A visit to Victoria Falls (on both sides), and Botswana

I’m all for seeing and doing as much as possible in the areas I visit. In a previous post, we discussed the possibility of visiting three, maybe four countries in one trip, when travelling to the Kruger Park. Well, Victoria Falls is no different. The Zambezi river spans a width of 1.7 kilometres. It is shared by Zambia on the one bank and Zimbabwe on the other. The falls are formed as the river plunges into a 108-metre high chasm, connected by a series of gorges. For this reason, it is considered to be the biggest curtain of falling water in the world.

Victoria Falls from the air in a Bell helicopter (the "Flight of Angels") - showing the "smoke that thunders" (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Victoria Falls from the air in a Bell helicopter (the “Flight of Angels”) – showing the “smoke that thunders” (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

The Victoria Falls

Take the train, fly or drive, but see this natural wonder of the world in your lifetime, you must. To the locals, it is known as “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, or the smoke that thunders. This is probably the most apt description for the falls that I know of – the spray that comes off the falls in the wet season can be seen for up to 50 kilometres. The “thunder” is self-explanatory, I think. You can just imagine the sound that comes from a body of water such as this plunging such a great distance into the gorge below.

The spray at this time of the year is the reason for the raincoats and umbrellas handed out by guides (or rented or bought at the entrance) as you walk the falls, on either side, even in the steamy hot summer weather. If you don’t take these precautions, you might not mind getting drenched yourself, but your camera certainly will!

On the Zimbabwean side, you will walk the Falls through the rainforest as the path winds its way along the curtain of water – sometimes protected from the spray, sometimes not!

The Zambian side

On the Zambian side, there is a point (apart from the Devil’s Pool and Livingstone Island at the top) where you can stand right next to the water dropping over the edge, at the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. You won’t get drenched here though, strangely enough. For a really eerie experience, you need to walk the Knife Edge Bridge on the Zambian side.  This is the closest you will get to the actual curtain of falling water, but depending on how wet the season is, there might be so much spray that you won’t really get a full view of the Falls.

This is why I feel it’s essential that you don’t only do a “one side/one day” kind of trip to the Falls – unless, of course, you’re in a mad hurry. But even on a tourism site inspection to both countries, with about 10 different hotels and lodges to inspect on each side; as well as doing all of the activities (or as many as I could!) in a 3-day trip; and a visit across the border to Chobe, I still managed to take in as many different aspects of the Falls as I could – from above and below! Our motto: we sleep when we die! 

Janine walking the rain forest on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls - raincoats and umbrellas essential!

Janine walking the rainforest on the Zimbabwean side of the Falls – raincoats and umbrellas essential!

So how do we get there – by train?

Rovos Rail Observation Car

Rovos Rail Observation Car

Rovos Rail journey

Rovos Rail journey

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you really want to treat yourself and experience what I consider 6-star luxury while sightseeing in comfort, then Rovos Rail is definitely the way to go. They offer various packages to Victoria Falls, including a 3-day trip from Pretoria; or a 10-day “adventure” from Durban, which includes 2 nights on the train en route to Pretoria; 1 night in the hotel in Pretoria; 3 nights en route to Victoria Falls; and a 2-night stay in the plush Victoria Falls Hotel.

Victoria Falls Hotel High Tea

Victoria Falls Hotel High Tea

Victoria Falls Hotel, looking out to the Falls. Here you see that you do not have direct access to the Falls or the Zambezi river.

Victoria Falls Hotel, looking out to the Falls. Here you see that you do not have direct access to the Falls or the Zambezi river.

 

The ultimate trip, I feel, would be the Dar-es-Salaam 15-day train journey, which begins in Cape Town, includes two nights at Tau Game Lodge in the Madikwe Game Reserve; then on to Botswana , Zimbabwe (overnight at Victoria Falls, with a Zambezi river sunset cruise), Zambia (visit to Chisimba Falls), through the Great Rift Valley, Selous Game Reserve and ending at the Tanzanian coastal city of Dar es Salaam.

Rovos Rail All Routes Map

Rovos Rail All Routes Map

By car?

As discussed in our previous post, it is possible to drive easily between African countries. You just need time and patience! You can either cross over from South Africa into Zimbabwe at the Beit Bridge border post and wend your way through and up to Victoria Falls. Or you can cross into Botswana at no less than 15 different border posts, making your way up through the capital of Gaborone, through Francistown and up to Chobe.

Spend a couple of days here, exploring Chobe Game Reserve and doing Chobe River cruises. The river game viewing is an unbelievable experience and nothing at all like viewing game in the bushveld, from open vehicles. It’s almost as if you’re deep inside the animals’ territory, looking from the inside out. To watch elephants swimming and playing in the water from a land-based vehicle is vastly different to floating up next to them in the water, on their level. One of my favourite places to stay in Kasane (Chobe ) is the Chobe Marina Lodge. You can’t beat the views, the vibe and the overall quality experience here.

Sunset over the Chobe river from my suite at Chobe Marina Lodge (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Sunset over the Chobe river from my suite at Chobe Marina Lodge (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Botswana is an incredibly unique and rich wildlife region and as far as I know, the only country left where wild animals still freely roam the town streets and suburbs (except for Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side). To really explore Botswana fully, and with almost 40% of the country dedicated to reserves and wildlife, you’ll need more than a few days. The Okavango Delta and the Moremi Game Reserve; the Central Kalahari Game Reserve; the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park; and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans are the areas apart from Chobe that should be explored.

If you’re wanting to concentrate, as we are for this post, on Victoria Falls, while adding the Chobe region of Botswana in for a few days, then it’s possible to experience three countries in the space of a week, or even four if you nip across to Namibia’s Caprivi Strip!

Elephants "snorkelling" in the Chobe River (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Elephants “snorkelling” in the Chobe River (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Up close and personal on a Chobe river cruise, with a crocodile on the island (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Up close and personal on a Chobe river cruise, with a crocodile on the island (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Or by plane? Which airports, which country…Zimbabwe?

You can fly into all three of these countries directly. Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) is an international airport about 20 minutes drive from the town. A number of airlines service this route, including South African Airways, British Airways, Kenya Airways and Air Zimbabwe. Non-stop direct flights depart from both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Flight duration from Johannesburg is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes. The non-stop flights from Cape Town are approximately 3 hours.

Or Zambia?

Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport (LVI) in Livingstone is also a short 15-minute drive from the city centre. Three main airlines service this route: British Airways, South African Airways and Kenya Airways. Direct international flights to Livingstone depart from Johannesburg and Cape Town. Flight duration from Johannesburg is approximately 1 hour, 40 minutes. The non-stop flights from Cape Town to Livingstone are also about 3 hours but note that there are only 4 flights per week.

Or Botswana?

You can also fly into Kasane Airport (BBK) in Botswana, which puts you right in Chobe.  The airlines that fly into Kasane are: Air Botswana; South African Airways; and Kulula. SA Airlink (SAA) will fly you directly from Joburg to Kasane –  flying time 1 hour 55 minutes. There are, however, no direct flights from Cape Town to this airport.

Starting out in Chobe, Botswana and then heading across the borders

This could be an option if you want to spend time in the Chobe area and on the river – perhaps booking the luxury houseboat, the Zambezi Queen or Chobe Princesses.  From here, it’s easy to arrange transfers across the border to Zimbabwe and then to Zambia, to incorporate Victoria Falls.

Sundowner Chobe river cruise - Namibia and the Caprivi Strip in the distance (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Sundowner Chobe river cruise – Namibia and the Caprivi Strip in the distance (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

It’s interesting to note here that while in Chobe on a river cruise or a houseboat river safari, you will have Namibia on the opposite side of the river. This is the area known as the Caprivi Strip – the thin panhandle of land with Angola and Zambia bordering it to the north, Botswana to the south and Zimbabwe to the east.

You are also able to get across to Zambia from the far northeastern corner of Botswana, at the Kazungula ferry (a pontoon ferry) over the Zambezi river. Be aware that this crossing is an “adventure”, to say the least!

Which side of Victoria Falls do we choose – Zimbabwe or Zambia?

In my opinion, it’s not a case of choosing which side to be on or to stay at. You absolutely must see both sides of Victoria Falls, as each has a completely different perspective and experience. On the Zimbabwe side, for example, they are very geared for activities at the bridge such as zip-lining, bungee jumping, bridge tours (this is underneath the bridge tied with ropes), helicopter flips, white water rafting and so on, while there are not many hotels, lodges or guesthouses that actually have easy access to the Falls with good views. Whereas, if you want to feel that you’re really at the Falls and watch the sun rise or set over the Zambezi, while hearing or even seeing the spray, Zambia is the side to be.

Janine Zip-lining over the gorge at Victoria Falls

Janine Zip-lining over the gorge at Victoria Falls

There are numerous hotels and lodges situated all along the river, and hotels like The Royal Livingstone even have their own access gate directly to the Falls, with free entry included for residents (this is normally USD20 on the Zambian side and Zimbabwe side for SADC visitors, and USD30 on the Zimbabwe side for International visitors).

David Livingstone Safari Lodge and Spa is another exceptional choice, right on the river.

On the Zimbabwe side, if you want the feel of being on the river, the Azambezi River Lodge is a good spot to be.

Visas – what it costs and where to get them; border posts and airports

It is an easy border crossing between Zimbabwe and Zambia and you really should not miss out. There is now a KAZA Univisa – a multiple entry visa for Zimbabwe and Zambia. This costs USD50 and also allows for entry at the Kazangula border with Botswana for day-trips into Chobe. These are available at both international airports (Livingstone and Victoria Falls) and the borders. (Do be aware though, that if you plan to stay in Chobe overnight or a few days -which you should do if possible! – you’ll need another single entry visa to Zimbabwe if you plan to fly out from there).

When to visit Victoria Falls – does it really matter?

An important note is that visiting the Falls at certain times of the year will give very different experiences. In the wet months of February to June, the water level is at its highest; the fall and the spray of water at its strongest and the curtain at its widest.

Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Victoria Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

In the dry months of July to September, the water levels begin dropping and the spectacular views are not as spectacular; and in the driest months of October and November, the Zambian side dries up completely. However, having said that, this brings opportunities of its own: it gives you the chance to swim at the very top of the Falls, in what is known as the Devil’s Pool (referred to as the ultimate infinity pool!), or simply to go across to the island to picnic, which is not possible in the wet season. For the best and most detailed info I’ve ever seen on this excursion  to the island and swimming in the pool, read this blog post: How To Visit Devil’s Pool (And Survive)

I love this post for many reasons, the chief one being because (as you may recall) I’m a bit of a ninny. I’m terrified of heights (and drops!); of hippos and crocs; of weird things nibbling on you underwater…and of course, the main reason – I don’t really want to take the risk of being swept over the Falls just yet, thank you. So, apart from the fact that I’ve only ever visited the Falls in the wet season, and have therefore never had the opportunity of doing this particular excursion, I’m not sure I would, ever. So I rely on people like the Widmers to give the perfect feedback.

 

Victoria Falls Hotel

Victoria Falls Hotel

Victoria Falls Hotel entrance

Victoria Falls Hotel entrance

 

 

 

 

 

 

What else to do and see while you’re there

What Zimbabwe lacks in views of the Zambezi river or the Victoria Falls, they make up for in activities in and around the town. Apart from the activities I’ve mentioned above, there are two other spots you should really experience. The first of these is the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve, where you can walk with lions (as long as you’re taller than 1.5m!) ; experience an elephant back safari, a rhino encounter, a game drive and end off the day with a delicious 3-course bush dinner with an African flavour (in more ways than one).

Janine on a walk with lions in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve

Janine on a walk with lions in the Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve

And where to stay…

Tucked away in this reserve is the iconic Stanley and Livingstone boutique hotel. The hotel is being refurbed and will re-open on 1st November 2018. Hopefully, it will have its wonderful colonial feel and rich history and essence intact.

Suite at the Stanley & Livingstone hotel (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

Suite at the Stanley & Livingstone hotel (Photo: Janine Westerweel)

The second experience you should not miss is  Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. This hotel is only 4 kilometres away from Victoria Falls but feels like another world. The rooms all face into the African bushveld and overlook a waterhole. The hotel is perfectly situated, high on a hill. You can watch animals coming to drink at any time of the day or night. And almost any spot gives you a 180-degree vista of the bush – from your room balcony; the viewing deck or pool bar, or the restaurant. This hotel is also the site of the famous Boma Dinner & Drum Show – a 4-course dinner that ends with an interactive drumming show, where you will feel the rhythm of Africa pulse through your veins, take hold and never let you go.

So many places, so little time!

There are so many accommodation options in Chobe and both sides of Victoria Falls, that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. There’s something for every taste and every budget out there. The Kingdom hotel right at the Falls in Zimbabwe is a great Sun City type place if you enjoy that sort of thing, while Ilala Lodge is peaceful and elegant and also right next to the Falls. These are a few of my personal favourites but by no means all! So I will probably go in-depth on this at a later stage. In the meantime, just click the Booking.com search box anywhere on our website and search all of the options!

Disclosure:  Some of the links in this post, such as Booking.com, are ‘affiliate links.’ This means if you click on the link and book or purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. This is however at no extra cost to you. You’d just be helping us out :)

Once again, each of these countries and regions needs days to explore in their own right. For now, though, this will give you an idea of where to start, we hope!

Don’t forget – we’d love to hear how this has worked for you, or your comments and feedback, as well as your own experiences. Please send us any comments or questions you may have, or follow us on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube; sign up to receive new posts; or click on the Booking.com search box to book your next adventure!

Until next time!

 

 

About the Author

Hello there! Welcome to our travel blog. We are the Westerweels – Janine and Otto.
Our passions in life (apart from each other) include: travel; wildlife; photography; wine; fine dining; our children; our animals... and experiencing as much as we can.
We'd love to share that with you, so here we go...!

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