After a great time in South Luangwa and Lusaka, I was excited to move on to Livingstone. Livingstone is a town on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia and near the four way border with Namibia and Botswana. The town is famous for being close to the largest falling sheet of water on earth, Victoria Falls. I had been to Livingstone a year prior and fell in love with the falls and the town. The year before I had visited in April during high water season, so the falls were in full flow. I loved that you could see the spray from the falls all the way from Livingstone, which is about 12km away, and how drenched you got when you came anywhere near the massive waterfall. When I visited I was very upset that the Devil’s Pool, an area on the edge of the falls that you can swim in and hang over the edge from, was closed due to high water flow.
This time it was October and the low season for the falls, so Devil’s Pool was open and I was excited. When we arrived in town we jumped off our truck and headed to Fawlty Towers, named after the TV show, a hostel I had stayed in the year prior. We planned to stay there one night and then head to the often fully booked Jollyboys Hostel, just up the street for the next three. While grocery shopping that day we found something I hadn’t seen in months and was very excited about – fresh whole milk! For three months we had been drinking mostly warm UHT or long lasting milk, which doesn’t rightly deserve to be called milk. That evening we relaxed, enjoying our time away from our group, and cooked some dinner in the hostel.
The next morning we took the free shuttle from Fawlty Towers to Victoria Falls. We had heard that this dry season was the driest on record and a few fellow travelers on our shuttle told us they had been to the Zambian side of the falls and it was bone dry. A group of us on the shuttle were heading to the Zimbabwean side, which we were told was the better side at the moment, so we joined up to view the falls together. We walked across the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe and I got my first view of the falls in over a year. The place I had stood before and marveled at the spray shooting up from 300 feet below was now completely dry. We continued walking down the road for another 10 minutes before reaching the customs office for Zimbabwe. After paying $45 each for a multiple entry visa ($30 for single entry unless you’re British, then $55/$70) since we’d be returning to the country in a few weeks, we headed into Zimbabwe and to the park entrance. We paid in US dollars as it became Zimbabwe’s official currency in 2009 and is the only currency accepted at the border.
We put our $30 entrance fees on our credit cards since they, along with almost everywhere in Livingstone and Victoria Falls Town, accepted Visa, and headed into the park. The park spans a bit less than half of the nearly 2km wide falls, and gives great views year round. We headed to the first lookout and marveled at the beautiful and massive cataract that was still flowing. While the falls were far more impressive during high season, seeing this along with a few other cataracts still flowing was well worth the high park fee.
We walked along, talking to our new friends about their travels throughout Africa and elsewhere, while stopping at each different viewpoint to admire the falls. A group of primary school kids were on a field trip to the falls while we were there and we quickly noticed that the boys kept staring at our group, and especially at Sissy. After a bit one of the children finally worked up the courage to ask Sissy if he could have a picture with her, and after a few more joined in, the chaperon taking the pictures thanked her and moved on.
We walked along to an un-fenced portion of the park where we walked right up to the edge of the canyon that the falls have created over the millennia and stared down to the mighty Zambezi River far below. We saw a group of people across the canyon sitting at the edge of the falls, at the top of the strongest flowing cataract. Sissy and I got excited to see these people sitting in the Devil’s Pool, hanging over the massive waterfall, knowing that she and I would be doing the same the following day. The sight made up for the fact that the year prior when I visited the area we were standing in was a veritable monsoon of spray from the falls, however this time it was bone dry.
We took a last look at the falls and headed out of the park, catching a taxi to Victoria Falls Town in Zimbabwe. The cab ride took about 5 minutes and we were dropped off at overpriced café that served amazing iced coffee. Victoria Falls town was created to cater to the tourism that the falls attract and was filled with hotels, shops, and restaurants. The main reason we ventured into the town was to go to the Victoria Falls Hotel and enjoy an old British tradition, high tea.
The hotel is a large, white, colonial style building furnished in old fashioned luxurious furniture and large ceiling fans. We walked around the grounds for a bit since we were early for the 3pm start time and found a resident warthog that was less disturbed by our presence than the stodgy, old, all too rich guests at the hotel. Starting at $400 a night, I understood their objection to some relatively dirty looking (we had been camping for months now) and younger than average guests, however the warthog was near them so I felt compelled to intrude on their afternoon a bit more to take some pictures. Warthogs were a common sight by this point in the trip, however they were probably the most skittish creature we had seen on any safari, bolting at the sight of us without fail.
My watch showed 2:45pm and the group was ready to grab a table, so we headed to the terrace and had a seat. As 3pm rolled around our waiter showed up, gave us some options on which types of tea we’d like, and returned shortly with our selections and two large three tiered platters of cakes. The cakes out shined the piece of bread with a few cucumber slices we had grown accustomed to for lunch, and we enjoyed every last bite of our expensive afternoon snack. After thoroughly enjoying our time at the hotel we paid our $30 per two person bill (I’d say $15 per person but that isn’t entirely accurate as you have to order per couple) and walked back across the border to Zambia. While crossing we were offered the chance to bungee jump from the bridge joining the two countries ($160), however I was waiting for the world’s highest bungee from a bridge ($70) at the bottom of the continent to jump again.
The next morning we made our breakfast using the food we bought at the local Shoprite and grabbed a taxi to the Royal Livingstone Hotel where we would catch a boat to the Devil’s Pool. The Royal Livingstone is another colonial style luxury hotel, styled after a British hotel from years long past. As you walk through the grounds zebras and giraffe graze on grass nearby while employees come to cater to your every need. While we waited on the sundeck for our boat to show up, we met the four others that would join us on our boat to Livingstone Island, where we would walk and swim to the pool from. The others were all Americans, which was a welcome change as I had spoken with only a handful of Americans in the past three months, none of which were traveling with us.
We showed an employee our vouchers stating that we paid our $95 each and hopped on the small motorboat. The boat carried us quickly across the upper part of the mighty Zambezi River and after about 5 minutes we landed on a small island where we jumped off. We were led past a table where others were eating breakfast and to the edge of the canyon that would normally be the falls. Our guide pointed out the plaque that dedicated the island to David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer that opened up tons of central Africa to the western world and was the namesake of most everything in the area. After a short walk further we saw water gushing over the edge of the falls and a few people sitting right on the edge.
We swam a short ways across the Zambezi, carefully following our guide’s direction on where we should go as the falls were thundering a very short distance to our right. We stood at the edge of the pool with our guide talking to us, his heels against the lip of it. When he had finished talking he crouched down and sprung into a back flip into the pool, only feet from the edge of the massive waterfall. The rest of us lowered ourselves in one by one, as jumping in isn’t allowed unless you work there.
Our guide called Sissy and I over to the edge of the pool and as we sat down, 110 meters above the Zambezi below us, he told us to turn around and lie down. He grabbed each of our legs as we dangled headfirst over the side of the falls, staring at the rushing water around us and the long drop below. We may have only been in that position for a few minutes, but it felt like a very long time. After being pulled back we hung out in the pool, still by the edge for another 15 minutes or so, meeting some of the others that we had joined in the pool.
Twenty minutes had elapsed since we entered the pool, and we were told it was time to go grab breakfast. You can stay for longer if you choose to go at lunchtime for $155 or high tea for $130, however the $95 for breakfast was already a bit of money and the time was just about enough for us. After swimming across the river above the falls again we walked back to the table we had seen earlier which was set for breakfast for us. A piece of toast with egg and bacon on top was brought out along with a muffin for each of us and it was amazingly good. We finished our coffee and tea and it was time to head back to the Royal Livingstone, about an hour and a half after we had left it.
That evening we went to a restaurant I had been to a year prior and loved, Olga’s Italian Corner. The ambiance isn’t necessarily anything special and the food is very good but not the best I’ve had, but something about Olga’s and the lasagna there keeps it near and dear to my heart. I ate one of the massive lasagna dishes and Sissy shared a slice of her very good pizza with me, then we decided ice cream was a good idea. Afterwards a few friends we had made wanted to go to Limpo’s, a local bar that is typically only frequented by locals.
We got to Limpo’s and found that among the 20 or 30 patrons we were the only non-locals in the place, so we grabbed a beer and a cider and were told the cost was 19 kwacha, or $1.50 for both – 60 cents for their nice local beer Mosi and 90 cents for Hunter Dry cider. While we stood at the bar in the tin roofed, wall-less pub with locals dancing and playing some type of slot machine looking devices behind us, I noticed someone waving at us from the other side of the bar. A local walked up and started talking to us, asking where we were from. When I told him I was from the US he hugged me and told me he was as well. He explained that he was in fact Zambian and from Livingstone, but when he was 11 and working as a boat operator an American couple had offered to take him to the US with him and basically adopt him. He ended up going to college at UC Davis, a few hours drive from where I lived, and joined the National Guard.
Our new friend immediately bought our next round of drinks and refused to let us open our wallets again the rest of the night. Fifteen minutes later our friends showed up, looking a bit confused at us drinking and laughing with a group of locals (his brother and girlfriend joined us), and they were treated to whatever drinks they wanted as well. After my second beer I realized that massive amounts of Italian food and too much beer will make you feel pretty rough pretty quick, so my night of free drinks ended a bit earlier than I would have liked as any more would’ve made me explode.
The next day after sleeping in for a bit (anything later than 6am was sleeping in for us now) we headed to a local market to get some Christmas gifts for Sissy’s friends who would be joining us in South Africa for the final few weeks of our overlanding experience. We had both haggled plenty before, but found the pricing at this market to be particularly confusing. In one stall a certain wood carving cost 65 kwacha (no prices were posted of course, all verbally conveyed), and in the next the identical carving was 25 kwacha. We quickly learned that half of asking price is about what should be right, sometimes closer to 1/3, and it’s easy enough to talk the shop keepers down. That evening we went back to the Royal Livingstone Hotel to watch the sun set from the sundeck. When you order a drink there they give you free snacks of olives, nuts, and cheese, and you get a beautiful view of the Zambezi.
The rest of the day was taken up by relaxing and swimming at Jollyboys, and we went to Fawlty Towers that evening to join our friends for a goodbye drink as we were moving on the next day. We met tons of Peace Corps volunteers over our four days in town and heard some interesting stories about Zambia in that time, including that night one volunteer told us about how she ate termites, ants, and caterpillars in her village as that’s what the locals often ate and had to feed her. On my last trip to Livingstone I had repeatedly encountered the custom of locals holding my hand while talking as it was a sign of friendship there. This time, likely because I was with Sissy and my hand was occupied by hers most of the time, I had avoided the awkward gesture of friendship.
The next morning we met back up with our truck and headed off for the nearby border into Botswana where we would visit Chobe National Park and venture through the country. Read up on our close encounters with death at the foot of elephants, our first boat safari on the trip, and a very interesting camp in the middle of nowhere – all in Botswana.
Highlights of Zambia
- Victoria Falls – While I preferred visiting the falls in high water season, from February to June, the dry season was amazing because the Devil’s Pool is open, usually around August to November. Livingstone, on the Zambian side of the border, is generally cheaper than Victoria Falls Town, on the Zimbabwean side, and is an amazing little town.
- South Luangwa – A very nice national park in the northeast of the country, we saw four of the big five in our two game drives there and had close encounters with lots of monkeys and baboons while listening to the snort of hippos near our campsite all night long.
- The Zambian people – over the previous three months through Africa we had become a bit jaded and suspicious of most locals’ ulterior motives. Most friendly conversations would eventually take a turn toward the request for charity in the form of money, pens, the shirt off our backs, or other items, or a sales pitch for some random carving or painting. Repeatedly in Zambia in different parts of the country we found the locals very open to conversation and very friendly with no ulterior motives which was extremely refreshing.
- Depending on when you visit, read the load shedding schedule – Most of Southern Africa was in a drought when we visited. As Zambia relies on hydroelectric power, there were blackouts occurring daily. The power company created a schedule which varies depending on which part of the country and part of town you’re in, and power will cut at the scheduled times, usually eight hours per day. Water is typically pumped by the establishment you’re in, which requires power, so you may lose water along with power as well.
- Talk to the locals openly – we had gotten out of this habit after Ethiopia for the most part due to the above mentioned reasons. We found our conversations with the locals in Zambia to be very rewarding and informative throughout the country.
- Spend a few days at Victoria Falls. If it’s wet season you can easily spend two full days or more there, if it’s dry season then Devil’s Pool and the Zim side are the places to go.