Victoria Falls, on the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe, is a prime example.
We hiked along elephant paths in mopane forests screaming with locusts, through villages that have looked much the same since the 19th century. Most had no electricity, plumbing or — aside from secondhand, first-world clothing — industrially manufactured goods. Children asked our names and wanted us to play (one boy let me shoot his twig-and-gut bow-and-arrow). When adults asked where we were going, my fellow travelers shouted, “Victoria Falls!” while marching on — and I, still jet-lagged, fretted that we were missing chances to encounter the Africa that Livingstone had known.
On the third day, we reached the falls.
“Creeping with awe to the verge,” Livingstone had looked down into the gorge, and when I left the group to do the same, all the homework I had done drained out of me. Knees burning on black basalt, one hand grabbing a clump of dead grass, the other clutching my grimy Tilley hat, I pressed my head over Livingstone Island's edge.
I laughed because, I think, the falls seemed improbable, even absurd. There is a river — with rocks and boats and fishermen — plain, clear, slow-moving water — and then there is a crazed, frothing, broken, foaming force, gliding slowly through the misty air.
At this moment, it wasn't difficult to imagine why, 150 years ago, Victoria Falls was the only sight that drove Livingstone to the sheer juvenile exuberance of carving his initials into a tree.
As I looked at the rushing water, a half-dozen naked Zambians emerged from the river. They said they had been swimming at the edge.
One introduced himself: “My name is Rock Spider.”
“Your name is Rock Spider?”
“O.K., that is my nickname. My real name is Alphomega, but that is embarrassing.” (He spelled it for me later.)
On steppingstones, I followed Alphomega to the Devil's Pool at the falls' brink — a small green lagoon enclosed by rocks where, in the dry season, some people swim and even climb up on the very lip. He said, “It's safe,” and back-flipped into the air, hitting the water three feet from the edge.
WHERE TO STAY
Most hotels in Zambia set their rates in South African rands and United States dollars. High-end hotels accept credit cards and traveler's checks; most other businesses (including many safari and tour operators) do not. Take plenty of dollars, and make sure the bills are crisp, as most Zambians do not accept wrinkled or torn bills. You will use kwacha, the local currency, only for minor daily expenses, and possibly only in remote areas.
West of Livingstone, up the Zambezi from Victoria Falls, are several luxury lodges.
Islands at Siankaba (260-3-327490), www.siankaba.net, $410 a person per night in high season (June-October), $315 in low season (November-May), consists of seven secluded huts connected to the central lodge by a footbridge from which monkeys will flee as you walk to dinner. Price includes meals, drinks and house wines, airport transfers, river cruises and a tour of Victoria Falls.
The full colonial experience may be had at the Royal Livingstone Hotel (260-3-321122, www.sun-international.com, doubles $716), very close to the falls. For a taste of the backpacker scene, try Jollyboys International Backpackers hostel (260-3-324229; www.backpackzambia.com), where clean, comfortable private rooms go for $25 a night.
Ngonye Falls is about 45 miles from Mutemwa Lodge (27-11-234-1747; www.mutemwa.com), run by Gavin Johnson, a retired South African rugby star, and his wife, Penny. The lodge is known for its expert fishing guides, and an overnight visit to the falls is included in the rate of $320 a person per night.
Claire Powell of Thorn Tree Safaris (260-4-221-615; www.thorntreesafaris.com) in the northern regional hub of Kasama can arrange waterfall safaris to Kabweluma, among others. For a solo traveler, the charge was about $500 a day (cash only), but rates vary according to itinerary.
WHERE TO EAT
It is hard to stop worrying that everything is sufficiently boiled. Thus, much food for Westerners in Zambia is earnestly overcooked. The deftest meal I had in the country was at the Royal Livingstone, which serves oven-baked bream caught fresh from the Zambezi; with wine and appetizer, dinner was about $50 a person. The most memorable meal I had was at Mutemwa Lodge. After dessert, we caught flying ants from the air, held them by their wings with their bodies in the candle flames, sprinkled them with salt, and popped them in our mouths. The effect was as nutritiously blank, and as pleasingly crispy, as a Trader Joe's soy chip.