"It looks like we're in heaven," I whisper to my colleague, Kadda, accompanying me on the trip to Old Drift Lodge in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Mist slowly rises from the Zambezi River, making me feel like we're drifting through the clouds instead of floating on one of the longest rivers in Africa. I'm not sure why I'm whispering, but I think it's because I don't want to break the spell. I can barely believe that I still woke up in my own bed back in Cape Town just 24 hours ago. It's our first morning in Zimbabwe, and it's already exceeding my expectations. I can't wait to see what was waiting for us next…
Heaven is a Place in Zimbabwe
We had set out on a sunrise cruise just before 6 AM in the biting cold in the morning. Now, wrapped in warm clothing and blankets, our fingers are curled around mugs of coffee spiked with Amarula liquor, a safari classic.
I admire the skyline, with palm trees towering on the riverbanks, as the first sign of the sun becomes visible, a soft glow dancing on the waves lapping our boat. The sky transitions from deep purple to yellow and finally orange, where the sun will make its glorious debut. Some stars are still visible, twinkling in the purple sky still untouched by daylight.
Early Bird Catches the View
Sunrise on the Zambezi with no one around makes you feel like you're privy to one of Africa's best-kept secrets. I close my eyes for a second. I try to store the moment away in my memory bank, from the crispness of the air, slight warmth radiating from the pending sunrise, sounds of the boat gliding across the water, and the bird chorus now and again punctuated by deep hippo grunts. My colleague Kadda points out that hippos sound like an old man's rumbling laughter, and what a fitting analogy that is!
Following in Livingstone's Footsteps
Suddenly, we see what we really came to see in Zimbabwe. The "Smoke that Thunders" from Victoria Falls is clearly visible in the distance, like a massive fire, smoke billows up the heavens. I still can't believe how prominent it is even from afar!
For a moment, I wonder what it must've felt like for David Livingstone to see this very same sight for the first time. Perhaps he back-paddled at first, scared of what it could be, but then he was determined to uncover the mystery.
Of course, he later did. And he said: "No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."
I myself feel like an explorer, my eyes hungrily taking in every detail. And there was so much still lying in front of me…I could not wait to see it up close.
But, wait, let's start from the beginning. When Sunny fetches us from Victoria Falls Airport after a quick three-hour flight from Cape Town, his beaming smile competes with the warmth of the Zimbabwean sunny weather. And it's equally welcoming! He's holding up a sign with our names, traditional dancers putting on a welcome show just behind him at the airport's exit.
When we settle into the private transfer vehicle, he points to a cooler box. "I've brought you some whiskey to get your trip started!" he says with a twinkle in his eye before handing us ice-cold water bottles instead.
Driving Through Victoria Falls
We drive through Victoria Falls to Old Drift Lodge, where we will be spending the next two nights. I crane my neck, trying to see as much of the town as possible while en route.
Sunny tells us stories all the way to the lodge, pointing out things and sharing insightful anecdotes about his country. "I'm Tonga," he explains. "The word means "to rule", but we're mostly known for being honest people".
After only spending about 40 minutes with Sunny on the drive to Old Drift Lodge, I can't argue with that. He seems like such a genuine person and really sets the tone for the kind of hospitality we'll get to experience on Zimbabwean soil.
Riverside Retreat at Old Drift Lodge
As we drive up to Old Drift Lodge, I see a couple of staff members energetically waving to welcome us. They greet us with the same warmth we got from Sunny. And after we wave goodbye to him, we jump out of our private transfer vehicle, making our way through the massive wooden front doors.
Victoria Falls Town surprised me by how green it is. It looks like a lush paradise, and this greenery is mirrored in Old Drift's main lodge, with plants everywhere. The fresh modern beige and green décor with pops of yellow is tastefully done and complements the surroundings.
The Mighty Zambezi
Then, we see her. The mighty Zambezi River, glittering in the distance. The entire lodge runs out toward and faces this river. Not to do so would be a sin, in my opinion. The deck extends onto the river from which all the boat cruises are launched. Plenty of outdoor furniture invites you to sit and admire the Zambezi. There's also a sunken boma area, and I'm already excited about sitting around the fire tonight after dinner!
Africa's Signature Massage
As we settle in on the outdoor couches and try to take in all our surroundings, the lodge manager Lessley comes over to greet us. Welcome drinks also find their way into our hands before we know it.
"I've taken the liberty of booking you our signature African massage," Lessley says with a wink. When he sees my puzzled expression, he laughs and explains that our afternoon game drive will depart at 6 PM sharp from the lodge.
The excitement starts to build in me. It's been at least a year since I was last on safari, and I could not wait to get out there, to breathe in the aromatic bush, not knowing what would wait for us out there in the wild...
We follow Lessley along a long, winding wooden walkway. As we turn down to our room, I see something moving in the bushes. My goodness, I realise, it's warthogs!
A couple of them are casually grazing below the walkway, right by our front door. Lessley laughs and assures us that they're very used to humans and won't do anything. I immediately grab my camera to document this unique encounter, as I've never been this up-close to Pumbaa before!
Space, Space, and More Space
After we've taken plenty of photos, Lessley shows us through the front door, explaining everything as he goes. My first impression is that the suite is large, but I'm surprised to find that it's actually much, much larger than I initially thought.
Lessley slides open a tented sliding door, revealing a bathroom with a massive shower and twin basins. And it does not stop there. He slides open another door toward the back of the suite, revealing a second bedroom and bathroom, explaining that this is their family suite.
Best View of the Zambezi
I wander through the suite, taking it all in. I love the green and yellow interior matching the main lodge's colour palette. And, of course, the suite also overlooks the Zambezi River. In fact, it has a fantastic view of it!
I open the sliding doors to the wooden balcony, delighted to see a plunge pool and two sun loungers. The weather is wonderful in Zimbabwe at the moment, and I'm ecstatic to bask in the 28-degree sunshine, the powder blue sky cloudless and with zero wind disturbing this idyllic picture.
Then I also see a bronze clawfoot bath outside on the deck, with curtains you can close if you want some privacy. However, these suites are so remote that you feel like you're in your own world! I can already picture myself soaking in bubbles as the sun sets on the river…
Our First Game Drive at Old Drift Lodge
"Hi, I'm Richard," our tall guide introduces himself. With long dreadlocks and an open, friendly face, he looks as excited to see us as we are seeing him. He's got a calmness yet a strength about him, something that's certainly a good trait if you're taking guests out into the wild!
"We're going to have a great time today heading out on safari, followed by sundowner drinks! After all, there's no rule against drinking and being driven!" he chuckles.
After he ushers us into the open game vehicle, we take off. One of the things I love about game drives is feeling the wind in my hair and that slightly bumpy (sometimes more than other times) ride as you make your way into the belly of the bush. You lean left, right, to the front, to the back, sometimes ducking for a branch or two.
Richard points out different things as we drive, from plants to buck to animal tracks on the road, explaining how each one is unique. "Nothing natural is the same," he remarks.
How true, I think to myself. Mother Nature's intricacies never cease to amaze.
The Tree of Life
"Wait, is that a baobab?" one of our fellow safari guests exclaims excitedly, and Richard immediately stops the vehicle. The baobab tree towers above us, Medusa-like branches sprouting from its massive, thick trunk. Richard jumps off the vehicle and points to the bark.
"It's like a giant succulent, not really a true tree," he explains. And with plenty of uses sustaining other creatures and the ability to store water in its trunk, it's fittingly nicknamed 'The Tree of Life'.
We set off again but only for a moment until Richard halts again. "Look, a giraffe!" he points. Personally, I just love giraffes because of how graceful yet awkward they are!
"Did you know that giraffes don't have a voice box?" Richard says. "When God created them, he probably thought where on earth he could put the voice box in such a long neck. And then, he just decided to leave it out!" he laughs.
I just adore Richard's jokes and stories, colouring the safari experience. If you've been on safari before, you know just what a big difference a good guide can make. If you have someone truly passionate about their job and want to see their guests smile and have the time of their lives, your safari is just so much better, regardless of what you get to see that day.
We come across some zebras, a dizzying mix of black and white stripes against the horizon. "Did you know that the male zebra wags his tail from left to right? On the other hand, the female wags her tail from right to left. That's how you can tell them apart," Richard comments, his expression dead serious.
Before his words sink in, I exclaim: "Ah, interesting!" However, within seconds, Richard's face crumbles into laughter. "No, no… I'm just joking," he grins. I laugh silently at myself, shaking my head, but also appreciating how he fooled me for a second.
Sippin' on Sunset
Sundowners, one of my favourite parts of safari. You get to pause for a moment, reliving what you just experienced. You also get to sip on your choice of drink and watch one of my favourite shows on earth – an African sunset.
Now, we can all see the sunset from wherever we are in the world. But let me just tell you, an African sunset is bigger and bolder somehow. I guess it's the clear air and vastness of the bush, and just having no lights and buildings to detract from its rich colours that fade into different hues.
One for the Road
Richard miraculously makes gin, wine, bubbly, Amarula, whiskey, and more appear, along with some nibbles. This is also a golden hour for photos, so he steps in to capture everyone patiently and with a smile. And after chatting and taking many, many photos, we bundle back into the game drive vehicle. Richard even tops up our glasses, saying: "One for the road!"
As we drive back and the night crawls in, the air gets cooler, almost like the sun is sighing with relief at the end of a long day. I'm quiet the entire drive back to Old Drift Lodge, but my mind is reliving it all and enjoying that simple pleasure of just being. Like Savasana after a long, good yoga session.
Her Majesty, The Victoria Falls
It's day two in Zimbabwe, and our itinerary for the day is packed. After our early morning cruise on the Zambezi, we're heading to Victoria Falls to finally see the famous 'Smoke that Thunders' in real life.
We walk through the forest, and I inhale deeply through my nose. The forest smells like something sweet, almost tangerine-like, and the deep dampness of soil, a delightful combination. Overhead, cheeky vervet monkeys are swinging from the branches, occasionally dropping to the ground.
They're just adorable, and I giggle as I try to catch them on camera. Butterflies flutter through the branches, and now and again, you can catch a glimpse of a warthog or bushbuck through the trees.
There are 16 lookout points in the Victoria Falls National Park, offering different perspectives of the Falls. Since we're visiting in May, we already know we're about to get very, very soaked! The Zambezi, and therefore the Falls, are in full flow at the moment, which means that the force of the water hitting the ground equals a lot more "Smoke that Thunders".
Richard, our Old Drift Lodge guide from the previous game drive and who took us out on our morning boat cruise, has driven us here and is also our guide for the day. He hands us two large raincoats, thick plastic that drowns both of us. Kadda and I are both on the shorter side, so walking in these raincoats has us laughing at each other as we try not to trip.
Marvelling at the Falls
The first four lookout points are relatively dry, with excellent photo opportunities. After that, things get very wet, which is also a whole lot of fun! It feels like we step into the eye of a storm as a downpour of water washes down on us at these lookout points.
I tremble slightly from true amazement as I stand in front of this largest sheet of falling water in the world. We keep stopping at each viewpoint to take photos and just try to take in the majesty of the Falls. After all, it's such a famous landmark that it's declared one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Zip-lining in the Gorge
All day, I've been unable to shake my nervousness about the next item on our itinerary. I'm aware that my legs are starting to tremble a little bit more as the time is nearing for us to make our way to the gorge. We've signed up to go zip-lining, and my body is already giving my brain a hard time for making this decision, and I'm now really shaking like a leaf as I step out of the car.
When you get to the main office for activities like the gorge swing (we were not brave enough for this one!) and zip-lining, they have a TV showing videos from previous guests jumping and sliding off into the gorge. This does not settle my nerves, and I can feel my teeth starting to clatter a bit now too, as I try to keep it together.
I actually love activities like these, but my survival instinct is a bit too strong. We get strapped in, and I ask a million questions. The poor instructors try their best to tell me it's not a big deal, that it's safe, and that we'll love it. They even try to convince us to do the gorge swing instead!
Kadda and I decide to go tandem, and I guess it's mostly so that we don't get the chance to chicken out after seeing the other one go off into the distance. We cling to each other like our lives depend on it, and, well, I guess it does! I can tell we're both terrified, and my legs can barely support me as we move down onto the last step.
They start asking us questions about whether we're ready or not. However, my ears are ringing, and my heart is in my throat, so I start yelling: "Just do it, please just get it over with!"
And then, just like that, I'm free-falling for a millisecond. My heart feels like it jumps out of my throat, my high-pitched scream following suit. We speed through the air, my ears buzzing. Finally, we slow down and stop, hanging in the air, our feet dangling as if they're still trying to find the ground.
Below us, it looks like someone poured a Guinness beer into the river, the frothy foam swirling on top. I look over at Kadda, and she's just as wide-eyed. "I can't believe we just did that!" she yells, laughing. And it's then that she shares that she has a fear of heights! If this was so hectic for me, I could only imagine how she must've felt.
As we hang there for a while, waiting for the instructor to come and fetch us, we relax a bit more and take in our surroundings. It's breathtaking, looking up at the rock formations and seeing just how high we are from below and how far away we are from the tiny specs of humans we just came from.
Finally, when our instructor starts reeling us back in, I feel almost sad to be leaving. The view, the feeling of your heart exploding like fireworks, it's something, all right. Something spectacular.
Zambezi Lager and Bream
Kadda and I chat excitedly about what we just experienced as we make our way up the path to the Lookout Café, where we'll be having lunch. I'm blown away as we walk into the very stylish restaurant with incredible artworks. But the main attraction is that it, like the name suggests, looks out onto the same gorge we just zip-lined through.
Kadda and I both feel a little sheepish when we take our seats right at the edge of the balcony and realise that everyone enjoying their lunch around us must've heard us scream like crazy below. However, the feeling passes soon enough when we hear more cries from others below.
We order a local Zambezi Lager beer and their signature Zambezi bream fish and chips. You can see the spray of the Falls and the bridge from here. And from this angle, it almost looks like someone took an axe and split open the earth, a veil of mist rising from the crack.
The adrenaline from our very busy day settles a bit as I sip on my ice-cold beer. I sit back, happiness washing over me. I'm so ready to see what else Zimbabwe has in store for me.
Wild Horizons, an adventure tour operator, has a couple of properties and activities to offer in Victoria Falls. They've organised every single exhilarating experience we've had so far, and now they wanted us to take a look at their Elephant Camp and go on their gorge sundowner experience, followed by dinner.
When we arrive at Elephant Camp, I am taken aback by the manicured green oasis that greets us. But once you've walked through this lush, tranquil garden at the front, there's another surprise in store.
I gasp as I take in the vast view over the untouched bush, some wildlife visible as they graze in the distance. But, most notably, you can see the smoke of Victoria Falls, the high water looking almost like a big smudge on the horizon. Almost out of place, yet remarkable.
Stories by Stan
We set off for our sundowner experience, meeting our guide for the drive, Stan. He's a jovial guy, clearly passionate about his job and home country.
One of the first animals we spot is a wildebeest. "A wildebeest looks like it's made up of different animals. Its features are just so random!" Stan observes, laughing.
Kadda is really hoping to see a crocodile while we're in Victoria Falls, and when we suddenly stop next to the riverbank and Stan points out one, she's delighted. I try to zoom in with my camera to capture it, but this dinosaur-like creature is basking in the afternoon sun and not moving anytime soon, so I only get his (massive) tail.
Later, we see some buffalo. "The buffalo is unpredictable, making it a very dangerous animal to encounter in the bush. They mean business!" Stan says. "So, if you do see one coming, you have one of two choices. Either you climb up a tree, or you lie flat on the ground…but the latter is only to minimise the damage, of course," he laughs.
Gorge(ous) Sundowner Experience
After an exciting game drive, it's time for sundowners. Stan slows down, parking what seems like in the middle of nowhere. But then we jump out of the game vehicle and walk toward where we can see a table and chairs. The table is set with different bottles so we can choose our favourite sundowner tipple, along with high-tea-style silver platters filled with snacks. Once we reach the table, we look down and see why this is where Stan stopped.
It offers an incredible view of the gorge below. And, apparently, the rushing rapid we see going through it is known as "Commercial Suicide", a grade 6 rapid that very few would ever be brave enough to attempt.
We stare at this view with a glass of bubbly in hand, silenced once again by Victoria Falls and her many different viewpoints and surprises.
Step into Zimbabwe's Warm Embrace
After dinner at Elephant Camp, Richard fetches us to take us back to Old Drift Lodge. We pile into the car, our beds calling after such an eventful day.
It's our final night at Old Drift Lodge and, as we make our way to the lodge, my eyes tear up a bit and my cheeks blush with joy. I'm sad about leaving our beloved Old Drift Lodge suite in the morning. However, the memories I've collected over the past two days have been priceless.
Zimbabwe has embraced me and proven that, well, it really is heaven on earth.
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