The town, the river, the falls: msafiri’s editor William Gray takes you on a guided tour of Livingstone, revealing the best viewpoints, museums, activities and places to stay at Kenya Airways’ latest destination – the 60th on its global network
Livingstone is Zambia’s most popular tourist centre. A compact town, centred on the railway line and Mosi-oa-Tunya Road, it has experienced a boom in tourism and now offers a great variety of places to stay. The town has lots of historical and cultural interest and is also the gateway to prime stretches of the Upper Zambezi, not to mention unique perspectives of the Falls themselves.
• Getting there
Kenya Airways’ new service to Livingstone operates three times weekly via Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe. Using code KQ 780, the flights depart from Nairobi on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday at 12:35, 15:35 and 17:40 respectively.
• Getting around
Located 10km south of Livingstone, the Falls are easily reached by taxi, bus or rental car. Bikes can also be hired. You will need your passport to cross the border to and from Zimbabwe. Be sure to check visa requirements.
• When to go
The Victoria Falls are impressive year-round. When the Zambezi reaches peak flood (Mar-Apr), the clouds of spray look spectacular from the air, but close-up views on foot can be obscured. Views improve in later months until the low water period, (Sep-Nov), when the cataracts dwindle and it’s possible to raft to the base of the Falls or walk to Livingstone Island. When the river is low, 23 rapids in Batoka Gorge can be rafted. During high water (Feb-Jul), the last 13 rapids are navigable.
• Where to stay
1 LIVINGSTONE: If you fancy splashing out, the 5-star Royal Livingstone (www.suninternational.co.za) offers Victorian elegance and splendour on the banks of the Zambezi, just upstream from the Falls. Each of the 173 rooms has a private terrace overlooking manicured lawns that sweep down to the water’s edge. A good option for families, the Zambezi Sun (3-star sibling of the Royal Livingstone) has more of a resort feel with its wonderful freeform swimming pool, adventure centre and funky decor. The New Fairmount Hotel (tel: +21 3320 723) has a central location on Mosi-oa-Tunya Road and offers good facilities, including a casino, while Fawlty Towers Lodge (www.adventure-africa.com) is a popular budget option with a lively bar and restaurant, as well as a booking office for activities.
2 UPPER ZAMBEZI: Popular with honeymooners, luxurious Tongabezi Lodge (www.tongabezi.com) has riverside suites and cottages, as well as a thatched camp on Sindabezi Island and private Tangala House. Also occupying prime river frontage upstream of the Falls, Sussi & Chuma (www.sanctuaryretreats.com) is an intimate boutique lodge with 12 air-conditioned tree houses connected by wooden walkways. Originally a 1940s homestead, The River Club (www.wilderness-safaris.com) brings a touch of colonial style to its 10 riverside cottages. Bucking the trend for exclusive (and expensive) Zambezi hideaways, Jungle Junction (www.junglejunction.info) is a more modest island camp with a choice of chalets, stilted fishermen’s huts or camping.
• Where to eat
As you’d expect, the Royal Livingstone (see above) offers fine dining. Head into Livingstone itself for good steaks at Funky Monkey, Indian Tandoori cuisine at Ngolide and traditional African fare at Ngoma Zanga.
• Viewing the Falls
Three walking routes begin near the Field Museum on the Zambian side of the Falls. The most spectacular crosses spindly Knife Edge Bridge to a panoramic viewpoint of Eastern Cataract. Another descends to the water’s edge at the Boiling Pot, a very steep climb, but worthwhile in order to witness the Zambezi squeezed into the narrow defile of Batoka Gorge. A third path leads upstream, providing glimpses of the smooth expanse of the Upper Zambezi moments before it plummets into the void. Towards the end of the dry season, a fourth option may be possible. Occasionally, the channels of the Zambezi dry out sufficiently to enable people to walk as far as Livingstone Island, where the famous explorer is believed to have first peered over the edge. Perched on the very lip of the cataract, this wooded islet provides a unique and giddy perspective.
On the Zimbabwean side, a fee is payable at the entrance to Victoria Falls National Park, after which you can wander the network of trails on your own. Start at the westernmost point, where there is a stoic-looking statue of Dr Livingstone, inscribed with the words ‘Explorer, Missionary and Liberator’. Nearby, a steep, and often slippery, stone stairway descends through dripping vegetation into the chasm. Senses take a pummelling when you reach Cataract View at the base of the stairs, with its awesome vistas along the length of the Falls. Climbing back towards Livingstone’s statue, the left-hand path leads directly in front of the cataract, threading through a unique rainforest sustained by the constant spray. It is a fragile ecosystem, home to ebony, ivory palm, African olive, strangler fig and many types of fern. Shy bushbuck are sometimes seen here.
At frequent intervals, loops in the trail lead to viewpoints opposite the Falls. The trail ends at Danger Point, a popular place to watch the spray turn gold at sunset. Returning to the park entrance, a detour leads to a clearing from which views of Victoria Falls Bridge and the screaming antics of bungee jumpers can be enjoyed.
When walking to the viewpoints, remember to wear shoes with good grips (paths and steps may be slippery from the spray), take a light raincoat or poncho and pack cameras in moisture-proof bags.
1 Flight of the angels: This is the best way to fully appreciate the awesome scale of the Falls. A typical 15-minute flight in a helicopter or light aircraft will include a few circuits over the site (clockwise and anticlockwise to ensure everyone gets a good view), followed by a brief foray upstream to spot hippos and elephants along the Upper Zambezi. Longer 30-minute flights involve more laps around the site and aerial game-spotting over Zambezi National Park. Those with a sense of adventure can take to the skies in a microlight or ultralight – open cockpit aircraft with room for just the pilot and one passenger.
2 Whitewater rafting: A typical day’s rafting on the rapids in Batoka Gorge downstream of the Falls begins with a land-based briefing and the issuing of lifejackets, helmets and paddles. Rafters then trek down a steep path to the bottom of the gorge where the inflatable rubber rafts are waiting. The prevailing water levels determine the starting point – some rapids may be avoided during dangerous low water periods. Many of the rapids are graded IV and V (VI is considered commercially impossible). They are separated by long calm stretches, allowing time to contemplate the gorge scenery. Safety kayakers always shoot the rapids first and wait downstream ready to assist people who inadvertently find themselves taking a swim. Typically, about 24km can be rafted during a day trip.
3 Jet boating: Reaching speeds of over 90kph, jet boats also operate in Batoka Gorge, skimming over rapids and spinning on flat water as they career past the sheer walls. The operator, Jet Extreme, has installed a cable car to provide a less arduous way in and out of the gorge.
4 Bungee jumping: Spanning no-man’s-land between the border posts of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Victoria Falls Bridge has become a Mecca to thousands of people in search of the ultimate adrenalin rush. With a drop of 111m, it is one of the highest bungee jump sites in the world. You wear a full body harness, an elastic cord is tied around your ankles and then you simply step off the bridge with the words “5-4-3-2-1-Bungee!” ringing in your ears. For a slower descent into the gorge, abseiling is also available.
5 Upper Zambezi canoeing: Although there are a few minor rapids, activities upstream of the Falls focus on a more sedate appreciation of the scenery and wildlife. Inflatable two-person canoes are used for a typical day’s paddling covering about 25km of the Upper Zambezi. It is an excellent opportunity to drift silently past the diverse wildlife of the Zambezi National Park. Elephant, giraffe, waterbuck and other varieties of antelope often come down to the water’s edge to drink. The birdlife is equally prolific. Bee-eaters excavate nesting colonies in the sandy river banks, while herons, kingfishers, hamerkops, African fish eagles and other water-loving species are frequently sighted. Hippos are common too, but they tend to be territorial and your guides will know how to avoid them.
6 River cruises: Various vessels operate cruises on the Upper Zambezi River. The popular sundowner option (commonly referred to as the ‘booze cruise’) usually lasts around three hours. Other cruises coincide with breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea and, although they offer a less intimate wildlife experience than canoeing, there is still a good chance of spotting common species like hippos and crocodiles. Fishing trips can be arranged on the Upper Zambezi and in Batoka Gorge below the Falls. The best time for catching tiger fish is August to March.
7 Elephant riding: Operating from Thorntree River Lodge, Livingstone, African elephants have been trained to carry tourists on short safaris. As well as teaching you about the elephants’ behaviour and conservation issues, these unusual safaris offer a good chance of spotting birds and other wildlife.
8 Horse riding: Horse riding safaris operate on both sides of the river. Novices can learn the basics during half-day sessions, while more experienced riders can set off into the bush on overnight adventures.
9 Quad biking: An excellent way in which to explore the spectacular landscape around Livingstone and the Batoka Gorge, all-terrain quad bikes are suitable for both novice and experienced riders.
10 Safaris: Only a small section of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park is fenced off into a game park. Nevertheless it is well worth a visit, either driving yourself or on an organised safari. Highlights include a small group of white rhino, which are probably found nowhere else in Zambia and are usually being trailed by their personal guard. The predominant vegetation is mopane forest with small areas of teak and miombo woodland. Giraffe, eland, wildebeest, impala, warthog, baboons and vervet monkeys are all commonly seen – as are elephant which migrate across the Zambezi during the dry season.
The Livingstone Museum (open daily, 09:00-16:30) adjacent to the Tourist Office on Mosi-oa-Tunya Road has a broad range of archaeological and anthropological exhibits, including some of Dr Livingstone’s original journals and letters. There are also indigenous ritual artefacts and weapons, historical African maps, as well as a replica of the 125,000-year-old human skull excavated near Kabwe, north of Lusaka. The Railway Museum (open daily, 08:30-16:00) lies on the town’s southern outskirts and is full of rusting old engines, rolling stock and other memorabilia. Beyond Livingstone, near the Falls, is the small Field Museum. Prehistoric artefacts up to three million years old were found here, along with tools that suggest Stone Age people inhabited the area at least 50,000 years ago.
• Local Culture
Zambia’s rich cultural heritage can be experienced through art, music, dance and food at the Maramba Cultural Village, which is reopening this month following a refurbishment. Located next to the Livingstone Showgrounds, the village consists of an art gallery, model villages and an open-air theatre where the Zambia National Dance Troupe holds daily performances.
There are plenty of craft centres and curio stalls in Livingstone. The Livingstone Museum has a small shop selling good value baskets. More upmarket are Kubu Crafts (www.kubucrafts.com) and African Visions which, in addition to carvings and baskets, stock more unusual items such as jewellery, pottery, furniture and artefacts.
• Tour operators
Livingstone’s Adventure (www.livingstonesadventure.com) is a one-stop shop for a range of activities in the area, including Zambezi boat cruises, microlight flips, helicopter rides, quad bike and horseback trails and canoeing safaris. Safari Par Excellence (www.safpar.com) can also get your pulse racing with everything from whitewater rafting and jet boating to bungee jumping and elephant back safaris.
• Further information
The Livingstone Tourist Office (tel: +21 3321 404) is located on Mosi-oa-Tunya Road, next to the Livingstone Museum, and is open Mon-Fri 08:00-13:00 and 14:00-17:00, Sat 08:00-12:00.