Following reports on western media that Victoria Falls has dried to a trickle, Wendy Watta books a stay at Thorntree River Lodge and covers 3,000km from Nairobi to Zambia to see if there’s any truth to this, then stays to explore the tourist town of Livingstone.
International media outlets have been reporting that Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, has dried to a trickle after one of the biggest droughts in recent history, caused by climate change. I was dismayed by these reports…how could the largest sheet of falling water in the world, at about 1,700m and crossing borders between Zambia and Zimbabwe be drying up? If there was a chance that I would never see the falls in my lifetime, I wanted to make the most of whatever time was left by heading down to Zambia. A friend and I made a road trip out of it, covering over 3,000km from Nairobi to Livingstone via Tanzania, and with the help of Thorntree River Lodge by African Bush Camps, coming up with a plan to visit the falls while also exploring this tourist hotspot.
The lodge is set within Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and we kept within the 65 kmph speed limit until we got to the entrance where we were jubilantly welcomed by staff members singing traditional Zambian Tonga songs. A soothing drink and complimentary neck and shoulder massage followed, a relaxing reprieve after our long journey. We were booked here for two nights and even for the most jaded of travelers, the location and outfitting of the spaces at Thorntree River Lodge are simply spectacular. The Zambezi River is the crowning jewel and the design of the property which is set right on its banks, coupled with the Fox Browne Creative-led decor draws inspiration from it. There are only 12 chic rooms on the property. A favourite piece in my cabin was a large striking tribal black and white David Ballam portrait of a boy balancing a pot on his head. A huge double bed with LED lights under it glowed in the dark, and there was a lounging area to the side. A walk in closet, indoor shower and a bathtub looking out onto the river completed the space. There were sliding doors in the room which went all the way back completely opening up the space to the front porch and surrounding greenery. Given the privacy, clothing here was optional. An outdoor shower and pool on the side deck of the room were only a few metres from my bed, and with everything overlooking the water, it was by all accounts a beautiful space.
The decor in the main living spaces was contemporary urban. Cool and moody from the black and blue palette used in the upholstery, and yet bright and airy from all the light coming in through the floor to ceiling glass walls as well as contrasting white furniture. Decorative copper jugs of various sizes gleamed on teak tables as they caught the afternoon light. There were also elements of basketry by Zambia’s BaTonga community, showcased in woven pieces such as decorative traditional fishing nets and light fixtures above the bar. The layering of various textures, the traditional and the contemporary, the bespoke and the vintage enriched the cozy spaces which looked like they belonged on the cover of a high end decor magazine.
I reluctantly tore myself away from sunbathing on a sleek white chaise lounge partially submerged on the shallow end of a rim-flow pool to set off for Victoria Falls with our appointed guide, Quentino. The instructions were simple: wear clothes and shoes you wouldn’t mind getting wet (I went for shorts, a tank top and sandals with good grip). Having paid the $20 entrance fee, we spent the next hour and a half walking from one viewing point to the other, each offering a different perspective of the falls.
Euphoria washed over me the very first time I saw Victoria Falls and I started screaming as though I had just lost my mind until my travel buddy had to yank me out of my trance. It was the most spectacular view I had ever seen in my life; pictures and videos don’t even do it justice. The dark basalt cliff down which the falls thundered with sheer ferocity transformed the Zambezi River from a tranquil pool of water gently flowing along the earth to an untamed beast gushing down a series of dramatic gorges 100m below. As I gazed at the mist which hung above the rushing water, I could see why it was called MosiOa-Tunya in the local language, translating to ‘the smoke that thunders’. Victoria Falls had by no means dried up this season. I also spotted two pronounced rainbows curved as if posing for a picture right above the falls, each at separate viewpoints. They were hard to miss.
Quentino handed us green rain ponchos and we suited up then made our way through the rain-forest to yet another viewpoint as tremendous water sprays from the falls pelted at us. We passed the bridge over the second gorge and from which adrenaline junkees often bungee jump then made our way to Knife-edge Bridge which turned out to be my favourite part of the entire walk. It was pouring down in torrents and there was a fog above the Eastern Cataract, Main Falls and Boiling Pot which blurred into white obscurity in the distance, but the dangerous drop looked otherworldly. Cold and with our waterproof phones spent, we crossed over to the dry side.
At one of the shallow points of the river we saw a crafts vendor from a stand at the main entrance to the falls come to wash his hands and face in the water. Quentino explained the superstition behind this; he had just opened shop and believed he would get more customers. The water here was thought to be so powerful that if you were sick in the local community, you would be brought here to swim, fully clothed. Afterwards you would undress and leave your clothes to be washed away by the water, an act of washing away whatever ailed you.
WALKING WITH WHITE RHINOS
Still with Quentino who had become more like a friend than a guide, we set off to track white rhinos on foot at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. He explained that in 2006, Zambia exchanged several sable antelopes for two male and two female white rhinos from South Africa. After being brought in, the animals delayed breeding. When vets came to study them, they discovered that they were being disrupted at their feeding area by the low-flying micro-flights taking guests over the Victoria Falls. Having been moved to a different area (although they still freely roam all over the park) the number multiplied, but today there are eight white rhinos down from 13 in 2018. Two were poached (the perpetrators each got seven years in jail), two died naturally, there was a new born baby in 2019, and a few days before our arrival, two were killed by a truck which had been disregarding the speed limit on the public tarmac road to Botswana which cuts through the park.
We got an armed AK-47 wielding ranger who had been tracking the animals all morning and followed him a single file for about 10 minutes past bushes trimmed by impalas and bush bucks. Then we came to a clearing where two young female and one male white rhino were peacefully browsing, unperturbed by our presence. At less than 100m away, we were practically eye to eye.
SUNSET CRUISE ON THE ZAMBEZI
Back in my room at Thorntree River Lodge, I was lying on a sunbed by my very own pool watching several monkeys flitting from tree to tree when I got a call reminding me that we had a sunset river cruise set up. What followed was a gentle and relaxing cruise on the Zambezi River, past water berries and various freshwater birds like the Egyptian goose, as our captain Ezekial fixed us gin and tonics then proceeded to steer the boat upstream. The sun, when it started its descent, turned everyone on board into a poet and photographer.
Dinner back at the property was announced via traditional drums, pulling me from the comfortable library – the only place in the property where one could access WiFi- from where I walked down to a semi-circular river deck, possibly one of the lowest parts of the lodge. There was a beautiful orange glow all round from the lanterns that had been set up as well as a karai with a log-fire burning for warmth, and a waiter promptly arrived at our beautifully laid out table under the stars to ask for our drink orders. The lodge has its very own well stocked wine cellar with an array of South African offerings, and since guests are often booked on all-inclusive basis, I asked for yet another glass of Amarula which was followed by a glass of white chenin blanc for my main course. There was a roasted butternut and apple soup as a starter, then an oxtail mains and decadent chocolate mousse for dessert. As I listened to the gentle swish of the water in the dark coupled by biophony which included the croaking of frogs and buzzing of insects, I couldn’t help but think about how romantic this setting was, and how I needed to return with a partner. And yet, we still had four more days to explore Livingstone…
Other activities available include guided walking safaris, game drives, canoeing, catch and release fishing and boat cruises on a secluded section of the Zambezi River all led by qualified and passionate guides who will share their knowledge and love of the bush with you. All activities are complimentary once you book.