Monday, September 16, 2013

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

On our first trip to Africa in 1997, Doug and I stopped in Victoria Falls. When the Zambezi River is high, this waterfall becomes the widest curtain of water on the planet. Even when the water isn't high, it's a spectacular sight. The falls lie on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and on our very first visit all those years ago, we started on the Zambian side. Livingstone was a very quiet town then; there was really one hotel set up for tourists coming to see the falls, and we were among just a handful of guests staying there. The Zimbabwe side, in contrast, felt like spring break. The town was full of backpackers there to party and go whitewater rafting and bungee jumping before they headed off on safaris. The streets were full of locals and tourists alike, all with big smiles on their faces.

Two years later, we went back to find the Zimbabwe side a ghost town. Mugabe's policies had caught up with even this part of the country, and the tourists were starting to stay away. The people were on the verge of getting desperate, and it was a difficult place to be. And so, we didn't return for almost fifteen years. In the meantime, Zambia became the place tourists went to see the falls, and more hotels and tourist facilities were built. Several Zambians told us privately that the government could have done a lot more to take advantage of their position and promote tourism, though.  Zimbabwe is more stable now and starting to attract tourists again, and though the tourist trade seems split between the two, it does seem clear that Zambia missed an opportunity.

Still, Victoria Falls remains a great destination in Africa. It's a place where you can see one of the four most incredible waterfalls in the world, go on safaris and multi-days canoeing or whitewater rafting trips, ride jet boats and helicopters, and try one of the most spectacular bungee jumps in the world from the iconic bridge over the Zambezi Gorge at the base of the falls. Not that we were able to do much of this with a five-year-old, of course!

We stayed in the Victoria Falls Hotel, the oldest hotel in the area and a great example of old British colonial architecture. The hotel itself is more than 100 years old. It's holding up well, though it's clear that the lean years took their toll and the hotel needs some work.  The mosquito net in our room fell down from the ceiling and the air conditioner stopped working a few times, and there was only one electrical outlet we could use to recharge our devices.  But we saw workers painting and constantly working on the grounds while we were there, so they're definitely trying. 

The hotel has been operating since the beginning of the 20th century, when it was a stop on the passenger air route from London to Capetown. The style is old-school colonial, all the way. 

There is still a formal dining room that requires coat and tie. Obviously we didn't eat here, since dressy clothes are not something we brought with us this year, but it's interesting that this vestige of the past is still in operation.

The hallways are decorated with vintage posters celebrating British colonialism. Not terribly PC, but interesting.

The grounds are lovely and manicured. There is even a pool, which Carter enjoyed -- though it was very cold!

The hotel has a lovely view of the spray of the waterfall and the famous bridge over the Zambezi Gorge.

A highlight of this hotel is the view, of course. They also have a lovely high tea.

Warthogs and baboons roamed the grounds.

It's actually hard to get this close to warthogs in the bush, so it was nice to be able to take some good pictures of them! I've always found it fascinating that they graze on their knees like this.

Here is a video of them:

The falls themselves are beautiful, and actually easier to see with less water. (We've been drenched by the spray in the past.)  There was a big UN world tourism conference going on while we were there, and we later learned that Zambia and Zimbabwe had petitioned for the dams upstream from the falls to release some extra water to make the falls more dramatic than they would otherwise be. The water is extremely low right now due to an extraordinarily dry rainy season last year, so apparently the falls would have been even lighter if we'd come a few weeks earlier.

The views are spectacular, and the photos really don't do it justice!

This was a point where I had an iron grip on Carter, as you might imagine!

This is the bridge that people bungee jump from. We did get to see a bungee jump while we were watching, which was fun. This is something I have zero interest in doing, I have to say!

The area immediately surrounding the falls is very green and rainforest-like, since it gets so much moisture from the spray. It's amazing that just 100 meters inland, the land is back to dry bushveld again.

The baboons and monkeys in the park are used to people, of course.

One night we went to the Boma restaurant, one of our favorite spots from earlier visits. It's a restaurant that serves traditional African dishes and features a show of music and dancing.  One part of the show featured drumming and audience participation, and Carter had a blast!

 Here is a video of him playing along with the drumming part of the show:

The next day we decided to splurge on a helicopter ride over the falls. After our fantastic helicopter ride over the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, I have a new appreciation for that kind of aerial view! Our helicopter flew over the falls and the beautiful, winding gorge formed by the lower Zambezi. We then flew over the nearby game reserve and spotted some animals.

When the water is high, the falls form a solid curtain of water, which must be amazing to see!

The helicopter had a plexiglass bottom so we could see the ground below.

We saw elephants, wildebeest, and Cape buffalo when we flew over the park.

And of course, all good things come to an end.

Here are some video highlights:

It was a fantastic experience and we all enjoyed it a lot. Unfortunately, I started to feel queasy on the way to the helicopter ride, and by the time we got back to the hotel, I realized I'd contracted food poisoning. I spent the rest of the day in bed, feeling miserable. The next day, we had a road transfer to Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana, which required us to cross a border and change vehicles on a very hot day, and that wasn't much fun, I have to say. Luckily, we still have antibiotics, and I started taking them as soon as I quit vomiting. The next couple of days were rough for me, though, and it's never fun to have your last memory of a place be how terrible you felt. 

In the next post, we'll have pictures from the time went spent at Chobe Game Lodge, our second of three safari experiences.

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