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Meeting the “locals” on the Zambezi

February 12, 2011 7 comments

Some of the Zambezi's "local" residents.

Whether you are a “first timer” to Africa, a back-packer, on a family vacation or on honeymoon, Victoria Falls caters for just about everyone. While elderly couples sip Afternoon Tea at Victoria Falls Hotel, families mingle at the Boma Restaurant, safari lovers hop around Mwange and Chobe national parks and adventure-junkies can enjoy white water rafting, helicopter and micro-light flights over the Falls and bungee jumping.

The Zambezi river cruise is well worth doing, regardless of your adrenalin-level. We go with a smaller local travel company which charges just USD 15 per person (bigger ones like Wild Horizons charge double the price) for a two-hour river cruise with drinks and canapés, transfer to and from the hotel and, if you’re lucky, a close-up encounter with hippos thrown in. All in all, in a place where the average tourist excursion will set you back at least USD 50, this is a bargain! The boat operators are creative with their cruises – you can choose a breakfast and sunrise, lunch, afternoon or sunset cruise so basically, they run all day.

The mighty Zambezi is the fourth-longest river in Africa, running an impressive 3,540 kilometers from Zambia up to Angola before it empties into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. Besides an amazing supply of African birdlife, the Zambezi is home to many a crocodile and hippo.

We set off on our peculiar looking flat-bottomed river boat and within minutes have spotted the first crocodiles and a family of 12 hippos. Now, forget the idea of hippos being cute and cuddly, these grumpy buggers kill more people in Africa each year than any lion or crocodile. Usually, you’ll just spot their bulging eyes and massive jaws as they surface for air or if they’re hungry, you’ll see them standing on the banks with their massive a***s facing you on the banks. This time, however, we are treated to both views. Half the hippos bathe in the water, keeping a wary eye on us and opening their mouths to roar every so often in case we forget who’s the boss of the Zambezi. Hippos are highly territorial so stay out of their space, otherwise they won’t be impressed. One guy even reverses back into the bank to do his business, too lazy to get out. Several clamber ungracefully out of the water to munch on the grass close by before plunging his two-tonne frame back into the water again. It’s a rare sight to see them getting in and out of the water and we watch them spellbound for half an hour.

Zambezi river cruise: a tourist trap but well worth doing.

In case the hippos haven’t already realized we’re there, our on-board drummer and singer turns up the live music, probably to distract us from the rain which has started falling (it’s the rainy season but it’s still warm) but which we hardly notice.

Heading into our mooring slot, instead of us spotting the local wildlife, a smart Zambezi crocodile has spotted us and thinking he might get lucky if one of us is drunk enough to fall overboard, starts swimming at a marathon pace in our direction. Crocodiles like to “ambush” their prey in the water and can live for long periods without eating due to their slow metabolism. So, as long as we stay on the boat and he stays in the water, we’re not part of the food chain. Still, I wouldn’t fancy wandering around the banks after the sun sets.

A “Wilde” experience

viking-cinderella-10

On Thursday I boarded one of Sweden’s most notorious “Booze cruise” ships – the Cinderella from Viking Line – bound for Mariehamn in the Åland Islands. Even though it was mid-week, hundreds of passengers lined up for boarding dragging empty suitcases behind them. The reason for their (and my) trip? Apart from the obvious answer – to stock up on a few months supply of cheap alcohol and cigarettes at tax-free prices and to party – to listen to Eighties singing sensation Kim Wilde who was playing that night on board. How on earth she ended up on a Viking Line cruise in the Baltic Sea is a mystery to me!

48-year-old Kim came on stage at 23.00 by which time the audience were pretty intoxicated and clambering over the thin barrier before being dragged away by Cinderella cruise staff/bouncers. The first few songs were mediocre and ones I never heard before. During every song she stopped mid-sentence to say “Please keep back. I don’t want to see anyone getting hurt. Please take care of each other and stay back,” before having to restart, or in some cases not restart at all, her songs.

Halfway through she started to play her real hits and the concert really started despite some starts and restarts as the drunken Nordic audience continued to attempt to drunkily clamber over the thin railing and get closer to the “Kids in America” star. By 24.00 she finished on a high with “Kids in America” and despite my disillusionment with the first half of the concert and her performance, I think she gave a fair performance, certainly I can’t complain about value-for-money – the cruise including cabin, breakfast and concert cost just SEK 735 for two people.

I’ve been on hundreds of these cruise ships which plough through the Baltic waters every day but every time the level of drunkedness on board astounds me. As an Irish girl whose country-folk can really drink, it always astonishes me how the locals in this part of the world can be completely transformed from shy, non-eye-contact makers to super-extroverted, super uncoordinated, roaring drunks. My last experiences before disembarking the ship – a 40-something-year-old man fumbling around half-drunk (at 3.00 in the afternoon) for his cans of beer (the box had split) and what looked like a harmless little old lady in her Seventies, who grabbed me by the arm and tried to pull me along with her before almost crashing to the ground. Luckily her equally drunken companion managed to catch her before she hit the ground.

Baltic cruises – they’re an experience for sure and even though every time I swear I’ve never seen such drunken people and that I won’t go on another one for a while, somehow, I just can never resist them! And with Cinderella giving out free cruise vouchers for every SEK 500 of purchases on board, I’ve clocked up 6 free cruises now so I’ll be back on board soon … no doubt dumbfounded once again by my drunken fellow passengers!!

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