A luxury safari experience in Livingstone
It is not hard to see why the Victoria Falls is one of the most spectacular natural sites on the planet, and continues to delight and capture the imagination of travellers. Even as early as 1855, David Livingstone described the Falls in a way that reflects this sentiment: “Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leapt down a hundred feet and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen to twenty yards…the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.”
Fortunately, my family and I were able to experience this stunning sight firsthand, while at the same time exploring the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls and the adventure capital of Zambia – Livingstone.
Victoria Falls is the result of thousands of years of erosion. In ancient times, the Zambezi River started to wear away the soft sandstone that was present in huge cracks in the hard basalt plateau that it flowed over, eventually creating a series of magnificent and dramatic gorges. In fact, the Victoria Falls has been gradually receding for over 100,000 years, and the zigzagging gorges downstream of the current Falls represent the formation and abandonment of seven past waterfalls.
Today, the Zambezi crashes over a wide cliff, plunging 108 metres into a powerful whirlpool, forming the greatest curtain of falling water on the planet, and transforming the placid river into a ferocious torrent. At the height of the rainy season more than 500 million cubic metres of water per minute surge over the edge of the almost two kilometre-wide Falls and plummet into the gorge below. Columns of spray can be seen from miles away, hence its local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya – “the smoke that thunders”.
Facing the Falls is another sheer wall of rock, crowned with a mist-soaked rainforest. Walking the various paths on the Zambian side through the rainforest, over the Knife-edge Bridge (with its spectacular views of the eastern cataract, main Falls and down the gorge), ducking out to brave the spray and admire the view, you finally make your way around to the point where you can see the Victoria Falls Bridge – the next stop on the itinerary for our family adventure in Zambia.
The ultimate adrenaline activity
Aside from the lure of the Victoria Falls themselves, there are numerous activities to keep even the most ardent adventure seeker busy.
Jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge is one of the ultimate adrenaline activities. It is the highest commercial bridge jump in the world and the most spectacular setting. I, of course, was neither brave, nor foolish, enough to throw myself off the bridge, but my 16- and 17-year-old sons had no such qualms. Shearwater offers bungee, bridge swing and ziplining off the iconic bridge, and without any trouble, at all, I convinced my sons to throw themselves into the abyss.
It was only once the boys were fully kitted out in their safety harnesses that my husband voiced what was in both of our minds: “We’ve only got two children; do you think it is wise for them to both be throwing themselves off this bridge simultaneously?”
My heart stopped beating, and I held my breath as I watched them leap into space, free falling for what seemed like forever, before being propelled upwards again, at speed, by the rebound of the giant elastic rope. The looks of excitement on their faces when we were reunited said it all – they were on an adrenaline high for the rest of the day!
I, on the other hand, thought I would ease myself more gracefully into the ‘adrenaline business’ and signed up with Livingstone’s Adventure for an afternoon’s privately guided canoe safari on the Zambezi, upstream from the Falls. We paddled between the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on the Zambian side and the Zambezi National Park on the Zimbabwean side, gliding past elephants, pods of hippos and a great selection of birdlife. I was a little surprised as to how much we saw given how much noise my husband and younger son were making in the other canoe!
Having been told clearly as we set off that the person in the back seat was in charge of steering and the person in the front was the ‘powerhouse’, there seemed to be a great deal of unnecessary gesticulating and exasperation as the two of them ‘discussed’ who was supposed to be doing what and got progressively further off course! Silence reigned supreme in my canoe, and I was feeling rather smug about it, until I turned around to discover that my eldest son was doing what teenagers do best – having a power nap in the back seat, while I both paddled and steered! The adrenaline rush of the morning bungee jump had taken its toll.
Our first few nights were spent at Livingstone’s most recently opened Thorntree River Lodge, right on the banks of the Zambezi, with an unbeatable view of the river. There was even a gym with a view for the times when you were feeling guilty about all the excellent food you were eating. I would visit the treadmill every morning while my family were ensconced in bed, coming back with reports of all the birds, monkeys, baboons, giraffes and even elephants I had watched while running to nowhere.
Thorntree is located in the 66 sq km Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, home not only to Cape buffalo, Burchell’s zebra, Angolan giraffe, elephants, various antelope, warthog and more, but also to 12 white rhino. We were able to combine a game drive through this tiny park with the unique opportunity to get up close on foot to a few of the rhino.
After some searching, we found a rhino mother and her calf and were able to get quite close. The calf, Baby Virginia, in a remarkably playful mood, scampered from side to side and looked longingly in our direction. I’d be willing to bet that if her mum hadn’t been there cramping her style, she would have come even closer and really checked us out!
River rafting adventure
We decided on a family rafting trip the following day with Bundu Adventures, down what is quite probably the wildest commercial white-water in the world. A rafting adventure on the Zambezi River is an adrenaline rush not to be missed. Downstream from the Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River stretches out into deep, zigzagging, torturous channels, gouged out of the surrounding basalt.
The incredible volume of water guarantees an exhilarating day of white-water rafting.
When, at the pre-departure briefing, you hear that there are rapids called ‘The Terminator’, ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Gnashing Jaws of Death’, you have an inkling of what lies ahead!
The day starts with a hike down to the ‘Boiling Pot’, a massive whirlpool at the base of Victoria Falls, where we clambered aboard our raft and set off. The sun was shining, and the water was surprisingly warm. Our guide, nicknamed Black Lizard, knew exactly which line to take through the rapids, usually giving us the option to choose the route based on whether we wanted to ‘flip’ or not… and a few flips were definitely had! Although stretches of the route are classed as high-octane Grade 5, there are several areas of scenic, calm water where we had the chance to swim alongside the raft. The whole day was an unbelievable experience and definitely worth the steep hike out of the Batoka Gorge at the end of the day.
From the tranquillity and luxury of Thorntree River Lodge, we moved closer to town, basing ourselves nearer the action. Maramba River Lodge is a peaceful oasis amongst all the adrenaline that is Livingstone. While close enough to all the action, we still felt part of nature as we enjoyed breakfast on the terrace overlooking a resident pod of hippos, who, complete with numerous babies, kept us thoroughly entertained for hours.
When we weren’t watching the hippos we were amazed by the vervet monkeys which, to avoid the crocodiles, clearly preferred drinking from the lodge’s swimming pool than the river; they didn’t seem remotely bothered by our presence, even bringing their tiny babies with them.
Taking to the skies
If flying over the Falls in a contraption that resembles a couple of garden chairs attached to a beach umbrella, with a lawnmower engine for propulsion, is your cup of tea, then micro lighting is definitely for you!
Seriously though, while a microlight may look as fragile as a dragonfly, it is far stronger than it appears, and in the hands of an experienced pilot, it is one of the unique ways to see one of the seven natural wonders of the world in all its magnificence. My sons took to the skies and loved every minute of the ride!
Not to be outdone by our children in the microlights, my husband and I opted for a spectacular helicopter flight over the Falls, again with Livingstone’s Adventure. Known as the ‘Flight of Angels’, this thrilling flight over the waterfall is a definite bucket-list activity. Not only did we have the luxury of a private flight just for the two of us, but the views were breathtaking, offering an entirely new perspective on the Falls and the landscape below.
Having dispatched our children back to boarding school at the end of the school holidays, my husband and I returned to Livingstone a month later to sample a little more of the serious luxury that is on offer, and I can confidently say I have never been so pampered in all my life! It is amazing how sophisticated the northern banks of the Zambezi have become. Livingstone, once the ‘poor relative’ in the Victoria Falls experience, has undergone an incredible transformation in recent years, and now has some truly special places to stay and activities to do.
This time our first port of call was the Stanley Safari Lodge. The lodge has a very different viewpoint and perspective to many of the other lodges in the area, most of which are built right on the riverbanks. Here you are perched on a hill overlooking the unspoilt bush, with snaking stretches of the Zambezi River and the spray of the Victoria Falls visible in the distance.
We arrived in a deluge of rain and had to make a mad dash from the car to the welcoming shelter of the dining room – this rain was to continue for the rest of the night, and indeed the rest of our visit! A thunderstorm during dinner provided a spectacular display of lightning across the border in Zimbabwe, and the reflection of the lightning in the swimming pool, which we could see from our table, was incredible.
A cruise down the Zambezi
A visit to Livingstone would not be complete without a river cruise on the Zambezi River, preferably at sunset. We chose the African Queen, and even though the sun was hiding behind the clouds as we set off (and it didn’t look like we were destined to get a very photogenic sunset) we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless; no doubt aided by the gin & tonics and tasty snacks brought to us regularly by our ever-attentive waitress. We travelled at a stately speed up the Zambezi above the Falls, catching glimpses of hippos and crocs, and just in the nick of time, the clouds cleared temporarily, and we got our sunset after all.
It was time to move lodges, this time to Royal Chundu Island Lodge, located 60km from Livingstone, upstream of the Falls. From the minute we arrived at Royal Chundu, we knew we were in paradise! Having relied on Google maps to get us there, we had taken a very circuitous route and were feeling somewhat flustered by the time we arrived.
Though all that fell away as we took the first sip of our welcome cocktail in the main lodge, and then stepped aboard the boat that would take us across to our room on the island. After unpacking and enjoying a delicious lunch, we had to temporarily press pause on our island retreat and head back into town for dinner aboard the Royal Livingstone Express.
Dinner on a steam train
The Royal Livingstone Express is a unique and different experience; a trip back in time to the luxury and grandeur of the bygone era of steam trains. An actual red carpet welcomed us, and we boarded the train with a glass of wine in hand. Wandering through the fabulously restored and renovated carriages, we chose a seat in the elegant lounge car.
The train set off, and we nibbled on smoked salmon canapés as local fundi, Peter Jones, gave a passionate, fascinating, humorous and informative talk about the history of the train, the bridge, Livingstone and Zambia in general. Meanwhile, the train was making its way to the Victoria Falls Bridge, where we alighted to view the Falls, and those who were interested joined the driver in his compartment to learn more about the inner workings of the engine itself. The driver showed us how to stoke the engine, even allowing us to pull the cord that sounded the whistle – which had my husband grinning like a schoolboy! Once back on board, we were treated to a delicious five-course dinner in the dining car as we headed off into the night.
Arriving back at Royal Chundu long after the rest of the lodge was asleep, we boarded the boat again for a short, moonlit boat ride upstream to the island. We reached our room to find a freshly drawn bath in the tub on the verandah, with bubbles that must have been at least a metre high! Never one to turn down a bath, I hopped in and was serenaded by a chorus of frogs. I sat there watching a sky full of brilliant stars and then as if on cue, I saw a shooting star as the lions started roaring in the park across the next channel of water. An absolutely perfect moment.
The next morning a female finfoot accompanied our early morning coffee. As we sat on our verandah watching her across the water, she was joined by a male, and not long after that, we witnessed what was either a courting ritual or perhaps just a marital spat!
Departing Royal Chundu, we headed to Islands of Siankaba, a lodge built on two private islands in the middle of the Zambezi. The wooden chalets are built on stilts and perched on the river’s edge, with verandahs jutting out over the water, and are all interlinked by a series of raised wooden walkways – something that would not have looked out of place in the Swiss Family Robinson or Pirates of the Caribbean. The walkways and suspension bridges that linked the two islands together gave an air of adventure from the moment we arrived.
The rain continued and the sound of the river rushing and swirling beneath our room and the drops of rain falling on the canvas roof at night had us feeling cosy and warm, tucked up in bed. The next morning we sat on our verandah, enjoying our coffee while watching forty or fifty blue-cheeked bee-eaters, and just as many wire-tailed swallows, swooping over the water. A Cape clawless otter appeared, swimming around the partially submerged small islands in front of our room. Walking to breakfast, we found discarded crab carcasses on the bridges, left behind by giant kingfishers who had eaten their breakfast long before we were heading to ours.
Later that day we headed upstream in a boat to a tiny island, where we got off to take a closer look at the southern red bishop birds. We had the island all to ourselves and were surrounded by red bishops courting, mating and building nests. So unaccustomed were they to human presence, that the birds allowed us to get right up close and we had some unparalleled viewing.
For a brief change of scenery, I headed back into Livingstone town and through to the famous Victoria Falls Bridge to have a good ‘behind the scenes’ look. Even though he never visited the Falls and died before the construction of the bridge began, Cecil Rhodes was presented with the plans of the proposed Zambezi River crossing, and he apparently drew a line across the Boiling Pot (the point directly below the Falls where the water exits from the chasm of the Victoria Falls) and declared that this was where he wanted the bridge.
He envisaged the spray of the Falls landing on the trains as they crossed the bridge, and indeed for many years after the completion of the bridge, trains used to stop for a few minutes at its centre so that his dream could be realised… exactly what we had done a few nights earlier on the Royal Livingstone Express. Attached to the bridge by a series of cables and carabiners, I walked beneath it, with my guide, on the original catwalk, while learning a little more about its construction and admiring the fabulous views both up and down the gorges.
After our stay at Islands of Siankaba, our last stop was the Royal Livingstone Hotel. We only had one night here, but we certainly made the most of our visit. Just after arrival, we were ushered off to an extravagant high tea, where we were each presented with a three-tiered cake stand loaded with goodies, accompanied by tea and, of course, some sparkling wine. Having missed lunch, we savoured our high tea, while watching zebras grazing by the pool. Just as I swigged the last of my bubbly, nibbled my last morsel of cucumber sandwich, and decided there was no way I was going to fit in any dinner, I was whisked off to a luxurious massage in a gazebo on the banks of the Zambezi.
On our last morning in Livingstone, we forced ourselves to endure a delicious champagne breakfast with all the trimming on the banks of the Zambezi while watching the spray of the Falls. We followed this with a last-minute visit to the Falls themselves. The rain-swollen Zambezi was chocolate in colour, and the Falls were pumping, it was hard to drag ourselves away from the mesmerising sight of the sheer volume of water that was pouring over the edge. But sadly, all good things must come to an end.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR, SARAH KINGDOM
Travel writer, mountain guide and mother, Sarah Kingdom was born and brought up in Sydney, Australia. Coming to Africa at 21, she fell in love with the continent and stayed. Sarah guides on Kilimanjaro several times a year and has lost count of how many times she has stood on the roof of Africa. She has climbed and guided throughout the Himalayas and now spends most of her time visiting remote places in Africa. When she is not travelling, she runs a cattle ranch in Zambia with her husband.