Apart from the shopping and of course the many energetic activities associated with the falls itself (like bungy jumping, white water rafting, absailing etc) there is one that takes you back to a long gone era of British colonialism; afternoon tea on the terrace of the Victoria Falls hotel. This colonial style building had for years been the centre for Europeans up until independence. It was here that local white farmers, townsfolk and well off visitors would gather for spot of ‘tiffin’. Certainly it has lost none of its atmosphere even if it has its colonial clientele. Nowadays well off tourists (mostly Americans) stay in its well-appointed and stylish rooms and budget tourists like us frequent it for afternoon or morning tea and if really feeling extravagant, dinner. Of course it does have prime position overlooking the Zambezi gorge just downstream from the falls.
I couldn’t help imagining, as we ate our cucumber and smoked salmon triangular bite sized sandwiches, men and women in hats, striped jackets and full length full dresses playing croquet or just lazing around on the expansive and immaculate back lawn. Black waiters dressed in black trousers and white dinner jackets, hovered at our beck and call and delivered the three tier silver tray full of sandwiches, scones, finger cakes and on the side the obligatory tea. It was wonderful even though I don’t like cucumber or tea and cheap at an all you can eat price of US$4 each.
Across the other side of the hotel is the train station, another relic of the Edwardian past. We had to catch a train here to Bulawayo the next day and we thought it a good idea to book. We had wanted to book a first class coupe, which sleeps just two but had to settle for a second class that sleeps three. Not a big issue we thought at the time. The train left at 5 pm the next day so we had 24 hours left in Vic. Falls.
Despite the number of tourists that increase as the years go by there is still plenty of wildlife in and around Vic Falls. On our last visit we twice come across wild elephants whilst walking and cycling just outside of town and had also seen a family crossing the Zambezi upstream from the falls. This time round we saw plenty of elephants on a night time game drive and then the following morning we actually rode on some as well!
Elephant riding is an experience not to missed. The Elephant camp is in a location too remote to find ourselves, so we were picked up and taken there early in the morning and given tea (again) and biscuits just in case we couldn’t survive a couple of hours without sustenance.
Richard our tour leader introduced us to the elephants as their riders put them through a series of exercises. Fortunately we didn’t need to follow suit! Next it was time to jump on and that’s easy. A platform has been erected just for this purpose.
Settling in behind the rider (they very wisely team novices like us with riders who really know what they’re doing) I thought how well cushioned the saddles are. Now I always thought that elephants were big heavy brutes that destroy everything in their path as they move around.
Well that myth was destroyed within the first five minutes of riding! Incredibly they just glide through the bush effortlessly and quietly leaving no trace behind them. Apparently it’s the muscles in their feet that move around to cope with the weight displacement. So it’s just a steady swaying movement as we followed Richard who was on foot and carrying a rifle with both hands behind his neck. The rifle is for our protection just in case a lion or leopard gets too near. Even though he’s never had to use it yet he still believes it’s better to be on the safe side and that sounded like a pretty good practice to me.
Richard was one of those “boy’s own” characters that seem so commonplace in the ex British colonial Africa. A tall, solidly built, good looking young man he spoke with that sort of cultured Zimbabwean English accent that’s also very close to the accent spoken by South Africans of British ancestry. He would have been born and brought up during Zimbabwe’s war of independence and most likely, as with so many others of his generation who stayed and toughed it out, he was taught how to fire a gun before he could read.
My elephant was called Manna and my rider was Sopi. Sopi was quite chatty and told me that they had eight elephants in all. They use them in rotation and were purchased for Z$500 from a nearby park that were about cull these beautiful beasts. Most of them are males; it seems that their temperament is more suited to this type of work than females. Elephants live for around 60 – 70 years and during this time they will wear out four sets of teeth. After having seen them eat at the end of the ride I’m not surprised, they chew as if their lives depend on it which in fact I suppose is true. It’s partially because of their feeding habits that the ride is only one and a half hour long. Apparently they get rather anxious and twitchy when they get hungry so it’s wise to keep it short and let us off before hunger gets the better of them.
The ride actually finished at a secluded spot where we also got fed but not until we helped the riders feed them. Both Sue and I bravely put our hands into our respective elephants mouths with some special feed which was their treat for being good little steeds (the feed not our hands). It actually wasn’t the hand I feared for the most, it was suffocation; their breath is terrible! But not quite bad enough to put me off my bacon and eggs!
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