Victoria Falls, Africa
Ahhh….to be back in Africa. I do have a special affinity for this beautiful, but challenged, continent. So rich in resources, beautiful landscapes, awe-inspiring animals and amazing people often compromised by corrupt leaders and governments.
The plan was to initially visit Victoria Falls for several days before proceeding with our safari plans in Botswana and Namibia. The group consisted of myself, Anna, Teresa, Lorraine and Scotty. After yet another overnight flight, we landed in Johannesburg. We were only staying there briefly before we connected to a flight which would take us to Victoria Falls. I am not the biggest fan of Johannesburg international Airport. The facility itself is modern and certainly matches the standards of other airports around the world. It does not, however, match other airports in terms of customer service. It is a huge airport and they seem to go out of their way to make it difficult for you to determine where you need to go for your connecting flight. I suspect this is done to support the local airport economy of unsolicited “porters” who wish to take you to the appropriate booking area for your connecting flight. As soon as you exit the baggage claim area you are often assailed by numerous “porters”, who can be quite aggressive and do expect payment even though you tell them up front that they will receive none. The other problem is the unhelpful “customer service agents” who show little enthusiasm for their jobs. We were aware of these challenges from previous visits. However, this time, we were not quite prepared for the experience we had!
Firstly, Lorraine could not get a straight answer as to whether her checked bags would be checked all the way through to our final destination of Victoria Falls. What she was told when we departed in Heathrow did not seem to match what the baggage customer service representative told her in Johannesburg. The bags were actually checked through, but, in Johannesburg we were told they were not so we wasted a good 30 or 40 minutes waiting for her bags to arrive at the carousel needlessly. Because we arrived so early in Johannesburg, Teresa had booked a day room for just a morning so that we could get some rest and a shower before we boarded our plane to Victoria Falls. Because of the aforementioned delays, we decided that there was no reason to use the day room so Teresa went ahead and tried to see if she could get some reimbursement with the late cancellation. Despite her best efforts, she could not. Ouch! We took a bit of a financial hit on that one!
Lorraine, Anna and I then tried to find out where the check-in desk would be for our next connecting flight to Victoria Falls. Scotty was not present as he was arriving on a later flight. When we got to the check-in desk for our next flight we were told with absolute confidence by the ticket agent that we would be boarding our next flight at gate A00. It sounded strange, but, we believed what we were told. Because we had some time, we found gate A0 and assumed this was the correct gate to board our next flight. Even when we talked to the customer service agent at that gate she told us it was the correct gate but we could not check in at that time but would have to come back 45 minutes prior to departure to check-in. Interestingly, when we were there we noticed several other travellers running like their life depended on it to get to that gate. The gate was just closing for a flight. One gentleman stated angrily “someone gave me the wrong information and that’s why I’m late, you had better let me onto this flight or there is going to be trouble”. There were arrival and departure boards at this end of the airport but none of them listed our flight or gate number! We decided to go for breakfast at a restaurant which was located close to this supposed departure gate. As we were walking back we again noticed several travellers running! This seemed to be the norm at this airport and at that time we even had a chuckle about their predicament. Little did we realize! We tried to contact Teresa by cell phone to find out where she was so that we could meet for breakfast and also go to the appropriate gate together. We had no luck. After breakfast and as our departure time was rapidly approaching, we proceeded back to gate A0. To our shock the gate and surrounding area was completely deserted and in fact the hallway just after the gate closed. Yikes! We realized there was a big problem. We compared our tickets-they all had the same flight number and gate number (cryptic gate A00) but the boarding times were different. This clearly was an incorrect gate. Guess what? Like many other travellers we had seen, we were now running feverishly like our lives depended on it! I was really concerned that we were going to miss our flight so I ran ahead as Lorraine and Anna followed. As we proceeded out of this end of the airport we were able to find a flight to Victoria Falls at Gate A24 which was boarding. Even with running it took about 20 minutes to get there. I ran up to the agent and explained the situation as Anna and Lorraine had not arrived. The gate was closing. She looked at my ticket and said “this is not your flight you have to go back to Gate A0”. I could not believe it! I told her that this could not be the case. It is true that the flight number for the departing Victoria Falls flight was not completely the same as the flight number on my ticket. She was adamant. I dejectedly started to go back to tell Anna and Lorraine who had not arrived. Thankfully, at that point I ran into Teresa and Scotty who were very relieved to see me. They stated “where have you been our flight is boarding shortly”. I told them our sad tale. It turns out our correct departing gate was A19 which happened to be almost immediately adjacent to the gate I had just tried to board. I could not believe the last customer service agent did not know this. Anna and Lorraine finally arrived and we were all able to finally get on our flight. In the end we determined that gate A00 does not exist. It simply is something they put on the ticket when there is not an assigned gate. You think they would’ve told us this! In the future, if at all possible, if I can avoid connections through Johannesburg I will try. I love traveling and the wonderful places I get to see, but, these sort of experiences really detract from it all.
We eventually arrived in Victoria Falls without further incident. It was good to be back. I had been there once previously. While I loved Zimbabwe the previous time, the presence of so many Army officials with guns and checkpoints really coloured my view. It seemed to be different this time. I did not see as many armed Army personnel and the people were much more engaging than my previous experience. We were delivered to our hotel, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, which was absolutely beautiful. It also had a very good restaurant and excellent service. We had wonderful views over the surrounding savanna as well as a pool [which we were happy to use that evening] and most importantly, poolside service for gin and tonics! It was a great place to relax and that evening we had a wonderful dinner there. It had a nice patio off the bar area where we could view and photograph the beautiful sunsets. Perfect! Teresa had her own room, Anna and Lorraine were sharing a room as well as Scotty and I. When I was unpacking my bags I noticed that I could not find my shaver. On a previous trip with my friend Richard, we had the experience of his video camera being stolen. I was sure that the baggage staff at the Johannesburg airport had stolen my shaver. The cost of the stolen shaver did not really bother me. It was the ides of stealing that did. I mentioned the stolen shaver several times during my trip and did make some disparaging comments about the airport workers. It just seemed to add to my negative opinion of Johannesburg.
Over the next several days we enjoyed all Victoria Falls had to offer. Of course, the highlight was Victoria Falls itself. We had a wonderful morning visit with a good opportunity to take many photographs. There was a wonderful walkway with numerous vista points looking over the falls. Most enjoyable. Later in our Victoria Falls trip, Teresa and I also took a helicopter ride over the falls which provided a completely different perspective. Our cameras certainly got a good workout. Of course, there was also the opportunity to do some shopping. Victoria Falls is very touristy but does have some nice shops. We initially tried to shop at some of the shops run by local townspeople. There was a huge selection and great prices that you could bargain on, however, Lorraine, Anna and I simply could not deal with the aggressive selling tactics of the proprietors. We left in search of quieter, and more expensive, shops. We determined it was a fair price to pay to shop and relaxation. Teresa and Scotty were much more resilient and were able to survive shopping in that environment and got some great gifts at much better prices. Anna, Lorraine and I found some great products at a particularly good shop and also did some damage to our pocketbooks! I even had an orange [a colour I seem to have a strange affinity for] crocodile bracelet custom-made that day as they did not have my size in the shop. The sales agent even took me to the shop where they made the products and introduced me to the individual who would be making the bracelet. We made arrangements for it to be delivered to my hotel later that day. A quick funny story. Later that day when we arrived back at the hotel, we received a phone call in our room, which Scotty took, stating that the bracelet had arrived and could be picked up. I went to the front reception and they looked at me blankly as I told them I had just received a phone call to pick up this product that I had purchased in town. They had heard nothing of it. I must admit I was a little miffed. After the experience we had in the Johannesburg airport I really started to wonder about Africa. Could they not get anything right? I told them in no uncertain terms they have to figure it out and then get back to me when they found the product. I went back to the hotel room and talked to Scotty who was quite clear that he was told the product was ready for pickup but also stated he was not really informed where we could pick it up. We had just assumed it would be at reception. I found the receipt with the contact information of the shop I had purchased the bracelet from. I brought it back to them so that they could contact the shop directly and find out who they gave it to. The receptionist looked at where I had purchased it from and said “wait a minute”. She walked over to their own little gift shop and talked to the fellow who was there and asked him about receiving any deliveries from the shop. Of course, he had the bracelet. I am glad it all worked out but he should have let us know where it could be picked up when he contacted us by phone.
After shopping, we had a fantastic lunch at a very nice courtyard restaurant surrounded by beautiful flowers that we just had to take photographs of. There were also some crocodiles in a nearby pool- another photographic opportunity. We walked around Victoria Falls for awhile and then took the bus back to our hotel. Teresa caused some excitement at the hotel that afternoon. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, Teresa had a favourite blue top that had gotten somewhat wrinkled. She determined the best way to deal with the situation was to steam out the wrinkles by turning her shower to hot and closing the bathroom door to build up the steam. This worked very effectively. Unfortunately, when she opened the bathroom door to retrieve the unwrinkled top all of the steam came rushing out and set off the fire alarm in her room. Scotty and I were not aware of this as we were down by the pool. Lorraine and Anna were in their room relaxing when they heard the alarm and the commotion. They came out of their room as several of the hotel’s male employees were rushing by. Lorraine and Anna asked them “what’s going on?”. They stated they had a fire alarm from room 10. Room 10!!! That was Teresa’s room! Everyone rushed over to her room and were relieved that there was actually no fire. We did not let her live this down. The top did look good…..especially unwrinkled!
The night before departing for Botswana we had a most fabulous dinner experience at the Boma-Place of Eating [that means restaurant]. This restaurant is located on the same grounds as the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. It is a short walk over. We had previously booked reservations which are required at this restaurant. We did not know what to expect all we knew was this was the restaurant that we had committed ourselves to eating worms in! The Boma Restaurant specializes in a superb selection of traditional Zimbabwean dishes and is renowned for its warthog fillet. It serves a traditional four course meal with starters from the kitchen, soup from the campfire, substantial barbecue buffet served on cast-iron plates with a wide selection of salads followed by a choice of delicious desserts. The adventurous are enticed with local delicacies such as Mopami worms and game stews. After dinner, there is traditional drumming and dancing entertainment. The food was superb. We agreed the warthog off the grille was a definite highlight. Yes Anna, Lorraine, Scotty and I participated in eating the Mopami worms [it did not taste like chicken….Anna said it tasted like dirt!] and have the certificates to prove it. We had so much fun with the drumming [there is something primal about drumming] and even more so with the dancing. I have a propensity to develop a very loose pelvis when I am dancing. I had ample opportunity to display this with Teresa as we started the dancing festivities and were encircled by the other guests. A great time was had by all. What a wonderful way to end our Victoria Falls experience!
The next morning we were driven by transport van to the Kasane Airport in Botswana [after crossing the border which was much simpler compared to the last time I was here] to board a small plane and fly to our pickup point with Brian Gibson, the best guide in Africa, which was a dirt airstrip in the wilds of Savuti. We did run into one glitch. On smaller planes weight is everything. We had all brought a lot of gear and unfortunately the pilot stated we could not take it all in one trip due to weight constraints. All of us had to take gear out of our bags and place it into two additional duffel bags that were provided by the airline which would then be delivered the next day to us. In terms of safety, this was completely acceptable. However, the situation did produce some negativity in our group which I sensed. There was some question about whether we were appropriately informed of the weight restrictions. It’s funny how things work. As I was taking things out of my bag to place into the additional duffel I found my shaver tucked into my hiking boot where I had safely placed it! I held it up in victory which produced a lot of laughter in my travel mates [after my numerous disparaging comments about Johannesburg and the airport workers] and rapidly dissipated any negativity we felt at that time. We boarded the small Cessna airplane in good humour and had a wonderful flight over the Botswana savanna. There is a completely different experience in flying a small plane compared to the large jets we usually fly. Would Botswana live up to the high standards we had previously experienced? Teresa had named our tour this year “In search of the Leopard” because of our failed attempts to photograph a leopard on our previous trips. She had even made up T-shirts, which we were all wearing that morning, to poke a little fun at our guide Brian, who was intent on making sure that we got to photograph leopards this time. Would it happen?