I was nearing the halfway point of an adventure tour through southern Africa. I'd visited (and fallen in love with) the continent five years earlier, but this time I was camping during the entire trip. After seven days of setting up and tearing down tents, crawling over an ice chest to get to my seat in the minivan, sweltering during the dry, dusty days and shivering through the frosty desert nights, I'd had enough "adventure" for the time being and eagerly anticipated a two-day respite in the more touristy Victoria Falls region.
As I perused the list of available activities, I deliberately skipped over the ones accompanied by the word "adrenaline": bungee jumping, gorge swing, microlight flights.
Instead, my eyes were drawn to this listing: Livingstone Island. "You will be picked up from the deck of the [hotel] and taken to Livingstone Island in the middle of the Victoria Falls. After a tour around the island and photo opportunities right on the EDGE of Victoria Falls (AMAZING views!), you will be treated with 5-star service to either a light breakfast snack, lunch, or high tea. There is time for swimming as well."
Perfect. The excursion sounded suitably exotic, yet not nerve-racking – exactly what I was looking for.
On the day of the tour, we arrived at the island, and our guide, Jeremiah, immediately led us toward our destination. The more common views of Victoria Falls that I'd seen the last time had been dazzling enough, but peering down at them from the ridge top added a whole new dimension to the experience.
Conditions were ideal for the falls' "signature phenomenon," a picture-perfect rainbow spanning the ravine with its mirror reflection only slightly less brilliant above it. Breathtaking.
Time to eat, I thought, but Jeremiah surprised me by asking if I was ready to go for a swim. I didn't see a pool anywhere, but I stripped down to my bathing suit and followed him across the rocky terrain to where the Zambezi River tumbled over the cliff walls. He pointed to another group of rocks in the middle of the river. "We'll swim over there, walk across those rocks, and jump in the pool."
I scanned the area. All I could see was a small, open area of water that suddenly plunged more than 330 feet straight down to the bottom of the gorge. Was he kidding?
"Let's go." He started swimming across, and I followed closely behind, still thinking I must be misunderstanding something.
When we reached the rocks, Jeremiah helped me hobble across the uneven terrain and then paused beside the pool of swirling water. "I'm going to jump in first, and then you can either jump in, like me," he said, "or you can step down over the rocks into the water."
OK, he really wasn't kidding. While the water was "merely" churning here, only 20 feet farther out it cascaded over the precipice at who knows how many millions of gallons per minute. And I was someone who had made a conscious decision to avoid any adrenaline-pumping activity today!
Jeremiah leapt – arms and legs akimbo – into the middle of the pool and then turned and called to me. "Fold your legs and jump on the count of three." As I stared in disbelief at the frothing water below me, I tried desperately to call on the cannonballing skills of my youth.
"One, two, three!"
"Um, I'm still standing on the rocks."
"One, two, three!"
Yep, still on the rocks, but this time my body had inched forward just a little.
"One, two, three!"
The second I hit the cool, fresh water, every ounce of trepidation and exhaustion dissolved from my body. Surfacing, I looked for Jeremiah, who was now sitting right on the lip of the chasm, the double rainbow framing his body as he smiled and gave me the thumbs-up sign. At that point, nothing could have stopped me from swimming toward the abyss. We sat with our backs to it for a minute or two, posing for pictures, my extremely wide grin seemingly permanent now.
"Turn over." I looked at Jeremiah, who was now facing the void. The water must have also dissolved all my resistance and common sense. I turned.
He gestured toward the drop. "Go ahead." I gingerly leaned forward as Jeremiah held my leg and gently pushed me over the edge. Clutching the cliff wall, I cautiously soaked up one jaw-dropping view after another: the Zambezi rapids crashing far below me, the massive spray shooting up from the falls to my right. the brilliant rainbows above.
Jeremiah pulled me back and I turned over again, energized as I'd never been before. We swam around the pool for a couple more minutes, and then he announced it was time to go.
"Wait," I pleaded. "Can I do it just one more time?" He laughed and nodded.
This time as he pushed me out, I extended my arms out in front of me like Superman flying free over the city. The views seemed even more spectacular as I gave myself over to the exhilaration.
Of course, we did eventually have to leave. But after my startling voyage to the edge of the falls, I've discovered that no adventure tastes quite so sweet as one that is wholly unexpected, but then – once recognized – is wholly embraced.