REVIEW: Taita Falcon Lodge (Livingstone, Zambia)
After a grueling 32 hour slog that took me from my home in Chicago to London, down the entire continent into Johannesburg, and finally ended with me walking out of the Livingstone airport after the short hop from Joburg with a smile raised toward the blazing Zambian sun .... yes, I was finally fecking there!
Our flight was the only one arriving at that time of day, so once I had finished with my entrance formalities, exiting the secured area and heading out into the parking lot took me less than a minute. I had been notified by the owners of the lodge I'd booked with that I'd be met at the airport and provided with a transfer to the facility. As I blinked my eyes in the suddenly much to luminous world around me it dawned on me that I'd never really bothered to ask what or whom to keep my eyes open for.
It was soon apparent to me that further information wasn't necessary. A hulking, burly beast of a man stood talking to a group of airport employees and drivers. His hands darted through the air as he gesticulated wildly in the midst of telling what appeared to be a rip roaring good story, and it ended as he and his captive audience erupted in riotous laughter at the conclusion of said story. It was then that he locked eyes with me and smiled, shouting out "Yes, yes you must be David then?"
His name was Faan and he was one of the owners of the Taita Falcon Lodge - my home for the remainder of my stay in Zambia. He scooped up my bag in one of his giant mitts, tossed it in the back of the truck he'd been propped up against, and we shot out of the airport into downtown Livingstone.
As the closest major town to the tourist mecca that is Mosi-oa-Tunya, also known as Victoria Falls, Livingstone had quite a few lodging options that I waded through prior to settling on Taita Falcon Lodge. There were a handful of high end hotels catering to the jet-setting, pampered safari set. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are literally dozens upon dozens of youth hostels aimed at the budget backpacker crowd offering cheap bunk beds or even semi-private rooms for much less money than the aforementioned hotels. While I would be happy in either one of those establishments, neither option really fit what I was looking for on my first trip to Africa.
So I dug a little deeper and discovered a variety of bush camps and lodges dotting the area around Livingstone and the town of Victoria Falls (different than the actual Victoria Falls) across the border in Zimbabwe. While some of the camps/lodges were either as expensive or more expensive than the luxury hotels in town, a handful seemed to have much more modest pricing. I reached out to a few locations that I felt might be willing to work with me on the price of the lodging to see if they were open to some negotiating. Almost all of the lodges were pricing options based on double occupancy, which can be quite expensive for a solo traveler. Taita Falcon Lodge was the only location that responded to me in a timely manner (the others all replied but it took them between a week to THREE MONTHS).
They offered me a rate of $180 a night for a solo traveler, which at the time was a $40 per night discount over what was listed on their website. Additionally, I was offered free transport between the airport and the lodge for my arrival as well as some included activities during my stay. While this was definitely much more than staying at a hostel in town, I ended up booking with Taita as I felt like I was really getting a lot more experience for my buck.
The "experience" I referenced to was related to the lodge's location, which was listed as abutting the lip of the Batoka gorge a 45 minute drive out of Livingstone proper. As we exited Livingstone and Faan confidently drove us into the vast bush, it became very apparent to me that the promise of being removed from the bustle of the town and deposited in a secluded location in what amounts to the middle of no where was one upon which Taita Falcon Lodge intended to deliver. While Livingstone is in no ways a major city, it still has many of the trappings of city living. The fact that one evening we were stopped dead in our tracks on the road to the lodge due to a herd of hungry elephants really underscores the fact that this property is indeed off the beaten path. I can almost guarantee you no one has been stopped from crawling into their hostel bed due to a herd of elephants holding up traffic in downtown Livingstone.
The drive out to the lodge was quite bumpy though you're never lacking for scenery along the way. You cut out from the main road heading out of Livingstone and make your way through a zig-zagging dirt road through the bush. About halfway to the lodge you make your way through a small village the passes by in what feels like the blink of an eye before heading out into the private land owned by Faan and his wife. Faan does what he can to keep you engaged and entertained as he drives you to and from the camp, interrupting the conversation occasionally to remind you to hold on to the "oh shit" bars above your seat as he fords through a river or throws the truck into first gear trying to make it over a steep hill.
Just when you start to get the inkling that Faan isn't as friendly as he seems and has likely kidnapped you and is carting you off to a deserted location in the Zambian bush to end your life, you roll up a smooth dirt driveway that ends at a large wooden fence and are greeted with a hand-painted sign over a wide entrance welcoming you to the Taita Falcon Lodge!
Walking into the camp, you realize that they weren't joking about the location - it literally is on the edge of the Batoka Gorge. Check-in formalities are taken care of by Faan's wife, Annmarie. While he is gregarious and a bit disorganized, she is his counterbalance with a friendly yet quiet disposition and a firm grasp on procedure. She walked me through all the information I needed to make myself at home - an explanation of where to get breakfast, discussion on how to get to and from town for different activities in the area, notification of dinner options and prices. It was all taken care of in about fifteen minutes and then I was walked over to my chalet by one of the staff members.
The walk to the chalets is along a path that abuts the Batoka Gorge, giving you wonderful views of the area as you make your way along a marked dirt walking trail.
My guide offered to give me a tour of the chalet but I wanted to do a bit of that on my own, so I thanked him for his time and started to explore the beautiful bungalow before me.
The chalet has a roof that covers all the vital areas, but as you can see it is indeed semi-open air as the roof does not connect with the walls. Annmarie noted they could raise the walls so that it's fully enclosed, but I never asked. The openess allows a bit of a breeze to make its way into the chalet during the day and makes the sounds of the bush a beautiful lullaby during the night. I was a bit concerned with being so far out into the wilderness of Zambia and staying in an open air chalet as I felt like the wild might somehow find it's way in. This feeling was a bit prophetic as later during my stay something did manage to find it's way inside, but I'll cover that later.
The door was on a set of rollers and slide from side to side. To secure the door you would take a pad lock and slip it through a mechanism attached to the door and keep the key with you while inside the chalet. The staff working at the camp had their own set of keys which would allow them to access the chalet while you were out during the day.
Directly in front of the door was a vanity with a giant mirror. I didn't get much use out of either of these, though I did use the table as a catch all for things I needed on a daily basis like the key to the door, my iPhone, and my every present tube of chapstick (I have an addiction, do not judge me). You can see an electrical outlet behind the vanity but it didn't work with anything I plugged into it. Anything I needed charged I would take with me to the bar in the evening and the staff person working would hook it up for me. Not ideal but considering the location it wasn't really feasible to have anything other than the lamps attached to the generator.
To the immediate right of the door was the cutest little sitting area. As I mentioned earlier the rates are all designed for double occupancy, so instead of a single couch it featured two wood chairs with padded cushions. On top of the table was a sealed pitcher of purified water and two classes.
Placed on the table next to the ash tray was a laminated sheet of paper outlining some of the "house rules" for the camp, all of which Annmarie had gone over with me when I checked in.
As noted previously, this camp really was almost an hour's drive out of Livingstone, so the house rules are important to note so you can stay safe, clean, and comfortable while enjoying the remote location.
Just past the sitting area down a ramp was an enclosed yard. I didn't spend much time in this area of the chalet mostly because it didn't have any seating options. If there were a chair or lounger I'd have probably enjoyed sitting out there reading after a day out exploring or after breakfast, but without anywhere to rest I ended up mostly wandering out there immediately after waking up in the morning to stretch and get some sunshine on my face.
Back inside, you can find the bed directly behind the sitting area. Being Africa, a mosquito net was draped fashionably around the bed. During the day it would be bunched up as seen in the above photo, but when dusk started to set in someone would sneak into the room and unfurl the netting. The bed was spacious for my single self, and was also quite comfortable. The mattress was very soft and at night when I would crawl into bed with a book it really enveloped me into it's downy bosom.
Taita advertises that the soft finishes inside the chalets are all sourced locally, and it seems to be an honest claim. Many of the artistic pieces inside the room have an African flair, though I'd emphasize that I didn't find any of it cheesy. The overall impact when you're inside the chalet is that of an intentional nod to Zambia vs. the 'I'm at Epcot Center in Disneyland!" aesthetic you can get at other hotels around the world that try to do a 'local' vibe.
I was visiting during the southern hemisphere's winter, which meant that despite being in the middle of the African bush with a fairly powerful daytime heat, evenings could get quite chilly. Because of this, the camp prepares bladders of piping hot water that they slip into soft sleeves and tuck into the sheets of your bed during dinner time. This allows the bed to be heated when you slip into it. If you're a cat or dog owner, you already know what it's like to have a tiny ball of blazing heat curled up next to your body while you're sleeping. If you don't have a cat or dog, I'd like to know why you choose to be such a sad, sad person?
I'm from Chicago, so despite the temperature being 'Zambian cold' I never really felt at any moment during my stay that it was genuinely cold. Not feeling any impact from the temperature didn't mean I didn't absolutely adore the hot water bladder though. It was genuinely one of the most amazing features offered by any lodging I've stayed at in my journeys across the globe. Crawling into bed each night with that little blazing hot packet of awesome made all the aches and pains from the day of galavanting melt away.
Directly across from the bed was a heavy wooden chest with a padlock. The key to this lock was on the ring provided to you at check-in and it served as your safety deposit box. Any valuables or things you'd prefer to keep locked away from anyone could be placed in this chest and sealed. Naturally I moved my bricks of black tar heroin in there immediately.
The vanity, bed, and sitting area comprise the front half of the chalet. Two walls come out from either side of the chalet to divide it in half - one a short reed wall, the other a stone wall closer to the bed that had a much larger storage cabinet along side it with a bench nearby for storage.
You'll notice a laundry hamper in the picture above. Taita Falcon Lodge offers free laundry service during your stay. I would place dirty items in the hamper and they'd be washed and folded neatly on one of the shelves nearby by that evening. This was an excellent amenity being offered as I was traveling on a single piece of luggage and had a long trip ahead of me with my days in Zambia, a jaunt to Botswana, and hopping down to Cape Town still on the agenda. Considering this was my first visit to Africa I figured I should keep it more formal than casual and clean underwear was definitely a must.
The remainder of the chalet was taken up by what would traditionally be the bathroom in a hotel. In one corner was an open air shower with a half wall stopping water cast off from going too far back into the area of the chalet where clothes were likely located. I'm not even a little ashamed to admit that the ability to shower in an open air setting is quite liberating and enjoyable. It just feels so much more natural to let the hot water splash about your body as a breeze moves the humidity away from you. It's not a stuffy, concealed event. With all the space afforded in this shower, I ended up enjoying myself a little too much during my stay every time I showered. There were definitely some choreographed song and dance numbers that likely were a bit risque to any peeping Toms out in the Zambian bush.
The shower had hot water but it wasn't an endless supply, so you really needed to be careful and conserve your usage to a reasonable amount. It's powered by a gas burner just outside the chalet and any excessive usage meant you'd be doused in cold water quite suddenly.
Across from the shower in the other corner of the chalet was a sink and vanity. The stone slab along the wall was intended for the placement of various toiletries, though the surface as uneven. You had to thoughtfully select where you wanted to place things like pomade, toothpaste, etc... to make sure they didn't slide right on to the floor. This might seem bothersome on the surface but honestly I found it quite charming.
The mirror had a light attached over it, so stumbling into the bathroom in the infinite midnight darkness was only dangerous until you got to the sink. Hand soap for every day use was available. Towels on racks were along the wall as well as another waste basket (there was one in the main room area).
A complimentary can of insect repellent was provided next to the sink, though I never really felt like I needed to use this. I was given malaria pills prior to my trip but to be completely honest I forgot to take them early enough to make them effective and I missed about 50% of my daily doses. I never noticed any mosquito bites during my stay though, and to this day I remain malaria free.
Regardless, if you aren't a total idiot and are a well-adjusted, responsible adult - use it.
Behind the sink and running along the wall back towards the main door was the toilet. As amazing as an open air shower is the exact opposite can be said for an open air toilet. Dear God, this was the bane of my existence in Zambia. The chalets are generally far enough apart that popping a squat or draining the pipes aren't going to create enough sound to notify any neighbors, but that doesn't matter when you're already completely neurotic about going to the bathroom like I am.
I generally cannot even go to the bathroom in public when someone else is in the room, so imagine the mental gymnastics going through my head in this situation. And while the chalets are far away, late at night the guards patrolling the camps for wild animals tend to circle around the chalets they know are occupied, and during my stay that meant I had someone within a 5-10 foot radius of my walls at all time once the sun had set. Needless to say, this toilet was my every day struggle during my stay at Taita.
The bathroom was actually also the location where I struggled with the previously alluded to incident with wildlife making its way into the chalet. I woke up in the middle of the night one evening with the sudden urge to pee. I threw off the covers and groped my way through the darkness using the light from my iPhone screen to make my way into the bathroom. As I rounded the corner toward the sink I felt something furry dart past my legs and I immediately froze.
It is no exaggeration to say that the fact I managed not to let rip the most shrill, panicked, horror movie-inspired, blood curdling scream in the history of the Zambian bush is still to this day one of my top ten accomplishments in life. Held together entirely by my will to live, I tip toed my way forward to turn on the light above the mirror to face this intruder. Was it a hyena? A warthog? Some other deadly creature?
Nope. Just a fucking orange tabby cat.
Once the light was on he confidently approached me and circled around my legs for a bit before hopping up on the sink to admire himself in the mirror. I took a few deep breaths, collected my thoughts, and finally managed to go to the bathroom without peeing all over myself from shivering.
Other than my own mental hang ups about the open air bathroom, I have to admit that I was pretty blown away by what Taita Falcon Lodge provided me. It was very comfortable and spacious but still managed to maintain a unique feel that reminded me at every turn that I was in a unique location at a unique property.
Every evening I was asked if I preferred tea or coffee in the morning and at a specified time of my choosing someone would deliver a tray for me. I always selected tea, and I always picked a delivery time about 15 minutes after I had set my alarm. Just enough time stretch in the garden, use the bathroom, and fix my hair.
Breakfast is available any time during the day, so if you're suffering from jet lag or just want to lounge around in your chalet for the majority of the morning you don't have to worry about a breakfast cut off time.
Breakfast was served at the communal bar and dining area at the center of camp, a quick 2/3 minute walk from my chalet. While there is seating under the open air structure comprising the majority of the area, I always chose to dine on the balcony overlooking the gorge. This was the most beautiful location to dine that I've ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
A small buffet of fresh fruits, yogurts, and cereals were laid out each morning for you to make selections from.
Once you've made some selections you can head out to your selected table and start to dig in while gazing out over the amazing Batoka gorge. Kitchen staff will swing by shortly and go over a list of items you can order fresh from the kitchen - eggs, toast, bread, sausage, etc. The standard items you'd see included with any western-style breakfast. You also are offered tea or coffee and a choice of juice that is brought in a pitcher.
Very quickly I settled on a meal that worked well for me - scrambled eggs, bacon, a sausage link, and toast with jam. Simple yet filling, a well executed way to start your day. And I did start my day with it the entire time of my stay.
The eggs were well made and seemed to have milk added to them, which is one of my favorite ways to prepare eggs. The bacon was British-style, thick and chewy unlike it's American cousin which tends to be thin and greasy. The sausage links were like bloated pills, but cooked well and crisp to the touch of a knife. All very tasty.
My favorite thing about breakfast, and to be perfectly honest perhaps my entire stay, were the little corn cakes they offered. These little light and fluffy packets of goodness were hands down the most delicious thing I ate my entire trip to southern Africa.
Here's a small list of things off the top of my head I'd trade for an endless supply of these corn cakes:
The three old iPhones in my nightstand.
One of my two dogs. Dealer's choice.
One of my two siblings. Both much better looking than me.
30 minutes of over the clothes fondling.
You get the picture. Now get me my corn cakes.
The staff at the camp are happy to work with you on arranging a variety of activities in the area. An entry ticket as well as pick up and drop off at Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) was included in my rate, and since it's by far the biggest attraction in the area, that was a plus. If you're interested in local culture, whitewater rafting, or even a bungee jumping, they will help you arrange it.
One of the only negative things about the camp is that its location far from the town and pretty much anything else resembling civilization means you have to pay to be taken in and out of the property. Before arriving I was a bit annoyed with the idea of having to pay any time I wanted to leave the property, but once I arrived and realized just how isolated it was, I understood. They need a dedicated driver to take care of the transport to and from town and/or the Falls considering the almost hour schelp to and from the property. Add multiple guests and you can see why this becomes difficult to offer without a fee to hire staff. The camp was pretty lightly booked during my stay (I'm fairly certain I was the only guest on some nights), so my transport in and out when I needed it were handled by Faan rather easily. If there was a busier occupancy rate though, it would be difficult to manage.
Of course, if you want to save a little money you can enjoy your time at the camp. There is a pool you can lounge about in, but really the most promising way to pass the time at Taita is to wander about the edge of the gorge and take in the sight of the raging Zambezi river. The camp has various look outs, some with chairs, for you to enjoy.
Needless to say, I was blown away by the Taita Falcon Lodge. It was indeed much more expensive than the hostels in Livingstone, but considering the amazing accommodations I was provided with and the absolutely jaw dropping location with vistas over the Zambezi, I don't regret a penny I spent. The staff was overwhelmingly helpful and friendly during my stay. During the evenings I'd sit on the balcony next to the restaurant/bar area and Faan, Annamarie, and numerous other staff members would lounge with me and chat about the history of Zambia and Zimbabwe. They are also originally from South Africa, so they gave me a lot of thoughts on my upcoming trip to Cape Town as well.
This is a unique property at a unique location quite a distance outside of Livingstone. If air conditioning, electricity, access to the internet, or five star ratings are important to you - this isn't the place to spend your time. But if you're open minded, up for a bit of pampering while roughing it, and looking for something far removed from the day to day bustle of city life, please give Taita Falcon Lodge a thought.