From Johannesburg it was a reasonably quick and easy flight up to Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls. I’d been here back in 2003 and thus knew a little of what to expect but for Mark this was all new. And exciting. Victoria Falls is truly one of the wonders of the world.
Known to locals as Mosi-ao-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”, Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi river at the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. (That sentence may have more “z”s than any I’ve ever written….) It is neither the tallest waterfall in the world (Angel Falls in Venezuela) nor the widest (Iguazu Falls, at the border of Argentina and Brazil). By many, however, it is considered the largest waterfall in the world based on the combined width – slightly over a mile wide – and height of 360 feet, creating the largest sheet of falling water. To put it in context, it is just about twice the width and twice the height of Niagara Falls.
As I discovered, your experience with Victoria Falls will vary considerably based on the time of year you come. The rainy period for the broad plateau of upstream Zambezi River runs from about December through early April; at the end of that period the amount of water running over the falls is massive. I’d last been here well into the dry season; there was still plenty of water flowing, but you could still see the falls reasonably well. This visit in mid-May, though, at the end of the rainy season, was pretty much near the very peak of water flow. As a result the mist that blows up from all that water crashing around was also massive. So much, in fact, that for most of the long width of the falls you really couldn’t see anything; you were standing in what was either a steady, heavy mist or – depending on the air currents and all that – what felt like a torrential downpour.
Not as great a view, then, but still a stunning physical experience, just all that water and mist and power.
To see Victoria Falls properly, you need a day on each side of the border. From Zambia you can see maybe a third of the falls while in Zimbabwe you can see the other two-thirds. Given the luxury of time that we have, we scheduled two days in each: one day to arrive, then a full day to hike around the falls. That ended up working great for us; in theory we could have done it in less time but this way we had plenty of time without feeling rushed.
The falls, obviously, are the main attraction but there are plenty of other things to do around Livingstone on the Zambia side and the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. We did a sunset cruise up the Zambezi river from Livingstone which was pleasant enough. For the bold there is a bungee jump on the bridge that spans the Zambezi, connecting Zambia & Zimbabwe, but we’re not quite that adventurous anymore. There is, after all, a YouTube video of a woman whose cord broke while bungee jumping there. She survived, but still, you would hesitate a bit before giving that a try. Beyond that you can take helicopter tours, go rafting below the falls, go horseback riding, and lots else. For us, the hikes along both sides of the border and the evening cruise were enough.
As for food, who knew you could find a really good Indian restaurant in Livingstone? Or an acceptable Thai restaurant in Victoria Falls? That helped. Finding a SIM card in Zambia was a challenge until someone pointed us to a guy sitting on the sidewalk; for a couple bucks, then, we had Internet access.
Two more strange things to note about Zimbabwe. There’s been a lot of political turmoil here of late, with long-time ruler Robert Mugabe having been forced out of office in late 2017. The country seems perfectly safe these days, with national elections scheduled in the next few months. The one implication that we’ve seen from all this is that there is, for all intents and purposes, no cash in the country. Zimbabwe uses the U.S. dollar as its primary currency and there’s … none. This is the only time in many years of travel that we go to an ATM and there’s just nothing. You put in your card and the only option you get is to check your balance. No cash. Fortunately we’ve been carrying U.S. cash since we started this adventure so we have enough but otherwise we’d be up a creek.
And then there is the issue of overland transfers. From Victoria Falls we’re headed southeast to Matobo National Park, about 300 miles southeast. There is only one flight a week and not at all at a good time for us so we figured we could hire a driver. The prices our lodge in Matobo were quoting while we were doing the planning were seriously excessive so we figured we would arrange something when we arrived in Zimbabwe. The first travel company we went to made a few calls and then quoted us $3,000 USD. For a 300-mile drive! Another place quoted $900. A guy recommended by our hotel started at $500 before reaching his lowest price of $400. We finally got someone to drive us for $350 but even that doesn’t make sense. Zimbabwe is the poorest country we have ever been in. Unemployment is high, gas prices are normal, and people are desperate for cash. The inability to find a reasonable price for a car and driver is baffling.