I have never associated Victoria Falls to be a “family friendly” destination so I was pleasantly surprised on our recent trip with the boys how wonderful, easy and fun this destination was for kids!
You are probably wondering why I would plan a family holiday to Victoria Falls without considering the child-friendly aspect of a destination. Good question! To be honest, at the time of planning, I was more focused on the Falls’ water levels! This year’s Chinese New Year Holidays fell in the month of February where the water levels of the Zambezi River was at its near high, making it the best time to experience the Victoria Falls at its full splendor. Simply with that fact, I booked for our family and we were off!
As Victoria Falls sits on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia (ZimZam), one of my first considerations was whether to book accommodation near the city of Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe side) or near Livingstone (Zambia side). This is a constant debate on the online travel sites and I waded through many of the arguments to arrive at a conclusion myself: Zambia. Why? Because of the longstanding political situation in Zimbabwe (even though it has reportedly improved), the relatively more stable political environment in Zambia, a better connecting flight from Johannesburg for our itinerary and the fact that around 2/3 of the Falls is on the Zambia side with spectacular views during high water season.
Funnily enough, on the day we left Zambia, it was reported on the news that the US State Department has listed Zambia among the top ten safest countries to visit in 2018. I guess that confirmed our decision to stay on the Zambia side!
Through our agent A2A’s recommendation, we booked 3 nights at the newly opened safari river lodge, Thorntree, where they offered us a family room (full board and all-inclusive of activities) with our boys staying for free. All 10 rooms at the lodge are river facing with uninterrupted views of the Zambezi River, and the family room was essentially two rooms with an interconnecting internal walkway. It was perfect for us as the boys were close enough so we can hear them if they got up to any mischief, while it afforded us lots of privacy to enjoy the luxurious room and top notch facilities to ourselves (we could even pretend the boys were not there!).
The staff at the lodge were all extremely friendly, kind and helpful and service was very good. They were overly attentive to the boys’ needs and wants. Precious, who looked after us during our stay, pampered the boys with fresh juices, fruits, snacks and made special arrangements to their beds so they didn’t fall off during the night! Every day, the chef would specifically ask what he could prepare for the boys’ meals and were very resourceful in making pizzas, pies, pasta all from scratch with local ingredients.
For us the meals were sumptuous and wines free flowing. We dined in the open deck dining area soaking in river views, appreciating the natural surroundings, listening to the sounds of the nearby Hippos and occasioning spotting the large crocodile swimming nearby.
By far, the boys loved our guide, Obby, the most. To them, he was the source of all knowledge about Zambia, the Falls and all the animals. Obby was also a very patient guide, constantly fielding questions from the boys and delivering on specific animal sighting requests (e.g. “Obby, can we go find the Giraffes and Elephants today?“)! The boys bonded so well with Obby that they were both in tears when he drove us back to the airport and we had to say our farewells. Since then, the two boys have been trying to convince us to go back to Zambia to see Obby and Precious.
Thorntree offers many activities and we opted the following ones:
Victoria Falls Guided Walk: One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls was definintely the highlight and focus of our visit.
The local name of Victoria Falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning the “Smoke that Thunders”. That name absolutely hits the nail on the head! As we were driving towards the Falls through Livingstone, we could see this enormous column of smoke like a vertical cloud in the horizon. We had never seen such an incredible phenomenon before!! Obby, explained to us that they were not low-lying clouds but the mist and water sprays from the sheer volume of water flowing down Victoria Falls (over 500 million litres per minute during the season when we were there!).
We were all ready to get completely drenched with our swimwear and it did not disappoint! Luckily, Obby also brought thick warm ponchos!! The coolest part was walking across the Knife Edge Bridge witnessing the largest curtain of water falling, hearing the thunder roar of the Falls, feeling overwhelmed by the sheer power of the Falls and finding it strange that on a sunny day, we were being completely “rained on”!
We also walked across the Victoria Falls Bridge which has been opened since 1905 and links the two Zim and Zam countries. People usually bungee jump off the bridge so they can see the Falls upside down! For us, this was the closest we made it to Zambabwe!
Sunset Cruise (on own private boat): A little like a river safari, we set off upstream of the mighty Zambezi River in search of Hippo pods, giant crocodiles (that can grow as large as 6 metres long) and river rapids. The boys loved being out on the water, spotting animals with the wind in their faces as well as the speed and bumps as we glided over the rapids. What they loved more was when Obby took out the snacks and drinks for our sundowner. We didn’t complain either as what better way to enjoy sunset on the river with a glass of wine and some hors’oeuvres! Since the river acts as a natural border between the ZimZam countries, we get to say that we’ve crossed over and visited Zimbabwe!
On a separate afternoon, we tried our hand with Fishing (Catch & Release) in the afternoon. However, the weather was not very co-operative so it ended up being a thrilling wild wet ride on the Zambezi River!
Game drives: Thorntree is situated inside the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, and we were told that while the park has many wildlife species, there are no large predatory cats (lions, cheetahs, leopards etc) that roam or live there. While it may not seem complete to have a safari experience without these cats, the benefit was that game drives were much safer for children of all ages. Obby took us on a few game drives over the course of the days we were at Thorntree and we managed to see all the animals on the boys’ list and more. We have now kept a tally of all the animals we spotted during our Safari game drives!
This time round, the boys were much more patient and experienced – they knew what to expect and were patient in really looking around to find the wild animals and watch their behavior. They were also more inquisitive with many questions for Obby and were fascinated by the stories he told. It was really like they had their own wildlife lesson in the bush!
Rhino Trekking on Foot: Having been chased by a Black Rhino last year while in a jeep, we were a little tentative about a walking safari to see the White Rhinos. However, Obby explained that the temperaments of these two Rhino species are very different. White Rhinos are much more gentle with a calmer temper. Besides, the 12 White Rhinos in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park are used to seeing humans as they are protected by 24 dedicated armed rangers who go on shift and rotation 24/7 to guard these creatures against poachers. We were lucky enough to see a female mommy Rhino with her two babies. These are such gentle giants! It really is deplorable that people want to hunt them purely for their horns just because it is (wrongly) believed they have some medicinal powers.
Victoria Falls Helicopter Ride: This was not an inclusive activity but it was well worth paying extra for it. With the guided walk, we could get up close to the Falls and experience the sheer power and volume of water rushing down. From above, the views of Victoria Falls were truly magnificent. We booked with United Air Charters and chose the Medium Flight – 18-20 minutes, first over the Batoka Gorge and then 2 round loops of the entire span of the Victoria Falls. As it was a sunny day, we captured a full rainbow arch over the Falls! It was incredible!!
Another option, if we were brave enough, was to try a microlight flight over the Falls which we’ve been told by friends is equally as amazing. However, as it only takes 1 passenger at a time and we cannot take photos ourselves during the flight, we opted for the helicopter ride instead!
Other Activities: We opted for the above activities as it interested us the most, but Thorntree also offered other inclusive activities such as Cultural Village visits, canoeing and visits to Livingstone and its Livingstone Museum.
Our trip to Victoria Falls / Zambia staying at Thorntree really exceeded our expectations!! Besides seeing the largest waterfall in the world, it is an incredible destination with so many other activities on offer. The fact that it also makes a wonderful and exciting family holiday is an added bonus!
Things to note before Booking!
- Book through Travel Agent
Before we even knew about the Thorntree River Lodge, I had tried booking our Zambian accommodation by myself. How hard could it be as I’ve booked hotels, villas and holiday stays online for our European and Asian trips myself? I had found a Zambian lodge I was interested in on Booking.com, had emailed them with inquiries about their family rooms (inclusive activities) and had negotiated a rate for our family stay. However, when they requested payment of a deposit, I was asked to transfer the funds to a Taiwanese bank that I haven’t heard of before and to an account name that didn’t match the name of the lodge. Being suspicious, I asked the lodge why I was asked to send money to Taiwan and not to a Zambian bank account. After posing these additional questions, I received no further replies. Ever so wary, I didn’t make any transfers.
Fearing it was one of those scam, I knew I shouldn’t have gone it alone and should have left the booking with our trusted travel agents instead – Asia to Africa (Jeff and I had booked our first African safari experience with A2A and haven’t looked back since). I emailed Kevin at A2A and told him what had happened with this Zambian lodge I was trying to book myself.
It was then that Kevin told us about this new property, Thorntree, which would have been opened by the time of our visit and we should try it out. The room rates and activities on offer were comparable but at Thorntree, the kids stay free and they offered private vehicles for our game drives and a family suite with its own plunge pool. All that is now history and I’m so glad that instinct told me not to send the money to Taiwan and to call A2A instead!
- Flying in and out of Victoria Falls
From Johannesburg, South African Airways offer flights (1.5 hrs) to either Livingstone (the township on the Zambian side of the falls) or Victoria Falls (which is the town on the Zimbabwean side of the falls). For onward journeys, South African Airways have also started a Victoria Falls to Cape Town direct flight (3.5 hrs) on selected days. Although it did not quite fit into our itinerary, it would definitely have saved us the trouble of having to transit through Johannesburg.
- Other Tidbits
- For both Zimbabwe and Zambia, there is no need to pay for any visas using the Hong Kong passport.
- Zim, Zam or both? While planning the trip, I had struggled to decide whether we needed to go see the Falls on both the Zim and Zam side. The reviews online are so varied that it was really hard to make any well informed decision. At the end of the day, the answer lies as to which part of the year we are visiting the Falls. When the Falls are at near full capacity, the Zambian side of the Falls is most magnificent. Water sprays were everywhere but visibility of the Falls themselves is still relatively good. Obby explained that with the volume of water, the sprays on the Zim side would so much that we wouldn’t be able to see anything. However, during dry season, the Zam side of the Falls is dry with very little if any water flowing down, and the river only flows down the Main Falls from the Zim side.
- Expect to get very drenched at the Falls. We all wore our swimwear and sandals expecting to get very wet. Luckily, Thorntree had these nice ponchos that were thick and warm which made it easier to hide the cameras and phones. We would take them out for a few snapshots and had to tuck them back right in again!
- Pay for the helicopter ride (or microlite for the more courageous ones) – It’s not cheap, but it’s one of those places in the world that is well worth it.
- February / March is the best time to see the Falls but it is also important to know that it is rain season – one of the reasons why there is so much water! That means the weather is unpredictable. The day could start off beautifully, hot with sunshine, and then rain clouds would threaten, the air cools and the thunderstorms roll in. Unfortunately, not many of the activities (included or additionally paid) are on offer while it’s raining so better to pack some games and books just in case.