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The Smoke that Thunders draws adventurous travelers from all corners of the globe every year. Taryn Arnott van Jaarsveld headed to Victoria Falls’ premier lodge, Victoria Falls Safari Club, in one of the wettest seasons in a while, to experience the Zambezi and rainforest in its fullest glory.
The small town of Victoria Falls has changed drastically since the last time I was there. For one, a framed portrait of Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa hangs to the right of the baggage collection point at Victoria Falls Airport, replacing the effigy of Robert Mugabe that occupied the same spot only a few months back. And this time round, when I see the sight of the clouds of water hanging above the falls from kilometers away, it leaves me giddy. “It’s the fullest I’ve seen them in six years,” a passenger returning home tells me as we wait for our bags to pop out onto the conveyor belt.
Since February, the falls have been full after excessive rains. So full, in fact, that river rafting on the Zambezi and swimming in the pools on the lip of the falls is prohibited until the waters subside.
“Niagara has nothing on these,” Sara, a seasoned Canadian traveler tells me later that day as we sip champagne on the deck of the Africa Albida Victoria Falls Safari Club while watching the sun disappear. Sara’s hair is still damp from her trip to the falls earlier in the afternoon. At 1.7km wide, it’s hard to imagine anything rivaling Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders.
As we watch the dark set in, a single white-backed vulture takes off, having lingered close to the site where the scavengers are fed at lunchtime, part of the Vulture Culture Experience set up by the lodge.
With a new pool, restaurant and extended deck added recently, the Victoria Falls Safari Club has become a key home base for luxury travelers exploring Victoria Falls and the Zambezi National Park. While we enjoy dinner on the deck, we can hear the sound of nibbling in the bush, as elephants continue to dine on the mopane trees around the waterhole below.
At the falls the next morning, I have a euphoric moment as I huddle in the middle of a rainbow, dabbing the water off my lips as I hide my camera underneath a pink raincoat. I squint against the water, peering at the falls only a few meters away. Curving its way along the gorge opposite the falls, the path through the Victoria Falls Rainforest is filled with surprises, including 17 viewpoints that provide panoramic scenes. Our guide for the day, Zulu, tells us the rainforest stays green throughout the year, sustained by months of moisture provided by the dramatic spray from the falls.
At lunchtime back at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, on the same estate as Victoria Falls Safari Club, in between feasting on freshly caught bream and gin and tonics, we witness the Vulture Culture Experience just below the deck. A dozen people gasp at the number and range of vultures landing to grapple over the meat scraps dished out on the ground.
Zulu details the role of vultures in preventing the outbreak of disease as he points out the different species that have landed. White-headed, hooded, lappet-faced and white-backed vultures hunch and huddle, while three marabou storks gobble up large meaty bones in single gulps.
The feeding programme allows the threatened vulture numbers to be monitored. Leftover scraps from the on-site restaurants supplement their diet but are not enough to sustain their total dietary needs, ensuring the birds do not become dependent on the handouts. As part of Africa Albida Tourism’s Green Steps to Sustainable Tourism initiative, the Vulture Culture Experience offered at Victoria Falls Safari Club aims to protect endangered vultures and educate visitors about these birds.
In the late afternoon, as the sound of djembes carries in the air, we make our way to The Boma Dinner and Drum Show. I taste mopane worms, visit a sangoma who predicts riches in my future, bang my fingers numb on a djembe and move on the dance floor. Afterward, I head back to the mosquito-net cocoon of my king-size bed and listen for the sounds outside. A slight rustle murmurs in the bush as the music softens into distant echoes.
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