Considering that the Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a World Heritage site and so a massive tourist attraction, it is sad to see that the area in and around Livingstone in Zambia seems to be so poor. It seems that the rewards from the flow of well heeled tourists does not trickle down as much as it could (or should) into the local population and area.
Saying that, Victoria Falls is without a shadow of a doubt one – if not the – best things you will ever get to see. Dr Livingstone (who was the first white man to see the Falls) described how it was a site so beautiful it must have been gazed upon by angels in flight. He is right, it is really a most wonderful and special place. The Falls were named by Livingstone after his queen, and interestingly after Independence the Falls were not renamed as much of the places were after countries in the region gained independence. Neither was Livingstone (which had been called Constitution Hill at one point and was even the capital for a while). And as it is quite expensive to get to for travellers from Europe, Asia and the Americas it has remained largely unspoilt and natural. It does not reek of commercialism and has not been over developed and ruined. The whole area around the Falls is still rough paths and simple areas to enable you to see the Falls without plummeting down slippery cliffs.
The traditional name for the Falls is Moas-o-tunya (which means “the smoke that thunders”), and from a distance the massive spray does look like smoke. You can see the spray rising from 30km away on land and over 60-km away from the air. The Falls is on the Zambezi River which starts in Congo and flows right down to the Indian Ocean. It is a very impressive river and very wide. Further down from the Falls it becomes Lake Kariba (a dam wall was built to generate electricity for Zambia and Zimbabwe).
Despite its fabulous attraction, it does tend to be a quiet place to visit. As you stroll around the Falls and the pathways you are often by yourself and it feels like it is just you there. As you walk on the paths along the cliffs opposite the falls, you get absolutely drenched wet as the spray is so much it rains back down on you as if you are in a large rainstorm. You can hire rain ponchos, but as it is warm it is great fun to just get wet. It feels fresh and is part of the experience. You can also arrange to go for a visit to Livingstone island at the top of the Falls itself, which is where David Livingstone first viewed the Falls from, for breakfast, lunch or high tea, and in the dry season there is a pool in the rock you can swim in. In the rainy season the water is too fast flowing.
Livingstone in Zambia has benefited greatly from the situation in Zimbabwe, especially since things in that country really started to deteriorate after 2000. Prior to this, Zimbabwe was the real “king of the Falls” when it came to tourism. This was helped by the famous Victoria Falls Hotel that was built not long after the turn of the century after the railway bridge connected the 2 countries was completed around 1909. This hotel is a massive and glorious Colonial piece of architecture, and became almost as iconic as the Falls themselves. It was a fabulous place to stay, with sweeping views down to the bridge and still walkable to the Falls. The hotel kept a colonial feel and had white glove service, staff dressed in old colonial style (which did feel slightly at odds with the newly independent and majority ruled country after 1980) and was renowned for service and overall experience, with taking high tea on the sweeping patio a fundamental part of a visit to the Falls. In relative terms few people went to the Falls in Zambia. The Falls are about 1.7 kilometres long and more is actually in Zambia than Zimbabwe, but the latter was inextricable linked in people’s mind with the Falls.
With the situation declining in Zimbabwe, tourists and tour operators shifted their attention to the Zambian side. Southern Sun built and opened the only Five Star hotel in Zambia just next to the Falls (Royal Livingstone) which opened in 2001 and began to cream off affluent visitors to the area. With the average stay at the Falls being only between 1 and 2 nights turn at the hotels is large. In the past, most people tended to stay on the Zimbabwe side and may (as I have done in the past) walked across from Zimbabwe into Zambia (paying some visa charges) to see both sides. Now most stay on one side. You can get to the railway bridge from either side as it is in “no man land” without visas. On the bridge is where you can do a very scary bungee jump (which some claim is the highest in the world) and get great views of the Falls through the massive gorge.
The infrastructure such as airport, roads and buildings in Livingstone are quite run down and poor, but all are fine and at the hotels is excellent.
What are my tips for visiting the Victoria Falls?
VISIT THE ZAMBIAN SIDE
This is a pity in some ways, especially from someone who lived in Zimbabwe until I was 18, as the experience on the Zimbabwe side was fabulous. But with the situation in Zimbabwe, it is really more sensible I think to visit and stay on the Zambian side. You can then, based on how the situation fluctuates, decide if you go on a trip for part of a day to see the Zimbabwe side of the Falls as well. There are many hotels and lodges in the Livingstone area to meet all price levels.
The Southern International Group own the 2 hotels closest to the Falls. In fact they are so close it is minutes walk to the Falls themselves. They are both situated in the Maso-o-tanya park. The Royal Livingstone is the premium hotel and attracts a mixed group of travellers from USA, Western Europe and what seems a lot of Russians. It is very up-market and beautiful and costs around US$800 for a room per night. It is right on the banks of the Zambezi and stunning. The other hotel, which is closest to the Falls, is the Zambezi sun. This is lower cost and targets families more.
It seems, bizarrely, the best and easiest way to get to Livingstone is via Johannesburg in South Africa! In theory you can also fly into Lusaka (the capital of Zambia) and there is a small plane shuttle service, but the most connections are via Johannesburg. A number of airlines fly to and from there into Livingstone every day, including British Airways and SAA. A various times of the year the Rovos Rail service also goes to the Falls. Flights are busy, as most people tend to come in and out within 2 days and so the flights get very busy.
You need a Visa to enter Zambia. Best to get this before you go, though you can get when you arrive. Best also to get a multiple entry visa in case you decide to pop across to Zimbabwe to see that side of the falls.
The airport is quite run down but very efficient.
The US$ is used and accepted everywhere, so this is the best currency to take
They use a 3 round pin plug like in South Africa, so bring an adaptor
WHEN TO VISIT
The peak time for people to go the Falls is middle of the year. This is the dry season and winter, although it does not get very cold. The reason being that this is the best time for game viewing as they have to travel more to water holes and rivers to get water and also the bush is drier and less lush – all of which makes it easier to find and view game. This is also when the amount of water thundering over the Falls is less and so there is less spray and easier to see, plus it means that sports like white water rafting and the such is possible.
I like the summer season though. It is quieter and although it will rain most days in the afternoon as the heat causes big fat thunder clouds to build, it is warm and not too hot. As it is also quieter you feel like you have the Falls more to yourself and it activities are less full and booked out.
HOW LONG TO STAY
As mentioned, most people stay only 1 or 2 nights. You can get to see the Falls and the Zambezi in this short time. But I think you miss so much. The area is so beautiful and peaceful and unspoilt, and it is worth having a number of days just to relax and explore it. As most people coming to the Falls seem to zoom in and out, if you have days to spend you will find you are most likely to have the hotel swimming pool to yourself. And at somewhere like the Royal Livingstone where the pool is right next to the river itself, it is just stunning to laze around.
The Falls are also so amazing, it is really worth going to them 2 or 3 times. We were there 4 nights and so 3 full days and think another day would have been even better.
As so many people come in and out, it means that almost no-one goes into Livingstone town to support local business and visit some of the history such as at the museum. Staying longer to do this is well worth while.
WHAT TO DO
This depends of course how active you are but here are the key things that most people do
– Visit the Falls (a few times!). Allow time to do this. There are many paths and explore all of them. Not only do you get to see the Falls (and get soaking wet from the spray) but there are paths that will take you to better see the bridge and the “boiling pot” where the water churns after plummeting over the Falls. Make sure you wear non-slip shoes as the paths are often exposed and close to the cliff, but also there is a narrow bridge you need to cross that can be quite slippery. As it is very wet, take care with cameras or they can be ruined. If you want to take lots of photos it may be worth having an umbrella to help protect the camera
– Go to the bridge. This is well worth a walk. You can pass through into the “no-man” land where the bridge is. On the bridge you get great views up to the Falls and down the gorge to the Victoria Falls Hotel. Plus you can watch people bungee jump from the centre
– e down into the gorge, and of course if you are brave you can do it for about US$90. It is quite something to see. There is also a wire that runs across the gorge that one can go on as well. The only thing you will have to put up with is being hassled all the time to buy things. It is best to decide before you go how much and if you are going to give people money as you will feel for them, as many people from Zimbabwe side are there trying to get some money as they have limited jobs and money.
– Livingstone Island. You can go there for breakfast, lunch or high tea. It is quite costly and maybe best to do in the dry season as you can then dip in the river right above the Falls!
– Go to Zimbabwe. You can go on a tour there and based on how things are it is worth seeing both sides of the Falls as who knows if and when you will go again. It will costs a bit in visas as you go through. It is possible to walk (about 30 minutes) but I would not recommend this as you will be hassled a lot by people offering advice and selling things.
– Flight over the Falls. You can go on a microlite plane or helicopter for 12 to 15 minutes flights to see the immensity of the falls and the huge scale. I have not done this but most who have rave about it. You need to have a head for heights to do the microlite!
– Sundowners’ cruise. These are a real staple of the Victoria Falls experience for generations! The best known is the “African Queen” which takes you on a 2 hour cruise with snacks and 3 drinks, it is really stunning on the river and you usually see game (especially hippo and crocodiles) and get to see the Zimbabwe side as well.
– Game Drives. These are popular but best really to go on an actual safari as part of a longer trip as although you can see most game it is not really the best area to see game in. In the Sun International complex you see zebra, giraffe, baboons, monkeys and impala that roam the grounds.
– Extreme Sports, like white water rafting and high speed boats on the river are popular in the dry season