A flight from Johannesburg to Livingstone is 20 minutes shorter than one to Cape Town. This accessibility makes it a great destination for a winter escape thanks to its share of the Victoria Falls and a host of wonderful attractions.
By Roy Watts
As a guest of the Zambian Tourism Board, I was lucky enough to find myself in Livingstone accompanied by a couple of South African delegates after attending the Travel Expo in Lusaka.
Our introduction to this iconic destination was the Royal Livingstone Hotel, a majestic lodge situated on one of the most spectacular sites in the world. Rolling lawns stretch down to the powerfully surging Zambezi River a scant 500 meters before it tumbles over the falls, throwing up a curtain of spray that lends a spectacular backdrop to the dramatic vista.
This 5 star lodge was built in 2001 along early colonial lines, and exquisitely furnished accordingly. For those seeking a really unique conference facility, there are two stately boardrooms. One can accommodate twelve participants – the other ten. By special arrangements the hotel can clear one of the attractive sun decks on the river bank to set up a very atmospheric informal forum for 100 delegates.
Mosi-oa-Tunya – ‘The smoke that thunders’ – is better known as the Victoria Falls. Still the showpiece of Africa, some five million litres of water power over its craggy basalt chasm every second in the peak season. Stretching 1.7 kilometers in length and plunging 100 metres into the gorge below, the consequent curtain of spray rises higher than the Eiffel Tower with a visibility stretching over 30 kilometers. Unlike the Niagara Falls, which has succumbed to crass commercialism, visitors enjoy a pristine eco-experience little changed since famed Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone became the first European to visit Mosi-Oa-Tunya in 1855.
Sited at the exact spot where Zambia meets Zimbabwe, the border line runs across the ancient ‘Meccano’ bridge linking the two countries. For years the debate has raged about which of the two sides affords the best vantage point for one of the world’s greatest natural icons. The perspective on the Zambian side is more oblique but no less spectacular, and visitors are also guaranteed a rain forest soaking.
What is beyond dispute is that the best place to really take in this extraordinary panorama is from the air. Tapping into this reality are fleets of helicopters taking tourists who can afford them, on exciting flips over the tumbling waters. But there is a cheaper and much more electrifying option. At Batoka Sky Adventures, tourists unfazed by the very real prospects of vertigo can sign up for the experience of a lifetime, and take off strapped into a microlite – the aerial equivalent of a motorcycle.
And so it was that I found myself at the end of a runway, about to fulfill another of my bucket list ambitions. Many people believe that flying in microlites is a risky business, and this may certainly be true in the realm of ‘hobby’ pilots. My faith in this caper was bolstered by the fact that the Batoka airmen have been flying since 1993 without a single mishap. They are all professional fixed wing or helicopter pilots who treat each flip over the ‘Falls’ with deference to the flying principles they would apply to any aircraft. Fact is that with their capacity to glide good distances at the height at which they fly – the microlites would be even safer than helicopters or fixed wing aircraft, should engines fail.
A surprising burst of speed was followed by an exhilarating leap into the air and we were soon at one with nature as we soared skywards. This was definitely how God intended us to fly!
Microlites combine exposure to the elements with a leisurely pace – providing those with a head for heights with a most extraordinary celebration of the senses. And all of this climaxed as we flew over the surging Zambezi crashing recklessly over the yawning chasm. From our lofty perch we had an eagle’s eye view of the drama below, and a glimpse of this adventurous river’s onward journey as it headed through spectacular gorges towards Lake Kariba, Cabora Bassa and ultimately the sea.
Puttering back towards the Batoka airfield we saw a herd of elephants, a large pod of hippos, and just before landing a huge croc sunbathing on the banks. With great panache the plane landed on the gravel runway – bringing to an end the most exciting 16 minutes of my life.
Livingstone has a tourist infrastructure to satisfy everyone from adrenaline junkies to serene-agers drifting down the river. Perhaps the most time honoured of these events is the popular Zambezi Sunset Cruise. Setting off on the African Queen we enjoyed drinks and snacks as a flaming fireball created a pyrotechnic sunset. Beneath the serenity of this broad sweep of water, hippos loiter, crocodiles lurk, and a lofty procession of elephants patrol the banks with an imperious swagger. Sipping cocktails we were overwhelmed by a wonderful sense of peace and tranquility as the sun slowly slipped beneath the horizon.
The sunset cruise and the microlites are the main attractions in Livingstone as they will be the source of unforgettable memories. There are many other draw cards for hyperactive tourists – among them walking with sub adult lions at Safari Par Excellence who also run elephant back safaris. For un-rehabilitated adrenalin Junkies there is the bungee jump off the Zambian/Zimbabwe Bridge, as well as a host of hi tech zip lines, bridge swings and leaps into space dangling from all manner of safety lines.
There really is something for everyone here, and those seeking gourmet experiences will be well served. Scanning the pages of the very informative official Livingstone Guide it seems that one could take a culinary trip around the world without stepping out of Zambia. The Laughing Dragon serves Chinese specialties, and Olga’s is an open plan Italian restaurant with a lively atmosphere. You can get Indian Burgers wraps and salads at the Armadillo Oriental Grill, whilst Thai, Chinese and Portuguese favourites are dished up at The Spot.
Those looking for an authentic African experience couldn’t do better than The Elephant Oasis Restaurant. On arrival at the front office guests are garbed in a local material called Chitenje. A maiden from ‘the village’ dressed in traditional attire then leads them on a short three minute walk along a flame lit path to a festive arena. Frenzied drum beats herald an exhilarating evening of Zambian traditional dance, food, and culture.
The Royal Livingston Express is an exquisitely restored train operating as a restaurant that chugs forth to the Zambian border bridge on Wednesdays and Saturdays with gourmands all seeking a unique fine dining experience on board. It is a glorious salute to the Golden Age of Steam and is run in a collaboration between The Royal Livingstone Hotel and Bushtracks Africa. Be warned it is expensive though.
Finally a recommendation. Margaret Makungo the charming promotions manager for the Zambian Tourism Board took us to the Golden Leaf restaurant where we enjoyed the finest Indian cuisine that I have ever encountered!
After a really absorbing couple of days we flew back to Lusaka where Solistor Cheelo -who originally guided us around Lusaka – booked us into the comfort of the recently opened Protea Towers Hotel. Conveniently situated on the fringe of a modern shopping mall, it enjoys the high standards set by Zambia’s Premier Hotel Group. It also has an excellent bar, restaurant and sun deck on the top floor where we spent much of our spare time.
Too soon we had to leave, but inspired by the various lodges and wilderness opportunities that we had seen at the Trade Expo – I resolved to return for a second helping.