Looking around at the die-hards who are dancing despite the onslaught of summer rain, whipping their wet hair to the beat and laughing at the clingy sundresses, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is an advert for exotic Brazilian rum, not a music festival. But the Vic Falls Carnival is different from most music festivals. And after spending two days on an overlander truck, camping and drinking and watching Botswana speed past our windows, the adventure had taken on more than a hint of “pilgrimage”.
Here are some of the highlights from my best New Year’s adventure yet.
1. Getting there
The festival starts early for those boarding overlander trucks. We set off from Joburg in a whirl of people with colourful clothes and strong opinions about malaria medication. From Joburg to Vic Falls via Botswana, there was plenty of time to get to know each other. Playing cards, drinking beers and bonding over bumpy roads and bruised bums: by the time we arrived at the carnival, our truck was a well-oiled party machine.
2. The accidental safari
The route took us through rainstorms, dusty mining towns, green maize fields as far as the eye could see, and some of the best wildlife-spotting areas in Southern Africa. The highway was dotted with sad-looking, drenched elephants, munching away casually through the rain (including one bull who was quite sure that this was HIS highway).
3. Sunrises in Botswana
The long driving times meant that there were some very early starts. Spending the hazy twilight between “drunk” and “hungover” at 5am on New Year’s Day packing up a dirty, heavy, military-style tent in the pouring rain is something I hope never to experience again. However, those early mornings also meant that I got to see this sunrise. (This was on our way to breakfast at Camp Itumela in Palapye, Botswana.)
4. The steam-train party
Once we’d arrived in Zimbabwe, the fun could really start. Those who built the steam train in 1950 couldn’t have known that half a century later, its carriages would function as a dance floor. Turns out though, that it’s the perfect set up – somehow, the suspension could deal with the entire carriage dipping and bouncing in time with DJ Francis’ sick beats. Last year there was a beer shortage on the train, but luckily there was no such problem this year (apart from the mind-numbingly intense crush of people trying to get to the bar.) After an hour or two of watching the Zambezi National Park spooling past our windows, we arrived at a “secret bush location,” and were quite ready to spill out and take over a little corner of wilderness with as much dancing as our legs could bear.
5. White water rafting on the Zambezi
A few hours later, my trembling knees and I were stumbling down a ridiculously steep ravine, petrichor and mosquitoes rising from the damp forest floor, until I finally got my first glimpse of the Zambezi. The forests and towering cliffs around us made me think of Borneo. The white water rafting itself was way more intense than I expected, but our guide from Adventure Zone was experienced enough to keep panic at bay. I fell out in the middle of a rapid, got trapped under a tipped-over boat, breathed in water, and generally had the time of my life. If you’re looking for an adrenalin experience, bungee-jumping and rafting are about the same price: except one takes about five minutes, and the other is a half-day adventure. Make the right choice. (And listen to your guide’s insistence that the life jacket should fit like a corset.)
6. The music
I’ve never before seen an artist climb the scaffolding to twerk in mid-air. That was life-changing – if you ever get the chance to see Mampi live, it’s recommended. From Just Jinjer to the Flash Republic, the acts rolled along with the kind of smooth professionalism that’s rare at an African music festival (kudos, Seed Experiences.) However, I am hoping that next year there’s more than a lukewarm nod to the Zimbabwean artists – all local bands were given starting slots, and played their hearts out to (mostly) the set-up crew. I can stomp along to Jeremy Loops just as enthusiastically as the next barefoot earthchild, but part of the experience of an African music festival is being exposed to new music. You don’t have to play it so safe, guys.
7. Vic Falls
Maybe my expectations weren’t high enough for Victoria Falls, but it was so much more dramatic than I was prepared for. Having a UNESCO World Heritage Site within strolling distance of your festival site is a feature that puts the Vic Falls Carnival in a different league – it’s a lot more than just a party. See you there in 2014!