The end of May presented us with a long holiday weekend which we decided to fill with a trip to Victoria Falls in Zambia. Like most trips in Sub-Sahara Africa, they start with a Johannesburg transfer where we spent our time waiting for our flight in the beautiful Shongololo Lounge – (a shongololo is a uniquely African creepy crawly) drinking champagne, eating a meal, and enjoying internet café, showers, etc.
On South African Airways Flight was a large airbus to Livingstone Airport in Zambia and even before landing we can see the mist rise over 1000 feet above Victoria Falls into the air. Victoria Falls is known by the locals as “Mosi-oa-Tunya” which means “the Smoke that Thunders”.
Lour plane lands and we negotiate a slow line through immigration before getting our luggage and heading to the Royal Livingston Hotel, part of Sun International Hotels & resorts on the banks of the Zambezi River, just upstream of the Falls. After a pleasant iced fruit tea, hot towel and check in at their lounge we are guided to our room by Matthew, our steward, a beautiful 2nd floor flat with a balcony facing the river. After a brief wash up we headed to explore the area before our next scheduled adventure. Outside our door we immediately encountered 7 grazing zebra, and a family of vervet monkeys, before finally making our way to the hotels dock/waterfront bar. The raging torrent of water heading south at the hotel dockside bar was impressive as was the 6 foot long crocodile sunning himself not 2 meters from the bar platform. Luckily, the hotel keeps an inconspicuous electric fence and pointed rock border at the waters perimeter to discourage crocodile and hippo visitation.
At 3:00pm, we met our transport to the African Queen, a 2 story steam ship docked a few kilometers upstream from the hotel, for a sunset “boat safari” up the Zambezi River. We sat at the bar/rail on the second deck near a honeymooning couple from Rome and enjoyed free Gin & Tonics (G&T’s), pleasant conversation and observed an assortment of birds, crocodiles, water buffalos and zebras while nibbling on an excellent assortment of snacks and hors d’oeuvres. Our waiter, John, and bartender guide, Dorothy, took spectacular care of us ensuring our glasses were always renewed. Along the way upriver, we passed the upper tip of “Long” island and came upon the Zimbabwe banks of the river. As the sun began to set, we turned around and began our rapid downstream return to the Royal Livingstone in time to settle on the dock for another G&T as the last light left, the stars began to twinkle, and the temperature fell to nip our senses. We returned to our room to add a layer of clothes and decided to resume our earlier exploration adventure. From there, we wandered the trails to the Zambezi Sun, a sister hotel, explored the location of the shops, restaurants, and bars, before returning to our room for a well deserved good night’s sleep.
The next morning, Saturday, we awoke at 5:30am to prepare for our busy days adventure activities. After a quick continental breakfast in the 24 hour lounge, we met our transport to our elephant safari. Eleven of us were introduced to 8 elephants, from the 2 bull males, Bob and Danny, both approximately 40 years old, to the youngest, Sekuta at only 3 years old. We took s quick coffee and mounted, 3 per elephant, one guide and two riders, to begin our one hour safari through the bush and to the Zambezi River.
The elephants each had their own personality and Julie and I rode Danny, the 8 ton dominant male. Matinda, a younger female had a mind of her own and often wandered off from the group and the only way she could be corralled back was if Bob would go round her up. Traveling along behind us was the 2 youngest elephant’s Cheraku and Sekuta who explored the bush as we went. Along the way we saw impala and zebra and a huge 3 foot long monitor lizard. We stopped in the Zambezi River for the elephants to drink water, and then returned back to camp for snacks, tea and an environmental lesson on the dwindling elephant herds in Africa due to continued poaching.
We returned to the hotel at 10:15am, in time for a serious breakfast and then changed into our walking gear and headed to Victoria Falls. As we left the controlled area of the Sun Hotels we entered the Zambezi Victoria Falls Heritage Site and ventured along the banks of the Eastern Cataract that stretches between the shore and Livingstone Island. The water was apparently at its highest for the year, and one cannot imagine the roar and spray of 900,000,000 gallons/second of water as it crashes 400 hundred feet below. On the Zambia side, a peninsula of land called the Knife’s Edge juts out on the Bakota Gorge and acts as a backstop to the falls flow, forcing the water west under the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The falls area is its own complete micro-environment with its own weather system, as the drenching dense air alternately changes from monsoon rain storms to sunny views. The mist was so intense this day that the Falls themselves were hardly visible. At one point, to reach the tip of the peninsula, one must cross a 100 foot footbridge(the Narrows Bridge), drenched in continuous torrents of rain. We changed into sandals and raincoats and slogged our way across with water 2-3inches deep at our feet, running off as fast as it fell. At the tip, one could view the Western Cataract that stretches from Livingstone Island to the Zimbabwe shore. Below us was the churning mile if whirlpool waters know as the “Boiling Pot” and great views to the border crossing Victoria Falls Bridge and the famous Zimbabwe Victoria Falls Hotel. We made our way back to the park’s dry ground and continued our hike to the Zambia border, where we received a free pass to enter the bridge. We walked to the center of the bridge where Bungee jumpers tested their courage. After passing officially into Zimbabwe, we headed back to the “Jump Site”, an overlook bar where jumpers register to jump and there, we each drank Mosi Beer while watching the antics of novice daredevils. We then returned to the hotel for a restful set of G&T’s on the river deck watching the sun set over the Zambezi River and Zimbabwe, until darkness fell and the temperature began to drop. We returned to our rooms to shower and to dress warm-elegant for dinner outside in the winter crisp air. Dinner was a combination of “Duo Croc” for Julie and “Lamb Kabobs” for Rocky with a healthy serving of Roasted Duck interspersed with Aubergine Soup and Strawberry Sorbet. A bottle of Obikuti wine sealed the meal, and we then returned to the Internet Café, where Rocky watched the first half of Man U vs. Barcelona in the Champions League Finals, while Julie sorted through email. The night finished quietly as we were both sated and tired from our long days adventures.
Sunday started with a quick continental breakfast snack and a self-guided nature hike around the resort grounds where we spotted 4 hippos in the lee of a local island, a family of 3 giraffes near the park entrance and a dozen Impala quietly grazing in the meadow. The walk ended back at the Hotel restaurant where we ordered omelets, brown toast and coffee to kick off our day. The hotel loaned us another set of raincoats and we once again set off for climbing out to view the Victoria Falls. Today, the water level had dropped nearly a foot and the difference at the shore and at the Falls was very noticeable as the amount of spray was quite a bit less and the Falls were often more visible. We first headed to a descent down into a ravine trail into the shores of the famous “Boiling Pot”, an area where, during lower water flow, serves as the entry point for Class 6 white water rafting adventures. Today, however, the whirlpools and eddy’s are so intense that no one could possibly imagine entering this bubbling cauldron. The climb ~ 600 foot climb back up the trail was more taxing, but after the adrenaline boost of that we donned raincoats , changed into sandals and again tackled the “Narrows Bridge Monsoon” to see if a better view of the Falls would be possible today. Although improved over yesterday, it was clear that most of the clear pictures that are posted of these Falls are during times of much lower water flow. We headed back towards the hotel where we changed and prepared to take in a new view of the Falls from a different perspective – by Helicopter!
Our transport to Bakota Air picked us up promptly at our hotel entrance and we traveled 10 minutes to a small private airstrip that serves as home for not only their helicopters, but the ultra light and glider services, as well. After signing in and removing hats and loose items, we headed for the chopper where Julie took the front middle seat next to the pilot, and Rocky sat at the right window. Two other couples jumped in, putting 7 total into the aircraft, as Julie was excited to experience her 1st helicopter ride ever. After closing the doors, the pilot revved up the rotors; we lifted about 10 feet off the ground, backed off the pad, turned 90 degrees and started accelerating south along the “runway”. After a few hundred meters we climbed to ~1200 feet and headed to the Falls. From the air the Falls were magnificent and we could, for the first time, see the full length of them as they spanned from Zambia to Zimbabwe! The pilot made a number of circles and slow passes so that the Falls and surrounding abandoned canyons downstream could be clearly seen. After 15 minutes we headed North up the Zambezi, flying low over the game reserve, with our pilot pointing out water buffalo and other wildlife. He was a bit of a cowboy, performing near stalls, climbing powerful banks and dives, until we slowly turned and made our way back to the airfield. After waiting for an ultra light to be moved indoors, we landed and exited, having fully enjoyed our flight. The office showed us videos of ourselves in the helicopter as we didn’t realize that a camera in the cockpit captured our adventures completely.
We returned to the hotel and decided to relax at the bridge and watch the bungee jumpers once again. We walked from the hotel directly there, and crossed the railroad tracks to the “Jump Site” bar just before a freight train rumbled over the bridge and stopped at the border. At the overlook bar, we had Mosi beers and watched a steady stream of jumpers before ordering a burger and fries to snack on. However, the foolish couple down the bar unwisely chooses to give their banana peel to a local baboon, embolden him to pursue more handouts. While drinking our beers, snacking on our sandwich and watching the jumpers this large baboon took the opportunity to raid our plate to snatch a handful of French fries, surprising Julie and causing her to fall backwards off her stool to the floor! She was alright, but the shocked proprietor profusely apologized and brought a fresh plate of food while setting an employee to stand guard against another surprise foray. While finishing our beer, we watched as the next opportune predator, a 3 foot monitor lizard scaled the ravine in front of us searching for his share of the crumbs. We finally finished, stuffed from what was originally intended as a small snack, and left to return to the hotel before the park gate closed at 6pm. Unfortunately, the train was still stopped and after much consideration, we undertook the risky maneuver of crossing by climbing over the connectors between the cars. Along the return walk, baboons could be seen attacking the train load, prying at the lids, tearing open tarps and being generally destructive. We continued along the nature walk where we again saw giraffe, impala, etc. We made it back before sunset where we settled on the hotel dock and again watched the sunset while sipping G&T’s.
We then cleaned up at the room before heading to the restaurant for a light dinner on the patio of fried cheese, Nile Perch and Monkfish with a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. While we had dinner, we watched as dignitary after dignitary arrived until a military guard contingent showed up escorting the Zambian President, Rupiah Banda. When dinner was over, we headed to the lounge for after dinner drinks and appreciated the talented piano player. Then it was time to return to our room to begin to pack and prepare for our last night’s stay in Zambia.
The next morning, Monday we awoke early and set out for one final Nature walk, and no sooner had we left our room’s door edge 6:30am, then we greeted by a herd of Impala grazing on the lawn, and there at the water’s edge, a beautiful morning’s view of a solitary elephant , grazing not 30 meters away from us. After watching for a while, we went to the lounge for early coffees and set out to see what other animals were about.
The trip back was as expected, but our thoughts and hearts were back in Zambia, at the royal Livingston Hotel on the banks of the Zambezi River at one of the planets’ greatest natural wonders – Victoria Falls!