The private motorboat whisks us down the Zambezi River, just upstream from the thunderous Victoria Falls, and I spy my first giraffe. He emerges from the tall trees, lumbering in the open for a brief moment before disappearing back into his camouflage. Off to the right, a pod of hippos bellows, a vervet monkey gives us a funny stare and catapults onto a tree branch, and then a herd of elephants— including babies—graces us with their presence as they come to the water’s edge to take a drink.
This is about as intimate as you get on a wildlife excursion, and the thing is, we are simply on our way to a luxurious bush camp on a secluded river isle. The petite safari is a mere side note to an all-encompassing 5-star experience comprising ultimate pampering in the bush.
That evening, we dine by candlelight—enjoying exquisite, braai-rubbed bream with plenty of local (South African) wine—on a deck elevated up in the trees. Monkeys and cicadas serenade us beneath a dark canopy of dazzling stars, they’re so close you can almost reach out and touch them.
Such is life in the Zambia wild.
At long last, this south-central African nation, which gained its independence from the British in 1964 (and formerly called Northern Rhodesia), is beginning to receive the recognition it deserves as an epic safari and adventure destination. Many of its national parks, especially in the country’s southern part, boast the Big 5 game animals (Cape buffalo, lion, elephant, rhino, leopard), luxury safari camps and lodges, and excellent guiding (the walking safari was founded at South Luangwa National Park 3 decades ago). And yet it remains an under-the-radar destination.
The spectacular Victoria Falls is the country’s most famous site, straddling the Zambia-Zimbabwe border. You can visit from either side, which are connected by the Victoria Falls Bridge. Zimbabwe traditionally has been the more popular entry point, with the development of hotels in the 1960s. But recent political turmoil there has made Zambia preferable, with the town of Livingstone as the perfect base.
Located six miles north of the falls, Livingstone is filled with Western-style and African restaurants (try Café Zambezi on Mosi-Oa-Tunya Road), lots of lodging options, and the fabulous Livingstone Museum, which has some possessions of famed Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone among its vast, fascinating rooms; he was the first white man to come across the falls back in 1855. Strolling its streets, you can see how the city retains the relaxed charm and lower prices of another time.
That said, relaxation is not on my mind the next morning as we head to Livingstone Island—the same spot from which Dr. Livingstone first viewed the falls. Standing there above the vast, rainbow-festooned wall of falling water, he declared the scene “so lovely [it] must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
During the dry season, you can actually swim in the small, natural Devil’s Pool on Livingstone Island, with gossamer mists and rainbows swirling all around. And that’s exactly what we do, following our guide in a half-walk, half-swim across a channel, just above a plummeting chute of water, holding onto a safety rope—just in case. We climb atop a rocky outlet, take a deep breath and get ready for the last little push across a narrow channel before we are in the pool. One last little push that, if we get caught up in the slow-moving current instead … I force myself not to think about the what-ifs and, while my heart pounds, safely arrive.
After that excitement, we opt for a more sedate afternoon walking around Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. Trails lace rainforest-shaded cliffs opposite the falls, providing one breathtaking viewpoint of bellowing water after the next. Originating 700 plus miles to the north, the Zambezi River — Africa’s fourth longest — rounds a bend at the Zambia–Zimbabwe border and, more than 1.25 miles wide at this point, plummets 355 feet off a basalt fissure in one continuous sheet. The local Makololo referred to the falls as Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders,” an apt description, given you can see the mist rising from this thundering cataract up to a dozen miles away. Livingstone named the falls after his queen, and they remain in the books as the world’s largest curtain of falling water. Standing there on Knife-Edge Bridge high above Boiling Pot, taking in the churning, booming intensity beneath us (and getting drenched in the process). I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude and the hugeness of it all.
Victoria Falls is renowned for its adventurous activities, including whitewater rafting, bungee jumping, microlighting, riverboarding and helicopter rides. We decide to board a sunset ride on the Royal Livingstone Express, a brass-gleaming, wood-paneled, Victorian-era steam train that includes a 5-course meal in a private dining car. Rumbling through the bush, we emerge at a picture-perfect view from Victoria Falls Bridge just as the fiery sun makes its final descent behind the immense watery breadth of the falls. Sipping a sundowner, admiring this remarkable panorama in the heart of Africa, it feels as though Dr. David Livingstone himself might come ambling down the aisle.
If you’re looking for a safari, most people recommend going to nearby Chobe National Park in Botswana for the real deal (though, in all reality, day trips arrive too late in the morning to catch the best wildlife and leave before the afternoon cools down sufficiently for the animals to reappear). With just a couple days here, I opt for a mini-safari within Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, a section of which runs along the Zambezi just above the falls. Elephants, wildebeest, warthogs, zebras, giraffes, kudu, hippos, Cape buffalo—we see them all. Though I admit I am a tad nervous when we come across a bull elephant in the middle of the roadway.
“It’s fine,” says Keegan, our guide.
And then the elephant starts trumpeting and flapping its ears.
Keegan backs up our jeep slowly. “He won’t hurt us,” he reassures the group. But the extremely experienced guide clearly doesn’t like the flapping ears.
“I can’t look,” I say, shading my eyes as the elephant advances even closer, losing probably the best photo of the day. While going on a safari and viewing the beautiful wildlife is a breathtaking experience, such encounters serve as a reminder that this is the animals’ land and we are visitors. Thankfully, the standoff ends with the bull wandering off into the bush to snatch a branch off a tree. Apparently, we had interrupted his lunch.
The one animal Mosi-Oa-Tunya doesn’t have is the lion (or any of the big cats), which are kept away due to the nearby town population. “Lions and people don’t mix,” Keegan says. But the park does have rare white rhino, 13 of them, which we next go in search of … on foot.
White rhinos aren’t actually white; the name comes from a misinterpretation of the Dutch word for “wide,” which describes the lip of this grazing variety. Thanks to the aphrodisiacal-alleged nature of their horn, poachers had effectively exterminated all of Zambia’s original white rhinos by the early nineties. Mosi-Oa-Tunya is on the forefront of reintroducing them into the wild, and with four babies born since the program began in 2005, the national park is one of the few places in the world where the white rhino is actually growing in population. And they’re heavily guarded from poachers, 24/7. Two men carrying huge guns flank us front and back as we slowly walk single file through the bush. I’m well aware of the fact that those guns are there to protect us, but even more so, they’re there to protect the rhinos. And then we see them: 6 of these prehistoric looking creatures.
No trip to Victoria Falls is complete without watching the sunset from the Royal Livingstone Hotel. Okay, the hotel may look like a holdover of colonial grandeur, with its elegant hunting lodge appeal and giraffes and zebras sauntering across the sweeping lawns, but it was actually built in 2001. Nevertheless, its iron chandeliers, gilt mirrors, and polished floors, provide a genteel haven from the outside world.
Sipping a mojito beneath an ancient Mutondo tree on the deck out back, overlooking the mighty Zambezi River, we sit with other spectators, all facing the sun as it slowly descends into the river. Everyone is hushed as the red-hot orb slips away and the sky turns pink, then purple, then black, and the first stars twinkle.
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