Botswana safari plus, day ten
11.07.2018 - 11.07.2018
Tree in the hotel grounds
Above the falls
Before leaving home we had decided to treat ourselves to a helicopter flight over Victoria Falls and had pre-booked a short flight for this morning. But after taking to Areti and Glen whom we met at Xugana Island Lodge, who had already visited the falls and taken the longer flight, we had arranged to upgrade to this. The difference is that the short flight, about 13 minutes in length, takes you only over the falls and gorge below, while the longer flight, at 27 minutes, also flies over the Zambezi above the falls and over the neighbouring national park, in search of wildlife.
We were picked up from the hotel after breakfast and taken to the helipad a couple of miles out of town, where we were briefed on the flight path and weighed! There were to be five of us on the helicopter and seats were allocated to balance the weight. Our companions were an Australian woman and her two teenage daughters. One of the girls sat up front next to the pilot, while the rest of us were in the main section, with me facing Chris on the left and the Australian lady next to me facing her other daughter. We were strapped in, given headphones (which served both to muffle the engine noise and provide a commentary) and we were ready for take-off.
Our helicopter landing, dropping off the previous passengers and picking us up
Once in the air we flew towards the falls, approaching from the upper reaches of the Zambezi.
Flying towards the falls - the spray rises above the Zambezi
The flights are designed to take a figure of eight route, so that everyone gets the same views. Chris and I had the falls on our side at first and from above I could appreciate what we had failed to see through the spray, the topography of this natural phenomenon. Unlike other falls I have visited, which usually lie at right angles to the river’s banks and face directly downstream, the Victoria Falls face an abrupt narrowing of the river and therefore look towards an escarpment. The river flows away through a narrow gorge, creating a sort of wonky T shape, with the smaller right-hand arm lying in Zambia and the larger part on the left in Zimbabwe. Patrick had told us yesterday that 70% of the falls were here in Zimbabwe and just 30% in Zambia, and now I could see what he meant.
The falls from the Zimbabwe side
You can see the escarpment where we had walked yesterday in the spray, and the transition from rainforest to savannah
A closer look at the T-shape
Danger Point is just left of centre at the end of one of the paths
The falls from the Zambia side
We looped around over the bridge to fly over the Zambian side, from where we caught some great rainbows in the spray.
Rainbow and bridge
Rainbow in the Devil's Cataract
The crack that may eventually become the site of the falls is clearly visible - see below
Then it was the turn of those on the other side of the helicopter to get the best views of the falls, while we looked out over the landscape beyond and towards the upper part of the river. Again, I could appreciate from here something that Patrick had mentioned - the spray creates its own microclimate, with the area immediately around the falls forming a small rainforest in the midst of dry savannah.
The Zambezi above the falls
Next we flew down the gorge below the falls, Batoka Gorge. This is in fact not one gorge but a zigzagging series of them. They were formed by the waters as they retreated – each gorge was cut by the falls across fault lines in the basalt rock created from lava 150 million years ago which cracked as it solidified. The gorges are numbered, with First Gorge being the one into which the falls spill their waters today, Second Gorge the one spanned by the bridge, and so on down to Fifth Gorge. The falls are currently cutting another gorge, through Cataract Island (see photo above) that will over time become their new location.
The gorges are popular for a variety of activities, including zip-lining and white-water rafting. We could see rafters in the river far below us and the spray of the falls in the distance.
This is the point at which the shorter flight turns back to the helipad but we were going further! We looped back over the falls once more, spotting our hotel below us at one point. We got some great views of the Zambezi and could see hippos in the water and a crocodile on the bank in one spot.
Victoria Falls Hotel from above
The Jungle Junction restaurant is in the foreground and our room behind the right-hand of the large trees on the lawn beyond
The Zambezi above the falls
The Zambezi above the falls - rainforest vegetation
Spot the crocodile!
And the hippos!
Then we flew over the dry national park area, with the pilot making several loops to ensure we all also saw something of the wildlife here. There were plenty of elephants to be seen and I also spotted a giraffe. The latter was sitting on the ground but got up, in an ungainly fashion, as we passed overhead, presumably disturbed by the noise.
All too soon our time was up and the pilot turned back to base, but I still got a few more shots of the river and the distant spray of the falls before landing.
Once back on the ground we were shown a video of our flight, or rather footage of our group being briefed, weighed and boarding, and later disembarking, interspersed with general footage of the falls from above, with the commentary we had heard while in the air. We declined to pay the $50 asked for this – not only was it expensive, it was also exceedingly unflattering! But the Australian woman was persuaded by her daughters to buy it, as a record of their first ever helicopter flight.
Incidentally, while this was also Chris’s first time in a helicopter, I had been lucky enough to fly in one when I was just 16 and visiting Niagara Falls on a school trip. But I can remember that only vaguely so it was wonderful to have another chance, and a much longer flight too. We were very glad we had upgraded, despite the cost.
We were driven back to the hotel in time to enjoy morning coffee on the terrace before sorting through the many photos we had taken!
For a change at lunch time we walked into town and went to the Three Monkeys, which had also been recommended to us by Areti and Glen. They do good wood-fired pizzas, so we decided to split one of those, a Quattro Formagii, along with a side salad. The food was great and we enjoyed the ambiance too.
In the Three Monkeys
When preparing our itinerary, Paul from Real Africa had proposed a sunset cruise on the Zambezi as an activity for our stay at Victoria Falls and we had agreed, without really looking at the specific details. Checking those today I realised that we were booked on the Signature Deck of the Zambezi Explorer.
A boat on the Zambezi
This boat offers three options for sunset cruises, on each of three decks. The lowest is a standard cruise experience with some drinks and snacks included. On the middle deck you have a more spacious area and the snacks are upgraded to canapés. The upper Signature Deck is the most open, albeit partly shaded, and very comfortable, with large wicker sofas and lots of cushions to lounge on. There is an open bar throughout the two hour cruise (only a handful of premium drinks, such as malt whisky, must be paid for) and of course the canapés. If we had been booking ourselves we would probably have gone for the middle option, or maybe for one of the many smaller boats which also offer cruises, but we loved this special experience so we’re very glad we had left it to Paul!
The Zambezi Explorer
We were picked up from the hotel by bus and stopped at one other hotel before the short drive to the jetty on the banks of the upper reaches of the river. There we were checked in at a desk set up on the shore and directed to the appropriate deck. Once on board we simply had to settle into our comfortable seats and enjoy the ride.
Drinks orders were taken immediately and more offered whenever a glass was emptied. While we were quite modest in our consumption (two G&Ts for me, three beers for Chris) I did feel one group took advantage of the hospitality and got through a lot of drinks, including tequila shots and cocktails, even asking for one last drink as the boat docked. Their over-boisterousness was the only slight blemish on an otherwise wonderful cruise.
Actually, although called a cruise, the boat doesn’t really go very far, but rather drifts gently a little way downstream - close enough to see the spray from the falls - before turning and making its meandering way a short distance upstream.
Rainbow in the spray
When animals (mostly hippos) were spotted, the pilot would head towards the relevant shore and turn so that passengers on all sides got a good view. In any case, the spaciousness of our deck allowed us to move freely to whichever side seemed best, but I suspect that wasn’t the case lower down, where they must have appreciated these turns.
Vultures roosting by the Zambezi
A waitress came around at regular intervals to offer the canapés. Among others, there were skewers of tandoori chicken, crocodile sliders, mini beef tarts and sushi rolls. My vote for the tastiest went to the crocodile sliders!
Late afternoon on the Zambezi
You can see that the river is in full flood
As the sun sank lower we continued to drift from shore to shore, as did the many other boats on the river. At one point a crocodile was spotted, and later three giraffes on the river bank, but this experience is mostly about the relaxing ambience and the landscape of the upper Zambezi.
Giraffes at sunset, by the Zambezi
We had a marvellous sunset out on the water and then turned towards the shore.
Sunset on the Zambezi
As we started our return to the jetty one of the staff gave a short talk about the Zambezi - its origins in Zambia, flowing through part of Angola and back into Zambia, along the border between there and Zimbabwe, over the falls and eventually down into the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. He talked about the ‘discovery’ of the falls by David Livingstone (actually of course they had been known to the peoples of this region for centuries) and how he introduced them to Europeans, creating the basis for the tourism that helps to sustain the local economy here.
Baobabs at sunset, banks of the Zambezi
Sunset cruise boats on the Zambezi
After sunset, the Zambezi River
Once we had docked the bus took us back to the hotel, via several others. We had eaten so many canapés that we didn’t really feel the need for a full hotel dinner, but as we were on half-board and had a reservation at the Jungle Junction we went along to supplement those canapés with some salad from the buffet, a glass of wine and a small dessert.
We then went back to our room to watch the England v Croatia World Cup semi-final on the TV there. Unfortunately this was when England’s great run in the tournament came to an end, the young players finally running out of steam (and maybe out of belief). But they had done a great job and exceeded expectations, which bodes well for future tournaments.