In Zambia: A moonbow, an elephant and a strange toilet

Livingstone, Zambia. 2004.

Someone said it was a moonbow. The pale arc divided the night sky where the Zambezi River ran out of plateau and tumbled down for a hundred metres to form the Victoria Falls.

“A moonbow?” I’d never heard the word before, but there it was, like a rainbow in remission. In place of bands of colour were graded shades of grey. The colours were not absent, just hidden from my eyes. A camera set to long exposure could have brought them back to life.

Moonbows form when moisture in the air contorts light reflecting off the moon. The spray that rises when more than a thousand cubic metres of water falls every second makes this among the best places in the world to see one. But the moonbow was not all that made this night special.

My friends left. I lingered. I looked up again at the top of the falls and saw the silhouette of a shape I couldn’t fail to recognise. It was a big bull elephant standing side on to me, Africa’s biggest animal atop its biggest waterfall. In that moment, all of nature was perfect.

The great grey elephant stood still and silent. The moonbow’s great grey curve described a momentary collaboration between Earth and its stony-faced satellite. And the falls filled my ears with a roar that had begun as the gentle songs of several thousand distant streams. I felt as small as I should in the company of nature’s vastness.

The next day I went to a hotel in which I could not afford a room but could at least enjoy a cold beer. When I went to the bathroom I saw ice cubes heaped in each urinal, like piles of wet diamonds.

There in Zambia, just a few hundred metres away from a place where the universe’s magic had set my mind alight, somebody had decided it made sense to use energy and water to create ice so men could urinate on it.