Africa’s Adventure Destination

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Victoria Falls is so much more than a sleepy African safari destination on Zimbabwe’s northern border with Zambia. It is buzzing with tourists who come to experience the majestic Falls first hand, spend time in the African bush, and get their blood racing on the edge of the Victoria Falls Bridge. Kate Kennedy discovered a town ready and able to cater not only for tourists with a host of leisure activities, but also meetings, conferences and events.

After many difficult years, Zimbabwe looks to have turned a corner, with Victoria Falls – one of its premier tourist destinations – leading the way. It seems that travellers from across the globe are changing their minds about the country, and the Vic Falls hospitality industry is cashing in.

According to Ross Kennedy, African Travel and Tourism Association Southern Africa Director and Africa Albida Tourism Chief Executive, hotel occupancy rates jumped to 77.6% in August, compared with a return of 62.6% at the same time last year.

“This is a sure sign that Zimbabwe tourism, and the destination are rapidly turning a corner, after three years of positive growth,” said Kennedy. “The August results confirmed what we have believed for the last three years, that Victoria Falls is once again firmly establishing itself as an iconic tourism destination.”

Airport
Victoria Falls International Airport is located 18 kilometres south of the town. It’s a small airport – compact and efficient – and the main building offers a few places to get refreshments and many small stores selling T-shirts, bags and curios. If you’ve arranged a transfer, you’ll meet your driver in the small foyer just past customs. If you haven’t, you’ll find a number of taxi drivers eager to assist.

Air Botswana, Air Namibia, Air Zimbabwe, BA (Comair), SAA and Zimbabwe flyafrica all have this airport on their route maps, and all are no doubt looking forward to the completion of the transformation of Victoria Falls International.

Construction on a new international airport is underway and due for completion in the third quarter of 2015. The end result will see 14 check-in counters, three air bridges, three bus exits, six lifts, shops and restaurants before and after immigration, and new Business and First Class lounges.

Kennedy says the new airport will be a massive game changer.

“We will have a new airport capable of landing and handling long-haul widebody jets in all conditions,” he says, adding that this would turn Victoria Falls into a new regional hub, firstly for tourism, but also with the potential to become a commercial centre.

Hotels
As a tourist town, Victoria Falls is teeming with accommodation – everything from backpacker establishments to 5-star properties.

One of the prominent groups with a presence in Vic Falls is the Rainbow Tourism Group, which commenced operations in the area in 1991, through the acquisition of the A‘Zambezi River Lodge and the Victoria Falls Rainbow Hotel.

“This was a strategic move by RTG to cater for seasonality, which affects business volumes in the tourism and hospitality industry,” says Eltah Sanangura, Group Communications and Innovations Manager.

A’Zambezi, the only resort on the banks of the river, offers 87 air-conditioned en-suite rooms, two restaurants and a bar. Dinner is often accompanied by a show, with locals entertaining guests with musical performances. Make sure you try the peppered beef at Sebastian’s Restaurant – absolutely delicious.

Situated in an amphitheatre of rainforest, the Rainbow Hotel has 88 en-suite rooms, a poolside restaurant that serves a really tasty burger, and the Swim ‘n Sip bar, with seating submerged in the pool. It’s close to town, with a complimentary shuttle bus to various stops.

Cresta Hotels opened its first venture in Victoria Falls in August 2013, just in time for the UNWTO General Assembly.

“Why Victoria Falls?” asks Glenn Stutchbury, Chief Executive Officer at Cresta Hotels. “It’s Africa’s premier tourist destination and adventure capital, and any serious tourism player needs to be there.”

Cresta Sprayview is the first establishment on the road from the airport. Its friendly staff, comfortable 3-star accommodation and tasty food make the hotel very popular. (For a full review of the property, see page 37.)

Africa Albida offers 5-star accommodation with a real safari feel at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, Club and Suites. There is a watering hole in sight of the terrace, and animals come to quench their thirst in the cooler hours of the day. If you’d like to get closer to nature, you can book a visit to the hide. The hotel also puts out untainted meat for vultures to feast on, and guests are invited down to the ‘restaurant’ daily to watch them feed. If you stay in one of the Safari Suites, there’s a smaller waterhole a short distance from the rooms. I watched for over an hour as two male warthogs fought in and around the watering hole for the rights to a nearby female – quite an experience.

At the Elephant Camp, you’ll find 12 well-appointed tented rooms, with air-conditioning, indoor and outdoor showers and splash pools. The rooms, as well as the main lounge and dining area look out onto 2,500 hectares of African savannah leased from the Zimbabwe National Parks.

There are a number of other hotels in Victoria Falls, the oldest being the Victoria Falls Hotel, which opened in 1904 and has views of the Falls from its terrace. In town you’ll find the 3-star Kingdom Hotel and the Ilala Lodge. Slightly removed from town is the 4-star Elephant Hills Hotel, complete with conference facilities and the area’s only golf course. And about 20 minutes out of town is the 5-star Stanley and Livingstone Hotel.

Across the river, Sun International offers the 5-star Royal Livingstone Hotel and the 4-star Zambezi Sun in Zambia. Both hotels are situated on the Zambezi River, and your key card gets you access to Falls. The Royal Livingstone has 169 standard rooms and four suites, a gym, spa and sundowner deck where you can watch the sun turn the river a beautiful shade of orange as it sets for the day.

The family-orientated 4-star Zambezi Sun is currently undergoing an upgrade to its 212 rooms. The upgrade of the first block, comprising 54 rooms, the pool, and bar area is now complete. The in-room enhancements include Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs and new air-conditioning units, as well as new soft furnishings. It offers three restaurants and a bar, as well as an entertainment club for children.

Meetings & Conferences
Although primarily a leisure destination, many of the hotels in Vic Falls are equipped to host meetings and small conferences.

“The town is popular due to its exotic attractions,” says Stutchbury.

“It has conferencing venues that can host up to 1,000 people, making it ideal for MICE business,” says Sanangura.

Cresta Sprayview’s Green Room can hold between 60 and 100 delegates, with an adjacent, closed-off courtyard suitable for tea and lunch breaks. There is also a small meeting room for up to 12 people, which is commonly used by tour guides and operators to meet with tour groups.

“There is so much to do and see and delegates can be motivated well beyond the conference because of the ‘bucket list’ appeal of the destination,” says Stutchbury. “Conferences and meetings in Victoria Falls need not be limited to the confines of four walls. We also work closely with preferred partners and can arrange for meetings on the river or in the quiet of the African bush.”

Rainbow’s Kasambambezi Room can accommodate between 35 and 90 delegates, depending on the seating arrangements. Its Kukanana Conference Room is slightly smaller, hosting numbers ranging from 30 to 90 people.

A’Zambezi’s conference room can accommodate 100 people, while its reading room can take a maximum of 50 guests in a cocktail setting.  

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge has four conference venues. The Indaba Conference room can hold 100; the open air amphitheatre and Nandi Garden can each take up to 200 people; and the boardroom can host 20.

In Zambia, the Royal Livingstone offers five rooms for meetings and conferences.

“Our convention centre is one of a kind in the SADC region,” says Durand. “We can host up to 450 delegates, and between the Royal Livingstone and Zambezi Sun there are 385 rooms to accommodate guests.”

What to do
“Because Vic Falls is a tourism destination, every day is Saturday, everyone is in holiday mode, and that makes it a very pleasant environment to work in,” says Stutchbury.

There certainly is no shortage of things to do here. Whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, or prefer to take it easy, you’ll find something appealing.

There are a number of companies that own and organise activities – Wild Horizons and Shearwater being the two largest. On my trip, I attempted Wild Horizon’s Canopy Tour – nine short zip lines zigzagging above the Batoka Gorge. Of all the adrenaline-filled activities, this is arguably the most manageable, but once you step off that first platform, there’s no going back. Once finished, I watched from the safety of solid ground as the real thrill seekers flung themselves off the Vic Falls bridge. Bungee jumping, gorge swinging and cable sliding (flying fox) are all very popular.

The elephant experience was more my cup of tea – getting to meet and feed the large animals at Wild Horizon’s Elephant Camp. These elephants are all rescues who are being slowly reintroduced into the wild. To help pay for their upkeep, they take visitors on elephant-back safaris twice a day, after which they receive a treat from their riders. In between the safaris, the 13 elephants are free to roam the bush.

If you’re interested in experiencing an authentic Vic Falls meal, book a home lunch with Wild Horizons. I was hosted by Flater and her family, and was treated to food familiar to all residents of the Chinotimba township – chicken and beef stews served with sadza (cooked cornmeal); pumpkin leaves with peanut butter; kale and of course, Mopani worms. After lunch, my driver kindly obliged my request to visit a local market to buy some chitenges – large squares of brightly coloured patterned fabric – before delivering me back to my hotel.

Shearwater runs a tour of the Victoria Falls bridge that joins Zimbabwe and Zambia. After an interesting history lesson, I was strapped into a harness, led across the road and ushered onto the maintenance catwalk running under the bridge. Those with a fear of heights might find the narrow walkway and unobstructed views of the river below too much, but I felt perfectly safe, particularly as I was connected to two safety lines. Once you’ve taken in the stunning vista, the Bridge Café serves up tasty meals and cold beverages.

The Boma – Place of Eating, situated on the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge property, gives you the opportunity to taste local game meat – warthog, kudu, guinea fowl and crocodile to name a few – while being entertained by traditional drumming and dancing. A face painter offers his artist skills and a sangoma invites guests into his hut for a ‘reading’. After dinner, guests are welcomed into a drumming circle to make music with the entertainers. You’ll find Baxton Mashuku and Joseph Nyangani selling curios at The Boma. Caught wood-poaching by the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit in 2001, these gentlemen were offered the option of sourcing their wood sustainably, and in exchange would be able to sell their hand-crafted curios at The Boma.

“They have been legally and sustainably selling curios for the past 12 years,” says Kennedy. “It’s a great example of creating sustainable solutions that benefit the environment and the local community.”

A sunset cruise on the Zambezi, whether with Wild Horizons or Shearwater, is a wonderful way to end the day. It’s a two-hour experience on the river, complete with snacks and drinks. The skipper points out wildlife as the animals make themselves known. I was lucky enough to see hippo, elephant and an African Skimmer bird, which I’m told is a very rare sighting. Other rare birds in the area are the Taita Falcon, Rock Pratincole, Grey Headed Parrot, and Lilian’s Lovebird, as well as the Lappet-Faced, Small-Hooded and White-Backed Vultures. As the sun sets below the horizon, the boat moves into position for some spectacular sights and photo opportunities.

You’ll notice the almost-constant drone of helicopters lifting visitors into the air for a bird’s-eye view of the falls. Africa Albida’s properties are the only ones in the area to have a no-fly zone above them.

You can also cage-dive with crocodiles in the river, experience the bush on horseback or in a safari vehicle, walk with lions, go fishing and white water rafting when the water levels permit, and watch the vultures being fed lunch.

“Victoria Falls has an amazingly friendly community,” says Stutchbury. “People are happy to welcome visitors to the town. Crime is extremely rare and local businesses have teamed up with the police force to ensure that it remains as safe a destination as possible.”

Vic Falls really is Africa’s adventure destination.  

Traveller Advice
After the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar, the country adopted the US dollar, which can make travel to Vic Falls expensive. If you’re paying in cash at the supermarkets, where prices aren’t always round numbers, expect to receive your change in vouchers which can be redeemed when next you make a purchase. Alternatively, you can ask for your change in chocolate, as there are no coins available.

Credit cards are widely accepted, but if you intend buying curios or catching a taxi, you’ll need cash. There are a few ATMs in town from which to draw money if you didn’t arrange forex before you trip. South African Rands are accepted, although the currency of choice is the dollar.

Most hotels offer free Wi-Fi to guests, so staying connected isn’t a problem. Wild Horizons even provides Wi-Fi at its base, where bungee jumpers and other activity participants meet their guides.

Being a tourist-oriented town, expect to be approached by informal traders selling their wares. You will also be asked to tip almost everyone, so carrying small dollar bills is recommended.

The town has its own water purification plant, so the tap water is safe to drink. However, bottled water is widely available. In the five days I spent in Vic Falls, I never once had a problem with the water.

If you decide to brave the Zambezi River in Livingstone, be aware that any local who assists you, whether you ask them to or not, will expect a fee upon delivering you safely to shore. The price isn’t discussed beforehand, but, unless your bartering skills are really good, be prepared to hand over $30 per person in your party.

South African passport holders do not require a visa and are not charged an entry tax when visiting Zambia. You will, however, need a Yellow Fever vaccination.

The Falls
The Victoria Falls – or the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ – is located on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia on the Zambezi River.

“The Zambezi River flows broad and placid to the brink of a 1,7 kilometre-wide basalt lip, before taking a 100-metre headlong plunge into the thunderous, frothy chasm of the Batoka Gorge below,” says Sanangura.

Victoria Falls was discovered by David Livingstone on 16 November 1855 and named in honour of Queen Victoria. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is considered to be the largest waterfall in the world, despite the fact that it is neither the highest nor the widest. The honour is bestowed upon it based on its width and height, resulting in the world’s largest sheet of falling water. 

It is something to behold and well worth the time exploring it.

Ebola
The spread of the Ebola virus has affected travel across the African continent, even though the number of reported cases is confined to a few West African countries.

Zimbabwe has not had any reported Ebola cases. However, the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare has set up robust screening facilities at the main ports of entry, where travel histories are reviewed and temperatures screened for any symptomatic signs of the virus.

“We are optimistic that the travelling community will become more confident of travelling to our part of the world, as more people are enlightened about the manner in which the disease spreads,” says Eltah Sanangura, Group Communications and Innovations Manager at Rainbow Tourism Group.

Just across the Zambezi River, the impact in Zambia has also been minimal, according to Guillaume Durand, Hotel Manager of the Royal Livingstone Hotel.

“So far, only a couple of regional conferences have been either postponed or cancelled,” he says.