Great plumes of smoke are being forced upwards over the lip of the horizon, rising to join the Simpsons-esque clouds in the sky overhead. Ahead, the smooth flowing road of the river has a line drawn through it. As you edge closer to the abyss, there is a roar from the monster in front of you. Now you see the ‘smoke’ is vast swarms of spray that will fall as unceasing rainfall when you make it onto the island. And then you see the drop...
Not for nothing do Zambians call Victoria Falls ‘the smoke that thunders’. Livingstone island sits right in the middle of the Zambezi touching the lip and it was here in 1855 that David Livingstone first encountered them. We’d been taken over by boat for breakfast; we were only let loose on the bacon and eggs once they’d scared the bejesus out of us by walking us up to the chasm and having us peer over (while maintaining a tight grip of course – losing tourists is bad for business).
Before encountering the monster up close, you’re made to feel very comfortable at the Royal Livingstone Hotel. Livingstone is a two-hour hop from Johannesburg and the hotel trades big on first impressions. The wind in your face on the water taxi along the Zambezi should throw off any lingering jet lag before arrival on to manicured lawns, iced tea and, of course, sumptuous canapes.
The hotel is ideally situated: while sipping a gin and tonic around the pool, you can see the plume of spray from the waterfall, with the rushing sound of the water a couple of hundred metres down the riverbank a gentle, untroubling constant. My room was all cool creams and reminders that you’re in Mother Africa with sketches of zebras and elephants. Animals are not just confined to the walls, here – a giraffe outside my bedroom door one morning was a great start to the day. Beautiful little impala were a lot more skittish, requiring quick reactions with the camera shutter button before they scooted onto their next port of call.
There are several ways to see the falls and most of them will have your heart pumping a little faster. Smashing 500 million litres of the Zambezi per minute into the valley 110m below, they are one of the seven natural wonders of the world. If American teenagers hadn’t hijacked ‘awesome’ for any number of things that aren’t, that word would just about describe them. Encountering the force of them is a little terrifying in a way – you get a sense of something much bigger at work than our own piddling existence.
Walking around them breaks you in gently with a series of views that leave you increasingly incredulous until you get nearer to the bridge that passes right across one face of the mile-wide cascade. You’ll know you’re getting closer by the procession of soggy humans coming from the other direction who didn’t want to cough up for the raincoats. It’s like walking through a hurricane, the rain and spray pelting you from every direction, the crash of the thundering flow rendering conversations redundant beyond one word ‘wow’s at the roaring torrent going on to one side of you. Weird winds thrown up by the watery explosions down in the gorge give you a good wet slap across the chops when you least expect it too. It is nothing if not exhilarating. It really is something else.
If that much excitement is still not enough, there’s another way to ramp up your adrenalin levels. You can soar over the falls in a microlight, a machine that looks like the madcap result of a DIY experiment with a hang glider, some tent poles and a bi-plane propeller. Being a total big girl’s blouse when it comes to heights I didn’t sleep much the night before, even with the belly full of booze I’d tried to anaesthetise myself with. After several bowel movements and the resolve to do my job properly holding firm, I found myself soaring skywards, peppering the airwaves of air traffic control with petrified expletives. Microlights don’t do the gradual ascent of a nice comfortable jet plane; they soar skywards on what feels like a 45-degree angle, the ground falling away from you with a lurch and the amount of nothingness under your feet getting bigger every second. At first every cell in my body reacted in protest, telling me that I shouldn’t be up there at all.
Once I’d manned up, my expletives turned to more ‘wow’s. Way up there, the Falls make more sense; from the ground it’s difficult to get a sense of the whole. When you’re overhead, you can see the great crevice the water is pouring into in all its mile-wide glory. As we looped around the spray that is thrown upwards out of the chasm and 1,500 feet into the air, it felt surreal and magical. On our second loop, the pilot flew lower over the Zambezi so that I could make out the dark forms of hippos. As their eyes and ears are the only part of them above the surface when they’re wallowing, they’re much harder to spot from the riverbank. Also in the bush was an elephant herd, the pilot pointing out the water hole they’d just moved on from. Fifteen minutes later I was back on the ground, completely elated and enjoying a big buzz that lasted way beyond breakfast.
If Victoria Falls is all about the wonder of nature, Sun City feels like the apogee that ambition, imagination and money can produce in a capitalist world. It’s a playground for adults. The decor feels like it’s trying to out-Vegas America’s most over-the-top town especially if you’re staying at the Palace of the Lost City, one of four hotels here.
Nothing is plain here – on the corners of the turrets sit lions and the huge domed entrance hall has enormous African frescoes. A massive dining room has a central fountain with water pouring from the trunks of four elephants. It’s like Elton John was given free and dictated the theme be ‘Africa’ with money no object. There are waterfalls everywhere. And if you’re not a mean-spirited type who sneers at such overblown gaudiness, the weird thing is it all starts to become rather wonderful – you start to marvel at the imagination on show. All those minimal hotels out there with their white walls and church candles start to feel dull in comparison. My eyeballs were tantalised at every turn and I liked it, God-damn it. And once you’ve stopped gawping at the decor, you can start enjoying all the toys you’ve got to play with, the best of which is the Valley of the Waves. An artificial beach that looks like it’s been plonked in the middle of a lost kingdom, klaxons regularly announce the unleashing of a small tsunami in the pool. All swimmers try to escape from it, then everyone hoots with laughter as it sweeps them backwards or crashes on their head. If you’ve forgotten what fun a water park can be, the Valley is here to remind you. There are flumes you can zip down on inflatable doughnuts (one in the dark) and there is a kind of water death slide that’s near vertical where your shorts will try and castrate you if you don’t cross your legs. I know you’re all serious business-minded professionals but honestly, it is all, quite frankly, ENORMOUS FUN.
Whatever you fancy doing at Sun City, it’s likely you’ll be able to do it. Like Vegas, there’s the gambling and the shows but there are also two golf courses, a plethora of restaurants where you can pretend you’re somewhere else in the world (we went to Santorini and pretended we were in Greece) and random stuff like Segway tours. They even built a lake just so you can do some jet skiing. Despite all this man-made pleasure, one of the big draws is a natural one: being able to go on safari.
Next door to Sun City is Pilanesburg National Park, 570 square kilometres of African savannah that couldn’t feel further removed from the theme park ten minutes down the road. It’s possible to see the Big Five, (lion, rhino, buffalo, leopard, elephant) and in a couple of hours there we managed four, if you include a lion’s backside. Savage beasts, the awesome spectacle of the Falls, the bonkers brilliance of Sun City and all in a week. One thing’s for sure: it sure beats Benidorm.
For packages to both hotels, call 0871 703 4240; travelbag.co.uk. The Royal Livingstone hotel supports the Lubasi home for children, many of whom have been left without parents owing to HIV and AIDS; lubasihome.org