How to have Victoria Falls all to yourself
I have done a few intense things on my travels. I’ve paddled a croc-infested billabong in Kimberley, Australia. I’ve patted the hide of the last northern white rhino, in the uplands of Kenya. I’ve been attacked by ants in the jungles of Peru, and nearly poisoned by a brace of puffins, deep roasted, in Iceland.
But this? No. This is too much. I can’t do this. For the first time I’m about to bottle it. To flunk out. To fold. Because I’m standing on a path by the Zambezi River in Zambia — and this isn’t any riverside footway. It’s a 25cm-wide strip of wet, slippery rock, with huge cliffs to the left, a neck-snapping drop to riverine boulders on the right, and no safety kit at all. Directly ahead of me, round the last corner, is the thundering torrent of Victoria Falls; I can see the clouds of sun-shot steam, like billowing curtains of smoky dragon’s breath.
My knees are wobbling. My guide, the Zimbabwean adventurer-cum-photographer Tom Varley, eyes me sceptically.
“Come on, Sean, it’s not that hard. My kids do this every weekend. The youngest is six.”
“That doesn’t help, Tom.”
“We’ve just got to go another 200m, round that cliff, then we’ll be almost under the Falls.”
“Then you’ve got to swim another 300m.”
I do my best, I really do. I inch forward. Tom tells me stories to keep me distracted. About the time when he was nine years old and walking his rhodesian ridgeback dog by the river a few kilometres downstream, and a crocodile came out and snatched his dog, swallowing it whole. I go quiet. He coughs.
“That didn’t help, either?”
“Not really, Tom.”
A human scream interrupts our stilted conversation. Someone is plunging to their death from the railway bridge above me, then the scream turns into a whoop — followed by relieved and echoing laughter, and I realise the death leaper is dangling on the end of a bungee cord. Indeed, all around me there are people rafting the rapids, or zip wiring the width of the gorge, or swinging in harnesses along the epic chasm. This is basically Global Adrenaline Central. If you could sketch a map of human adventurousness, this would surely be the Capital of Courage, the Washington DC of Derring-do.
It is also the Epicentre of Eek, and the Headquarters of Help. Because I’m done. The 25cm-wide path has narrowed to about 10cm and I’m surely not going to swim down the frigid, tumbling river, even if I can get round the corner without cracking my skull.
We turn back. Our climb to the car park is subdued. Tom carefully avoids my gaze. I know that I’ve failed a fundamental test of masculinity, and the four ways in which I was going to “see” the falls have shrunk to three.
Tom drives me to my camp as we discuss the shopping opportunities in the nearest town, Livingstone, alongside its prettier, confusingly named Zimbabwean sister town, Victoria Falls. When he deposits me at the camp reception, he says: “I may have a plan. A different way of seeing the falls. Something even better. I’ll be in touch.”
With that cryptic remark he skids away and I decide there’s only one option: to lose myself in pointless luxury.
Happily my camp, Tongabezi, delivers comfort and luxe in spades. Rooms are cool, soothing spaces comprised mainly of silk, teak and butlers; everywhere there are delicious views of the river — which is especially beautiful as the sun sets, in layers, from raspberry pink to lemony yellow. The only flaw is the wi-fi, which comes and goes. Yet sketchy wi-fi is the norm hereabouts. This is, after all, the wilderness, with actual, sightable rhinoceroses in the surrounding park.
In the afternoon, trying to forget my bottom-of-the-gorge humiliation, I go on a game walk to meet them — ten rhinos, successfully breeding, and patrolled constantly by armed guards. Once there would have been thousands of rhinos in these dry mopane woods, which flitter with hoopoes and hornbills. Now there are not even a dozen. It is better than none.
Once again the falls are calling. Come the morning I make for the hotel jetty, jump into a speedboat and we aim straight across the bumpy whitewaters for the top of Victoria Falls. That is to say, the lip, the edge, the cliff. It’s certainly a different vantage point, certainly a lot closer. The steam cools my face like a veil of English dew.
Disembarking, we thread the paths, avoiding the tangled roots of fig trees, and now I’m standing on the spot where the British explorer David Livingstone famously first saw the falls. A perfect rainbow arcs the gorge; I feel that I could reach out and touch the shimmering reds and violets, and certainly loot the pot of gold at the end.
Like other tourists, I have my picture taken while sitting neck-deep in the Angels’ Armchair (or the Devil’s Pool in the right season). This is a bracingly cold rock lagoon about 2m from the edge. There’s a guy squatting behind me like a trusty wicketkeeper in case I am swept over. I hope he’s good at catching because I’m looking forward to eggs benedict served in the island’s tented café.
I do not fall. The eggs are delicious.
My next berth is Tongabezi’s sister camp, Sindabezi, located on a riverine island. You can, naturally, see the Victoria Falls all ways from one camp, but it’s nice to spice things up with variety. We get there, quite brilliantly, by canoe. This involves an hour of paddling and back-paddling, and generally avoiding the plentiful whirlpools, and warily biffing the waters with our paddles to frighten off hippopotamuses. My sense of machismo is being replenished. Slowly.
On the island we are greeted with a frosted Mosi beer on the hot, sandy river-beach and the first thing I see, when I get to my wooden room, is a very large crocodile floating lazily in the shallows, roughly 3m from my minibar.
A crocodile is floating lazily in the shallows, roughly 3m from my minibar
The crocodile seems relaxed. Trying not to think about Tom’s dog, I lie back in my hammock staring vaguely at the egrets and cormorants, and the elephants that wait in the bush for the right moment to cross the great river, like well-behaved schoolchildren awaiting the lollipop lady.
There is no other human life. Mobile phones are useless. The solitude is immense, the silence glorious — and broken only by the croak of an ibis. The hammock swings. A cold beer foams. A Daphne du Maurier novel falls from my languid hand. In time, night arrives with an aristo glitter of stars, when heaven wears all the family diamonds. After a supper of bream in coconut sauce, I fall into undisturbed sleep.
How do I wake myself up from this idyllic torpor? With another shot of adrenaline, of course, and another view of the cascades. I’m due on a helicopter flight over the falls from an airfield half an hour’s drive away.
I’m in the front seat of the little four-seat chopper. The pilot makes sure my seatbelt is fixed then flicks switches; the helicopter ascends, along with my heart, which heads for the vicinity of my mouth. Gazing about, I realise I can see everything — hotels and golf courses and Livingstone town — and then the disquieting emptiness.
Down there, the river forms endless backwaters, meanders, oxbows and eyots — a braided lace of green rushes and chitchatting rapids, terminating in that fearsome geological rupture where the great river takes the hand of heaven and makes the leap of faith into the yawning canyon, like Thelma and Louise in the 1991 film.
The helicopter dips nearer. My view is spumes and founts and churning foam; then the fierce sunlight flashes off the famous rainbow, which dances along the gorge of the falls, as if a giant hussar is cantering down the abyss waving a curved and translucent scimitar-turned-prism. Our 15 minutes of flight pass with startling brevity, like 15 seconds of exhilarated bliss. Back at the heliport we have calming “stabilisers” — cappuccino with Amarula, gin and juice.
I’d like to have a few more stabilisers, but I’m due at Elephant Camp, on the Zimbabwean side of the river (the frontier crossing takes 40 minutes at most). This quietly elegant camp is perched on a modest cliff with a fine overlook of the sere and savage flatlands; sit on the deck with a cup of rooibos tea and you feel like a Napoleonic general on horseback, standing above a battlefield. Waterbuck and elephants negotiate the bush below and the camp boasts a semi-wild cheetah, Sylvester, who comes visiting around lunchtime. Hyenas skulk.
As good as his word, Tom shows up on my last day. What can he possibly produce to beat what I have seen? Deeply curious, I join him in his car and we drive a few miles to another corner of the Zambezi riverscape — and his tethered boat. Slipping the anchor, he steers us away towards the torrents. As we near the lip of the rumbling falls, Tom tells me that if the outboard stalls and we get swept to the edge of the cliffs, I should “jump to the right”. I’m not sure he’s joking, yet I persevere. The engine does not stall. Instead, we nudge a bank and clamber on to a lush little islet directly above the steamy, guttering vaults of the canyon.
“This is Cataract Island,” he says. “It’s no man’s land.”
The phrase has never been truer. We are the only people here. There is no café, no eggs benedict, no yachts or helicopters or bungee jumps. There are white lilies and green aloes and tender blue orchids flourishing in profusion only 20 tiny centimetres from the endless fury of the torrents.
It’s Eden-on-the-edge, a natural and magical Kew Gardens protected by a talismanic rainbow. If Victoria Falls, as Livingstone exclaimed, displays a scene that is so lovely it “must have been seen by angels in their flight”, then here, on Cataract, is where those angels landed in delight.
Entranced, I climb back into the boat and Tom pilots us home through dappled river channels, past flitting kingfishers and golden bee-eaters. Offhand and smiling, he tells me that maybe only 100 people have ever been to Cataract Island.
Make that 101. And make that the best ever view of the Victoria Falls.
The perfect retreat on the Zambezi
It could be the most beautiful hotel lobby in the world — 15 miles of mighty African river sparkling in the Zambian sun, where nearly submerged hippos snort with pink-eared indignation and crocs shimmy from the shores as you sail past.
Then you reach the reception. That is to say, the sturdy motorboat which collected us from the dusty airstrip of Jeki arrives at its terminus, the wooden piers of Sausage Tree Camp in the Lower Zambezi National Park — a renowned safari destination in itself but also a great combination with Victoria Falls.
I had expected good things because Sausage Tree has recently been voted one of the best safari camps in Africa. And yes — the luxe cabins, plunge pools and stand-alone baths definitely place it at the five-star end of the spectrum — but it is the location that sets it apart.
The camp is ranged along a magnificent reach of the Zambezi, framed by distant ochre-blue cliffs. Every room looks across the waters, as does every bar stool and al-fresco sofa.
Throughout the day this scene is changeless, yet always changing.
Elephants come and go, sea eagles wheel in the sky. At the right time of year anglers could probably hook a tigerfish standing on Sausage Tree’s deck. The camp also does top-notch food, sometimes served up at impromptu barbecues in the bush or picnic-style on the river’s islands.
I was tempted to sit at the bar and ogle buffalo or maybe take a dip in the pool, but I also wanted to see some of the famous game in the encompassing forests.
If there is a drawback with Sausage Tree then it is surely the remoteness; it takes two short plane hops from Victoria Falls and then that 20-minute boat trip down the Zambezi — but what a way to arrive.