Victoria Falls – An African Adventure
Words & pics Alistair Stuart
Victoria Falls is one of those destinations that is on most people’s bucket list. One can only imagine what David Livingstone must have thought when he laid eyes on the falls 160 years ago. In honour of Queen Victoria and the British Empire he decided to name this natural wonder Victoria Falls. The falls also have another, perhaps more appropriate, name - Mosi-O-Tunya “The smoke that thunders”.
Nowadays Vic Falls, as it is known by the locals, is a well developed tourist destination with considerably easier access than in Livingstone’s time. Looking out of the aeroplane window as you head into Victoria Falls Airport will, if you’re lucky, give you a view of the magnificent “smoke” above the falls and the stark, seemingly endless wilderness of bushveld that borders Vic Falls in all directions.
One of the first things on every visitor’s to do list is a stop at the falls. Remember to bring your passport along to benefit from the differentiated entrance rates. Locals get the best rate followed by SADC passport holders. Expect to spend between 2 and 3 hours to appreciate the falls properly. Start at Livingstone’s statue and work your way along a well established network of paths towards the Victoria Falls Bridge which was built way back in 1905.
It’s worth visiting the falls both in the morning and in the late afternoon to get the best possible photos, though no matter how many pictures or videos you take of the falls you never truly capture the experience. At some point put the iPad/iPhone/camera away and imply stand on the rim of the gorge and take in the roaring of the water streaming over the edge. Feel the “rain” soak your clothes and skin and drink in the scale of what stands before you.
Zimbabwe has been through its ups and downs but things are definitely changing for the better. The introduction of the US dollar has made it possible to put food back on the shelves and to have a more normal economy. But life is still expensive in town and for most locals everyday is a challenge. There are many street vendors selling curios and carvings and they can get rather overwhelming at times. If you are not interested the best way to deal with them is a firm but polite “No thank you, I’m not interested!” Don’t start bargaining with them as a way to put them off.
Apart from the vendors there are also a bewildering array of more formal shops and markets covering everything from Shona art to fun T-shirts. Set some time aside to browse and have a bite at one of the many restaurants around Vic Falls. Elephant Square offers a particularly good selection of both curios and food.
An African Adrenaline Adventure
Victoria Falls is traditionally marketed as an action packed African adventure - and it certainly delivers. If you want to experience some of the best white water rafting in the world, massive gorge swings, bungee jumping, African Elephant rides and other thrills then it’s definitely the place for you.
The mighty Zambezi is the ultimate playground for those with nerves of steel and comprehensive travel insurance. Here expert guides navigate through the famed rapids along with a crew who film/photograph you every step of the way. Feel your heart sit in your throat as you head for the next roaring rapid while crocs watch from the banks. The Zambezi is akin to something out of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - a chocolate-coloured river with surprises and wonders around every corner.
You end the rafting with throbbing arms and a real sense of achievement, but keep some energy in reserve for the hike out of the canyon back into the real world – there’s no magic glass elevator in this story!
A stone’s throw away from the briefing site for the white water rafting is the platform for the bridge swings and zip lines. Inevitably each swing into the canyon starts off along the lines of “this isn’t so bad, don’t be such a cissie” then, unless you are Jeb Corliss who feels no fear, it rapidly changes to “what did I just get myself into!” As the count-down progresses your senses start to blur and you’re overcome by sensory overload as you plunge into the magnificent gorge falling and falling until, eventually, the rope starts to take up your weight and you feel like you might be able to fly forever.
Less extreme but no less enchanting is the African Elephant ride through the same concession in which the beautiful Elephant Camp is situated. This is something that I would highly recommend both for young and old. Meeting an African elephant eye to eye and stroking its forehead while it feels your hands and arms with its deceptively gentle trunk makes you understand what intelligent and majestic creatures elephants are. It’s hard not to be awed by the largest terrestrial animal on Earth.
After a hard day of feeding your adrenaline worm, it’s time to experience the local cuisine and nightlife in Vic Falls. The Boma is an exceptional culinary and cultural experience. It offers a unique opportunity to wear Masai blankets while dining on excellent venison and other African delights. Warthog may not be the prettiest creatures but they definitely make very tasty steaks! Mopani worms are also on offer complete with a certificate which you can take home once you have managed to keep one down. (They aren’t so bad - really!)
The Safari Side
There is also another, perhaps more secret side to Vic Falls...
Just outside town is the Zambezi National Park. Combined with Victoria Falls National Park it as an unfenced conservation area of some 56,000 hectares. Coming from South Africa this is somewhat of a strange concept to me. Everything in RSA is fenced in with a serious 10ft fence designed to keep the outside world out and/or your very valuable game in. In Zimbabwe not so. Animals are allowed to come and go as they please and the locals mostly respect the animals and their environment. The collapse of Zim’s economy did force people to subsistence poach to stay alive in the past but fortunately this has changed and with it there has been a good recovery in the local wildlife.
Nestled on a prime concession in Zambezi National Park is Wild Frontiers Pioneers Camp www.wildfrontiers.com. The luxury tented camp is about an hour’s drive into the park from the centre of Vic Falls. Wild Frontiers offers a unique experience with a minimal impact on the environment. The camp is spread along the banks of the Zambezi and each luxury tent is separated from its neighbour by a winding path through the bush. Close your eyes and imagine sitting under the African sky with only stars and a crackling fire for light. Listen to the sounds of the bush, the mocking laugh of hippos and the splashing of the river as it continues its unstoppable course towards the thundering falls.
Come morning, head out on a game drive with arguably some of the best safari guides in the world. We were hoping to see some hyenas in the park and our guide Tendai delivered unbelievably. He searched and navigated through the twisting road network until the alarm call of guinea fowl alerted him to something untoward. “Animals have their own language too” he says to us in muffled tones. We wait and watch not daring to breathe...
And there it is. Behind a bush far off the road is a spotted hyena working on a bone from a recent kill.
Expect to see at some of the Big 5 - lion, elephant and buffalo. Leopards are notoriously hard to spot, and if there are still rhino left after the Far East has satisfied its desire for rhino horn, there can’t be many. There are also many species of lesser game too numerous to mention.
To finish off your African Safari you could try some tiger fishing or a sunset cruise. Climb aboard one of the cruise boats and sip on gin and tonic while you watch a memorable African sunset colour the horizon and river yellow, red and then purple... Vic Falls is a special place.