What do the Queen of England and film buffs like Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlize Theron have in common? They’ve all visited Livingstone in Zambia to gaze upon one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls.
Twenty years ago, the little town of Victoria Falls across the river in Zimbabwe was the preferred place to view the Falls from. Then Robert Mugabe started behaving like a prat instead of a president, and tourists rightly started thinking twice about contributing their tourist dollars to his repressive government’s coffers.
And that’s when things in Livingstone, on the Zambian side of the Zambezi River, began to look up. Tourism companies saw a gap in the market: people wanted to visit the famous Falls, but they didn’t want to visit Zimbabwe. Zambia’s Livingstone, just a hop, skip and jump away, could be the answer to their dreams.
Today, there’s almost nothing you can’t do from the Livingstone side of the Falls, whether it’s a helicopter flip over the falls, bungy jumping, abseiling, rafting or kayaking, quad biking, horse riding, a sunset cruise on the river or a safari. You might even have to stop, as we did, somewhere along the heat-melted tar road on the outskirts of town to wait for a wild elephant or three to cross the road.
There’s a rash of places to stay too, from campsites and backpackers costing around US$10 a night to luxurious lodges and hotels that offer suites fit for a king, complete with valet and butler services for pampered luxury at a price only the filthy rich can afford. (Seriously, we’re talking up to about US$3000 a night!)
You only need to look at the bars and restaurants to see how Livingstone has changed since the turn of the millennium. Back then, your food choices would have been pretty much plain nshima (pap/puthu/maize porridge), nshima and cabbage, or nshima and chicken. Nowadays, there’s fast food from KFC to Debonairs, not to mention Indian and seafood restaurants, even Chinese. And for the finest international dining experience, just visit one of a clutch of top-notch hotels and lodges in town (and take along a large suitcase stuffed with Zambian kwacha notes).
I’d go so far as to say that Livingstone is slightly schizophrenic. You’ll find faded colonial buildings mixed with up-to-the-minute shopping centres, usually at the bottom end of town near the posh hotels and the Falls. But you’ll also find a warren of smaller shops and stalls at the older top end of town, where locals still congregate to do their shopping.
We were camping, so we were somewhere in the middle of the Livingstone experience – halfway between poor locals counting out their money for a bag of mealie meal and wealthy tourists enjoying a cloistered existence that was as far removed from the real Zambia as Earth is from Mars.
To get a small taste of ‘otherness’, we ventured out to the Royal Livingstone Hotel for a drink one evening just before sunset. It’s a graciously beautiful place, elegance oozing from every courtyard, squashy couch or arrangement of white roses, polish and perfection reflected in the faces of all the staff. It’s the sort of place where it’s worth going to the bathroom just to enjoy the marble surfaces, high-end soaps and creams, and dinky little one-wipe-only hand towels.
Across the green lawns, on the river’s edge, sundowners were being served on a wooden deck. Live music of the elegant kind – I’m talking double bass string instrument rather than double bass drums – and G&Ts or brightly coloured cocktails formed a backdrop to the ‘smoke’ rising from the falls just a hundred metres away as guests watched the sun set over the river. It was sophisticated and stylish, yet strangely disorientating after we’d been driving through dirt-poor villages hour after hour the whole day.
So we left it all behind and ended up with guava juice and take-away pizzas at our campsite. Yet even that was probably out of reach for many Zambians in the rural areas. Africa is bold and it is beautiful, but it’s an eternal puzzle of haves and have-nots.