Do it right and a long weekend in this Zambian town delivers adventure and leisure in equal measure.
“This is the Devils Toilet,” says Boyd Mabole, grinning at my horrified expression. “Do you want to know why? We are going over some class-3 rapids and if you fall off the raft, you will be sucked down and flushed all the way to the bottom.”
Boyd doesn’t sugar-coat any of the world-class rapids we are about to tackle. However, as a Zambian athlete kayaker who has been coursing these crazy waters for 18 years, we cannot ask for a better human to take us down the Zambezi River.
A Paddle In The Water
Our trip departs from the “Boiling Pot”, underneath the swirling waters of Victoria Falls. Above us, the iconic steel bridge, built by Cecil John Rhodes over a century ago, tethers the Batoka Gorge, plus Zimbabwe and Zambia together. Once on the river, Boyd shares safety drills and tips so we can get used to our paddles in the slower flowing waters.
“If I tell you to paddle forward, then paddle forward. Deep and hard! I don’t want to see any dainty Japanese teaspoons in the water,” he demonstrates with his paddle, barely skimming the top of the water.
True to its name, the water lapping at our rubber raft is white and frothing. Mid-brief, a howl alerts us to someone who’s just thrown herself off the structure above us, legs bound in a bungee jump. A part of me wishes I was rather jumping off a bridge too.
Suddenly, we are off. “Paddle! Paddle! Paddle forward!” Boyd yells over the din of the dark, whipped-up water. The boat surges, lurching up and bouncing on the waves. Before I can choke on the liquid quickly closing in around us, we are facing nose down, about to dive into the churning breakers.
Boyd yells, “Get down and hold on!”. During our first safety talk, Boyd named the rope that runs around the length of the raft the “Oh (familiar expletive)!” line. It is an unquestionably accurate title, and we quickly become well-acquainted.
Gripping it for dear life, I am holding the vital trifecta of my paddle, the line and my breath as the river washes over us. We eventually ricochet out the other end of the Devil’s Toilet – still successfully one with the raft, and bearing grins you can probably spot from that bridge.
Despite Boyd naming every ghastly sounding rapid with glee (the names got better and better – Stairway to Heaven, Commercial Suicide, The Gnashing Jaws of Death, Creamy White Buttocks, etc.) I realise I have not stopped grinning. The mixture of thrill and terror is totally intoxicating. In fact, I am having the time of my life.
Later, cheering our successful combat of the river with a bottle of local Mosi Lager, we sail into the sunset on one of the oldest boats on the Zambezi, the beautiful wood-panelled MV Makumbi built back in the 1950s. The next morning, though, it is back on.
A Flight Above
Buckled in with two other passengers and an enthusiastic pilot, it is time for a helicopter flight with Livingstone’s Adventures. Up in the air, it is easy to see why the falls have long been known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders”. Sheets of spray billow up, filling the hundred-metre heights of Batoka Gorge with vapour befitting the name “Boiling Pot”, where my adventure in Zambia began.
The blades beat above us, and after a few admiring spins above Victoria Falls, we are piloted right down into the gorge, to what feels like mere metres above those rushing, human-munching rapids. The walls of the canyon hug us tightly, and I am thankful for the seatbelt as we sway, just like the water, around the bends of Batoka.
Luckily, what goes up must come down. The main attraction here is, of course, the sprawling spread of water, named the Victoria Falls by David Livingstone back in 1855. One of history’s most famous safari characters also lends his name to this little Zambian town. I want to sample more than the iconic landmark and adventure on offer up here, so I catch the regular shuttle into Livingstone from my river-bank stay, the Victoria Falls Waterfront.
A Walk On The Ground
The Livingstone Museum is the oldest and largest museum in Zambia, and a good place to start a walk of the streets. First, a stop at Da Canton for Lonely Planet’s top recommendation of real-deal homemade Italian gelato (two scoops, one Oreo and one peanut butter, as recommended by the saleswoman) for 20 Kwacha. Livingstone is not as polished as the more touristy town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, but it has a heart.
From there, it is past the Art Deco-style Capitol Theatre (built in 1931 and mostly unchanged), busy barber shops, banks and car-wash stands, and a peruse of the stalls at the Mukini Park Craft Market, each home to a smiling vendor.
They don’t hassle you much, but you are enthusiastically invited to each and every booth. After inspecting five or six, I had to be firm. Shadreck Siamate’s shop is one worth visiting, though. A practising artist for 14 years, his striking paintings are colourful and unique, standing out from the more cliché’d curios.
And A Dinner With Elephants
Rain clouds start to swell after a day of soaring tropical heat, and I make it back to my hotel just in time for dinner, set to be an unusual affair. The Elephant Café is something of an anomaly. After an elephant-riding operation in Zambia was shut down, a herd of ten hand-reared elephants suddenly needed alternative care.
Elephants, especially those in captivity, can live up to 50 years. Elephant riding ceased, but these habituated animals still require (rather expensive) human care and extra feed for years to come. Due to their familiarity with people and the high likelihood of human-wildlife conflict, these elephants cannot be released into the wild. It is a poignant present-day reality resulting from years of tourism-induced demand, but the Elephant Café is an inventive solution for an otherwise tragic pachyderm predicament.
Today, the herd roams the wilds of the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which is where the award-winning African fusion restaurant is also situated, helping to generate much-needed funds for feed and salaries.
The dinner is totally deserving of the TripAdvisor praise and I eagerly sink my teeth into every dish, from Thai-inspired tilapia to mongongo nut ice cream. The restaurant strives to support local businesses and farmers with ingredients sourced within a 20km radius. This ensures not only freshness but sustainability and uniqueness too.
Gazing over my plate onto the Zambezi River and thinking back to our rafting adventure … Zambia and Zimbabwe have shortlisted American, European and Chinese companies to build the Batoka Gorge hydropower plant, a dam planned for construction further down the gorge.
It will take an estimated 10 years to complete, but those in the know say it will deeply affect the river and its rapids far sooner. By the time you read this, a contractor may have already been selected. It is up to responsible travellers to reiterate the importance of these waterways, and hopefully, like the Elephant Café, there will be an innovative, life-saving solution to save this endearing destination.
GETTING AROUND Many hotels have daily shuttles to the Victoria Falls and back, or ask the reception to arrange a transfer or a taxi. They will also know the going rate best.
WHITE-WATER RAFTING The rafting season is split into low-water trips (August to January), when it is safe to raft rapids 1 to 21, and high-water trips. During the latter, rapids 1 to 10 are unsafe. Shorter river trips are available from January to July. Check water levels before you book. safpar.com
The Explorer Club Africa This hotel group includes The Victoria Falls Waterfront for affordable, central accommodation on the banks of the Zambezi River, and two more luxe stays – the David Livingstone Safari Lodge, and The River Club.
TRAVEL TIPS Bring a rash vest or T-shirt and cap to protect you from sunburn while rafting, and a dry bag for cameras and other electronics when visiting the falls.
SAFETY English is widely spoken, and you can walk around with a camera slung around your neck without feeling at risk. However, be street-smart. This is still a city. Get local and practise a little Tonga. “Hello” is Kamwamba and “How are you?” Mulibuti.
COSTS The currency is Zambian Kwacha, but US dollar is widely accepted.
Words by Melanie Van Zyl