Victoria Falls is one of the world's most arresting sights, and the surroundings combine the adrenalin capital of Africa, a history lover's haven and a hedonistic party zone. With so much on offer, we asked Emma Gregg to see if it is feasible to take it all in in only three days. As she reports, it was a tough call.
Face to Face with The Falls'If you make it all the way to Danger Point, just remember, at this time of year, you won't see much because of the spray. But your other senses will be up for an almighty beating. Just close your eyes and feel the thunder.'
The words of a fellow visitor to Victoria Falls NP came back with resonance as I battled my way through gusts of spray. He was right - approaching the most exposed vantage point on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls, every nerve in my body jangled with the smell, taste, sound and sheer vibration of the mighty cataracts.
The fact that I couldn't actually see much didn't matter. I was suddenly very glad of the umbrella that had, till then, felt like an absurd accessory on this bright, cloudless April morning. Initially I'd thought him over-dramatic, but the spectacular power of Victoria Falls in full flood does that to people. Visitors come away claiming to be cleansed, spiritually elevated, even enlightened.
Step Back in Time
The taxi drivers monitoring the National Park gates knew I was staying at the Victoria Falls Hotel from the colour of my umbrella and promised me a rock-bottom fare, but I felt like walking, trying to imagine what it must have been like for the tourists who, from the 1920s to the 1950s, travelled this route to and from the Falls on hand-pulled wooden trolleys. The path to the hotel gardens is a pleasant one, through mopane woodland and scrub, dotted with wild zinnia, like drops of flame.The Victoria Falls Hotel
has been entertaining visitors in elegant style since 1904. Steeped in history, it celebrates its past through old photographs, paintings, posters, press cuttings and trophies lining the walls. Among the glut of memorabilia were a Rhodesia Railways advert from 1939 (which quotes Lord Curzon's militaristic description of the Falls - 'the shout of the cataract, the thunder of the watery phalanxes... spray spumes whizzing upwards like a battery of rockets into the air') and photos of King George VI's 1947 visit, when the royal party took over the entire hotel.
High tea on the terrace is open to residents and non-residents alike, and is something of an institution. I took a seat among a mixed assembly. A string quartet wouldn't have felt out of place in the genteel atmosphere; the only intrusion on the calm was the whine of helicopters overhead.
The tea itself was a three-tier extravaganza of delicate sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and bite-sized chunks of cake. But nothing could have upstaged the glamour of the view itself, across sweeping lawns shaded by mango and flamboyant trees to the gorge beyond, where the stark geometry of the Falls Bridge was softened by a curtain of spray.
Victoria Falls town is a good hunting ground for textiles, crafts (recycled elephant dung paper a speciality), Shona sculpture, ceremonial masks and artefacts from all over the continent. Browsing around the many enticing shops and galleries in the afternoon, I sensed the local hustlers, moneychangers, curio sellers and adventure activity scouts clocking me as a newcomer.
They're omnipresent, but then so are security guards (the security presence in the town has recently been stepped up). When Vic Falls was full of adventure seekers, it was all too tempting for rogue operators to try to corner the gullible few.
It seems appropriate enough that a region whose defining feature is a roar of natural energy is known as Africa's adrenalin sports capital. The adventure activity companies in town were advertising their products like succulent dishes on a menu, neatly packaged to fill whole days, or longer. Discounts abounded. At the epicentre of the activity business is Shearwater Adventures, the town's biggest and most high-profile operator.
Few visitors to Victoria Falls are content to view this natural wonder from ground level alone. Aerial options include a bird's-eye view from a tethered helium balloon which promises to 'float over the Falls' (not strictly accurate, since it's located some distance away, but it's a quiet ride, good for gentle contemplation), and, of course, a heart-racing, inverted view, dangling under the Falls bridge from the end of a bungee rope.
Despite my misgivings about noise pollution, the 'Flight of Angels' helicopter ride seemed a natural choice. The fifteen minute flight threw the whole landscape into stunning, three-dimensional focus. A fellow-passenger, who clearly regarded himself as something of a waterfalls connoisseur, wanted to seehow the Falls measured up against his memories of Niagara and Iguazú. He gave Victoria Falls top marks for sheer drama.
Sundowners and beyond
I started the evening with a G&T, watching the hotel's nightly short but energetic tribal dancing show. One Shangaan warrior-dancer picked up a chunk of railway track in his teeth, impressing some nearby Germans so much that they decided there and then to catch the main show at the Falls Crafts Village the next day. 'This is just the kind of thing that we came to Africa to see,' they explained.
Later, I met up with some rafting guides at Explorers bar in town. It's a dog-eared drinking hole with up-for-it slogans like 'It doesn't get crazier than this!' emblazoned on the walls and, I'm assured, when the crowds pile back here after a day on the river, wild is the word. The river was in flood and off-limits for rafts, so the rafters were fizzing with spare energy. Their sharp haircuts and sharper repartee, pristine Nike trainers and easy street cred marked them out as a group; plus they had the kind of muscle tone you'd expect from people who wrestle through grade five rapids for a living.
The sheer-sided, high-velocity zigzag run of the Batoka Gorge is world-famous in rafting circles. 'Some people who come here aren't bothered whether they see the Falls or not,' explained one of the rafters. 'They just want to hit the white water. This is one of the best stretches of commercially run river anywhere, and we have clients who keep coming back for a fix. The adrenalin is unbeatable.'
At the peak of the tourist boom, 50,000 people a year paid US$95 to be tossed around like rag dolls in the teeth of the Zambezi. The price has dropped with the decline in visitor numbers, and despite an average of two deaths per year, the course is considered extremely safe, given the difficulty of its rapids.
A couple of bars later I was at the Croc and Paddle, another thrill-seekers' hangout, where adventure sports companies show rafting videos to punters flushed with lager-fuelled bravado. Two young Australian women took a break from their game of pool to describe their day's adventure: bungee jumping off the Falls Bridge.
At 111m this is no longer the world's highest jump but it's still one of the most dramatic. 'Awesome' was the general verdict. Their sentences tumbled out and they had the slightly crazed, dilated pupils of people who had dared and won. When I asked them why they thought it might be that far more women than men wanted to try bungee jumping, they didn't hesitate before coming out with 'It takes guts!'
We headed over to The Kingdom, the heavily themed hotel complex based on Great Zimbabwe ruins. From the wrought-iron Ndebele warriors that dominate the entrance to the imitation elephants' tusks that top the roof domes, the atmosphere is unashamedly commercial. Skirting the glitzy casino we hit the club, where an upbeat tourist crowd was dancing to a set that hopped cheerfully between '50s and '90s, with a dose of thumping South African jive thrown in.
Last stop of the night was the sports club, where Andy Brown and the Storm were playing an open-air gig on a makeshift stage under myriad stars. As my friends headed off in search of sadza, chicken and another round of Castle beers, I asked someone if the band would play on after midnight. 'This is Vic Falls, Cinderella!' was the answer. 'They'll be playing till dawn!'
Day Two: Zambia - Livingstone town, a laid-back alternative?
The Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on the Zambian side of the Zambezi boasts some of the most dramatic views of the Falls. The viewpoints are a little more rickety and exposed and the Falls feel close enough to touch. Strictly for the sure-footed is the walk across along the slippery footbridge that leads to the vertiginous Knife Edge.
I descended the path into the gorge to face a furious whirlpool known as the Boiling Pot at close range. Once again, spray fell in thick torrents and I steeled myself for a complete soaking.
While the tourist industry in Zimbabwe treads water frantically, just over the border in Zambia, it's poised for a great forward surge. The South African hotel giant Sun International is close to opening a spectacular new US$60 million hotel complex, expected to give a badly needed shot of energy to both sides of the border. Livingstone airport is preparing to receive international flights and road improvement plans are in the pipeline. Border controls are being relaxed to smooth tourist traffic between the two countries.
Despite much media speculation that the new arrival will suck even more life out of Zimbabwe's tourist industry, Victoria Falls hoteliers are taking a positive, pragmatic stand. Mark Sonenscher, General Manager of the Victoria Falls Hotel, summed up the mood: "Sun International are superb marketeers and will publicise the Falls as never before. This can only benefit us all." Shepherd Chinhoyi of A'Zambezi, the large, long-established thatched river lodge on the Zimbabwean side of the Upper Zambezi, agreed that the whole region badly needs a revamped publicity drive.
Livingstone is a haven for independent travellers who have felt priced out of Vic Falls town, or alienated by its unremitting commercialism, and aren't put off by the relative shortcomings of Zambia's infrastructure. As Graham Nel of the Waterfront, a campsite and lodge gloriously situated on the riverbank, put it, "At the height of the tourist boom, it was all too easy for lodges on the Zimbabwean side to become complacent. Rates were so high, it's no wonder that clients sought alternatives."
Livingstone is far from untainted by tourism. 'Book your activities here and get free beer!' screams the shop front of one of the adventure agents dotted around town, while posters advertised events coinciding with the June 21st eclipse. But even now the town has retained the relaxed atmosphere of an unspoilt community going about its daily business. Its low-key charm seems a pleasant antidote to the freneticism of Victoria Falls.
Corrugated roofs shade the verandahs of Indian-owned shops selling everything from shoelaces to bicycle saddles, and there are glimpses of art deco architecture. In an interesting museum, I found (among taxidermy, fetishes and reconstructions of village life) a satisfying collection of memorabilia of David Livingstone himself, including a replica of the lion-damaged arm bone by which doctors identified his remains after his death.
Jonathan Gill, who has chosen the Zambian Upper Zambezi as the base for Victoria Falls River Safaris, his innovative river tour company, is enthusiastic about Livingstone: "In time, the town itself will become an attraction, with visible colonial remnants. I find being part of the 'Livingstone Renaissance' very exciting."
Day three: Zimbabwe - Swing Out Sister
Ready for some adventure, I joined up with The Zambezi Swing, a groundbreaking outfit who three years ago set up an abseiling route down the sheer rock face into the gorge, then installed the world's first commercial 'flying fox' high wire, followed by the world's only cable gorge swing. Try everything as much as you like in a day, for as long as your stamina holds.
The flying fox felt like a playground ride, and everybody loved it. Spanning the top of the 75m-high gorge is a 135m horizontal cable, with a sliding pulley system hanging from it. Once firmly attached, you take a running jump from a wooden platform and then coast smoothly across the wide open space. One Canadian teenager pronounced it 'better than any roller coaster'. We were soon competing to see who could fly furthest.
The gorge swing is much more death-defying, requiring a full body harness attached by a rope system to another gorge-spanning cable. After a couple of long seconds of gut-curdling free fall as you plunge for 50m, you cruise into a graceful Tarzanesque swing. When it was my turn, the jungle yodel that I'd hoped to summon on the descent came out as a terrified squawk. Still, the horror of the drop was worth it for the chance to swing like a pendulum over the treetops.
The only way out of the gorge is to climb on wobbly legs. The path isn't impossibly steep, but I was still astonished when our guide Paul told me that it's not unusual for hyper-charged, adrenalin-crazed enthusiasts to do ten gorge swings in succession and still have energy for more.
A sunset cruise on the glossy Upper Zambezi seemed like the perfect way to unwind. Most of my companions aboard the MV Makumbi were twenty-something overlanders, high on the thrill of an afternoon carving up the gorges in a jet boat. The combination of marimba band, onboard barbecue, free-flowing alcohol and a flawless golden sunset made a hard party inevitable.
Experiencing first-hand the kind of fluttery anticipation that David Livingstone must have felt as he approached the Falls for the first time, I paddled south down the Upper Zambezi. My canoe, unlike Livingstone's, was a silver-grey inflatable "croc boat", designed for maximum stability but still easy enough for a hippo to capsize. Quentino, my guide, had already run through the drill in such cases - abandon boat and swim like hell for the shore.
Canoe guides spend six months training before they can take tourists out on the river - twice as long as rafting guides. They acquire a detailed knowledge of river flora and fauna. Quentino pointed out medicinal trees and fruit among the ilala palms, wild date palms and fig trees lining the banks. Perhaps I looked under the weather.
It was about this stretch of the Zambezi, rather than the Falls themselves, that Livingstone coined the much-quoted phrase 'scenes so lovely must have been gazed on by angels in their flight'. It seemed fitting, then, that shortly after dawn, I'd flown over this same broad ribbon of river in a microlight, piloted by Kevin Kinton of Batoka Sky.
As different from a helicopter flight as riding pillion on a motorbike is from travelling by minibus, I'd loved every second. Without the obstruction of walls or windows, my connection with the elements was total. Thanks to our headsets I could chat to the pilot, and, flimsy though these engine-driven kites look, I felt completely safe.
We circled the Falls, dipping into their musky, misty breath, then headed upriver above oblivious elephant, long-shadowed zebra and impala, searching in vain for rhino.
Now, down at river level, the canoe cut an easy course through the fast-flowing water and Quentino aimed deftly for the middle of the 'baby rapids' he had promised me. A wave of brown water hit the bows, drenching me, and Quentino whooped like a banshee.
A Whole-Earth Approach
Back in Zimbabwe, I visited the Africa Centre for Holistic Management, well off the beaten track. Here, Huggins Matanga, Roger Parry and their team run an organic farm and research centre, and mastermind community outreach projects, including microcredit systems and permaculture gardening training for local village women. One of their key goals is to encourage "planned grazing", whereby the movement of cattle is strictly controlled, to minimise soil degradation and allow livestock to co-exist comfortably with wildlife.
The centre has accommodation and is developing a programme of game walks and drives, bush skills awareness courses and elephant-back safaris. Soon, the team hopes to establish a Wildlife Training Institute to give community members skills that will enable them to tap into the growing interest in eco-tourism. "At present," Roger Parry explains, "the Vic Falls tourist industry obtains most of its key personnel from elsewhere, and the prosperity that tourism brings bypasses huge sections of the local community."
Tough though the decline in tourism has been, there's general agreement that this is the ideal time to re-evaluate its impact on the environment. Namo Chuma of Environment 2000, an NGO actively involved in promoting environmental awareness in the area, remarks, "Our greatest challenges lie in ensuring that development is handled responsibly and in finding constructive methods of eliminating poaching, both of wildlife and of hardwoods for carvings and fuel."
The preservation of the Falls themselves depends on efficient collaboration between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Chuma is optimistic on this point. "The environment knows no political boundaries," he points out. "Zimbabwe and Zambia have a shared interest in the health of the Zambezi River and every new development proposal is subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment. There is already strategic liaison between planning committees on both sides. We just need to strengthen these relationships."
Into the Safari Zone
Later I dropped in at Spencer's Creek Crocodile Ranch and Wildlife Sanctuary (home to 15,000 Nile crocodiles) with Lloyd Herschel of Landela Safaris. Lloyd introduced me to three sibling lions, orphaned as tiny cubs, which he'd hand-reared while he worked at the ranch. It was a labour of love - to begin with, the cubs had to be bottle-fed every four hours. They're now four years old and sleek - "Overweight," tutted Lloyd with avuncular concern. Docile and affectionate, they even consented to his showing me their huge teeth and claws.
This was my only encounter with lion, yet the Victoria Falls area is surprisingly rich in game. Game drives, birding walks, horseback and elephant-back safaris are all available.
I enjoyed a peaceful ramble aboard a teenage elephant called Lundi through the 2000-acre Nakavango Estate. Under the gentle encouragement of her induna (carer), Lundi was a patient guide, pausing only occasionally to graze succulent greenery, and rumbling contentedly with that distinctive elephant noise that sounds like indigestion.
That evening I enjoyed a fabulous dinner with a party of gregarious Americans at Sekuti's Drift, a charming colonial-style lodge situated in open bush outside Victoria Falls town. For some, the trip was their first taste of Africa and the realisation of a great dream. Aware of Zimbabwe's troubles, but undeterred, they were glad to have been able to form first-hand opinions.
Everything fascinated them, and they had quickly concluded that with so much to enjoy around the Falls, two or three days is barely enough time to scratch the surface. I had to agree. Sipping my after-dinner Amarula beneath the moon, I couldn't help thinking that if I were staying a little longer, I might even have tried the gorge swing again.Emma Gregg. Published in Travel Africa Edition Sixteen: Summer 2001 subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)