Victoria Falls on a Budget

Sunrise over Victoria Falls

The captain comes on over the intercom to announce that we have begun our decent towards Victoria Falls, he mentions that we will soon be making a right hand bank and will approach the runway from a westerly direction meaning that we should be able to see the ‘Smoke that Thunders’ from the left hand side of the plane. Its not a busy flight and so immediately we grab the opportunity to switch seats hoping to glimpse the falls from the air. The airport is a typical dinky toy airport slap bang in the middle of the african bush, situated about 20kms from the falls itself. Our FlyAfrica plane is one of three sitting on the tarmac and one looks like its been sitting in the same spot for a few years already. This certainly is a low tech airport where the baggage is just popped onto a table through a garage door just behind immigration. Its in the throws of an upgrade which is possibly a good thing because the toilets had certainly seen better days. However the excitement is high with a large Welcome to Victoria Falls sign reminding you that you are just kilometers away from some of natures greatest works.

Our taxi driver greeted us with excitement, welcoming us to his country and led us to his mini-van (we had pre-organised this with Victoria Falls Backpackers). It didn’t take long after exiting all the air conditioning before the 32° day began to make itself known, especially after arriving from a very cold Johannesburg. First things first, shower, change, relax with a beer, get acclimatised to our new environment and pin our location on my offline map system on my phone. I am a real map fundie so this is an important part of any trip I go on, I found a pin I had made earlier at the Victoria Falls Hotel with a note for High Tea and soon we found ourselves wandering through the town towards this grand old hotel. It has to be one of the oldest hotels at the falls with a magical outdoor patio, looking over immaculate terraced lawns which lead down to a direct view down the gorge toward the VicFalls Bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia. High tea is served from 3pm and for $30 you get an impressive 3 tier spread of savory sandwiches, scones and sweet nibbles. I honestly expected more from the tea part of the experience, we were not given a selection of teas to choose from, just receiving a pot of regular ceylon tea. In my opinion its an absolute must do at least once on any visit to the VicFalls, we even considered coming back later in the week.

As the Sunsets

Its a simple and relatively short walk (few kilometers) from Zimbabwe across the bridge to Zambia, and being South African makes Immigration incredibly easy. I believe for none SADC countries you require a double entry visa for Zimbabwe when you return. I would highly recommend viewing the falls from the Zambian side, it may not have the largest portion of the falls but it definitely has some of the best parts with excellent walkways and great visibility right down to the bottom of the falls. I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that you can walk down to the boiling pot, part of the falls where the water changes direction rapidly, and actually get close to the water. Un-officially however, once in the park you can wander round to the top part of the falls and on a hot day enjoy the coolth of the water or even take a swim. It seems like this is a spot where the locals come to spend a relaxing afternoon.

I got it in my head, as a photographer, that I had to get a photo of the sun rising over the falls. The Zimbabwe park opens at 6am and with that in mind we packed breakfast & lunch and prepared to spend the whole day in the park. The sunrise is absolutely incredible, we run from the top end of the park to every view point we could. Once inside the park gate they do not allow pass-outs, so either come prepared with food or expect to pay quite a bit for meals from the only restaurant within the park. Water & Slush Puppies can be bought for $2 though. It was such a great experience just to soak up the falls and not feel like you have to rush around. They say you can ‘do the falls’ in 2hrs, however having breakfast over the falls and just enjoying the day, finding benches and having a nap to the thundering sound of the falls is absolutely magical… it also lets you wait till the afternoon when the sun swings around creating giant rainbows down the gorge, and time to sit really still and enjoy the wildlife, such as bushbuck, warthog and the incredible trumpeter hornbills.

Sunrise over Victoria Falls

Closeup Detail at Sunrise

The Nitty Gritty
Walking vs Taxis
The town of Victoria Falls is honestly very small, with nearly everything within walking distance. The local suggestions however say that it is probably better to catch a taxi after sundown.

  • $30 from Airport, so try and share
  • $3-$5 from town to around town.

We spent a totally of 5 days in Victoria falls and walked everywhere, except the airport trip, we even walked across the bridge into Zambia for the day and back. Just remember you will be walking in the parks too so you may be pretty exhausted by the end of the day, take lots of water it gets pretty hot.

Hostels, Position & Prices
– Victoria Falls Backpackers
The VFB has the feel of a developed mini bush camp, with most rooms opening out into a central area around the swimming pool. Staff are friendly and helpful, albeit a bit disorganised, but great with local information and organising tours. The kitchen facilities are moderate, yet functional and you should find most things you will need to make a simple meal. We stayed in the two man tented option and thought it was perfectly satisfactory, beyond the fact that the zip doors did not close. This was not really an issue for us because the whole area felt relatively safe. The tents are fully kitted out with electricity including a power strip, light & fan and each has its own little outdoor area with chairs & table. We even found after breakfast one morning our tent had had a turn down service, although the bedding was absolutely fine it has definitely seen better days. Separate showers & toilets are housed in a little out house with one shower even having a tree growing right in the middle of the room. The bathrooms are well kitted out with decent hooks on the backs of doors and little tables to put your clothes on. We did have a slight warm water issue due to the morning rush on the showers which I considered to be a common problem. Try the local coffee at only $1 a mug.

Hippos in the Zambezi

– Shoestrings Hostel
As many of the reviews say, this is the party hostel, with loud music, beer and parties going on till around midnight, and then people hang around talking till the wee hours of the morning. Staff are there to do their job, either at the bar, cooking or cleaning with not a large emphasis put on helping the residents. The dorms are simple with squishy soft foam mattresses and a limited number of lockers are on a first come first serve basis out in the main corridor, so bring a spare lock. The showers are effectively the bare minimum with some missing shower heads or even shower curtains. They do have hooks for hanging a few items but no tables, so you’ll end up using the toilet seat. The kitchen is borderline useless, only the left back hotplate on the stove works and you’ll be lucky if you find a spare fork or a bowl. I suspect the emphasis here is to buy food at the restaurant. The cheapest meal is the $3 traditional meal which is very tasty, meals go up to about $15, coffee costing $2 and a pot of tea only $1. Our dorm room (the orange room) had a single plug point (South African plug) hidden behind the top bunk mattress, so go prepared to sit outside, have a beer and charge up your devices.

Parks/Trips/High Tea & Getting your Monies Worth

  • SADC Country citizens pay $10 less than the full price of $30 for Zambia and Zimbabwe, however in Zimbabwe paying in ZAR is also an option. Currently priced at R200.
  • Get in early for Sunrise. The park opens at 6am and sunrise must be the most awe inspiring way to see the falls.
  • We had heard rumours that the curio vendors where more than happy to take any currency they could get their hands on, Rand, Dollars, Kwacha, etc but were unable to confirm this due to the fact that we had spent all our Rand on Park entry.
  • Batoka Cruise for Sunset must be the cheapest trip or activity in the area. You set off from the Zambezi River Lodge hotel around 4pm (most hostels offer a trip that includes collection) with around 40 other tourists, our captain told us some great history of the Zambezi river and then snacks were served along with an open bar. The cruise is a great way to relax and just enjoy the water and get to see all the wildlife in the area. We were lucky enough to see Hippo, Crocodile, Bushbuck, Warthog along with a Monitor Lizard and the ubiquitous baboons of the area.
  • High Tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel is a casual affair, the hotel has a safari lodge relaxed atmosphere so dont stress about wearing a T-Shirt & Shorts.
  • Local Beers include Zambezi & Lion Larger, $2 at the hostels in bottles vs $1 for a tin at the bottle store.

Zambezi Beer

Sunset on the Zambezi

FlyAfrica
We would never have done this trip without the new airline FlyAfrica.com coming online only a month before our trip, and although I had a few issues booking (online, then via phone, then finally online again) they really are providing an exceptional service. I hope that they become the ‘AirAsia’ of Africa providing low cost flights through-out africa.

Freebies

  • Swim above the falls on the Zambian side. It may not be the devils pool or angles pool, but once in the Zambian park side you are able to get to the top side of the falls and swim perhaps 30-40 meters from the edge of the falls. This appears to be a popular spot with the locals for a quick swim even though the signs suggest you shouldn’t swim.
  • Hike down the gorge & explore the boiling pot, its about a 20min walk down and mostly shaded to well worth it.
  • Visiting the big baobab tree, situated 1.5km out of town, is absolutely free. Its pretty impressive, apparently it flowers in summer and is incredibly beautiful.
Victoria Falls from Zambia Above the Falls Smoke that Thunders

Smoke that Thunders

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1 Comment

  1. Nikki says:

    Great review Chris! Stunning photos of the falls.

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