By Bert Duplessis
SOUTH AFRICA AND ZIMBABWE TRIP REPORT: PART 4
Nov 10 & 11: The Victoria Falls experience
Over the last few years, I have grown somewhat skeptical of the Vic Falls experience as the area has become more commercialized, and of course it went through several very lean years when Zimbabwe’s internal strife caused widespread poverty, food and fuel shortages and extremely bad press, resulting in a dearth of visitors.
The good news is that Victoria Falls has lately been improving for the better in several ways. The local economy seems to have stabilized now that Zimbabwe is on a US Dollar-based monetary system. Small change is made in South African currency though, which you will experience if you go to the very new and very well stocked grocery store just off the main road in Vic Falls town. Other signs of the area’s improving fortunes? Several new properties have opened lately including Elephant Camp, Victoria Falls River Camp and there is a new wing to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. It probably won’t be long before the Ilala adds some additional rooms – its location is just too good.
One aspect of Vic Falls that hasn’t improved is getting there by air on an international flight. We have flown into Victoria Falls on British Airways from Johannesburg in early November, two years running now. Any uncertainty we may have harbored about the visa process at the airport is now gone. It was slow in 2011 and it was even slower in 2012. We know for sure now that it is exceedingly slow so do whatever you can to get to the head of the line. Get a business class seat on the flight into Vic Falls (it is not hugely more expensive), ask for a seat in the front of the economy cabin (row 10 is a good bet), but above all don’t dawdle. It can be the difference between 10 minutes in the line to get your visa, or 1 hour+. If you haven’t completed your visa application en route, do it while you walk up to the counter.
It is really a disappointment that the Zimbabwe immigration authorities have not done anything to improve their process. There is no reason why two officials should jointly scrutinize the same passport, pass it back and forth, with much talking while this is going on. Surely all that is needed is a completed visa application form, a valid passport and US$30 in cash. The process should take 3 minutes tops.
Our amiable transfer driver Abiat soon had us at the Vic Falls Hotel, and in short order we were unpacking in one of the deluxe rooms, with a nice view over the garden and beyond, to the famous train bridge spanning the Zambezi River gorge.
The room itself was adequate if nothing else: a comfortable King Size bed, windows that could open and close, heavy drapes that kept out light, and a utilitarian bathroom.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is more than just a room though, it is an experience. Where else can you feel like a 1920’s movie star strolling through a living museum, marvelling at the amazing collection of old posters, stepping into a private room frozen in a turn-of-the century time warp, or sipping a dry gin martini or even a Pimm’s #1 Cup in the utmost of genteel surroundings.
The interior hallways with the superb ‘British Character’ cartoon collection from Punch magazine (take the time to read a few!) are like an illustrated version of Zimbabwe and South Africa’s history around the early 1900’s. Pause and peruse the priceless old BOAC and SAA posters, and take a trip down memory lane with the illustrated slogans and products from long gone British colonies and protectorates. The sun has set on the British Empire everywhere except at the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe.
That afternoon we strolled around the grounds of this grand old lady of a hotel which is still in terrific shape at the ripe old age of 108 years. The grounds were in almost as good a shape as they were in November 2011; the only difference being that this year the early rains had not yet fallen, and Vic Falls town was bone dry. As a result some of the lawns and plants were a bit stressed.
As always, there was quite a lot wildlife around, notably baboons and vervet monkeys. We saw some monkeys checking the building systematically for open windows, so be sure not to leave yours open. There was also an entertaining family of warthog with youngsters, which attracted a lot of attention from amateur photographers.
High tea (served from 3:00P to 6:00) is not inexpensive at $30.00 for two persons (it is actually adequate for 3 persons) but worth every penny. Dainty sandwiches, freshly baked scones and a variety of cakes and pastries vie for attention in a 3-tiered serving dish, and with that of course it is ‘de rigueur’ to have a large pot of excellent local Zimbabwean tea, fresh from the eastern highlands.
All the other services and meals we tried at the Victoria Falls Hotel were perfectly fine. We enjoyed a light dinner on the terrace one evening, had a drink at the bar and even used the ‘internet room’ with computers to check on what was happening back in the USA. It was all good.
Late in the afternoon – it was a Saturday – we saw a small steam train from the Victoria Falls Steam Train Company depart from Victoria Falls Station on a sunset bridge run to the Victoria Falls Bridge. We will definitely try this activity on a future trip to the Vic Falls area. It is operated on most Saturdays, leaving the Vic Falls Station which is literally just opposite the hotel, at 5:00P.
After tea, we strolled over to the nearby Ilala Lodge, our #2 hotel recommendation in Victoria Falls. I took a few photographs in the garden and we tried one of the local cocktail specials, relaxing on the verandah overlooking the wooded area in front of the hotel. As always, we marveled at the beautiful trees and flowering shrubs and it was easy to fall into a pensive mood in the quiet, relaxing atmosphere.
As we did in November 2011, we enjoyed dinner at Mama Africa’s restaurant, a 10-minute walk from the Vic Falls Hotel. The restaurant has some rough edges and will likely not be to everyone’s taste. Surely no menu item on any restaurant anywhere in the world should be called an ‘Elephant Turd Steak’. I realize it has to do with the size of the piece of meat, but still… Service was also a bit cavalier – and slow – but unfortunately that is typical of almost all Southern African restaurants, even in the cities.
Our vegetable curry with sadza (polenta) was good and nicely perfumed, no real complaints there. I had been looking forward to hearing the African Jazz Band but I’m afraid the performance was very amateurish. Our enjoyment of the meal was also spoiled by an obnoxious European smoker, who lit up several times in a packed verandah, during the course of the meal. We were technically outdoors but it was very boorish and selfish of this person to smoke so close to many other diners.
November 11: Re-discovering Victoria Falls National Park
Early on this Sunday morning we had a superb breakfast at Jungle Junction Restaurant or JJ as everyone calls it. There was a huge selection of fresh fruit, cereals, eggs to order, various meats, sausages, bacon, beans, various types of toast, sweet pastries, rolls, cheeses, coffee, tea and juices to choose from. Plus a great view over a pond, fresh African sunshine and in the distance, a whisper of mist above the Victoria Falls themselves.
The Falls are at their lowest in the month of November so we were not expecting much on a guided Tour of the Falls with our very friendly and knowledgeable guide Abiat from Wilderness Safaris Zimbabwe. I was not impressed by the entrance of $30.00 per person. Hopefully the authorities will make the entrance ticket valid for several (3?) days so that visitors can check out the Falls at various time of the day and early morning or evening.
That being said I don’t think that our thirty bucks was a waste of money. Quite the contrary. I had not done this walk along the Falls in several years which is a mistake. Since my previous visit, the Falls authorities have revamped the entrance facilities and visitor center to something which any US National Park could be proud of. Good interpretive maps, a well-marked self-guided trail and a series of paved lookout points which span the Falls from left (Devils’s Cataract) to right (Livingstone Island on the Zambia side) make it a real pleasure to visit the Falls on foot. We stopped at many of the lookout points and took a bunch of photographs including some of the wildlife, which include baboons, monkeys and very tame bushbuck.
Unfortunately for visitors on the Zambia side of the Victoria Falls there is no water visible at this time of the year. All you can see are the ‘Victoria Walls’ and not the ‘Victoria Falls’.
Later in the day we checked out the new Elephant Camp near Victoria Falls, and we were certainly impressed with the elegant air-conditioned rooms and comfortable dining room and lounge. Two sight-seeing visits per day to Victoria Falls town are included in the full board tariff. If you prefer an upscale safari lodge atmosphere in a quiet, secluded area then this would be a good choice for a couple of days in Vic Falls. We also had a look at the rooms at the new Victoria Falls Safari Lodge Club, a recently opened addition to the VFSL. I liked the very modern rooms with regular ceiling and good insulation. Unlike the rooms in the original portion of the VFSL, the rooms in the new wing are very effectively air-conditioned. Not all visitors will be thrilled with the ‘open plan’ bathroom design, but it is a minor flaw.
We enjoyed a tasty lunch – vegetarian rollups – at the Vic Falls Safari Lodge restaurant. I was pleased to see several new vegetarian additions to the menu, compared with the situation one year previously. We watched from the upstairs deck as a horde of vultures and marabou storks descended onto the dusty terrain for what appears to be a daily ‘feeding’. Stupid idea.
On the way back to the hotel I briefly popped into a new supermarket just off the main road in Vic Falls village, and was impressed with the variety of goods available for sale. Vic Falls is back big time!
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