Victoria Falls are arguably one of the worlds most beautiful natural wonders. We stayed in the area, on the Zimbabwe side of the falls, for four days. Before we arrived, we did some research and had decided that we were also going to visit the falls from the Zambia side, as well as doing a river cruise in Botswana. That didn’t happen. Turns out that had we done a little more research, our trip would have ended up being very different. Here are a few things to know before arriving in Victoria Falls to help you get the most out of your visit.
Victoria Falls occur within the Zambezi River, which acts as a natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. it is possible to visit the falls from each respective country, and the river itself is considered a “no mans land” between the two. Livingston, the city on the Zambia side of the falls, is a larger city than the city of Victoria Falls, on the Zimbabwe side. We decided to fly in to Zambia but stayed in Zimbabwe because we were able to find less expensive flights and accommodations. What we didn’t fully take into consideration was the cost of visas to travel between the two countries.
Teaser – here’s a quick peek at what you’ll see:
A Word About Visas
This was the crux of the problem for us. We had actually done some research and were pretty sure that we had a solid plan. We flew into Zambia, where the Irish get a free visa (we hold both Irish and US passports). The border agent was actually very friendly and said, you don’t make us pay when we enter Ireland, so Zambia returns the favor. Our plans was to get a uniVisa, which would allow us to cross back and forth between Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana for our entire stay. We were told that we weren’t able to purchase the visa in Zambia (by the agent), so our plan was to go with that option when we crossed into Zimbawe. The problem occurred when we reached the Zimbabwe border, where we were told that since we had already passed through Zambia, we were no longer eligible for the univisa. WHATTTT??? The only option we were given was a purchase a single entry visa, which required us to pay each time we crossed a border, and those costs ranged from $40 to $50 US for each crossing.
We ran into more confusion, by way of two German women, on the way back to the airport in Zambia. They had been told by their agent that they wouldn’t need to purchase a visa because they were just passing through to the airport. The border control agent in Zambia had a different opinion on that, and they had to fork over $50 US, which they didn’t have. The van driver ended up paying their fees so that they could pass through. We heard his very real concern that he would potentially lose his job over this, and jobs in the area are not easy to come by.
You can find more information about visa requirement for Zimbabwe here.
Getting Around Victoria Falls
There are plenty of taxis and private van services to assist with transfers to accommodations in Livingston, Zambia or to get you across the borer to Zimbabwe. The trip to the border takes about 20 minutes, then it is necessary to change vehicles. Rules and restrictions for taking a car over the border (which is a bridge crossing, complete with lots of mist from the falls). If you go the taxi route, you get dropped at the border, take a soggy walk over the bridge, and then locate a different taxi on the other side. Interesting that we found plenty of abandoned rusting cars lined up on both sides of the crossing. Our first ride was rather expensive for the short trip (25 minutes total and $35 US each). The trip included a stop at the transfer company’s office where we were also given the “opportunity” to buy tours. We found another service (Wild Horizons) which charged $25 US. Once we arrived at our hotel everything was pretty much within walking distance, although we were warned to only use official cabs or ones that were called for you by your hotel.
Money Matters – Exchange and Cash Machines
The collapse of the Zambabwe’s currency has resulted in their reliance on the US dollar. As we walked around there were lots of people trying to sell us the defunct cash, as the astonishingly high numbered bills, capping out at a note for 100 trillion dollars, is now a collectors item.
So using US dollars and cash were no problem in restaurants and stores. The problem arose when we needed to pay cash in order to enter the national parks. There are plenty of cash machines, but many of them were completely empty. We visited nine in one day and finally found one cash machine with a VERY long line.
Visiting the Smoke That Thunders
We were about a 15 to 20 minute walk from the Victoria Falls park entrance, and could actually see the mist rising from our hotel. Locals call the falls Mosikalamosikala, meaning, the smoke that thunders. It is a spectacular sight from the Zimbabwe side (unfortunately, as previously mentioned, the opportunity for us to view it from Zambia was now off the table due to the need to go through two border crossings at about $40 each way, no thanks). What I hadn’t anticipated was how wet we would get. We visited in early June when the water level is pretty high. As we walked through the path along with falls, some areas had so much water coming down that it was like passing through a heavy rainstorm. I had passed up the offer to purchase a raincoat across the street from the falls (which looked well worn as if having been picked out of the trash, a few times). None were for sale once passing through the park gate, which surprised me. So plan ahead and bring a raincoat AND umbrella.
A Walk on the Wild Side
The town of Victoria Falls is smack dab in the middle of a national park area. Despite that it came as a bit of a shock when we were walking down the road to get to the falls, and heard something crashing through the brush. A bull elephant appeared almost out of nowhere, and actually trumpeted and started to run toward us. It stopped when it was clear that we were moving away (me at a full run). It turns out that elephants roam freely in the area. We actually saw another one passing by the restaurant where we were having dinner on another night. There were also plenty of baboons running around the town and mongoose were frequent visitors at our hotel. There are no fences in this wild African bush to separate wildlife and tourists. It can be a thrilling encounter, but best to know in advance.
Safety and The Tourist Police
We were given the standard warnings by our hotel (via a note in the information manual inside our room) about safety. Keep valuables in the safe, keep your door locked when not in your room, don’t flash expensive jewelry or equipment in public areas, etc. We didn’t feel unsafe (minus the elephant incident mentioned earlier) but there were a large number of persistent people on the street asking for money or trying to sell us things. Visiting places where the poverty is palpable is eye-opening and difficult. That said, we found most of the locals that we met to be very welcoming. For an added bit of safety, there are plenty of tourist police around that are more than happy to help. One even walked us to a restaurant located off the main street because elephants frequently use the same path. As she said good bye to us, she said “Tell your friends that they should visit, we will keep you safe while you are here.”
Things To Do and Park Entrance Fees
There are QUITE a few tour operators lingering around in Victoria Falls. There is a fantastic array of things to do in Victoria Falls, such as go on game drives, zip-lining, river cruises, rafting, canoeing and even helicopter rides over the falls. Keep in mind that each time you do an activity, it likely involves entering a park, and therefore paying entrance fees. Those ran around $20 each, and the cost wasn’t included in the listed price. The fees also need to be paid in cash.
We decided to join a sunset cruise, which ended up being a really good value at $45 per person because we saw a lot of game, had a fun boat ride with an open bar and some nice snacks. We were also able to catch this amazing sunset.
In retrospect, we probably would have skipped the 15 minute helicopter ride at $180 each, but what the heck, now we can cross it off our list. Helicopter ride – check.
A Few Places to Eat
Expect to pay tourist prices when you eat out at restaurants in Victoria Falls, especially when the restaurant comes with a view. That is the case with the Lookout Cafe, where you can watch people zip-lining and taking the “big swing” while enjoying lunch and a spectacular view. Remember to watch out for elephants on the path!
We also ate some pretty good wood fired pizza at The Three Monkeys restaurant, located just on the outskirts of town (try the chicken peri-peri version for something different.) They also have a very popular skewer featuring beef, and local game meat, including warthog. Mama Africa serves up local Zimbabwean dishes such as curries and grilled local fish.
Don’t Feed the Monkeys
In general, everyone knows that feeding wild animals isn’t recommended, but in the case of monkeys or baboons, it can be a complete disaster. Apparently feeding is considered an act of submission in “monkey speak”. Since they now feel dominant, the baboons have taken to stealing food right out of tourists hands, or opening doors in order to take food from inside houses or cars. They can even become very aggressive. We came across quite a few baboons and didn’t have any difficulties as we just ignored them and kept walking.
Just Do It!
Looking back on our four day mini-vacation, I can say we had a great time despite things not going as we planned. We opted not to take the Chobe River game viewing tour in Botswana or to see the falls from the Zambia side as planned due to the visa issues. Which is part of the reason we decided to write this article. We know that Zimbabwe has its political and economic problems, but overall those didn’t detract from visiting. For us, we travel to experience new things and, we can say, without a doubt, that Zimbabwe delivered. If you need a little more convincing, I’ve got it right here:
If you are also planning a visit to South Africa’s Kruger Park during your stay in Africa – come back and check out our (soon to be written) ways to get a luxury Kruger experience on a budget.
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