Big game, gambling and self-indulgence. Paul Keaveny reports from Zambia and South Africa.
Africa conjures up images of vast savannahs populated by lions, rhinos and elephants, as well as rich culture: the tribes, the music, the dance.
It has always seemed to be a place of excitement and adventure; the ultimate destination for the seasoned backpacker, at the ready with their tent and mosquito net, not somewhere for extravagant hotels. But I was collected by a water taxi and taken straight to the five-star Royal Livingstone Hotel. The luxury was easy to spot: the pool, the spa massages on the banks of the Zambezi, the butler service in the hotel room.
And yet the adventure was also in clear view: the lolling hippos as we approached in the taxi and the giraffes, zebras and monkeys which roam freely about the hotel’s grounds. The animals would have to wait for now – my first adventure would be Victoria Falls. There are various ways to see them and I tried them all. The first is the walking tour which takes you right up to the top and then on to the Knife Edge Bridge directly in front of the cascading water. Here, the spray from the tonnes of falling water is so dense that it rains in every direction. Huge clouds of spray can be seen from miles away as 546 million cubic metres of water per minute plummet over the edge at the height of the rainy season.
The guides will give you raincoats but they are useless. The best thing to do is to go in your swimming gear and be prepared to get completely drenched (take a plastic bag to store your camera in). It’s totally worth the squelchy trainers. That first view of the falls is unparalleled. Photographs can’t compare to the sheer scale of the real thing.
For another perspective, I was taken to Livingstone Island on the very tip of the falls where viewers stand on the very edge and look down into the white powdery depths. This one is obviously not for those adventurers who suffer from vertigo, but Livingstone Island still provides a unique slant on one of nature’s greatest marvels. At the Royal Livingstone they will prepare a luxury breakfast for your party after you’ve finished taking your pictures. In the dry season you can go on guided walks across the lip of the falls to the island and take a dip in the Devil’s Pool – a natural rock pool right on the edge of the falls.
The third and by far the most adventurous way of seeing the falls is by microlight – 15-minute or 30-minute flights and the experience will have you lost for words. It is only from the air that you can fully appreciate the incredible size of the falls and the awesome power of the water as it carves into the deep zig-zagging gorges for 8km. The flight takes you along the wide, tranquil upper Zambezi before the breathtaking sight of this magnificent natural phenomenon.
It would be difficult to follow an adventure like that, so instead I was treated to a spot of luxury with a six-course meal on the Livingstone Express, which aims to re-enact a “bygone era”. The train takes a trip along the old Mulobezi line, through the national park. The food is amazing and the general Victorian feel is quirky and fun. If the train did not provide enough Agatha Christie-style kitsch, then the African Queen sunset cruise will surely tick the remaining boxes. Berthed just upstream from the falls, the cruises are daily and offer passengers wonderful views of the Zambezi River and surrounding game reserves.
How does the local community benefit from this pact with the tourist industry? Sun International, owner of the Royal Livingstone, has more than 50 Corporate Social Investment (CSI) programmes in Zambia. Stain Musungaila, the resort’s CSI co-ordinator, took me to a selection of the projects and it was hard not to be impressed with the work being done. Projects include a hospice, the Lubasi Home for vulnerable children and orphans and the Linda farms run by people blinded by smallpox. These farms co-ordinate with the hotels to make sure they are growing crops needed by the chefs for their five-star menus.
One of the latest projects is the Leema Primary School in Tlhatlaganyani Village. The programme involves setting up a vegetable garden and irrigation system made with rainwater collection tanks to provide fresh and nutritious meals to school pupils.
Sun International also owns the Palace of the Lost City resort in Sun City in South Africa, just over an hour’s flight away. It’s basically like Disneyland for adults or a slightly classier version of Vegas. Casinos, bars and restaurants abound. And for those still keen on getting back to nature after the opulence of all that five-star living, then the hotel offers game drives to see Africa’s Big Five – lions, leopards, buffalos, elephants and rhinos. There is also an elephant sanctuary where you can touch, pet and feed these majestic creatures. Let’s face it, when it comes to luxury versus adventure, feeding elephants and observing wild rhinos in their natural habitat beats quaffing champagne on a sun lounger any day.
Paul Keaveny travelled as a guest of Sun International and South African Airways (SAA). 0844 375 9680, www.flysaa.com
Travelbag offers four nights at the five-star Palace of the Lost City and three nights at the five-star Royal Livingston, both B&B basis, from £2,099 incl SAA flights from Heathrow for travel up to the end of June. Travelbag: 0871 703 4240, www.travelbag.co.uk