DESTINATION: Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi River
As the home of the spectacular Victoria Falls, the residents of Livingstone obviously has a strong connection to the waters of the Zambezi River. It provides nourishment for their bodies and draws in thousands of visitors to pump tourist dollars into their economy. It's the geographic backbone of this part of Africa and I was really looking for another opportunity to experience some time it on top of my previous wander through the national park where Victoria Falls is located.
When I mentioned my desire to the owners of the lodge I was staying at, they told me about a variety of cruises that operators offered on the river. Day cruises up and down the river, half-day safaris, close encounters with the very edge of the falls. While all of that was pretty interesting to me, the one that really caught my attention was the offer of a sunset cruise - a casual cruise down the Zambezi prior to sunset to catch a glimpse of some wildlife and then a slow return to the dock while the sunset.
Watching the sun drop below the horizon while drifting along an amazing river with Victoria Falls cascading in the distance sounded like a great way to spend an evening. I was slightly terrified by the prospect of falling off the boat and directly into a pack of hippos, but still ... where do I sign up?!
Staying out at Taita's remote location on the Batoka gorge without phone or internet service, it wasn't exactly easy to price shop options. The price the lodge owner quoted for a trip with a company they worked with was about 310 Zambian kwacha, which roughly converted to about $40 USD at the time. Being a bit of a captive and not really too put off by the price, I decided to book it and "Go with God."
No reason to stress myself out over something when I don't have the tools available to fix it, right?
The boat I was booked on was the Lady Livingstone, which departs on various trips along the river from the David Livingstone hotel. The David Livingstone is the type of hotel I think most people imagine when they think of the wealthy, jet set safari crowd enjoying a life of leisure while touring Africa. It's all wooden posts and stone walls with staff wandering around in crisp white uniforms with "Good day, sir/ma'am" hanging on the edge of their lips at every turn. It's all very pretty and proper but also has an undertone that harkens back to the colonial area that made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
And that's exactly the feeling you want at a luxury hotel property right? Mild discomfort.
Guests on the boat are welcome to wander the grounds while waiting for boarding to start. You can lounge in chairs on the lawn, hang out and have a drink at the bar, or lay out by the infinity pool. The grounds are beautiful but unless you like overpriced drinks, there really isn't much to do so I highly recommend getting there only slightly before departure time to save yourself some boredom. Or bring a book for the half hour you're going to spend in a lounger.
Or give one of the staff member a little tip and get the code to the wifi. Whatever works for you!
When the boat is ready for boarding, a band starts playing music to draw people over. Perhaps it's partially my own unfamiliarity with the area, but the music was a bit off-putting to me as it seemed much more Caribbean than African. Very marimba-heavy. I ended up feeling like I was boarding a cruise ship headed for Aruba instead of a cruise on the Zambezi. I half expected a Carnival parade to start up behind me. After checking my name off a clipboard I was ushered aboard and left to select my own seat.
The boat had three levels - two covered decks with upholstered chairs with cocktail tables and a third open air level at the top. The passenger load was pretty light, so groups of people were disbursed pretty evenly on all levels. At first I thought I would want to use the open air deck, but once we cast off from shore and started to make our way out into the river I realized it was going to be too windy to enjoy. I meandered back down to the second deck and found an empty spot against a wall near the front of the boat. A table of four loud Germans were a few tables away and had clearly been pre-gaming prior to the trip. It seemed I'd be having running commentary in German for the remainder of the trip! I didn't even have to pay extra.
Even though the trip is advertised primarily as a sunset cruise, they push off with enough time to wander the river with lots of sunshine illuminating the coast line. About 75% of the cruise is conducted in full daylight so you can really get a feel for the scope, size, and wildlife along the river.
One of the nice things about the cruise is that beverages are free, including some beers and wines. A friendly woman in one of those previously mentioned crisp, white uniforms stopped by my table and asked me if I'd like anything to drink. The selection of non-alcoholic beverages was pretty slim, so I ended up with a glass bottle of Coke and a bottle of water.
With my beverages in hand, the captain came on the PA and let us know the plan for the remainder of the afternoon. We'd be heading up the river to try to catch a glimpse of some of the massively diverse wildlife that makes a home in or along the Zambezi. After exploring a bit it would be time for the sun to set and we'd head back to the hotel at a leisurely clip.
Sounds like a good plan to me captain!
There didn't seem to be any set course that the boat was following, as the captain simply meandered up and down the bends of the river searching for interesting sights and animal life to gaze upon. The first thing we ran into were a pair of hippos - just two sets of muzzles and eyes floating above the water line.
After moving on from the two hippos, snacks were distributed to the passengers. The quality appeared to be fairly dubious though I did end up eating all of it over the course of two hours. If you've ever eaten any of the numerous varieties of microwaveable appetizers available in the frozen food aisle at Walmart or Costco, you're 100% up to date on how they tasted. They weren't horrible but weren't memorable either. I like to think they were providing sustenance without making it good enough to distract from the views. Wishful thinking perhaps.
The sun began to hang a little lower in the sky and the staff spotted some monkeys walking along the shore. A mother and her baby ambling along a dirt path. It was a cute little scene but it was the only other animal life we spotted besides the hippos. If you're looking for a quick substitute for a full-fledged safari run, this isn't it folks.
The scenes of the shore were fairly picturesque in some parts but the area around the hotel had quite a few hotels and boats moored in front of them. Once you get past the developed section it's much more enjoyable, though still not the most amazing experience. While it was all respectably entertaining, I was actually a little disappointed in the whole experience up to that point.
And then the sun started to set and all was redeemed.
Oh what a beautiful sight! This is the stuff you dream about when you think of travel to Africa.
I made my way back up to the open deck and stood behind the captain as he turned the boat and started to command the vessel back toward the hotel. There was a noticeable reduction in motor noise as we no longer fought the current and the crew let nature do the majority of work to get us back to the dock.
As we floated down the river the sun started to glow like the last burning coal at the end of a campfire. Despite our vessel cutting through the water like a knife, the water surrounding us remained calm and reflective with just the faintest ripple from our wake running through it. It was simply breathtaking.
We pulled back into the dock outside of the hotel at that moment of twilight when the sun has finally peaked behind the horizon and the edge of vision is swirled in competing hues of gold and orange.
The sunset cruise definitely delivered on what it promised - a glorious, blazing African sunset. The delivery on the other "surprise" aspects of the trip - the food, the drinks, the music, the search for wildlife - were all pretty mediocre at best. If I was given the choice again, I would still absolutely take the trip though.
Watching the sunset while being rocked gently by the waves on the Zambezi was worth the fee.
When it comes to some of those things I didn't care for too much, keep in mind that the Lady Livingstone is not the only boat plying the waves of the Zambezi. I'd definitely shop around and see if there are any other options that perhaps offer a slightly higher quality product or maybe a lower price point for a similar one. My situation didn't make it very easy for me to do that, as I was essentially captive to the direction of my lodge due to the lack of internet and phone accesss. Or, as is the case with most things in life, you can simply forgo the fuss and find a little restaurant or bar on the banks of the river and enjoy the view from the shore instead of on the waves.
You won't regret it either way!