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Surprising Cities – Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Ok, I’ll admit it, I cheated a bit on this one as well. It was really the whole area that amazed me. The town itself wasn’t spectacular, but the whole experience was. Victoria Falls is the final (at least for now) in my surprising cities series.

Why I went: As part of a trip to Southern Africa. We wanted to see Victoria Falls and decided to go from the Zimbabwe side. It wasn’t in the orignal itinerary, but we added it in before we went.

What I expected: To be amazed by the falls and to enjoy the elephant back safari, but pretty much nothing else. I’ll admit some apprehension. There were travel warnings, and the week before I went the former Prime Minister’s wife was killed in a car accident, in which he was also injured. This was a bit of a scandal at the time, and didn’t help with the warnings to stay clear of the country.

What I found: A people who were so friendly and welcoming that it was hard to believe anyone could be that nice in the face of so much poverty that they can no longer accept their own currency; a country filled with landscape, adventure, wildlife, and a culture they manage to maintain despite such hardship; a sadness that underlies this culture when they tell you that it’s ok if you tip them in old shoes instead of money, because they’d be so thrilled to be able to put shoes on their family’s feet; the framework for a country that could be even more incredible given the opportunity, and that already offers an amazing experience for those tourists who are willing to give it a chance.

How long to spend there: You can easily spend three nights here. Depending on where you’re heading in from, it can be a bit of a journey so take the rest of the first day/evening to relax. I can’t recommend enough that you stay at the historic Victoria Falls hotel. You can actually see and hear the falls from the back dining patio. You could spend part of a day just exploring the hotel and its grounds. In addition to the falls, activities available in the area an elephant back safaris (highly recommended), Lion walks, game drives – both day and night options, river safaris, white water rafting – considered some of the best rapids in the world, and more . Given all of these options, anyone looking a decent amount of adventure could really spend numerous days here. If you want to get in the falls and an additional activity or two, I suggest three nights. I spent two nights and it was not enough time.

*Note: two cameras, luckily not expensive ones, got sacrificed due to the spray from the falls. (It was like a downpour – take the rain coats when the guides offer them to you.) Therefore, some photos are blurry. I used the best ones I could find.

Safari Styles – Types of Safaris

Just as with other types of vacations, safaris come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak. The most popular, or at least most readily depicted, is the driving safari. This usually involves heading out in a 4×4 vehicle with an expert guide, and is possibly the most general type of safari – it’s a great way to see a wide variety of (land) animals and can be done in a national park or game reserve. It’s often a small group (afterall, you have to fit in the vehicle) and can be done as a private safari as well.

In addition to the driving safari, though, there are numerous ways to see the animals, some of which are necessary for viewing specific types of wildlife.

• Walking safaris – these can be done with a group or a private guide, and allow guests to travel on foot to see the animals. Without the vehicle between you and the wildlife, it can feel a bit more interesting, albeit perhaps a bit more scary and thrilling the closer the animals get. The guides are experts in the regions and the wildlife, though, and know how to read the animals movements to ensure that safari-goers are not in any danger. These can range from a few hours to multiple nights, with the overnight safaris having both basic and luxury sleeping options.

• River/boat Safaris – this is an excellent way to see water-dwelling wildlife, such as hippopotamus, alligators, and many species of bird, as well as animals who come to the water to drink or bath, such as elephants (who you’ll often see actually in the water or cooling off in the mud by the banks) and multiple types of antelope such as impala, bushbuck, waterbuck and kudu.

• Fly-in safaris – these allow you to see a greater number of area in a shorter period of time. In addition, they also offer an areal view of the landscape and wildlife – a completely unique experience from anything offered on the ground.

• Hot air balloon safaris – These are almost always day trip options, as opposed to multiple-day safaris. It’s tough to beat the spectacular view of sunrise over the African plains as the hot air balloon takes off.

• Canoe safaris – Like boat safaris, a canoe safari focuses on the animals in and around the rives. Unlike the boat safaris, though, canoes are smaller and quieter (no motor) allowing you to get even closer to the animals. These are led by a guide, just as with other safaris, and can range in length from a day trip to multiple days.

• Mobile safaris – These safaris move from place to place, setting up camp each night. They can require longer drives, sometimes up to six hours between locations. Just because they are tented, they don’t necessarily require “roughing it”. Some offer very luxurious, even en suite tents.

• Elephant-back safari – For elephant-lovers, this might be the ultimate safari experience. While they’re often just a half-day or full-day excursion, these safaris let you see the landscape from atop an elephant. Elephants are typically very gentle creatures, though, and the particular elephants used have gone through training to participate in the safaris. Still, it’s important to know how to ride the elephant and be respectful of the animal and it’s environment. They can still get spooked or excited, and you have to be prepared to hold on if their speed changes or they move suddenly.

• Primate Safaris – Because of their nature, primate safaris are limited to just a few countries in the world. The most sought after include: lemurs in Madagascar, the chimpanzees in Uganda; lowland gorillas in the Congo, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic and Gabon; and perhaps the most incredible, the endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. With under 700 mountain gorillas left in the world, permits for viewing the mountain gorillas are quite limited and are rather costly, though all of the proceeds from these goes directly back to conservation efforts for the gorillas.

Often, people choose to combine several types of safaris and in multiple destinations. Often, game lodges will provide a package with a variety of safari options – for instance 4×4 safaris, boat safaris and perhaps a walking safari. Before choosing your destination, consider which types of safaris you are interested in, which animals you’d most like to see, and which landscapes you’d most like to experience.