By Joan Larsen
Sometime in your life, you should stay at a grand British colonial hotel befitting of the grand old days. And sometime, too, you should see one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, the stunning Victoria Falls in southern Africa.
Tranquil, shaded, with a chorus of frogs in the courtyards, with immaculate lawns and gardens of bougainvillea and frangipani, when you arrive at the century-old Victoria Falls Hotel, you know you have stepped into another world. Edwardian rooms and lounges,the best high tea on the continent, meals dressy or very casual, and always – always – the sound and mist of the falls, out of sight but always there. Just down a private path, whenever you want. Wonderful anytime . . . but absolutely breathtaking at sunrise and sunset.
Victoria Falls, just a plane ride from Johannesburg, is one of the most magnificent sights in the world. Here, at Zimbabwe’s western end, the mighty Zambezi River widens to 5,500 feet and plunges into a 350-foot chasm. The force of all this falling water sends clouds of spray into the air – sometimes as high as 1500 feet! Misted by the spray, the riverbank is clothed in dense, luxuriant rain forest with ferns, orchids and blood lilies. It is no wonder that the falls are named Mosi-Oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders.”
Coming off the most incredible 3-week safari that covered Namibia and Botswana (that Kenya or Tanzania couldn’t ever ever match!), our first day at the grand hotel was spent lounging by the pool and enjoying the sheer relaxation that seems to emanate from its surroundings. Capturing photos of monkeys in the trees, the glorious rainbows arching over the falls on the strolls on the walkways was glorious.
But do stay a few days longer as we did and take advantage of the most unusual adventure sports offerings that run the gamut . . . as well as tamer activities that were our choice. For those under 60, white-water rafting is a must – and yes, we loved every moment of it. But hire a guide – or paddle a canoe on the Zambezi above the Falls , where you may spot crocodiles, hippos, fish eagles, and most surely, elephants who have the run of any place they care to.
If you are arriving September to December when the river over the falls is low – and you feel up for everything, there is a natural pool, about 10 meters wide, located right next to the cliff, next to Livingstone Island. Just a narrow strip separates it from the deep precipice. Devil’s Pool is shallow enough that people can safely swim right to the edge before the waterfall drops more than 350 feet. You don’t get swept down by the force of the falls because of a natural rock wall just below the surface. A guide will actually hold your ankles and you can lie and hang your arms over the edge of Victoria Falls. (No, I was there in August so I unfortunately missed this thrill that I am guessing would be remembered forever!)
However, no one misses the sundowner cruise on the Zambezi River above the falls where you are apt to have more up-close-and-personal encounters with crocs, hippos, fantastic birds, and – of course – elephants.
The scenic plane or helicopter rides – and I have done both – search out the wildlife otherwise not probably seen. But to catch daredevils bungee-jumping off the bordering country of Zambia’s bridge — or getting incredible pictures of the falls themselves from the air – rainbows and all – is the piece de resistance.
I always take one last walk, one last look on foot. Walking down the meandering lands of a lush forest from the hotel, down to the edge of the gorge, taking in the ferocity, the thunder, the beauty of the largest sheet of falling water in the world, it is as if all my senses come alive. The falls are immense. It is deafening. . . and yet manages to be calming. Truly, there is no sight in Africa to compare.
Long after my last time there, I find that indeed Victoria Falls should be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It remains lodged in my heart.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”