It was on my list of places to visit one day. Somehow I always put it off. If only I’d known.
Between my first glimpse of the little town ablaze with Flamboyant trees in their red summer dresses, to sighting a pod of lazy Zambezi hippo, I’m smitten.
Firstly there’s the charm of travelling upriver on a private launch sent by my host, the Victoria Falls River Lodge. The immense, palm tree-lined Zambezi River is enchanting. Finally, there’s the evocative sight of spray and the faint roar from the Falls rising like the breath of a huge dragon.
Sadly, I don’t swan in via flying boat like the earliest air visitors did in the era of romantic slow travel. That was back in 1947 when the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) landed their first passengers on the Zambezi. Today, flights are numerous and quick, and touch down on the smooth tarmac of the impressive new Victoria Falls International Airport. I leave Johannesburg at mid-morning and arrive in time for lunch.
Victoria Falls River Lodge
The setting on the Zimbabwe bank of the Zambezi just upstream from the Falls is picture-perfect. Because of its location inside the protected boundary of the National Park, we’re cocooned in ultimate don’t-lift-a-finger luxury, yet surrounded by wildlife and this fierce Zambezi beauty.
Owned by the Zambezi Crescent group, guests stay in a choice of treehouses arcing above the water in exquisite privacy, or a permanent tent on the riverbank. The décor is design-conscious with safari flair. Our tented room is the size of a small house, kitted out with every comfort including an outdoor shower and a plunge pool. Best of all, it’s just metres from the great Zambezi.
The days glide by bookmarked by late breakfast to lazy lunch to sunset river cruise. The river is a busy place. Hippos pop up to check out the scene, a family of ellies swims over to the Zambian side, myriad birdlife and river craft ferry guests upstream for sundowners in the luminous indigo light.
I have a late nightcap under a rib of moon. The river slides silently by. Wildlife croaks, screeches and grunts all around. There’s no walking after 6 pm in case of encounters with the creatures making those sounds, so I’m delivered to my tent by golf cart.
Here I find that the turndown has been done and the vast bed with its beautiful Ardmore fabric cushions is swathed in a snowy mozzie net. The tent’s sides are battened down and lanterns lit. I immediately roll the canvas back up so I’ll catch the very first fingers of dawn.
the smoke that thunders
Waking with the earliest light on the banks of this magnificent river in such a privileged place is a memory that will last forever. Even this early, the African sky is readying herself for a humdinger. I scan for crocs then hop off my deck and take a stroll watching the spray rising from Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders.”
Right after breakfast I’m off downriver with a guide to navigate the water and later steer a path through the curio vendors, tourist buses and queues in the parking lot at the Falls entrance..
What can be said that hasn’t already been said about one of the planet’s greatest sights without sounding melodramatic or mawkish?
You round a turn in the path and there it is.
The instant I saw that immense rift in the Earth, the plunging roar of water against a sheer obsidian drop, it knocked the breath from my lungs and I had to wipe my eyes.
Add everything else this destination has to offer and you have the ingredients of an unforgettable trip. Don’t put it off for ‘one day.’
Once you’ve ticked your way down your list of outings and death-defying escapades you must spend time appreciating this delight of a town. At only about a kilometre from end to end, it’s small enough to explore on foot. It’s relatively free from crime and touts thanks to the baton-wielding Tourism Police. Visitors are a valuable commodity and VF puts effort into keeping them happy.
The talent of Zimbabwean artisans is famous. Beautiful curios and crafts abound in VF. Head for Elephant’s Walk, an artist’s arcade of specialty galleries and zappy eateries. In the same vicinity is the Landela Centre with more rough-hewn crafts, while still more work can be found in the several open-air markets.
the grand old lady
Stepping over the threshold of The Victoria Falls Hotel is to enter a time warp into a tiny nation-state that has beaten off that vulgar imposter, change.
This grande dame unashamedly defends her colonial heritage. Judging by the fact that the hotel is almost always booked solid with hundreds of delighted guests the theme is clearly an immense success, which in itself speaks volumes.
I’m in heaven. Blue days stretch out against a backdrop of polished marble floors. A maze of cool passages is hushed by maroon carpet. Ceiling fans whirr and mahogany armoires gleam with beeswax. The murmur of conversation rises from cavernous sofas while dead royalty stares down the centuries in vaulted reception rooms.
On shady verandas glasses clink with ice; tea steams in silver pots. Eons of green lawn are dotted with enormous Msasa trees that probably shaded Cecil John Rhodes. Warthogs graze on their knees while monkeys lob mango pips from the clay-tiled rooftops and patient squadrons of gardeners sweep them up.
At cocktail hour a pianist appears in the Palm Lounge. He’s wearing a white suit and large white shoes. His grey hair is trained off his forehead into a rippled bob. He attacks the keys. The playlist of almost recognizable tunes is embellished with tremendous runs and flourishes. You keep saying “oh yes, it’s such and such” then doubting yourself. He plays with eyes closed. His head now flies back, then flops to his chest. Is it rapture, you wonder, or despair? He is fantastic.
One night I stroll in the gardens marveling at the steady low roar of the Falls and slapping at mozzies. From the molasses darkness a security guard materializes. He presents a can of insect repellant and a silent gleam of ivory.
When temperatures nudge 40 Celsius the only sensible thing to do is ensconce yourself at the colossal Edwardian swimming pool. Help yourself to lunch from the buffet under the eye of a guard with a slingshot to ward off the monkeys. As I while away the heat of the day in the Moroccan pool house, I plot ways to evade my flight tomorrow. I’d really rather stay put indefinitely, with the vervets and the Msasa trees and the warthogs grazing on the lawn.
getting there and other info
If you want to see the Falls in full flood, visit after the summer rains from February to May. Bear in mind that some activities are too dangerous during high water. As a result, swimming in the Devil’s Pool and white-water rafting aren’t on the cards. So if you’re of the daredevil persuasion, plan to visit when the river is lower. In the dry season, you’ll get to see right down into the chasm usually hidden by water.
- The Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
- These falls are almost exactly halfway along the Zambezi River’s 2,574 km length.
- At 1,708 metres wide and 108 metres high, it’s the largest curtain of falling water on the planet. Over 5 million cubic metres of water a minute pour over the edge.
- The VF Rainforest is a unique biosphere of plant and animal life. As a result of vapour from the Falls, there’s a constant light rain so this is the only place on earth where it rains all day, every day.
- During full moon, light bouncing off the spray creates a moonbow.
- Activities at the Falls could keep you booked up for weeks. For starters, check out www.shearwatervictoriafalls.com, one of the longest established operators in town.
Photos Bev Tucker, Victoria Falls River Lodge, TVFH.