After my quick trip to the Canary Islands, I arrived back in Madrid with a 4-hour layover and a mission…unload my Antarctica suitcase. You see, I had this whole master plan to ship the obnoxious suitcase carrying all my heavy winter clothes (and one very yellow parka) back to the U.S. so I wouldn’t have to carry it around the world for a month. Unfortunately, when I tried to ship it back from Buenos Aires, they wanted almost $400. Preposterous! So I checked the bag to Madrid figuring I’d have better luck shipping it back from Europe than South America.
Luckily there was a post office in the Madrid airport and after filling out paperwork for an hour and parting with €100 (far more reasonable) I was approximately 40lbs lighter and had never felt better. Finally, back to my traveling weight! Unfortunately, my joy would be short-lived.
I checked in for my Qatar Airways flight to Johannesburg (connecting in Doha) and made my way to the gate. Originally, I had planned to fly into Lusaka on my Skyteam RTW ticket for my visit to Victoria Falls until I realized about a month before departure that Lusaka is a 6-hour ill-advised drive from the Falls (yes, even after planning 8 RTW trips, I still make the occasional mistake!). You can fly but unfortunately, the lone flight per day between Lusaka and Livingstone (where you actually need to be in Zambia to see the Falls), left before my flight would arrive. With only one day planned for the falls, that simply wouldn’t work.
At that point, I toyed with the idea of nixing Victoria Falls from my itinerary entirely. But since it’s been on my list for so many years, I was determined to work it out. After a bit of research, I realized Johannesburg was the place to be for flights to Livingstone. I could get there on my RTW ticket, but neither of the Skyteam flights to Johannesburg got in early enough to catch the Livingstone flight. Foiled again.
So it was time to look at flights outside my RTW ticket. Ultimately, I ended up booking the flight to Johannesburg on Qatar Airways, a connecting flight from Johannesburg to Livingstone on South African and a one way ticket from Livingstone to Lusaka on ProFlight to catch back up with my RTW ticket. It wasn’t cheap but the logistics worked so I decided to go for it. In theory, it was a perfect plan.
Enter Qatar Airways…
I’d flown Qatar Air for the first time last year on RTW #7 when my friend Susan and I needed to get from Abu Dhabi to the Maldives. After a significant delay out of Abu Dhabi we had to run at top speed through the Doha airport to make our flight (which thankfully we did). It was not an experience I was looking to repeat.
I had a 90-minute connection in Doha which I thought was a comfortable amount of time. But as I sat at the gate in Madrid and our boarding time flew by without comment from the gate agents, I started to get concerned. They posted a new departure time of 3:30pm (30 minutes later than scheduled) but I thought I’d still be OK. That still left me with an hour to make the connection. No problem.
And then 3:30pm came and went, again without comment. Now I’m nervous. A missed connection in Doha would result in a chain reaction that would be fatal to my Victoria Falls plans. Finally, the gate agent announced that there was a mechanical issue with the plane and they would make another announcement in one hour. My heart sank. Anyone who flies for a living knows the “we’ll make another announcement in an hour” announcement is the kiss of death for a flight. The next announcement is usually a cancelation.
I approached the gate agent to examine my options. Maybe there was a flight to Johannesburg on another airline that they’d be willing to put me on. The gate agent confirmed that there was no way I’d make my connection and started checking on other options. There was nothing else to Johannesburg from Madrid that day except one flight through London that still wouldn’t get me there in time to make the Livingstone flight. Since there was just one flight a day to Livingstone, if I couldn’t make that flight, there was no point in going to Johannesburg at all, I’d be stuck there and have to fly myself either to Lusaka or Nairobi to catch up with my RTW ticket.
Qatar Airways didn’t fly to Lusaka but they did fly to Nairobi so with the help of the gate agent we decided that I could still go to Doha and either spend the night in Doha and then fly to Nairobi or fly straight to Nairobi and spend one night there before my connection to Zanzibar. Adding to my issue was the fact that I was not in possession of a visa for either Qatar or Kenya, making leaving the airport problematic.
With somewhat of a backup plan in place (though I was devastated about missing Victoria Falls since I’d spent so much extra money to get there – three extra flights that were all non-refundable) I sat back down, opened my laptop, bought an hour of wifi and starting evaluating my options in Doha and Nairobi for the night. Since my hotel in Livingstone was the only thing there was still time to cancel and get a refund, I went ahead and did that. And I sent an e-mail to the tour company that was supposed to pick me up at the airport to cancel my guide for the next day.
And then out of nowhere…
They called for boarding of the flight! Just 20 minutes after the announcement that it would be an hour before another “announcement.” What the heck? Is this airline just screwing with me? Now I’m thinking I might still have a shot at my connection. We boarded quickly and the pilot gave us an updated arrival time of 11:30pm in Doha which would leave me just 15 minutes to try to catch the Johannesburg flight. Luckily, I had 6 hours in the air to worry about it.
Finally, we landed in Doha and I was ready to make the “Doha Dash” to my new gate. The problem with the Doha airport (as Susan and I discovered last year) is that the entire terminal is under construction which necessitates the use of transfer buses on the tarmac, no jetways. The buses take forever. Once we were parked on the tarmac, it took 20 minutes to get off the plane, into the terminal and to the transfer desk, 5 minutes after the Johannesburg flight was due to depart. I was certain I was sunk.
But I never should have doubted Qatar’s inability to dispatch even a single flight on time…the plane was still there!!! A change in aircraft (no doubt due to some other mechanical difficulty) had delayed boarding while they reassigned everyone’s seats. Hallelujah!! I couldn’t believe my luck. I boarded the flight and exhaled for the first time all day…I was going to make it to Victoria Falls after all.
But Qatar wasn’t done screwing with me just yet. We then proceeded to sit on the tarmac for another hour awaiting takeoff and I began to worry about my connection in Johannesburg. I thought two hours would be plenty of time but with this delayed departure I was now down to 30 minutes.
Amazingly, after another race through the airport, I made it to the South African Airways check-in desk just minutes before the flight closed. Travel shouldn’t be this hard. And it certainly shouldn’t be this athletic.
Landing in Livingstone
We touched down around noon and I was thrilled to finally arrive in Livingstone. I was so excited I could hardly stand it. But now I had a new problem. I’d canceled my airport pick-up and hotel room. Luckily, the tour company hadn’t checked their e-mail since last night so they never got my message about the cancellation. First problem solved!
I was greeted at the airport by Roy with NiceUp Travel who would be my guide for the falls that day. The company was recommended to me by my friend Ana who visited Victoria Falls several months ago. I asked Roy to take me to the Protea Hotel which is where I’d had a reservation before I canceled it. Hopefully they would still have a room available.
Unfortunately, they’d already re-sold my room but thankfully they were willing to call around for me until they found something else. I ended up at the Chrismar Hotel which was absolutely lovely and $50 cheaper a night than the Protea. Score!
I asked Roy to give me an hour to shower and change and then we headed for the falls.
The Smoke that Thunders
David Livingstone, the Scottish medical missionary and explorer is believed to have been the first European to view Victoria Falls in 1855 from what is now known as Livingstone Island. Livingstone named his discovery after Queen Victoria but the indigenous name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, literally, “the smoke that thunders,” is also commonly used.
The Unesco World Heritage site of Victoria Falls lies on the Zambezi River at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and is the largest curtain of falling water in the world at just over a mile wide. Its height is more than twice that of Niagara Falls and is matched only by Iguazu Falls in South America. Victoria Falls has distinct high and low seasons. During the high season (in the spring) more than 19 million cubic feet of water plummets over the edge and creates a spray that can rise more than 1,300ft in the air and is visible from up to 30 miles away. During this time, the falls are almost impossible to visit due to the heavy rainfall and obscuring mist. By contrast, during the dry season in the autumn, the falls dwindle down to a trickle. Conveniently, I’d inadvertently scheduled my visit during the shoulder season between high and low which is an ideal time for viewing.
Zimbabwe or Zambia?
Since Victoria Falls rests on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, you have two options for visiting. Up until about 10 years ago, Zimbabwe was by far the most popular country from which to visit. The town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, is walking distance from the falls, has good infrastructure and a number of upscale hotel options. But the political situation in Zimbabwe in recent years has meant that more tourists opt to visit the falls from the Zambian side and stay in the nearby town of Livingstone. However, since 2011 the political situation has stabilized and today it’s perfectly safe to visit from either side.
Though I elected to stay on the Zambian side (mainly due to flight schedules), research indicated that the Zimbabwe side had the clearly superior views so I scheduled my tour for that side. Fortunately, Zimbabwe offers a single-day visa for $30 which allows you to visit their side of the falls without enduring a complicated visa process.
After a shower and a change of clothes I had definitely gotten my second wind despite getting no sleep on any of my flights the night before. I was so thrilled to have made it here and I didn’t want to waste a minute.
Roy and I headed for the border (what is it with me and borders on this trip?) where he deftly navigated me through the visa process and within minutes we were crossing the bridge into Zimbabwe and had arrived at the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park.
Touring the Falls
The trail along the edge of the falls on the Zimbabwe side runs for about a mile from what’s called the Devil’s Cataract to Rainbow Falls. On the Zambian side, you can view the Eastern Cataract. I could see immediately why viewing from the Zimbabwe side is recommended. The trail is directly opposite the curtain of water and allows for prime viewing along the entire path.
We started at the Livingstone statue and Roy explained that Livingstone is highly revered throughout Africa but especially in Zambia where he requested his heart be buried after his death from malaria in 1873.
From there we began our walk along the falls starting first at the spectacular Devil’s Cataract where two rainbows danced across the rushing water. I was awestruck by the thundering water and the most vivid rainbows I’d ever seen.
We then continued on to the Main Falls, Horseshoe Falls and finally Rainbow Falls (though they should all be called Rainbow Falls). There are a number of viewing spots along the wooded trail and they get progressively wetter as you go. For the first half of our walk, I didn’t even need my raincoat. On the second half, I could barely take pictures due to the spray. I can’t imagine coming here in the wet season!
At each viewing spot the rainbows were just out of this world, I lost count of how many we saw. By the time we got to the wettest part of the trail at the end, they seemed so close I felt like I could reach out and touch one. Simply amazing.
I couldn’t get the smile off my face; I could hardly believe how lucky I was to be here on such a beautiful sunny day with a rainbow around every corner. Once we’d finished the trail and began walking back, we ran into a dozen or so velvet monkeys cavorting along the path. They were just the cutest. Mothers and babies. Is there anything cuter than a baby monkey? (Granted, I know a few baby penguins who could make a compelling case.) We stopped so I could watch them for a while and take some pictures. Again, I couldn’t get the goofy grin off my face.
As we crossed the border going back, I asked Roy if I could walk across the bridge that separated the two countries so I could get a look at the bungee jumping platform in the middle of it. Mind you, I had no intention of jumping, but I’m all for photographing the crazies who do.
Again, a lucky break; there were two people getting ready to jump. I filmed the first one and photographed the second one. What possesses people to leap from a bridge into a gorge filled with rushing water tethered only to a bungee cord I’ll never understand. But more power to ‘em, it makes for great video.
I got back to the Chrismar Hotel around 7pm and headed straight for their restaurant for dinner after realizing I was starving and had eaten nothing but airplane food for the past 36 hours. Over an excellent steak and a glass of wine, I uploaded photos while I continued to marvel at my good fortune and glorious day.
Despite all the drama to get there, I’d had the most perfect afternoon at Victoria Falls. Perhaps I even appreciated it more because for a while I feared I wouldn’t make it at all. In fact, it made me realize just how lucky I’ve been with all of my RTW trips. In 8 trips (knock on wood) I’ve never had a flight cancellation that resulted in a missed stop. In fact, the only flight cancellation I’ve ever had was last year on the way to Easter Island…and that miraculously worked itself out, too, with no harm done except a few hours of stress. Considering the number of flights I’ve flown and how tightly I schedule all of my stops, this is nothing short of miraculous.
Which, of course, probably means I’m due. But if it happens, I’ll deal with it. Because that’s what you do. Travel has a funny way of showing you just how small you are in a really big world. You can’t make a plane fly, or a flight be on time or an immigration officer move any faster. All you can do is get out there, see the world and make each day count. Today was one that really counted for me.
Next stop, Zanzibar.