Your safari starts here...
03.08.2008 - 03.11.2008 75 °F
We visited Victoria Falls on the advice of our safari organizer, Allison Nolting and the African Adventure Company. We did so reluctantly because we really wanted to visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana, not Zimbabwe, but Allison proved persuasive, and we left Joburg to Victoria on a 737 on Saturday, March 8th. We noticed that we weren’t flying over farms, but bush; real African bush, unlike anything we had seen in Kenya or Ghana. As we prepared for our landing on a strip of cement that looked barely large enough to land a Cessna 172, we noticed a seam in the ground where smoke rose and then evaporated as it stretched skyward. What we were seeing was the spray of the falls being blown into the air. They were visible from 20km away.
We obtained our visas quickly and cleared customs, meeting Esther. Esther was our local tour guide and she was a kick. Esther is about 65 and actually retired as a tour guide. Today, whe will only work for the Africa Adventure Company. A tribute to Allison me thinks. We climbed aboard a bus with some other travelers, and headed for out hotel “The Victoria Falls Hotel”. Esther had a relaxed and confident style as she educated the bus about “Vic Falls” and the National Park in which it resides. We saw baboons on the road as we entered the little city of Victoria Falls and Esther made sure that we knew that the entire area was a game park and there would be animals roaming freely throughout the area. Be careful she said. These animals are wild!
We arrived at our hotel and it was beautiful. The Victoria Falls Hotel is 103 years old and was named after Queen Victoria as were the falls. The hotel is perhaps an overly gracious tribute to English colonialist history, with warn photographs of a 1947 visit from Queen Elizabeth (as a teenager), dukes, duchesses, the King and then Queen, and the entire royal entourage. Sharing the wall space are politically incorrect animal trophies that are stunning, but harken back to a time when the word safari meant you were taking shots with a gun and not a camera. Even with that, the hotel was beautiful and splendorous and we were privileged to have the best view of the falls possible from the hotel Grounds.
After checking in, we went immediately to the pool to play around and have snack. The pool was square and fountain clad in the old school style that you might see at Hearst Castle. There were cabanas, tables, a beautiful lawn, and people getting massaged in their loungers. We ordered snacks and they were brought by African waiters clad in the black pants, white dinner jackets and bow ties we saw in the 1947 photographs. It was classic. The food was delivered, and as I looked over to Carol to ask a question, I almost choked, as I waved my arms and tried to sputter “look out”! A pretty large and lean Vervet Monkey was taking a swipe at her shoulder, trying to get some of her food. We shooed him away, when a nice guy who had been staying at the hotel a few days set us straight, about the “monkey thing” . We were a bit more careful from then on, noticing that baboons and monkeys were all around us in the trees.
The next morning we went on an elephant back safari with a company called “Wild Horizons”. We had heard about elephant back safaris and were predisposed to it believing it was cruel to have elephants toting around people on their back. It turns out that elephants are quite comfortable with this arrangement, and better yet, the reserve we visited for this safari actually adopts abandoned or orphaned elephants, and raises funds to protect elephants from poaching, which is a big problem in Zimbabwe (folks are poaching for ivory). The reserve was quite large at 30,000 hectares and the property has no fence, allowing the elephants to roam freely when they’re not on safari, and allowing other wild animals to enter the land to be viewed. We really enjoyed the one hour tour and were surprised by what a comfortable ride the elephants were. Our guide, Francis, was a very knowledgeable young man, and controlled our elephant (Jake) gently, but firmly. We really didn’t expect to see any animals excepting the elephants we road, but we were pleasantly surprised to see 24 wild Giraffe with 10 accompanying zebra, and we even saw a Crocodile making its way across a large watering hole to snatch a water buck drinking on the shore. We were stunned actually. We had seen Giraffe, Zebra, Baboons, Vervit Monkeys, Elephants, and a crocodile within 24 hours of landing at the airport and we hadn’t even come to Vic Falls for Safari.
That afternoon Esther met us at the hotel and took us to see and experience the Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls, or the “smoke that thunders” as the locals have called it over the years, is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. This is why we came here. Esther took time explaining Zimbabwe geography and geology, and then told us about the Falls. If any of you have heard the “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” line over the years, this is where it happened. Livingston actually discovered the falls and named it for Queen Victoria. A larger statue of Livingston watches over the falls from a nice vantage point. Victoria Falls is hard to describe. In fact, it is hard to see. The mist is so thick, you can’t see the entire falls from any one point. You can see the devils Cataract, a small and speedy fall about the size of B ridal Veil Falls in Yosemite. You can see Livingston Island. You can see the main falls, which are larger than Niagra, but you can’t see it all at once. The mist is simply that thick. It was about 80 degrees outside, but we actually had to wear rain jackets. Why? The mist is so thick, it would fall from the sky like sudden and torrential rain. There would be no warning, just a drenching. We were looking at the falls with a peaceful mist all around us then wham! The sky seemed to open. Esther is an old hand at this and laughed as we got our first unexpected drenching – which she shared by the way. How does she stay excited about this place after doing this for 20 years, just stare at the falls, and there’s your answer. You could visit every day and watch the power of this water pouring over the edge.
The next day was an “activity day”. Victoria Falls is the adventure capital of Africa, just like Queenstown is to New Zealand. There seem to be a guhzillion extreme activities that you can choose if you’re feeling the need for adrenaline. Parker and I were hankering for some adrenaline, so he chose a 450 meter zip line over the Zambezi river Gorge, I chose to Bungee Jump off of the Victoria Falls bridge, and Griffin chose the Zambizi river tour later that evening, preferring to see more animals. Mom chose to chill out and take the river tour that night. At 9:00am Parker and I headed over to the Wild Horizons adventure area, that featured a sky swing, an abseil, a flying fox, and a zip line. The Zip Line “launch platform” is on a cliff hovering 100 meters above the Zambezi river, and the cable extends from this platform to the other side of the canyon 450 meters away. Parker had strapped into a climbing harness and now dangled underneath. “Three – Two – One” and away he went, shooting down the wire at a speed better than 100kmph all the way across the river. After reaching the other side, parker started sliding back to the low point in the wire that hovered about 50 meters above the river. Parker hung there for 5 minutes or so while a local slid down the line to tow him back to the “launch platform”. Parker loved it. It was a thrill and unbelievably beautiful. Yes, I tried it too, and it was a rush. From here, legs still shaking, Parker and I walked to the Zambia border crossing at the Victoria Falls Bridge. We had to get our passports stamped just to make the bungee jump. We walked between semi trucks that were lined up for 1km just to clear customs unto Zambia. We arrived, I weighed in, and we proceeded to the jump platform in the middle of the bridge perched 120 meters above the Zambezi. The folks at the platform strapped me up, gave me some tips, walked me to the edge, and then yelled five, four, three, two, one “Bungee!” I leapt out, looking at the horizon, in a nice little swan dive. As gravity pulled me down toward the river, I could feel spray in my face from the falls and I could see the river approaching. With my arms outstretched, I free fell for four second before the Bungee stretched to stop me from going in the water. I felt like I was flying. After the bungee stretched to it’s end, I was whipped back toward the bridge, where I bounced and dangled until someone hooked me up to a cable that pulled me back up. I was pumped. This was one of the biggest adrenalin rushes I’ve ever had. I did buy the pictures and the video. Turns out that watching the video was actually scarier than the jump itself.
The Zambezi River Cruise was amazingly beautiful. We left at at 4:00 from the hotel and didn’t get to the boat until 4:30. All drinks were free and there were a group of French Tourists on board already taking advantage of this . We met their guide, a young man named Waldo who as an absolute blast, spoke perfect English and French along with the local language and dialects. We talked a great deal about the local political climate and other things. We cruised the River above the falls until sunset and drank in some of the most beautiful sunsets you can imagine. Better than this, we spotted a bunch of Hippos and hung out with them, watching Moms and babies keeping cool in the flowing river. We saw gorgeous birds and a crocodile or two as well. We were told that we might see hippos, but don’t expect much. Our expectations were exceeded, and we floated only 20 feet or so from the big river horses. What a terrific way top end our stay at Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls, as beautiful as it is, is unfortunately a fantasy island in the middle of a sea of thorny issues. Zimbabwe, it seems is in deep trouble. The inflation rate is 26,000 (yes thousand) percent. Unemployment hovers around 75%. The currency is worthless, (which we saw in our $1billionZD check for dinner) and the locals are paid in this worthless stuff. People are starving in Zimbabwe and the few folks who are working, are taking care of their extended families and sometimes friends. We talked to one man who had 15 people staying in his house. They were all broke, and many were starving before the were taken in. We heard from many people how one man, Robert Mugabe, has single handedly ruined the country. The once strong and respected leader has let the country collapse into a malaise. Yet there is a strong sense of hope. Elections will take place in the beginning of April and everyone we talked with was wishing that Robert Mugabe steps aside, so the country can start anew. Folks who haven’t ever voted, are voting. The Zimbabweans we talked with felt strongly that if the election doesn’t unseat Mugabe, there will be a forcible removal. In either case, folks felt it would be another 10 years before Zimbabwe will return to the position it enjoyed only ten years ago as a prosperous, stable and respected African Nation. With that said, the people at Victoria Falls were optimistic about the future and they would want you to come, visit and enjoy one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But…. please, pay in American Dollars.