Zambia & Zimbabwe: Visiting Victoria Falls, aka the Smoke That Thunders

Africa was a life changing trip for me. It’s changed my perspective on travel and where I want to go and who I want to do it with. If you want to read part one of the trip – check out our layover in Doha and safari in South Africa. Lots of cute animals and some crazy life experiences. If you want to read part two of the trip – check out my Cape Town blog, which has details on wine and not seeing great white sharks.

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The Big 5 – spotted by us!

If you don’t want to read the other blogs, here’s a quick summary of the background: We originally wanted to go for scuba, but couldn’t time it right. Thanks to The Points Guy I found an amazing deal to fly into Johannesburg – flights on Qatar Air (one of the top airlines in the world) were ~$600 instead of the typical ~$2000. Kevin was all “cool” and  booked and sixteen people followed: committing to go for two and a half weeks. INCLUDING THREE KIDS UNDER THREE. Most of the things we did had to be split into two – rental vans, safari trucks, etc. and that ended up being families and non-families for the most part. We had two married couples no kids, one married couple with a <1 year old, one married couple with a <1 year old and a ~3 year old, my former roomie and I were the single girls, and then three single dudes. Organizing this trip worked out pretty well because everyone was given *a thing* – someone found the safari lodge, someone planned the wine tasting, someone planned the shark diving. My job was Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head hike, as well as Cape Town accommodations. We didn’t have to get thirteen people to have a consensus on everything, we split up when we needed to, but we always had a “responsible adult” for each day that knew what was going on.

My impressions, one year later

I procrastinated, and here I am, one year to the day that I was in Victoria Falls, reflecting on how I felt about this part of the trip. First I’ll say that I would not change one part of this trip, it was amazing and I loved it. I would never wish that I hadn’t gone, but if I’m going to rank the wonders of the world I’ve been to (this is on the seven natural wonders of the world), this is probably at the bottom. Geez, that sounds so spoiled and entitled. I’d probably even bump it for the caldera at Santorini, Greece, or the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t go – if you go all the way to Africa, it’s a pretty easy thing to see once you’re there. I’m also not saying I’d never go back. I went in the really wet season. I’d like the chance to see it in the dry season and hang out in Devil’s Pool. If we had tried to do that on this trip, then we would have been immediately washed over the edge. It didn’t even really exist in a way that you could see it. I’m saying this so that people can manage their expectations and not be disappointed. (I wasn’t disappointed, but I didn’t have “OMG this is a wonder of the world” expectations going in.)

The details – lodging, logistics & libations

Since we divvied up the planning of the trip, I didn’t have anything to do with this part of the trip. So I can’t tell you why we picked what we picked. It sort of all just happened for me and it was a bit of a blur.

As I mentioned before, we went during the very wet season (early June) and there are certain parts of walking around that were absolutely soaked. Like getting out of the pool soaked. I had a somewhat waterproof jacket, hiking pants, and Teevas. Definitely make sure you have shoes with grippy bottoms, because it’s going to be slippery. You can rent FULL ON waterproof rain gear while you’re there, so don’t worry too much if waterproof stuff would tip you over the limit for packing. The guys with nice cameras brought underwater housings for them for this part of the trip. I probably should have had something for my iPhone, but it miraculously survived.

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Trust me – there’s a big waterfall behind me

We flew from Cape Town (and again – loved having a few Priority Pass memberships among the crew!) and hopped on our South African Airways flight to Victoria Falls Airport (VFA). The airport is on the Zimbabwe side of the falls, and is a few miles outside of town. For a little more background – the Zambezi river is what we were actually visiting. Victoria Falls town is the Zimbabwe side, and Livingstone town is the Zambia side.

Almost magically, as I was not the planner, we had a smallish bus waiting for us at the airport. We booked the transfers and our river cruise through this company. I’ll also note that getting through the airport/customs was OK as it was a tourist hub and obviously had some money, but still wasn’t easy. Don’t plan an excursion for too close after your arrival. We got the KAZA visa, which was multi-entry since we’d be crossing the border between Zim & Zam: I believe it was about $80/person. When we were driving the ~20 minutes to the hotel, it was quite the different perspective of Africa than we had in South Africa. There was a lot of people on the side of the road, walking and carrying goods. There were women carrying things on their heads.

 

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Our lodges in Zimbabwe

The hotel we were staying at was Lokuthula Lodges, which was great, but definitely interesting. We had three different “cottages,” or lodges. They were two-level stand alone buildings that was mostly thatched roof. It was almost like glamping because the lodges didn’t have actual walls on some sides – you had big roll-down sheets of canvas, with windows in them. There is also a lot of opportunities for legit safari in Zimbabwe (we almost re-spotted the big five!) so you weren’t allowed to walk from your lodge to the lobby or anywhere else after dark – you had to call for a shuttle. We were about a good five minute walk to get to the main lobby. There was no Wifi and no cell service in our lodge, so that was a little inconvenient.

The lobby of the hotel was gorgeous – it had a very nice restaurant and a bar – which was our spot to hang out because it had an open-air panoramic view over a watering hole that was very active. They even did a vulture feeding there to help conservation, which was super cool. The drawback was that to get into the town, you had to take a shuttle –  and take about 10 minutes each way.

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Bad lighting, but a good view of the watering hole from the bar

We arrived in the afternoon and hopped on the shuttle to the town. I don’t have the depth of knowledge to give you a real summary of what happened with the politics and economics, but things have been pretty bad and corrupt in Zimbabwe. There was a massive devaluation of their currency, so much so that a 100 TRILLION DOLLAR note in Zimbabwe is worth 40 US cents. A good souvenir to pick up is some of this high face value currency, and as soon as we got off the shuttle, there were guys everywhere selling it. All of the street vendors we encountered were actually quite aggressive and annoying – not that I can blame them given the poverty they were living with. The hotel discouraged us from buying anything from them.

We spent the afternoon and evening hopping around to bars and restaurants in Victoria Falls – all on the Zimbabwe side of the border. Here’s where we went and some comments if you’re planning a trip there.

  • Invuvu Bar was right across from the shuttle stop and our first stop. Not the top of the Trip Advisor list of best restaurants, but probably the place I’d recommend most. The beer and food was super cheap, and it was popular with the locals. They had real local dishes how they prepared it, not how they think the westerners would like it. I definitely prefer going to that sort of place over going to places with English menus with pictures. And there were monkeys hanging out in the nice back patio area!

 

  • We had dinner at In Da Belly – which was part of the Victoria Falls Rest Camp. Really liked this place all around – the restaurant was pretty and next to a pool, and the food and drinks were great! They had a variety of local meat on the menu. Stuff like warthog and springbock. (Nothing endangered or upsetting). We all ordered something different and tried and passed it. My favorite was the warthog – it was prepared like a German schnitzel, which makes sense since it pretty much is pork. Mmm… Pumba tastes delicious.
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African Sunset from dinner – that bluish cloud to left of center is actually the mist from the falls!
  • We started walking towards the falls and at dusk happened upon the best Instagram spot outside the falls themselves – Three Monkeys. Great for beers, and they have a light up sign that says I ❤ Vic Falls.
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Cool Instagram sign at Three Monkeys
  • For the last stop of the night, before we got a cab back to the lodge, we went to the Victoria Falls Hotel. The tag line on the web page is “luxury in the heart of Africa” which was certainly the case – this place is quite posh, and very well situated close to the falls themselves. However, we couldn’t help noting that this place reeked of a history of imperial colonialism. You knew that not too long ago there were old white men with walrus mustaches and pith helmets exploiting the locals. We enjoyed our beverages there, but I think it’s important to have some perspective and reflection. I’m a white chick from a place of privilege, my voice isn’t the one you should listen to about the complicated racial issues in Africa. But not acknowledging it feels wrong. I’m not saying not to go there, because I don’t know what the current hotel staff is like, but I think it’s important to be considerate, don’t be quiet when you see something wrong, and to try to learn and share.

Visiting Victoria Falls from both sides of the border

I don’t have a strong feeling about which view on which side of the Zambezi was better. It was all awesome. I definitely wanted to get another country on my list, and going to the Zambia side since I had already been to Zimbabwe was goal #1 for me.

Side Bar: What does it take for it to count that you’ve visited a country? I think a layover where you don’t leave the airport doesn’t count at all. I asked a dude that’s been to every country and both poles on an IG Q&A session what he needed to qualify. He said that it had to be worth it to you. I thought that was very good advice. So for me, other than leaving the airport/train station/bus station, you need to do one of these:

  • Have a local beer
  • Have a meal
  • Stay overnight
  • Get some lovin’

If you have any qualifiers, I’d love to hear about them!

When planning trips like this, I like to research and know about the logistics in advance. I didn’t do that here, as this wasn’t my “thing” of the trip, but I also think that this is a place you really need it. Big advice is that we did a lot of wandering and a lot of walking – I was pretty much toast by the end of the day. 

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Border signs

We got off the shuttle and just kinda went towards the falls. We went through immigration and got our stamps and walked over the Victoria Falls Bridge and we were in Zambia! The Victoria Falls Bridge is gorgeous and you should check it out if you go.

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Victoria Falls Bridge – Photo credit to my safari buddy Zach

We hadn’t had breakfast at the hotel and were starting to get “hangry.” Some people had better data plans on their phones than others (but details were still sketchy), so after a lot of walking, we ended up following a sign to the Mosi-Oa-Tunya (the name of the national park) and somehow ended up at the Avani Resort. You guys, this place is choice. If you have the means, I would definitely recommend it. Based on aesthetics and class alone, I’d pick this over the Victoria Falls Hotel for sure.  It was unexpected luxury right in the middle of extreme poverty, and it was a newer facility. The pool and grounds were gorgeous, and we had breakfast there and it was great! When we were leaving the resort there was an actual herd of zebras (!!!) just chilling on the grass having a munch. I didn’t know if they were wild or somewhat familiar – they had a security guard nearby making sure nobody tried to approach them.

 

Then we were back to the falls and walking around snapping pictures. It was a lot of water and so loud! You could look back onto the Victoria Falls Bridge, which was lovely. We were absolutely drenched in some places – like I said, after walking over one bridge in particular (Knife Edge Bridge), it was the same as if I had just climbed out of a pool with all my clothes on. In some places the mist was so intense that we could hardly see the falls at all, and it was hard to get photos.

 

We crossed through immigration again and back to the Zimbabwe side for some more lovely views. I cannot really say anything positive about going through immigration either way. It was not organized or efficient. There weren’t real queues and the locals were cutting. The lines for cars to get through the border were hours long, from what we heard. Not bashing – just setting expectations.

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The commute across the border was rough

Zambezi River Sunset Cruise

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This was a lovely last night at the falls, I would definitely recommend doing this. We spent a few hours with snacks and an open bar cruising up and down the Zambezi river above the falls. The waters were calm, and we were on the hunt for hippo and alligators. The only ones we saw were pretty far away, but my favorite thing to do, given the free time, is to be on a boat, so I was happy! Especially since they had more South African Chenin Blanc! We couldn’t see too much of the falls, but off in the distance there was a puff of spray that was hit by the light and you could see a rainbow in it. The cruise line we took was Zambezi Explorer (booked together with our airport transfers). Be sure to bring some cash to tip the bartenders and crew.

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For dinner that night the majority of us went for what was convenient, and I’m certainly glad we did. We ate at the hotel lobby. The food was good, but what I remember the most was the entertainment. The hotel is next to a drum show venue that does traditional performances. We weren’t too geeked on that part because it made us think of a luau, which is only for the tourists – and we had several Hawaiians with us. However, in order to drum up advertising for going to the show, they sent the men’s choir over to sing in the dining room and it was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. I definitely cried I was so moved. It was very emotional, especially right at the end of such a transformative trip. I don’t know if I would go to the whole show, but I am so thankful for the music.

My only regret from this trip to Victoria Falls (other than not being able to go to Devil’s Pool, which was a non-starter for June) was that we didn’t do a plane/helicopter ride to get a view of the falls from above. I ultimately decided against it because as an aerospace engineer, I was pretty worried about airplane maintenance in a developing country.

Leaving Africa – Where the Trip Went Wrong

Since we had booked round trip flights out of Johannesburg, we had to fly back there for one more night at the same Hyatt we stayed in at the beginning of the trip. But before I get to that, I gotta tell you that when they say you need two blank pages in your passport when you go to a country – they totally mean it! Two of the guys in our group had enough spaces for stamps, but not the extra pages. Zimbabwe immigration would not let them leave the country to go to South Africa that day with us because they had to immediately transit home. So they had to go back to Victoria Falls, get a room for the night, and then rebook on a new flight the next day. They could go to Johannesburg, but it had to be a layover and they couldn’t leave the airport, they had to have an ongoing flight the same day. It was a bit of a shock – these were the two married-no-kids guys, and they left their wives with us and were stuck in Zimbabwe. Luckily there were two of them together and we’ve done a lot of traveling! Obviously this isn’t a problem that a newbie/uncomfortable traveler would ever have, but still concerning!

Check out my first Africa blog for more information about Johannesburg, but after two and a half weeks of traveling, and while anticipating a 27 hour travel day, we kept it close to the hotel. It was attached to a mall, so we had dinner there and walked through a farmers market that was in the parking structure. We did some easy shopping and some people bought some booze and other gifts to bring home. We hung out in the lounge and played UNO.

On the last day before we took off, everyone split up. Some people left the hotel/mall area, but my friend Jenn and I hit up the Hyatt spa for a couples massage! It was great! We planned to get to the airport early so we could meet up with “the Zimbabwe two” and the shopping at the airport was actually pretty good. I had most of my people already taken care of, but I grabbed a onesie and some other small things.

We flew back through Doha, but we didn’t have a stopover this time – just a few short hours so we could do some quick shopping. I got some snacks and candies and we boarded the flight home. Since I had carried on everything, and I had Global Entry, I didn’t have to wait for anyone and hopped in the rideshare home super quickly. Again, even in Coach, Qatar Air was very nice. I definitely got antsy being in the same place for so long.

So that’s it! All the details of the best trip ever. Hopefully you liked it, I would appreciate any feedback you have!

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I bless the rains down in Africa…

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