The Royal Livingstone Hotel
Henry David Thoreau said “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads,” and these words echoed in my mind with every step I took in the grounds of the Royal Livingstone Hotel.
A Five star setting
I would award the Hotel 6 stars for the position alone. It is situated in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park which is a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The banks of the Zambezi River are mere steps away and the Victoria Falls can be accessed via a short walk from the Hotel. The permanent cloud of spray from the falls is clearly visible across the water. This is paradise; African style.
The Royal Livingstone Hotel has merged old colonial opulence with warm African smiles, and by allowing the two diverse cultures to collide, it has created an unrivalled experience.
It is a place where your day is started with smoked salmon and champagne, a friendly good morning from your personal butler, and a cheerful hello from Edward in his colourful African kilt, reminding you that he can arrange anything your heart desires.
173 rooms flank the central hub, accessed by meandering walkways through trees and manicured gardens on one side, and the natural bush on the other. The Dining Room offers in or outdoor seating and looks out over lush lawns, the swimming pool and the river. The Travellers Bar is open 24 hours a day and the resident pianist really knows his way around the ivories. The bar flows into a lounge and covered veranda and the décor here is old world charm. Battered trunks, hat stands, record players and a ceiling fan that creaked and groaned as it slowly turned, barely disturbed the air. An intriguing inscription above a mirror, attributed to Dr Livingstone, read “Commend me to the merry midnight frogs “. The colonial theme is a fitting setting for the decadent high tea which is served every afternoon.
A gym, curio shop and spa are available on site and massage treatments can be enjoyed outside, right next to the river.
Two large sundecks have been built right on the river’s edge. Comfortable chairs and loungers dot the upper tier and a wet bar is conveniently positioned on one side. Lunch can be taken here under the umbrellas or trees and it is an idyllic spot for sun-downers. I spent many hours admiring the view on this deck but my highlight was the thunderstorm.
When nature shows off
The clouds had been building up all afternoon and I was desperate for some relief from the oppressive humidity. The first rumble of thunder was just a whisper of what was to come. A few slow rain drops fell lazily from the sky and then the storm rolled closer, the sky went dark, and the lightening danced across the sky. The drops became a sheet of water soaking me in seconds, and I stood there captivated by the noise, the drama in the sky and the welcome cool rain running down my face. As the clouds moved on taking the noise and light with it, the torrent became a gentle drizzle and I felt an affinity with the earth, grateful for the gift of rain. I had just witnessed one of nature’s many miracles.
In full flow, the Victoria Falls are nearly two kilometres wide, the largest in the world. The spray from the falls can be seen for miles as 540 cubic meters of water per minute plummet over the edge, dropping for 100 meters before crashing into the gorge.
The Victoria Falls are one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The local people call them Mosi-oa-Tunya, translated to the perfect description as “The Smoke that Thunders “
The Zambezi River is the fourth largest river in Africa, traveling some 2700 kilometres from its source as a small spring in the Mwinilunga District in north western Zambia to the Mozambique coast where it meets the sea.
The Victoria Falls are situated on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and can be experienced from both countries.
How do you fall in love with a river?
It is a little bizarre but I certainly fell for the Zambezi. It started when I first grasped its magnitude as I flew in to Livingstone and glimpsed it from the air. I saw it from all angles through the window of a helicopter. I watched it daily as I walked around the hotel and walked to the Victoria Falls. I heard it and breathed it in from the deck of a cruise boat and finally it engaged all my senses when I swam in the Devils Pool.
The initial attraction was instant.
That little involuntary gasp, the heightened senses and the slight flush of excitement as my entire being acknowledged a connection with something of great beauty.
The seduction was a slower process.
I was enchanted by changing moods, bewitched by dynamic vitality, and compelled to total surrender while sitting in the chair of the devil himself.
I fell in love with a river in Zambia.
The Flight of Angels
Flying over the Victoria Falls is best described by the words of David Livingstone who said “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight”
The loud tuk tuk tuk of the rotors was instantly forgotten as the helicopter rose and the Zambezi River stretched out before my eyes. Dusty yellows and browns interspersed by the greens of the trees merged into greys and blues of the water, the sky and the clouds. The route followed the kinks and the bend of the river and I spotted hippo, elephant and monkeys as fleeting dots on the landscape. The Victoria Falls came into view and I was mesmerised. The flight of angels is a helicopter trip like no other and I can highly recommend it as the best way to appreciate the raw power of this waterfall and the magnificence of the Zambezi River.
A walk to the Falls
The energy sapping heat of midday made walking a chore, but the promise of shade in the rain forest and the allure of the sights ahead kept me putting one sweaty foot in front of the other. I was desperate to reach the walkway where the spray drenches curious eyes and the thundering water drowns out all conversation. This was not to be, and I had my first glimpse of the falls from an exposed bridge in the blazing sun. What I saw was layers of rock patterned, eroded and shaped by the water that pounds it during the winter months, but at that moment, not one drop fell over the blackened cliff. I saw the gnarly roots of trees curling and stretching down the rock face, horizontal stripes of colour where the rock revealed the secrets of time, and vertical lines alluded to the waters paths of least resistance.
On the Zimbabwean side the water smoked and crashed, all thoughts of heat and discomfort were forgotten as my gaze was drawn back again and again to the never ending flow as it succumbed to the force of gravity.
The following morning I returned at first light and walked all three paths within the Victoria Falls Reserve. Statues and monuments told me stories, noises in the bush made me a little scared but the isolation made it possible to listen to the birds calling, hear the crunch of crispy leaves rustling on the forest floor and watch as the sun rose, lighting the clouds and giving birth to a another new rainbow over the water.
Floating into the sunset
The Zambezi river cruise aboard “The African Queen” provided an intimate look at complexities of the river and served to remind me that we were not alone. Snacking on tapas washed down by more pinks gins I watched a herd of elephant came down to the river’s edge to drink, wash and play.
Submerged Hippo revealed their eyes and ears from time to time, like underwater spies noting our progress, and crocodiles played dead as we floated past.
Storm clouds gathered and their reflections danced on the water and as the sun was swallowed by the horizon, the clouds lit up in pinks and purples and the river kept its secrets hidden in the inky depths.
Livingstone Island and The Devil’s Pool
Hippo grunted, crocs hid and the river threw cool droplets on my skin as the boat sped from the hotel to Livingstone Island. My guides led me along a sandy path to the immense black rocks where a small monument to David Livingstone provided an historical context to the view of the Victoria Falls and the sight of the gorge below that defied belief.
My anxiety levels were at an all-time high as I made the short walk to the tree where I was told to strip down to my bathing costume and start the final approach to the Devil’s Pool on the very edge of the Victoria Falls.
My imagination was running riot and before I took the first tentative step into the Zambezi River, I did a sneaky check for crocs and hippos, then joined the rest of the group and swam across the river to the next rocky outcrop, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the safety ropes that were ready to catch me if I got caught in the current.
Exiting the river I took tentative steps on the slippery rocks, still unsure of my ability to take the final plunge into the pool. I perched on one of the rocks and my heart almost stopped as the guide leapt into the air and back-flipped into the water, landing no more the 3 meters from the edge. I was reassured by his confidence and clear instructions at every step, and my anxiety gave way as my excitement levels spiked. I did not jump, backflip or dive, I slowly slipped into the water then swam, desperately afraid, to the outstretched hands of the guide.
Seated on the rock, I finally relaxed and took in my surroundings. Fish nibbled at my feet below the surface, and next to me the Zambezi River tumbled noisily into the gorge below. All too soon I had to move to make way for the next person. I swam away from the edge and eased myself into a cleft of rock known as the Devil’s Chair. The water bubbled at my sides and from behind me the river cascaded over my head. I leaned back and the river engulfed me, I became part of it as it flowed over, under and all around me, its raw power reduced my existence to a fleeting and insignificant pulse on its journey through the African landscape. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life.
A zebra in my path and a giraffe at my door
On arrival guests are warned not to approach, interfere or interact with the animals at all. Although there are no predators, Giraffe, Zebra and the likes are wild animals and must be treated as such. The animals are habituated to the close proximity of people but they are not fed or engaged with at all. I expected to see Zebra, antelope and monkeys from a distance, but I never dreamed I would have close up encounters of the bizarre kind on numerous occasions.
Zebra appeared most mornings to graze next to the swimming pool, and on my early morning wanderings I was delighted by a few monkeys playing a game of catch, swinging wildly on the hammock where I loved to laze and stare at the river.
Zebra are quite large when they are only a few feet away, and I almost missed breakfast one morning when three of them stood on the path and refused to move. They were not doing anything, they just stood there. They only moved when after a few minutes I decided to take a photo, then they took off before I could click.
The highlight was on my final night. The path to my rooms skirt the natural bush on one side and trees dot the lawns on the side of the rooms. The lighting was muted and up ahead I saw something that did not make sense. It seemed like there were trees growing out of the path, which clearly could not be possible. Closer inspection revealed a huge male giraffe right where I needed to pass. I veered off the path towards my room only to see three more giraffe completely blocking all access to my door. Petrified, delighted and totally overwhelmed, I sat down and enjoyed the show as they ate leaves, shuffled about and took their time before moving off.
Dining by Design
By prior arrangement the hotel has various outdoor venues where guests can have anything from a picnic near the river to a five course meal under the monkey tree. A beautiful table was set under the tree, a candelabra suspended from the boughs and candles on the tables provided soft lighting, and the waiters arrived soundlessly across the lawn bearing drinks, melting steaks, spicy curries, juicy prawns, sticky ribs, chocolate mousse, crème brulee and anything else imaginable needed for an outdoor feast. The zebra approved as they arrived out of the darkness and proceeded to scratch themselves by rubbing against our chairs. All conversation ceased and we did not move until their itches were scratched.
Slow food on the Livingstone Express
Steam trains always invoke thoughts of romance, adventure and the finer things in life and “The Dinner Excursion” exceeded all expectations. Soft rain created patterns on the windows and added an air of mystique to the African plains as we slowly approached the Victoria Bridge on the Cape to Cairo line. The light drizzle had stopped by the time we reached the bridge and were welcomed and mildly harassed by locals as they sang , danced and cajoled in a bid to sell their wares. The train engaged in steam mode and delighted everyone as hissing plumes roiled skywards and guests queued for a visit to the engine room. Whisky, wine and more Pink Gins were raised in toast as we enjoyed five courses of an epicurean adventure in the velvety intimacy of a luxury carriage.
Protecting the Environment
The Royal Livingstone Hotel and the Minor Hotel Group are aware of the environmental sensitivity of the area and have committed to a holistic Environment Management System.
No waste generated by the hotel ends up in a dump site. Organic waste goes to the worm farm (vermiculture) a compost site deals with garden off cuts and paper, glass, metal and cans are sent to recycling companies.
Indigenous trees have been planted around the resort and alien clearing is on-going. Water is pumped from the Zambezi River to irrigate the grounds. A water purification plant on site provides all ice and tap water and is safe to drink. A herb and vegetable garden supplement the fresh seasonal produce sourced from local farmers.
Water and electricity consumption is monitored daily. Energy saving bulbs are fitted in all rooms and information is provided to all guests regarding the scarcity of water. Solar powered shuttle buses are used around the resort. The Hotel has partnered with many other bodies such as the Zambian Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Heritage Commission.
On arrival, visit the travel desk so you can plan your activities, there is a lot to choose from.
Bungee jumping from the Victoria Bridge, swimming at the bottom of the falls, white water rafting, game drives and micro light flights, Segway tours and jet boating are just a few of the activities on offer.
Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool are only offered during the dry season, late August to early January.
The heat is intense, pack scarfs and sarongs that can be doused in water and draped over your head and shoulders when walking to the falls. This provides great sun protection and acts as a natural air conditioner.
South African Airways and British Airways have regular flights from South Africa directly to Livingstone.
This is a malaria zone, do take anti malaria prophylactics.
DISCLOSURE. I was hosted by the Anantara Group. As always, opinions are my own.