You probably know the story about how, after years of travelling through southern Africa, Dr David Livingstone, medical doctor missionary and explorer, who famously said: “I am prepared to go anywhere … provided it be forward,” in 1855 became the first European to see one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. He named it after his Queen, Victoria. But when he set out from his little hometown of Blantyre (meaning “top of the land” in the Celtic language) in Scotland, Livingstone certainly could not have foreseen that he would literally come to the top of the land where the widest curtain of water in the world pours an average of 550 000 cubic metres of water over its rocky edges every minute.
In December, when I walk first the Zambian side, then cross the iconic railway bridge to the Zimbabwean side and amble along its paths that meander through rainforest, the falls are at their lowest. They peak in April, when the spray rises to a height of over 400m – sometimes even twice as high – and can be seen 50km away. You won’t see your hand in front of your face because of that dense spray and the shrouds of mist. But whether you go in the dry season (April to October) or the rainy season (December to March) your visit will be awesome.
The smoke that thunders
The local peoples call the falls Mosi-oa-Tunya which means the smoke that thunders. If you haven’t yet visited, put them on your bucket list.
I ask Reuben my guide on the Zimbabwean side how Zimbabweans and Zambians today see Dr Livingstone. He replies unhesitatingly: “People love Livingstone. He wasn’t after gold or diamonds. He just wanted to open up Africa. Without him and his making the world aware of the falls, we wouldn’t have a tourism industry.”
Tip: go to the falls mid- to late afternoon, when there are far fewer visitors – mornings can be crowded with tour groups.
Upstream, on the Zambian side of the mighty Zambezi – Africa’s fourth-largest river after the Nile, Congo and Niger – is one of the continent’s loveliest lodges, Royal Chundu, “Meeting Place of the Chief”. It is the only Relais & Châteaux property in Zambia and is owned by the charismatic, visionary Tina Aponte, whose Zambia born and bred father first acquired the 15km of private river frontage over half a century ago. Today it’s 100% Zambian-managed, run and staffed. Aggie, the bubbly manager of Island Lodge, where you’ll stay in one of only four luxurious villas on a private island, told me: “I love my job. My husband is the chef here and I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else in the world.”
By day, go canoeing and if you don’t want to paddle yourself, SK the oh-so-knowledgeable senior river guide or one of his colleagues, will paddle you through the gentle rapids and along banks lined with ancient trees, through mysterious back waterways. A picnic like no other awaits you on the river bank. Take a day trip to the falls or Chobe National Park. Don’t forget your passport. No visas are needed if you have a South African passport. If you’re an adrenalin junkie, go white water rafting below the falls (rated some of the best in the world), or go bungee jumping from the middle of the bridge that spans Zambia and Zimbabwe. At Island Lodge my daughter Tara and I met a visiting senior pilot with an Asian airline, who told us that a helicopter ride through the gorge was “one of the best experiences” of his life. So even if it meant bread and water for the rest of 2018, we took the financial plunge. The pilot was right. It was one of my most amazing travel experiences ever.
If it’s rest and relaxation you’re after, then soak up the isolation and tranquillity of Island Lodge, or of River Lodge 3km downstream, where eight thatch suites overlook the rushing river surrounded by riverine bush and birdsong.
Even by our superb African standards where we have some of the best sunsets in the world, these Zambezi sunsets are breathtaking. As we chug along the river on a sunset cruise, ribbons of fire dance across the sky and reflect in the water. A fish eagle calls, hippos chortle and a herd of elephants comes down to bathe and play. We watch in awe as two of the mighty giants mate in the water in front of us.
Both Island and River lodges source their supplies from the local fishermen and villages within a 4km radius. Aponte has encouraged local communities to grow vegetables, flowers, herbs and fruit so guests are assured of locally grown fresh produce and the villages are financially empowered. One day we visit Mushekwa village, where local superwoman Edith proudly shows us around. Edith quickly changed from the working clothes she had been wearing to tend the community garden, to a brightly coloured cotton dress. She built her own house, looks after a number of orphans, acts as village tour guide and is a midwife, teacher and marriage counsellor. Small children take us by the hand as she shows Tara and I around the spotless village where hens cluck and washing dances in the breeze. I am introduced to another muchembele (granny in the local language). We do a little celebratory dance together as the children laugh and clap.
The lodges maintain their authentic Zambian feel (but remember they are five-star) by introducing some local dishes. Aggie’s husband produces for us a tasting menu of Zambian cuisine paired with South African wines.
It was a fitting end to a place that combines untouched natural beauty with world-class service and sophisticated accommodation.
- Kate Turkington was hosted by Royal Chundu
- See royalchundu.com for more info about the lodge and rates