A to Z of Adventure Travel: V is for Victoria Falls

12 06 2009

 Vic Falls aerial mw

 

There are lots of spots around the world that have been dubbed ‘Adventure Capitals’ either for the activities available or the rugged wilderness that surround them. The adventure capital of the world is arguably Queenstown, New Zealand. The adventure capital of Australia would be Cairns. And the adventure capital of Africa is definitely Victoria Falls.

 

Not only are the Falls one of the natural wonders of the world, but the area is one of the finest adrenalin capitals and even if you venture there solely for the sights, it’s difficult not to be lured into at least one unforgettable activity!

  

Victoria Falls sits on the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia. In past years, the centre of the tourist trade was most definitely the town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwean side, but due to recent political unrest and economic problems, much of that has shifted to Livingstone, Zambia.

 

The Falls themselves are every bit as magnificent as any photograph suggests. During the rainy season, the cascade of water over the steep precipice is positively breathtaking – if you can actually see it through the billowing clouds of drenching mist. In the dry season, the flood is reduced to a comparable trickle, but this not only allows a less-wet viewing experience but also provides a look at the chiselled rock cliffs that stretch almost as far as the eye can see. Even veterans of Niagara or Angel Falls can’t help but be impressed by Mosi-au-Tunya, or ‘The Smoke That Thunders’, as it is called by the locals.

 

For many visitors, Victoria Falls’ most captivating feature might well be its relative lack of commercialisation. There are no enormous skyscraper hotels towering above it and no neon-strewn casinos crowding its edges. Instead, there is bush stretching in every direction and only the most basic of paths and most rickety of fences preventing visitors from tumbling over the edge and into the frothing maelstrom.

 

This modest development has ensured that the area is still healthy with wildlife and the even the town centre has its baboons, watrthogs, birdlife and occasional stray elephant. Lion tracks are sometimes seen in the early morning in the soft sand that lines the paved road and pedestrians are warned to watch out for buffalo…all this within sight of hotels and curio stands.

 

The two most famous of Victoria Falls’ adventure activities are the whitewater rafting on the Zambezi – regarded as the best one-day rafting in the world – and the 111 metre bungee-jump from the bridge that spans the chasm, both within view of the Falls. However, there are also helicopter and microlight flights over the Falls and surrounding river and bush, sunset boat trips above the drop and game drives in the neighbouring parks and wild areas. You can embark on horseback or elephant back safaris, or take a walk with unleashed domesticated lions. There are night game drives in open-back 4WDs and guided hikes with armed rangers.

 

Both Victoria Falls and Livingstone have international airports and can also be reached overland by vehicle or train from larger centres – if you have the time and spirit of adventure. Both sides of the river offer basic campsites, budget hostels, deluxe riverbank tented safari camps and luxury hotel accommodation.

 

Most visitors today tend to use Zambia as their base and sadly often never venture across the border to its neighbour. Although not immune to the turmoil that has plagued Zimbabwe in recent years, the town of Victoria Falls has remained an island largely isolated from the political violence…if not the rampant inflation and basic shortages.

 

Victoria Falls provides something for everyone from the magnificence of the Falls themselves to wildlife and adventure.

 

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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A to Z of Adventure Travel: Q is for Queenstown

7 05 2009

queenstown-header-1

 

Queenstown, New Zealand is commonly regarded as the Adventure Capital of the World for it was here that a Kiwi named A J Hackett took the sport of bungee jumping – created in Vanuatu centuries earlier and resurrected by Oxford University Dangerous Sports Club –  and made it a commercial enterprise. Unlike its participants, it has been soaring ever since and a whole adrenaline industry has sprung up around it.

 

Situated on South Island, Queenstown sits on Lake Wakatipu and is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Although it began life humbly as an 18th century gold mining camp, today its wealth lies in the visitors it attracts from New Zealander and all over the world drawn by its ski slopes and other outdoor activities.

 

As if the skiing, fly-fishing and mountain biking weren’t enough, A J Hackett’s influence led to Queenstown’s coronation as Adrenaline Central. River surfing, aerobatics flights, jet-boating, canyon swings, ziplining, hang-gliding, heli-skiing, hot air ballooning, quad biking, skydiving and paragliding all flourish surrounded by the area’s natural beauty.

 

Queenstown also offers some of the best hiking in the world. There are dozens of well-marked routes that range from a few hours to several days or more. Although hikers must carry all of their own equipment and provisions, the Department of Conservation maintains more than 950 backcountry huts along these trails. There is a small fee to use the huts with those on more popular routes generally require reservations, especially during peak season. Regardless of the trail that is chosen, all tracks guarantee spectacular scenery and lots of fresh air.

 

Many visitors also head to Milford Sound, a breathtaking fjord within Fiordland National Park and the Te Wahipounamu World Heritage site. Once referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” by Rudyard Kipling, the Sound is located 295 kilometres from Queenstown on the country’s west coast. Not only does it have the distinction of being New Zealand’s wettest inhabited spot, but also with more than half-a-million tourists each year, its most visited. The Sound runs 15 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea and is surrounded by sheer cliff faces that rise upwards of 1,200 metres on all sides. The boat tours that are offered are not only highly recommended in order to properly experience the remoteness and stark beauty of the area, but also often feature in rankings of the best day trips in the world.

 

Queenstown also offers some of the best accommodation in all of New Zealand with luxury 5-star wilderness lodges providing seclusion and unrivalled views equally popular with discerning travellers and international celebrities alike. And if after a busy day of adventure or simple sightseeing you want nothing more than a relaxing evening with a nice meal and wine, there’s no shortage of great restaurants, clubs and bars in which to recharge.

 

Queenstown can be reached by road from Christchurch, or is connected by air from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney as well as most New Zealand cities.

 

 

Photo by: Destination Queenstown

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009





Jumping To a Conclusion

7 05 2008

Bungee

The Zambezi in the fall.

 

You may call me a coward if you wish, but I believe that certain death should only be flirted with, at most, once every other day.

 

It is for this reason that during a visit to Victoria Falls I decided I would either partake in the “World’s Most Dangerous One Day Commercial Rafting” or “The World’s Highest Commercial Bungee Jump”, but not both. In the end, I opted for Grade V rafting on the crocodile-infested Zambezi River (*drowning optional) and merely photographing people flinging themselves off the bridge connecting Zimbabwe and Zambia bound only by large fraying elastic bands around their ankles (*detached retinas extra).

 

Bungee jumping has become a phenomenon that seems to be offered by every exotically-located suspension bridge in the world. If there’s no bridge available, operators build platforms on the sides of cliffs, erect construction cranes in fair gounds, hire helicopters and hot air balloons, rent room from space needle observation decks…and in one hotel in Vienna, even created a platform at the apex of a glass pyramid over the shallow swimming pool.

 

Bungee jumping was invented in the 1970s by a group of English adventurers who called themselves the “Dangerous Sports Club”. They were inspired by the land divers of Vanuatu who fling themselves from bamboo towers with only vines wrapped around their ankles. The allure of dislocating both legs for fun was obviously a strong one but being sissies, they opted for something a little more forgiving and safer than vines: large elastics.

 

The first commercial operation was A J Hackett’s in Queenstown, New Zealand and it still ranks amongst the most successful, popular and “gotta-do-it” in the world. At the time of my visit to Victoria Falls, it was the highest commercial jump in the world at 111 metres. Today, it has been surpassed by taller ones in Macau (233 metres), Lucerne (220 metres) and Bloukrans, South Africa (216 metres) amongst others. But jumping within sight of one of the most magnificent natural wonders of the world, in the no-man’s-land between two countries while steam trains chug across the bridge above and fish eagles soar below still makes it arguably the most exotic bungee around.

 

Anyone with a few traveller’s cheques, properly-attached retinas and a complete lack of common sense can bungee. After handing over a wad of cash and signing a disclaimer longer than most romance novels, jumpers are weighed and the correct length of bungee is determined. Too much cord and jumpers start exploring for hidden oil reserves – head first – and too little and they’ll forever bounce like a yo-yo. Once paid, weighed and okayed they head to the launch site for a briefing and a binding and then waddle to the edge of the abyss.

 

Adrenalin is an incredibly addictive substance. It leaves you feeling 10-feet tall, invincible and damn sexy. It’s that rush that causes otherwise sensible people to do remarkably un-sensible things – and then buy the t-shirt to show the world just how silly they were. Generations ago, before the most dangerous thing we faced was a vicious paper cut, we tested our limits on a daily basis just to survive. Today, unless you count removing staples with your bare fingers, the only contact we have with seemingly-real danger is through adrenalin sports.

 

I can’t wait to bungee jump, but it must be either the highest, the most spectacular or the first….and be clear, sunny weather with a gentle breeze, and be on a day with the letter ‘c’ in it…  That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

 

Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008