Getting to Know Zimbabwe… and the Zambesi River
Friday, July 3, 2015: London-Johannesburg-Victoria Falls
We arrived at Heathrow at 6.30 pm well in time to retrieve my strolley from the Left Luggage Lockers and make our way directly to the gate for our onward flight to Johannesburg. Remember our bags had been in storage at Heathrow for about 12 hours while we were in transit in London. This fact becomes significant when I tell you what I found when I arrived in my hotel at the Victoria Falls…but I am digressing.
Our red eye flight—the second one in 24 hours was another piece of cake—because it too was half full. This meant that both Llew and I stretched out on 4-seatercentre aisle seats for yet another night and sustained another great night’s sleep. We truly did luck out for we received the advantage of first class tickets at economy prices–but on just one leg of an endless flight but on both!!!
Our flight took us straight down the backbone of the continent of Africa (as evidenced by the mapped in-flight plan) from Algeria to South Africa. On approach into Johannesburg, we noticed how brown and arid the landscape is. It is hard to imagine how life can be possibly be sustained in such a hostile environment.
Landing in Johannesburg, we only had enough time to clear South African Immigration and make our way to the check-in counter for our connecting flight to the town of Victoria Falls which lies across the border in Zimbabwe. Boarding had just begun when we reached the Gate to a fine reunion with our friends—the Seqeuiras and the Nathans with their kids, who had arrived from the States on other flights. Within twenty minutes, we were all seated in a much smaller British Airways aircraft that was filled to capacity with tourists heading to see one of the continent’s most spectacular sights—and one of the world’s seven natural wonders. A very light lunch consisting of chicken curry on rice was served in the plane and within 90 minutes, we were touching down. Again, the sheer aridity of the landscape with its very low shrubbery (rather Texan in appearance) struck me.
Immigration clearance in Zimbabwe took absolutely ages—we were actually the very last party to receive our visas at the airport for the charge of US $30 each. It was an opportunity, however, to catch up with our friends and as we gabbed our way to the front of the line, we realized that in exactly half an hour, we were to be picked up at our hotel for the first activity on our agenda—the Sunset Cruise on the Zambesi River. That’s when we hit Panic Mode and hoped the line would speed up. No such luck!
When the representative from Shearwater, the agency that has a monopoly in Zimbabwe over all tourism services, eventually got to us, he told us we had exactly five minutes to drop our baggage off at our hotel and return to his van for the ride to the banks of the river at the start of our Sunset Cruise. So we instantly had to perish the thought of any fancy dressing up for our cruise. Forget about fancy dressing up! After 48 hours of flying around the world, we were not so much as afforded the luxury of a shower! Nor did we enjoy the delicious peppermint-scented cool towels that were handed to us upon arrival at the Reception Desk or the welcome glass of lemonade! We just grabbed the keys to our room from the polite receptionists and were off.
Our room was just gorgeous—in a hotel that is the last word in colonial luxury. The Victoria Falls Hotel sports an impeccably decorated lobby with colonial touches everywhere. Animals head skeletons, loads of framed antlers, prints of African vegetation, drapes that reflect the quiet colors of the African Bush (shades of ochre, beige, hunter green, grey), and a grand piano added to the ambience of classic comfort. Our beds were draped with filmy mosquito nets and all the furniture in our rooms was made of solid teak. Although named for King George V’s Grandmother Queen Victoria, this female monarch never set foot in Africa—in fact, if memory serves me right, she did not venture beyond Germany. It was left to her grandson, King George V and his consort Queen Mary to have the honor of being the first British monarchs to set foot in their colonies in Africa (en route to India for the famous Delhi Darbar in 1911). Hence, the hotel’s lobby is adorned with portraits of these two monarchs and I made sure to take pictures with them!
Although we did not have the time to survey our hotel, we were told that it faced the Falls and that we could actually see the mist from the terrace. We would need to wait until the next morning to ascertain these facts.
But we had little time to appreciate any of the hotel’s apparent luxury. We merely snatched up coats from our bags–and that was when I had the shock of my life. For my bag had been opened and every single item in it had been carefully turned over with the idea of stealing something valuable. Where this could have occurred is anyone’s guess, whether in London or in Johannesburg–but my belongings had been gone through with a fine comb–and the one item that I realized immediately was missing was my British cell phone! The fact that it was just this item taken convinced me that there was nothing accidental about its disappearance and that my bag had been hastily sifted through with the idea of theft! Luckily, my British cell phone is ancient, battered even partially broken and has a top-up SIM card that had long expired. There was no reason for me to fear that it would cause me any financial loss.
Spectacular Sunset Cruise on the Zambesi River:
Absolutely down-hearted, I ran back to the bus and in fifteen minutes, we were dropped off at the river banks at the start of our cruise. The triple decker craft (of which we had tickets for the Signature Deck) stood splendidly in the water. It was 4.00 pm. Sunset here in the Southern Hemisphere in winter occurs at about 5. 30pm. This left us about an hour and a half to cruise the river keeping our eyes peeled for animals.
Initially, we did not have much luck—but then we began to spot herds of hippo wallowing in the river. They bobbed about like dark brown islands and occasionally raised their heads obligingly so that we could click pictures. Next, close to the river bank, we saw a crocodile and, at the very end of our cruise, we spied a couple of giraffes in the distance. Were we disappointed by the sparseness of animal life? I could say we were. But then a number of things made up for our disappointment. For one thing, service was impeccable on the Signature Deck. Drinks were included in the price we had paid (about $40 per head). We settled down with wines, beers, shandy and mojitos for which the bartender is apparently reputed. Meanwhile, the passed hors d’oeuvres kept coming, each more delicious than the other and each presented with the utmost style and elegance: skewered tandoor chicken, vegetable kebabs that included paneer shashlik, beef carpaccio on crostini, smoked salmon with capers on crostini, tiny cups of leek and potato soup (vichyssoise) served cold, sushi with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce, and the piece de resistance, crocodile kebabs—indeed if no one had told us that the meat we were tasting was crocodile, I would have sworn it was chicken although the texture was slightly different. It was beautifully prepared with a tangy marinade. Who could have thought croc could taste so good?
The Sunset cruise was also good because the course the vessel took traversed four African nations that meet in a confluence at this point in on the River Zambesi: Zimbabwe, Zambia, Bostwana and Namibia. The hostess explained that as long as we remained on the boat, we would be considered legal in all four countries: the moment we decided to take a swim by jumping into the water, we would become illegal visitors who’d need to be fished out and deported! Good to know!
Meanwhile, the sun kept sinking lower over the horizon—it was, after all, a sunset cruise and we were witness to the brilliant palette of colors that stain the continent of Africa as each day ends: vivid pinks, burnt oranges, fiery reds—managed to silhouette the sparse trees in black outlines. It was such a relaxing experience to cruise along in such quiet style on the Zambesi as we learned so many facts about the river and the delicate eco-system it manages to sustain. Indeed after the long flights we had taken across the world, it was a wonderfully fitting finale and we felt deeply satisfied. For many of us who have taken similar cruises on the Backwaters of Kerala, we saw a great similarity with the cruise that had just ended.
By the time the sun disappeared over the horizon and darkness fell over Zimbabwe, we were ready to call it a night ourselves. Our meal had included cocktail snacks and drinks but the servings were so substantial that none of us had any room for dinner.
Back in our hotel, we surveyed the buffet offerings in the adjoining restaurant and returned to our rooms for much-needed showers, the softness of extraordinarily comfortable beds and the romance of snuggling down under gauzy nets. I spent a while blogging, then made myself a decaff coffee before calling it a night.
Our African idyll was only just beginning…