Our final morning in Serondela was bittersweet. Ahead lay the spectacle of Victoria Falls, one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, but it meant that we had to leave behind the safari staff who had come to feel like family. The night before, one of our fellow travellers remarked that he’d been nervous about visiting Africa before the trip began, and now he had a completely different opinion of the continent. Africans are well aware of how much bad press their home receives, and they are incredibly grateful to be able to show the genuine side of their countries to visitors. I hope that our fellow guests don’t mind my posting this photo, which expresses so clearly the depth of our bond with our Botswanan friends.
Victoria Falls is the result of the Zambezi River tumbling over about a 330-foot-plus drop as it straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Our Botswana safari guides drove us on the main road, edged by farms and women carrying goods on their heads, as far as the Kazungula border post and steered us through Customs.
We sadly said our goodbyes and crossed into Zimbabwe, where we were picked up by staff from Matetsi River Lodge for the approximately 45-minute drive to our home on the banks of the Zambezi River for the next couple of nights.
Matetsi for me was the epitome of a romantic African lodge in the wild. I loved it so much that on a return trip we made a point of staying there again, renewing our acquaintance with Obert, the lodge manager at the time. I say ‘was’ because several years ago & Beyond renovated it into something more sleek and upscale, so sadly you won’t be able to stay at the beautiful place in our photos.
Upon arrival at the Matetsi Reserve, we were dropped off at the entrance, given some refreshing cold drinks and cold wet washcloths to freshen up with, and loaded into safari vehicles for the drive through dense bush to the lodge.
The main building houses an open-air lounge, bar and round table, on a hillside overlooking a terrace very close to the water with a larger dining table and a round barbecue.
Our blue-tinted cabins were tucked away along the river’s edge, each nestled into its own private shrubbery, with a big bedroom and separate bathroom area, joined to each other by a small covered area that led out to a stone deck and a private plunge pool.
The bedroom and bathroom each had their own lockable door to keep out marauding monkeys, and there was even a slingshot handily draped on a hook should we need to scare some off. We never saw any near our cabins, but there was a big monitor lizard that visited several of our lawns, lumbering peaceably through the grass in the late afternoon.
There was also a small pavilion with a gift shop, where you could buy jewellery, mud cloth and clothing. Everything was tucked quietly into the bush, connected by sunny stone pathways which we were allowed to wander during the day, but when dusk fell we were escorted by lodge staff – we were in the midst of Matetsi’s large private game reserve, after all.
After lunch, we were taken into the town of Victoria Falls for the main event. Vic Falls town bustles with travellers out for adventure. There are a wide variety of accommodations for most price points sprinkled throughout the town and sprawled discreetly along the Zambezi. The Falls sit within two protected parks, one in Zimbabwe and one in Zambia, so you can see the Falls in all their glory in pristine wilderness, unlike Niagara Falls which slinks its way past hotels, casinos and tour buses.
Inside the visitor centre, we were given rain ponchos and an orientation to the river and falls. Then we were led along a path that brings you to the statue of David Livingstone, the official discoverer of the Falls, even though the native peoples had been living in the area for years, and even other Europeans had been there previously. It was the romantic figure of the Scottish missionary and explorer – who named the Falls after his queen and became really famous after being lost in Africa for several years and then found by Henry Morton Stanley, an intrepid American reporter – who captured the public imagination and got the credit.
Even at the statue, we couldn’t hear much, and I was truly wondering how impressed I was actually going to be – until we caught our first sight of Devil’s Cataract and heard the deafening roar of 3 million gallons of water churning over the precipice every second! I stopped dead and stood there with my mouth open. I’d never seen anything like this!
It was April, the tail end of the rainy season, and the Zambezi was in full flow.
The Lozi tribe had given the Falls the name Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, and so it did!
As it flung itself over the Falls and crashed into the bottom of the gorge, it created multiple rainbows, and a mist that billowed over 1,000 feet into the air, making nearby tall palm trees look like little ants. The mist falls as dense rain and creates a strip of tropical jungle in the midst of a dry African savannah. It can be seen from over ten miles away. Even with ponchos we all got soaked to the skin, which wasn’t unwelcome in the hot sun.
Exploration on the Zimbabwean side takes a while, as there’s a long trail to see the different gorges and very close to the bridge between the two countries that carries the rail line built by Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune in the diamond fields of South Africa before stripping Rhodesia (the former name of Zimbabwe) of much of its resources and endowing Oxford University with its most famous scholarship.
One of Rhodes’ dreams was to build a railway from the Cape of South Africa to Cairo in Egypt – commemorated on this flag post on the ground of the elegant colonial-era Victoria Falls Hotel.
The busy bridge has lanes for foot traffic, motor vehicles and rail. if you don’t mind heights, the walk across has great views of the Zambezi and all the human life around it.
Back at the lodge we all took full advantage of the full bathrooms – while hot bucket showers in the bush are fun, there’s nothing like being able to take your time in a proper shower or a hot bath.
Evenings at the lodge start near the bar, where an assortment of liquors wait to be mixed into whatever drink you like. Visitors usually welcome the opportunity to use blow-dryers and put some nicer clothes on – nothing overly fancy, but a little up from bush garb. We all chuckled at our transformation.
Delicious meals were cooked on the big round grill and served with linens and delicious wines. It was so dark that we couldn’t see much beyond the terrace, but the torches kept any animals away. Then it was off to our wonderful netting-draped beds for a well-earned deep sleep.
Breakfast overlooking the Zambezi was a special experience, with cereals, juices and fresh fruit in the cooler morning air while we watched the water lazily flow by before it gathered speed 25 miles away.
Victoria Falls is one of the adventure capitals of Africa and of the world. If you’re a bungee-jumper, it has to be on your bucket list. We elected to take a helicopter flight over the Falls and surrounding area, which allows you to see the deep gorge that the river has carved through the landscape over millions of years, and to see the Falls in their mist-filled entirety – although if you go in low-water season around October or November they will look much different.
The bungee-jump station straddles the bridge at the exact point where Zimbabwe and Zambia meet – apparently so that if any jumper is injured, neither country will have to take responsibility. Two of our fellow travellers decided to do the jump, and as the rest of us stood on the bridge looking over the dizzying long drop to the raging waters below while they got rigged for the jump, most of us thought they were insane!
At that time of year the rapids were so strong, up to Category 6, that white water rafting was cancelled. The zip lines were open, but some people chose to go shopping while a few of us decided that golf in Africa was not to be missed.
At the time, the economy in Zimbabwe was still quite depressed – we were able to buy souvenir money in completely devalued trillion-dollar denominations for a couple of US dollars – so the golf course at the elegant Elephant Hills lodge wasn’t getting used much.
We were given the services of two caddies, but we had to walk nine holes in 90oF heat, with no beverages anywhere out on the course. We saw a few animals – herds of impala, and I had the unique experience of waiting to tee off while a family of warthogs had a leisurely meal – and the water hazards were not to be messed with.
By the time we finished I was suffering from a pretty good case of heat exhaustion. I don’t remember much of the bus ride back to Matetsi, but we arrived back at the lodge to find that the staff had prepared candle-lit and flower-strewn bubble baths for us! I made it through dinner and then crashed in bed for 14 hours.
Victoria Falls has the main airport in the area to catch flights home via Johannesburg, but there’s also an airport in the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the Falls. Viewing the Falls on that side is a more intimate experience, as you can sit on a boulder right alongside the edge, and a little further along there’s a side area that’s shallow enough to wade in – a favourite activity of the local residents on a hot day. There’s a decent museum in Livingstone, and plenty of shops to replenish camera supplies and buy crafts.
On our first safari there, we only had one night at Matetsi, and elected to stay on the Zambian side for a couple of nights to be able to do more activities.
The Zambezi Sun lodge is a pretty adobe-pink mid-range hotel set inside the national park, so zebras frequently wander through the grounds and visitors are advised to keep their doors and patio windows shut and locked at all times or the monkeys will invade and destroy everything you own as well as the room you’re staying in. From the hotel it’s a short walk over to the Falls, so near that you can always see the spray shooting over the rooftops.
We did our helicopter ride on the Zambian side. The flight centre was 11 miles from the Falls and the mist was clearly visible from there.
We also took a sunset cruise on a boat named the African Queen – for anyone who’s a fan of classic movies, that was an irresistible choice. Everyone goes on a cruise to watch the sunset over the Zambezi, but it’s a lovely peaceful ride with a glorious sunset at the climax.
And so, at some point it becomes heart-breakingly necessary to leave Africa, to me the most magical continent on our planet. We had amazing photos and souvenirs to bring home – an Angolan harvest mask we bought at a gallery at an upscale hotel in Zambia, a hunting set from Botswana, baskets and mud cloths and handmade copper bangles – but we’d found a second home 8200 miles away that we didn’t want to leave.
In this blog I’ve only managed to skim the surface of our amazing journeys. A trip to Africa, if done authentically and immersively, changes your life.
Before we’d left the first time, at a party a family friend named Leo, who was a class-A pot-stirrer, decided to needle me about why we would want to undertake hours of flying, and then all the dust and heat and discomfort of being there live, when we could just watch all about Africa on television from the easy comfort of home. I just smiled and said that places were meant to be experienced live, that nothing on television could ever capture the feeling of being there in person.
A few weeks after we returned, we put together a photo presentation with dinner for much of the same group of people. Leo was surprisingly silent through the entire two hours of photos and videos – no snarky repartee, not even a smile. As our guests were stretching their legs and getting ready to leave, I was standing by the front staircase chatting when he came towards me. Uh oh, I thought, what is he up to – has he saved all his gibes for last?
He stood solemnly in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Thank you. That was amazing! Now I understand why you wanted to go there in person.” Even through just the lens of my camera and our stories, we’d managed to share our transcendent experience with other people.
When this pandemic is over and the opportunity to travel is available again, if you love our planet at all you must go to Africa – cradle of civilization and so beautiful you’ll never forget it. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” I know exactly what he meant.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this lengthier look at going on safari and that it’s transported you for a little while through the magic of the mind’s eye. If you would like to ask me any questions about these places and about how to put together a good safari, please post in the comments or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.