On a recent visit to Zimbabwe, I spent a couple of days at Victoria Falls, visiting the main hotels we use, exploring the sights and seeing what other activities there is on offer.
We arrived 20 minutes later at the Victoria Falls Hotel, the Grand Old Lady built in 1905 with 160 rooms. The first tourists to the Falls had to eat and sleep in the train at the station. In 1905, just after the railway arrived, work began on the construction of a wood and corrugated iron hotel, close to the station. That shack has come a long way, with the avenue of scented trees from the station creating merely a build-up to the hotel’s colonial legacy of architectural style and impeccable service. The terrace opens onto views of the low green-grey hills of Zambia rising behind the filter of spray. It’s all part of the careful setting – the site chosen for its view of the second gorge and the daring railway bridge. The short walk from the hotel to the Falls was too much for the Edwardian tourists, so a trolley took them down to the Falls. The tracks were pulled up some time ago but the remaining path is still a thoroughfare for today’s tourists.
From the moment we stepped into the marble floored reception area, the character and ambience of the hotel took us over and we were hooked! Met Julio, the manager, who gave me a whistle stop site inspection including the renovations of the stable wing rooms which usually given to our Real Africa clients.
The view from the terrace is spectacular over the manicured lawns to the Victoria Falls Bridge, the second gorge below Victoria Falls and the spray from the Victoria Falls rising about 300 feet in the air…. the best view from any hotel anywhere in the world (in my opinion, of course!). Julio showed me the Stanley Bar which is being renovated and extended… sepia photos and paintings including the 1947 Royal Visit by King George, Queen Elizabeth and their daughters, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The whole place reeks of elegance, permanence and solidity.
Julio said the hotel was full but only 60% of rooms were available owing to the closure of the stable wing due to renovations. JuIio said there were many plans for updating the hotel but I said not to update too much, don’t spoil the character of the hotel which is what makes it different from other places.
Staff are very welcoming and friendly to every guest no matter how casually dressed!
We stayed in room 24 (part of the Suite of deluxe rooms where the Royal Family stayed in 1947 with interconnecting doors.
At 1400 we were collected by Joffret, Wilderness Safaris and transferred to Ilala Lodge (about 3 minutes from the Victoria Falls Hotel) for site visit given by Martin, the manager. This long established quality hotel on the edge of Victoria Falls National Park and within easy walking distance of the Falls and the Bridge, is an attractive whitewashed and thatched building with 34 spacious and elegant air conditioned rooms en suite with patios or balconies looking out into the bush where elephant and other wildlife are regularly seen. Very attractive restaurant set above the bush where I remember years ago (2001) I sat and watched elephants browsing on the trees below. Beautiful pink bougainvillea around the bar and swimming pool. The lodge is running at full capacity but the atmosphere was very relaxed and calm. Reasonable rates based on bed and breakfast and a great place to stay in Victoria Falls to be on hand for all the activities but so close to the bush.
Had a delicious ham, cheese, tomato toasted sandwich courtesy of Martin (as he said I looked hungry!!) which was delicious, washed down with lime and soda which set us up for the rest of the afternoon.
I think this would be a good point to give some…
BACKGROUND AND HISTORY OF THE VICTORIA FALLS.
For a considerable distance above the Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River – the fourth longest river in Africa at around 3,540 kilometres and the largest flowing river into the Indian Ocean – flows over a level sheet of basalt rock in a shallow valley bounded by low and distant sandstone hills. The river’s course is dotted with numerous tree-covered islands, which increase in number as the river approaches the falls. There are no mountains, escarpments or deep valleys which might be expected to create a great waterfall and most visitors find it surprising to see only a plateau extending hundreds of kilometers in all directions. However, the Victoria Falls are one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. They dip dramatically and furiously from the flat savannah into the Batoka Gorge over 100 metres below. The scenic, tree lined gorge is the floodgate to the seasonal river.
The river then snakes its way along the gorge for about 120 kilometres towards Lake Kariba on the border of
Zimbabwe and Zambia. Just below the Falls, the river carries a torrent of white water over a series of rapids.
The first European to view these massive waterfalls was David Livingstone on 17th November 1855, during his 1852-1856 journey from the Upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river. The falls were well known to local tribes who had named them Mosi-oa-Tunya ‘The Smoke that Thunders’.
Early Arab traders and Voortrekkers from the south had reported them but the Europeans were skeptical perhaps thinking that the lack of mountains and valleys on the plateau made a large waterfall unlikely.
Livingstone had been told about the Falls before reaching them from upriver and was paddled across to a small island near the lip of the Falls that now bears the name Livingstone Island. The explorer was quite incredulous and wrote of the Falls ‘No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. This has never been seen before by European eyes: but scenes such as these must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’. He then named them in honour of Queen Victoria.
Livingstone’s stories about the Falls attracted many European adventurers and travelers and the town of Victoria Falls steadily expanded throughout the 20th century.
Livingstone’s discovery encouraged hunters, traders and missionaries, who were followed by prospectors for coat in Hwange in what is now northern Zimbabwe and for copper into northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) from about the 1890’s.
At 1530, collected by Beki and drove 20 minutes to the sundowner cruise jetty by the mighty Zambezi River, upstream from the Victoria Falls. This was the upmarket Raikane cruise which Real Africa sells to the exclusion of the other sundowner cruise companies which are available. Our cruise boat was very posh with red velvet seats, wooden tables, lots of polished wood panelling, about 12 seats in all. Welcome drink of mango juice as we came aboard… the first passengers. A group of German tourists came at 1600 and we left at 1610. Safety briefing by Cap’n John. There were about a dozen sundowner boats on the river (definitely in the booze cruise category.. lots of shouting and laughing.. and in fact our boat did become slightly less reserved the more liquid refreshment (i.e. wine, spirits as well as soft drinks) was consumed. Plenty of snacks provided as well. Captain gave us a running commentary as we passed points of interest.
The sun beat down hotly and glistened on the river… we sailed around various tree covered islands upstream from the Falls and saw hippos, crocodiles, birds and other wildlife. We sailed very close to the islands and had an amazing experience with an elephant who was also having a happy time in the shallows amongst the reeds browsing on tasty reeds. The Captain steadied the boat against the current so that we could all get photos and footage recording these special moments.
Gradually the sun went down and the darkening forest was backlit by the molten sky. Absolutely stunning to watch… accompanied by the background of camera clicks!
Arrived back at the jetty by1810, met by Beki and drove back to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Enjoyed our wonderful room (which also had wifi) then made our way to Stanley’s Bar (by Stanley’s terrace) for ‘I Presume’ cocktails which were very much appreciated at USD8 each. Then went over to Jungle Junction with a more African feel and one of several restaurants to be found in the hotel. Delicious buffet with wide range of options for USD35 per person so very good value. Full restaurant with guests from all over the world.
Breakfast in Jungle Junction at 0800.. morning sunlight shining on the warthogs which came over the lawn very close to the tables – obviously trained to entertain the guests at breakfast!
Met Beki from Wilderness Safaris once again who was going to take up on a morning tour of the Falls. Drove to the entrance which was certainly much smarter since my last visit in 1994. It is located on Livingstone Way just a few metres before the immigration offices at the border. Also got raincoats, thick plastic and hooded but also had my own raincoat on underneath. Important also to have footwear with good tread – wore shorts not trousers as it’s a given fact that one gets invariably soaked to skin so why wear more than necessary.
The Falls were formed during the Jurassic period some 150-200 million years ago when lava erupted out of fissures in the earth and covered large parts of southern Africa. These dark basalt deposits are up to 300 metres thick and formed the sides of the Batoka Gorge below the Falls. As the lava cooled and solidified, cracks appeared in the basalt crust, mostly in an east-west direction, but these were joined by smaller north-south fissures. Reputedly a lake formed over the area, and with time deposits of clay and lime filled the cracks in the basalt. Then the Zambezi with its force of water cut through the soft clay and lime, and formed a series of waterfalls.
The Victoria Falls comprises five separate falls. Four of these are in Zimbabwe (the Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and Horseshoe Falls) and one, the Eastern Cataract is in Zambia.
From the Park entrance, the first viewpoint is over Devil’s Cataract. Turn left from here to the bronze statue of David Livingstone with the inscription at the base ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation’. To the right the path leads through the rainforest to the other viewpoints overlooking the Falls. As we walked along the path we were getting wetter and wetter and the spray was so intense it wasn’t really possible to see very much at all. One was overcome with water like being in the middle of a very heavy rainstorm but this was spray only.
We went to each viewpoint for Main, Horseshoe and Rainbow – no. 7 viewpoint provides best view of Main Falls (on a clearer day) and from the right hand corner of the viewing site, it is possible to see the river at the bottom of the gorge. At the end of the walk is the dizzying Danger Point, the last part of the walk on the Zim side near the Vic Falls Bridge. So called because the viewpoint juts out on the cliff edge — needless to say, I didn’t experience the Danger Point this time (although had in 1994 but was younger then!) Walked down to the view point which looks over to the Bridge where the bungee jumping takes place (111 metres high).
Talking of activities, apart from bungee jumping, there is zip-lining, abseiling, rapp jumping, and gorge swing drops. Canoeing on the Zambezi above the Falls and white water rafting in the gorges below the Falls. Rapids are grade 5 classified which means ‘extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas’. I can vouch for all these so called adrenalin thrills when I rafted the Zambezi a few years ago in February, high water rafting time, full rainy season. Also river boarding and kayaking.
The statistics of the Falls are 1.7 kilometres wide, and nearly 550 million litres of water cascade into the chasm below every minute during the Zambezi’s peak high water flow which is April, end of the rainy season, but the water from the catchment area upstream in Zambia has arrived.
All in all, it’s a tremendous experience but in my opinion I think it is better to visit the Falls when the water levels are lower when more can be seen of the cataracts and Falls themselves. I once had a very good visit in November when the Falls were very low and it was possible to see the cataracts and Falls so clearly rather than an incomprehensible mist.
Back to the entrance and couldn’t pass by the Falls shop.. with good quality items on offer then outside is the array of craft stalls with a vast array of locally crafted items from amazing carvings to curios.
Back to the Hotel where we changed into dry clothing and packed before departing at 12 noon for our next lodge.
Before our transfer vehicle arrived, I went over to the Victoria Falls Railway Station, built in 1904 which is just across from the Victoria Falls Hotel. The station emits an air of bygone days with its pond and palm trees. I have a great friend called Bridget, whose late husband, Douglas, was one of the worlds greatest railway (and timetable) buffs! She had given me a map of Africa showing the rail routes which had been in Douglas’ collection. I had promised her that I would take some photos of the station … and very interestingly Rovos Rail was expected and tables were laid out with glasses of champagne ready for the lucky rail passengers bound for Pretoria who would be joining the train from the Victoria Falls Hotel.
At this point, I will tell you about the Victoria Falls Bridge. Before the bridge was built, the Zambezi river was crossed about the falls at the Old Drift by dugout canoe or a barge towed across the river with a steel cable. The bridge across the gorge was built in 1905 as part of Cecil Rhodes’ ambitious but never realized Cape to Cairo railway (in fact the railways ended up at the border with the Congo).
At Victoria Falls, Rhodes insisted that the railway be built where spray from the falls would fall on passing trains, so the site at the Second Gorge was chosen. The Victoria Falls Bridge was designed by George Andrew Hobson, of the consultant engineering firm, Sir Douglas Fox and Partners.
A single span steel arch was chosen as meeting all requirements for a double track railway. The main arch of the bridge – 198metres long and 128 metres high above the low level water mark of the river – was joined on 1st April 1905 and officially opened on 12th September of the same year. While the bridge had two railway lines, it had no road in the early days; the few road vehicles that wanted to use it had to pay to be transported over the river by rail or use the Old Drift upstream. In 1930, the bridge was widened to permit road traffic and one of the two rail tracks was removed. This modification involved widening the bridge by 4 metres to carry the road and pavements. In 1975, during the Bush War in Zimbabwe, the bridge was the site of unsuccessful peace talks between the African National Congress and Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government; the parties met in a train carriage poised above the gorge for 9.5 hours.
The centre of the bridge now marks the boundary between Zimbabwe and Zambia and is the site of the famous Victoria Falls bungee jump!
Off we went to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge which is about 20 minutes out of town.
The Lodge is a superbly designed thatched structure that resembles an opulent open plan tree house overlooking a busy waterhole. Quality African décor, mosaic tiled floor, stunning stone-rimmed swimming pool and deck, excellent restaurants, very comfortable rooms (we use the upgraded deluxe rooms), and tremendous views. Probably because we had come from the Victoria Falls Hotel, I found it rather like a very busy resort… had a fellow in local dress, feathers etc to welcome us! Room was comfortable on two levels. The best thing for me was the waterhole with a steady stream of wildlife including kudu, and a big herd of buffalo at sunset. Naughty vervet monkeys running along the balcony which didn’t like being told to ‘go away’ and bared their pointed fangs at us!
At 1500, I had site inspection of the new Club Rooms and Lokuthula Lodge which has beautiful 2 and 3 bedroom self catering units (time share). All on same site as VFSL.
Collected at 1545 by Zambezi Helicopter Company minivan and taken 5 minutes to helicopter site. Well set up operation (USD140 per person plus USD12 local charge??) Flight of the Angels over the Falls. Four of us in chopper with me in front next to pilot. So lucky to have this position although a bit scary at first as I could see through a hole in the floor! The pilot looked about 12 but I guess he knew what he was doing.. ha!ha!!
We took off very quickly, straight up in the air, and swung away towards the river. Amazing scenery and got great footage in my prime position.
Just incredible seeing everything from the air… the mighty Zambezi looked so blue and the spray from the Falls rose way up in the sky so that we could almost touch it. Much better appreciation of the Falls from the air than down amongst the spray.
The flight was 15 minutes long but seemed much longer and well worth every cent.
There was a film of the flight and our group before and after but nobody bought the USD30 film (probably because it was so unflattering to each of us.. I vow never to wear that outfit again!!) Back to the lodge.
We were booked to go to The Boma Place of Eating for dinner at 1900 and were collected from the lobby. This is highly recommended experience for visitors to Victoria Falls and unashamedly touristy.. but great fun! It is only about 5 minutes from the Lodge so very handy for guests staying there. Although, tourists come from most of the hotels/lodges in the area for the ‘show’. The Boma is housed in an impressive, partially open thatched ‘boma’ and has a great African atmosphere with dancing, singing and a fortune teller. Excellent nightly buffet of traditional Zimbabwean dishes such as fried kapenta fish and Mopani worms, a variety of game meat and potjies (stews), though there’s plenty for the less adventurous including spit roasts, stir fries, various vegetarian dishes and decadent desserts.
Before we got into the boma eating/entertainment area we were ‘accosted’ by a local dance troupe to take part in some tribal jigabout.
A very good evening all in all and certainly no shortage of food. Great music and entertainment and would thoroughly recommend the experience for our Real Africa guests. (Cost USD40 per person).
By Lily Appleby Newby