Who's game? From the lap of luxury to the company of hungry lions, a vacation in Africa can be as adventurous as you choose Spectacle: Tourists flock to see the world's biggest waterfall crash into the gorges between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

October 26, 1997|By Suzanne Daley | Suzanne Daley,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A sunset cruise on the Zambezi? Who with $25 to spare could resist? And for the first hour it delivers all the magic the name implies -- a languid ride along a seemingly pristine African river.

There is nothing too dreamy about the boat -- bare wood-plank floors set on two pontoons, plastic chairs, drinks stored in rusting coolers and offered in well-scratched plastic tumblers. But the water is calm, and the banks are lush. On one side, we pass a crocodile catching the last bit of warmth, lazing on some rocks. On the other, there are three hippos, submerged to the eyeballs but occasionally yawning for our entertainment. Strange birds swoop and call over our heads.

Then, as the actual hour of sunset draws closer, so do the other boats. At first there are two behind us. Then one on the left. And there, to the right, another one. By the time that huge, flaming orange ball of a sun melts behind the palm trees on the horizon, we are surrounded. There are more than a dozen boats lined up to see the event -- all shapes and sizes, all powered by outboard motors.

As we sail back to the dock, an elephant looms in the dusk, ripping branches from a tree at the river's edge. As captains maneuver so their guests can get a closer look, there is a near-collision.

The signs of a booming tourist industry in Victoria Falls are easy to see, from the crowd around the Wimpy's fast-food restaurant, which charges a minimum to sit at its tables, to the packed zebra-striped tour buses whizzing past the dusty four-block area some might refer to as downtown.

The main draw, of course, is downstream from the sunset cruises: the world's biggest waterfall crashing into the gorges between Zimbabwe and Zambia and kicking up a mist that rises 1,000 feet into the air and can be seen from miles away.

It is a spectacular sight and remains relatively unscathed, apart from the narrow concrete path built so tourists can meander through the miniature rain forest created by the mist. The only fence that keeps you from plummeting over the cliff is a thigh-high tangle of thorn-tree branches. In some places, not even that exists. An untended child can walk right over the edge.

But lie down -- not on the flowers, please -- and peek over that edge, into the Boiling Pot below the falls. You will likely see swarms of orange life jackets and blue helmets far below -- tourists clambering onto rafts to ride the whitewater. Or roll over and look up, and any time after 7 a.m. you may see two helicopters crisscrossing the sky. It's $65 for a 15-minute ride. And what a ride. But when it dips sideways to afford a stomach-churning view straight down into the caldron, the thwok-thwok of the rotors carries for miles.

"You can wake up and think you're in Vietnam," said Vanessa Weissenstein, a project manager for an interior design firm in Cape Town who spent three months last year in a hotel near the falls.

A Victoria Falls vacation these days is a cross between visiting a nature preserve and an amusement park. You can jump off a 93-year-old bridge tied to a bungee cord. You can take a short, thrilling whitewater ride or make it a three-day expedition downstream. You can go "river boarding" -- shooting the rapids on a surfboard. In addition to taking a helicopter ride, you can fly over the falls in a small plane or even a one-passenger ultralight that boasts "low noise pollution." Andthere is a range of Land Rover safaris through the nearby parks. Most of the hotels have activity desks, with staff ready to sign you up, depending on your degree of common sense.

In the last few years, the number of tourists visiting Victoria Falls has skyrocketed to about 400,000, roughly twice as many as in the late 1980s. They come from all over the world, but there has been an influx of South Africans since the collapse of apartheid has improved relations between the two countries. A sporty lot, they tend to head the line at the bungee-jumping booth. Still, my husband, the fellow with the glasses who studied the classics at Berkeley, did it too, so you just can't depend on stereotypes.

Conservationists alarmed

To anyone who has seen the crowds and parking lots at American or European tourist destinations, it is hard to conclude that tourism is "ruining" Victoria Falls. But conservationists have begun sounding the alarm, warning that the thousands of visitors flocking to see the area's natural beauty could well end up destroying it.

"It's all getting rather out of hand," said Dick Pitman, the head of the Zambezi Society, a nonprofit conservation group based in Harare, the capital. "It's an unplanned free-for-all up there."

To be sure, this is not yet Niagara Falls. No spotlights. No neon signs. No malls. No discount outlets. No billboards. And no smelly chemical factories, a less-than-pleasant feature of Niagara Falls just upstream from the cataract.

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