April 8, 2011

Victoria Falls

Another great weekend getaway from Joburg and a MUST while you're an expat in South Africa is Victoria Falls. Much like Cape Town, it's less than a two-hour flight and reasonably priced. It's a great trip to take your kids on as there is much to do and see, but it also makes for a nice couples weekend.

The latter is what we chose to do a few weeks ago. It was long in coming - the entire trip was my birthday present from last July (Noisette had given me a framed picture of the falls as a place holder for the trip, which much later one of the kids saw standing on my bathroom counter - "Isn't the waterfall upside down?", was the question. Sure enough, it was!)

We arrived in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on a Saturday afternoon. Our flight on South African Airways (SAA) had been uneventful, if you don't count the fact that we had to purchase new tickets at the counter that morning. Just a slight snag. You can also fly into Livingstone on the Zambia side, but we had settled on Zimbabwe. First off, I have to say that it is not nearly as bad as I had expected. You hear all these horror stories about Zimbabwe, and I'm sure much of it is true, but in terms of travelling and staying in Victoria Falls as a tourist there is absolutely no problem. The people are lovely, the service is good, and most everything is available.

One thing you want to be sure of is to bring a nice supply of US dollars with you. It has been the official currency of Zimbabwe, ever since their own collapsed (reminders of which you can purchase at every street corner in the form of a Fifty Trillion Dollar note), but because they don't actually print it (thank GOD) there isn't much change out there, certainly no coins. Every price is in multiples of $5, so you are well served by carrying a stack of smaller bills, especially if you want to buy some of the art work or simply give tips. South African Rands also work, as well as Euros, but the problem with Euros is that you don't get as good of a rate.

This last point became apparent as we stood in a long line fresh off the plane. It was reminiscent of our days in Singapore where we'd frequently take the ferry over to Indonesia for a weekend beach holiday. Similar lines in a similarly shabby arrivals lounge, and at the mercy of an immigration official armed with a battery of stamps to go at your passports (beware if you don't have an entire new page left for that purpose!). No price lists anywhere, so you're at the mercy of the official telling you it's $30. In Euros, which is what we had brought? €25. Forget the exchange rate, it has to be a multiple of 5, and no one ever rounds down!

Driving through the countryside to our hotel rendered our first surprise. It was so lush, so green! Much greener than South Africa ever gets, even in the midst of the rainy season. And the weather was perfect. Warmer and more humid than Joburg, but not oppressively so. Everything seemed to be in bloom. In short, a Garden of Eden of sorts, if you discount the poverty all around, and the dilapidated buildings of "downtown" Victoria Falls that had the vague air of East Germany pre-1989. But that is just the town itself. If you're planning a trip to Vic Falls, I can recommend staying outside of town - there will be less hustle and bustle and you won't constantly have helicopters flying over your head, as you're prone to have in a hotel directly at the falls. On the other hand, the views are bound to be stunning if your hotel overlooks the falls, and you'll  have to endure less transfers back and forth. Our hotel, or rather lodge, the Stanley & Livingstone, was about 15 minutes away from town and absolutely perfect for us.  The view from the breakfast terrace is exactly as advertised on the website, and the decor and atmosphere make you feel as if you've gone back in time (without losing any modern day conveniences, that is). I've also written a review of the Stanley&Livingstone on Tripadvisor if you're interested.

Breakfast at the Stanley & Livingstone
Waterhole as seen from Stanley & Livingstone Terrace

The water hole was frequented by elephants, buffaloes, and water-bucks, and I can only imagine what it would be like during the dry winter months (May through September). It seems like there is something on offer any time of year at Vic Falls, but I'm glad we came at this time of year (March) when the water levels are highest and the falls at their most impressive.

The falls are the most stunning during high water season

We decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the pool, where after a while we had an unexpected visitor:

Late that first afternoon we set off for the sunset cruise on the Zambezi. We were not the only ones, that's for sure. Everybody at Vic Falls does a sunset cruise. The boats circled ten deep in some places, but the Zambezi is actually so wide and majestic it doesn't matter, and you absolutely have to experience the sunset with a Zambezi beer in front of you. In fact, after seeing the next few pictures, you will probably start working on your travel arrangements.

We were quite busy the rest of that weekend with a helicopter ride, an elephant safari, and canoeing on the Zambezi, but seeing the actual falls was almost an afterthought. It's a good thing the manager of our hotel suggested we should tour the falls, or we might have missed out on this prime reason for our visit! And, it turns out, the most memorable part. The helicopter ride of course was great but brief and not nearly as impressive as standing across from Devil's Cataract, water roaring in our ears and getting drenched with rain. Not quite drenched, actually, because I had insisted we take umbrellas from the hotel. Noisette never likes to carry anything extra but had to concede that both the umbrellas and camera case were extremely useful. Though in hindsight I can recommend leaving everything behind, including shoes - I felt like half the Zambezi was squishing around in my hiking boots - and just enjoy getting drenched. You won't be taking great pictures anyway due to the perpetual mist.

View of the falls from the helicopter

Elephant ride as seen from the biggest elephant!

I love how the elephant is eying the food!
Devil's Cataract from under the umbrella

One cool fact about the elephants: They are trained in three languages. Our elephant - Tusker - impressed us by reversing on command (back!) to pick up a stirrup that had come loose (pick!). A not so cool fact about the elephants: Riding on one renders numb private parts!

Our last day was spent with a canoeing trip (above the falls). While the canoeing was great (and fast-moving with almost no paddling which is just the right kind of canoeing for our family), there was too much hoo-hah and back and forth attached to it, so I'm not sure if I would recommend it. By the time we had transferred to the Shearwater office, then to the canoeing headquarters, then through Zambezi National Park upriver (one long bumpy ride which made as long for the elephants from yesterday, numbness notwithstanding) and suffered through what seemed like hours of safety talk, we were quite ready to get on the darn river, crocodiles to hell.

Maybe it was just our bad luck that we had a couple from Boston in our group (I SWEAR they must have been Harvard professors), who was scared shitless by the prospect of hippos overturning our canoes and asked a gazillion questions about what exactly to do in a multitude of different scenarios. It went like this: Our guide would show how to paddle on the left if you want to turn right, and the woman would say "wait a minute, let me see if I got this right - if you want to turn to the right, you paddle on the left like this?" and she would demonstrate. Then she asked things like when will we picked up again, where precisely will we be picked up again, where will we be brought from there, how long will it take before we have the first break, where can we put our camera, do you have a water proof bag, do we EACH get a water proof bag... I swear this went on for about an hour. Noisette and I were both ready to strangle her and throw her into the river. Throughout all this her husband was mute, until we were finally - finally! - on the river, and he asked the guide whether the right or left side of the river was Zambia. We hadn't even taken three strokes to leave the bank, which was obviously in Zimbabwe! He also decided that this was a good moment for the first photo op, which was complicated by the fact that both him and her were in two different canoes, with their own guide each, due to their fear of the hippos. They must have thought Noisette and I were reckless, sharing the same. Anyway, a back and forth ensued, camera handed across the water and back again, while I wished for nothing more than the darn camera dropping into the water. Eventually it was safely stowed in the shared - not separate - water proof bag and we were finally on our way.

In hindsight, we should have seen this coming when said couple turned up in the morning with matching safari gear - from hat to toe, literally. But once again I should be grateful for such excellent writing material!

This is what the river looked like above the falls (see the mist), though we didn't get quite so close

The river was beautiful, very wide, faster flowing than expected with a few rapids, but the ride was over much too quickly. Our guides constantly worried about hippos - not crocodiles - and we were reminded of how dangerous they are and how it's  important to take them seriously, as it is with all wild animals. We did take note of some beautiful lodges on the Zambia side, right on the water. Something to investigate for our next trip!

All in all, we loved Victoria Falls and will be back. Next time we want to bring the boys during the low water season so that we can raft down the gorge. We've also seen pictures of "river boarding" where you basically boogie board down the rapids, which also looks awesome. I suspect Zax will also want to do the bungee jump off the bridge, but if I know one thing for certain in my life it is that I will NOT be doing that! There is, however, also a zipline across the river (called foofie slide or something similar in these parts) which I might be convinced to try on our next visit.

Bungee jumping off the bridge

You can look at all my pictures here:

Victoria Falls Travel Tips:
  • Bring US dollars, especially small denominations
  • Best time of year to view the falls: During high water March - May
  • Best time of year for white water rafting: During low water September - January (closed during high water)
  • Leave your camera at the hotel when walking along the falls during high water
  • Bring your passport or South African ID with you when you enter any of the national parks, since South African residents get a better price
  • Take the helicopter ride - the views are stunning!
  • Plan and book your activities through Shearwater or Wild Horizons ahead of time and negotiate a good rate for transfers from your hotel


Ina said...

I am so glad you enjoyed Zimbabwe. I have not seen 1/10th of the world you have seen, but Zim (and Norway) are my favourites - and Vic Falls is the best! Thank you for taking me back there this morning!

Bing said...

Now I HAVE to go to VF.

Love the larger pics! =)

Sine said...

Zim... and Norway? Probably polar opposites:-) Though I admit I have not seen Norway.
Bing - your blog has been my model in terms of larger pictures, thanks! And yes, you HAVE to go.

Stephanie said...

Great info. We are trying to plan a weekend getaway ourselves in the coming months. I do have to say, visit tropical KZN and you will see lush green sugar cane fields and rolling hills. It's green here!

Sine said...

Stephanie - that's great, enjoy the trip! And you're right, we do have to visit KZN, I also haven't seen Durban yet. We did go to Sodwana Bay last year, which was beautiful. But I always worry about Malaria - is it not a problem where you live?

Stephanie said...

Northern KZN near Mozambique has malaria but not here. And in winter you don't have to worry as much. Durban is great in that there is lots to do within a short drive.

Anonymous said...

Hi Stephanie, - Glad you had a great time in Victoria Falls. Please note you link to Shearwater Victoria Falls is wrong, and you have a broken link. It's www.shearwatervictoriafalls.com. Thanks

Sine said...

Hi, sine here not Stephanie, thanks for the heads up, I fixed it now!

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Fascinating! While I love SA to pieces, Zimbabwe is actually my favorite African country. I just don't spend much time thinking about it because I get depressed by the mess Mugabe has made out of it. I hope saner minds prevail once he is gone and that Zim recovers quickly.

I'm told that Zim isn't too bad as long as you stick to the tourist areas. The more adventurous can check out the major cities and larger towns but you have to be very careful, don't take pictures of anything, don't say anything to anyone even remotely critical of the government, and be prepared to pay bribes if you decide to drive anywhere on your own. Also, if something bad goes down near where you are at just try to ignore it and move in the opposite direction double quick.

Sine said...

I think all you say makes sense, though having traveled to East Berlin in my day, and then to Zim much later, I must say that Zim is nothing like East Germany used to be like in terms of the scare factor, at least on a tourist front. East Germany - that was REAL scary. Vowed to never go there again after the one time, and didn't, until the wall came down. It's really not that bad in Zim at all, but perhaps that is true because you are so easily identifiable as a tourist and therefore not a threat but income source.

W. A. Jeffrey said...

Very true, Mugabe and company are bad dudes but they are not as bad as the Soviets at their worst. I think you are probably right on the tourist front I just wonder if as a white person you might have more trouble if you were wanting to wander around Bulawayo, Harare, or Gwelo, etc. I've heard that anti-white violence has picked up over the last few years but maybe since the govt is so heavy on the surveillance they can tell which is which.

I wouldn't be scared to go there even now if it wasn't for having to carry a lot of cash around and since their medical industry has fallen apart you might be up a creek if you got sick.

Sine said...

Good point, the main cities with Zimbabwean whites living in them might be different, because you wouldn't stand out as a tourist. Although I think some of the worst crime is wielded black on black. Have you read Peter Godwin's The Fear yet? It's sobering. But also some years back, when Morgan Tsvangirai was still in open opposition and that election turned so bloody. I don't know what it's like now. It almost seems like people are biding their time till Mugabe dies, but I don't think that much will change, as there is too much profit to be made by everyone who is in power.

Lorenda said...

As a South African, and also one who has fortunately never been a victim of crime, it pains me to have to admit that Zimbabwe - despite that tyrant, Mugabe -is a much "safer" country, and it is a pity that Zim is perceived as being unsafe. In my opinion, Rhodesians/Zmbabweans are the nicest people on Earth, and I've been to a few countries. However, if I had to leave SA, which would be hard, I would want to go to Botswana or Namibia, being safe, stable countries.
Would also not mind living - in a luxury tent- in the middle of the Serengeti for the rest of my life.
Africa is hands down the most romantic, adventurous and magical continent, despite the abundant misery and poverty.

"If you are only going to visit one place in your life, visit Africa twice".

I'm going to Botswana in June, and am beyond excited!

Sine said...

Lorenda - Amen to all of that. Zim is very safe for tourists, safer than SA, and Botswana and Namibia are awesome countries. I'll join you in that Serengeti tent!

Also, I love that quote, I hadn't heard it before: "If you are only going to visit one place in your life, visit Africa twice".

Absolutely true. I haven't met anyone yet who has been to Africa once and has said, "been there done that." EVERYBODY who's been there is scheming to get back!

Lorenda said...

You should also visit Kenya one day. My ex and I went to the Masai Mara for our honeymoon back in the early 90s. I LOVE the open plains and the huge herds of animals you see - unlike the bush in SA.

I have to admit that I have watched "Out of Africa" probably 20 times. While the lion encounter scenes are a bit silly and cringe-worthy, it is otherwise a gloriously wonderful film. Every time I see it I wish I had lived in Colonial Kenya, on a coffee plantation in THAT HOUSE!!!
I would have gone to Serengeti in Aug this year (Migration and river crossings), but as the price was quoted in USD, and the Rand fell so much before I had paid for the trip I changed my plans and am going to Bots- half the price and staying in 3 luxury camps. I am going on an organised group safari (my first "group" safari, so I hope it wii be a great bunch of people) for seven nights.
By the way, Since discevering your blog the other day I have read a lot of your posts and I have to commend you on your knowledge of the Southern African countries, specificlly your extensive knowledge of SA. You give excellent advice, and very obviously well researched.
I sometimes find myself thinking, I must go there", or, "that sounds like a great shop".

Since you like African adventure, you might want to read Tony Park's books, which are all set in Africa. He is an Aussie writer who after a visit to South Africa a number of years ago, came on a subsequent visit, and then was hooked (i.e. he was bitten by the Africa bug - and you know there is no cure for the resultant "disease"). Anyway, he and his wife now divide there time between their home in Sydney and the house they bought in a wildlife estate next to KNP. His love of and travels through Africa inspired his writing ("because there was so much to write about") and, hey presto, he is now Africa's new Wilbur Smith. Check out his web page, and he also has a FB page. He often bases characters on real people he has met on his travels through Africa, and you can even ask him to use your name for one of his characters.

Lorenda said...

Excuse the typos. I typed the post on my cellphone which is not a good thing. I cringe at the mistakes I made, which I cannot edit. Sorry.

Sine said...

Wow, Lorenda, I will totally check out Tony Park. Which book would you recommend I read first? Funny, when I started reading your comment, I said to myself, sounds like Wilbur Smith. Then you said it in the next sentence. I love Wilbur Smith! (Or, I should say, used to love, it's a bit simplistic now for my taste, but back in my 20s I devoured his books).

Also: You must be a stickler about typos like me. I hate making them and then not being able to correct. I sometimes feel a sense of dread when I do that. Blame it on Blogger, it's not very friendly towards editing comments, esp from your phone.

Thank you for all your feedback, I'm loving it. I share your thoughts on Out of Africa, in fact just watched it again the other day. Prompted by reading Circling the Sun, which I loved. I would love to go to Kenya. Only passed through Nairobi airport on way to Kili, but that has been it so far. And the sweeping savannah you describe is exactly how I imagined the bush before seeing it, and I remember how disappointed I was that the elephants were always mostly hidden by branches!