Johnny's Journeys: Africa Part Two
Johnny’s Journeys: Victoria Falls
Written by Johnny Fugitt
I’ve found there to be a direct correlation between the number of coaches at a location and my enjoyment of it – the longer the conga line of tour busses, the less enjoyable the experience. Sure, the most obvious reason for this is the crowd. Busses also signify a once-wild place has been tamed and turned into an amusement park of racket. Dutifully marching like an army of ants to an abandoned popsicle, the hawkers of grossly-inflated faux relics circling tour busses may annoy me most. This is part of the reason I prefer Angkor Wat to the Great Wall, Machu Pichu to the Pyramids.
To be sure, each of these sights is accessible with thousands of tourists visiting daily. With the exception of the poles, there’s sure to be some long-haired person wearing Patagonia gear reading a Lonely Planet in every corner of the world at this very moment. Some locales just crawl with backpackers instead of tour group hoards with their neon vests and matching visors swarming behind a microphoned incarnation of wikipedia. This is part of the appeal of Victoria Falls where independent travelers far outnumber tour busses.
Victoria Falls feels remote. Coming down for landing at the airport, one can’t see anything but the bush. There is a small town, but skip the casino-hotel next to a KFC and get into nature to immerse oneself in this part of the world. I stayed at two unique properties providing distinctly different experiences.
Victoria Falls Safari Club is part of a development that includes a larger lodge and dinner show. With open air verandas overlooking a watering hole, the Lodge is exactly what one imagines for a hotel in the bush. The Boma dinner show, a cousin to the Hawaiian Luau, has become one of the most popular attractions in Victoria Falls. Nestled between the two sits the Club. The Club offers exclusive dining, gorgeous accommodations and attentive service.
The ‘wow’ moment at the Club happens every evening. The area surrounding the Falls is relatively flat, but the Club and Lodge face west atop a small hill. I remember amazing sunsets from the American Southwest and Southeast Asia, but nothing beats the horizon-filling bands of brilliant orange seen in Southern Africa.
While the sunsets are impressive, that isn’t the primary draw to this part of Africa. Twice as tall and significantly wider than Niagara Falls, it’s impossible to appreciate the magnitude of the Falls without taking to the air. Just a sliver of the Falls would be a destination, but the immensity of the Falls provides the same wonderful sense of smallness we get from floating on an ocean, summiting a mountain or gazing into the stars. Similar to discussions surrounding Niagara, some say the view from Zimbabwe is the best while others prefer the Zambian side. I think Zambia offers the best views, but, regardless, take a few hours and pay the required fees to see it from both sides.
The Zambezi River, with Victoria Falls, forms the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. A few miles upriver from the Falls sits Old Drift Lodge. Old Drift Lodge sits inside the Zambezi National Park and its grounds are roamed freely by elephants, hippos, lions and all of the wildlife calling the Zambezi home. Guides are needed after dark as the animals are free to wander through camp, which is designed not to impede the animals’ river access. You may remember the news earlier this year when a bride-to-be lost her arm to a crocodile as she and her husband were flipped from their canoe by a rather aggressive crocodile. That was also upriver from the Falls. This portion of the world is filled with incredibly powerful, dangerous animals and a stay here means precautions are necessary as we’re guests in their home.
With all of that said what could be better than sipping a glass of champagne in the outdoor bath as wildlife stroll by for a dip in the Zambezi? Each chalet includes both indoor and outdoor showers, an outdoor tub, a pool and perfect morning views of the river.
More than a place to stay, the Lodge offers a variety of activities. Guided tours of the Falls, game drives, river safaris and nature walks are included with the lodging. I may be a sucker for sunsets, but the sunset river safari was one of my favorite things as we saw elephants, giraffes, hippos and crocodiles before another colorful twilight. Some travelers prefer to jump from activity to activity, but, for me, part of the appeal of this place was the remoteness and peacefulness of the river. Boats are sparse and I couldn’t see another person from my chalet – it was just me and nature. This lack of stimulation, noise and distractions may be the most atypical aspect of the experience for those of us desperately needing to unplug.
Also included are meals, which I found quite enjoyable. I’m no critic of croc cuisine, but you never would have guessed crocodile to have the reputation of being anything less than fish-like tender from the expertly-roasted tail I was served. More traditional options are available for those who may not enjoy eating the cousin of the creature seen sunbathing a few hours earlier.
One’s experience of the Falls is largely based on the season. I visited in late July, which is the Southern Hemisphere’s winter. It proved perfect. First, it was the slower season for tourists, so the sights were not as busy and special deals abounded. Second, winter is mosquito-free. Malaria is a concern in Zimbabwe, as it is in most of Africa, but the buzzing pests are not to be found in winter. Third, winter may offer just the right amount of water at the Falls. Wet season in Southern Africa is November through March. During this time, the Falls roar. This certainly has some appeal, but during the rainy season, I was told, one can’t see much due to the mist caused by the sheer volume of water. Just before the wet season, August through October, sheets of water turn into a series of thinner ribbons where the view is clearer but the Falls don’t have the same sense of overwhelming volume. Mid-year may be the best balance of visibility with volume of water.
The seasons also greatly impact what wildlife you are likely to encounter away from the Falls. During the rainy season, there are pools of water everywhere, so game is dispersed. The smaller watering holes dry up as the year progresses, so animals are drawn to the rivers and large pools, meaning you’ll see more wildlife. Finally, the temperatures are simply best in winter. With highs in the upper 70’s or low 80’s and lows in 60’s at night, this proved ideal weather – especially compared to 90’s back home.
With added flights to the recently-built airport, tourism is on the rise at Victoria Falls. During winter at least, it still did not feel crowded and my accommodations took me right to the edge of civilization and nature. Victoria Falls is one of the world’s most impressive natural wonders and I recommend visiting soon as the area offers everything a traveler needs, but before it undoubtably becomes over-developed.
Stay with me for the next installment of my African trip as I visit Chobe National Park in Botswana.