There is no objectivity in this account of our journey to Victoria Falls and Botswana. I will babble endlessly about the beauty of the country and the kindness of the people. You will think my descriptions of our journey and our stays fanciful, over-the-top. I have waited to write this because I needed to let the trip percolate and settle in my own mind. I felt like a helium balloon on the end of a very long tether, not at all grounded, bouncing with euphoria. Can any trip be that great?
I can only tell you this . . . at the end of the trip, AH (adorable husband) and I agreed we had never had a better 18 consecutive days in our entire lives. Yes, it was THAT good.
Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls
We flew South African Airlines from Frankfurt – Our seats were way in the back of the plane, which at first we thought a disadvantage, but there were lots of extra seats and we got to spread out and even sleep on the overnight flight. It was delightful for us to be flying overnight, and still be in the same time zone when we landed. We got to Johannesburg early and had a great time just looking around while we waited for our flight to Victoria Falls. We couldn’t buy anything, not a single thing, because our weight on the trip was limited to 10 kilos – about 23 lbs, plus camera equipment. We could only bring soft sided bags, bags that could be squashed into the tiny cargo hold of a little Air Safari Cessna 210, which holds no more than six people, max.
We were provided with a list of things to bring, including a medical kit with topical and internal antihistimines, bandages, pain killers, etc. Oh yes, and our malaria pills. Malaria prophylacts have different effects on different people. We were taking Larium for two weeks prior to our departure, during our trip, and must continue for four weeks after the trip. Even so, there are strains of malaria you are not protected against, and we were warned by the medical people that if anything odd pops up in the next year to remind medical professionals treating us that we travelled in Botswana.
The effect Larium has on me is to make me very awake, especially the first two or three days after taking the once-weekly dose. There are other effects – it also gives you very vivid and wild dreams.
Given such a low weight allowance, I had one dress with me, a rayon weave that I had picked up in Saudi Arabia. I wore it travelling, and two times for dinners at lodges. Even sleeping in it on the plane, overnight, it always looked good, and the wrinkles just fell out. Other than that, I wore jeans and T-shirts most of the time, and a long sleeve shirt when it got cool. I had bought a pair of tencel jeans, but they DO wrinkle. The cheap little Liz Claiborne jeans I bought wore like iron, and stayed good looking. I would have taken two pair of those had I known. I had to buy a wool sweater while I was there, as it is the middle of winter in the southern hemisphere, and while the days were very warm between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., the nights were very cool, even COLD!
Arriving in Victoria Falls was a hoot. We had received mixed information on whether or not we would need a visa, and, as it turned out, we did. Everyone did. We stood in line forever. We asked others how much it would cost, and the answer was “what ever they think you will pay”. We ended up paying $30 each, but one guidebook had said $35, so we were not unhappy. And there was a lot of paperwork for two little visitors visas.
People having the most problems were the big game hunters, bringing in weapons to go hunting. The whole idea of shooting these animals is so repugnant to us that we hoped they had to pay a fortune to bring their weapons in. In Zimbabwe the infrastructure is falling into chaos. There is an air of desperation and uncertainty, and a lot of complaining about President Mugabe, his preferential treatment of his cronies, and his private police force. People say that they don’t know from day to day which laws apply, and which will be enforced.
First thing, we went to change money at the airport and no one could agree on what the current rate of exchange was. We changed money, but at what we later learned was a very bad rate. Instead of 55 Zimbabwe Dollars to the US dollar, we later got 80. Oh well.
After months of research, Gary had chosen to travel with Afro Ventures, which recently merged with CC (for Conservation Corp) Africa. We saw a lot of other tour operators while we were there, and never once did we regret our decision. AfroVentures had two young men at the airport to meet us and take us to the Victoria Falls Hotel.
Wow. I wish you could walk into that hotel for the first time with us. It is gorgeous. It is older, with large, spacious rooms and high ceilings. When you enter the foyer, there are large dark wood enclosures for guest services, for money exchange, for concierge, for porters, for booking excursions . . . there is a downstairs convenience and souvenier shop and a huge upstairs shop.
Our room is at the front of the hotel, facing the falls. There are poster beds with mosquito nets, and a dressing room with umbrellas and raincoats for walking down to the falls. Security is everywhere. There are guards at every entrance, and in every hallways. The hallways are long and filled with prints and trophy heads, mahogany furniture and floral arrangements. It is beautiful, it is clean, and it is SOOO elegant. We decided to have lunch on the terrace and decide what to do next. We had come a day early so that we could rest up and be fresh when we started the actual safari, but we are both feeling too excited to rest!
Out on the terrace are several tables filled with people in groups who came to see the total eclipse of the sun (reminds me of an old Carly Simon song). We learned that there are people who do just that, chase eclipses. I think they also, incidentally, do some game viewing. At one table nearby, we hear a guy call out “Steve! We’re over here! Where were you?” and Steve responds “I’ve been on the phone with my banker and my brokers. I’ve told them to liquidate everything and wire it to the hotel, and I’m just gonna stay here until it’s gone, and then tell them to just shoot me!” We laughed. Already, we feel the same way.
Looking at prices in Zimbabwe dollars is pretty scary. Our lunch, two grilled salmon sandwiches and soft drinks, came to a little over $5,500. And that is the way it looks on the menu; the Zimbabwe dollar uses the same sign as the US dollar. Our dinner that night came to over $10,000. Now when you divide by 80, it’s not so bad, but it is a shock when you see the bill. We kept our ears open at lunch and learned a lot. We learned that the balloon ride over the Falls is not a ride, you just go up in a balloon that is tethered over the Falls, but you don’t go anywhere. We learned that the helicopter ride is too short for the money, and a disappointment. We learned that there ARE people who do the bungee jump off the bridge we can see from the terrace, but you’d have to be crazy. Americans talk in such loud voices, and don’t care who is listening.
After lunch we took a hike down to the Falls, a short 5 minutes, but first we booked a tour for late afternoon and another for the following morning.
This is when we truly discovered how chaotic the situation is in Zimbabwe, because we had only brought so much cash with us, thinking we could use our credit cards. Well, we were told, we could use our credit cards but there had been a lot of problems in Zimbabwe with people using credit cards being charged huge amounts to compensate for the fluctuating currency. So we decided to use cash/dollars to pay for our tours, and it wiped out nearly 1/3 of what we had with us. We weren’t concerned, as we knew we would see cash machines later in the trip and could pick up more cash. Another big mistake. We never saw another cash machine until we got back to Johannisburg.
As you leave the hotel to walk to the Falls, you go through a gate, a huge electrified fence. Just outside the fence are huge elephant poops, and that is the purpose of the fence, to keep the elephants out. This is not like our trip to Kenya and Tanzania, more than 25 years ago, when the animals were kept at a distance.
The Falls are spectacular. We paid to get into the park and then hiked to all the vantage points. We had umbrellas with us, and that was a good thing, as the Falls are at a high point right now, and the mist is as heavy as rain in several locations. It is a very hot day, midday, and the cool mist/rain feels great. As it is Saturday, there are a lot of local families visiting the Falls, and that is fun for us, too. We got thoroughly soaked, but enjoyed every minute of it.
The thunder of the water flowing over the falls makes it hard to hear one another, it is so loud, so forceful. It is an awe-inspiring and breathtaking sight. And, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, we learn, and spend the rest of the trip trying to figure out what the other six might be. Natural wonders, not man made.
We have a short rest in our room and it is time for our afternoon tour, a sunset cruise. Here is where we first learn how special this whole adventure is going to be. We thought we had booked on some boat with a large group. Not so! We were picked up by Larry, who then picked up Zandelie. Who is Zandelie? We’re not entirely sure. She is Zimbabwean, works at the African Kingdom hotel, and maybe is Larry’s wife? Girlfriend? We are it. We are the tour.
Larry drives us to a large campground, a campground NOT surrounded by a huge electric fence, where elephants have pushed over most of the trees and baboons are destroying the thatching on the campsite roofs. At the river edge of the campground is a small flat boat with a powerful engine. We see other boats with lots of people, but on our smaller boat it is just us, Larry and Zandelie.
With the small boat, we can get into very shallow inlets and grassy areas. We climbed aboard, and Larry takes us to see elephants, and water buffalo, and wart hogs, and hippos, and baboons. We have a potty stop and Larry points out huge hippo footprints and asks us not to go too far, and to come right back. Did you know that the hippo cause more human deaths than any other animal in Africa?
We anchored near the Zambian side of the Zambezi river, drank Zambezi beer, have a plate of hors d’eouvres and watch the sun go down. All drinks and snacks are included on the tour. The sunset is spectacular, the smalls, the sounds, the sheer beauty – it’s an incredible ending to our first day back in Africa.
Larry drives very slowly on our way back into Victoria Falls, and it is a good thing. There are cars and trucks on the dark road without lights, some on the wrong side of the road. As we enter Victoria Falls, things are really hopping, lots of people, the bars are open but the streets are not well lit. We pass three guys in wheelchairs, just tooling down the road, in the dark, nearly made my heart stop.
Back at the hotel, we decide to try the hotel buffet at the Jungle Junction, so we walk down to make a reservation and unintentionally interrupt a worship service. They are very kind, and reserve for us a lovely table. When we come back, we find that our expectations were wrong, that the food is fabulous. This chef specializes in curries, and oh, we are in heaven. There is a cold gazpacho soup, and a huge buffet, but we adore curries, so just have the soup and curry. Gary has dessert . . . there is SO much to choose from. We are astonished everyone is taking such good care of us.
There is one funny personal moment . . . as we were unpacking at the hotel, and marvelling at how thoughtfully they had provided so many things – a retractible clothesline in the bathroom, and clothes washing powder, the umbrellas, etc., AH found a decorative tin of Lindt chocolates by my side of the bed. “Wow!” he said, “Lindt chocolates, can you believe that??” and he looked inside and found the spicy Chex mix I like so well, and said “I can’t believe it! It’s full of the Chex mix you love!” and I am nearly dying of laughter. I had thought the food might not be very good, and often on these trips you often eat late, so I had brought a supply of Chex mix for holding us over until dinner. All of a sudden he realized it wasn’t the hotel, and we just roared with laughter. We just fell into our beautiful bed, SOOOO tired, and we slept like babies.
We’ve lived overseas most of our married life. One of our agreements is that when I am needed back home, I go. I am so blessed, my parents are both still alive, and as they age, they need a little more support and time. I’ve been back to the US four times this year, although one of the trips (WoooHoooo!) was for our son’s wedding.
My husband and I have developed a ritual; we go out for dinner before he drops me at the airport. It’s a nice, gentle way to part, gives us time to remind each other of business sorts of things (please remember to comb the cat while I am gone, please contact the insurance company and tell them . . . – you know, married couple stuff.)
So after a nice dinner at the Ribeye at Crown Plaza, he takes me to the dreaded airport and I get in the long snaking line. Most of the line is young Americans with huge backpacks. Behind me is a group of locals, one of whom lights up a cigarette – and he is standing right under the NO SMOKING sign! I HATE smoke. But when he saw the look on my face, he asked me if it was OK if he smoked. I pointed at the sign and said “Mamnua!” (forbidden!) and immediately . . . he apologized, and put the cigarette out. Wow.
When I finally got to the front of the line and handed my passport to the beleagered desk attendant, a great big Egyptian man bypassed the line and walked up with two porters, and ten huge suitcases encased in plastic. Somehow, I guess he didn’t see me, because he shoved a handful of passports at the desk clerk who was working on my ticket.
“Bas degiga, ahi” (only a moment, my brother) I punctuated my statement with the hand motion that means have a little patience. He gave me the look we call “the dog can talk!” (For some reason, maybe because so few xpats do, they are astounded when we speak a little Arabic.) And to MY astonishment, he stepped back and waited while my ticket was processed. The desk clerk was just grinnning; I guess he gets a lot of important people pushing his way to the front of the line.
As he passed me my ticket, he also passed me an invitation to the Lounge upstairs, which is wireless, and has nice, big clean bathrooms. “How kind!” I laughed, “thank you so much!” and was off to pass the next couple hours in relative comfort.
When it came time to board, I had a very nice seat, and I was hoping to have two seats to myself so I could curl up and sleep during the night flight. But no, just as I was really beginning to hope, a big gentleman came in and started putting things away just above me and put his book in the adjoining seat. “Oh well,” I thought. And I heard my name called on the intercom, asking me to find a flight attendant.
I assumed they were going to ask me to change with some family who arrived at the last minute, so that they could all sit together. My seat was close to a bulkhead, and that is always a chance you take. There was no flight attendant nearby, so I headed to the front of the plane, where I saw the desk attendant who had checked me in, grinning. “Madam, we would like to upgrade you tonight,” he said, handing me a new ticket and an ongoing ticket so I wouldn’t have to stand in line at my layover. I was SO grateful. The business class seats go almost full flat, and I can sleep like a baby.
I go back to gather my goods and the big man says “What? You’re getting an upgrade?” and he FOLLOWS ME up to the front, and complains! “Why her? Why does SHE get an upgrade? I’M a BUSINESSMAN!”
I busied myself settling in, but I couldn’t help laughing. The flight attendant soothed him and explained that there were no more seats available, and very reluctantly he returned to sardine class.
The seat behind me stayed empty the entire trip.