Victoria Falls is a must-see for many travelers to southern Africa. It’s the world’s largest curtain of falling water—a spectacular sight. It’s also the name of the town near the waterfall that offers an array of activities and has seen a lot of touristic development (there’s now a KFC—gasp!—on the shopping strip near the historic Victoria Falls Hotel). It’s also increasingly easy to get to: Located on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border, there is an airport on each side of the Falls—Victoria Falls airport on the Zimbabwe side; Livingstone airport on the Zambia side—and both are adding more flights.
But whether to go, and what to do there, depends on the timing of your trip. The month of March, for instance, is when the most water shoots through the Falls, making it as thunderous and heart-pounding as it gets. In March the curtain of falling water is a mile wide. You will get drenched from the spray. By contrast, in October, the driest month, the curtain will instead be a series of trickles with dry stretches in between, and there will be precious little mist to cool you off as you trek in the hot sun from one end of the Falls to the other. What makes things tricky for southern-Africa safarigoers is that the time of year when you will see the most wildlife (September and October, since those are the hottest and driest months, when the most animals are out searching for water) is the opposite of the best time for seeing the Falls (March and April).
My family is just back from Victoria Falls, as we made it the grand finale of our August safari in Zambia. This was my second trip to Vic Falls—the first was 18 years ago—and now I wanted my kids to see it. I found a lot of new things worth trying, a lot of old things worth doing again, a lot of touristy things we skipped, and lot of cool things we wish we’d had time to do but didn’t. I’ve boiled our findings down to seven key recommendations for you (and be sure to check out our trip photos, above, that illustrate these recommendations) :
1. Tour the waterfall in the afternoon, not the morning.
We did both—so that you don’t have to. Our comparison found that mornings are cooler but more crowded, and you don’t get rainbows. Rainbows come when the sun hits the Falls from a certain angle—and that happens in the early morning only, from about 6:30 to 7:30, and then again in the afternoon. Three nights per month (during the Full Moon period), you can take a Lunar Rainbow tour, when you may see a “moonbow” (rainbows that take place at night).
It’s easy to buy tickets to the Falls (which is open from 6:00 am to 6:00 pm) and tour the site on your own, but I’m glad we did it with an experienced guide. He enabled us to skip the ticket-buying line, pointed out things we would have missed on our own (e.g., exotic plants in the rainforest around the Falls), and made our experience more educational by answering a ton of questions that the kids threw at him. To see the Falls properly, you need to walk a mile or two, and there are 16 viewing points, so allot about two hours for it with a guide, three hours if you’re doing it on your own. (Wear walking shoes with traction—the ground can get slippery—and carry a plastic bag to protect your camera from the spray.)
2. In drier months, take advantage of thrills that are possible only when the water level is low.
June through October—when the water level is at its lowest—is when it’s possible to try white water rafting . (Rafting starts and ends at a different time each year, depending on rainfall, but August and September are guaranteed; October can be very rough and rocky.) From late August through November you can climb down into the gorge and stand under the Falls, but be warned that it is a seriously tough hike. Or, if you’re in a death-defying mood, in dry season you can inch your way along the lip of the Falls to Devil’s Pool, a legendary rock pool that sits at the sheer edge of the waterfall. (Check out the photo of Devil’s Pool in the slide show.) If we’d had an extra day, we would have tried at least one of these activities.
3. Stay at the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel.
Built by the British in 1904, it’s one of my favorite grande dame properties in the world, with history in every hallway. Tim and I stayed there 18 years ago, when we first started dating. When the hotel heard we were coming back, this time married with children, they gave us the Livingstone Suite—the three-bedroom suite that Queen Elizabeth and Oprah Winfrey have stayed in. Check out the photos in the slide show! In my humble opinion the Victoria Falls Hotel is one of those unique travel experiences that is worth every cent, but even if you opt not to splurge on a stay there, at least stop by for a gin and tonic—or, better yet, high tea on the Terrace—and a stroll through the gardens. When you pass by the concierge desk, ask for their leaflet entitled “A Brief History of the Victoria Falls Hotel.”
4. If you love elephants and/or are a foodie, splurge on the Elephant Café.
This elephant sanctuary on the Zambezi River was a trip highlight for my kids—for two reasons: First, we went there by jetboat. Out of a week’s worth of water activities that my kids did on the Zambezi, that jetboat ride up small rapids to the Café was their favorite. Second, where else can you feed and pet elephants?
The elephant family you meet was rescued from drought and culls decades ago; over the years, they’ve been joined by babies born within the herd. These elephants are treated extremely well, roam freely, and have plenty of land for doing so. Because it costs a fortune to keep them well fed and cared for, a year ago the elephants’ caretakers opened the Elephant Café as a new way to earn enough funds to support the elephants. Don’t worry: It’s not some sort of captive show, and elephant riding is no longer allowed. In fact, if you’re concerned about animal cruelty, this is your opportunity to see animals supported the right way.
The Café serves “bush gourmet cuisine” made from hyperlocal Zambezi Valley ingredients that are found and foraged within a 12-mile radius—especially wild nuts, fruits, and leaves that the elephants themselves eat. Founding chef Annabel Hughes, who grew up in Zimbabwe and lives in Livingstone, has trained local chefs who now do the foraging and cooking. (See them, and the delicious meal they created for us, in the slide show).
5. If water levels are high, consider a helicopter flight over the Falls.
The more water in the Falls, the more exciting the helicopter flight will be. The 12-minute ride gives you a perspective—a sense of what’s upriver and what’s downriver—that you won’t get any other way and that brings the area’s geological history to life. In dry season, though, if you’re looking for a way to save money, I’d say the helicopter ride is one of the activities you can skip. The only member of my family who would disagree is Charlie, and that’s because he sat in the front seat and had a superlative view throughout. Should you end up in the middle seat in the back, you may be disappointed. (For a taste of our helicopter flight in dry season, see my video.)
6. If you love vintage trains, consider the Bushtracks Express steam train to Victoria Falls Bridge.
The train chugs from the Victoria Falls Hotel train station to the Victoria Falls Bridge, which was the brainchild of Cecil Rhodes and was built in 1905 above the second gorge of the Falls. The Bridge connects the Zim side with the Zam side and represents No Man’s Land between the two countries.
Tim and the kids loved this train ride because they took full advantage of it in a way that few else on our train did. The other travelers, who belonged to a group tour, sat in a plush vintage compartment focused on cocktails and canapés, while Tim and the kids spent much of the ride in the cab, where they chatted with the engineer, fireman, and coal tender, helped shovel coal and stoke the boiler, and learned how to run a steam locomotive. (See the photos in the slide show.) There are currently four Bushtracks Express train rides on offer—two from the Zim side, two from the Zam side. Be warned that if you spend time in the cab the way we did, you could get a little dirty.
If you really love vintage trains, stop by the Bushtracks Express railyard in Livingstone and meet up with Ben Costa, who refurbishes the vintage steam trains used and has encyclopedic knowledge of steam engines.
7. Arrange your visit through a southern Africa travel specialist who has up-to-the-minute info on the logistical ins and outs.
Travel logistics in Victoria Falls can change frequently with no warning, and you can waste a lot of time in lines or coping with snafus. As an example, some activities are on the Zim side, others are on the Zam side, and going back and forth can be a time-consuming hassle, depending on whether you bought the right type of Visa, how many people are in the immigration line ahead of you, and whether your driver has the clout to get you past the line. My hyper-efficient two days in Victoria Falls, and the rest of my Zambia trip, were arranged by Cherri Briggs, one of the safari specialists on my WOW List of Trusted Travel Experts. Cherri lives part of the year in Zambia, knows every mover and shaker there, and can pull rabbits out of hats; it’s thanks to her that we got into the Elephant Café, met Ben Costa, were upgraded at the Vic Falls Hotel, and much more. If you’re interested in an Africa trip and not sure where or how to start the planning, feel free to reach out to me at Ask Wendy.
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