Victoria Falls: What’s new and why you should go now!
Can you imagine waking up in a lofty treehouse on Kandahar Island to the sounds of the mighty Zambezi lapping gently below your bed? Fish eagles calling, hippos wallowing, elephants drinking quietly on the opposite bank… a scene unchanged for hundreds of years. Yet Victoria Falls has a vibrant new energy with an exciting collection of contemporary lodges, treehouses, tented camps and island hideaways to choose from. Michelle Snaddon, our safari concierge, has handpicked her favourites after two recent reccies and so we asked her for an insider’s guide. Michelle has travelled on press trips for two decades for SA’s top lifestyle magazines and has seen some of the best lodges in the land, so she has a nose for style and service. And besides, she visited Vic Falls as a child and student, so when she says it’s on the up, it’s time to book that ticket and go!
Firstly, why Victoria Falls?
‘Having got to know so many Perfect Hideaways families, I know what they love, I understand their budgets and am also aware that family time is so precious. After all, they started booking beach houses with us when the kids were little and now they’re growing up and wanting to explore southern Africa during the last of the school or ‘Varsity holidays left together. But the magical ingredient is time… and what’s great about Vic Falls is that it’s super easy to fly into (quick, direct flights from Cape Town/Joburg to either Livingstone or Vic Falls – it doesn’t matter which you choose), so three or four nights is doable. With SADC rates (for those on SA passports) this also makes it affordable. It’s also an adventure destination – heaven for teens with a sense of adventure – but equally easy with smaller kids so I’ve chosen three lodges with family tents and an exclusive-use house for the ultimate escape for multigenerational holidays with grandparents and children – and for those who want absolute privacy.
Which side of the river shall I book?
‘Until you’ve been to both airports, crossed the historic bridge or driven up and down either side of the river, which I did for several days, it can be confusing geographically. It helps to understand that you can book lodges on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean side of the river and visit the mystical ‘Smoke that Thunders’ from both sides. It’s also easy to cross over (and I’d recommend you do walk over the bridge (get a day pass from customs), and – no matter which side you stay on – that you walk the Rain Forest on the Zimbabwean side, because even when the water is low, the classic views are best from there). Most lodges include a visit to the Falls and will drop you at the entrance, opposite the market. It’s currently $20 for SADC passport holders and $30 for internationals.
Livingstone is on the Zambian side and Victoria Falls town is on the Zimbabwean side. Both have new airports and we work with a wonderful private driver, Mtabise Moyo, who is happy drive you anywhere, especially if you’d like to customize a day out. I booked him for an airport transfer once with the family in tow, and he arrived well ahead of time with iced bottles of water and a big grin… he had built in enough time to take us on a last drive along the river to oldest and biggest baobab in Vic Falls, which is where we found our baobab flower – the first I’d ever seen after all these years!
I’ve chosen two lodges on the Zambian side and four on the Zimbabwean side but the differentiating factors are, firstly, distance from the Falls and, secondly, whether you have a game viewing experience at the lodge you choose. If you want to have a safari experience, you would probably first consider the lodges inside the Zambezi National Park (Victoria Falls River Lodge and Island Treehouses or Chundu Island) or the lodge or private River House at Matetsi Private Game Reserve (55 000ha – almost the size of the Sabi Sands), both in Zimbabwe. Matetsi’s architectural refurb also included striking wall art of pods and seeds by artist Helen Teede (below) and a series of 18 artworks, which when combined together make up the ordinance survey map of Matetsi.
However, you can combine two or three nights on safari in Zambia or Botswana with a luxurious stay at Royal Chundu, a Relais & Chateaux property that’s about 45 minutes’ drive by road or a scenic helicopter flip away (be sure to stay long enough to visit the nearby community village to learn about Moringa), or Thorntree River Lodge – a family friendly lodge that’s much closer to Livingstone and set in the small 6 000ha Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park – ideal for long weekends or combined with safari experiences in Hwange and Botswana at its sister African Bushcamps properties).
What is there to do?
‘Bringing your teens on holiday here is a lot of fun. It’s always been an adrenaline junkie’s paradise, with everything from white water rafting, zip-lining, bungee jumping and a gorge swing to experience, but a walk through the town in the evening reveals The River Brewing Co a new microbrewery and Pariah State, which, with it’s open-plan, double-volume design is reminiscent of laid-back beach restaurants in South East Asia (below left). Most lodges and the Shearwater and Wild Horizons in the town accept credit cards, if you decide at the last minute to book white water rafting, but it’s best to book way ahead. Take a step back in time and order a pot of tea on the verandah at the gracious (yet ageing grand dame) Victoria Falls Hotel where the warthogs still strut on the manicured lawn and the view is as picture postcard perfect as it ever was.
At first sight, Elephant’s Walk doesn’t seem worth visiting (there’s a lot of tat in this old town, so you need to know where to go….) but once you’re past Dexter the Rastafarian (such a character) with his upcycled kinetic sculptures, head for the far corner where you’ll discover Dean’s deli and the Jafuta Heritage Centre, which houses the quaintest museum where the fascinating story of building the historic bridge lines the walls. Legendary ceramist Marjorie Wallace’s Mutapo ceramics are found in a surprisingly contemporary boutique next to Dean’s, along with some of the most beautifully designed basketry and brooms (below) seen on my two-week trip through Botswana and Zimbabwe. I gleefully stocked up on locally produced moringa and mongongo oils, baobab powders and teas. Pause to look at charcoal artist Lemington Muzhingi’s animals and birds on the way out – they’re superb. His work (a copy of the famous Victoria Falls painting by Thomas Baines) also forms the backdrop to the bar, above, at the funky Zambezi House, about ten minutes away, the brainchild of Amatuli owner Mark Valentine and his creative team and his partner Beks Ndlovu, of African Bushcamps (who run Thorntree River Lodge). Built out of industrial shipping containers, and with David Bellam prints and exotic botanical wallpapers lining the walls, it was nominated on Conde Nast’s ‘most beautiful restaurants in the world list’ – pop in for an ice-cold beer before you leave!
Another absolute must: after the Rain Forest walk (allow at least half a day for this and go in the afternoon when the rainbows are better!), take a walk to the customs offices near the bridge. Ask for a day pass at customs to go onto the bridge. It’s quite far on foot, but worth the walk to be able to stand at the halfway mark on the border, watch the daredevil bungee jumpers scream their heads off as they soar towards the ‘boiling pot’ below, and observe the daily rituals of copper trucks trundling over the rattling bride, one by one, alongside bicycles or hawkers selling beautiful copper bangles. ‘It was only when we were having lunch and I sat on the rock overlooking the gorge (near the 14th viewpoint) that I realized how small I was and how powerful and deep it plunges. It’s very emotional. You have to allow yourself enough time to let it sink in, to be honest. And then it dawns on you why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site’. Isabella Snaddon (aged 17).
Traveller’s tips: ‘There is no better way to experience an adreline rush than to transfer by helicopter to your lodge, especially to Matetsi (thanks for the beautiful image!) and Royal Chundu, both of which are the furthest from the Falls.
This part of the world operates best in US Dollars cash. In town, your restaurant bill comes to the table pre-converted into at as many as seven currencies (love this!) but Dollars reign supreme, often securing you up to a 25% discount. Don’t expect functioning ATMs, so fly in with enough cash before you arrive (call us if you need advice on this). All lodges accept credit cards for expenses on departure but it’s best to pre-pay for everything, including conservation levies and activities such as helicopter flips and white-water rafting.’
And the proof is in the pudding… our guests are already loving the Island Treehouses!
“Just to let you know that we are over the moon here at the Island Treehouses – it is a little gem of a place and exactly what we love – small and intimate, in the middle of gorgeous trees and bush, delightful staff and a fabulous manager” Perfect Hideaways Guest
Give us a call if you want to chat about the options for your next holiday!
Michelle Snaddon, Safari Concierge