Lucky in Livingstone: An Extraordinary Visit to Victoria Falls

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Victoria Falls Zimbabwe

After my quick trip to the Canary Islands, I arrive back in Madrid with a 4-hour layover and a mission…unload my Antarctica suitcase.

You see, I have 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. I’d rather not have to carry it around the world for the next month.

I initially tried to ship it back from Buenos Aires, but 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. But I haven’t had enough time to fuss with it again until now.

Luckily there is a post office in the Madrid airport. So ,after filling out paperwork for an hour and parting with €100 (far more reasonable), I am now approximately 40lbs lighter and have never felt better. Finally, back to my traveling weight!

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

Unfortunately, my joy would be short-lived.

How to get to Victoria Falls

I check in for my Qatar Airways flight to Johannesburg (connecting in Doha) and make my way to the gate.

Originally, my plan was 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!).

Yes, you can fly. But unfortunately, the lone flight per day between Lusaka and Livingstone (where I actually need to be in Zambia to see the Falls), leaves before my flight will arrive. With only one day planned for the falls, that simply won’t work.

At that point, I toy with the idea of nixing Victoria Falls from my itinerary entirely. But since it’s been on my list for so many years, I am determined to work it out.

After a bit of research, I realize Johannesburg is the place to be for flights to Livingstone. I can get there on my RTW ticket, but neither of the Skyteam flights to Johannesburg gets in early enough to catch the Livingstone flight.

Foiled again.

So, it’s time to look at flights outside my RTW ticket. Ultimately, I end up booking the flight to Johannesburg on Qatar Airways. Then, a connecting flight from Johannesburg to Livingstone on South African. And finally, a one way ticket from Livingstone to Lusaka on ProFlight to catch back up with my RTW ticket.

It isn’t cheap but the logistics work, so I decide to go for it. In theory, it’s a perfect plan.

Enter Qatar Airways…

I first flew Qatar Airways 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 ever want to repeat.

The struggles of RTW travel

This time, I have a 90-minute connection in Doha which seems comfortable enough.

But as I sit at the gate in Madrid and our boarding time sails by without fanfare, I start to get concerned. They post a new departure time of 3:30pm (30 minutes later than scheduled), but I should still be OK with an hour to make the connection. No problem.

And then 3:30pm comes and goes, again without comment. Now I’m nervous.

A missed connection in Doha could be fatal to my Victoria Falls plans. Finally, the gate agent announces that there is a mechanical issue with the plane and they will make another announcement in one hour.

My heart sinks. 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 cancellation.

I approach the gate agent to examine my options. Maybe there is a flight to Johannesburg on another airline they can put me on? The gate agent confirms there is no way I’ll make my connection and starts checking on other options. Unfortunately, there is nothing else to Johannesburg from Madrid today.

Since there is just one flight a day to Livingstone, if I can’t make that flight, there is no point in going to Johannesburg at all. I’ll be stuck there and have to fly myself either to Lusaka or Nairobi to catch up with my RTW ticket.

We come up with a plan that will get me to Nairobi in time to catch my flight to my next stop in Zanzibar. But it appears my trip to Victoria Falls isn’t going to happen. I’m especially devastated to miss Victoria Falls because I spent so much extra money to get there – three extra flights that are all non-refundable.

My hotel in Livingstone is the only thing I still have time to cancel and get a refund, so I go ahead and do that. And then I send an e-mail to the tour company that is supposed to pick me up at the airport tomorrow and cancel my guide for the day.

And then out of nowhere…

They call for boarding of the flight!

Just 20 minutes after the announcement that it will be an hour before another “announcement.” What the heck? Is this airline just screwing with me?

Now I might still have a shot at my connection. We board quickly and the pilot gives an updated arrival time of 11:30pm in Doha. That will leave me just 15 minutes to try to catch the Johannesburg flight.

Luckily, I have next 6 hours in the air to worry about it helplessly.

Finally, we land in Doha and I’m poised and 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 are parked on the tarmac, it takes 20 minutes to get off the plane, into the terminal and to the transfer desk, 5 minutes after the Johannesburg flight is due to depart. I am certain I’m sunk.

But I never should have doubted Qatar’s inability to dispatch even a single flight on time…the plane is still there!!!

I can’t believe my luck. I board the flight and exhale for the first time all day. I’m going to make it to Victoria Falls after all.

But Qatar isn’t done screwing with me just yet. We sit on the tarmac for another hour awaiting takeoff and I begin to worry about my connection in Johannesburg. Two hours should be plenty of time but with this delayed departure I’m now down to 30 minutes.

Amazingly, after another race through the airport, I make it to the South African Airways check-in desk just minutes before the flight closes.

Travel shouldn’t be this hard. And it certainly shouldn’t be this athletic.

Landing in Livingstone

We touch down around noon and I am thrilled to finally arrive in Livingstone. I’m so excited I can hardly stand it.

But now I have a new problem.

Victoria Falls Zambia
First glimpse of the falls from the plane!

I canceled my airport pick-up and hotel room.

In another incredible stroke of luck, 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’m greeted at the airport by Roy with NiceUp Travel who will be my guide for the falls today. (The company was recommended to me by my friend Ana who visited Victoria Falls several months ago.) I ask Roy to take me to the Protea Hotel where I originally had a reservation before I canceled it. Hopefully they might still have a room available.

Unfortunately, they’d already re-sold my room. But thankfully they are willing to call around for me until they find something else. I end up at the Chrismar Hotel which is absolutely lovely and $50 cheaper a night than the Protea. Score!

Chrismar Hotel Livingstone Zambia
The pool at the Chrismar Hotel

I ask Roy to give me an hour to shower and change and then we’re off to 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.

What’s the best time to visit Victoria Falls?

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’ve inadvertently scheduled my visit during the shoulder season between high and low, which is an ideal time for viewing.

Which side is best to view Victoria Falls – 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.

Devil's Cataract Victoria Falls Zimbabwe
Devil’s Cataract, Victoria Falls

Though I elected to stay on the Zambian side (mainly due to flight schedules), research indicates that the Zimbabwe side has 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 have definitely gotten my second wind despite getting no sleep on any of my flights last night. I am so thrilled to be here and I don’t want to waste a single minute.

Roy and I head for the border where he deftly navigates me through the visa process. Within minutes we are crossing the bridge into Zimbabwe and arrive at the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park.

Touring the Falls

On the Zimbabwe side, the trail along the edge of the falls 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 can 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 begin at the Livingstone statue and Roy explains that Livingstone is highly revered throughout Africa. But especially so in Zambia where he requested his heart be buried after his death from malaria in 1873.

From there we walk along the falls stopping first at the spectacular Devil’s Cataract where two rainbows dance across the rushing water. I am awestruck by the thundering water and the most vivid rainbows I’ve ever seen.

Rainbow Falls Victoria Falls Zimbabwe
Trying to stay dry at Rainbow Falls

Falls, falls and more falls

We then continue 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 don’t even need my raincoat. On the second half, I can barely take pictures due to the spray.

I can’t imagine coming here in the wet season!

At each viewing spot the rainbows are just out of this world, I lose count of how many we see. By the time we get to the wettest part of the trail at the end, they seem so close I feel like I can reach out and touch one.

Simply amazing.

I can’t get the smile off my face. I can hardly believe how lucky I am to be here on such a beautiful sunny day with a rainbow around every corner.

Velvet monkeys

Once we finish the trail and begin walking back, we run into a dozen or so velvet monkeys cavorting along the path.

They are just the cutest. Mothers and babies.

Velvet monkeys Victoria Falls Zimbabwe
Velvet monkeys!

Is there anything cuter than a baby monkey? (Granted, I know a few baby penguins who could make a compelling case.) We stop so I can watch them for a while and take some pictures. Again, I can’t get the goofy grin off my face. Seriously, someone pinch me.

Bungee jumpers at Victoria Falls

As we cross the border going back, I ask Roy if I can walk across the bridge that separates the two countries. I want to get a look at the bungee jumping platform in the middle of it.

Mind you, I have no intention of jumping, but I’m all for photographing the crazies who do.

Again, a lucky break; there are two people getting ready to jump. I film the first one and photograph 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 head straight for the restaurant for dinner. I have only just realized I am starving and haven’t eaten anything but airplane food for the past 36 hours. Over an excellent steak and a glass of wine, I upload photos while continuing to marvel at my good fortune and glorious day.

Despite all the drama to get there, I had the most perfect afternoon at Victoria Falls. In fact, it still ranks as one of my top 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.

Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences

Perhaps I even appreciate it more because I almost didn’t make it at all. It makes me realize just how lucky I’ve been with all of my RTW trips. In 8 tightly-scheduled trips around the world I’ve never (knock on wood) 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.

Read More: Budget or Luxury? How to Explore the Mysteries of Easter Island Chile

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.

2 Comments

  1. Our beautiful country Zimbabwe being highly recommended and thanks for such positive feedback

    1. Thanks, Takudzwa, and thanks for a great day at the falls!

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