The perfect African adventure - celebrating my birthday in a canoe on the Zambezi River and getting married at the magnificent Victoria Falls!
It started beside a cosy fire, fiancé and I, chatting excitedly about where we should have our personal marriage ceremony, because we had decided a wedding just wasn't for us... One thing led to another and the words "Vic Falls" formed on our lips, as we looked at each other knowing that we had found the perfect spot!
Our adventure - eloping to a magical place filled with mystery, ancient history, warmth and rainbows in the country of my birth, Zimbabwe. It was the perfect fit and the planning began.
Roughly two months after our epiphany, we flew to Livingstone in Zambia where our incredible journey began.
Touch Down in Livingstone & Crossing into Zimbabwe
Flying into Livingstone Airport and taking our first glimpse of the meandering Zambezi River from above, followed by the spray of Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders), was an unforgettable sight! The little airport was so welcoming, especially with the refreshingly chill air con following the heat that hit us as we disembarked from our flight and walked from the plane into the terminal. Carrying South African passports we were directed to the SADC queue and were through customs before we knew it.
Apart from the ease of entering Zambia, another positive effect of tourism was the cleanliness... Having travelled to neighbouring countries and cities, cleanliness is a noticeable issue so I was quite surprised to find two-ply toilet paper, never mind the automated hand sensors on the taps and soap dispensers!
After the friendly customs officials cleared us, we collected our luggage and found our transfer guide waiting to greet us!
So far so good :-)
We had an interesting and educational drive through Livingstone with our driver telling us about the history and the places we passed through. Soon enough we were at the customs office on the Zimbabwe border where a rather friendly baboon greeted us, before we were stamped through to the other side... Wonderfully warm and furry greetings from all!
Once through, we met our Zimbabwean driver and were transferred over the famous bungee jump bridge to the A'Zambezi River Lodge, catching a first and tiny glimpse of the mighty falls and some brave bungee jumpers!
Settling in at Our Riverside Lodge in Zimbabwe
On arrival at the A'Zambezi River Lodge, the first thing I noticeably enjoyed was the complete sincerity and friendliness of the staff. From our arrival to the end of our trip, not once did we feel obligated to tip a staff member who offered to carry a piece of luggage or offer a welcome drink. We felt so welcomed as we were led to our room after being given complimentary access to the hotel wifi and a River Facing room with flat screen television! Although we were on holiday it was comforting to know that we could touch base with family and friends using our own devices and update personal statuses as and when we pleased. This is a modern age we live in after all ;-)
We made ourselves comfortable and with a couple of hours to spare before our first activity, a sunset dinner cruise on the Zambezi, we headed to the bar. This was our first taste of local beer and 'local' prices... Unfortunately for South Africans, the menu is not favourably priced being in USD. We paid $4 per local beer, which is the equivalent of R44. Back home we could buy 4 beers for that price!
After perusing the grounds, enjoying the dramatic, stormy skies over a vast mass of river and watching an old warthog who frequented the grassy bank, we were collected for a dinner cruise and transferred through the Victoria Falls National Park. Taking a relaxing sunset cruise on the Zambezi River is one of the real must-do activities at Vic Falls.
The Dreamy Zambezi River Sunset Cruise
It wasn't long before we boarded our boat, a flat bedded platform decked with tables and chairs and two friendly crew, a skipper and a chef... Not forgetting the cheeky monkeys who tried to stow on! A choice of drinks was offered as part of the meal and before we knew it, together with two other couples, we set sail towards the setting sun, watching the water change a myriad of colours overwhelmed by the gentle peacefulness of it all.
Dinner was good - a 3-course meal starting with soup, followed by freshly caught bream (a freshwater fish of the Zambezi) and apple crumble for dessert.
Returning well fed and watered, with over 100 digital images of an unforgettable sunset, we were transferred back to the hotel stopping to marvel at a solitary elephant silhouetted against the night sky in the national park.
My Birthday Begins - the gift of a leopard sighting
Waking up the next morning on my birthday was quite special.... This was the country of my birth and I was going to spend this day with my fiancé and 6 crew on an overnight canoe safari adventure, on the Zambezi River!
We woke up fairly early to take advantage of the extremely decadent buffet-breakfast spread and a good strong cuppa coffee. Our guide was on time, awaiting us with a warm smile and friendly hand shake. Along with 5 other crew members in a huge open safari vehicle with canoes on the roof and tent equipment in the back, we set off for the Zambezi National Park... Forgive my ignorance, I know I am in the tourism industry and I 'should' know these things, but I was not expecting what unfolded next... In hindsight, I realise that I had no idea what to expect and it is this frame of mind that inevitably allows the traveller to enjoy the very best of whatever comes next in his or her journey!
Everything is close in Vic Falls, a welcome difference to the vast distances one has to travel to get from A to B in Johannesburg! So, after 10 minutes we arrived at the Zambezi National Park, another national park which I had assumed was the Vic Falls National Park, only to find it wasn't. Our guide asked us to hang on for a few 'African' minutes so after about half an hour he returned with our entry permits and off we went. Having no idea what to expect, the sudden jerk of our vehicle as we stopped was quite a surprise. The guide jumped up and climbed onto the roof of the vehicle as if it were in a child's amusement park!
We heard the crew chattering excitedly to each other, they had spotted a leopard... I couldn't quite comprehend this until I saw him for myself - a leopard!!! The very first animal we saw in Zimbabwe was a leopard. We were so happily surprised by this rare sitting having had no idea that we would be driving through a wildlife reserve to reach our destination on the river! It was the first time in 3 years that they saw the leopard, so our guide had to get out of the vehicle and track him for a little while until we all saw him magically disappear into the tall grass.
In a Canoe on the Mighty Zambezi River
Next up we saw some warthog followed by your typical bushbuck, an assortment of the most colourful and vibrant birds I've ever seen and monkeys. After getting stuck and having all the boys push start the vehicle 'IN THE WILD' we reached our destination upstream, had a short briefing about what not to do if you fall out and encounter a hippo or crocodile, kitted up with safety jackets and set off in our trusty canoes on the mighty Zambezi! What a feeling!!! The weather was just right, a balmy, sunny day with a wind that helped push us along with the current.
Fiancé and I in our canoe with two crew in another leading the way. For most of the time we hardly paddled as the flow of the river pushed us along merrily and we passed a few luxury lodges camouflaged on the banks of the river. One in particular stood out as it was situated on an island in the middle and looked like a page out of Robinson Crusoe with a gentleman fishing over a balcony from what looked like the main bedroom.
Soon after this we hit some rapids! I have never experienced rapids so for me they were large, but I was told they were just gentle in comparison to the white water rafting most visitors flock to Victoria Falls for when the water is a safe level... Well these were rapids to me and on one occasion we hit what looked like a tsunami of a wave where I almost lost my paddle! After the rapids, adrenalin somewhat tapered, we stopped for a lunch break on the banks, a lovely chicken, salad and pasta dish with a welcoming Zambezi Beer... So refreshing!
Another hour or so of paddling, passing a few baby crocs and some hippos on the furthest banks, we came to the end of our canoe safari and were met by our crew and the truck to take us back to camp.
That Special Night at Camp - starry skies beside the Zambezi River
What awaited was a magnificent setup! A cosy walk-in tent with two stretcher beds, mattresses, blankets, pillows and a towel. A separate bucket shower was tucked away beneath a friendly tree and at the main camp a dining table offering salty snacks and cold beer to welcome us in for the evening after a hard day on the river...
The campfire was blazing and dinner was on the go, we chatted with our guide about life in Zimbabwe, wildlife in the park, which I had been delighted to discover, and recent developments in politics - always a hot and interesting topic.
I took a moment and thought, what an unusually unique and terribly exciting way to spend a birthday, stars shining down over us, the smell of ebony wood as it crackled and flames danced to happy voices chattering and laughing, the sudden screech and grunts of a hippo in the Zambezi while sitting next to my soon to be husband in one warm fleeting moment.
And if that wasn't special enough, waking up on cosy camp beds adorned with warm blankies and pillows to the first misty rays of sunshine over the water's edge. A deep pink sky hazy with mysterious smoky trails gently floating over this mass of river and bush beyond us. Of course, the hippo woke too and had his say, a sound I will forever fondly enjoy.
A New Day - back to civilization & a piece of paradise
A breakfast table was prepared under the giant ebony trees where a pot of hot milk and good old Koffiehuis lured us over. It did go down well. Cereals, fruit and shortly after a full English Breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage and toast. A great way to start a new day in this enchanting place.
After a remarkably warm and cleansing bucket shower, under the friendly tree, it was very reluctantly that we had to leave but our open sided, safari truck was packed and ready to roll back to the real world... Thankfully there is only one way out, a slow and rhythmically bumpy way through the national park, spotting the most incredible bird life frolicking around us, a couple of tall giraffes, a large tortoise and some elephants who bid us farewell, for now. I made a promise to return!
We dropped our luggage off and I decided to head into the town of Victoria Falls with our crew, for a browse. I needed to get some cash and wanted to meet the Adventure Zone staff who I have known for many of my tourism years and who helped book our fantastic activities so far. It was great to shake hands and put faces to the countless banter on Skype and email. Drawing cash was a breeze, well, it was the 2nd time round... The first time I chose Stanbic, the closest ATM, which had to be Standard Bank's younger brother, because it took my FNB card, went through all the motions, acknowledged the amount of cash I wanted, made all the right sounds but nothing came out!
I had a mini panic, went into the bank and spoke to a charming young lady who reassured me that this has happened before and to rather go further into town where a Barclay's ATM was apparently far more reliable. Thankfully, it was.
A strange thing for me was drawing USD cash in an African Town, so weird! And a tad painful on the pocket when you come bearing Rands. However, all in all, I found the most friendly of people - positive and proud. I felt that this tiny piece of Africa was shining through so bright, touching all who visit and enticing more and more every day. With this in mind, I realised we still hadn't seen THE Falls!!
The crew dropped me back off at the hotel where I joined the fiancé for a cocktail by the poolside. One word summed it up - paradise.
We ordered poolside lunch and I took a refreshing dip as the temperature sat at a constant balmy 27 degrees. The sun never so hot, though, that it burns you to a crisp, but rather gently roasts you to an even golden brown. I felt so at home.
Lunch was scrumptious and filling so we lazed in the deck chairs for a few more moments, before getting ready for the final excursion on the Zimbabwean side... a guided tour of the falls.
The Heavenly Victoria Falls & its Rainbows
Well, it was a life changing experience! Not only did we pass an ancient 1500-year-old baobab tree and enter an enchanted rainforest but our first glimpse of those mighty Falls in full force gushing over at so many kilometres per second was something that I will live, see and hear in my memory forever and ever. Powerful and majestic at the same time with each viewpoint just getting better and better, as well as wetter and wetter! Just when you thought you'd passed that perfect shot, an even better one came along and there were rainbows!! Rainbows everywhere... I was in heaven :-)
Thankfully our guide provided raincoats so we were not entirely soaked through by the end of the trail and again, dragging our heels slightly we headed back to a lively and cultural dinner experience at the hotel... something different.
Returning to Zambia for Royal Treatment - time to elope!
Waking up that Wednesday morning, the 30th of April, we smiled secretly to each other as we packed our bags and headed the short distance over the border to Zambia's Royal Livingstone Hotel where we had planned to elope and marry the next day.
Although a short distance, literally an easy walk, we got stuck at the border because of an issue with ink and a customs official who had arrived late and hungover. We had very itchy feet and couldn't wait in the bus much longer, so we hopped out and walked the bridge famous for jumping off by those brave enough to bungee. A total tourist trap but an exhilarating one at that, we couldn't justify the expense of it, but enjoyed watching until our guide made it over and drove us to the next border entry into Livingstone. Another very long wait but to be expected at border crossings, especially on the one day a week all the trucks carrying their loads of copper plating get to pass through too!
Finally, we arrived at our lavishly extravagant home for the next 3 days, the Royal Livingstone living up to its name. It was quite an adjustment from the laid back, lazy vibe that the A'Zambezi provided but then, this was no ordinary visit. This was to mark the beginning of a new chapter in our lives and we wanted it to be something completely different, a little opulent and a whole lot of fun-filled magic moments only such a place could provide.
After being treated rather royally and checked in by what I thought was the doorman, dressed in a very bright and colourful dress-like outfit with a frumpy chef-like hat, but must have been Front of House because he ran us through everything, from top to bottom, gave us our key and had us and our luggage whisked off by electric golf caddy to our room where we were met by Mervin, our butler.
Mervin showed us into our room, demonstrated where all the light fittings were, remote controls, air con settings, tea, coffee, honesty bar and how the sliding doors worked. She told us to ensure our sliding doors were locked properly if we left the room, because the monkeys would otherwise open up and help themselves to the facilities. After that she left us to absorb our new surroundings.
Preparing for the Big Day at Vic Falls
We stepped out onto the balcony overlooking a wooden deck perched on the banks of that now familiar Zambezi River and realised that it was the deck we would be exchanging our vows on in the morning. It was surreal to look at it and see the spray of Vic Falls floating up into the sky just a little beyond the deck surrounded by lush tree-filled lawns. What a special place.
A major factor in tomorrow mornings events were the rainbows! We had to time our ceremony early enough to catch them and with unlimited access to the Falls, via our hotel, we decided to see what photo opportunities lay ahead. I had some lingering uncertainty that the view from the Zambian side would not be comparable to the Zimbabwean side and that one could only see a small glimpse of them... Well... After a fairly long walk (duly noted) and passing a flock of zebra in our path! We arrived at the entrance to the Falls and honestly, my heart did somersaults all over again. The sights and sounds and different views were breathtaking, I was so relieved and so excited at the same time, it was going to be perfect, just how I imagined.
With all sorts of new and wonderful feelings, we returned to the hotel. I had a brief meeting with Leona at the Spa where I dropped off my dress to hang overnight and went over a few cosmetic details, hair and makeup... Wanting to keep all of that to an absolute minimum, it didn't take long, but I was told to be back at the Spa for 05:30am to ensure we covered all our bases. No pun intended!
Our Fairy Tale Wedding at Vic Falls
The groom was to meet me just before 7am which gave him time to have a strong cup of coffee and get ready himself. And, at just the right moment I was met by a most handsome man, all ready to go we set off, hand in hand, to the wooden deck overlooking the magnificent spray of the Falls as a backdrop.
Waiting eagerly for our arrival was Luke, our script reader. Before I go on, I must just say that our plan to elope to Victoria Falls was quite spur of the moment, I had two months to prepare and plan the proceedings which included harnessing via all the channels, the right person to read our ceremony script. We were so very fortunate to find Luke! A stranger the day I emailed him my bazaar request and instantly a friend with his warm reply and willingness to help with this request for our wedding day. When I confirmed the time of 7am, Luke more than happily agreed and said he'd hop on his bicycle from Vic Falls Town in order to cross the border quicker than if he were to drive over! A legend - thank you from both of us, we can't wait to repay you with that braai the next time you are in Cape Town!
On harnessing our script reader through the wonderful connections and various channels, I was fortunate to find Lesanne Dunlop, a professional photographer with a brilliant passion and eye for her work. Lesanne arrived at the deck and the ceremony began.
It was more perfect than we could have imagined, the words spoken, the people who helped us make it our special day, the incredible setting and magic of the Falls, we were truly blessed to experience it all and to say "I Do" at the end.
We said goodbye to Luke and were once again whisked off by electric car to the Falls to catch rainbows and fairy tales where dreams do come true. After all the emotions, the smiling, giggles and laughter getting soaked by the spray catching it all on camera, we returned to dry clothes and warm breakfast where our brilliant photographer whipped up a quick photo collage for me to send out to family and friends.
The hotel surprised us with a complimentary high tea to enjoy during our stay and after sending our news to our beloved family and friends, we sipped champagne and enjoyed the warm sun by the poolside till dinner time, where we were ushered to a table hidden in the gardens beneath tall trees and a myriad of stars. What a wonderful feast we had while zebras grazed around us in the moonlight.
The Perfect End to Our Perfect Trip
Our final day was spent soaking up every last ounce of the lush grounds, free entrance to Victoria Falls, lazing in lavishly cushioned chairs under shady branches with the river flowing fiercely and time standing still for a change. Having eaten far too much especially with our complimentary high tea, we were ready to face reality and start the journey back home to a wintery Cape Town.
Our trip was perfect from start to end. Africa never ceases to amaze and delight me, always real, warm, positive and extremely beautiful with surprises in all shapes, forms and sizes round every corner.