The next morning, we woke early to experience our last Zimbabwean sunrise of the trip and again, it didn’t disappoint. We were leaving later that day to travel to Kigali in Rwanda for our gorilla trek so Karl thought we should spend the morning getting ready for our long journey.

I, on the other hand, thought we had time for one last Victoria Falls experience – a breakfast cruise up the Zambezi River, ‘African Queen’ style. Our hotel had a fleet of traditional monohull boats, the Ra-Ikane, each elegantly furnished with tables and chairs right out of a bygone era. I was captivated by the idea of watching hippos as we glided down the Zambezi.

Neither Karl or Sam were interested in getting up early for a breakfast cruise – they both told me scornfully that it all sounded a bit lame. However, they agreed to come along on what turned out to be one of the most surprising highlights of our trip.

We were picked up at our hotel around 6.45am for the short drive down to the river. When we arrived, our beautiful varnished timber boat was waiting for us, along with our captain and a waiter. Three couples joined us, one each from Australia, New Zealand and England. As there is a fleet of boats, I suspect we were selected to join each other as a group of English speaking travellers but we didn’t see any other boats that morning. 

As we settled at our little table, there was an enormous sense of calm and peace. Just as I had imagined, the boat did in fact glide silently across the water. The only sounds we could hear were those of the birds around us.

The morning sun was still rising and it gleamed magnificently on the river. As we drank strong, dark coffee and enjoyed a continental breakfast, we were captivated by the silent beauty of the Zambezi and the river banks teaming with birds and wildlife.

Soon into our cruise, I excitedly pointed out our first glimpse of hippos in the distance. As our fellow travellers praised me for my eagle eye, our very kind captain took us as close as he could to take a look. The water was low so it was quite dangerous to get too close so we had to watch from quite a distance. But, I thought, at least we got to see hippos on the Zambezi!

Little did I know that we were soon going to see many hippos up much closer than that! Once we got into deeper water, we came across a pod of twenty or more hippos and were able to get in so close that we could actually see the detail on their faces as they peered out of the water. We watched them as they yawned widely, snorted, wheezed, roared, spouted water and had the occasional aggressive tiff with one another. It was completely fascinating to get up so near to them in the water.

We saw many other pods of hippos after that as well as several crocodiles on the river banks and in the water. Our captain took the boat right to the edge of the bank so that we could see wildlife such as the kudu antelope and a stunning array of bird life. The captain was so knowledgeable about the flora and fauna but did not disturb the peaceful atmosphere with his chatter – he gently and quietly shared information with us as we coasted down the river.

The Zambezi River is just so beautiful. With its still, deep blue waters, green bushy banks and the spray of Victoria Falls soaring in the background, it exceeded all our expectations. Sam, Karl and I agreed it was a stroke of luck that we got to experience this surprisingly magical place.

Our 2 hour breakfast cruise seemed to pass quickly as there was so much to see. By the time we left the boat and headed back to the lodge, we were all calmer, relaxed and feeling peaceful.

shopping in victoria falls

We took the opportunity when we returned to Victoria Falls to take a short walk around the shops known as Elephant’s Walk Shops and Artist’s Village. Sam wanted a snow globe as he collects them on all of his travels and, despite our scepticism of his chances of getting one in a country that does not experience snow, he actually found one! It was very expensive compared to his normal snow globes at $25 USD but it was rather pretty. Sadly I dropped it on safari later on our trip so it didn’t make it home in one piece…

There are some lovely crafts and gifts to buy in the shops in Victoria Falls – jewellery, ornaments, tribals arts, craftwork, paintings, curios and more, including surprisingly, stubby coolers! You just need to be careful when buying products with timber, animal and plant material – Australia has very tough laws on bringing plant and animal products back into the country so be prepared to declare everything. We were careful with what we bought and declared everything as we came back into Australia and were lucky to be allowed to keep it all but we have had products confiscated in the past.

travelling to kigali

After finishing our last minute shopping, we left Ilala Lodge around 11am to head to the airport for our journey to Rwanda. We had to fly back to Johannesburg before catching a flight to Kigali which stopped first in Lusaka in Zambia. It was a long trip but we were really glad we had enjoyed such an amazing start to the day so it didn’t feel like the day was wasted.

Our South African Airways flight from Victoria Falls left at 1.30pm and arrived in Johannesburg just one hour and 40 minutes later. It was an easy first flight with an hour and 20 minutes before our second, longer flight. 

The second flight was operated by RwandAir for South African Airways. I was a little concerned about these small African airlines before we travelled but a pilot client of ours assured me that they were generally quite good and, in his opinion, better than many of the Asian or Russian airlines. His reassurance was actually well-founded as we didn’t have any real problems with any of our African flights.

When we arrived in Lusaka, we were pleased to find that we didn’t need to get off the plane and it wasn’t long before we were back up in the air. We were tired though when we finally arrived in Kigali at 9.20pm.

booking a transfer

Throughout our trip, I tried to book all our transfers through if they weren’t provided by the hotel but this wasn’t possible in Kigali so I did my own research and came up with a company called Mozio. The website looked fine and the vehicle was specified as a Toyota RAV4 ‘or similar’. The definition of ‘or similar’ was clearly a problem though as we were slightly horrified when our driver led us to an old, small sedan with dodgy doors that were difficult to even open. Despite advising in our booking that we had three large suitcases, they were never going to fit in the boot of this tiny car so Sam and I had to balance one on our laps as we headed to our hotel.

Quite honestly, I don’t know how that car made it across Kigali. It seriously struggled to gather the power to make it up the hills with our driver furiously changing gears, urging it onwards. We were relieved when we finally made it to the security gates of our hotel.

history of hotel des mille collines

I had chosen to stay in Hotel des Mille Collines due to its infamous past as the hotel where more than a thousand people sought refuge during the 1994 genocide. At the time, the manager of the hotel, Paul Rusesabagina, was a Hutu married to a Tutsi when the Hutu militia sought to annihilate the Tutsis. Paul gave sanctuary to the refugees and they were eventually able to leave the hotel in a UN convoy. They were incredibly fortunate to be saved – at least one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in the genocide. It is a horrifying story where neighbours and families were brainwashed into turning on each other, brutally murdering those who had previously been friends.

The hotel’s connection with the genocide was the subject of the 2005 movie, Hotel Rwanda so I thought it would provide an insight into Rwandan history to stay there. In reality, it is an ‘okay’ hotel with a lovely pool area but otherwise it is nothing special. The beds were the hardest I have ever slept on – I had to lie on my back because there was absolutely no give in the mattress to be comfortable on my side! But the staff were nice and breakfast was very pleasant so it was fine for our one night stay.

intense security!

The one thing that did amaze us on arrival at the hotel was the high level of security. Our cab was scrutinised for explosives by a guard and his dog at the gate before being allowed onto the premises. The boot was opened and they used mirrors under the car to check for bombs. Then upon arrival at the hotel door, our bags were all x-rayed before we were permitted to enter. It was a very serious, intense process. To be honest, it was a little intimidating and, once we were finally allowed inside the hotel, even the concierge and staff on reception were serious and intense! 

We were so tired when we finally reached our rooms that we didn’t really care about where we were though. We just wanted to sleep in readiness for our exciting gorilla holiday that was starting the very next day!