The Royal Livingstone, I presume

21 August 2014

Kate Turkington goes to the very edge…

It doesn’t get much better than this – a unique location, a perfect setting, superb accommodation, first-class service and fine dining. What more could you want from a hotel?

And it’s not just one hotel, but two, both with their own individual styles, both catering to different tastes and budgets, but both offering some of the best views in the world of one of the Natural Wonders of the World: the incredible, awe-inspiring sight of Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders.

Sun International’s two new hotels on the Zambian side of the great Victoria Falls, The Royal Livingstone and the Zambezi Sun, nestle side by side on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River, in 46ha of the south-eastern corner of the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, within the Victoria Falls World Heritage Site.

2002-57  Zambia, Botswana, South Africa Victoria Falls and the two hotels from the air. Photo by Gerry Labrijn.

The Zambezi Sun is located on the very edge of the Eastern Cataract of the Falls, and from either hotel you can walk to the Falls as often as you wish, without all the tiresome formalities and expensive entrance fees that exist on the Zimbabwean side.

Wander through dense riverine bush on small, well-marked pathways, over the narrow suspension bridge high above the abyss, where you’ll be constantly dive-bombed by high-flying swallows, and then take any winding path down to the lip of the Falls. It’s a place to get in touch with your true self as well as with the Spirit of the Universe. But wear as little as possible: the natural spray bath – or soaking – goes with the territory.

Victoria Falls - Zambia Side Victoria Falls, the smoke that thunders. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

In the three-star Zambezi Sun you’ll get the feeling of being in some North African Moorish enclave – red brick walls, warm earthy tones in the décor and furnishings, and even some great North African food. It’s an unpretentious, fun place, perfect for a family holiday. There’s even the award-winning Happy Hippo Club to take the kids off your hands and provide them with lots to do and see, while you’re doing your own thing.

The pool and stage at Zambesi Sun Hotel The pool at the Zambezi Sun Hotel. Photo by Eva Mostraum.

Completely different in style and ethos, the five-star Royal Livingstone is certainly set to take her place among the great colonial hotels of the world – to be spoken of in the same terms and hushed breath as Cape Town’s Mount Nelson, Raffles in Singapore and the Peninsula in Hong Kong.

Royal Livingstone Hotel, Livingstone, Zambia (4) The beautifully appointed Royal Livingstone Hotel. Photo by Gary Bembridge.

Sophisticated mix

Yes, of course it captures the charm of a bygone era with its sophisticated mix and match of antique and ethnic décor. The library, for example, with its brooding portrait of Dr Livingstone himself, encapsulates all that is best in this quite memorable hotel – heavy, handmade wooden furniture, perfectly placed antiques, a blazing fire on those chilly nights, wrought-iron lamps, polished games tables, gleaming wooden floors and impeccable service.

On warm nights, why not enjoy an intimate dinner for two on your own private balcony? The soft gentle glow of oil lamps provides just enough light to gaze into your partner’s eyes, but not so much so as to compete with the fireflies or huge African moon. Then retire to your spacious room where freshly cut flowers (everywhere you look in this hotel you’ll see masses of dewy white roses) enhance the crisp, white linen, fluffy towels, exquisite toiletries and large comfortable beds.

Don’t sit too long in your outsize armchair, because as you sink into the huge cushions and put your feet up on the padded footrest, you might even forget the natural wonders waiting outside (although the constant roar of the Falls and its sky-high clouds of spray will lure you back outside eventually).

One of the great attractions of the resort, however, apart from the natural beauty and luxurious surroundings, is the abundance of things to do. From meandering walks or game drives to nearby Chobe National Park in Botswana, to birdwatching and bungee jumping, the Zambian side of the Vic Falls offers a plethora of activities to suit everybody from gentle strollers to the most overactive adrenaline junkie. An evening river cruise on the gracious African Queen is also not to be missed.

As you sip your sundowners and snack on hot goodies from the silver chafing dishes, you can watch elephants coming down to drink on the banks of the river, cavorting hippos and cruising crocs.

2004-S203  South Africa and Zambia Watch elephants from the pool deck. Photo by Gerry Labrijn.

Or you can try a canoe safari, a 4X4 jetboat excursion, some exhilarating fly-fishing for the fighting tiger fish, mountain biking, a microlight flip, some of the best white-water rafting in the world, an elephant-back safari, or a saddle-safari. You can organise any of these trips at the Falls Activity Centre.

An unscheduled adventure

And just to prove to you that journalists aren’t the bunch of hard-drinking, layabout wimps that you might believe we are, we had the adventure of a lifetime. Albeit an unscheduled one.

The idea was that our small media party would climb down to the bottom of the Vic Falls gorge (which is one mile deep in places), be whirled around on a jetboat, and then be choppered up out of the gorge and to a leisurely dinner back at the Royal Livingstone. Robbie Burns knew a thing or two when he wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”.

And did they go a-gley!

After a hair-raising drive along almost impassable roads to the lip of the gorge (it had been raining for three days), we climbed, scrambled, whimpered, shouted, slipped and slid our way down to the bottom of the gorge.

Swimming @ Victoria Falls The bottom of the gorge. Photo by Titanium The Dog.

One of South Africa’s best-known cookery experts achieved this in a pair of Bally shoes, another in a pair of rubber flip-flops, another in open-toed high-heels. One journalist maintained a grim silence all the way down. Later he said he was too terrified to utter a sound!

When we eventually arrived at the bottom, we congratulated ourselves, not only on our remarkable physical prowess, but also for the fact that we were not going to have to climb up out again – a helicopter was coming for us.

But alas! It was a mega-storm that came for us, crackling and thundering its black way through the towering cliffs and making straight for us along the bottom of the gorge.

Make no mistake, this was the original Storm from Hell. Our kamikaze New Zealand jetboat skipper cheerfully told us after the rain had soaked into our bones for what seemed like an awfully long time, that “the chopper can’t get down, folks! We’ve got to climb back out!”

For one ecstatic moment we thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. So, bravely girding our shivering loins in the pouring rain, in rapidly approaching darkness, we somehow made our way back up the gorge, to sit bleakly at the top as we waited for the truck to take us back to the joys and comforts of the Royal Livingstone. Only a hasty stop at a nearby village and the acquisition of a cheap bottle of rotgut whisky saved the day.

Now I’m not suggesting that you follow that particular example of ours, but I am suggesting that you make post-haste to the Sun International Resort at Livingstone in Zambia. It’s the experience of a lifetime – and within the pockets of cash-strapped South Africans, too. You certainly won’t regret it. And, by the way, if you live in Gauteng, it’s closer by road than Cape Town …

Kate Turkington

Kate Turkington is one of South Africa’s best-known broadcasters, travellers and travel writers.