Reason for the 50th visit was the official re-opening of what was always one of my favourite local tourism complexes: A’Zambezi River Lodge.
And after being shut, except to a battalion of builders, for three months and having US$4,5 million spent on her, the grand old lady of the river (originally opened 1972, just before the Bush War turned really grim) has had the sort of makeover, Botox session, facelift and general tart-up that would have pleased the late Elizabeth Taylor, who spent part of a second honeymoon to Richard Burton at the original Elephant Hills, nearby.
I covered that world front-page story, convinced they never actually saw our magnificent natural Wonder of the World, speculating on what Burton tapped away at on a portable in the next suite and was threatened with being fed to crocs by the boozy actor’s burly bodyguards.
That was 1975; my fifth visit.
I feared the 50th may be again postponed due to the chaos at Air Zimbabwe.
Getting a call at 7am from Rainbow Towers, I had a premonition I’d be told the official re-opening was delayed until sanity returns to the national carrier.
Wrong! Our AZ charter flight was cancelled, but RTG had “made a plan” as we say here and three light planes would take us to the Falls Wednesday morning, return us Thursday afternoon.
I relish “new” experiences and it was fairly new to me being a passenger in a Piper Navajo anywhere in the world where there was no danger of being shot down!
The flight was comfortably cramped! Five of seven passengers were — shall we say? — bulky, but flying through champagne-clear skies at 5 000 feet seeing (mainly) what wasn’t happening in agriculture was an eye-opening experience. Pilot “Nick” (he looked about 17 and wouldn’t give his surname) zigzagged across the Falls for us for 10 minutes before landing.
I’m no believer in change for its sake. It was four years since my last stay at A’Zambezi, when: although slightly tired and worn, there was nothing much wrong with the Old Lass, then with Three-Stars.
Well the new-look A’Zam graphically displayed how exhausted she’d really been before RTG and PTA Bank sank a cool US$4,5 million into bringing her up to modern standards and earning a coveted fourth star.
The bed was possibly the most comfortable I’ve ever slept in, but takes up an awful lot of space in what are now fairly cramped rooms. But who spends time indoors at the Falls?
I, certainly, was in and out like a rat up a drainpipe, having dumped a grip, to get to a finger-lunch and drinks reception held between the newly landscaped pool and the mighty Zambezi.
A’Zambezi is the only hotel in Vic Falls with a riverside site and its own jetty from which guests board game-spotting, lunch or sundowner cruises.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch — or jolly to Zimbabwe’s premier tourism destination — and twixt lunch and a bibulous sundowner cruise featuring a spectacular sunset and the dramatic rising of a moon which was full the previous night, there were various speeches.
From boat, unsteadily, to another reception before a buffet supper.
Shane de Lange, who I first met when he was GM at Leopard Rock, back from RSA, is in charge of RTG’s Vic Falls operations and looks the part. He and the firm’s local publicist, sparkling Melanie Crawford, joined me and Harare tour operator Lynn Goncalves at the open-air pub.
Brian Sabeta and his delightful Dutch photographer wife, Marleen, also arrived. They run spectacularly game-rich Sikumi Tree Lodge for RTG’s Touch the Wild, on the Dete Vlei, abutting Hwange National Park.
We chatted, sipping chiboolies for some considerable time. Well, until Lynn insisted I feed her at the Amulongo Restaurant, listening to the haunting sounds of Africa. (Not scores of generators, as in Harare!)
Breakfast was also there. Bleary eyes and hangovers were evident! British travel writers and tourism aces joined our table.
Consensus was that Victoria Falls and the unique 89-bedromed A’Zambezi have lots going for them, but much needs to be done to open the skies to competition to Air Zim. (Many quoted six flights a day from Nairobi to Mombasa at reasonable fares, versus one flight if you’re lucky from Harare to the Falls at outrageous cost.)
National Parks were also lambasted. They charge non-Zimbabweans and folk from outside Sadcc US$30 an activity (not per day.) Zimbos pay US$10 each activity.
Thus a group of five from (say) the UK would pay US$150 just to walk along the river and see the Falls; another US$150, plus fares, for the Flight of Angels helicopter hop; US$150 plus boat fees for river activities and another US$150 for walking with lions, elephant rides, etc.
In the world of travel IT, that dismal news will be round the globe in minutes and won’t exactly result in tourists pouring in.