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Victoria FallsIf there is a “must see” in South Africa it would be Victoria Falls. My bottom line would be that if you go there to make it a day trip and be sure to fly directly to the Victoria Falls airport. The way we made the trip turned out to very complicated. Just like Niagara Falls are on the border between Ontario, Canada and New York State, Victoria Falls are on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. On the map it looks like you could fly to either place and they would be about the same distance to the falls. In a perfect world, yes, but in this part of the world there was a world of difference.
A bit conservative but we left Sandton at 9am and got to the airport at 9:30 for a 12:15 flight to Livingstone, Zambia. The first surprise, of many to come, was the $135 per person visa fee to enter the country. Ground transportation had been arranged and two young gentlemen escorted us to a small van to begin the 15 mile trip to the Victoria Falls Hotel. The first stop was at the immigration center as we left Zambia. This was followed by a stop at another immigration center as we entered Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe charged $50 per person to enter their country. Both immigration centers had long lines of people and trucks. The people are in poverty trying to survive in a country where the government leaders have done nothing for them and have bankrupted the country, but not themselves. Inflation is running at 100,000% while life expectancy has declined to 38 due to 17% of the male population having HIV infection.

Victoria Falls

We had to remove our luggage and change cars and drivers at the border so that the car service would not have to pay the visa fees. Dozens of huge tandem flatbed trucks carrying copper and industrial materials lined the shoulders of the poorly paved road. Some would have to wait a day or more to get clearance to cross the border. There were people along the road selling various food, carrying huge loads of goods balanced on their heads, and a baboon or monkey here and there. We finally arrived at the hotel after nearly seven hours. The ground transportation had to be paid in U.S. dollars — no credit cards. After all the government fees — which likely go to politicians, not education or road repairs — I was out of U.S. dollars.
The next surprise was that the hotel informed us that there would be a $20 per person charge to enter the trail to visit the famous water falls. No credit cards. No local currencies accepted — only U.S. dollars. Could the hotel advance some cash and charge to our room? No. They will accept U.S. dollars as payment but they will not give out any dollars. “Sorry for the inconvenience”. How do I get some dollars to go see the falls that I have traveled all day to see? You have to go to Zambia to a bank. There are no dollars available in Zimbabwe. I was beside myself to put it mildly — feeling like I was in a small room with two doors that both said “No Exit”. Fortunately, the driver was still in the lobby and he took us to the bank, with stops at both immigration centers, a wait in line to get our passports stamped and change cars again at the border.
The bank in Zambia was open and dispenses U.S. dollars against an American Express card — except that international money transfers ceased at 3:30 PM. It was 3:45 PM. Back to the car and on to a shopping center five miles down the road to an ATM. After entering my PIN I asked for 1,500,000 Zambian kwachas, which I estimated would be about $400. The hourglass on the ATM screen flashed for a few minutes and then displayed a message saying “This ATM will be temporarily unavailable from 4 PM to 4:30 PM daily”. It was 4:15. (The next day a charge for $402 appeared in Quicken from my credit card account). Back to the car and down the road to another ATM. This time I requested and was able to withdraw 2,000,000 Zambian kwachas. Now on to a “Currency Exchange Center”. Sounds fancy but it was downscale from a strip mall dry cleaning business with handwritten posters on the wall showing the exchange rate. I presented an inch thick wad of bills and walked out with $522 plus a remainder of 900 kwachas because they don’t handle coins. The 900 kwachas were worth twenty-four cents.
Back to the car, through the two immigration centers, passport lines, car change, and finally to the Victoria Falls park at 5PM. How long does it take to walk through the park and see the falls? Two hours but they close in one hour so it is too late to go. The day could have been a Chevy Chase vacation series movie.
The Victoria Falls Hotel overlooks the Victoria Falls Bridge and the gorges below. It is historic, elegant, and tranquil but not necessarily equal to the international acclaim advertised. The main thing going for it is the falls being within walking distance. The rooms are expensive and the food was the most expensive of the trip. Not sure if it was the malaria medication in preparation for MalaMala or the hotel food that made me sick the following few days. I think it was the hotel food. The wine selection and quality was poor. The dining room was hot and humid — no air conditioning. The service staff were all very friendly and it would not have been fair to take out the uncanny day on them.
The next morning we walked to the falls. Once off the hotel property we were met with local young men offering various souvenirs for sale. Offering would not actually the right word — they were hounding and begging. You have to feel sorry for them but you can’t solve the problem by buying from them. One of them had something I had been looking for and when I offered $15 the few sales people suddenly became a throng that would not leave us alone. We paid our $20 U.S. dollar entrance fee at a gate and headed into the jungle to see the falls. As we got closer the mist in the air turned to a sprinkle and eventually pouring rain. The sky was blue but the tremendous amount of water from the falls makes the area feel like a rain forest. After an hour we returned to the hotel soaked through to the bone. The experience of the past day and a half made me feel soaked in every way. I was really happy to get back to Johannesburg to begin the last leg of the trip — to Cape Town.