We woke early next morning quite refreshed. The jet lag travelling to Johannesburg seemed to be quite minimal and we were up in time for a very tasty full English breakfast before being driven by free shuttle bus to the airport in time for our 11.45am flight to Victoria Falls.
I had read online that we needed to arrive at all airports in Africa three hours before each international flight but that really wasn’t the case. I asked on reception at our hotel how early we should arrive at the airport and were told, ‘No more than 2 hours’. The hotel was very efficient in taking us on our own to the airport so we were there and through customs with way over an hour and a half to spare for our flight.
The good thing about South Africa was that it was the only country in Africa where roaming was supported on any of our mobile plans. I was with Telstra and Karl and Sam were with Optus, both being providers that brag about the high number of countries they support worldwide but neither Africa nor Egypt had any coverage at all other than in South Africa.
So I made the most of our phone coverage and checked in on our boys at home in Australia while we waited in the airport cafe. There is plenty of shopping in OR Tembo airport if you wanted to browse as it a pretty large and well serviced airport – especially compared to many of the other African airports we experienced along our journey!
Before too long we were off to Victoria Falls on a little British Airways 737-800. The 1.5 hour journey seemed so short – not too long after took off we seemed to be coming down to land again. Which was great because we were very excited about arriving in Victoria Falls.
getting through customs in victoria falls
I had done my research prior to leaving Australia and knew we had to buy double entry visas for Zimbabwe on arrival given we were taking a safari to Botswana during our stay. I was still nervous though about whether we would have any difficulties with our visas given I had read so many reports about airport corruption all over Africa and I was worried that customs regulations might have changed and that we might find we should have purchased visas before we arrived. There is so much conflicting information online that it is very difficult to know with certainty if you have done the right thing if you are arranging all your travel plans yourself but I have to say that for all of the 10 countries we visited on this trip, I got the visa situations right every time.
At first when we arrived in the customs area at Zimbabwe, it seemed like getting through would be quick and easy. A man was checking everyone coming in to see if they required single or double entry visas and making a notation on our Immigration Declaration forms to specify the visa type we needed. Then he sent us to a specific one of around 4 queues for foreign visitors, none of which seemed particularly long. Twenty minutes max, I thought as I assessed the number of people ahead of us.
As it turned out, that was hugely optimistic. The queues simply did not seem to move. The Zimbabwean National queues – all three of them – were practically empty and moved fast but each of the groups of people ahead of us seemed to take 10 to 15 minutes each.
Eventually they started sending foreign visitors over to the Zimbabwean Nationals queues as it was getting ridiculous. When we eventually made it to the front, we realised why it was taking so long. The process for the issuing of visas was manual and tedious. Even though it didn’t involve taking our photos like other countries in Africa, everything was handwritten and slowly checked and calculated.
I had read that we should have the exact money for our visas in US dollars (although credit cards MAY be accepted), even though Zimbabwe had just declared foreign money to be illegal tender in the country. Fortunately for us, at that time, the new Zimbabwean currency, the Zim dollar, was scarce across the country so US dollars were readily accepted at customs (although not elsewhere in the airport such as the stand where Karl looked at buying a SIM card).
I believe the situation may have changed more recently with the Zim dollar now more readily available across the country but US dollars are apparently still acceptable for tourists to use. It’s certainly more convenient to pay with US dollars as you travel through Africa rather than changing money into numerous African currencies along the way and the locals seem to love US dollars due to their stable value.
In countries such as Zimbabwe, changes can happen rapidly though so I would strongly suggest checking out currency requirements with your hotel prior to travelling. There is an ATM in Victoria Falls but it will only give you Zim dollars so if you arrive with insufficient cash, you will have to use an ATM in Botswana or Zambia to get US dollars. We predominantly used our credit cards as they were accepted everywhere we went so we just needed some small notes for tipping but it can be surprising how quickly your cash goes when you’re tipping room service, bar service, waiters, porters, tour guides, drivers and more!
Anyway, we paid our US $45 each for Sam and I and US $70 for Karl for our visas (it was more for a British passport than an Australian one) and then I had to wait for the rather flashy visas to be inserted into our passports while Karl and Sam were allowed to leave to collect our bags. After what seemed an extremely long, tiring and hot wait, we were eventually through!
I had booked a private transfer through Booking.com so looked around hoping our driver would still be there. Fortunately he was but he told us he had to wait for someone else so we should wait outside and watch the national dancers.
Now I had read about these dancers and I knew it was a tourist trap but we didn’t mind. It felt like fun watching them in their native costumes and I fully expected to have to pay for the experience. All of the other people watching were very careful not to engage with the dancers and not to take any photos. We didn’t worry though – we were happy to be in Victoria Falls and appreciated the fact that the country is poor and that these people were just trying to make a living.
They encouraged us to take photos and then grabbed us and put swords in our hands and native headgear on our heads. Then one of the group grabbed our phones and took pictures of us with the dancers. At the end, Karl offered a tip but they wanted us to buy their CD instead so we did of course – for US $25!
Anyway after the show, we waited a little longer in the heat before I started to get pretty cranky at the wait. I reminded the driver that we had paid for a ‘private’ transfer so he nodded and said we would go. I still don’t know whether he was trying to get a double fare or whether he just wanted us to stay long enough to pay a tip to the dancers – certainly throughout Africa and Egypt we noticed how the locals worked together to get as much money from tourists as possible.
an amazing lodge
The trip to our accommodation in Victoria Falls was a pleasant journey of less than 30 minutes. Along the way, our driver chatted enthusiastically and pointed out wildlife whenever he spotted anything. We had seen baboons outside the airport but we saw more by the side of the road and our driver happily reversed up the road to enable us to take some photos.
I booked two superior rooms at Ilala Lodge for three nights for our stay in Zimbabwe and to be honest, I had repeatedly looked into other options during planning due to the high cost compared to other local accommodation. It looked nice but I wasn’t sure if I could justify paying over $4200 AUD for three nights (for two rooms) compared to around $1800 AUD for other hotels in the village.
Having now experienced Ilala Lodge, we would all say that it was worth every cent! It was definitely a highlight of our trip. The rooms were beautiful and had balconies overlooking the grounds where warthogs, baboons, monkeys and mongooses played. There were also pangolins which were crazy little creatures that looked like very small armadillos with their heavily scaled backs. There were supposed to be impalas and even elephants around the lodge but as you can imagine, I don’t think they were too welcome on the manicured lawns.
Apart from the incredible wildlife, what set Ilala Lodge ahead of many of the other hotels we have stayed in was the wonderful service. When we arrived, we were seated in the inside bar area and given a refreshing drink while we completed our forms and had our passports scanned. Then we were accompanied to our beautiful, spacious rooms where we quickly got ready to have a drink outside at the resort bar beside the pool and gardens.
I have to admit we relaxed into our drinks a little too much before I gathered everyone together for a walk to Victoria Falls. It was starting to get late and I really wanted to see the sun set over the Falls from the bridge.
walking to the falls
Ilala Lodge is within easy walking distance of Victoria Falls so we set out on foot across the road and down the dirt path. We were told it was around 8 minutes walk and whilst it felt a little longer, we could have walked faster. We weren’t in a hurry at first because we thought we had plenty of time before sunset.
It was an exciting walk as we watched local women sauntering along the road with baskets full of shopping expertly balanced on their heads. It did feel a bit concerning when we found ourselves on our own on the track with a local person coming toward us but to be fair, there was no trouble at all despite the poverty of the nation and the fact that we were quite evidently tourists.
As we got closer to the entrance of Victoria Falls Park, the number of people hawking their goods increased significantly and it felt a little intimidating to have so many people pushing their products at us. I just told them all that we might look on our way back as we were in a hurry – something I think they were used to hearing as they frequently responded, “yes, on the way back. We see you then.”
As we raced to the park entrance we realised we had missed the opening times but we really wanted to see the falls from the bridge so the helpful guards pointed us in the right direction.
Whilst we were in a hurry, the wildlife was a huge distraction! There were greedy warthogs, graceful springbok, aggressive baboons and lots of very naughty monkeys everywhere! Karl had a few standoffs with some very assertive monkeys charging him – it was hilarious!
We eventually reached a fence and made our way through a gate, not realising that we had just skipped through border security. We were supposed to get a piece of paper to indicate we were just going halfway across the bridge on the Zimbabwe side but to be fair to us, the officials at the gate just ignored us so we went through.
We reached a bridge and the view was really pretty but for some reason I didn’t think this was the ‘real’ bridge as it seemed too small! We took some lovely pics of the sun going down and then I urged Karl and Sam to hurry towards the ‘real’ bridge. I walked 6 steps then ran 6 steps repeatedly for what seemed like ages (10 minutes?) until we eventually we reached a small building.
I went inside thinking this was the Zimbabwe border control only to be told we were already in Zambia and we had passed the bridge! There was no way to get into the park from here as it was closed so we just had to go back so we walked 6 steps, ran 6 steps all the way back!
Along the way we encountered some quite aggressive baboons eating fast food leftovers. I’m sure it’s not good for them (in fact I’m sure it’s not!) but they seem to be good scavengers and it is not recommended to approach them. It was fun to take photos though!
Finally, we got back to border control and wandered through the gate to get back into Zimbabwe. We were asked immediately for our little piece of paper but of course, we had neglected to get one… The customs lady looked at us in disbelief that we could have skipped through border security and was less than impressed when I indicated that I didn’t think the bridge we had gone over was the real bridge but was just a little one. I’m not sure what I was expecting – maybe something the size of the Sydney Harbour Bridge but I don’t think sharing my thoughts with the Zimbabwean Customs Official was the best move.
Either way, she checked our passports and I think, because we had only arrived that lunchtime, believed our unbelievable story, brushed us off as ‘dumb Aussie tourists’ and let us back into Zimbabwe. Phew!
We walked back to Ilala Lodge where we had a sensational dinner of local delicacies including exquisite springbok samosas, crocodile and porcini risotto, dukkah crusted ostrich fillet and stuffed kudu. Until then we didn’t know what all these dishes were but they were sublime and we were more than happy to eat at the lodge’s restaurant every night. Normally we would eat in local restaurants but we had to be very careful not to get sick as we would not be allowed to trek gorillas in Uganda if we had stomach or flu issues so we played it safe. Fortunately, we experienced absolutely incredibly good food at Ilala, in a beautiful restaurant with a wonderful view of the grounds and superb service.
It was an absolutely lovely way to end our first awe-inspiring day in Zimbabwe.
But the best was yet to come!