‘It’s like standing on the edge of heaven, isn’t it?” says the smiling gift-shop cashier as she rings up my purchases. “I’ve been working at the falls for nearly four years and every day it amazes me.”
Still drunk on the experience of standing just inches away from one of Mother Nature’s most sublime displays, I can only nod and look forlornly at the postcards I know offer but a shadow of the spectacle I’ve just witnessed. I shake my still-damp hair – it’s impossible to stay dry here – over the postcards in the hope that the water marks may offer the cards’ recipients some echo of the world’s mightiest falls.
Located along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, at one mile wide and 360ft tall, Victoria Falls – or Mosi-oa-Tunya, the “Smoke that Thunders”, as it’s known locally – is one of the most enthralling sites on a continent boasting an abundance of heart-stopping highlights.
Arriving at the Zimbabwe side of the falls, I’m surprised to find the landmark’s unremarkable, easy-to-miss entrance leads to an equally unassuming ticket booth, beyond which no vendors, slick signage or overcrowded viewing platforms await. Rather, visitors are greeted with a forest so verdant the only hint of what the trees hide is a continual light showering of mist and the muffled rumbles of what sounds like an approaching storm.
As the mist teases the imagination, you follow a meandering pathway flanked by trees only to arrive at a fork in the road where one must rely on chance or, if lucky, the advice of a visitor returning from a viewing, on where to turn next. But not to worry: all roads lead to the falls and soon I’m standing on a precipice overlooking one of the world’s most notable wonders.
Almost as astonishing as the view is the dearth of visitors. There are no crowds (or guard rails, for that matter – only branches and bushes act as barriers between viewers and the edge of the falls) and so there is no need to jockey for position. On Zimbabwe’s side of the falls, you’re as likely to run into foraging warthogs or cheeky vervet monkeys as you are into other visitors.
The lack of visitors is hardly surprising; although Zimbabwe offers the best views of the falls, its troubled history means that its neighbour, Zambia, receives the most visitors. Travellers from nearby countries such as South Africa are finally beginning to return, but visitors from beyond the continent are relatively few.
Although the town of Victoria Falls and the surrounding region are among the most stable and safe in the country, of a busload of 60 passengers arriving at the Zimbabwean border, I was the only one who raised my hand when the driver asked if any non-Africans were aboard. (Of course, my unique, if lonely, status as an international visitor came in handy at immigration where I was the first and last person in line at the “non-African passport” window.)
Despite not being completely surprised by my singular status, I was unprepared for how much this little corner of Zimbabwe would impress.
The truth is that aside from the falls, I was not expecting much from this overlooked country. But Africa has a talent for subverting expectations.
On the bus ride to my hotel, I see wild elephants calmly grazing along the roadside, reckless warthogs weaving between cars and baboons solemnly grooming one another, heedless of traffic. Garrulous vendors holding aloft copper bracelets and wooden carvings run alongside our bus, expertly dodging the smiling, waving children who demand of us equally joyous greetings in response to their top-of-the-lung hellos.
I finally arrive at The Stanley and Livingstone, a boutique hotel situated in the 6,000-acre Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, to discover that my plans for a nap must be postponed thanks to the appearance of a herd of more than 50 buffalo lounging by a waterhole just feet from the hotel grounds.
Little do I realise that this is just the beginning: over the course of my stay, zebras, warthogs, springboks, kudu and eland make frequent visits to the waterhole. It’s a site that rivals even the most prolific safari offering, and better still, all animal appearances can be easily viewed in the comfort of one’s pyjamas.
A homage to David Livingstone (the first European explorer to “discover” the falls in 1855) and fellow explorer Henry Stanley, the hotel seeks to capture the elegance and charm of the Victorian period. In fact, with its antique décor, solicitous service and lush gardens, the hotel captures that erstwhile era so authentically, that one of the few (and welcome) concessions to modernity is the air-conditioning.
The next morning, a group of us decide to visit the nearby town of Victoria Falls. First stop is the market district famed for its affordable and authentic handicrafts.
Stalls are lined with beaded jewellery, wooden carvings and leather goods, and the enthusiastic vendors show off their handiwork with an energy that seems to have as much to do with pride as it does with earning a profit.
The most coveted buy here is the exquisitely handcrafted Shona stone sculpture (often made from soapstone, granite or limestone). It is internationally renowned as one of the country’s most prized (and expensive) exports, and visitors line up for the chance to meet an artist and get a work of art for a fraction of what it would cost outside Zimbabwe.
The next day we head to the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve for an elephant safari. Atop our tusked transportation (all of whom are rehabilitated rescues), we are each paired with elephant handlers. The patient pachyderms manage to move as quietly as cats through the reserve and thanks to their stealth and the unique vantage point, I spy kudu, impala, buffalo and a pair of rare wild dogs.
When our ride ends we are invited to hand-feed the elephants. The trunk tickles my palm and I realise I’ll probably never again be so close to these giants. Inked copies of our elephant’s footprints are for sale and I buy one, even as I know that, like my postcards of Victoria Falls, I will only come away with pale copies of some of nature’s greatest originals.
DID YOU KNOW?
The falls are not the world’s highest, but have the largest area of falling water – 360ft high by 5,604ft wide.