My view of the Victoria Falls

Posted on 4 January 2013

It’s been quite a few years since I visited the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, so it was interesting to see what had (and hadn’t) changed. The last time I was there the country was still using the Zimbabwe Dollar, which is now obsolete. In fact the notes have become a collector’s item and touts on every corner will try sell you a “set” or single notes, with the 100 Trillion note being the most popular. My friend bought me one (for US$10) turning me into an instant trillionaire! Never thought I would ever be one of those! I shall have to frame it.

These days the main currency is US Dollars, although Rands and Pula are also accepted. With this new currency things have changed, some positively and some negatively. On the positive side you can now get most groceries and the shops are full of merchandise – the last time I was there the Bata shoe shop had about two pairs of flipflops in it and the queues for bread snaked around the supermarket and out the door with riot police on hand in case a fight over a loaf broke out. The negative side is that things have gotten expensive. Not things like bread or flipflops (bread is US$1 and a pair of Bata flipflops cost US$2), but the activities on offer. I was astounded at what companies are charging for boat cruises on the Zambezi, rides on elephants, whitewater rafting etc. The most shocking one of all, is the huge difference in the entry fee for the Victoria Falls itself. Zimbabweans pay US$7 entry, SADC members pay US$20 and tourists from other countries pay US$30.  So if you are from Europe for example, you will be paying more than four times what a local pays to see the Falls! Yes, perhaps double it, but quadrupling it is just not on. It seems to me that the US Dollar economy has made Victoria Falls a little greedy.  Even fuel is 10c more expensive…

That said, there are activities for every budget (but be prepared to double your budget anyway) and some things are worth doing. Here are some of things I did that I really enjoyed. Some are still overpriced in my opinion, but some are definitely worth it.

 The Victoria Falls (from US$7 to US$30)

As I said before, the fee for foreign tourists is ridiculously unfair, but who is going to come all the way to the Falls and not see them (so they will get away with the fee).  After all it is are one of The Seven Natural Wonders of the world and deservedly so.  I have had the privilege of seeing the Falls a few times in my lifetime and I never tire of doing so. It’s hard to describe the sheer magnitude of it all, with the Zambezi River crashing 100 metres into a chasm below, causing “the smoke that thunders” and everyone getting drenched in the rain forest (often a welcome relief from the humidity).

When the Zambezi River is in full flood half a million cubic metres of water per minute tumble over the edge of the Falls with the spray volume rising up to 500 metes high and visible from over 20 kilometres away. Pretty impressive stuff and really worth seeing (and forking out for in some cases).

The best time to see the Falls is during the dry season as there is less water cascading into the chasm resulting in less spray, which makes for better visibility. Do take note – when they warn about slippery areas, they are not joking. I found out first hand and took a tumble in the mud. Luckily I was nowhere near the edge!

 Victoria Falls Tram Bridge Tour (US$60 per person)

Not a cheap activity by any means, but it’s not every day that you get to go for a ride on a 19th-century style tram. Take a stroll on the red carpet from the Victoria Falls Hotel to the railway station where you will be met by staff dressed for the occasion with trays of refreshments before boarding the tram. A gentle 20-minute ride through the African bush takes you across the Victoria Falls Bridge and into Zambia. Everyone disembarks just on the other side of the bridge and attends an informative talk on the history of the bridge with some champagne. We had “George Michael” who was most theatrical in his colonial attire (complete with pipe) and he had excellent storytelling skills. After that you have over an hour to yourself, so you can either choose to do an activity of your choice or just relax and watch others fling themselves off the bridge with a piece of rope tied around their ankles. Drinks are served from the tram and worth taking advantage of as these drinks are included in the price you’ve paid and the drinks at the café’ and restaurant are not cheap. On the way back plates of snacks are served and I was quite impressed with what was on offer, including samosas, mini pies, stuffed eggs, kebabs and spring rolls. You may also see wildlife on the journey – we saw a family of warthogs, vervet monkeys, impala and bushbuck.

It was a quaint journey and the staff were lovely (chat to Bobby the driver, he drove the steam train for over 11 years and has recently started driving the tram). I also got to see the historic 111-metre high Victoria Falls Bridge from a different and beautiful angle.

Tel +263 (0)13 4471,

 The Bridge Slide (US$35 per person or US$25 per person if in tandem)

I am not a particularly daring person. A little adventurous yes, but don’t ask me to jump off a bridge and plunge 100 metres into a gorge below with the only thing keeping me alive is a rope tied around my ankles. But when I saw the zip slide (a foefie slide to me) I was tempted. After all I have been on countless similar slides in my youth and survived. Without a harness too!

I managed to persuade my friend to join me, pointing out that a tandem slide was cheaper and that it is much more fun to scream in someone else’s ear rendering them deaf for the rest of the trip than to scream alone. Unfortunately it had just started to drizzle and when it rains they drop the tandem combined weight to 120 kilograms instead of the usual 140 kilograms (something about the line getting wet and going faster). I am not a small girl, so our combined weight was too much to go tandem (I weigh more than he does, gasp!) so I was left to do the slide alone.  To add insult to injury, they boldly print your weight on your arm for all the world to see! Getting into the harness was fun too as I was wearing a sarong and not shorts or jeans like most normal people about to do an “adrenalin activity”! But the harness-fitter was clearly used to all forms of attire and with a little tug here and there, I was ready to go. The harness is quite nice actually, it holds your tummy in and gives you a bum lift too! It does look funny though, especially with a sarong.

I honestly thought I would scream the whole way across the gorge, but it was a fairly slow ride and so beautiful that I was actually quiet. Very wide-eyed, but not a peep. OK, I squealed when they pushed me on my way, but I like to think I was perhaps humbled into silence. A man met me on the other side (a human brake if you will) and he ferried me the last metre or so to the bridge. I was clipped onto a safety wire and walked under the bridge and then over and back to the tram. Where I celebrated my remarkable bravery with a Zambezi Lager!

You can organise a bridge slide at the Bridge Café or through various adventure companies in Victoria Falls. You can also do bridge swing or a bungee jump while you are there.

 High Tea or a cocktail at Victoria Falls Hotel (US$8 – US$15)

The Victoria Falls Hotel is fondly known as the Grande Dame of the Falls. This majestic colonial-style hotel is over 100 years old and reeks of the grand old times. Boasting a fantastic view of the Victoria Falls Bridge, it is a wonderful place to have tea or a cocktail.

The last time I was at the Falls my mom treated me to High Tea (as mothers do) and I fondly remember sipping on my cuppa and scoffing neat little sandwiches and cakes from a silver tiered sandwich platter.  It was all rather delightful. The High Tea costs US$30 for two (which is not bad for a pot of tea, crustless cucumber sandwiches and other teatime treats).  This time around, my friend and I decided to have a drink instead. I had the David Livingstone cocktail (US$8) and he had a gin and tonic – otherwise known as “colonial juice”! –  which we thought was quite fitting for the time and place. As an added bonus, we got free snacks too. Well worth it!

Tel +263 (0)13-44751,

 Sunset cruise on the Zambezi River (from US$50)

For me, the Zambezi River must be one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. Starting in Zambia, it makes a 2 574 kilometre journey that ends at the Indian Ocean. It’s the fourth biggest river in Africa and you should go for a boat ride on it, or a booze cruise as they are fondly known. Best done at sunset, where you can see the Ilala palms silhouetted against a flaming red African sky. Drinks and snacks are included (we had crumbed crocodile tail on our snack platter) and it is a wonderful way to end a day. Or start an evening, depending on how many free beers you manage to fit in on the two-hour excursion!  You are likely to see hippo and crocodiles from the boat , as well as abundant bird life. This has become a very popular activity at the Falls so you are likely to see a lot of other boats as well!

We did our sunset cruise through the Ilala Lodge, but there are many companies in Victoria Falls that offer this. Beware of touts that sell the cruise on the streets, the price may seem cheaper, but it does not include the National Park fee so you may be in for a surprise when you actually board the boat. Book through a reputable company.

 Visit the market

If you are looking for curios, this is a good place to go searching. You will be supporting the local artists who make a living from selling their sculptures and carvings. Prices are generally cheaper than the curio shops, but be prepared to haggle! In many cases they will do a trade as well, so if you have an old t-shirt or shoes, you may be able to “swop” them for a carving. Bracelets and necklaces cost around US$10, a Nyaminyami stick cost me US$35, a wire baobab tree was bargained down to US$25 and there are plenty of pretty bowls, dishes and fabrics. I firmly believe in supporting local trade, so always buy my curios from the market.

You will find the turn-off for the market near the Ilala Lodge, it is well sign-posted. The market opens at 06h00 so you can get in early!

 Flight of Angels

I didn’t do this on this trip, but I did take the helicopter flight over the Falls the last time I was here. I have never stopped talking about it and one of the photos I took from the air has pride of place in my lounge. It is not cheap and it is not a long flight (about 15 minutes), but is something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. If there is one thing that you really splash out on, I would choose this. I haven’t yet done the white water rafting, so can’t comment on that (most people will say the rafting is the best thing they’ve ever done), but I promise you won’t be disappointed.

The view from the sky is awe-inspiring and will give you a small glimpse of how vast and magnificent the Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls really are.

These are the things I have done at the Victoria Falls. They are by no means necessarily the best. But hopefully it will help you decide which ones you would like to do (because with prices as they are, most people cannot afford to do them all). There’s Predator Diving (cage diving with crocodiles), elephant trails (ride an African elephant), horse trails, walking safaris, game drives, cycle tours, canoeing, fishing safaris, the steam train and of course white water rafting and bungi jumping. The Vic Falls Adventure Zone will be able to book most of these for you (and they are a reputable company). The package deals generally offer the best value for money (choose from 3 activities and pay one price). There’s also a casino at The Kingdom and plenty of shops, restaurants and coffee houses.

Enjoy your time at Victoria Falls if you do visit, there is certainly enough to do and the Falls are worth it alone. I will be honest and say that I think they are ripping people off in some cases (especially with the entrance fee to the Falls), but perhaps that’s just me. Let me know what you think and if you have been here, I would love to know about your experiences.

Follow me on Twitter, @Rachel_CapeTown (#ZimPilgrim), email me at [email protected],  or keep an eye on my blogs on the Getaway website.

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