Victoria Falls is arguably the biggest tourist attraction in Africa, which means that a visit always comes with a side of commercialism. We went looking for how to visit Victoria Falls on a budget – that is, avoiding the overseas prices – and discovered that it’s still possible to find a unique experience there. Photographs by Tyson Jopson.
‘Come, I will show you the biggest tree in the world!’
I am doubtful about this claim. Felix has already tried to interest me in a $500 billion note, two small wooden hippos, and a tour of the Falls. At this stage, if I told Felix that I wanted a tour of the Honourable President Mugabe’s personal abode, I have a feeling he’d just beam at me and make a plan.
The Falls have been cutting a swathe through the basalt of Batoka Gorge for at least a hundred thousand years, but Victoria Falls, the town, only sprung up as an afterthought to support the tourism industry that bloomed after the white man saw the water. That is to say that for the last 150 years, tourism has been the only industry of Victoria Falls.
Put on a blindfold and go stumbling down the main street and you’ll bump into three tour guides and a tourism office before you’ve taken 20 steps. Most of the time you can’t hear the sound of the falls from town over the incessant buzzing of the sight-seeing helicopters. Between the bungee jumping, canopy tours and bridge swinging, there are parts of the gorge that look more like an aerial highway than a natural wonderland. If you are able to leave Vic Falls without a Nyaminyami necklace (a river god carved out of soapstone) you are either invisible or very, very good at rejection. You don’t even have to buy them ‒ they seem to proliferate of their own accord, self-replicating in a kind of occult mitosis.
You will find a Nyaminyami in your pillowcase three weeks after you have left Vic Falls.
You can’t blame the salespeople for their persistence ‒ this is overlander town. Tourists aren’t individuals here, but mostly arrive in herds to graze and snap photos for a day or two before mooching onwards on their migration across Africa. Aggressive opportunism is a good business strategy ‒ but it does leave one feeling a bit set upon and catcalled. How do you have a genuine experience in a town that’s always glancing at your wallet?
It’s something I’m pondering in the pre-dawn light the next morning. The Victoria Falls National Park is open from 6am, and it’s a great time to visit ‒ not only do you get to enjoy the sunrise over one of the world’s most spectacular natural sights, but you’ll have it mostly to yourself. The car park is empty, apart from the heavy raincoats hanging on the gates. They seem misplaced in the cloudless sky.
Their purpose becomes apparent quickly, as you enter the park. Lush, obscenely green rain forest prevails in every direction, hopped up on chlorophyll and the constant fine vapour being churned up by the Falls. It’s the equivalent of having a diligent person with a plant mister on 24-hour duty. Overhanging African ebony boughs drip with condensation, and it feels warmer, clammy.
It’s not the traditional view of a waterfall, where you round the corner and there it is, spilling down from a mountain, maybe into a pool that you could have a dip in. It’s a violent tear through the earth, over a kilometre long, like a freeze-frame from an apocalyptic earthquake. The might of the Zambezi flails over the lip, pounding the rocks below like it’s owed money. The only thing that’s better than the first viewpoint is the second. And the third. And the fourth.
There are 19 viewpoints in all, little turn-offs from the paved pathway that winds along the precipice, sometimes with nothing but a shin-height fence made from thorn trees separating you from infinity below. I may have had a wobble myself, trying to get the best angle for a selfie. The Zim Parks Board’s trust in the self-preservation instincts of tourists would not stand up, I can’t help but think, in health-and-safety-obsessed Europe.
By the time you get past viewpoint 15, and out of the bulk of the forest, you’ll see why the raincoats are so essential. The mist from earlier has ganged up with its buddies and formed a torrential party. It’s always raining here. You’ll leave the gates feeling exhilarated and, if you plan it right and spend enough time in the park, like you’ve gotten your money’s worth.
There are as many ways to experience The Falls as there are kinds of people. Adventure junkies come for white-water rafting and bungee jumping; those who prefer their hair unruffled and their martinis shaken can be treated to crisp tablecloths and impeccable service at any number of five-star resorts. But no matter your budget, the best way to experience Vic Falls is to actively push back against the cookie-cutter instinct.
Rather than the ‘cage dive with crocs!’ package hawked around town, find genuine wilderness in the Zambezi National Park. It’s only about five kilometres out of town, but also gives you the opportunity to camp wild in the proximity of the Big Five, at beautiful riverside stands under mahogany trees. Beware though: the signposting leaves much to be desired, and those suffering from any degree of bat phobia will not feel particularly comfortable using the long-drop toilets. For me, looking down from a rooftop tent at a wet hippo, shiny under a full moon, mooching over my ground-sheet far outweighed these gripes. If that’s not your style, small and inexpensive guest lodges can be found too, after a bit of digging ‒ Pamusha Lodge is the best of the bunch.
There’s also more to the gorge than white-water rafting ‒ depending on the season. As the water drops, the number of accessible hikes increases: the Boiling Pot Hike is one that I’ll tackle next time. On my last day in Victoria Falls, I hiked down into the gorge with local guides organised through Adventure Zone. The guide made sure we had the correct park license and warned about where the slippery spots were as we scrambled over the jagged black rock edges lining the water. Sitting at the bottom of the gorge, soft-drink in hand, I watched the water tumble on one side and bungee-mad tourists fling themselves off a bridge on the other. I felt a bit superior. They’ve just been hustled here by a tour group manager and probably don’t know that this view exists! But I guess that’s the thing about Vic Falls. It’s magnificent. Whichever way you look at it.
How to get to Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls is about 74 kilometres east of the Kazungula border between Botswana and Zimbabwe. Flights from Joburg cost from R4500 return, if you book far enough in advance. If you’re driving from South Africa, the shortest way is to go through Botswana on the A1. Take the A3 from Francistown, and change to the A33 at Nata, which will take you to the border. After immigration, stay on the M10 to go straight to Victoria Falls.
What to do in Victoria Falls
1. Adventure sports
Adventure sports are a big deal in Vic Falls. You can book bungee-jumping or bridge-swinging with any of numerous operators, but I’d recommend Adventure Zone for river-based activities. They work with a number of local guides who can personalise a trip depending on what you need. There are a number of options depending on the size of the river, from white-water rafting to rock-climbing. Tel +263772368010.
Hike the Batoka Gorge – the route options are also dependent on the season and water height, but a basic hike down into the gorge will cost about R850, including park fees, with Raw Adrenaline. There’s also the Boiling Pot Hike which is a (approximately) three-hour route under the Victoria Falls Bridge. R765 per person with Shearwater Victoria Falls. Tel +2631344471.
3. Victoria Falls National Park
It’s expensive at R265 per person for SADC residents, and it’s a single-entry permit paid at the gate. The best way to get your money’s worth? Go early, take your time meandering along the viewpoints, and then skip away from heinously overpriced Rainforest Café in favour of a coffee at The Lookout Café.
Ride a bike across the Victoria Falls Bridge – this is one of the cheapest, and most enjoyable, ways to spend a day in Vic Falls. There are a number of operators that do cycle tours, but I’d recommend renting a bike and going on your own adventure. R65 an hour from Royalty Linkerz, conveniently located on the main street. Tel +263773537602.
5. The Vic Falls Carnival
Get festive at the Jameson Vic Falls Carnival, an amazing three-day music festival which culminates on New Year’s Eve. This year the headliners are Mango Groove, Goodluck and Mokoomba. Read our review of the festival here: seven of the best things about the Vic Falls Carnival.
Where to stay in Victoria Falls
If you have over R2500 (US$200) to spend per person per night, Vic Falls is your oyster. If you’re looking for accommodation that’s clean, affordable and not wall-to-wall in frilled sateen however, you’ll find it a harder mussel to crack. Note that here the B&Bs are called ‘lodges’.
Victoria Falls Backpackers is a little out of the way, but this is a small, quirky backpackers with shade, hammocks and a pool. They have small en-suite chalets for R790 per room (sleeps two), non en-suite for R660 per room (sleeps two), permanent tented rooms for R530 per room (sleeps two), and dorm rooms for R240 per person. Tel +2631342209.
Pamusha Lodge is one of the few Zimbabwean-owned budget guest lodges in Vic Falls. For about R1282 per room (sleeps two), you can get a decent en-suite double room with air con, DStv, and breakfast included. Tel +263779369160.
Amadeus Garden Guesthouse is a bit more pricey at about R1300 per person sharing B&B, but the rooms are larger and a little more upmarket. Rooms 1 to 6 are set around a sparkling pool ‒ another four are at the back. Tel +2631342261.
Zambezi National Park is a glorious spot, whether for a day trip or camping overnight. Chundu One is my pick for the best of the two public campsites. Entry to the park is R160 per person, plus a R130 vehicle fee. For camping it’s R530 per person, including entrance and conservation fees. Book through The ZimParks & Wildlife Management Authority. Tel +2631342294.
Where to eat in Victoria Falls
Mama Africa Eating House is the best place to pick up a beef ndiuraye ‒ literally, ‘kill me beef’. They also do a damn fine chicken stew.
Lola’s Tapas & Bar is good. The food includes chicken melts, steak and African-European fusion tapas. There’s also WiFi. Tel +2631342994.
The Lookout Café can have sluggish service ‒ but that’s standard for an establishment that has a monopoly on the best view in town. The balcony hanging right over the gorge is the absolute perfect spot for a sundowner.
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge has a balcony bar overlooking a far-reaching plateau and a man-made waterhole: you’ll easily spot crocodiles and vultures from your perch. Tel +2631343211.
Shoestrings Café is part of Shoestrings Backpackers & Bar, the biggest party in town. It gets loud (you need high tolerance for the top hits of Nirvana), but they do a great wood-fired pizza. Tel +2631346879.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Getaway magazine.
Please note that prices are subject to change at each establishment’s discretion. Please be sure to check with them before travelling.