On the 14th of December, 1994, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge welcomed its first paying guests. That was 20 years ago and the company has grown from strength to strength. I was invited along with 2 other bloggers from the African Bloggers Network to participate in the 20th year celebrations and share the experience with my readers, along with the amazing success story that is the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and its sister venues that make up the Africa Albida Tourism group.
Read my review of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge here.
Read my write up of the 20th year celebrations here.
This was actually my first visit to Zimbabwe and I was not sure what to expect. Obviously I am aware of what has been going on in Zimbabwe over the last few years, inasmuch as it has been reported in the local press. But as we know, what you read in the press is not always an accurate reflection of the way things are. If it were, nobody would visit South Africa! Despite my conscious lack of expectations, on the whole I was impressed with what I encountered.
Admittedly, first impressions were not great as the airport at Victoria Falls is easily one of the smallest airports I have seen. However this is changing with the opening of a brand new airport this year. Currently the airport is limited to certain smaller aircraft, but the new airport will be able to handle wide-bodied aircraft. Baggage handling at the airport these days is done manually, but the new airport will have 3 automatic baggage conveyors. We visited the building site of the new airport and it’s a substantial project, several stories high with separate arrivals and departure terminals. I look forward to seeing the completed project because it’s going to look spectacular!
My next experience was a stark contrast to the airport. When arriving at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, it is immediately evident that there are no compromises. I don’t know how easy it is to obtain various things in Zimbabwe but Victoria Falls Safari Lodge makes it seem like nothing is a problem. The lodge has a wine list of fine South African wines that puts many Cape Town restaurants to shame, even though they are right by the wine regions. Guests have access to complimentary and fast WiFi, something I wish more hotels would offer. This level of luxury obviously comes at a price and the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is certainly not cheap. I don’t know what the other hotels in the area are like, but I suspect there is a reason that Victoria Falls Safari Lodge has been voted best safari lodge in Zimbabwe for the last 18 years.
Town & Activities
We did not spend much time in the town of Victoria Falls, but driving through it one can see that although it may have been starved of substantial commerce for some time, it is clean and the roads are still good. There are, apart from the infrstructure to support tourism, some pockets of business that look after the needs of local businesses and residents too.
The activities geared towards tourists were all of a high quality. Our Zambezi river cruise aboard the Zambezi Explorer, dinner at The Boma and the elephant experience and lunch at Wild Horizons Elephant Wallow. I never once felt that there was a need for compromise. In fact there were some aspects of the experience which were superior to similar experiences I’ve enjoyed elsewhere.
Read more about the activities and see pictures here.
The main reason for visiting Victoria Falls is to see the falls. This is a fantastic experience. Not because the falls are breathtakingly impressive, but because the facilities provided for viewing are excellent. There is a path all the way along the falls, through the rainforest, with viewing points all along the way. Just walking along the path through the forest is a great experience. One could easily spend half a day there. I would recommend taking pics as you walk in one direction then spend some time just enjoying and contemplating the falls at the end of the walk, then walk back without taking pictures, being in the moment. Please don’t litter! I was appalled to see a number of water bottles and wrappers discarded on the ground despite there being bins around.
One of the standout aspects of Zimbabwe for me was the people. South Africans are always keen to employ Zimbabweans because they are hard working and they have a great attitude. They also speak English very well! I experienced the same thing in Vic Falls, all the people I met were very friendly, helpful and articulate. I chatted to a few of the staff who had originally left Zimbabwe to seek work in South Africa, but have now returned several years later because the prospects are good.
We had some influential people attend the 20th year celebration weekend, and I was impressed at their optimism and their entrepreneurial spirit. The Minister of Tourism & Hospitality Industry for Zimbabwe, Hon. Walter Mzembi, addressed us at the formal dinner held at the Lodge on the Saturday evening. He is also currently the Chairperson of the African Ministers of Tourism Council and President of the UN World Tourism Organisation.
The minister shared a very optimistic outlook for the region which included possibly creating a special economic zone in Vic Falls to stimulate more investment. Apart from the massive airport upgrade, there are plans to develop the area around the airport into a commercial hub, offering additional entertainment options to visitors in order to not only increase the number of visitors, but the length of the average visit.
Africa Albida Tourism share this optimistic vision of the future of Vic Falls and are about to start developing an enormous theme park called Santonga. Santonga will be an education and entertainment park 80 acres large, which will tell the story of Victoria Falls, it’s history, culture and wildlife, both flora and fauna. No water slides and adrenalin rides in this theme park, it’s all about education through entertainment.
This may have been my first visit to Vic Falls, but I know it won’t be my last. I’m already planning a return visit! You may want to check out FlyAfrica.com which will fly you from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls for as little as R1,000 one way. British Airways, South African Airways and Air Zimbabwe are among the other airlines that fly that one and a half hour route.