WITH a much vaunted (and flaunted) United Nations World Tourism Organisation talk-shop, due to take place in Victoria Falls and Livingstone just over a year away (August 24-29, 2013) our travel writer (who is overseas researching tourism stories) re-publishes a piece which first appeared in our sister paper The Standard in May 2011:
It was my 50th visit to Vic Falls and had been postponed a few times since the 49th venture there in June, 2010 (centred on a cooking competition at Elephant Hills), but taking in nights at four swish hotels, activities on the river and a swift trip to see what the travel trade was doing across the river in Zambia. (Plenty!)
Reason for the 50th visit was to cover the re-opening of what has always been one of my favourite destinations in Africa: A’Zambezi River Lodge.
And after being shut, except for an impi of builders, for three months and having US$4,5 million spent on her, the grand old lady of the river (originally opened 1972, just as the Bush War turned really grim) has had the sort of makeover, Botox session, facelift and general tart-up that would have pleased the late Liz Taylor, who spent part of a honeymoon with Richard Burton at the “old” Elephant Hills, nearby.
Covering that world front-page story, I was convinced the Hollywood couple never actually saw our magnificent natural Wonder of the World, speculated on what Burton tapped away at on an Olivetti portable in the next suite and was threatened with being fed to Zambezi crocs by the boozy actor’s burly bouncers.
That was 1975… my sixth visit.
I feared the 50th might again be postponed due to then (and unchanged since) chaos at Air Zim.
Getting a call at 7am from Rainbow Towers, I had a premonition I’d hear the official re-opening was delayed until some degree of sanity returned to the national carrier.
Wrong! Our AZ charter was definitely off, but RTG had “made a plan” and three light planes stood by to take us to the Falls and back a day later.
I relish “new” experiences and it was fairly new to me being a passenger in a Piper Navajo (Comanche, Cherokee, Apache or whatever Red Indian tribe applies) anywhere in the world with apparently no danger of being shot down!
The flight was a cross between comfortable and cramped. Five of seven passengers were — shall we say? — bulky, but flying through champagne-clear skies at 5 000 to 7 000 feet seeing (mainly) what wasn’t happening in Zimbabwe agriculture was interesting . Pilot “Nick” (he looked about 17 and wouldn’t reveal his surname) zigzagged across the Falls for us before landing.
I’m no believer in change for change’s sake. It had been four years since my last stay at A’Zambezi, when although slightly tired and worn, there was nothing much wrong with the Old Lass, then with Three-Stars.
Well the new-look A’Zam graphically displayed how exhausted she’d really been before Rainbow Tourism and PTA Bank sank a cool US$4,5 million into bringing her up to modern expectations and earning a coveted fourth star.
The bed was possibly the most comfortable I’ve slept in, but takes up a lot of space in what are now fairly cramped rooms. But who spends time indoors at the Falls? Well…honeymooners!
I, certainly, was in and out sharpish, having dumped an overnight grip, to get to a finger-lunch and drinks reception between the newly breathtakingly landscaped swimming pool and the mighty Zambezi.
A’Zambezi is the only Falls hotel with a riverside site and its own jetty from which guests can board game-spotting, lunch or sundowner cruises.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or jolly to Zimbabwe’s premier tourist destination—and twixt lunch and a rather bibulous sundowner cruise featuring a spectacular sunset and the dramatic rising of a moon which was full the previous night, there were various tedious speeches.
From bibulous boat trip, unsteadily, to another boozy reception before a buffet supper.
Shane de Lange, whom I first met as GM at Leopard Rock, later at Mama Mia’s (now AppleGees) Newlands is in charge of RTG’s Vic Falls operations and looks the part. He and the firm’s local publicist, sparkling Melanie Crawford, joined me and Harare tour operator Lynn Goncalves at the well-stocked gazebo pub.
Brian Sabeta and his delightful Dutch-born photographer wife, Marleen, also arrived. They run spectacularly game-rich Sikumi Tree Lodge, on the Dete Vlei, close to Hwange National Park.
We chatted and sipped chiboolies for some considerable time. Well, until Lynn insisted I feed her at the Amulongo Restaurant, listening to the haunting sounds of Africa. (And I don’t mean scores of generators, as in Harare!)
Breakfast was also there. Bleary eyes and hangovers were evident! British travel writers and tourism aces joined our table.
Their consensus was Vic Falls in general and the unique 89-bedromed A’Zambezi had much going for them, but something needed to be done to open the skies in competition to Air Zim. (Many quoted six flights a day from Nairobi to Mombasa at an affordable fare, versus one flight if you’re lucky from Harare to the Falls at outrageous cost).
National Parks were also lambasted for perceived greed. They charge non-Zimbabweans and folk from outside Sadcc US$30 each activity (not per day.) Zimbos pay US$10 each per activity.
Thus a group of five from (say) the UK or USA, would fork out US$150 to simply walk along the river and snap the Falls; another US$150, plus the fare, to take the Flight of Angels helicopter hop; US$150 plus boat fees for any river activities and another US$150 for walking with lions, elephant rides, etc.
In the world of Blogs, Twitters, e-mails and Skype, that dismaying information reverberated round the world in minutes, not exactly resulting in travellers pouring in.
On a positive note, I hear the viciously vindictive visa fees charged by both Zambia and Zimbabwe will be temporarily suspended (to delegates, officials and journalists) for UNWTO. I also gather plans for a proposed US$6 million white elephant conference centre have been abandoned in the blinding light of budgetary realities.