry into both Zambia and Zimbabwe, online for U.S.$50.55 before my arrival at Harry Mwanga Nuumbula International Airport. Other travellers didn’t have that foresight, unfortunately, so I still had to wait in line quite a while to be processed while they purchased their visas.

Named after David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer and missionary who was the first white man to explore the area in 1855, the city of approximately 140,000 people doesn’t offer a lot to visitors beyond its role as a gateway. So after getting a ride from the airport into town and checking in to my private room at the charming Jollyboys Backpackers at 2 p.m., I immediately caught a cab for the 10-kilometre ride to Victoria Falls.

The driver agreed to a U.S.$16 round-trip price and would pick me up when Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park closed three hours later. The entry fee to the park was U.S.$20, a small price to pay to view one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Mosi-oa-Tunya translates from the Lozi language into English as “The Smoke Which Thunders.” When high water season hits in March and April after heavy rains, that name would certainly make sense due to the thick mists and crashing sounds that can be heard from several kilometres away. But even during my visit at the end of December, when the Zambezi River was still moving pretty slowly a month after the dry season ended, the views of the 1,700-metre long falls were still spectacular.

I wanted to build up to that, however, by first walking down the steep Palm Grove Trail through a rain forest to Boiling Pot, where a small waterfall flows into the Zambezi. It offers good views of a gorge and Victoria Falls Bridge, and some folks opted to climb on to rocks in the falls to cool off. But, knowing I had a timeline to adhere to and the main event still to come, I climbed back up, making it a 30-minute round trip.

The Knife Edge Island Trail takes you along a ledge, and across a footbridge over a gorge, to face the eastern cataract. This included Armchair Falls, a natural depression on the lip of the falls where those braver than me immersed themselves in the water. The trail ends with a view of Rainbow Falls and the first gorge’s exit to Boiling Pot in the second gorge.

The third, and least busy, walking option was what I found to be the ironically named Photographic Trail. The views of the falls aren’t as good, or available at all, on this path. About one-third of the way along, I found myself alone amidst a couple of dozen baboons — including some large dominant males. Since I’d had unpleasant experiences with primates in India, I became a bit nervous and turned back.

My driver was true to his word and was there to take me back into town, which has one main commercial street that’s also part of the T1 highway that takes you to the capital city of Lusaka.

It was time for dinner and a restaurant called Na Lelo served me a delicious half a piri piri chicken, French fries and two bottles of Zambia’s quite decent national beer, Mosi, for 84 kwacha (U.S.$7). 

Jollyboy's Backpackers' pool.
Jollyboy's is located just off the main street and, after returning and ordering a beer at its outdoor bar, three women invited me to sit at a table with them. It wasn’t long before they invited me to a nearby club called Limpo’s to celebrate New Year’s Eve with them. Four other women, and two men, also joined us.

My new friends knew people at the door and we were let in without paying a cover charge. We started at an inside bar where a band was playing a mix of reggae, top 40 hits and local music, including an instrumental reggae version of Europe’s “The Final Countdown” which almost gave me an unironic appreciation of the song.

When the band took a break we went to a semi-open-air club with a DJ that was part of the same complex. A bottle of Mosi was just 10 kwacha (U.S.80 cents) and they went down easily in the 30-degree night-time heat.

Zambia is a former British colony previously known as Northern Rhodesia before it gained independence in 1964. Most of the white residents left the country at that time and the population was comprised of 98.2 per cent Black Africans in the 2010 census.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that I was the only white man in a club with 1,000 people, and apparently earned novelty status from it. People bought me beers, asked me to pose in photos with them, and a few women offered more intimate proposals.

The stroke of midnight was celebrated with fireworks — not carefully set off by professional technicians providing a show, but by dozens of people who brought their own to the club and set them off freely.

This lasted for quite a while and, with the noise and smoke from the fireworks combined with the loud dance music blasting from the speakers, I'd had enough and felt no guilt in calling it an early night and leaving with a Rasta named Eric to accompany a young Korean woman named Uri back to Jollyboy's because it probably wasn’t safe for her to walk alone.

I was in bed by 1:30 a.m., the earliest that had happened on New Year’s Eve that I can remember since I was a kid — aside from 2012 when I returned home from Mexico and most of my body broke out into hives and I spent the night hooked up to an intravenous tube in a hospital bed. But that’s a story for another time.