Vic Falls and Beyond

by Karen Rutter

“Hire a raincoat—only five dollars.” I smile at the vendor, but shake my head. Why do I need a waterproof when the sun is shining? Twenty minutes later, drenched to the bone, I get my answer. Vic Falls is wet. Very wet. Note to self: always listen to the locals.
Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya, as the giant Zambezi River waterfall is also known (it means ‘the smoke that thunders’), is an impressive spread. At nearly 2 000 metres wide and over a 100 metres high, the sheer volume of water pumping down the steep drop makes one feel both insignificant and vulnerable. There’s no stopping the flow—ancient, muscular, purposeful, it pounds a formidable boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Walking the stone paths winding along its course is both a stimulating and strangely spiritual experience. Also damp, as a result of the massive spray that spreads over the area like softly falling rain.

Raincoats are definitely advisable—or you can copy the less inhibited visitors I see, and explore the falls in your bathing suit. Just have a towel ready at the end.

Victoria Falls was named after Queen Victoria by the explorer David Livingstone, when he came across the terrain in 1855. He wrote of his discovery: “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” But of course, the area was well known, and also inhabited, long before Livingstone, with traces of stone artefacts going back three million years. Local people have settled there for many hundreds of decades—and even Voortrekker hunters probably knew of the falls. Nevertheless, the Queen’s name has stuck. And around the thundering waters has grown a thriving tourist industry.

What started as a fledgling colonial outpost to exploit natural resources—timber, ivory and the like—grew as a bridge and railroad were built, and soon the area became an attractive and accessible holiday option. From both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides, visitors flock to view the waters and indulge in extreme sports, relax at luxury resorts, and experience a wilderness area which is still relatively untouched. From bridge jumping to wine tasting, white water rafting to high rolling at the casino, it’s all on offer. And remarkably affordable, depending on what options you choose.

Many companies offer fly-in weekend stays at the Falls, which include adventure experiences or pampering—or both, if you like. You can also make it part of a self-drive safari. Either way, there is plenty to do.

You may need a strong stomach for some events, however. I watch a young girl being strapped in for a bungee jump across the river, and my adrenaline rises in empathy. She flies into space like a rag doll being tossed by a petulant child—but is hauled up minutes later with a grin about to split her face. You can also do cable rides and gorge swings. Strong stomach, remember?

Then there’s rafting, or canoeing, which can range from an elegant ‘wine route’ drift, as it is called, taking in libations along the way, to serious white-knuckled rafting, led by extremely experienced guides who’ll power you through serious rapids. Oh, there’re also crocodiles and hippos along some of the stretches, just so you know. But if you like things more mellow, a Zambezi sundowner cruise is hard to beat.

Still on the active side, you can sign up for elephant-back safaris, which range from half-day trips to full-on elephant interaction, plus dinner. Not at the same time, however.

For those with a head for heights, a helicopter or micro-light spin over the Falls is an unforgettable experience, revealing the full scope of this magnificent spread. But if you want to get really close to the action, then take a dip in the scarily-named Devil’s Pool, a natural rock pool accessed via Livingstone Island on the Zambia side, which allows you to float on the very edge of the Falls—without being pulled over.

It wouldn’t make sense to come this far and travel in the area without trying to spot wildlife, and again there are many ways to do this. You can take a safari drive in one of the private reserves in the area, or trek slightly further to the Chobe River, where you will be totally spoilt by the variety of game, with elephants high on the list. One of the best things you can do is take a day trip down the Chobe to watch bird and animal life from the water—they hardly notice you in your boat, which allows for truly up-close-and-personal encounters.

A view from the air is breathtaking: 'Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight'

Visitors on both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides of Vic Falls also have a wide variety of places to stay. If you’re part of a backpacking or overland crowd, then camping or dormitory spots are available. Likewise for 4x4 travellers, who’ll find a range of camping or self-catering options. But you can also just take it easy at one of the many hotels and lodges, which offer everything from designer out-of-Africa chic to post-colonial opulence.

There’s the David Livingstone Safari Lodge and Spa, The River Club, the Zambezi Waterfront Lodge, the Zambezi Sun (if you like gambling and child-friendly spaces together), the famous Elephant Hills resort (with golf course), and the Royal Livingstone Hotel. But for a real taste of history—and beautiful views—it’s well worth taking tea, or a meal, at the Victoria Falls Hotel. For over 100 years it’s played host to visiting members of royal families, international and local statesmen, and celebs, who’ve sipped cocktails while overlooking the river gorge, with friendly warthogs peacefully mowing the spacious lawns. A stroll through the lounge and dining areas reveals a fascinating collection of colonial art and artefacts, including a fabulous framed cartoon section.

If old-world luxury doesn’t appeal, there’re always the upmarket bush lodges to explore. Catering to wildlife lovers, they supply game drives and guides on demand, while maintaining a luxury-level of comfort at the same time. Places such as Matetsi River Lodge, with private plunge pools at each of the six suites, where you can loll about while crocs swim past on the nearby Zambezi. Or the Stanley and Livingstone, which is on the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve and offers hot snacks while you watch game freshen up at their waterhole.

Victoria Falls as a destination has come a long way since people first fashioned Stone Age tools at its side—or dreamt of linking the Cape to Cairo across its breadth. It’s moved with the times; it’s got fun and funky and smart and comfortable. But above it all, Mosi-oa-Tunya thunders on, continuing to drench and awe its admirers. And that’s as it should be.