Home to some of the world’s greenest destinations, the African continent has put sustainable travel front and centre for years. And that includes the bucket list-topping Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe – or, as it is known in Lozi, Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders. Culture Trip reports.
In the northwest corner of Zimbabwe, on the border with Zambia, is the world’s largest sheet of falling water. This might sound like a fancy way of saying “waterfall” – and, really, it is – but Victoria Falls is not the highest, nor the widest, waterfall in the world; those accolades go to Angel Falls in Venezuela and Iguazu Falls, which straddles Argentina and Brazil.
What sets Victoria Falls apart is the sheer volume of water that pours, along the span of the Zambezi River, into an immense basalt gorge. Its combined width and height are what give it the title of world’s largest waterfall, and in high season up to 110m gallons of water per minute can gush over. To put that in perspective, in four days that’s the equivalent of New York City’s water consumption for an entire year.
So it’s no surprise that tourism is the main industry here, providing the vast majority of its 60,000 residents with work. But while tourism brings opportunity, major challenges also face the town. Poaching remains a threat to the animals of Zambezi National Park, its other big draw, and in 2019, the spread of misinformation on social media left many locals on the brink of losing their income.
Hospitality group Africa Albida Tourism is one of the organisations in Victoria Falls with a commitment to keeping the destination green, in every sense of the word. “Zimbabwe has a wonderful culture of conservation,” says Ross Kennedy, the chief executive of Africa Albida Tourism. “For a long time we have been market leaders and trendsetters in that field, but other countries have come to realise it’s the only way to do it.”
If you’re planning a trip to see this natural wonder, here’s how you can best support the businesses working to protect Victoria Falls’ local communities and preserve Zimbabwe’s precious wildlife.
Around the end of 2019, photos appeared across news sites claiming to show that Victoria Falls had dried to a trickle due to climate change. And although it is true that Zimbabwe was experiencing a drought in the second half of 2019 – which meant the water level was lower than usual, even for the dry season – the shrinking of the falls was not abnormal.
The water levels are affected by the seasons, and each year, between July and December, two of the five main waterfalls – Horseshoe Falls and Eastern Cataract in Zambia – can dry up. But those few viral photos hit the local industry hard. “Someone saying it’s dried up has reduced tourism,” says Kennedy. “People are cancelling holidays, guides are out of work and people are in danger of losing their jobs. [Tourism] is the only industry this town has.”
What many don’t realise is that low water levels are, in fact, what make it possible to access attractions such as the Devil’s Pool in Zambia, a precipitous natural rock pool right on the edge of the falls. If you want to see the falls in their full glory, the time to visit is April; however, high season actually runs between July and August, when the water levels are lower. The driest part of the season, from October to November, is when the eastern portion of the falls dries, but water levels on the west side remain impressive, and water-based activities such as rafting and swimming are possible.
It’s immediately clear where the Lozi name for Victoria Falls comes from – you can see the mist created by the falls from your plane window as you touch down at Victoria Falls Airport, and it’s visible drifting over treetops from different spots around town. The best views are from Zimbabwe, where roughly two-thirds of the falls are located. The roar of the water is audible wherever you are, and the park’s pathways meander through forests of acacia trees and ivory palms, emerging at vantage points that allow you to take in the water from multiple perspectives. You’ll end up soaked from head to toe in the process, so waterproof cases for phones and cameras are essential. Visit with a guide to make the most of the experience – you’ll be supporting the local economy and their insight into the history of the falls, its cultural significance and the native flora and fauna that surround it will be invaluable.
To really appreciate the scale of Victoria Falls, you should take a helicopter tour. Bonisair – which is entirely owned and operated by Zimbabweans – offers flights that fly over the falls in a figure of eight to give each passenger the best view possible. After take-off, it’s possible to spot wildlife such as elephants and giraffes among the bush, before Victoria Falls appears spectacularly, rushing into a vast chasm in the flat landscape. The natural wonder formed hundreds of millions of years ago and now stretches for nearly 1.2mi (2km), spanning the Zambezi River at its widest point.
Victoria Falls sits in the easternmost part of the Kalahari, on the edge of Zambezi National Park, where it’s possible to spot zebras, wildebeest, elephants, giraffes and big cats, including lions (of which it is estimated there are only 20,000 left in all of Africa). Poaching remains the biggest threat to biodiversity in the area, and you can support the work of the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit by choosing ethical tour operators such as Discover Safaris, whose founder, Charles Brightman, established the unit along with Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in 1999.
On a game drive, you’ll make your way through the savannah, an ancient riverbed reclaimed by grassland, with a pit-stop along the way for snacks and a gin and tonic. Brightman’s passion for the wildlife he works to protect – every animal and insect from the dung beetles to the majestic greater kudu – is infectious. “It’s not always about the Big Five,” he says. “We attract a more discerning traveller, those with a greater appreciation for being in the bush.”
Though it may seem paradoxical, one of the best ways to protect the wildlife that lives in the park is to book game drives. “Tourism plays a very big part in animal conservation,” says Brightman. “Local communities need to see the direct benefit of having animals in the area.”
When Africa Albida Tourism built Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, it did so within wildlife-watching distance of a natural watering hole. You can often see elephants, buffalo and hyenas from your room, or the swimming pool and restaurants, which are open to the public. Experts demarcated the natural game tracks around the watering hole in order to avoid disturbing the bush and its animals. “You are still deeply embedded in Africa, even though you come here for the falls,” says Kennedy. Guided sits in a hide (camouflaged to look like a termite mound) on the water’s edge are also available for closer encounters and can be booked by non-guests.
Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is also involved in important conservation work with vultures. Every day at 1pm the hotel runs the Culture Vulture experience, when visitors are led down to a hide from where it’s possible to view the wild birds feeding. Human-created issues including power lines and poisoned food supplies mean their numbers are falling, so this feeding programme provides them with safe leftover meat from the hotel. Watch as hundreds of white-headed, hooded, lappet-faced and white-backed vultures flock to the ground, while learning more about their fascinating ecological importance. It’s one of the only free activities in Victoria Falls, although $1 donations are encouraged.
The Zambezi River is the fourth-longest river in Africa, and on a trip to Victoria Falls you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to float along its waters at sunset. Wild Horizons offers the best cruises and a sustainable ethos – it established the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, which rescues and rehabilitates animals orphaned by poaching. Relax with a cocktail and a selection of snacks as the boat drifts among animals such as crocodiles and bird species including golden weavers. The river’s resident hippos are the stars of the show, and often rise out of the water to stretch their mouths wide and show their teeth – a wildlife photographer’s dream.
Towering above the bush, Victoria Falls Safari Lodge stands as tall as a seven-storey building and has been constructed entirely from timber with a hand-cut thatched roof. Its lagoon-style pool and glass-walled gym both come with far-reaching views over Zambezi National Park, as do the bar and restaurant. In addition to funding conservation efforts such as the Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit, the hotel supports local sustainable initiatives such as the Victoria Falls Recycling Centre, and its decor comes from local artisans at the craft market. All rooms are thoughtfully stocked with ecofriendly suncream and insect repellent, too. It’s the only west-facing hotel in town, which means sundowners come with particularly spectacular African sunsets – an even more impressive sight when animals gather at the watering hole. Book the smaller, neighbouring Victoria Falls Safari Club for complementary canapés and cocktails out on the deck each evening.
If you’re keen to sample a variety of Zimbabwean food and dip your toe into the country’s traditions, book a meal at the Boma Dinner & Drum Show. You’ll be dressed in a traditional chitenge (sarong) as you enter, after which you can taste local brews and dishes such as impala, peanut butter spinach and sadza (a thick porridge made from ground maize) from a huge buffet. Adventurous foodies can also try a mopane worm (you’ll be presented with a certificate to prove your bravery). The night unfolds with a variety of performances, including a moving acapella group, mbira (a traditional Zimbabwean instrument) music and traditional dancing. Eventually, the audience is drawn into an interactive drumming show with djembe (goblet) drums and the evening finishes with a huge dance-off. Don’t let that put you off – even the most adamantly reluctant revellers end up moving their feet with a smile on their face.
To pick up a few sustainable souvenirs, head over to Victoria Falls Craft Market, where you can browse works by artists such as Ishumael Mhike. Mhike creates incredible, intricate animal sculptures from old drinks cans (including Zimbabwe’s national beer, Zambezi) and you’ll see his work hanging in Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, which commissioned him to make chandeliers from recycled cans. Peruse paintings, sketches or antique books from the other shops and stalls, before walking over the road to the traditional market. There you’ll find stalls crammed with intricate carvings made from wood, soapstone and verdite, and fabrics covered in traditional Zimbabwean patterns.
In a town that relies heavily on tourism, managing waste is no small task. The hospitality industry is notoriously wasteful, but organisations such as Africa Albida Tourism and Greenline Africa trust are working to develop long-term scalable solutions. Charlene Hewat, who was born and raised in Zimbabwe, has long supported conservation efforts in the country. She cycled from the UK to Zimbabwe in 1987 to raise awareness for rhinos, and is the founder of Greenline, which supports rural communities around the Falls through implementing self-sustaining social enterprises.
She is also the recycling co-ordinator at Victoria Falls Recycling Center, which was created by AAT and Greenline after four elephants were found with plastic and cans in their digestive systems five years ago. Both organisations are encouraging other hotels to get rid of single-use plastics, and are devising ways to upcycle collected rubbish into souvenirs. They also have plans to work with local farmers and help them supply produce to other hotels in Victoria Falls – and all of this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“We are working towards Victoria Falls becoming Africa’s green destination. As a conservationist I am so excited because I think we are way ahead of other destinations in the region,” says Hewat. “What I love about AAT is that it’s not just words. They are doing what I believe is true green tourism and true sustainable tourism.”
African Pride offers seven nights in a club room at the Victoria Falls Safari Club from £2,759, B&B. The price, based on a November 15, 2020 departure, includes return flights from Heathrow via Johannesburg to Victoria Falls and transfers; africaalbidatourism.com, 01904 619 428. Sofia Vyas was hosted by Africa Albida Tourism. Victoria Falls Tourlink provided complimentary airport transfers.