Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe travel guide: The must-do highlights

I WANT TO BE SURE I'M DOING THE RIGHT THING

Financially, Zimbabwe is a mess, with stratospheric unemployment, currency woes and a government rife with corruption. Drought has only added to the chaos. One of the few signs of prosperity can be found in the little town of Victoria Falls, home to the eponymous natural wonder and sitting close to a border where not one but four African nations meet. Now the de facto tourist gateway to Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls receives one million visitors a year and functions perfectly well: the people are friendly, the community is safe (even after dark) and many tourist operators maintain high standards in difficult times. It's also a fun town, packing some brilliant African experiences into a relatively small region. Responsible tourism is a curly issue, but rest assured your valuable tourist dollars are keeping local people in jobs.

I WANT TO GO AT THE RIGHT TIME

There are three reasons to visit Victoria Falls: to see the world's widest curtain of falling water, to get high on adrenalin activities and to view game. The sweetest spot on the calendar is August/September, when the Falls are relatively full, but there's not too much water causing spray to obscure the whole show. The skies are blue and the Zambezi levels are usually safe enough to permit white water rafting. The only drawback is relatively lush foliage which makes game more difficult to see. March/April is least optimal since the Zambezi is full (entirely consuming the Falls in spray), all on-water activities are cancelled, and the bush is in full leaf. Peak dry is October/November and can result in the eastern third of the Falls being depleted. Counter-intuitively, dry season rafting (down river) is at its most exhilarating; also, game-viewing is easier since animals congregate around waterholes.

I WANT TO SEE THE FALLS FROM THE BEST SIDE

The Zambezi and the 1.7-kilometre-wide waterfall form a border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, often causing visitors to fret which side offers better viewing. In 2019, the Zambian Falls dried up altogether, another example of a planet in crisis. But the waters are definitely seasonal and they will return, allowing both sides to provide different shades of awesome. Broadly speaking, there's more Falls to see on the Zim side – a walking trail through Victoria Falls National Park is directly opposite 80 per cent of the curtain and stops at 16 viewpoints. However, the Zam side affords two unique perspectives: you can clamber down steps to the Boiling Pot for a ground-up view of the vast lower gorge; and you can join the very popular Devil's Pool tour (see below). The good news is it's easy to visit both sides, especially if you have a multiple entry visa ($US45 at the airport): simply cross the border on foot via the beautiful 1905 Victoria Falls Bridge, enjoying yet another perspective.

I WANT A NIGHT OUT

Head to The Boma ($US 65pp) for a night under the stars. This thatched African compound is located in a forest and has a lively carnival atmosphere, with a huge game buffet (a chance to try kudu, warthog and even mopani worms), dancers, roaming African fortune tellers and drummers. The town's bar/restaurant scene is also pretty cool, enlivened by tourists of all demographics. Try Shearwater Cafe on the main street which does good pasta, or The Three Monkeys, comprised of a 1935 Rhodesian rail carriage fashioned into a bar/kitchen with two decks either side. The River Brewing Company serves its craft beer made from Zambezi river water in a smooth industrial space. See theboma.co.zw, shearwatervictoriafalls.com3monkeys.co.zw, riverbrewco.com

I'D LIKE A CULTURAL EXPERIENCE

For a side of Victoria Falls few visitors get to see, walk 500 metres to Chinotimba Market. As well as local growers, you'll meet artisans making everything from cow bells to mouse traps to cooking stoves from scrap metal. Be sure to stroll among the neighbouring residences, with every bit of space given to lush vegetable gardens. For an altogether different lens, consider commissioning a Heritage Tour. Zim-born Chris Worden is a collector of first edition books relating to David Livingstone and a gifted story-teller. In a twist on the African tradition, he brings the British explorer to life in interesting settings. I enjoyed his story on a sunset cruise, but Heritage Guides can also be engaged to tell stories around the Falls. See victoriafallsheritagetours.com

I WANT TO UP THE ANTE

Action Jacksons love Vic Falls for the many adrenalin activities on and over the water. Flight-seeing comes via multiple helicopter companies and microlight operators ($US150-170 for 10 minutes). The popular Devil's Pool experience ($US105) is definitely "edgy": you'll boat out to Livingstone Island and be immersed in a pool on the lip of the Falls. In the deep lower gorge, there's bungee jumping off the bridge, a gorge swing, zip-lining and white water rafting which is said to be up there with the word's best. Most of these can be booked through the ubiquitous (and very good) company, Wild Horizons. Be sure to do your homework in terms of seasonality. See devilspool.net, wildhorizons.co.za

I WANT TO SEE GAME

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge ($US550 a night) is located on the edge of town on a plateau. The luxury lodge overlooks a waterhole that's popular with game (including elephants) which you can enjoy from the bar and restaurant. The daily vulture feeding is not to be missed. If you're lodged in town, there are day tours to Hwange Game Reserve or Chobe in Botswana (see below). Or for a more intimate encounter, don't go past Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary and Orphanage. The 4500-acre reserve is home to 16 rescued elephants that are being rehabilitated for release. See victoria-falls-safari-lodge.comwildhorizons.co.za

I WANT TO VISIT CHOBE NATIONAL PARK

And rightly so. Chobe in Botswana is just an hour's drive from Victoria Falls and regarded as one of the world's best game parks for its river landscape richly populated with crocs, hippos, lions, buffalo, elephants and antelope. One-day game drive and river cruise packages are offered in Victoria Falls (using Botswana operators in Kasane) for about $US160 a person.

I WANT A SUNDOWNER

Zambezi river cruises have been a staple of Victoria Falls tourism for decades and several operators offer them for $US50 a person and up, including snacks and all drinks. These gentle two-hour cruises head out in twilight at 4pm, with double-decker pontoons navigating alongside a bush-covered island, usually by way of pods of local hippos and birdlife, in time for cocktails when the sun sinks into the horizon. Alternatively, take to the Stanley Terrace at the five-star Victoria Falls Hotel, little changed from its Edwardian heyday. Wheeled G&T cabinets rove around with a range of mother's ruin, including Indlovu, a gin infused with washed elephant dung. Apparently it offers a unique set of botanicals. See victoriafallshotel.com

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ONE MORE THING

Two words of advice about the game drive and river cruise packages to Chobe National Park: if you go in the dry season, the cruise boats can't get upriver to chalk cliffs where astonishing numbers of elephant can be seen each afternoon;  and be aware tourist pressure on Vic Falls has in turn spilled into Chobe, meaning there can be huge numbers of safari vehicles plying a relatively small loop; if you want a quieter game experience you may need to book into the five-star Chobe Game Lodge the only lodge inside the park. See chobegamelodge.com

I WANT THE FACTS

POPULATION

40,000 to 60,000 depending who you ask.

LOCATION

North-west corner of Zimbabwe, close to where the borders of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia meet. Direct flights from Johannesburg cost  about $400 return.

CLIMATE

The dry season (winter) is April to October. Wet season (summer) is November to March.

CURRENCY

At the time of writing, Zimbabwe is trying to re-introduce a local currency. Locals have been stung before and are only trusting the American dollar. Stock up before you go.

ACCOMMODATION

Backpackers find fun and comforts at the Victoria Fall Backpackers from $US50 for a twin room. At the other end of the scale, The Victoria Falls Hotel (victoriafallshotel.com) has rooms from $US500 per night twin share. See victoriafallsbackpackers.comvictoriafallshotel.com

TOUR

Victoria Falls is part of an 11-day Scenic five-star tour of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana. Guests stay three nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel. Activities include a Falls tour, river cruise (with story-telling), market tour and Chobe day-trip. Costs $11,195 a person. See scenic.com.au

Max Anderson was a guest of Scenic.

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