Victoria Falls Hotel

Beyond our means

Our son and girlfriend gave us a totally unexpected and amazing present: two nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel, an unheard of luxury for our usual camping standards! So, before continuing to camp at Hwange National Park we took the “colonial plunge”. However, we had a small problem: as the booking was a surprise, we were not prepared to face such serious and traditional establishment!

Our start could not have been more promising as the Head Concierge (Duly Chitimbire) received us as VIPs by the main entrance and then everything worked out very smoothly until we were comfortably settled in our room, located a few steps from the Larry Norton Gallery on the ground floor. We had visited the place to commemorate the birth of our son in 1991, a few years after David Livingstone found Mosi-oa-Tunya (smoke that thunders) in 1855 and stayed in that same area of the hotel.

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The VIP reception.

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Entrance to the Larry Norton gallery.

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The stairway to the upper floor.

After leaving our belongings we started to explore this real museum of Zimbabwe colonial history. We took advantage to visit the various public rooms as staying guests, unlike previous recent visits that we were outside visitors. We admired the main Palm lounge with its incredible dried plant display and the adjoining Bulawayo lounge with its show of historical artefacts and Punch caricatures of important colonial personalities including Cecil Rhodes and Frederick C. Selous, all presided by a painting of King Lobengula above the fireplace.

Our plans to enjoy the opulent seven-course degustation menu and dancing to a live band at the Edwardian-style Livingstone Room (voted the seventh finest Restaurant in the World by The Daily Meal in 2013) were immediately dashed when we read the notice on the door saying “Strictly no safari wear, shorts, sandals or sneakers.” A very quick mental inventory of our luggage (geared for camping) confirmed our poor preparation on this department and saved us some money!

This restaurant is a reminder of the hotel’s glorious past that started in 1904 when it was opened to take care of the personnel of the railways when they arrived at Victoria Falls. At that stage it was a 16-room wood and corrugated iron roof building that has now increased tenfold. Interestingly, steam for the laundry was produced from the boiler of a scrapped locomotive![1]

After WWII a Royal visit took place in 1947 and the party took over the entire hotel, which was not as large as today. At that time the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) started a mail and passenger service from Southampton to the Vaal dam near Johannesburg in South Africa with Solent S45 class flying boats. These great hydroplanes flew at 338 km per hour at low altitude stopping in Sicily, Luxor, Kampala and Victoria Falls [2].

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Details of the Solent planes.

The twice-weekly flights offered an innovative way of traveling and the visitors would land upstream from the falls to spend time at the hotel in a stop that became known as the “Jungle Junction”, hence the name of one of the hotel’s restaurants.

Exploring the garden and admiring the view of the falls and the bridge spanning Zambia and Zimbabwe, located where Rhodes wished so that the falls’ spray would wet the train carriages, took a lot of our time. The humongous mango trees offer abundant shade to the guests and the bushsnob took advantage of the latter to perform his siestas, surrounded by an international crowd!

Although the famous baobab known as the Big Tree is found at Victoria Falls, its hotel colleagues failed to impress the bushsnob.

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Baobab dwarfed by the bushsnob.

However, the large and solitary msasa tree [3] (Brachystegia spiciformis), usually part of the Miombo woodland, estimated to be 200 years old appears as a very impressive frame to the magnificent view of the falls area from the hotel lawn, usually visited by monkeys and warthogs as well as Hadada ibises.

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Flags at half-mast at the entrance due to the death of former president Robert Mugabe.

Before visiting the falls, we extended our walk to the hotel’s surrounding area including the Victoria Falls railway station located nearby in the hope of seeing some of the steam trains that are still functioning. As the tracks are easily accessible, we hoped to flatten a few coins by placing them on the rails. We were unlucky as the next train was expected late in the evening when we had a dinner appointment at a traditional restaurant.

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However, a walk revealed a couple of steam engines and old carriages being restored for future use.

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Unfortunately during the walk the bushsnob lost the soles of both walking shoes and this jeopardized the plans of a visit to the falls.

 

The last hope of reaching them was boarding the 1920’s hand-worked rail trolley service that replaced rickshaw rides! Unfortunately, we suffer another blow as it has been out of action since December 1957!

So, we had no other consolation than to join the other guests at the lovely Stanley’s Terrace and order high tea following the British tradition stretching back to the mid-1700s. [4] Luckily, despite its strictly formal beginnings, the affair at the hotel allowed guests dressed for safari and even sole-less! We enjoyed a range of savoury and sweet treats with an excellent Zimbabwean tea served on fine silverware, bone china, and vintage cutlery and crockery whilst relaxing looking forward to our camping experience at Hwange National Park, our familiar treat!

 

[1] It stopped functioning only in 1996!

[2] See: https://www.tothevictoriafalls.com/vfpages/tourism/flyingboats.html

[3] In Shona language.

[4] This is an afternoon meal, usually served between 15-16hs. and served at the dining room table contrary to the ‘afternoon tea’, served in comfort while the guests are on chairs or sofas.