- Day 0: SCAMS AND DELAYS
- Day 1: EXORBITANT VISA COSTS
- Day 2: “THIS IS AFRICA!”
- Day 3: VIC FALLS FROM THE DARK SIDE
Day 0: SCAMS AND DELAYS
It was about 7am when we arrived at the airport from the Mercure Hotel. We were waiting for a 9:50am flight but when all was said and done, we ended up getting delayed twice and didn’t leave Sydney until about 1:30pm (i.e. over 3.5 hours).
Once we were on the plane, we were pretty much on a long haul flight going backwards in time. So even though we had landed in Johannesburg Airport at 6:45pm, it was really over 14 hours of flying.
Needless to say we were tired when we arrived, but then we had to deal with an hour-long queue in Customs, and then another 1.5-hour wait for our luggages to show up. Unbelievable!
Once we got our luggages, we were then trying to find our way through the airport towards our transport for the Hotel OR Tambo Southern Sun, which was supposed to be very close to the airport.
That was when a tall guy was telling us where we should be going and he even walked with us to make sure we were going the right way. I actually never asked for his help and assumed that he was just being friendly.
Of course that was until we got outside the airport and insisted that we pay him for his “services.” I wondered what would happen if we just refused, but he was only asking for a buck or two and we didn’t want any real hassle knowing we still had more of the trip to go.
Eventually, we got into our transport vehicle, but we were then delayed in the car park because a truck was blocking traffic. So we had to take a longer way around to get out of the airport.
When we showed up to the hotel finally at 9pm, we saw that the room rate was 1150 Rand when we had been charged 1600 Rand. Were we scammed on this as well?
Inside the room, the power went out briefly at around 10:30am, but it eventually recovered some 15 minutes later.
Indeed, it had been a trying day. Tomorrow, we were to fly to Livingstone, Zambia to see Victoria Falls. We were eagerly anticipating that visit so despite all the delays, we sure hoped it would be well worth all the trouble…
Day 1: EXORBITANT VISA COSTS
It was 1pm when we arrived in Livingstone, Zambia. This was after (for the first time ever in our travels) we actually had to pay an excess fee because each of our checked luggage was about 3kg over the 20kg limit. That costed us around 376 Rand (almost $60 USD), which was clearly too much to handle considering we have numerous more flights on this African trip-of-a-lifetime.
We’ll have to wisen up on how we pack our checked baggage (which we eventually did by wearing our heavy hiking boots and putting more books in our laptop bag and other hand carry-ons).
Anyways, the first order of business was to take care of all the Visas and passport control issues at the airport. So without delay, we filled out the forms then quickly got to the queue before the rest of the plane showed up.
That was when we were in for a rather steep shocker!
The Multiple Entry Visa (since we intended to go to Zimbabwe for a day and back) for USA Citizens was $135 per person in US cash only.
Well it wasn’t like we were going to say no or anything. So we just swallowed the pill and got instantly lighter in the wallet.
Afterwards, we collected our bags and met up with Richard Chanter, who was the owner of the lodge we were staying at while in Livingstone. He’s a UK ex-patriot who has spent the last 40 years in Africa.
We toyed with the idea of staying in the cheaper Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, but the political situation with Robert Mugabe created too many uncertainties to take the chance of a last-minute change in our big trip.
Better safe than sorry.
Anyways, Chanter and Anastasia (one of his employees) told us that ever since Zambians get similar treatment when trying to get Visas for USA and the UK, the Zambian government made it so people from those countries get reciprocal treatment.
It was just this year that it happened, too!
Chanter said they used to have their clients be put on a list and Chanter would sponsor them. The cost to the clients? Free!
Anyways, we can’t cry over spilled milk. If anything, Chanter lamented to us that the Visa requirements have impacted his business as fewer visitors from the US and UK are coming to the falls. These countries have historically brought the most tourists. He did point out that British citizens have to pay the equivalent of around $400USD for the same Visa! Yet Canadians only have to pay about $50USD per person.
Chanter guessed that border patrol pocketed most of the money and it didn’t necessarily go back to the proper coffers in government.
“But that’s Africa,” he contends. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”
So with all the traveling we had to do up to this point from Cairns, Australia to Johannesburg, South Africa yesterday, and then to Livingstone, Zambia today, Julie and I welcomed the break at our room in Chanter’s Lodge.
Chanter was willing to drive us the 11km to the gate of the Zambia side of Victoria Falls, which was around 15-20 minutes away at 3pm.
However, our rest was dampened by the fact that Julie realized she hadn’t brought our Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificates with our passports. That really pissed me off because I always contended they should be together with the passports, but somehow she insisted on separating them after the Peru trip knowing they weren’t necessary there. Anyways, this potentially jeopardized our entry into any country that asked for certificates such as Tanzania, and thus threatened to really put a halt to our trip of a lifetime…
When 3pm came around, we hitched a ride with Chanter and was left at the busy gate on the Zambia side of the falls. After paying our admission fee (which we had to pay on each entry regardless of length of visit), we anxiously marched towards the thundering noise generated by the falls.
Undeterred by the blast of B.O. from some of the locals also sharing the Vic Falls experience, we were at the misty falls by around 3:30pm.
But our enthusiasm was quickly dampened by the fact that it was hard to see anything let alone take pictures due to the amount of mist spraying all the overlooks and walkways.
It was a good thing I brought the rain ponchos.
Still, with the sun kind of going against us, there weren’t a whole lot of meaningful photos to take while appreciating the falls the way we did for Iguazu Falls.
In a way, it felt disappointing.
“Iguazu Falls is way better than this one,” Julie said. And I grudgingly had to agree with what we’ve seen so far. I thought the contest of the world’s best waterfall would be much closer.
Anyways, since we were already here, we decided to literally soak up the experience – as uncomfortable as it would be even with the rain ponchos.
And so we braved a serious drenching on the Knife Edge Bridge to get to the other side, where all overlooks there were ridiculously whited out or hazy from lots of mist. Even as we walked away from the sun, we could see rainbows in front of us from weird angles; almost becoming circular.
Of course, none of that could be captured on camera. You’ll have to take my word for it.
When we had our fill of the falls, we next decided to leave the falls area and take a look at some of the souvenir shops lining the car park area.
What started as an innocent window shopping experience turned into a hasty retreat with constant refusals on our part as each vendor aggressively tried to get us into their shop and sell us their wares regardless of whether we were ready to buy or not.
I swear if you didn’t learn how to say no, you will learn it after one trip here!
Anyways, we next tried to look for taxis to get back to Chanter’s Lodge. Little did we know how much of a chore this would be.
Apparently, none of the blue taxi cars in the immediate car park area were available. They were all waiting for existing clients or something like that.
So we walked further out of the car park area and towards the main road. From there, we approached a few other taxis, but their quoted prices of around $20USD was way more than what Chanter had said, which shouldn’t be more than $10USD each way.
As we weren’t sure who we could trust, and we weren’t sure of our bartering abilities, we finally allowed ourselves to talk to a guy who insisted he’s working for the police station, which conveniently enough was right there.
When we told him we’d go back to Chanter’s Lodge for $10USD, he agreed.
But he took us in his own personal car parked on a sidewalk. The car was seriously beat up and had a small-sized spare tire.
Julie and I weren’t sure what to make of this as it certainly didn’t seem like one of those official blue taxis.
Anyways, we rolled with the punches and were off. But not before that car struggled to make it out of the sidewalk as the curb scraped its underside as it backed away.
As we made our way into Livingstone and then onto the side road that led to Chanter’s Lodge, the car struggled with the big potholes and sinkholes on that side road.
The car (and us) felt the pain of the car on every dip.
We really weren’t sure if this car was going to make it to the lodge let alone the poor guys making it back to the police station by Vic Falls.
Mercifully at 4:30pm, we were back at Chanter’s Lodge.
We paid the money and retreated to our room with soaked ponchos, wet shoes and socks, and even wet shirt and pants.
After getting cleaned up, Julie and I had a reasonably priced and delicious Zambian dinner at the lodge complete with Nshima (a maize-like staple food to be taken with the hand, rolled into a ball, and used to scoop food and sauces as it’s eaten) as well as fish and chicken with stews and curries.
All in all, it was an interesting start to the Vic Falls experience.
Day 2: “THIS IS AFRICA!”
After yesterday’s rather subpar experience with Victoria Falls, we looked forward to today as we had booked a helicopter ride to see the falls from the air. We also booked a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, which was highly recommended.
But before these tours, we did another round of the Zambia side of Victoria Falls – this time with the sun behind us so we expected to see rainbows in the right places.
By 9am, we made it back to the falls after catching a taxi that was summoned to Chanter’s Lodge.
Knowing which viewpoints yielded good and photographable views from yesterday’s brief visit, we went straight to them.
And we were sure glad we came back to the falls this morning because we were treated to double rainbows framing the full 1.7km waterfall!
After getting our fill of photographing the falls, we went looking for the Boiling Pots trail to the bottom of the falls. We didn’t bother with going back to yesterday’s walkways and overlooks knowing they would still be ridiculously misty.
It didn’t take long to find the well-formed trail descending deeper towards the base of the falls. As the descent flattened out, the trail passed by some strange bus noisy structure with the turbulent waters rising out of it and feeding a stream that drained into the Zambezi River.
We weren’t sure if that was the Boiling Pots or not (it turned out it wasn’t), but as the trail kept going, it seemed to get stuck on a flooded part where a water crossing was necessary. However, the water was moving fast and it wasn’t clear that the way forward was through the water…
So we turned back without seeing the apparent end of the trail.
On the way back up, some local said that the Boiling Pots was just on the other side of the water crossing.
With Julie already way ahead of me hastily getting back to the top so we could catch a taxi back to Livingstone in time to be picked up for our chopper tour, I knew I couldn’t go back and see the Boiling Pots for myself.
And so by 10:45am, we were back at the falls entrance. When the taxi driver (Angus) dropped us off at 9am, we arranged to meet with him before 11am. So there he was waiting for us, and we made it back to Chanter’s Lodge without the same drama as yesterday afternoon.
At 11:30am, we were picked up by the tour operator for the helicopter tour of the falls. The flight was slated to be only 15 minutes, but given the lack of views we were getting from the ground, we knew aerial views of the falls was the way to go.
At 12pm, we were on the tour sharing with another couple. Julie and I both sat in the back with Julie getting the unfortunate back middle seat.
With the exception of Julie’s poor seating, the pilot was good at ensuring that we’d get decent photos from both sides of the chopper as he made about 3 or 4 circuits of the falls from different angles and different heights. Of course the lucky guy in the front seat got the greatest views.
Nonetheless, with my camera set on rapid-fire mode, I got as many shots as I could with the precious little time we bought on the tour.
When all was said and done, we were quite happy with our tour. Heck, we even saw a wild elephant alone in the wildlife sanctuary just upstream from Livingstone Island just before we had to land. That was the very first time we saw a wild elephant!
Perhaps even more impressive was when we returned to the lobby, they already had a video for sale made out of the very tour we were on.
Wow, quick work!
Instead of heading back to Chanter’s Lodge, we had the tour operator drop us off at Rhapsody for lunch. Nothing extroardinary.
From there, we caught another taxi (probably paying more than we should) into Livingstone where we browsed around the street shops and braved the aggressive (almost harassing) vendors in an attempt to buy some souvenirs. We ended up buying a few carvings of animals even though we hadn’t seen the animals in person yet.
We then walked all the way back to Chanter’s Lodge from the street shops arriving there by 2:45pm where we saw Richard again.
With the Yellow Fever problem ever weighing on our minds, we relayed him our concerns as well as other concerns about crossing over to the Zimbabwe side. You see, the local clinic he suggested we might try would be closed tomorrow as it just so happened to be an African holiday.
To allay our fears, he told us, “Relax! This is Africa! They won’t stop you though it might cost you a few dollars…”
When Julie relayed to Chanter that she had read trip reports of delays lasting several hours at the Zim-Zam border, Chanter allayed them by saying they were most likely for vehicles and not for people crossing by foot.
At around 4pm, we were taken by a tour van from Chanter’s Lodge towards our sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. Along the way, the van ride was made interesting by the fact that it was filling up with other clients; especially a large crowd from the Fawlty Towers, which was a backpackers joint. That made the van much louder and rowdier.
It was quite clear that the young guys on there tried to impress the young girls who’d give them the time of day. It was also quite clear that they were probably after the open bar on the boat more than the scenery and wildlife.
The cruise began innocently enough on a three-level cruise boat. The bottom level was the quietest because it smelled of fuel and exhaust.
The second level was taken over by the backpackers.
The top level was where the older clients (including us) were.
Honestly though, the wildlife sightings were rather miniscule. We saw some hard-to-see giraffes, a crocodile, a few impalas, and a couple of common zebras. There were none of the famed hippos.
While Lonely Planet says the dry season is the time to come here because the river width and depth is less, we’re beginning to wonder whether the array of lodges on the banks of the river were somehow impacting the habitats of the animals.
Anyways, the sunset was interesting, especially with a tall flat-topped acacia in the distance.
But the real story was when we went back to the van to drop everyone off back at the accommodations.
That’s because the backpackers, drunk off their “booze cruise” experience, were loud and rowdy in the van. The singing (more like howling and screaming) was ear-splitting. Some of the locals and the older clients shook their heads and tried to mind their own business; albeit rather futilely.
Again, it’s all about the young guys trying to hit on the young girls helped along by the alcohol. And like in college dorms and house parties, you wonder if any of these guys are getting lucky…
By 7pm, we were mercifully back at Chanter’s Lodge. Clearly full from the sweet snacks and bottomless drinks of the booze cruise, we had dinner, but had trouble eating much of the food…
Day 3: VIC FALLS FROM THE DARK SIDE
At 8:30am, we left Chanter’s Lodge after breakfast for a medical clinic in an attempt to try to get the Yellow Fever Certificate. I said attempt because today was a national holiday in Zambia (which coincidentally happened to be Memorial Day back in the States).
After spending an hour catching various taxis going from one end of the town to another (paying as we went) and then visiting the home of a doctor, our efforts were in vain.
Still, it was quite an experience looking at the state of these medical clinics and how long the queues were, which mostly consisted of mothers and sick children or infants. I couldn’t imagine spending a national holiday in the hospital like this.
Anyways, by 9:45am, we caught a taxi to the Zambian border. From there, the moment of truth was upon us.
Obviously fearful of the unpredictability of the degenerating political situation of Zimbabwe thanks to Robert Mugabe, we considered not going to the Zim side. But being denied of seeing most of Vic Falls from this side was a real shame, and we decided that we couldn’t keep ourselves from crossing over.
It’s a shame that the election between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai was probably rigged with Mugabe-controlled militia and police using force to beat people who didn’t vote for Mugabe. Plus, the runoff election was announced before the vote tally was made, so it was pretty obvious the vote counting was rigged (it was delayed by over a month).
Anyways, we really had to weigh on whether to pay the Visas and park entrance fees to get into the Zim side, which meant adding to the coffers of the corrupt Mugabe regime. We felt really bad for the Zimbabweans who once laughed at Zambia with their superior economics and infrastructure, but now have become the laughingstock as their economy has completely collapsed.
We commenced our walk to the Livingstone Bridge in earnest. And not surprisingly, some people near the bridge started following us and pushing their wares on us. It was really getting annoying at this point because we weren’t allowed to enjoy the falls in peace for even a second!
The falls were quite scenic from the bridge, but the mist from the falls kind of obscured most of the photo ops.
Looking down from the bridge, we could see the turbulent river swirling and swishing. That must’ve been the Boiling Pots. Julie tried to assure me that we didn’t miss out on much by not making it to its edge yesterday morning.
The mist was wafting so high and the water was so plentiful that the falls created its own rain on a neighboring cliff resulting in a rather unusual waterfall – one fed solely on the mist of Victoria Falls!
As we hastily made our way across the misty Livingstone Memorial Bridge trying to ignore the peddlers who wouldn’t leave us alone, Julie alerted me to a rather unusual scene in front of us.
Two giant baboons were frantically running across the bridge towards us and it seemed like we were in the way.
But before they got real close to us, they apparently chased a couple of locals on the other side of the bridge before running right past us. I was way too much in shock to react in time to get out my camera to take a photo of the scene (until after they passed us), but there was a third baboon climbing on a neighboring bush on the Zim side of the bridge, which I did manage to photograph.
After crossing the bridge and passing by a guard armed with a semi-automatic weapon, we next walked perhaps another kilometer or so on a road between the Zim border post and the Livingstone Bridge
Julie was worried for her safety at this point and kept walking quickly with heads down trying hard to ignore more peddlers and now beggars. I had trouble ignoring the beggars, especially since I felt real bad for the Zimbabweans who can’t even buy a loaf of broad for over a million Zimbabwean Dollars.
Anyways, we managed to finally get to the border post where we showed our passports, paid the fairly reasonably $30USD Visa, and continued a short distance further to the Victoria Falls park entrance where another $20 entry fee per person was collected.
And by 10:30am, we were finally away from the dodgy main road and into the relative peace of the falls – from the dark side.
It was clear that tourism on this side of the falls clearly suffered as it was much much quieter here than on the Zambia side. And that was too bad because it turned out that the Zim side seemed to have more viewpoints and perhaps better views than from the Zam side.
And although the vast majority of the viewpoints were literally a misty mess where you couldn’t see anything except a shower of mist and rain, the experience was extensive enough and the views good enough that we started to reconsider our debate of whether Vic Falls is better than Iguazu Falls.
We had close views of the thunderous Devil’s Cataract, saw where the infamous Devil’s Pool was supposed to be (no way you’d be hanging over the edge of the falls this time of the year – for sure!), plus saw what we could of the named components of the falls such as Horseshoe Falls and Rainbow Falls, and even stood bravely on the seriously drenched Danger Point. It was a useless act to take the camera out of the relative safety of the poncho cover.
At the very end of the walk, we saw bungy jumpers thrilling themselves by launching off the Livingstone Bridge and plunging towards the turbulent Zambezi River below. From our vantage point, we could see very satisfying rainbows decorating the adrenaline-junkie scene.
After having our fill of the falls, we walked back to the entrance, but not before seeing a few more monkeys and baboons making appearances on the trail.
As we left the park at around 1:20pm, we had to re-enter the main road and the awaiting peddlers and beggars. Once again, we walked with determined haste trying to ignore everyone and get back to at least the Zimbabwe border patrol as quickly as possible.
I guess we can now see another reason why people are so reluctant to cross over the bridge to see the falls from the opposite side.
Anyways after getting the passport control formalities out of the way, we continued onwards to the long march to the Livingstone Bridge still ignoring the persistent beggars and peddlers. One step at a time, one goal at a time.
Indeed this hasty march to the border reminded me of the Mogadishu Mile scene from the movie “Black Hawk Down” where anything can happen as we walked vulnerably through a gauntlet of sketchy and unpredictable people.
One person pushing a taxi ride back to Livingstone actually followed us from the Zim border all the way to the other side of the bridge at the Zam border.
After getting our re-entry Visas presented along with our passports, we were finally officially back on the Zambia side.
And that persistent taxi salesguy’s tactic apparently worked because we ended up taking his taxi back to Chanter’s Lodge at the recommended $10USD.
At about 1:45pm, we were finally back at the lodge. We spent the rest of the afternoon chilling out knowing that we were finally able to do Victoria Falls just about every way you possibly can.
Of course our enthusiasm was still curbed with the persistent Yellow Fever Certificate concerns. Still, there was nothing we could do at this point and we could only hope that something positive happens when we do the Zambia Waterfall Safari commencing from Lusaka tomorrow.
We enjoyed one last delicious authentic Zambian dinner from Chanter’s Lodge before getting our belongings ready to continue our trip of a lifetime tomorrow…
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