One of the iconic tourist destinations in Southern Africa are the Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe / Zambia border. Being just an hour and 30 minutes flight away from Johannesburg, it’s a perfect (long) weekend getaway.
We flew to Victoria Falls Airport in Zimbabwe and landed in chaos. Or maybe chaos is not the right word. Let’s rather call it the African ‘Hakuna Matata’ spirit: no worries, tomorrow is another day. I think the crowd queued for almost two hours to get through customs and we saw people regularly moving between the various queues. The longest one seemed to be for multiple entry visa, but we didn’t really know what that implied, so we queued in one of the shorter lines, hoping to get faster through customs. Add to it that we probably didn’t do our homework properly and thought we could see all there is to see from the Zimbabwean side of the falls, we eventually got a single entry visa. Big mistake… something we figured out later that day.
We booked in at the Ilala Palm hotel and selected a few activities we really wanted to do over the weekend:
- a canoe trip on the Zambezi
- a sunset cruise on the Zambezi river
a helicopter flight over the falls (utter spoiling event)
After settling in and with time left before dark, we went for a walk to the falls, just down the road from the hotel. We followed the other wanderers over the bridge to the Zambian side of the falls. Just like everybody else, we stopped somewhere on the bridge to look at the perpetual rainbow, down below in the gorge.
We passed through customs into Zambia and a bit further we entered the National Park. Locals hire out raincoats to protect you from the spray of the falls. We didn’t really know what to expect but- as we saw people returning looking pretty soaked- just rented one to be on the safe side. Man… were we in for a surprise!
Some if not most of those raincoats must have been used a million times by now and any impermeability they may have had at the beginning of their lives was long since gone. We were drenched to our underwear!
Spray? Rather call it a shower with your clothes on! We were fairly protected when walking on the paths in the forest, but on the few lookout points where you could get close to the balustrade to actually come eye to eye with the force of the falls we got such a deluge of water it felt more like a rainstorm.
Crossing the Knife Edge Bridge is all about water, water and more water. Not only the spray from the falls, but also almost ankle deep water when you step off the path onto the bridge. Granted, I was not wearing the best footwear and as I stepped onto the bridge I could feel the water rising inside my boots.
When we returned from the falls part of the track, we walked to the statue of Livingstone on the riverside of the Park. From that side you have views on the falls where the Zambezi waters rush and tumble over the edge. Over the falls you look towards the forest with lookout points where we had just walked before. Standing so close to the banks of the river, you cannot but be mesmerized by the roar of the water that’s a constant reminder of the extreme power of the river hurtling into the abyss.
When we finished our walk we were soaked to the skin. We now wanted to get back to the hotel for a shower and a change into dry clothes. As we left the National Park, we were just in time to see the historic Victorian steam train parked on the bridge, which drew a lot of attention from passers-by.
The bridge is the border crossing between Zimbabwe and Zambia. On our way up everything ran smoothly and no questions were asked. On the way back however, when we flashed our passports again, we were stopped in our tracks and pointed out that we only had a single entry visa. Arriving in Zimbabwe by plane was the first entry into the country. The fact that we had crossed the border on the bridge towards the Zambian side of the Falls and now wanted to return meant a 2nd entry into Zimbabwe! That’s when our penny dropped what the single and multiple entry visa issue had been all about at the airport! We filled out new forms, paid our dues and went on our merry way back to the hotel. Another lesson learned!
Back at the hotel we changed into dry clothes. From our balcony we could see the warthogs darting through the gardens and the billowing clouds of “the smoke that thunders”, right there, on the other side of the bush. We had a nice meal by candlelight and called it a day. We had to get up early for the canoe trip.
Canoe trip on the Zambezi river
And early it was. We were picked up at our hotel with an open game drive vehicle of Wild Horizons and drove to a spot further north up the river. I was pretty happy with the blankets we got: it was darn cold on the open truck. We saw some iconic aspects of the African landscape: baobab trees with sporadic marabous perched on their branches, a giraffe or two watching curious as we drove by, and a variety of bird life.
We drove north, further up the river, to the launch spot for the canoes. It was just us and one other couple. We assisted taking the boats off the roofrack and within a few minutes they were pumped up to the required buoyancy. The leader ran us through the do’s and dont’s and how-to’s and then we were ready to go.
By then the greatest chill had gone and it was a sparkling beautiful day on the river. The kayaks slowly slid over the water with just the splashing of the paddles cutting through the stillness around us. On occasion our guide would point out interesting sights on and along the river: kingfishers flitting around the bush, the fruits of the bread fruit tree, a croc sleeping on the shallow river bank. He especially explained the big danger of hippos in the river and gave wide berth to where he was aware of hippo territory.
After the first- fairly calm- part of the river we got closer and closer to the falls and the river became more turbulent. Our little boats were dancing on the water and it took some focus to follow the leader who was negotiating the best way through the maelstrom. We spent a few hours paddling the river and enjoying the landscape we passed through, before we stopped for lunch.
The boats were pulled ashore and the staff got to work to cook lunch on an open fire, right there in the bush. We got treated to a spread of honest and wholesome food overlooking the beautiful Zambezi. A wonderful finale to our canoe trip on the river.
When we arrived back at the hotel, we had a quick change of clothes and set out to view the falls from the Zimbabwe side. We had the impression that stalls for souvenirs just outside the park entrance, are better organised than on the Zambia side: it felt like a proper tourist market. This time around we opted to rent a plastic poncho. We hoped that age and wear would not have deteriorated these to the same extent as the impermeable ones (with their impermeableness mostly lost!). It was early in the afternoon and we had a leisurely walk to Devil’s Cataract and the Baobab-Zambezi lookout where the water rushes over the edge and tumbles down the gorge with quite a force. Not the place to drift with a canoe! We then turned back and walked east along the length of the gorge with views of the Devil’s Pool and Livingstone Island. Depending how full the falls are, you can go swim or lie around in the shallow Devil’s Pool on the edge of the falls.
Zambezi sunset cruise
Early evening a little bus came to fetch us at the hotel to take us to the jetty for our sunset cruise. The ever friendly staff welcomed us on board with a glass of champagne and we made ourselves comfortable, gazing out over the river. When all other guests had arrived we pushed off and with the subtle hum of the engine in the background we floated further up the river.
The tourism industry of course knows exactly where the elephants’ playgrounds are, so we ended up with a handful of cruise boats circling a herd of elephants playing in the water. Although it has the feel of a zoo (people watching animals), the fact that these animals are in their own habitat makes a big difference. I guess they are in the meantime so used to the human presence and know that they are protected, that they are not bothered by it any more. They played in the river, carefree and seemingly obliviously to the attention from the onlookers. A while later they began their swim across the river with their trunks sticking out of the water like air hoses. On the other side of the river, their big and ungainly bodies were surprisingly agile to climb the fairly steep river bank … and then they disappeared in the bush.
We drifted further up the river and saw the pockmarked walls of the riverbank where the lovebirds make their nests in the mud wall.
The sun got deeper and deeper and the blue sky turned to a soft pinkish purple before turning into a full on bright orange sunset on the deep blue river. With the sun going down, stillness descended on the bush with just the occasional snorts of hippos making their presence known between the clumps of reeds in the river. It was a perfect evening.
Helicopter light over Vic Falls
The next morning we were picked up at the hotel for our last event of the weekend: a helicopter flight over the falls. An utter spoil! Everybody goes through a health check and weight procedure and I was lucky. Due to the way they have to distribute the weight across the helicopter, I had the privilege of sitting in front, next to the pilot. I virtually had 360degree views and below through the glass bottom. Amazing! Walking the paths around the falls with feeling the force of the water cascading down is one thing, to see the magnitude of the falls tumbling over the edge and seeing its expanse in the landscape is another thing altogether.
After the short but fantastic helicopter trip, it was unfortunately time to pack up and go home: a superb end to a first rate weekend break to the Vic Falls.