We touched down at the Victoria Falls airport and I hurried off the plane in an attempt to be at the front of the line to purchase my Visa on Arrival. For US citizens, fees are $35 for single entry, $45 for double, and $55 for multi-entry. We headed to withdraw USD, the currency used in Zimbabwe after their own currency failed during a major economic crisis. Inflation has affected this country on a catastrophic scale, and cash frequently can be on shortage. You may even see locals trying to sell the old Zimbabwe currency, literal trillion dollar bills. It is best to bring some USD with you, in case there is a cash shortage like I experienced the day I arrived and found the ATM to be empty. You also shouldn't rely heavily on credit cards, although they are accepted by bigger hotels and tour companies. We exited the airport as the sun was setting, only to see goats ramming into each other in a field before us. As always, I had previously emailed ahead to ask how much a taxi should cost from the airport to our hostel, and luckily had just enough. A cab driver approached us, and accepted when I offered the standard price for the ride in rebuttal to his first offer.
We pulled up to Mambo Backpackers, a family run hostel with a pool and bar. For $15 a night, it fit our backpacker budget perfectly. The hospitality of the entire family at Mambo's was by far the best part of my experience there. Every morning we woke up greeted by their children who led us to the kitchen for a hot breakfast. In the afternoons, the kids would come home from school and eagerly perform songs for us they learned that day. The family was very helpful with suggestions as well. On the first night, I asked if it would be safe for us to walk to town. I was only warned of elephants in response, and this actually made me laugh a little because I wasn't even thinking of wildlife. He explained that fall is breeding season and they are particularly aggressive. Over the next couple days I met multiple people who had lost someone to an elephant attack and realized the gravity of his warning. As I sit here writing this now, a full year later, a quick Google search reveals two separate incidents of tourists dying from elephant attacks in VFA in the past week alone!
We walked to a nearby hostel & bar, Shoestrings, where we met a mixture of travelers and locals. Three young guys from Zimbabwe sat at our table, sharing stories of growing up on game reserves and working as anti poaching rangers. Casual topics included tracking poachers, being shot at, and losing friends to animal attacks. They also spoke on the economic crisis and referred to the president at the time as "the world's best bank robber," elaborating they could not afford to leave their own country due to the financial crisis years prior when their currency collapsed. After a few beers, the guys invited us and our friend Nyasha to come along. Nyasha was from South Africa but had lived there for a several months. We hopped in the back of their pickup and took off into the night.
They took us to see a baobab tree, and then proceeded towards the falls. The falls are closed at night, but our friends knew of a deviation in the fence where we could easily slip through. They did this before, they assured us it would be fine. However, another acquaintance went on to tell me that I could've been in serious trouble (or maybe even shot!) while trespassing at night... I suppose thats why we rarely used the light from our phones to find our path. But reflecting on their history after the fact, I understand danger was all relative, and just because I do dumb things doesn't mean you should - I would advise you not to do this. We proceeded in a single line holding on to each other, slowly navigating past brush faintly illuminated by the moon. We followed the roar of the falls until it got stronger and stronger, and then we filed out across the rocks. We sat under the stars and talked about a variety of things you typically wouldn't expect strangers to discuss with each other, including loss.
We filed back through the brush to the truck and headed into town to barhop. I kept pestering Nyasha to take us to bars that played African House music. I'm a hip hop head and through a brief stop in South Africa, was introduced to house music there and was low-key obsessed. He took us to multiple places, and at one point we were playing pool in this small pub. I noticed a man with a bothered expression say something to Nyasha. When I asked, he basically explained to me the man was older and weary of white people (for obvious and understandable reasons). I asked, "should we leave?" but Nyasha just brushed it off like "I talked to him, it's fine." When I bought another beer, I bought one for that same man and thanked him for having us there. Now I know that buying one damn beer for someone isn't going to change this mans completely valid emotions perceiving people who have historically marginalized his people for centuries. But, when I gave him that beer and said thank you, his demeanor changed dramatically. His face lit up with this big smile and throughout the night he would give me a little thumbs up. That gesture, while small, was the only way at the time I felt I could naturally convey appreciation and awareness that I was in his space. I bought him one more beer and then we headed on to the last spot, a little dance club. I went to walk in with Nyasha, and the doorman immediately put his hand up to stop us and some words were exchanged. When I asked what the man had said, I was told he wanted to know why they brought white people there. I just stood there, calm and quiet, and told Nyasha that if they didn't feel comfortable with me being there I could leave. I felt bad, putting him in this situation again, and the last thing I wanted to come off as was another white person feeling entitled to a space that isn't mine. I don't know what Nyasha said but we were waved in, and inside people were incredibly inviting. A girl named Patience befriended me on the dance floor almost immediately. We took some shots and danced for most of the night until one of my friends rounded me up to go back to Mambo's.
All of the places and people we encountered that night were so friendly and welcoming. Honestly, I was only aware of these sentiments because I was privileged to have a friend present who could communicate this to me and additionally who was able and willing to use his emotional energy to ensure our acceptance. Initially, I was hesitant to share this experience for fear it would cast a shadow of negativity for some of those reading. But I share this so that others of privilege may react appropriately if facing a similar situation. Let me clarify I STILL FELT WELCOMED. As a white person traveling anywhere, it is essential to be aware of the history of white colonialism across the world. I didn't feel offended because the initial reactions of these men are justified. This is not racism. This is not hate. This is pain. This is fear. This is defense. This is survival. And it is 100% valid and rooted in historical truths in which white people stole land and marginalized indigenous groups for centuries. As a privileged white person, I believe it is important to be aware of the possibility your presence may unintentionally trigger trauma or disrupt a safe space for people of color. So generally, you should have some kind of permission to be present. It is not ok to travel to someone else's land and disrupt a space that feels safe for them, whether you feel it is fair or not. This was not my common experience in Zimbabwe, but it was something I encountered worth speaking on. Additionally, always express your appreciation for being present. Bonus points if you can learn some words in the native language, which is Ndebele in this area. The word for thank you is "Ngiyabonga" (the first NG sound meshes together but to me sounds more like "neeya-bonga"). This was not my common experience in Zimbabwe, but it was something I encountered worth speaking on.
The next morning we awoke to the host's 4 year old son Christian's voice, "gooooood morntingggg," he would sing, giggling. After breakfast, our guide (the airport taxi driver from the day prior) scooped us and we headed to the Victoria Falls Bridge, which stretches across the Zambia/Zimbabwe border to start our day off with a large ass dose of adrenaline. Although there are a ton of exciting things to do in VFA (like a helicopter ride, kayaking, zip lines, peering over the falls), I came there dead set on bungee jumping.
There's only one company that operates this so I made sure to book in advance as to not miss my opportunity. It costs $160 for the jump and is extra for the video and photos. While they do permit you to wear your own go pro (I had mine on my wrist) the video/photos
are definitely worth it because they film from far away and at the platform. That morning, we headed to passport control, showed our passports, and let them know we were there to jump. You do not need a double entry visa to bungee, since you are not fully crossing past Zambia passport control. We then walked to the bridge and headed across to jump the 111m over the Zambezi River. When I booked this adventure, I was fully aware of a girl's failed jump several years prior. She plummeted into the Zambezi and miraculously swam to safety. I figured after an incident like that they would leave no room for fuck ups. I headed out first, confident to show my friends they had nothing to fear. This was my second time bungee jumping, I knew what to expect - or so I thought. As I sat by the platform to get prepped, they began to wrap towels around my legs. I was confused. They then started to wrap rope around my towel bound ankles, looping and tying knots. This did not seem legit to me, like at all. My previous jump had used ankle harnesses with multiple caribiners. I was skeptical, but I knew Will Smith survived this same jump and I didn't want to look like a little bitch, so I trusted the process. I smiled to my friends and waddled to the platform. I hesitated to let go as I felt I would immediately be pulled forward and hurled towards the river. After a little reassurance from the man behind me holding my rope, I let go, and on their count I focused solely on springing myself forward. You can't think about the fall, you just have to focus on executing your part - the jump. A man dropped down to attach another line to my harness, and then I was slowly raised until I could step onto a lower platform under the bridge. It was narrow and required connecting the harness to multiple safety lines. Finally I reached the end of the bridge, and took some steps up to the top before strutting over to my friends to prove they weren't about to die.
After we completed our jumps and our heart rates returned to normal, we walked back to the Zimbabwean side with our guide and proceeded on to a nearby entrance to the Falls. The Falls were REnamed Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria by British colonizer Robert Livingstone, the first white man to see them. The native name is "Mosi-Oa-Tunya" meaning, "the smoke that thunders." It cost us $30/person an included a small exhibit at the entryway as well as access to the pathways adjacent to the falls - the same pathways we had shifted through the night before. It was much different during the day. The night before, it was so dark we couldn't even see the waterfalls, only hear them. But now as I stood in the daylight, the shear velocity of the rapids and the immense walls of water crashing down into the tumultuous zambezi reminded me of my insignificance and powerlessness in this universe - a feeling which like the water, sounds full of chaos but in reality has a calming effect. I thought about the night before, sitting before these falls without even seeing them, all of our stories of heartbreak and chaos coming together to create some peaceful, beautiful moment.
Devil's Pool is a popular tourist spot located on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. It is a naturally made pool formed by erosion on the rocks, creating a lip along the edge that prevents the falls from carrying you over the edge, allowing you to peer straight down without plummeting to your death. If you're visiting Zimbabwe and wish to do this excursion, its easiest to find a local tour guide or company to transport and escort you. You will need to get a double entry visa on arrival in the airport and pay visa fees to enter Zambia. Although the dry season lasts from April to October, the pool is only accessible from about August to December. While it would've been an ideal time, I didn't go because 1) I didn't get my shit together and plan it in advance, 2) I didn't feel like spending all that extra money, and 3) I prefer to stay away from larger tourist groups (always feels like an adult field trip to me). Luckily, another friend I had met would invite us on even more adrenaline pumping swim in the Zambezi.
Swimming in the Croc-infested Zambezi
My first memory of Paul was watching a video of him kayaking the Zambezi and fighting off a FUCKING CROCODILE. Talk about first impressions. I just sat their in awe, sipping on my beer at Shoestrings, trying to make sure my mouth wasn't hanging open from the things I was hearing. My friends had already gone back for the night, but I stayed to hang out. Upon leaving, Paul and his friend offered me a ride. We took the long way, swerving around elephants in the road, and Paul pointed out animals I had never even heard of despite it being pitch black outside. They dropped me off at Mambo's and let me know they would be back in the morning for a real adventure.
The next morning I woke up early and walked to the main house to fill my Lifestraw (the best water bottle for travel!). Between the over 100F days and beer filled nights, I was so dehydrated I felt like my kidneys were shriveling into raisins. I found Christian in the backyard, dressed in his school uniform, a bright yellow collared shirt with dark blue shorts. He was crying, rubbing his eyes. I squatted down to meet his eye level and asked what was wrong. He paused, looked me in the eye for a moment, and then wrapped his arms around my shoulders, resting his head. I carried him around, bouncing him on my side for a few minutes, tossing him in the air until he forgot about whatever had upset him. I let him down and he ran into the house, giggling hysterically. Paul arrived a few minutes later and the 3 of us grabbed our bags and hopped in the back of the truck.
We headed out to a game reserve nearby where people often go on safaris. After paying the few dollars to enter, we proceeded on as Paul looked for a good spot to go swimming. "Is this allowed?" I asked. Paul just kind of laughed, "it's fine, just listen to everything I say." He pulled off the road and onto a small beach along the riverside. "Make sure to lock the doors, you don't want your things taken." Looking around, seeing no one, "by who?" I asked. "The babboons," he replied. I laughed out loud. I should have realized. I had already encountered baboons walking through the town and they would straight up mug you sometimes, especially if you were carrying food. We prepared to walk out to the middle of the river. Paul told us, "listen to my instructions or die." We kind of laughed and he was like "haha no, really though."
As we walked through the water, he would point at various spots and just say "life" or "death." "Life, life, life, death, death, life, death" he said leading us through the little rapids. Death quite literally meant you'll probably be taken out by a croc if you step there. I trusted Paul though. This is something I would never do on my own, and I am in no means encouraging anyone to ever leave their vehicle at a game reserve. But Paul knew the area, was educated about the wildlife from growing up on a game reserve, and he had done this many times before. He could point out various tracks and tell us which animals had crossed through. At one point he picked up a turd and TOUCHED IT TO HIS TONGUE to identify what it was. I was just sitting there in shock like did this man really just lick a turd? And then he did it one more time, so I could be sure to film it, and erupted in this loud ass, contagious laugh. I've since learned his nickname there is "Huntwe" or hyena because of this. Also, I'm 98% sure he knew the animal responsible from the appearance and not the taste of the poop but... I'm not totally discounting this. After a few hours of roaming around and kicking back in the rapids, we jumped back in the truck and headed out of the game reserve as the sun set. We tore down the road, Damien Marley blasting through the speakers. As I was singing along, Paul was like "you know Damien Marley?!" and we had a "did we just become best friends?!" moment. At that point they decided to switch drivers, but not wanting to stop and pull over, Paul just climbed out the window and over the top of the moving car to make the switch. Casual.
After a shower at Mambo's and another after school performance from the kids, we walked to town and sat down for a bomb ass meal. It was a night to splurge, and luckily the Shearwater Cafe nearby had a 3 course special for $15 with steak as the main course. Sorry vegans, I fucking love my steak. I can't usually afford it on my backpacker budget, but $20 for a full course steak dinner and wine?! We ballin. That wasn't the only place we ate however; we also enjoyed the following:
Wild Horizons Lookout Cafe - We were lucky enough to have lunch here last minute, however it can be busy and its best to make reservations. You look out to the Victoria Falls Bridge where you see people like me bungee jumping. Unfortunately this burned down in 2018, but maybe it will be rebuilt.
Three Monkeys - We stopped here for lunch one day solely because a bar in our hometown shares the same name but the food was delicious. If you come here for dinner, again its best to make a reservation.
Zambezi House - This was the cutest place we stopped by to have drinks with our friends. The decor is cool like a swanky tree house and offers a close view of the Zambezi from the patio.
My time if VFA was short, but so memorable. There are so may exciting things to do, but my favorite were those I didn't plan. You can't and shouldn't strive to replicate my itineraries (and I especially don't want to be blamed if some croc attacks you for swimming where you shouldn't or you get shot for trespassing). I definitely do shit I shouldn't, and I'm lucky I'm ok, but I share this to show people that you don't have to plan everything through some agent or website. Leave time to be open to possibilities. Put yourself out there. Question your fears but trust your instincts. When someone who knows that area invites you along, consider it. It is a privilege to travel, but its an even bigger privilege to be welcomed and invited to experience moments the typical tourist would never see. I will forever remember the friends I made here and always appreciate them for including me in their adventures, educating me on their lives, and keeping me safe.