Victoria Falls… still running strong
Despite decades of political turmoil and the recent effects of Lockdown, Zimbabwe’s favourite tourist destination, Victoria Falls, remains a magnet for adventure and safari seekers, and there’s no better time to visit.
The source of the Zambezi is a marshy wetland in Zambia, then it grows and grows, flowing through six countries, expanding as much as 8km in width before it empties into the Indian Ocean on the Mozambique coast.
It’s not unusual to find the bones of animals scattered under these skies, black horns spiralling from a white skull, the rib cage of an elephant, or the delicate skeleton of a bird. But when the bones are human, the immediate thought is of one’s own vulnerability.
I was born in Zimbabwe and often return. I watch the slow opening of SA’s borders with longing. By the time this is published, South Africans will be able to venture there. I’m biased, but if there’s one place I’d recommend for a post-covid cross border, it’s Victoria Falls.
On a visit in 2019 I was standing alongside the Zambezi River with guide Vusa Sibanda and a small group of tourists. Twenty yards away, a herd of elephants made their way to the water to slake their thirst. Not far from our feet, vacant eyes took in the same scene.
A new feature on the Zambezi scene is African-Eye’s photographic boat offering guided tours with all the gear you need. The boat’s shallow hull enables it to access difficult areas so you can get close the wildlife on the bank.
I thought the skull might have been that of a fisherman who’d drowned or ventured too close to elephants, but Vusa said it was over 500 years old and had been ?unearthed more recently by the feet of elephants as they made their way down the steep river bank.
I climbed down to have a closer look. Vertebrae and ribs stuck out of the soil. A humerus lay nearby and a scapula was embedded in the stratum of the bank. Among the bones were fragments of clay pots. I asked Vusa if this was a burial site. ‘Some say it’s a burial ground of the Tonga people – the people of the river,’ he explained. It was a reminder that, as seldom as we visit the wilderness today, we were once an integral part of it.
The sun set and the sky was a dusky purple as we drove back to camp. We were flanked by baobab trees over 1 000 years old. They would still have towered over the Tonga people 500 years ago. Vusa and I gasped as a serval strode into the beam of our headlights, an elusive feline with golden fur and black stripes dispersing into spots like some wild morse code. The moon rose above the trees resembling a white skull picked clean.
Rafting in the Batoka Gorge begins not far from the base of the Falls. It is regarded as the world’s most intense one-day whitewater trip.
Zimbabwe is a place of contradictions. It’s been battered by decades of political skulduggery, human rights violations and economic collapse, now magnified by the Covid crisis. Its people tackle seemingly insurmountable challenges, and they remain optimistic and kind. Apply this to tourism and you’ve got something quite remarkable.
‘That, and the level of guiding in the country, are two of Zim’s biggest drawcards,’ says local tour operator, Shelley Cox of Africa Conservation Travel. Learner guides embark on rigorous training programs, lengthy apprenticeships, and tough written and practical exams. ‘They go through proficiency tests which involve facing dangerous game to make sure they can handle the situation – you’ll never know how you’ll react until you’re in that position.’
I can vouch for that. The first time I got too close to an elephant was in Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park while on a training exercise with renowned Zim guide, Lewis Mangaba. The elephant warned me with a mock charge and I reacted by running. Lewis intervened by standing directly in its path, clapping his hands and shouting until the elephant retreated. This was not his first rodeo.
Human remains uncovered in Zambezi National Park are believed to be about 500 years old.
Shelley echoes the phrase when she describes the attitude of Zimbabwe’s tourism community. ‘The majority of travel companies have been operating throughout Zimbabwe’s upheavals. They’re not new to challenging conditions.’ Covid has had a devastating effect on tourism throughout Africa but people I speak to in Vic Falls are upbeat. ‘It’s probably one of the hardest hit areas in Southern Africa because every single person here is involved in tourism. But no one’s been moping, they’ve just got on with things.’
Local companies and individuals have banded ?together to drive maintenance campaigns over the lockdown, including road painting and clearing lantana from the rainforest. The focus has been on helping locals affected by the economic downturn, and ensuring that wildlife is protected. ‘No operators have dropped their conservation and community work,’ says Shelley. She can’t think of any major operator that’s closed shop. They’re all ready to accept guests.
Vusa Sibanda is not only a great guide on the water and in the wild, he’s also got an eye for photographing birds – check out his Instagram feed: vusasibanda2022.
Lying upstream in Zambezi National Park, Old Drift Lodge is a relatively new camp run by Wild Horizons, and I stayed there for my first few nights. It’s all luxury under canvas; private pools and close encounters. The roped boardwalk that links the riverside chalets has open gaps to allow elephants though so they can access the river. Horizons also runs the Lookout Café, a Vic Falls icon that straddles the sheer cliff wall of Batoka Gorge, and they offer numerous adventure activities such as white water rafting and the infamous gorge swing. For the more romantically inclined, their boats take guests on sunset and dinner cruises above the falls.
Another icon of the region is Victoria Falls Safari Lodge run by Africa Albida Tourism. Chatting with CEO Ross Kennedy, he’s optimistic about travel in Vic Falls. ‘It remains a remarkable destination. The range of accommodation and experiences is wider than it’s ever been,’ he says. ‘If ever you want to visit one of the seven wonders of the world, it’s now. The specials are incredible.’ Indeed, rates for South African and other SADC citizens are now remarkably affordable.
The riverside town’s close proximity to Botswana, Namibia and Zambia make it a key player in the region.
The waterhole at the iconic Victoria Falls Safari lodge is as popular with wildlife as the lodge restaurant is with human patrons.
‘The recently formed Victoria Falls Regional Tourism Association collaborates across the region to make cross-border travel much smoother,’ says Ross. And the new international airport simplifies travel between South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, placing Vic Falls at the hub of some remarkable safari circuits.
Taking a room at the lodge, I woke one morning to see a full moon setting over a carpet of trees in the west while the sun rose in the east – two golden orbs in the sky. I’d never seen anything like it. Arriving to pick me up at 5.30 am, Charles Brightman, my birding guide for the day, handed me a flask of hot coffee. Shelley joined us and we were soon sipping coffee on the banks of the Zambezi where birds dived through the spray of the Falls backlit by golden light. Charles is one of the most respected guides in the area and he introduced me to specials I wouldn’t otherwise have seen: a lanner falcon dive-bombing ducks; a European honey buzzard holidaying in our warm southern sky; a long-tailed paradise whydah dancing on the breeze.
On my penultimate morning there I was back on the river with Vusa. The mist rose from the water as if it were on fire, and he eased the boat alongside a field of lily pads where we saw an African jacana. The small bird stepped gingerly on the green disks like it was walking on water. Vusa called it the ‘Jesus bird’.
A polyandrous species, the male jacana performs all parental duties after the female lays her eggs. ‘When danger threatens, the male gathers the chicks under his wings,’ Vusa explained, joking that it resembles an eight-legged bird. It made me think of the locals, how the greater the challenges, the more Zimbabweans band together. It’s part of what draws me back here: people who are more ‘human’ because of their circumstances, who react to their own vulnerability by looking out for others.
Like I always do, I visited the Falls before leaving. Despite the many times I’ve gazed at it, I still couldn’t fathom the magnitude of this mile-long wall of water that bellows like a thousand thunder claps a second. While I stood there I was drenched by the spray that rose from the chasm and I wondered what the Tonga people would have thought, gazing at this scene all those years ago. All I know is that it’s a damn fine place to leave your bones.
Less water more fun
From September to December the flow over the Falls lessens. This makes white-water rafting in the gorge more dramatic as the exposed rocks intensify the water activity.
At peak between February and April
500 million litres of water cascades over the Falls every minute
The largest curtain of water in the world
1 708m wide
During a full moon, the spray from the Falls creates a lunar rainbow at night. This spectacle lasts from sunset to sunrise.
Fastjet flies direct between OR Thambo and Victoria Falls Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday commencing 3 December 2020. Book on fastjet.com
Bespoke birding, wildlife and conservation safaris are run by guide and conservationist Charles Brightman. Six-hour birding safaris or a four-hour walking safari are both from R1 000 (SADC rate). The most remarkable experience is a Wildlife Conservation and Awareness Safari where clients are tasked to record game, identify spoor, sweep for snares and look for signs of poaching. From R1 330 pp (SADC rate). Part of the proceeds go directly to support the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit. All safaris exclude R250 park entrance fee. Email bookings only at firstname.lastname@example.org discovervictoriafalls.com
For bespoke tiger fishing and photographic safaris, Clint Robertson of Umdingi Safaris is your man. Half and full day fishing trips are from R1 150pp and R2 500pp respectfully. Camp under a million stars while exploring the wildlife and birds of Zambezi National Park on foot and on game drives From R2 000 pp (SADC rates). +263 778 233 950 umdingisafaris.com
Old Drift Lodge
Old Drift Lodge
Situated on exclusive river frontage in Zambezi National Park, this is one of Victoria Falls’ prime luxury destinations with a special post-Covid rate for AU passport holders From R4 950pp (50% for children). Valid until 30 June 2021. Conservation levy R250. olddriftlodge.com
528 Victoria Falls Guest House
528 is one of the most wonderful and reasonably priced places I’ve stayed at Vic Falls. True Zimbo hospitality and comfort – hosts Meredith and Paul Fischer make you feel completely at home. From R1 000 pp (SADC rate). +263 779 975 173, 528victoriafalls.com
528 Victoria Falls
Africa Albida Tourism
Albida has a range of accommodation to suit most pocket, from their iconic Victoria Falls Safari Lodge to the more luxurious Safari Club, the family orientated Safari Suites and their self catering Lokuthula Lodge. From R2 500 per lodge (sleeps 2). One of the highlights for me is the vulture restaurant near the Safari Lodge where you can learn about the efforts to protect the species, and see them feast with abandon. Speaking of dinner, be sure to visit The Boma for a Dinner ?& Drum Show or the fine-dining MaKuwa-Kuwa Restaurant. africaalbidatourism.com
African Conservation Travel (ACT)
Anton recommends ACT for all your travel arrangements in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries. ACT is focused on offering experiential and conservation-conscious itineraries to promote sustainable tourism. +263 7746 41622 africaconservationtravel.com
Photos: Anton Crone & Shaun McMinn
Articles that are related