Day 1: Tongabezi, Zambia
If we could manifest the perfect eco retreat location for our international photography workshops, we would want it to be eco friendly in terms of using alternative green energy be partially self sustaining with its own organic farm and hydroponic garden, it would benefit the local community by offering employment and career opportunities with the employees empowerment and well being as part of its corporate ethos, it would even set up a rural school complete with a computer lab, an art department and the only library in the region. It would also have a reverence for the land in every aspect of its design and presentation as an authentic expression of its character. Interacting with the staff themselves would be a cultural experience with the friendliest hospitality, just as generous with smiles as with assistance and information.
Tongabezi in Zambia is one such special place. We are proud to be their partners for our Victoria Falls photography workshop. This place is all about the details which are so numerous you will have to experience them for your own delight.
Day 2: Exploring Victoria Falls
Sitting on my veranda overlooking the orange and purple hues of the Zambezi River on Sinbezi Island, listening to a chorus of birds sing together in harmony with the occasional guttural chirping of a Hippo, I took a sip of a Mozi Zambian beer admiring the label with majestic Victoria Falls displayed. The the label reads “As mighty as the Mosi-Oa-Tunya” the African name for Victoria Falls, which translates as “The Smoke That Thunders.” I reflect as the sun set and how life can offer extraordinary moments that are truly transformative.
We woke up in the early morning to photograph one of the world’s seven natural wonders, Victoria Falls. As we prepared for the amazing day we had planned ahead we were eagerly anticipating encountering Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in Africa. Three hundred fifty million liters of water fall over the face of a magnificent cliff in one minute with such volume that a curtain of mist sprays high into the air a hundred stories high creating the most majestic flowing curtain of rainbows and awaken you to the sacred majesty of Africa. It is difficult to put into words the magnificence of the experience.
Our first glance of the falls was from a ten kilometer distance, only the wall of mist shooting into the air and the flat smooth currents of the Zambezi river were visible. As we walked through the forest to the first rocky overlook, we were mesmerized by the most vibrant double rainbow we have ever laid our eyes on. That is incredible considering we are from the Hawaiian islands where rainbows are as iconic as swaying palms on the beach. The mist from the mighty falls softly caressed our faces as we photographed hers. It was a magnificent sight to experience what felt like Africa embracing us with open arms and a warm heart. We viewed the falls from a series of different vantage points then explored the depths of a rainforest on a cliff which stood between two double rainbows and traversed a bridge through the rising mists of the falls, in-between strong gusts of rain and cascading windows of the falls were breathtaking.
As we continued our journey onto a rocky butte, that is part of the falls, the mighty thunder of Mosi-Oa-Tunya and her forceful spray soaking into my skin truly made me feel one with this sacred place. Savoring the moment and the mist on my face, it was hard to leave. The experience felt so profound it will surely resonate through us forever. Our next mission was to photograph the mighty falls from the sky, so we headed to a heliport and hopped on a bell helicopter and took flight in search of new perspectives. “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” said the great humanitarian David Livingstone, over a hundred years ago. Gazing down the deep gorges of falling water, rising mist, fluttering rainbows and the mighty Zambezi River, so flat and smooth gently rolling off the craggy precipes as far as the eye can see, I learned how the waterfall has formed over the millennia creating eight deep gorges and currently carving out a ninth gorge in its ever-changing eternal flow. We spotted elephant, zebra, giraffe, and hippo playing on the river islands below. We asked our pilot how the elephants made it to the island and he explained they are avid swimmers and frequently swim in the river from the mainland to the islands between national parks on both the Zambian and Zimbabwe side of the river.
Like a mighty diamond radiating so many magnificent perspectives, we sought to explore something more up close and personal. We embarked on a boat across the river to the mouth of the waterfall to Livingstone Island where the great explorer himself first viewed the falls over two hundred years ago. We embarked on the sandy bank and walked through the reeds and forest to the edge of the island where we were met by the most stunning view we have ever seen in our lives. We were looking deep into the chasm of Victoria Falls watching an amazing dance of falling and rising water, creating a beautiful prism of rainbows across the entirety of the gorge. We were met by a strong and athletic guide to walk us along the edge of the falls to swim in what’s known as Angels Pool. Allured by the mystique of this magical place we took his hand and released all fears and carefully stepped across the rocky escarpment at the edge of the falls. The thunder roared sweet misty songs into our ears, soft breezes of mist kissed and embraced our faces, and a brilliant tiara of rainbows on a cloudy display was heavenly as we swam in natural pools at the very edge of Victoria Falls. Looking down a distance of over 30 meters you could see the Zambezi River continuing its journeys through the gorges which are thousands of years old eventually leading out to the Indian Ocean.
We deftly stepped into a deep whirlpool of swift moving currents and peered over the top of Victoria Falls! The majesty of this experience connected us to the mighty river, the falls, and the mana (life energy) of Africa. The Zambezi is a vital source for water and energy for 6 African countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Angola, Namibia, & Mozambique. The hydro-electric dam at the falls supplies electricity to the entire region. We immersed ourselves in the cascading river and became drops for an instance in this timeless flow. This profound exhilarating experience reminded us as photographers, who are always pursuing beautiful light as it falls on the canvas of our world, that moments celebrating our inner light as artists and authors of images is of equal importance.
On the twenty minute boat ride to Sinbezi Island, we glided across still waters and came upon two crocodile laying on a sandy riverbank. One had it’s mouth wide open with expectation of luring an unsuspecting bird into it’s perilous jaws. The other had a piece of it’s flesh near it’s mouth exposed presumably from his last meal. We arrived just in time for sunset and were escorted along a sandy forested pathway to a beautiful rustic Carusoe-esque stilted cottage overlooking stunning panorama of the river and it’s environs. Once again, the vibrant colorful hues of the African sky at sunset inspired us to create great images expressing the moment which we savored while shooting and in-between exposures.
Day 3: Encountering the Flora and Fauna of Zambia
We woke at sunrise on deserted Sinbezi Island, the only island to accommodate guests in the Zambezi River, and admired the delicate hues of the Zambian sunrise from our open aired jungle oasis. Harris the Hippo’s nest was empty so we made our way along the sandy path to a morning campfire and caught a glimpse of the sun just rising over the horizon just before breakfast. We boarded a small motor boat and cruised past sandy riverbanks with tall golden reeds illuminated by the golden and amber morning light. We spotted a regal black Zambian Fish Eagle, the national bird of Zambia, perched at the top of a barren Teak Tree overlooking the river. We were enchanted by the swirling currents and the way light flirted with the dancing morning mists. We photographed a few Hippos and searched for the two Crocodile we saw the evening before.
Our friendly and knowledgable guide Lawrence met us at the dock and we embarked in a raised open aired safari vehicle into the National Park of Mosi-Oa-Tunya that borders the falls. One of the most unique features that impressed us on our journey was the diverse native flora of majestic African trees including the Ebony, Teak, Acacia, Leadwood, Mbebe, and Baobaob. These trees form a dramatic scenic compliment to the wildlife we encountered. We learned that the Ebony is locally known as the Jackyl Berry Tree named so because only Jackyls eat the fruit of the tree. They can live up to two hundred years and can remain standing even forty years after they have died. The Teak is unique with its hues of light green leaves and intricate branching architecture. Brian’s favorite is the ancient Baobaob. Some of these trees are up to three thousand years old. The Africans refer to them as the upside down trees because its branches look like the roots and its massive wide trunks are their version of the Sequoia, the world’s largest tree in width. The first Baobaob we came across was significantly scarred by elephant foraging. The elephants use their powerful mouths to rip at the bark of the trees stripping away the bark and exposing the trunk’s core. This tree was 15 feet in diameter and 50 feet tall. These trees have seen a lot. They have many secrets and the rain tells them stories.
We first encountered a herd of Cape Buffalo grazing in the grass. Further along Egyptian Goose, Open Billed Stork, and African Jacana searched for insects and snails in a small marsh. A lone Waterbuck was accompanied by a Yellow Billed Ox Pecker hitching a ride on the buck’s back in a symbiotic relationship by grooming the buck freeing it from it’s parasitic guests. We next encountered a mother Giraffe and her new born foraging in a beautiful Teak grove. The light perfectly illuminated their faces and unique design. The lesson of the Giraffe’s unique anatomy for it’s defense and preservation is it’s grace and perspective. The reticulated squares of the camouflage makes it hard for lions to spot them when running, blending in with patches of shade. We photographed a family herd of Zebra drinking from a watering hole with their stripes reflecting in the surface of the water while Vultures circled overhead looking for carryon. There was a large troop of a hundred Baboon running determinedly with the adult males grunting and hooting in their native language. Baby’s clung tightly to their mother’s abdomens as they kept up with the troop at an impressive pace. A Warthog family with tusked father and three young scurried across the road and disappeared into the bush. We photographed some beautiful scenic panoramas along the riverbanks and discovered a family of ten Hippo sunning themselves across the river in Zimbabwe on sandy shores. There was a shallow pond which reflected the savannah grass and yellow and green tinted leaves which offered an expressionistic photographic opportunity.
There is a delicacy in ecology that sets this location apart from others we have been, which clearly defines it as a fabulous place for photographic compositions and opportunities. The collection of diverse native flora and fauna combined with subtle subdued tones of morning light is truly distinctive. In contrast, the sunrises and sunsets with vibrant golds, purples, and crimson hues are so exemplary of the classical eternal beauty of Africa.
After a beautiful morning searching for light and different perspectives we headed back towards Tongabezi to the Tujatane School, which was originally established to offer daycare and educate the staff’s children. It has grown from a student body of fifteen children to two hundred fifty and is run by private funding through guest donations. The campus offers a music room, art room, science lab, computer lab, amphitheater and has the only library in the entire area of Livingstone, whose contents have been collected entirely through donations. Beautifully painted classrooms from first grade to high school are surrounded by peaceful shaded gardens with soft breezes fluttering through the branches of Acacia. The school also provides breakfast and lunch for the student’s nutrition and wellbeing. We met with the children and were greeted warmly with a song and the warmest of smiles. The first graders showed us their math books and proudly demonstrated their skills at arithmetic. We parted leaving gifts of coconut candy which we brought from Hawai’i for the students delight and enjoyment. Walking back to the lodge, we passed an impressive herb and hydroponic gardens inspired by Tongabezi’s self sustainable and holistic elements. We were lead to an unenclosed treehouse which sat directly over the Zambezi River for our last nights accommodation.
A blue moon occurs when there are two full moons within a lunar month, but even more rare we encountered not only the blue moon but its luminescent rays illuminating the mist of Victoria Falls creating a massive vivid night rainbow arching over the cascading falls. This was truly an awesome and spectacular experience. We photographed the falls from three separate vantage points, each one offering a unique magnificent perspective. Photographing at night is always a challenge especially when photographing two separate moving subjects, the cascading falls and the rainbow mist, but after some fine tuning we managed to create a few beautiful images. It was one of the most rare and magical nights of our lives.