36 Hours in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Africa’s undisputed adrenaline hub, Victoria Falls, is officially back. After a few dark years that saw many visitors choosing to stay in Livingstone, on the Zambian side of the falls, travelers are returning to the area’s original tourist hub in droves. Vic Falls hotels are again operating at near capacity, restaurants are lively and crowded, and the adventure activities that the town made famous are running full throttle.

Which is a great thing for visitors. Not only is the view better from the Zimbabwe side, but Victoria Falls was designed specifically with tourists in mind. The compact town sits right next to the falls themselves, its streets are safe and easy to walk during day (at night it is less safe, not due to crime, but because wild animals are known to roam the streets) and many of the hotels, bars, restaurants and craft shops are all found right downtown.

It’s best to give yourself three nights (and two full days) in Victoria Falls to really experience its magic and adrenaline potential. If you can time your visit with a full moon all the better — there is a special nighttime admission ($40) to the park on full moon evenings, when a lunar rainbow across the falls can be witnessed. It is an otherworldly experience that should not be missed.

Day 1

Give yourself a good half-day to explore Victoria Falls Park. The falls, known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, (“The Smoke That Thunders”) are one of the seven natural wonders of the world, whether you see them in wet or dry season (the water flow differs dramatically between the two) and well worth every penny of the steep US$30 admission charged to international visitors.

Upon entering you’ll be treated to an interesting history lesson displayed in colored placards by the gate. After you’ve learned some interesting local trivia — like the fact that only David Livingstone’s heart is buried in Zambia, where he died (his body was laid to rest in the UK) — follow the signs pointing towards the falls. The path here runs along the top of the gorge and offers a number of stunning front-on panoramic views that increase in dramatics as you walk. Cataract View, at the westernmost point of the path, is one of the most impressive angles, while Danger Point offers the chance to look straight down a 100-meter drop without a protective fence. If you visit during the rainy season, which starts in April, you’ll need to rent a raincoat and umbrella or prepare to get soaked. For photography purposes, the dry season makes for cleaner shots.

After you’ve seen your fill, its time to fill up the stomach at the Rainforest Café, located just inside the park gate. Back outside the gate, the curio stalls have some unique stone pieces and are worth perusing (don’t forget to barter; the art is priced for it).

Spend the afternoon at Elephants Walk Shopping & Artist Village, which was created as a collective to promote local artists. Here you’ll find numerous boutiques and galleries selling the best selection of quality Zimbabwean and African handicrafts around. Don’t miss the Prime Art Gallery, which sells original pieces by Zimbabwe’s most well-known modern day Shona sculptor, Dominic Benhura, whose work has been shown around the world. Matsimela, a South African body-care company, also has a branch here. Check out their luscious flavored body scrubs and scented soaps produced with indigenous ingredients. The Ndau Collection Studio here is also worth checking out. It focuses on eclectic hand-made silver jewelry embellished with everything from antique African trade beads to semi precious stones and leather materials. The pieces are one-of-a-kind  (and can be custom designed) and make great gifts.

Check into your room at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, located just a mile from town, before sunset. You won’t want to miss sundowers on the patio as the slowly sinking sun turns the sky a kaleidoscope of colors while elephants meander up to the distant waterhole for a twilight drink of their own. For dinner, make reservations at the house restaurant, MaKuwa-Kuwa, which serves up excellent international fare with Zimbabwean flair: think lots of game meat and local fish.

Day 2

This is the day to test your nerves. Victoria Falls is the femoral artery of Southern Africa’s extreme adventure scene, and a place where adrenaline junkies from around the world come to get a beautiful fix. Although there is a litany of offerings, if you only have the time (or cash) for one extreme rush, go with the full-day rafting trip on the Zambezi just below the falls.

This is one of the world’s most gnarly stretches of commercially-run rapids — it has been called the top one-day whitewater trip on the planet, and this writer, who has run the river in both high and low water, concurs it is an epic experience. From put in to take out, the trip down Batoka Gorge provides an almost non-stop rip down 19 named Class IV and V rapids during low water (Jan-Mar) and nine during high water (Apr-Dec). The Zambezi’s flow is totally dependent on rainfall, and during high water companies must skip the first 10 rapids as they are simply not safe to navigate with that volume of water. For the ultimate fear busting experience, tackle the course in an inflatable kayak, where you’ll have no one but yourself to blame for flipping. Shearwater Adventures has been running the river longer than anyone, and is the company I’ve used; but Wild Horizons also offers trips, and may be a better choice if you want to combine rafting with another extreme sport, as they offer discounts for purchasing more than one adventure.

Celebrate conquering the river with dinner at the Boma Restaurant, on the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge grounds about a mile from town. Entrance includes more than an all-you-can eat buffet featuring traditional Zimbabwean dishes and all sorts of game meat – from warthog to impala and kudu. It also offers a cultural experience with lessons in traditional drumming, colorful dance performances, and the chance to have your fortune told by a witch doctor between courses. Expect to spend about three hours here, making the $44 fixed price well worth it. Best of all, the experience manages to be more authentic than cheesy, and even Zimbabweans enjoy a meal here on vacation.

Day 3

Victoria Falls Bridge (Shutterstock)

Victoria Falls Bridge (Shutterstock)

Schedule one last adrenaline activity for the third day. These can be arranged through Wild Horizons and include bungee jumping off the 330-foot-high bridge straddling the Zambezi. Although not the highest bridge bungee in the world — that title belongs to Bloukrans bridge in South Africa — it is arguably the world’s most scenic. For something slightly less intense you can jump in a harness, which is called the swing, or ride the zip-line across the gorge. Other slightly more sedate activities include a high-wire canopy tour and elephant-back safaris where you can interact with an orphaned pachyderm.

Grab lunch or dinner at Lola’s Tapas and Bar in town before heading out. Sit outside at the checkered cloth tables and rehash the adventure over small plates of African and Latin-influenced dishes.

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