A visit to Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, April 2005

Author: Steve and Carole Eilertsen. stevei@icon.co.za

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The Grand Canyon, the Pyramids, Sugar Loaf Mountain, Victoria Falls  . . . . The short list of premier tourist destinations is remarkable static regardless of who the author is and Victoria Falls is always on the list. It is a must-visit destination for both the sedentary and the adrenaline junkie. 

There is a small problem however. It is situated in “Bad Press Zimbabwe”.  You as a tourist have a choice. You can be part of the punitive action against a group of political thugs or you can assist a poor family totally dependent on tourism. There is no right or wrong choice – both are equally valid. 

Moving away from the political-moral-high-ground you could be persuaded to visit Victoria Falls by the following list of considerations.

·          You could visit now and save yourself thousands. When the situation changes, (as it will), the price backlash will knock your breath away. All the ‘stay away tourists’ from the ‘bad years’ will book along side a normalized market making Disneyworld queues look short.

·          As a world class destination Victoria Falls is still expensive despite the suppressed market. Hi-tech equipment has to be bought and maintained in USD, an expense that has to be passed onto the tourist.

·          The place is still busy! You will not have the falls or the activities to yourself. The crowds are present at that ‘comfortable’ level.

·          At present you can book your activities according to your mood and inclination. Once things pick up you may find yourself watching your chosen activity from a distance as it is fully booked for the next few days (another reason that will drive the price up to make up the losses of the past years)

·          The locals, the staff and the governmental officials are professional, friendly and efficient. Tourists are treated very well, at all times, by everybody.

·          Whatever your views on Magabe’s government, the area is politically stable from a tourist point of view. In the event of his death (he is currently 82) the country may go through a period of turmoil, even chaos which would be a genuinely good reason to stay away.

·          You will be making a big difference to the man in the street. There are no other industries in the area. Families are dependent on tourism for essentials.

·          The artists in the area, in particular those the sculpture in wood and stone are world class. This is an opportunity to buy something very special for your house or garden that you normally would not be able to afford.

·          Despite the suppressed market there is enough business to keep things open. Standards in all areas, including equipment maintenance, have been maintained.

·          By taking advantage of a package deal you can afford a world class hotel that would be out of your price range when the market bounces back.

·          The area caters to a very wide interest base. There is something for every type of person. The exception is perhaps children under the age of 8 years.

·          The area is a premier safari destination. The lodges a bit further from town will not allow you to walk even a few hundred meters from the hotel due to the wild animals that freely roam the area (in particular elephant).  

If all this makes you reach for the travel section of your local newspaper to make a booking, here are some guidelines that will help you plan your holiday. 

·          You will find that your holiday will naturally divide into ‘Activity Days’ and ‘Relaxing Days’. Relaxing days are always good after physically demanding activities such as white water rafting (you may not be able to move your stiff battered body out of bed!)

·          Victoria Falls is an expensive holiday and you will need to budget R1000-00 per ‘Activity Day’, per person (150 USD). This excludes accommodation and travel e.g. Beer is R25 at a hotel, pizza is R100 at a casino, toasted sandwiches are R75 at a pub etc. Activities themselves range between 20 and 120USD each. If you are an adrenaline junkie it makes good sense to book discount packages of three or four grouped activities.

·          There is a full range of accommodation from camping to 6 star boutique hotels.

·          Take hard currency, in small denominations and avoid traveler’s cheques unless you have cleared with your hotel that they accept them.

·          You will need three different currencies (assuming you are South African) i.e. 50% of our budget in USD, 25% in South African rands and 25% in Zimbabwe dollars.

·          Big hotels also accept VISA so take you credit card along.

·          The endless debate of where to exchange your money i.e. bank, airport, bureau or in a dark alley is up to you! Whatever you choose you do need to know the official current rate of exchange before you enter into any negotiation.

·          Once you have your local currency take some time to get your head around the complicated three-way exchange rate before you start buying anything i.e. rands to USD to Zim dollars and back

·          This is a wet holiday – even viewing the falls from the official view points will drench you to the skin. A good raincoat is essential and an umbrella is useful too. (can be rented at the falls) You will need two changes of clothing per day. Have waterproof protection for your camera equipment.

·          Getting around the area by local taxi is not expensive i.e. R30 – R40 per ride.

·          You can sometimes reduce the price of an item or service by offering a different currency. This is why you need to master the three way conversion.

·          Victoria Falls is a high risk area for malaria and the following applies

o       Take medication but be warned. You can react badly to a particular type and therefore should take them a week or two before the holiday. If you do react you can easily get to a doctor and / or pharmacy for an anti-histamine

o       Lotions that you apply to all exposed areas of skin should be used especially at night

o       Take an electric mosquito repellant with refills. Note however that Zimbabwe uses the large three prong, square pin plugs (the same as the UK) so you will probably need an adapter from your travel store (220 volts)

·          The area is not infested with mosquitoes like some other areas in Africa

·          Trade. Artists in the craft market also welcome items for trade as an alternative method of payment. In particular denim jeans, caps, sun hats, strong open hiking sandals and fishing vests with multiple pockets. Pens, headache tablets, condoms and playing cards are also welcomed for small items.

·          The craft market offers high quality objects d’art at excellent prices e.g. small items start at around 5USD. Table top items cost 25USD. Bigger items that can be carried by hand cost between 50 – 80 USD. Large items that need a car trunk or need to be shipped cost between 100 and 200 USD. Packing and shipping are services that are on offer. You will find an absence of the usual mass produced tourist curios from the Far East. Everything is hand carved by a professional artist.

·          This is one of the premier destinations in the world for white water rafting. This is an extreme sport and should only be tackled if you are a strong swimmer. The best months are between June and November i.e. the so called ‘low water’ months. Note that in recent years this industry has become rigidly controlled and safely standards are good. The period dubbed the ‘high water’ months (summer rainy season) sees a closure of the first ten rapids due to the speed and force of the water. The water of the Zambezi River is warm and the 100 m high gorge walls offer some protection from the sun

·          Jet boating is an alternative to those who still want the thrill of the rapids without having the prospect of having to swim. Even during high water months jet boating is still available on the first ten rapids.

·          Victoria Falls is a so-called ‘tourist friendly’ zone. Crafts can only be sold from designated areas and tourists are not allowed to be harassed with offers of curios etc. Visitors will notice that this system does break down a little if they wander too far from the main tourist roads. At worst, locals can be annoying and persistent but are never rude or threatening.

·          Glass bottles are in short supply and are therefore re-used over and over again. For this reason stores and vendors will request that you finish your drink and return the bottle to them. This does not apply to bottled water which is freely available (though expensive) in plastic bottles.

·          Self catering accommodation is viable as local grocery stores are well stocked although the range is limited.

·          As always, hats and sunscreen are critical items. Wrap-around sports sunglasses are also great.

·          Luxury hotels in the town have excellent an cuisine although meals are 50% more expensive that the equivalent meal in South Africa

·          Getting around the local area is easy. Hotels provide shuttle services (either free or at a very reasonable price) Operators of activities often include a pick up from your hotel as part of the price.

·          A visit to the local information bureau will reveal that there are many more activities in the area beside the usual high-profile ones advertised in all brochures.

·          There are two places in town to save digital images to CD for storage.

·          Include a few pens in your travel document pouch as they are in short supply.

·          If you are likely to want to participate in any big game viewing activities remember to take a pair of binoculars along. 

These comments are based on the situation as we found it in April 2005 when we had the most awesome trip . . . a trip we would hope that you will make for yourself in the not too distant future. 





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