Waterfalls & Wildlife – Three Days in Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park

dsc_3525

Along with the Iguazu Falls in Brazils, the Victoria Falls which straddle Zimbabwe and Zambia are ranked as some of the most spectacular falls in the world. Prior to Zimbabwe’s political turmoil, the falls were far more visited, but the pace of tourism is picking up again. My consideration were:

Zambia or Zimbabwe?

The falls are accessible from Victoria Falls Airport and Livingstone Airport. Since I was attaching it to an itinerary on South African Airlines, either place made sense, but two things were the deciding factor:

1) Livingstone is further from the falls than Victoria Falls town, where you can just walk up to them

2) If heading back to South Africa, a visit to Zambia requires showing proof of Yellow Fever Vaccination

And with #2 being considered, I headed to VFA (Victoria Falls) on my South African Airways Itinerary.

The airport at Victoria Falls is under renovation and it badly, badly needs this. There aren’t even a lot of flights going in and out of the airport, but the Visa on Arrival line is painfully slowly. I hate to give mean-spirited advice, but I suggest making sure to get a seat closer to the exit on your flight and just get ahead of everybody else. It was at least an hour+ to get to baggage, even with only our small flight from Jo’burg as the only one disembarking.

Most flights arrive in the afternoon and depart in the afternoon. During that rush, the airport was so extremely beyond capacity when I made my way back to Jo’burg – it is literally a body to body situation. Hopefully when the expansion is done, the experience will be much more pleasant.

While there are taxis, the main companies of Shearwater and Wild Horizons provide shuttle services to the Victoria Falls hotels, so even if you get out of immigration quickly, you may just be waiting for others on your flight.

I worked with Wild Horizons – both companies have a variety of activities scheduled, and one that seems to be a daily hit is crossing the border into Botswana for a day at Chobe National Park. Wild Horizons charged $175USD for this, but probably the unfortunate element was requesting me to wire them the money in advance, which came with a hefty $40USD international wire transfer fee!

Where to stay

The Vic Falls accomodation market is a captive audience with mostly uber-luxury options like the Victoria Falls Hotel and a few select budget options.

That is how I wound up at N1 Motel, a budget accomodation in the main center of Victoria Falls Town. Compared to the luxury lodges which will run you $150-300 a night, N1 cost me around $80USD/night for a double room. The location was fantastic, and while the whole thing feels like a dormitory – cement walls, linoleum floors – it was fine enough for a couple of nights’ stay. You are greeted at check-in with a beautiful portrait of Robert Mugabe and my room even came with a jacuzzi tub, which there was not a chance in hell I was actually getting into! The hotel offers up breakfast for a very reasonable addition, although it isn’t exactly mind-blowing. It definitely seemed like I was the only foreigner in the hotel.

img_6649

The beauty of the N1 was a straight walk down to the falls in about 10 minutes. Most people are on fully escorted tours, so if you are exploring them on your own, just wait for one of these groups to depart one of the stops and you will have it to yourself. Tip #2 – the credit card machine will of course not be working, and so bring that $30USD fee in cash.

After a pass through the entrance, a short path leads you to the majesty of Victoria Falls. I visited in September, but each season has it’s positives and negatives, with July to September being considered a decent compromise between getting a reasonable water flow and not an obscene amount of mist. Although guides suggest this is peak season for tourists, it really isn’t that bad. You can not compare the crowds to something like Niagara Falls at all. After all, Victoria Falls’ lack of air connectivity and distance from major cities like Lusaka and Harare mean it is hard to access.

Exploring the Falls

If you are a fast traveler like me, you could probably finish the path around the Zimbabwe side in under an hour, but then you wouldn’t really enjoy the experience of roaring falls, a gentle mist, rainbows, clifftops and the visual of high streams of water pouring over the edge of them.

 

The path stretches from the Livingstone statue in the north all the way close to the Zambia border in the south, but it is not a very long route at all, but as you can see, every angle offers a different perspective. In some spots towards the south, the water changes into narrower streams, in the middle steady and powerful waterfalls bursting through the clifftops, and at the tops, some panoramic views of everything, and then independent waterfalls.

If you are lucky, you may even encounter a bit of wildlife such as warthogs roaming around the bush that surrounds the falls walkway. I stayed as long as possible until the sun began to set. As the day started to wind down, the viewpoints became emptier and emptier, and finally, the small group of us still left at the Falls started making our way out of the park. There isn’t much else to say about it, but it did appear some high-ranking Zimbabwean official(s) were visiting the falls, as armed military guard blocked off some of the viewpoints as these people made their way around.

Eating, Shopping and Annoyances in Vic Falls

The Falls may be incredibly, but if you think of terms like “tourist trap”, “captive audience” or “rip off”, then Victoria Falls would show up in the dictionary next to them.

  • The 10-minute walk down from the center of town to the national park? An exhausted me tried to negotiate a taxi back to my hotel. The quotes started at $20USD! I managed to barter down to $10USD, but if I wasn’t wiped out there wouldn’t have been a chance I would have paid that much.
  • I ate at a few different spots, including the Shearwater Cafe, Shearwater Rainforest Cafe, Nam Took and Africa Cafe.img_6783
  • No matter where you eat, the prices will be even more expensive than New York City or London, plain and simple. Based on reviews and my own experiences, the food is fairly mediocre across all of the different restaurants, except perhaps at the finest hotels.
  • Nam Took, a “Thai” restaurant, was particularly expensive and awful. Imagine paying close to $20USD for a bad Thai style curry. At least Shearwater Cafe had decent food. Africa Cafe, on the other hand, is a relaxing spot to grab a slice of coffee and cake.
  • If the food is the first step in being ripped off, the shopping is the next level up.
  • If you even step out of your hotel for a stroll, a series of men will offer to sell everything from marijuana to the old Zimbabwe currency, which is no longer used as tender due to the massive rates of inflation which forced Zimbabwe to use other currencies as official tender. Some of the notes they will try to sell you include 100 billion Zimbabwe dollars! Unfortunately, while these notes might make an interesting keepsake, their selling value on the street is many times what they are actually worth. You are better off trying Ebay.
  • Close by the Elephant Walk shopping center which houses Nam Took and Africa Cafe is a handicrafts market, including one dedicated to women’s crafts. Remember how I wrote that there really aren’t many tourists in Victoria Falls? Well, even less of those actually wander about without their tour group, so as soon as I stepped into the market area, all of the different shopkeepers popped out to invite me to visit their stall. To be honest, I have shopped for crafts in both Southern and East Africa and I can not really recommend what you find in Victoria Falls. I personally look for finer detailed masks or the like to take home and have little interest in wooden giraffe statues and other more mass-produced items.
  • I was almost amused at how I became the star patron for all of the different shopkeepers. I honestly didn’t like anything, but bartered on some masks at one stall with about 30-40 other vendors eagerly watching with interest, gathered around. Frankly, the pressure got to me and I just took whatever looked the least awful. Carry some small bills as getting change is a production in any of these stalls. Once I made my payment, the shopkeeper asked me kindly for some extra money so he can buy liquor, to which I simply responded “There is more than enough there for that!” (not that alcoholism is really something I like to push)

 

Chobe National Park – The Day Trip I Couldn’t Miss

img_6778I love the Falls, but spending more than 3-4 hours visiting them just to see them is a bit of a stretch, even for a real waterfalls enthusiast (if such a thing exists). Besides activities like helicopter rides, sunset cruises and sitting in a pool atop on the pools, one of the most popular trips is crossing the border into Botswana and visiting Chobe National Park. Botswana is reknowned for it’s wildlife, and this is just one way to experience it. Zimbabwe has wildlife reserves as well, but the overall opinion seems to be that it is not quite impressive.

The drive to the Zimbabwe-Botswana border is a quick one, only 30-minutes odd. This is hardly a busy border crossing beyond tourist traffic, so it was relatively painless. Our base was the Chobe Safari Lodge, the closest lodge to the border. We started our boat ride there, were served lunch there and departed on our land safari there.

The day trip of Chobe is fairly standard, with a morning on the Chobe River to witness the wildlife gathering at the watering holes, and then a land safari drive in the afternoon. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the morning boat safari turned out to be an incredible experience. Besides my first time seeing African Buffalo in real life, the variety of beautiful birds, river crocodiles, and hippos added to the beauty. Of course, the usual suspects such as impala, zebra and giraffe were present in abundant numbers.

But the most special part of a boat safari on the Chobe River is to observe the elephants. Besides rolling around in the dirt as part of ritual cleansing, the most magnificent ritual is the group crossing into the river. They are just spectacular creatures and I could say everyone on the boat really seemed to relish the experience.

Back at the Chobe Safari Lodge, we were treated to a buffet lunch which was surprisingly very good. After an hour interval, we were loaded onto proper safari jeeps for a short land safari in the dry, dusty heat of the riverbank. Our most interesting find was even before we really got into the park: packs of African Wild Dogs.

Beyond that, it was a rather uneventful drive focusing on the same animals: impala, zebra, giraffe, elephants and other non-predators. Those of us on the drive were not surprised. It was scorching hot and dry, so most animals were likely to be looking for shade. In hindsight, seeing how incredible the wildlife at Chobe National Park was, I regret not booking an overnight trip into Chobe, staying at the lodge. I can imagine the sunrise and sunset drives or cruises are incredible, but unfortunately for us, were wrapped up and were back in Victoria Falls by late afternoon. To be honest, it was more impressive than visiting the waterfalls!

I think 2-3 days is more than enough time at Victoria Falls. Most of the leisure activities are honestly things you could do somewhere else.

Solo Traveler Comments:

Pros

  • The N1 Motel is available as an affordable option for solo travelers, but other mid-range/upmarket options are likely to be out of most solo traveler budgets. There is campground accommodation as well as real budget travelers.
  • The Victoria Falls National Park is enough to simply walk up to and explore on one’s own without paying for a tour guide.
  • Vic Falls is a tourist town, so it is safe to wander around, except (See below)
  • The most cosmopolitan city in Central America has a wide selection hotels which are still affordable.
  • While activities like the Chobe Day Trip are costly, Shearwater/Chobe seem to have regularly scheduled group activities which keeps the cost reasonable (Whereas a private safari trip would be exorbitantly expensive), making it possible for a solo traveler to take part.

Cons

  • Visiting the Falls is the only economic activity in town. The town itself has nothing to really do, so most people splurge on expensive activities like safaris and bungee jumping.
  • The touts on the street are more likely to follow you if you are walking alone. They are not dangerous, just annoying, so most people are unlikely to take long, leisurely strolls.
  • This is a small, tourist town with mostly tour groups visiting. It is not really much of a social/meetup town at all, and you will find very few solo travelers.
  • As I mentioned, everything costs a lot in this town, although this applies to solo and non-solo travelers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s