By Betty Gordon
© 2020 text and photos. All rights reserved.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about my two-week trip to Botswana and Zimbabwe in November 2019. See my post of November 26 for an overview of the trip; December 8 about my visit to a primary school in Mabele, Botswana; December 20 about bushwalking with elephants at a sanctuary in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe; and January 6, 2020 about the meerkats of northern Botswana.
As the air-conditioned minibus was winding its way through the streets west of Victoria Falls’ city center, dropping off passengers at guest houses, I couldn’t help but notice that some of the properties looked like mini-fortresses.
Formidable walls at least six feet high, constructed of concrete blocks or red bricks, surrounded the buildings, partially obscuring them. Remote-controlled electric gates, with solid panels or vertical metal bars, guarded each entrance.
Nowhere in my pre-trip research was there an indication that crime was rampant in this small, northwestern Zimbabwean city, where the mighty falls on the Zimbabwe-Zambia border are the most well-known attraction.
In that Victoria Falls caters in large part to tourists, generating money and jobs, I got the impression that this area experienced less unrest than other parts of the country such as the capital Harare, still shaking off the 1987-2017 rule of black nationalist-turned-authoritarian Robert Mugabe (1924-2019).
So was I courting danger with my intention of walking into the city center about 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) away from my accommodations to have a look around, browse the shops and grab a bite to eat? Not to worry, as I found out. There was a simple answer.
“The elephants,” said Meredith, my gracious hostess at 528 Victoria Falls, a guest house that is celebrating its one-year anniversary of operation this month. If the animals can see over the walls to the trees and shrubs, the temptation is great, she said.
Of course. When the huge pachyderms are roaming for food, of which they consume hundreds of pounds a day, some sort of sturdy barrier is needed to keep them out. (Last week I saw a photo online of a bull elephant easily climbing over a shorter brick wall elsewhere in Zimbabwe.)
These Reynard Road properties are an easy stroll for elephants, who wander over from a sprawling, nearby reserve. Thus the need for protection.
Meredith and her husband, Paul, who bears a passing resemblance to British actor Dominic West (I am not the first to comment on this, Meredith said) spent more than a year renovating a former single-family home and landscaping the grounds before opening for business.
Meredith, originally from South Africa, and Paul, from Zimbabwe, met in England while attending university. As a couple, they weren’t on track to becoming hoteliers, having each held a variety of jobs, including occupational therapy (Meredith) and banking (Paul). They spent long stretches in Sydney, Australia, and farmed in Zimbabwe before the political situation made that impossible.
In 2017, they purchased the house on leafy Reynard Road and took their time developing an eco-friendly concept, working with local artisans and contractors.
Now the property offers seven en-suite, air-conditioned rooms (two are triple accommodations); a spacious, light-filled dining area that overlooks an inviting outdoor pool and tables; and a rooftop bar called Treetops with an adjoining wooden deck and outdoor seating — and a marvelous view toward Zambia.
Great care has gone into the multicolored and -textured decor, with a particular nod to the dining area’s white walls, which are adorned with baskets composed of recycled plastic made by local women. Dramatic chandeliers draw attention day and night.
Elsewhere, riotously busy wallpaper showcases the plants and animals of Africa, with branch-perching monkeys sandwiched among birds and flowers.
On my first night, I was the lone guest, ensconced in Room 4 upstairs. In addition to a king-size bed surrounded with the obligatory mosquito netting, a single bed hugged the wall to the left as I entered the room.
The lodgings, appointed with wicker chair, desk and ottoman, mirror, wooden table and an open closet, were pleasantly comfortable. But my favorite feature was the impressively deep, impossibly shiny copper basin in the bathroom. So well-kept, it looked as new as the day it was installed.
And so bright, it reflected the alternating black-and-white floor tiles.
Plans are afoot to turn their current outbuilding office by the pool into a gym and add an outdoor kitchen. Construction is under way on a separate bungalow out front geared toward accommodating families.
Before setting off for town, Meredith equipped me with a map, her phone number and the phone number for her recommended taxi service, which she encouraged me to use on the way back. (Meredith and Paul can also advise and help book reservations for local attractions.)
The walk took about 30 minutes in the afternoon heat as I dawdled taking photos and talked briefly to some cheerful uniformed schoolgirls, who had just finished their day of study.
On Livingston Street (probably named after the explorer but missing the final “e” in his name, or a map typo?), shops sell souvenirs ranging from brightly colored tapestries to animal-themed pottery to T-shirts. Inventory was piled high on metal shelves, tacked to the walls and occupying floor space.
Outside one shop, three men were playing homemade-looking xylophone-type instruments next to a drummer, all lending a festive vibe to the scene.
Across the way was Lola’s Tapas Bar and Restaurant, touting its game offerings for the day: kudu, bushbuck (both in the antelope family), crocodile, bream (fish) and guinea fowl. And “coming soon”: eland, tsessebe (also both antelope family) and buffalo. The vegetarian special was quinoa with raisins and caramelized vegetables.
In an interior corner away from the street, artists were drawing and painting. Their finished canvases included studies of lions, giraffes, elephants and rhinos, and portraits of people in traditional dress. Black silhouetted animals stood out in deep contrast to the brilliant orange-, yellow- and pink-tinged background.
In an elegant photo gallery, I bought a couple of postcards and was heading toward an area called Elephant Walk, when I saw the post office. It was there I got my biggest surprise of the day.
I estimated postage to the United States might be about $1 (for tourists, the dollar is the official currency of Zimbabwe, at least for now), the same as I had paid for each card. Maybe $1.50.
Wrong. The clerk told me it was $4 for one postcard. I thought I must have misheard, so I politely asked him to repeat the price. One postcard — $4. That put an end to my buying stamps. I kept the cards and later mailed them from the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Back across the street I encountered persistent — some would say aggressive — salesman, who assured me that I needed to be buying their wares.
There was no shortage of things to look at, especially sizable sculptures and smaller items made from recycled metal, stone carvings of animals and human figures fashioned from wood.
A brief foray into Art Africa Sculpture Park (“A Registered & Designated Tourist Facility” the banner read) revealed statues of cuddling monkeys mingled with a crocodile carrying a pangolin on its back, tail-up warthogs and intertwined stylized giraffes.
Plenty of other vendors sold a similar variety of objects, but I was looking for something more totable. I found one souvenir at Elephant Walk, an arcade that allows artisans to display their goods in the interior spaces.
I immediately honed in on a collection of half-submerged hippos in individual black soapstone oval pools. A perfect 5.5-inch shallow soap dish ($5), I thought, with craftsmanship so fine in the one I selected that the hippo’s eyes and nostrils are clearly defined.
Elsewhere, I purchased an olive wood carving of a striding baby elephant in front of its mother ($8). Bargaining is expected.
For dinner, I stopped at The Three Monkeys, a train-decor-inspired restaurant right next to the railway tracks. Lots of wood-fired pizza, burgers, paninis, fish, chicken, pork and salad possibilities to choose from, and many beer and spirits selections.
I ordered a roasted vegetable wrap ($12) of tender butternut squash, spinach, feta and red pepper pesto. It came with fries on the side. Very filling and delicious.
While I was waiting for my food, several freight trains chugged past, as did a steam-engine-driven luxury passenger car with a Bushtracks Africa logo. That looked like something that would be fun to do — have a five-course meal while riding over the Victoria Falls Bridge — next time.
Through my American tour outfitter, Deeper Africa, I already had reservations for my activities for the next day: a bush walk with elephants (see my post of January 6), a guided tour of the falls, and a wildlife-watching sunset cruise on the Zambezi River, the fourth longest river in Africa.
Helicopter flights over the falls, though expensive and short in duration, are hugely popular. Whitewater rafting, canoeing, fishing safaris, bicycle tours, zip-lining and bungee jumping are among other options. Some outfitters also offer an opportunity to visit a village and have a home-hosted meal.
If your African itinerary has not included Botswana, I highly recommend an excursion to the Chobe River. Wildlife watching from the water provides a rousing experience to rival that of a land game drive.
I would also have liked to visit the museums and markets in the small city of Livingstone, Zambia, just across from Victoria Falls. Alas, not enough time to do everything.
Several of my guides and drivers asked if I had enjoyed my activities in Victoria Falls, and I answered affirmatively, that everyone had been totally professional, friendly and engaging. Delighted with the answer, they implored: “Please spread the word that Zimbabwe is eager for tourists to visit.”
Quick reference: 528 Victoria Falls guest house is at 528 Reynard Road. Made-to-order breakfast is included in the tariff. Lunch and dinner are not offered. 528victoriafalls.com
The Three Monkeys, corner of Livingstone Way and Adam Stander Drive. 3monkeys.co.zw
Outfitters: Wild Horizons (booked for me by Deeper Africa), www.wildhorizons.co.za. All were positive experiences. Other providers, whose brochures I looked at: Pure Africa Destination Management, pure.africa; Bushtracks Africa, bushtracksafrica.com