BY JAMES BEMBRIDGE
I recently saw the scenes described by Livingstone – by flight, as it happens – and they were indeed lovely. But lovely seems too modest a word to describe Victoria Falls.
Today, with helicopter tours on offer, we can view the Falls as Livingstone imagined the angels to have done. I took the ride named after the iconic quote: ‘Flight of the Angels’. It costs £120 and though it only lasts around 12 minutes, the images I saw will last with me for the rest of my lifetime.
They say Victoria Falls is the largest sheet of falling water in the world, and by flight you can believe them. Only by that angel-eye view can you get the measure of how immense this natural wonder (one of the 7 in the world) really is. That serene sheet of water slipping into roaring smoke. There’s something about contrast that appeals to the human eye, and it’s that contrast between the serene and the chaotic that gives Victoria Falls its enduring appeal.
At midday, a rainbow forms framing the falls in kaleidoscopic light. To attempt to put this sight into words would risk cheapening the picture. Perhaps Livingstone got it right with his description. ‘Lovely’ suggests enough, and suggests that the reader should go and view it for themselves.
The falls can also be seen by foot across the many trails that run alongside it. The surrounding areas are transformed by its spray into a rainforest, within which you walk among tropical greenery punctured by small shards of rainbows. I’d never witnessed these small rainbows forming on a forest path before. I’m not sure by what mechanism this wonder takes place, and perhaps it’s all the more wonderful that I don’t.
Victoria Falls offers plenty of luxury cruises along the Zambezi river. I myself chose the Ra Ikane cruise whose boat is modelled on the same one used by Livingstone when he discovered the Falls. This replica is smaller in scale than Livingstone’s original but carries the same colonial romance. Full of teak, brass and cut-glass decanters, the vessel looks like something straight out of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. Thankfully, there’s not much call for murder on this voyage, the views are entertaining enough themselves. I watched water spraying hippos and snapping crocodiles, all the while sipping whisky on the rocks under the setting sun. For an Englishman abroad with gentlemanly pretensions, this was the highlight of my trip. The cruise costs around £66 and lasts 2 and a half hours. Exquisite food and luxury beverages are included.
When I was there, the Falls roared but the tourism was only just trickling back in. You can imagine how damaging it is for a place that solely relies on tourism to be denied its tourists. Lockdown put previously employed people into near-destitute lives. But one thing that stood the Falls in good stead is something we British seem to have long given up: a community.
Shelley Cox, coordinator of the We Are Victoria Falls initiative (led by MECHTI and supported by IFC), told me how she – along with various tourism stakeholders, together in partnership with the authorities – set up initiatives as part of the COVID-19 task force to help recently impoverished citizens. Food and school supplies were issued to children. Adults were given the opportunity to clean up the streets and help with wildlife conservation in exchange for food. It was a happy symbiotic relationship between nature and man in an otherwise unhappy time.
On my last day, I attended the inaugural flight of Eurowings to the Falls, Europe’s first direct flight to the place. As I looked across the crowd of now familiar faces, I noticed they were all streaked with tears. To people who fought so hard to survive under the privation of tourism, this pathway to new tourists meant everything. I couldn’t help but shed a tear too. As the Eurowings flight landed, there was the sense that Victoria Falls might fly again too.
James Bembridge is Deputy Editor of Country Squire Magazine.