Victoria Falls is a gigantic earth rending waterfall, It’s neither the highest, nor the widest in the world, but it’s one of the most impressive (we were extremely impressed, EXTREMELY impressed). Vic Falls also makes CNN’s list of 7 Natural Wonders of the world. If you have the opportunity, you should absolutely go.
In my previous post I detailed just a few of the highlights that you can experience during a visit to Vic Falls. Following on from that, for anybody considering a trip there, here are a few of the nuts and bolts details that might be useful, such as which side of the Falls to visit, what to buy and how to get around.
The Falls straddle the Zimbabwe-Zambia border. There are airports in both Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (Zambia) and the flight time from Johannesburg is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes.
We flew into Livingstone airport in Zambia and then crossed the border to Zimbabwe. (I guess those were the flights available and it meant we got two sets of stamps in our passports – ooh the childish glee). Completed in 1905, the border crossing is a bridge, spanning the gorge carved by the falls. We had our first gentle dousing by the spray thundering from the falls as we craned out of our transfer minibus.
I had a chat with a travel agent before booking trying to figure out which side of the Falls we should visit. A Zimbabwean native, she confessed a personal bias for the Zimbabwean side. Bias aside, it sounds like you can’t go too far wrong whichever side you decide to stay.
Both have plusses and most of activities are available whichever country you decide to stay in. Should you be determined to spend time on both sides (or like us fly into and out of one country, but stay in the other) it’s easy enough to buy a multiple entry univisa on landing entitling you to visit both – cost is U$D 50 per person at time of writing. The univisa for Zam/Zim is being trialled and will hopefully be rolled out to a number of other Southern African Countries in the not too distant future.
Approaching the border bridge from either side you will see a long queue of enormous flat bed trucks loaded to the hilt. They queue single file by the side of the road, probably for hours, perhaps even days, waiting to clear customs and cross the single lane bridge (there is also a train track – should you have a little more time and a lack of rowdy children, check out Rovos Rail. You can also walk across the border).
We drove past many bicycles, creaking with impossibly bulky packages and sacks. It must be a tough way to making a living cycling back and forth across the border with all manner of goods.
Our border crossing didn’t take too long, there was a bit of queuing in chaotic customs halls (welcome to Africa) and a few hawkers who were keen to make a sale. On our return journey, there was a brief delay when a flatbed truck had got itself wedged and our minibus had to shunt back and forth with mere millimetres to spare (flatbed truck on one side, concrete bollards on the other and a group of clock watching tourists who had homeward or onward flights to catch). Standing ovation to our driver. Overall we found the border crossings to be relatively smooth.
When I first thought about booking a trip to Vic Falls, I was naively surprised that many of the hotels on offer were in Zimbabwe. Its’ reputation as a crumbling country had – wrongly – put me off. It turns out that the pocket of Zimbabwe including the town and surrounding area of Vic Falls is remarkably well functioning and welcoming to visitors. Well functioning and welcoming, but eye-wateringly pricey.
“If you have men who will only come if they know there is a good road, I don’t want them. I want men who will come if there is no road at all.” David Livingstone
I’ll be honest, I prefer it if there is a road, that there are no snakes in my bed and that there is a reasonable meal to keep me going. The road it doesn’t have to be too well travelled, but a road is a good start, especially when you’re travelling with children.
Unlike in Livingstone’s day, there is a reasonable network of roads close to the falls. At the same time there are wild elephants roaming right there beside the roads. Yes, all of 10 metres after leaving the town of Livingstone there were 3 elephants right by the roadside. Sometimes living in South Africa it’s very easy to forget that you are in Africa, we can drink the tap water, the roads are good and generally the big wildlife is confined to safari parks. This immediately felt like the Africa of story and fable.
The following morning walking from our hotel to the Falls entrance, hawkers began to wave quite frantically at us. Having decided they weren’t (yet) trying to flog us some souvenirs and were signally that we stand still rather than beckoning us, I reigned in the rest of the family and sure enough there was an elephant ear approximately 4 metres from our unprotected fragile human frames. Yikes. We stood stock-still and waited until he had moved along. We knew we were completely safe when the hawkers surrounded us and set to their sales pitches.
Where to stay?
None of the accommodation overlooks the falls, which will make a lot more sense once you’ve seen them.
There are plenty of options. We stayed at the Victoria Falls Hotel which is at the upper end of the market, she (the VFH) is a colonial old dame. Her corridors are lined with all manner of fascinating memorabilia, photographs, flags and other trinkets. You can see the border bridge and watch the bungee jumpers while you have breakfast with both the spray and thunder as a backdrop. Even if you’re staying elsewhere, this is a great spot for high tea (as afternoon tea seems to be called in Southern Africa) or sundowners.
We were able to walk from the hotel to the falls. Complimentary shuttle buses were provided for all the activities we took part in. It was lovely not to have to drive anywhere.
What to Buy
All types of crafts and curios are available, but the two that struck us most were the beautiful stone sculptures and the fantastically high denominations of old Zimbabwean dollars for sale.
The stone sculptures vary vastly in size and price and quality, but they are weighty and the curvaceous stone hippo we had our eye on weighed around 90kg, so we decided it was a no. Should we change our minds, we can always head down Joburg’s market on the corner of William Nichol and Main where many Zimbabweans ply their trade selling a vast selection of stone, wood and metal statues. The market looks a bit rough and ready, but I’ve been a few times and it’s great. The vendors are persistent, but there are some nice things and friendly haggling is completely acceptable.
The Zimbabwean dollar notes (real? fake? who knows? or cares?) are readily available and they make fun and affordable souvenirs.
US Dollars, Pounds Sterling or Rand are all acceptable and many tour operators and hotels accepts international credit cards.
All activities can (and at busy times probably should) be booked in advance, but we went straight to our hotels activity desk on arrival and approximately 30 mins later were on our way to our helicopter ride and had booked the remainder of our excursions.
The Victoria Falls
When to go? If water levels are at their highest white water rafting or taking a risky dip in the Devil’s Pool or Angel’s armchair will be too dangerous and not on offer. Equally if you’re hoping to experience the full force of the falls, you won’t want to visit during the dry season when sections of the falls may dry up completely, particularly on the Zambian side. So it depends what you are hoping to see and do at the falls. February-May tends to be high water season. October-November time the Falls tend to be at their driest. This year water levels have been particularly high and when we visited mid June Vic Falls was still spectacular.
Gadgets and the spray. In Namibia we sacrificed 2 hats and a pair of glasses to the sand dunes. Visiting Vic Falls, you run the risk of sacrificing your cameras and smartphones to the drenching spray. When the Falls are in full flow there is very little you can do to keep dry. The Smoke that Thunders is the wrecker gadgets. Everything inside my bag (apart from the cash I had in a small ziplock bag) was soaked and my bag went mouldy.
We also got incredibly wet despite having the foresight to pack raincoats. You can also buy/hire long macs at the little craft market immediately opposite the entrance to the falls.
Which side should you visit?
- Apparently the Zambian side is better for moonbows (although our moonbow picture is from the Zimbabwean side).
- The Zambian side is home to the infamous Devil’s Pool and Angel’s armchair.
- The Zambian side of the falls can dry up completely. This would be a disadvantage if you’re hoping to see the falls in full flow, but an advantage if swimming close to or walking along the lip of the falls is on your wish list.
- Zimbabwe has far more of the falls, with 16 viewpoints.
In reality, I’ve heard good things about both sides and most activities (helicopter/safari/boat cruises/rafting etc are available on both sides of the falls .
I can absolutely say that we enjoyed our time on the Zimbabwean side and would recommend it wholeheartedly.
I would add that, had our children been younger, it would have been quite an anxious experience with deathly falls into the Falls and further deathly drops for anyone who prats about on the zipline canopy tour or other similar activities.
In addition to the risk of a small child disappearing into a deathly chasm, there is also the abundant wildlife to consider, from the warthogs that mowed and fertilised the lawns of our hotel by moonlight to the vapour mongoose and monkeys that also roamed freely, to roadside elephant encounters and the large riverine predators you’ll see if you take a boat trip. I’d probably recommend taking kids that are 6 or older.
- Multiple means of image capture incase of failure due to excess spray from the falls. We had 2 phones, an i-pod and 2 cameras. That was sufficient.
- Ziplock bags – see above comment regarding keeping your valuables dry.
- Binoculars (I was the envy of all our Zambezi cruise as I was the only one with binoculars, hippos, elephants, birds and crocs were my oyster).
It’s certainly worth staying two nights and I can’t help but feel that the couple on our flight and transfer bus who went straight to Vic Falls for a quick whistle stop tour before whizzing straight off elsewhere to go on safari missed out on the full experience.