Livingstone is one of the first places that tourists visit when they head to Zambia – and for good reason. In fact, for one very good reason; Victoria Falls! The falls, which straddle the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, are a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest curtain of falling water in the world. Two thirds of the falls are on the Zambian side of the border; making Livingstone the perfect base for a few days of exploration by land, water and air. It’s also a chance to spot wildlife in Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’) National Park.
Livingstone Top Tips
You can get to Livingstone a number of different ways but by far the easiest is to fly in to Livingstone International Airport (also known by its new, less catchy, name which is Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport). International flights are operated by British Airways (via Johannesburg, South Africa) and South African Airways. Domestic flights are provided by ProFlight (including several daily connections from Zambia’s Capital city, Lusaka). If you’re in Lusaka and don’t fancy stumping up the cash for a domestic flight then buses are also an option. There are several connections a day on fairly comfortable buses; although the driving is occasionally somewhat erratic (that’s being polite). The only other problem is the 6 hour drive; but if you can put up with that then the bus is a much more budget-friendly approach and departs from the central bus terminal in Lusaka. The most well-known service is the Mazhandu Family Bus – which admittedly makes it sound like you’re about to be driven off to a hippy commune but I swear that it’s reliable.
Taxis are easy to flag down in Livingstone and you’ll always find them waiting outside the airport if you haven’t prearranged a transfer (the ride shouldn’t be any longer than 6-10km from the airport to your accommodation). Just double check before you leave that your hotel doesn’t offer free transfers from the airport as quite a few of them do. Livingstone is a pretty small town and so walking is simple and painless unless you’re heading to the falls or you’re staying at one of the hotels outside of downtown or on the Zambezi River (and temperature dependent of course). If you are, then you’ll need a taxi as they’re just outside of standard walking range.
As of December 2016 Zambia and Zimbabwe have offered a Kaza Visa at certain ports of entry; including Livingstone Airport, the Livingstone Falls land border and Victoria Falls Airport (on the Zimbabwe side of the falls) amongst others. The new visa will cover you for Zambia and Zimbabwe and also covers day visits to Botswana at the Kazungula Land Border. It’s definitely worth considering buying one if you plan to hop across the border to Zimbabwe to see the other side of the falls or if you plan to visit Chobe National Park in Botswana for the day (see below). I’ve included the link to the Kaza Website in the additional resources below where you can find out more information about the visa system, application process, countries covered and costs.
So, when is the ideal time to visit Livingstone I hear you ask (you probably didn’t ask, but I plan to tell you anyhow)! I really struggle with this question because there are so many different things to factor in to the equation. For example, you can only visit Devil’s Pool (see below) between late August and early January; wildlife is always best viewed during the dry season which is around April until October; and the Falls are at their roaring best in the wet season between November and March (for obvious reasons). My ‘official’ recommendation is to go in early September because I’m firmly of the belief that Devil’s Pool makes the somewhat drier falls more of an experience and, there’s still more than enough water coming from the falls to get you misty wet before you even see them. In addition, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be staying in Livingstone for any more than 5-6 days and will instead travel on elsewhere for safari. That being the case, you’ll definitely want to be traveling during the dry season to maximize wildlife watching opportunities on safari.
Zambia operates a departure tax system (at the time of writing its US$25 for each international traveler). Although this is usually included in airline fares I have, on one occasion, been asked to pay it directly at the airport in cash. To be on the safe side I would therefore recommend that you have enough US Dollars to hand to pay for everyone in your party.
Victoria Falls: If you’re visiting Livingstone then there is only one true ‘must-see’ and that’s obviously Victoria Falls. The ‘Smoke That Thunders’ (or Mosi-oa-Tunya in local dialect) is what the Kololo tribe aptly named the falls in the 1800s and after visiting you’ll understand why! The falls themselves are a 10 minute drive from downtown Livingstone and an entry fee is payable upon entry in to the park (the ticket allows multiple entries and exits on the same day). Once inside the park if you take the track to the right you’ll walk upstream of the river and be able to get close enough to touch the water before it tumbles over the falls. We found a large number of baboons on this route who were a little too aggressive and stole a woman’s bag; so just keep an eye open. If you take the track to the left then you’ll follow the path in front of the gorge where you’ll get to witness the full force of the falls and thunderous mist that envelopes the whole area. When you take the track to the left be prepared to get wet and make sure that you’re able to keep your camera dry (you can always buy wet weather gear at the park entry gates if you want to look extra touristy). In addition to the Zambian side (and even easier to do if you have a Kaza visa) you can also get a different perspective from the Zimbabwean side of the border.
Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool: This is probably the ultimate daredevil way to experience Victoria Falls. The Devil’s Pool is small pool of water right on the very lip of the falls that you can swim in when the water level is low enough not to simply sweep you right off of the edge (roughly from mid-August to Early January; roughly is probably not a word you want to hear in this situation, right?). Never fear, access to the pool is managed very carefully given the obvious dangers and so you’ll need to be accompanied by a guide from the Royal Livingstone Hotel by boat to Livingstone Island (where David Livingstone first spotted the falls) and you’ll then swim out to the pool from there. The Devil’s pool website provides the current opening status on any given day and also allows you to book online in advance. If you want to get a good idea of what to expect then take a look at this article.
Safari: If you’re looking to see some wildlife then you don’t have to go far (in fact you might not need to go anywhere at all depending on what hotel you’re staying at). The closest safari experience is right on the doorstep in the Northern Section of Mosi oa Tunya National Park (the southern section of the park is where the Falls are located). The park is really small for safari standards (only 66 sq km) and isn’t home to any predators but you might well see white rhino (the only white rhino in Zambia were introduced here) as well as elephant that cross the Zambezi River from Zimbabwe and a variety of other species outside of the classic ‘Big 5’. Outside of Mosi oa Tunya you could cross to Zimbabwe to visit the Zambezi National Park but I think your best bet is Chobe National Park in Botswana which is just 70km away. Obviously you’ll need to have your Botswana visa sorted to visit Chobe (or your Kaza visa if you’re only going for day trip), but it’s well worth it for river and land-based safaris in one of the best National Parks in Africa. As with all the other activities I’m recommending, you’ll find it’s really easy to book trips through local tour operators after arrival (if you’re on a really tight schedule you might wat to book in advance just to be safe).
Extreme Activities: If you’re an adrenaline junky then Livingstone is definitely the place for you. The highlight of all of the adrenaline activities in Livingstone has to be the bungee jump off of Victoria Falls Bridge over the Zambezi River. If you really want to ratchet up the adrenaline before you jump then I highly recommend you read Erin Langworthy’s account of her experience of the jump on the Guardian Newspaper Website here (since she survived I have taken the moral position that it’s ok to joke about it….right?). Besides Bungee jumping into crocodile infested waters you should definitely try White Water Rafting. Although I didn’t tackle the Grade 5 Zambezi Waters in Livingstone I have rafted the Grade 5 Nile in Uganda and can definitely say that it’s an awesome experience (apart from when you get sucked down in a rapid and have to curl up into a ball so that you miss the rocks; that part was less awesome). If that’s not enough for you then your other options are abseiling; hydrospeed surfing, river boarding, kayaking, canoeing, gorge swings, flying foxes, horseback riding and the Zambezi Extreme Jetboat. Seriously, how much more could you possibly ask for? Two companies you might want to look at for arranging adrenaline activities are Safari Par Excellence and Bundu Adventures – but these are by no means the only guys in town that can arrange these activities so make sure you shop around for the best prices and deals.
Flight of the Angels: For a birds eye view of Victoria Falls, Batoka Gorge and the Zambezi National Park consider taking either a helicopter or microlight flight from Maramba Aerodrome (if you want to take photos then opt for the helicopter as they wouldn’t let us take cameras on the microlight). It’s a truly spectacular way to experience the Falls and you might be lucky enough to spot elephants crossing the Zambezi river on your way back to the aerodrome like we did. There are a number of different flight options at varying price points and as is always the case with helicopter rides; it isn’t cheap! I always like to justify expenses like this to my wife by saying ‘it’s a once in a lifetime experience’. The problem I now have is that I’ve overused it as a justification (I probably shouldn’t have used it to justify the last trip to Disney – Disney is my guilty pleasure).
Brunch, High Tea and Sundowners: The absolute best place to head for brunch, high tea or a sundowner is the Royal Livingstone Hotel. This 5* hotel is the epitome of African safari luxury. You’ll be sitting on the banks of the Zambezi as giraffe and zebra roam the grounds in front of you as you sip on a G&T and munch on a cheese sandwich. If you’re lucky (we were) then you’ll also witness elephant crossing the Zambezi as you sit and eat. It’s a magical experience, especially as the sun starts to set. Although there’s no dress code we felt a little underdressed in our safari shorts and T-shirts; particularly when a member of hotel staff came over to place my muddy backpack on its own little stool so that it didn’t get dirty on the floor (the backpack was far dirtier than the floor!).
River Cruises: What better way to end a day than a cruise up the Zambezi river with a Gin and Tonic in hand. There are a whole host of different cruises from party booze cruises to something a little more sedate. We opted for a halfway house (the Lady Livingstone which departs from the David Livingstone Hotel) that had bottomless drinks but a decent focus on spotting wildlife (hippo, elephant and crocodile were all successfully spotted). The cruises typically last a couple of hours and are a nice relaxing way to end a day of activities before heading for a spot of dinner.
KAZA Visa Website: http://www.kazavisa.info/
Helicopter Resource Website: http://www.zambiatourism.com/activities/adventure/flights-over-the-falls and http://www.zambezihelicopters.com