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Tymon Smith

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Zimbabwe’s Tourist Paradise is Straight Out of the Lion King, But Also Pretty Good Fun

Travel writing for the Sunday Times:

It’s a warm March night at The Boma, “Place of Eating”, and I’m surrounded by a group of mostly female travel agents who are all snapping their cameras eagerly at me. No, it’s not because of my good looks or the way I carry off wearing a chitenge. It’s not because I’m the most exotic thing to be seen in the small Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls in decades. It’s not the way I bang the drums and eat warthog in the spirit of this northern version of Moyo. It’s because of the large black baboon with a red ass painted on my large forehead by a seemingly pleasant face-paint artist who’s been working the crowd all night, dabbing a giraffe here, a lion there and now a monkey beneath my receding hairline.

Having spent all my time since arrival at The Boma making comments about how it’s all straight out of The Lion King I suppose I have only myself to blame when one of the agents decides that I will now be known as Rafiki, the name of the baboon in Disney’s animated epic.

Rafiki has spent the day flying into Zambia, travelling across the border, lying about his profession for the benefit of the Zimbabwean immigration authorities, deciding that unlike several of the gung-ho agents he’d rather not chuck himself head first off the bungee jump at the Victoria Falls Bridge (the world’s second highest) and consuming several bottles of Zambezi Beer, complimented by the occasional G&T to stave off the possibility of malaria.

After eating succulent warthog, tough kudu and dry Mopani worms, Rafiki and the rest of the cast head back to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge for a nightcap on the deck overlooking the floodlit watering hole on the plains below, while the falls thunder in the distance.

As this is a trip for travel agents, the morning’s activities include a sight inspection of not only our own hotel but also the one where the other group have spent their night – a miniature Sun City-style casino called The Kingdom, where warthogs mow the lawn and everything is even more Lion King than The Boma.

While the rest head off to check into the Rainbow Hotel, which like everything in Vic Falls, is a short distance away, Rafiki, the intrepid reporter, gets the chance to take a flip in a helicopter over the falls on a route called The Flight of Angels. When I arrive at the helipad, I’m accosted by a man holding a video camera who asks me how I feel about the prospect of flying in a chopper. Not wanting to be rude, I tell him I’m excited and then follow three French tourists into the machine as we set off on a spectacular 13-minute flight that affords amazing views of the falls and its surrounds.

I recognise the Frenchies as the parents of a very loud baby who flew with us from Johannesburg and screamed his way through afternoon drinks at the hotel the day before. We land, I amble off to have a cigarette and then am corralled into a small room where I quickly realise that the French tourist’s memento video is about to be spoilt by the sudden appearance of a strange man in a Boma cap talking about how excited he is to be flying in a helicopter. I disappear before having to witness my hijacking of this memorable moment and head back to the Rainbow.

It is a strange, ’70s style concrete block with Moorish influences and a pool that lets you swim up to the bar and order a cold one from the super-friendly world-class barman, Artwell. All of us instantly take a shine to him and start handing over our dirty Zimbabwean-issue US dollars to as fast as he can take them.

Artwell and a marimba band that management sends over to entertain us during lunch make dealing with a young, brash, crotch flashing, BMW driving yob from Harare a little easier.

Finally it’s time to go look at the falls themselves – Mosi-o-Tunya, the smoke that thunders. Not the highest or the widest in the world but claimed to be the largest based on the size of the sheet of water they emit, there’s no denying the awesome power of the sight of this natural wonder.

While we’ve covered ourselves in blue Thompson Tours-issued ponchos, making us look like a coven of schoolgirl witches and have been told to be prepared to get wet, there’s no preparation for just how wet you get as you make the journey from the statue of David Livingstone to the bridge, each viewing spot leading to more drenching until at the end we’re “walking, walking, in the rain”.

While team B is off jumping off the bridge again and getting a fun-filled edutainment tour of the structure, we’re off to try dry our clothes before the evening’s dinner cruise on the Zambezi. Here, we slowly float within Zimbabwean waters while sipping on G&T’s, chewing a three-course meal and blushingly attempting to get to grips with the on-board toilet’s flushing mechanism, pausing occasionally to take in some hippos before a plague of midges descend on the food and beverages and drive everyone nuts.


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