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PART 6 – TOKA LEYA, ZAMBIA & VICTORIA FALLS HOTEL, ZIMBABWE
Victoria Falls is what you make of it. Spend three days in the area and you may walk away with vivid memories and great photos of a stunningly beautiful set of waterfalls, splendid rainbows and rain forests. Experience peaceful river cruises or heart-racing adventures and enjoy genteel hotels, excellent waterfront lodges and some of Africa’s most iconic views.
Stay at the wrong place, eat at an over-rated and over-priced ethnic restaurant or worse yet find yourself in a casino, and you might leave thinking that Vic Falls is a tacky theme park. Expensive, crowded and noisy with helicopters and other aircraft practically drowning out the sound of the falls themselves.
Of course the ‘real’ Victoria Falls is somewhere in-between. On my most recent visit last April, the purpose was to get a quick refresher on one of my all-time favorite hotels, the Victoria Falls Hotel, and to spend a couple of nights on the Zambia side of the Zambezi at Wilderness Safaris’ Toka Leya Lodge. I had not been to the Zambia side of the Victoria Falls in several years.
This time around – as opposed to my last visit to Vic Falls – the Zambezi was in flood stage and the Falls themselves were simply amazing to see. Some of the close-up views of the masses of water flowing over the Eastern cataract were mesmerizing. With as much as 600 million liters of water crashing over and down the giant basalt cliff into First Gorge every minute, the sound is almost as impressive as the view.
The views are easy to remember but hard to describe: multiple rainbows against the sky, foam shooting into the air, never-ending spray squalls coming down over the rain forest, and of course the constant rush of a meters-high wall of water curving down and then hurtling over the abyss, frothing into a sheet of white fury. It is not even remotely possible to capture the overwhelming sensory effect in a photograph or in words. What I can say is that it is definitely worthwhile to time a visit to Vic Falls to be there in late April or early May – and to visit both sides of the Falls. Wear grippy shoes which you won’t mind getting wet, have something to protect your electronic gear from the moisture and then get ready for the experience of a lifetime.
For the first time ever I walked out onto the small bridge on the edge of the Falls on the Zambia side of the Zambezi. Fittingly called Knife-edge bridge, this is about as close as you can come to the Falls and the views are stupendous. Only when the water in the Zambezi is high though. In the late winter and spring months from September through November there is often very little water to be seen from this vantage point. On this day in early May it was exhilarating with the spray intermittently obscuring the views while the super-slippery edges of the metal walking surface turned the experience into an obstacle course of sorts. There is no danger of falling off the bridge – it is very secure. Even so the feeling of being suspended high over the roiling waters below while gingerly making your way towards the end of the bridge can be intimidating.
On the other side of Knife-edge bridge there is a spot from which the main bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia can be clearly seen and photographed. Together with the view of the bridge from the Vic Falls Hotel this has to be one of the most awesome spectacles in Zimbabwe. There it is right in front of you. About as iconic an image as exists in Southern Africa. Looking for all the world as if it has always been there, spanning the chasm between two countries, a relic of the British Empire and in its day a civil engineering masterpiece.
Viewing the Falls from the Zimbabwe side when the Zambezi is in flood stage is likewise an amazing experience but unless you are well protected with a solid raincoat and water-proof hat, you are going to get wet. In early May this year the furthest I could walk – with a ‘non-waterproof’ camera – was lookout point #5. Beyond that – right across from the main Falls and further to the eastern edge of the falls – it was pretty much a sheet of water coming down all the time. Under these circumstances it is better to do what you can on foot; get as close to the main falls as you can for some good photographs and then go up in a chopper the next morning for some views from the air.
On this trip I made the walk from the Vic Falls Hotel direct to the entrance of the Falls; it takes less than 10 minutes at a moderately brisk pace. One of the guards at the entrance of the hotel gate would be happy to accompany you. This is a good idea as there are often elephants wandering around in the area – driving across from the Zambia side earlier that day I had seen a small herd right across the road from the entrance to the Falls. Once inside the National Park, it is a short walk to the first viewpoint at the Devil’s Cataract, and from there you can make your way along the edge of the Falls, getting a few pics at each point along the way. Or simply admire the view. There are often Bushbuck, a few overly habituated baboons and many species of birds to be seen around the rain forest as well.
TOKA LEYA, ZAMBIA
Having only once before made a brief site inspection at Toka Leya, I was looking forward to spending a couple of nights here on the edge of the Zambezi, only a few kilometers upstream from the Falls themselves.
I was not disappointed. The two days at Toka Leya turned out to be two of the most enjoyable days of the trip. Right from the word go I was impressed with the high level of personal attention I received, including being joined for dinner by the General Manager both nights. In talking to other guests I soon found out that they were experiencing the same superior hospitality.
I did not spend a lot of time in my room at Toka Leya (too busy!) but it was nice and spacious with a comfortable king size bed and effective mosquito net, excellent lighting, effective air-conditioning, indoor shower and a large outdoor tub which was pre-filled with hot water both nights.
The food at Toka Leya was of an exceptionally high standard with multiple choices available for breakfast and dinner. Likewise the afternoon high tea offerings were delicious and creative. There was one slip-up with a delayed dinner order but it was soon rectified. All-round my expectations were more than exceeded.
I’ve always considered Toka Leya to be a 2-night destination and this trip underscored it again. There is too much to see and do to spend just one night. Even with one full day (2 nights) at one’s disposal, you can barely squeeze in 3 or 4 activities such as a visit to the Falls, a sundowner boat cruise, a village visit, a fishing outing, a guided walk or one of the many adventure activities available in Vic Falls, such as bungee jumping, helicopter rides, or whitewater rafting.
I was keen to find and photograph some birds in flight so I signed up for two Zambezi River excursions with my Toka Leya guide. There were lots of birds around but not many in flight, unfortunately Even so I captured a few good images of bee-eaters nesting in the banks of the Zambezi. We also tried fishing for bream for a while, without much luck but the guide did hook a nice specimen.
With the Zambezi being at near flood stage, the sundowner outing was fairly uneventful, with few animals or wildlife seen due to the high water pushing right up to the treeline. We did spot a few crocodiles and of course there were hippos everywhere. What was more interesting was seeing the many other river-craft, boats and skiffs out on the water, enjoying the balmy climate and watching the sun set over the Zambezi.
Undoubtedly the overall highlight was the outing to the Vic Falls on the Zambia side, as mentioned previously. The photographs can’t do the experience justice, but they do show the massive volume of water crashing over the precipice.
For a couple of days or so before a Botswana or Zambia safari, Toka Leya is the ideal place to rest up after the long trans-atlantic journey, see the Victoria Falls, participate in some adventure activities, enjoy the local culture and get your ‘Africa legs’ before venturing into the bush. Alternatively, it is a great spot to unwind for a couple of days after spending a week or two in the bush, and transition back to civilization, in a manner of speaking.
VICTORIA FALLS HOTEL
I’ve written about the Victoria Falls Hotel before at length – here. Since then most of the rooms have been refurbished, starting with the deluxe stable rooms which are still our favorite ones. Quiet and secluded and some with nice views over the gardens.
Of course when I visit the Vic Falls Hotel I am not in search of new and cutting edge. While it is great to have fast broadband in my room the hotel is all about the setting, the atmosphere and being transported back to a different era. Earlier, less complicated times when oceans were crossed by boats and there were still parts of the world wholly undiscovered. When people like Cecil John Rhodes had grandiose visions of a Cape to Cairo route, commercial aviation was in its infancy and the great mammals of Africa still ranged over nearly the entire continent, south of the Sahara.
As if it has slipped into a time gap, the Victoria Falls Hotel remains evocative of those bygone times, of an Africa filled with discovery, danger and romance. Sit somewhere quietly early one morning for a few minutes, perhaps on a bench looking out over the Batoka Gorge in the direction of the Victoria Falls bridge and you will find it easy to imagine stepping back more than a century ago. Just like the iconic view in front of you, the Vic Falls Hotel is timeless and graceful. Spend a couple of days there and you will discover a very special place where time really does stand still. If a guest from 1916 were to return today, he or she might be startled by the sight of a helicopter hovering over the Falls, but not by much else.
Something else that hasn’t grown old or stale at the Vic Falls Hotel is its reputation for quality and service. I’ve been going back there every couple of years or so lately and if anything, the experience has been improving steadily. Most noticeably the various restaurant offerings have been updated and the standard of the cooking is now as high as it might ever have been, in my opinion. I have not had the opportunity to dine at the Livingstone Room lately but several meals on the Stanley Terrace have been surprisingly good – as was breakfast at the Jungle Junction, recently. Simply an astonishing variety of items from as lavish a buffet as you can imagine, plus of course eggs just the way you want them, in addition to several other a la carte items. Don’t be shy.
On my most recent visit I ended up in a deluxe stable room which as I had noted, is our preferred choice for the Vic Falls Hotel. It was quiet and private, cool and comfortable. Plenty of space to roam around if you wanted to, good lighting, shelves and closets for all of one’s stuff and a good-sized bathroom with an enormous bathtub and enough water pressure to fill it promptly. I thought the in-room mini-bar was rather sparsely stocked (only water and beer?) but then again, the Vic Falls Hotel has better options for a drink than one’s room. Take a walk to the Stanley Terrace and sip on something cold there, with one eye over the garden and the view, and the other on the passing parade of humanity. Young couples on honeymoon, older couples trying to emulate them, Europeans, Americans, a smattering of South Africans – languages and accents from every corner of the world. Think Rick’s Cafe ‘Africaine’.
There are very few Southern Africa travel experiences which rival a couple of days at the Vic Falls Hotel, for sheer entertainment value. And it doesn’t have to be only when the Zambezi is in rip-roaring full flow with millions of liters of water crashing over the Falls. Even when the Falls are at their lowest point in November or early December, the views of the main falls are still impressive from the Zimbabwe side; you can do a leisurely sundowner cruise, walk along the edge of the rain forest, take in a bit of curio shopping at the Elephant Walk, jump off the Vic Falls Bridge on a bungee cord if you really want to, or take to the skies in a ‘chopper for the best photographs imaginable.
Whatever it is that you choose to do, make some time in your busy schedule to spend in the garden of the hotel. Sit very still and a few members of the huge colony of Banded Mongoose which lives in one of the interior courtyards will relax around you, watching you warily as they escort some of their youngsters to and from a crack in the pavement. Wait for the sun to set and the lights to come on in front of the property, as the darkness closes in. When it gets quiet and the flying has stopped, is the best time of the day at the Victoria Falls Hotel. Other than the occasional squawks of a few birds settling down for the night, there is nothing to disturb the serenity of an early evening in this timeless place. You won’t need to remind yourself that you are in Africa. You will know it instinctively and remember it forever.
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