Most people visit Zambia solely to experience the magnificent Victoria Falls, but it has many other charms worth discovering
It had been a long trip from the UK to Zambia, filled with interminable waits and several changes on to ever-smaller aircraft. It all became worth it, however, when – finally en route to Livingstone – the pilot thoughtfully dipped a wing to reveal one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and the reason most people come to Zambia: the Victoria Falls. Viewed from several thousand feet above, it’s incredibly dramatic – a gaping chasm in the earth into which millions of gallons of water pour with such force that it sends clouds of spray billowing high into the air, visible for miles around. It looks for all the world like steam pouring from a boiling kettle – a very big kettle, at that. Little wonder, then, that the locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya – the smoke that thunders.
While the Victoria Falls are the main draw for tourists, it doesn’t take long for Zambia’s laidback charms to reveal themselves. Driving from the airport, our bus attracted crowds of children who came running alongside us, smiling and waving and running away with squeals of delight when we waved back. Brightly-dressed women walked, hips swaying, with large pots perfectly balanced on their heads, while men squatted in the red dirt in any shade they could find. The smell of Africa – rich, earthy – came in through the windows.
We soon reached our accommodation – a simple dwelling of permanent tents and chalets clustered on the banks of one of Africa’s mightiest waterways. The Zambezi Waterfront Lodge is basic but attractive, set in spacious landscaped grounds with an open-air bar and two pools. I threw my backpack on the camp-bed set up inside my tent and made my way to the bar, where I settled in for the afternoon, a cold beer in hand as lizards flickered around my feet and monkeys chattered in the trees overhead.
The best way to explore the broad expanse of the Zambezi River is to take a cruise – several vessels ply the calm waters, serving food and drinks as you soak up the scenery. A sunset boat trip revealed snorting hippos cooling off in the mud, baboons playing on the shore and impalas skipping in and out of the trees. As we sipped our chilled beers and watched the sun melt into the horizon in a riot of deep oranges and pinks, I knew I’d lost my heart to Africa for good.
Although Zambia’s game reserves are some of the finest – and least touristy – in Africa, they’re not the main attraction for those visiting the country. That honour goes to the magnificent Victoria Falls, whose crashing torrent of water, haloed with rainbows, is without question one of the finest sights you’ll ever see. Picking your way gingerly along the soaking paths, you can get up close and very personal with the Falls – just a little chain separates you from the wall of water roaring down into the abyss below. Even wearing a ridiculous plastic poncho – which barely reduces the drenching you get from the spray – can’t take away from the exhilaration of the experience. It’s hard to believe that the calm waters of the upper Zambezi River end up in this tumultuous wash.
Adrenaline junkies are spoiled for choice in Livingstone – it deserves its reputation as the adventure capital of Zambia. White-water rafting, micro-lighting and jet-boating are all available. Oh, and there’s the second highest bungee jump in the world. If you don’t fancy plummeting head first towards the Zambezi River, it’s just as much fun to watch before heading back to your tent and swapping stories in the bar.