The Biggest Tour Day Ever!

I have been guiding tours abroad for almost a quarter century.  And I firmly believe we recently completed the fullest, most spectacular single day of any tour, any time.  I was still catching my breath the next day.  We were in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe where we began our Southern Safaris tour.  In a single day we visited the falls, had lunch in a locals’ home, took a helicopter ride over the falls, enjoyed the classic Zambezi River sunset cruise, and then completed our day with a riverside dinner.  Oh, and for good measure, the following day we got up very early for our Rhino Safari where we spotted 5 Black Rhinos.

Our first full day of the tour began with a fantastic hot breakfast at Ilala Lodge.  I had scouted Ilala on my previous tours to Africa and knew I wanted their fantastic cuisine, excellent location, and attentive service.  It is a lovely facility with comfortable public spaces, a huge breakfast or dinner terrace with views across to the falls’ mist plume rising above the jungle, and characteristic “boma-style” thatched roofs.  The lobby, common rooms, and hallways are adorned with prints of historic photographs or etchings of the falls, Livingstone, and other famous explorers.  It’s a great ambiance.  Moreover, each room has an espresso maker – an absolute god-send in Africa.  Although they famously grow great coffee here, they do not have a coffee culture themselves.  In other words – a good cup of coffee is hard to come by.

Shortly after sunrise we made the 5 minute walk to the falls.  After procuring rain ponchos, we entered the National Park before the usual hoard of tour groups arrived.  I took everyone to the spot where I had first seen the falls in 2014.  “Spectacular!” is the only, yet grossly inadequate description of this “Wonder of the World”.  And at that first viewpoint, over Devil’s Cataract, one sees only about 15% of the falls.  After many photos, we moved on to the statue of David Livingstone, the first European to see the falls and the one who named them for his queen.  We had a short installment of history and some fun facts about the falls (a mile+ across, up to a 340 foot drop into the chasm below, a million liters of water per second, etc.) and a brief geology lesson.  Next it was time to venture to the middle of the falls – Danger Point (DP).

DP is a spur of land that is the closest point to the falls and smack dab in the widest section of falling water.  Since we were there at the end of the rainy season the mist plume was simply tremendous.  The falls explode at the bottom of the gorge and the mist plum is redirected upwards by the gorge wall you are standing on.  The plum billows up like a nuclear mushroom cloud, creating the phenomena that gave the falls their local name: Mosi au Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders.  The best name for a waterfall ever!  DP is the place where one most feels the full, explosive power of the falls.  I love it!  You don’t see a thing – because the dense mist plume turns instantly to rainfall and returns to earth in a deluge.  Standing on DP in March is like being in the most intense torrential downpour one can imagine.  The force of nature is powerfully and viscerally felt.  It is an amazing experience.

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We retreated from DP and dispersed for free time.  Some ventured further along to view the famous Gorge Bridge while others returned to the various viewpoints for photography.  It was a great start to the tour.

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After the falls visit, our busy day continued with a cultural connection experience.  We went to a Chinotimba township home for lunch.  Our hostess, Flatter, welcomed us with a big smile.  As her helpers offered warm water and towels for washing hands she explained their traditional lifestyle and homelife.  Our modern American sensibilities were ruffled a bit when she invited the men to come to the table first.   We were served traditional foods:  boiled peanuts (in the shell) and black-eyed peas; roasted peanuts, fried Mopane worms, a mixture of the boiled peanuts and peas, corn, corn with peanuts, and a small local squash.  The tea served was Rohrbush tea, which we all enjoyed very much.  The biggest eye-brow raiser was of course the fried Mopane worms.  Crispy and salty, I rather enjoyed this excellent source of protein.  Not unlike popcorn.  Most in the group tried at least one but some just couldn’t do it.  After our light meal Flatter circulated around the group answering questions about her life in the township.

Next up was the Flight of Angels scenic helicopter ride.  The name comes from the Livingstone quote when he first saw the falls:  “The whole scene was extremely beautiful; the banks and islands dotted over the river are adorned with sylvan vegetation of great variety of colour and form . . . no one can imagine the beauty of the view from any thing witnessed in England.  It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”  The 15-minute flights sounds too short but is actually a perfect amount of time in the air.  One is swept out over the mighty Zambezi, then on to the falls where the pilot does wide arching figure eights so both sides of the aircraft get great views of the falls, the mist plume, Zambia, and the descending zig-zag gorges that lead away from the falls.  With the immense mist plume that obscures much of the view from the ground, this is the only way to see the falls in their entirety.  And it is simply breath-taking.

We barely had time to freshen up in our rooms before we were transported to the nearby Zambezi jetty to board our Sunset River Cruise.  It’s a classic Victoria Falls activity.  Affectionately called the “Booze Cruise”, each boat is equipped with an open bar.  We drifted slowly along the mighty waterway, stopping to observe several hippos in a grassy pool, monitor lizards, and African fish eagles.  The conversations got more animated as the drinks flowed and we were treated to a picture-perfect African sunset of massive, billowing clouds lit up by the last rays of the sun.

Our final activity on this block buster day was our riverside brai, or African barbeque.  As we disembarked the cruise boat, we were welcomed by a troup of singers serenading us with traditional African songs and rhythms.  They sang and danced while we settled in at our candle-lit tables for dinner.  The Ilala staff had assembled a buffet of roasted meats (cooked on the open barbeque), salads, and local vegetables, potatoes, and rice.  The food was excellent, the ambiance superb, and the entertainment excellent.  It was a fitting end to what is indelibly imprinted in my memory as “The Big Day”.