The sweet, raw-onion and acrid wood-smoke smell of Africa rushed to greet me as I stepped off my plane in Livingstone. I was here to experience the famous Victoria Falls which was first discovered by explorer David Livingstone, a Scottish medical missionary, in 1855.
The Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya, which in Lozi means ‘the Smoke that Thunders’, have captivated the imagination of mankind for thousands of years and is one of the world’s seven natural wonders. It has the largest single curtain of falling water on the planet – the rumble of 700-million litres of water per minute can be heard for miles around and its spray at times rises as high as 600 metres, making it visible thirty miles away. So, suggesting that it’s quite spectacular may be somewhat of an understatement.
On route to my accommodations, KJ, the Wilderness Safari’s driver, sent to collect me and provided a brief historic tour of Livingstone and its outlying villages, pointing out historical landmarks and explaining their significance. Instead of being delivered to a bush lodge, I was instead deposited on a river bank where I climbed aboard a speed boat. Several crocodiles flung themselves with unsettling speed and agility into the water where I imagined them surging under the craft which sped along the Zambezi River towards the River Club – my accommodations.
The River Club is a safari lodge for the discerning traveller. It’s Edwardian in spirit and décor, yet up-to-the-minute in facilities and amenities. The tin roofed main lodge, Zambezi House, was the original farmhouse that’s now been renovated into a little temple of great food and ambiance. It’s an ample dwelling with tall plantation ceilings containing an immense banqueting table, a library, a sitting room and a gift shop. The long eaves of the veranda provide cool respite and long views across the infinity pool and the great Zambezi River beyond. Accommodations – all with river views – include seven spacious chalets; two very roomy suites; a grand family suite and a super deluxe royal suite – which is in fact a spacious house, built over two levels, complete with two huge bedrooms, two bathrooms,a lounge, dining room, private garden, two sun decks and a pool which is where I spent a couple of nights.
The sun downer cruise had the River Club boatman, Paul, provide details of the Zambezi River. “She is Africa’s fourth largest river,” he said. “Her heart is buried where Zambia shares its border with Angola. She threads south-east towards Zimbabwe where, right here, on the border with Zambia, she opens her mouth and shouts with ‘the smoke that thunders’ at the Victoria Falls. She continues through Mozambique where she flows into the Indian Ocean – a total distance of 2,720km.” Paul pointed out a number of thatched roofs barely visible above the tall elephant grass on the river bank. “Village life is full of perils,” he said. “When collecting water from the Zambezi one the women they encounter crocodiles and hippo’s and on the way back to the village, there’s elephants too; but now a water pump has been installed in the village.” He held up a wine glass filled with crystal clear water he’d just scooped up from the river, demonstrating its purity. “Now the Zambezi she allows us to drink from her in safely.”
Peter Jones, proprietor of the River Club, regaled me with tales of historical significance. “In 1948 an Irish/British soldier came to Zambia to find a new life – the original River Club was his farm house. In years since it’s been owned by William Arthur Clarence Stewart. He wrote a novel I recently discovered in the attic. Stewart was committed to an asylum after shooting his wife, Betty in 1972. The River Club was then bought by a Russian lady who intended to turn it into a resort but things changed and I stepped in.” Peter Jones (formerly of the Black Watch – an elite Scottish military regiment whose history stretches back almost three centuries) was camping on the opposite river bank in Zimbabwe, entered into negotiations with the Russian lady and two days later was the River Club’s new owner.
“People want to learn about their family’s past,” said Jones. “They want to see where Uncle Charlie worked in the construction of Africa’s largest man-made lake. They want to travel on the longest railroad on the continent. They want to know why things happened – why did Southern Rhodesia seek independence the way the USA did? Why is King Litunga, the paramount Chief of Zambia, the only African leader allowed to wear the uniform of an Admiral of the Fleet of the Royal Navy – given to him by King Edward in 1902? Why do the British still have a connection to this tribe? People are truly interested in history. They visit Zambia to uncover unbelievable settler stories. Similar to the USA, Africa had a gold rush, a diamond rush, a railroad rush.” Jones warmed to his theme and continued. “Then there’s the Zambia connection to 9/11 – Rick Rescorla saved the staff of Morgan Stanley by doing drills every second week in expectation of the tragedy that unfolded. He did his training in Northern Rhodesia – now Zambia. Zambia looked after Jews before WW2. A German guest who stayed at the River Club discovered that the suite he occupied was named after his Godfather – a German General, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. The story behind that is an interesting one as it was only three days after the end of WW1 was announced in Europe that von Lettow, who was busy raiding Northern-Rhodesia, learnt of the armistice and of course agreed to an immediate cease-fire; so in effect, WW1 ended right here.”
All the accommodations at the River Club have been named after people of great historical significance. All King George V’s children visited here, the Queen Mother was chauffeured around in a yellow 1929 Rolls Royce travelled to Zambia in 1957 –Jones drives this car on occasion. More recently, the Duke of Gloucester and HRH Princess Anne visited in 2012. Then there’s Paul Newman who, Jones claims to be an elegant cheat at croquet. Andy McDowl has also visited, so has Australia’s Paul Hogan.
Following a day packed with activities I sought a little indulgence and I took myself off to ‘Tonic’ the beauty room at the Elizabeth Wellness Centre. Here the River Club’s softly spoken beauty therapist, Namakau, helped me discover muscle groups I didn’t know I had.
Later, after another memorable fresco meal, I took stood off to one side to take in the night sky with its frozen stars and a cloud that draped the face of the moon like a wedding veil. I caught wisps of conversation from the dining table –Jones, a colourful raconteur, had begun the tales of African folklore. I studied the dramatics of the UN-like gathering and came to the quiet conclusion that this is how Zambia should be experienced; David Livingstone would have liked that.
The River Club’s full board all inclusive rate start at US$631 per person, and includes wines and spirits. www.theriverclubafrica.com
Board a British Airways flight in Toronto and book your luggage through to Livingstone as when you get to Heathrow you’ll need to get another BA plane that takes you directly to Livingstone. Other options are available but are timely, costly and very stressful.
Be sure to pick up your visa from your local Zambian consulate before you leave as acquiring a visa at the airport is a painfully tedious and timely process. I suggest you get a double entry visa as you may well want to pop over to Zimbabwe and visit the resort town of Victoria Falls, which itself is well worth a visit.
This is a malaria zone so be sure to take the relevant anti-malaria drugs. If you soak yourself in a good insect repellent (Life Systems Expedition 50+) insects won’t bother you. All rooms at The River Club are air conditioned, sprayed with mosquito repellent and the beds are netted, so you’re safe indoors.
- Zambia is 752,600 km² in size – about the size of France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland combined and is bigger than Texas. It is landlocked and borders Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.
- The population is around 14-million, half of which are under the age of 15.
- From 1911 to 1935 Livingstone was Northern Rhodesia’s capital, which after independence became Zambia. The capital subsequently moved to Lusaka.
- Livingstone is a large town of 150,000 people with banks and shopping centres. The town centre is along the Mosi-oa-Tunya Road which runs from the Victoria Falls through tow and then becomes the Lusaka Road – which is 478km north.
- It’s twice the height of Niagara Falls and a mile wide.
- Numerous Hollywood movies were made here including one directed by Clint Eastwood.
- Zambia has a white vice president and politically its stable – it was a protectorate in the British Empire like Botswana and Malawi.
- Its home to great sportsmen like the maverick cricketer Phil Edmonds, former Springbok rugby captain CorneKrige, Welsh international football player Robert Earnshaw, Australian rugby captain George Gregan.
- American actress Julia Rose was born in Zambia
- Also from Zambia is London based record producer/songwriter Robert John “Mutt” Lange
- World renowned author, Wilbur Smith was born in Zambia and Alexandra Fuller author of ‘Don’t let’s go to the dogs tonight’ lived on the River Club property. In fact, looking around at the landscape it’s not hard to see what inspired them.