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A natural beauty: Victoria Falls

One of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Perched on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, Victoria Falls on the mighty Zambezi river, is one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and, considered to be the largest falls in the world at 1.7 kilometers long and 108 meters high. The “Smoke that Thunders” (as the impressive Victoria Falls are commonly known as), are breathtaking and definitely a must-see on any trip to Southern Africa.

The man himself: David Livingstone

The Victoria Falls were “discovered” by Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone in 1855 but he was actually the first European to see the Falls, as archaeological findings in the area indicate that the area was inhabited by local tribes as far back as the Stone Age. Still, to give credit to Livingstone for “promoting” the falls to the outside world, there is an island and town named after him close to the Falls and a statue of the man himself stands in the Zimbabwean Victoria Falls National Park. Just to make sure, probably for diplomatic reasons, that he is not forgotten.

If you think that Victoria Falls is just about its magnificent waterfall, think again! The town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe is a bustling touristic hub with colonial roots and a population of around 20,000 – not counting the masses of tourists which flock there each year.

I visited the Falls in 2005 when Zimbabwe’s economy was in dire straits. The hotel I stayed at ran out of orange juice, instead serving us tomato juice for breakfast, with a smile, a shrug and a very polite explanation “Sorry we’ve run out of orange juice and don’t know when we will have more”, a reference to the shortage of supplies in the country. Our taxi from the airport  ran out of petrol five kilometers from the hotel; petrol stations also lay empty….the Zim dollar was still accepted but tourists were advised to bring hard cash, preferably US dollars, with them but South African Rand and Euros were also welcomed with open arms.

Five years later, there is orange juice on the breakfast tables, everything is priced in US dollars and the billion and trillion-Zim-dollar notes are being sold off as “collector’s items”. Even the ATM machines are stocked with US dollars but demand far exceeds supply so by the late afternoon, all the cash machines in Victoria Falls are often empty. The hotels do take credit cards when they have to, but cash is still king. However even though the economy certainly seems in better shape than a few years ago, Zimbabwe is still Zimbabwe, and my profiteroles are filled with custard sauce instead of cream “we ran out of cream” smiles the waiter.

I have a “love hate” relationship with the town of Victoria Falls. On one hand, it’s doing its best to squeeze as much out of tourists as possible. Everything is focused on the tourist, sometimes turning things like an authentic African dinner with every kind of game meat imaginable (zebra, crocodile, impala to name but a few) into a themed African Disneyland-style event. I’m referring here to “The Boma restaurant” which is a lot of fun but also completely tacky and OTT with everything from drum-playing and local dancing to fortune tellers and face painters. But it is a great family event with plenty of interaction and, after a few drinks, you can’t help but start to enjoy it. An Indian guy from South Africa paid his one-dollar-fee twice to get his fortune told “I want to see if this guy is for real”, he explained. Afterwards, he admitted, “He only asked me questions. I told him ‘you’re the one who’s supposed to be answering them, not me! And he told me completely different things than the last time.” But he considered the dollar well spent as he had a good laugh.

Rush hour at Victoria Falls International Airport. The two daily flights from Jo'burg are perfectly timed to land at mid-day, at the peak of the local thunderstorms.

Getting a visa at the airport is also a circus, at times expensive, and at other times totally erratic. In 2005, I was told that I didn’t need a visa because of my Irish passport: “We like your country so you’re very welcome in ours”. This time around I discover that Ireland has been lumped together in the same category as the UK and I have to pay USD 75 for a double-entry visa, higher than any of the other EU countries. I try to explain that Ireland and the UK is not the same, but it’s pointless and I pay up.

On the other hand, as we touch down at Victoria Falls International Airport from Johannesburg, in the middle of a thunderstorm and are welcomed by a group of locals kitted out in leopard-print costumes, and I catch a whiff of the earthy air and eye the luscious greenery … I feel like I am really back in Africa. South Africa is South Africa, and beautiful and interesting in its own right, but Zimbabwe belongs to the “real” Africa. People in Zimbabwe, despite what they have been through, are mainly warm, hearty and hospitable. They’re also business-savvy but with their sense of charm and humor, they get away with it. Tourists may be seen as a cash cow, but they are also well respected and much appreciated.

Zimbabwe, Rhodesia as it was formerly known, was once the pearl of Southern Africa but in recent years has lost that crown. Drenched in colonial history, the Victoria Falls Bridge opened in 1905 connecting Victoria Falls town to Zambia. The area boomed economically and touristically for almost a century, thanks to its natural wonder and good transport connections, before Mugabe and his chums came along and decided to “change” things. Under the surface of the tacky shops and fast food chains in the town center today, traces of its colonial past still lurk. The exclusive Victoria Falls Hotel, “the grand old lady of the Falls”, built in 1904, boasts part of this history – many a royal family has stayed here and they still carry on some quaint traditions like Afternoon Tea.

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge: A great safari lodge but without the safari.

While hotel rates on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls tend to be a bit lower than in neighboring Zambia, prices (especially at peak times) can be high. We stayed at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, just five minutes outside the town and ten minutes from the Falls, overlooking a waterhole. It was rainy season so there were just a few impalas and zebras grazing and drinking. The hotel attracts seasoned European safari-goers, “first timer” Americans in Africa, and South Africans on weekend breaks. The hotel is tastefully decorated in African style and comfortable with super-friendly staff who are extremely helpful and hospitable.

If you expect to see animals hopping around the hotel, don’t. There are some resident monkeys, the occasional spider and you sometimes spot a warthog (affectionately known as “the municipality lawnmowers” who graze and keep the grass short!). The locals like to tell tourists that it’s dangerous at night as wild animals like lions roam the streets, but I think this just adds a touch of drama and intrigue to the place … and creates a bit of extra revenue for the Falls taxi service! However, saying that, last week, there was an elephant rubbing his back against the traffic lights at the town’s main junction, so keep your eyes open!

  1. February 24, 2011 at 11:00 am

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  2. February 25, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Nice blog. I was checking continuously this blog and I’m quite impressed! Very helpful information particularly the first part. I care for such info a lot. I was looking for this particular info for a long time. Thank you and good luck.

  3. March 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    Great article. I was checking constantly this blog and I’m quite impressed! Very helpful info specifically the first part. I care for such information a lot. I was seeking this certain information for a very long time. Thank you and best of luck.

  1. February 27, 2011 at 10:25 pm

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