My miracle happened as I stepped out from the dry heat into the picturesque fairytale of slim pathways snaking through thick foliage where lush green leaves tipped over our heads and consistent rain baptised us.
“Mosi-oa-Tunya” (“the Smoke That Thunders”) is what the locals have called these majestic waterfalls for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and in 1855 David Livingstone, moved by the sight of water roaring into the gorge named the falls for his queen, Victoria.
The engulfing sound of the falls is so relentless that soon it seems pointless to keep up any conversation, so I walk alone through the rich tapestries of the forest, wrapped in my waterproof poncho.
I’m enchanted by couples who hold onto each other sans ponchos, amused by children splashing through the mist, tourists who struggle or perhaps are reluctant to take out their cameras. I’m struck by the double, perhaps triple rainbows that arch across the gorge – a spectrum of colours. The water soaks into my shoes, beating over my head, clouding my sunglasses. The chill grips my hands and ecstatic laughter escapes my lips. I spread my arms and let the tears come.
When we first arrived in Livingstone, the tourist capital of Zambia, we were surprised by the blue skies and fierce sunshine; we’d come from chilly SA, after all. But Mwakwa, the driver who fetched us from the airport and brought us to Livingstone, told us that this was perfectly normal for Zambia. “This is our winter,” he’d explained. “On average, during the day it’s about 25°C, but the temperature plummets at night and in the early morning.”
That warmth is exactly what I’m seeking if I am to enjoy the beauty of the Zambezi River. The river, the fourth-largest in Africa is swollen after the April rain, and the water flowing into the gorge comes at a rush, hitting the ground hard and spraying back to the top. Downstream, the water is calmer, which makes canoeing a rather intimate experience. With only two to a canoe, our group of eight is the only one on the river. Apart from laughter and occasional instructions from our instructors JT and Matthew, there’s perfect stillness. The sound of our paddles lapping against the water is soothing and the sunshine on our bare skin feels lovely. Even if we don’t spot any hippos, crocodiles or rare birds, this moment is magical enough. I even enjoy the mud squishing between my toes as I disembark from the canoe. The mood is more upbeat as we cruise upstream on the African Queen. We sit on the bottom deck enjoying a welcome gin and tonic as we watch the sun setting over the horizon, a fiery sphere that turns orange, then red, leaving layers of melted gold in the sky.
“There’s only one rule when having dinner underneath the monkey tree,” our waiter instructs before he serves us. “All meals must be finished or no one leaves the table.”
The famous monkey tree, named for the primates that call the area home, sits at the bottom of the grounds of Anantara’s Royal Livingstone Victoria Falls Zambia Hotel. Decorated with fairy lights and lanterns, the ambience is enchanting as is the three-course dinner and wine. It’s a lovely prelude to the 15-minute helicopter flip over the Victoria Falls, which treats us to a magnificent aerial view of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, seen from both Zambia and Zimbabwe, and a speech from our pilot. This is followed by a leisurely horseride through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on a beautiful horse named Bluff. The gentle pace suddenly changes when without warning he begins to gallop at full speed, terrifying me. The rocky earth rushes past me, as does the dry, sparse foliage and before I know it, I hit the ground with a thud, my head crashing against the inside of my helmet.
Calls are made, a van arrives and people rally around me. Edward, a Jack-of-all-Trades with a welcoming smile and a love of dancing and singing, rushes our large troop of staff and friends in the golf cart to the AVANI clinic adjoining the hotel. After being attended to and assured that I’m not concussed or suffering any broken bones, I’m returned to my elegant suite overlooking the river. A bath is run for me, French doors are opened, vanilla tea is brought in and the room service menu is left at my bedside, with strict instructions to take a nap.
In the evening, over a five-course dinner aboard the luxurious Royal Livingstone Express Train, we decide to play a game in which each member of our group recounts their best and worst experiences on the trip. Before this happens, however, we’re suddenly called to the window to witness a herd of elephants crossing the railway track. That certainly gets a tick on my list of good experiences, along with the warmth and friendliness of the locals. I sip my wine slowly, listening to what everyone else has to say and realise that we all feel very much the same about this leg of our trip, from the moment we checked into the Avani Victoria Falls Resort. We’ve enjoyed curried calamari and frozen margaritas and walked among giraffes and zebras on the sprawling grounds while a lively marimba band played in the pool restaurant. We laugh at how we froze during the early-morning game drive as the wind hit our faces, forcing Paul – the only man in our group – to crouch down behind his seat for warmth.
It’s my turn to speak. “Experiencing the Victoria Falls has been my best moment. I’ve walked those paths many times, but this time was special. And although my horse unexpectedly started galloping, so did my spirit.”
The Royal Livingstone Victoria Falls Zambia Hotel by Anantara: This luxury five-star hotel offers the best in elegance. Built to resemble majestic estates, it houses 173 well-appointed rooms, each with private patios and butlers. You’ll love the view from the decks overlooking the Zambezi River and the fine dining. On arrival, visitors are greeted with hand massages, but take time to enjoy the full-body massage, which is very soothing. The fish burger is divine, as is the breakfast menu.
AVANI Victoria Falls Resort: A mere two-minute walk from the Royal Livingstone, the Avani Resort is quite different from its neighbour, with its adobe-style design and colourful artwork. Suitable for families, it has a fun, welcoming ambience and you can enjoy buffet dinners or lunch at the pool.
This article appears in the September issue of Sawubona magazine, download here – for free.
Images courtesy Anantara, AVANI, Dawn Jorgenson and Jabu Ngwenya.