Thursday, October 7, 2010

Royal Livingston

Flying over the Victoria Falls as our plane came into land at Livingston Airport is surely one of the most spectacular views at any airport on the African Continent. The spray that emanates from Falls seems to fill the sky like clouds and therefore the locals have named it Mosi-Oa-Tunya, ‘ the smoke that thunders’.
Clearing customs went without a hitch and as we walked through to collect our baggage I noticed that the customs official was playing games on his PC…welcome to Africa. Once re-united with our luggage, which was quick and painless, we boarded a waiting bus and headed towards the Royal Livingston Hotel.
I had never been to Livingston before and our brief drive through the city centre was an eye opener for me. Although a traditional African town it did have some brand name shops that I recognized.
With Livingston behind us we were settling down for the ride to the hotel when our bus detoured off the main road and we found ourselves on the banks of the Zambezi River. Here, after sampling some of the local liquid refreshment, we piled into two boats in order to complete our trip to the hotel on the river.
I had not realized how powerful or fast-flowing the Zambezi actually is. What we thought would be a direct run to the hotel turned into a dramatic ride with more twists and turns than a soap opera. And it was thanks to the skill of our driver that kept us on course and enabled us to arrive safely at our destination. The lip of the Falls is not that far from the hotel and several of us had visions of getting into the record books as being the first journalists to survive going over the Falls in a boat!
Our arrival was greeted with drinks (more of the local tipple) and snacks on the deck on the riverbank in front of the hotel before we were taken off to view the Hotel and more importantly our accommodation.
All the accommodation faces the river and the sunsets that we saw were spectacular have yet to experience the equivalent of an African sunset on any of my overseas trips. A real indulgence is the fact that each room has its own butler, a service that harks back to the colonial days.
Dinner that evening was served on the lawn in front of the hotel and the chef certainly did himself proud. (The main course being a stunning crocodile curry with coconut ice-cream) A local singer entertained us and her voice was the perfect accompaniment to the superb meal and great company that we enjoyed that evening.
On returning to my room I found what could only be described as an “avant garde” chocolate sculpture on the bed! Instead of the usual chocolate/nougat on the pillow this decadent plate of mixed chocolates was delivered every evening in a different guise.
The following morning we enjoyed a leisure breakfast which is served on the terrace overlooking the river, and the “smoke” from the Falls could be clearly seen from our table. Hot or cold, continental or “full English”, the breakfast spread was the best I have ever experienced and to do it justice would probably have taken all day. The decor of the dining room is a mixture of the old and the modern with the staff being attentive without being intrusive.
After breakfast we headed out for a nearby airfield to enjoy a micro light flight over the Falls.
I use the word “enjoy” loosely as I prefer  “terra firma” and the firmer it is the less the terror for me. But the view during my flight was spectacular. As the river was very full the sheer volume of the water cascading over the falls was stunning. An interesting fact that can clearly be seen from the air is that the Falls are moving into Zambia. There are seven existing gorges with the original being on the Zimbabwe side. The force of the water is currently carving a new one that will be well into the Zambian side of the river. I wonder what Livingston thought when he first set eyes on the falls? “Did I leave a tap running” springs to mind.
We also flew over a game reserve and were able to watch hippo and elephants without disturbing them. We flew over a stork nest where the same pair of storks has been using for the past four years and the sound of the microlight engine did not seem to disturb them at all. I noticed that a party of hikers was walking along quite unaware that they were almost within touching distance of the last known white rhino in Zambia.
From the air it is easy to see that Zambia has certainly become an international tourist destination, with properties are being established along that side of the river while the Zimbabwe side remains barren by comparison.
Back at the hotel it was a relatively short walk to the Sinde Bridge that joins Zimbabwe and Zambia that was the setting for major political talks several years ago. There is a craft market along the way and there were interesting trinkets on sale if you are prepared to barter (top tip…take old clothes with you as these work well as currency) The major attraction at the bridge is certainly the bungi jump. Two of my colleagues decided that they were going to jump and after signing various indemnities at the check in hut we went down to the jump platform in the centre of the bridge. I am certainly not someone that will entrust my safety to a length of elastic cord, but the extensive queue of people waiting to do this meant that I was in the minority. There was a moment where I did consider jumping, but it soon passed and I watched my as colleagues hurled themselves into the chasm and bounced back up again.
I of course had to relive their experience on the way back to the hotel, but their adrenaline rush was infectious that by the time we got back it almost felt as if I had jumped too. A buffet lunch that rivaled breakfast awaited us back on the terrace after which we were free to relax for the rest of the afternoon.
That evening we gathered at reception for the highlight of our weekend, dinner on the Royal Livingston Express. This elegant dining experience has been made possible after four years of restoration work by the owners, Christopher and Samantha Tett. The engine and carriages were sourced from The Rhodesian Railways, Zambia Sawmills Limited and Zambia Railways Ltd.
The Royal Livingston Express leaves the station near the hotel at 5.30pm and at 10km/ph it makes its way to the Sinde Bridge which is the setting for an exquisite dining experience
Although we were staying in Zambia, the train did journey onto the Zimbabwe side briefly which meant that passports had to be kept at the ready but on this occasion they were not required. The plush dining car and a superb 5 course meal, prepared by Sun International’s Chef Alexandre Coupy was a fitting climax to an already spectacular weekend. Although the meal was spectacular, I made the cardinal mistake of asking if I could have a hamburger and chips…which got a laugh from my colleagues but not from the serving staff. (I can only imaging what was said in the kitchen!) Watching the sun set over Victoria Falls was a sight that will stay with me forever.
The train returned to the hotel at around 9.30 and we finished off the evening with whiskey and cigars in the Royal Livingston lounge…Just another day in Paradise!
The hotel offers plenty of activities to keep even the most adventurous guests busy. On offer are elephant back safaris and abseiling or jet boating, fishing and clay pigeon shooting. If microlighting seems to be too daring then guests can take a helicopter flip over the Falls. (All these activities can be pre-booked or can be made at the hotel)
And who can turn down a spa treatment when the treatment rooms overlook the river and the spray from the Falls!
 We ended our penultimate day in Zambia with a cocktail cruise on the African Queen (spectacular) followed by dinner in the David Livingston Room (delicious) on our return.
If a visit to the Victoria Falls is on your list of “things to do before…” then staying at the Royal Livingston and dinner on the Royal Livingston Express will go a long way to making your trip even more memorable.


Contact details:

Royal Livingston Hotel
Sun International Reservations: (011) 780 7800
Or visit www.suninternational.com

Royal Livingston Express
For individual bookings:
Brenda at victoriafalls@bushtracksafrica.com

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