“Travel far enough to meet yourself.”
Flying solo. That is how I spent much of my twenties as I traveled the globe for work and pleasure. Traveling alone can be scary, but also liberating. It takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to meet new people and try new things. It helps build self-esteem and confidence when you realize what you’re capable of all on your own.
My husband was spending two weeks studying in South Africa, in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. I hopped the 16-hour flight with him to Cape Town (that post coming soon!) and spent five days solo traveling around the gorgeous city while he did his studies. When he moved on to Johannesburg, I had my eyes set on another adventure.
Zimbabwe is a small locked country in southern Africa known for its diverse wildlife and dramatic landscape, most especially Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world. Here’s how I spent three unforgettable days in this African gem.
DAY 1 // ARRIVAL AND CHECK-IN AT VICTORIA FALLS SAFARI LODGE
I arrived at the Victoria Falls airport early afternoon. It’s about a 1.5-hour flight from Johannesburg. Victoria Falls Airport is a small port of entry serving the Victoria Falls tourism industry. Due to its size and limited staffing, it took over an hour to get through customs, but you are conveniently able to pay $30 USD for a Zimbabwe visa as you enter.
African Travel Gateway helped to book travel and accommodations for the trip. I was a bit apprehensive working with a foreign travel agent but knew it would be helpful to have support with transfers around the city since I was traveling alone. I had a good experience booking with them, but you could also consider working directly with Falcon Safaris.
At the airport, a representative from Falcon Safaris was waiting and transferred me to Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. This resort is the best I’ve ever stayed at in the world! Period. The hotel sits on a plateau overlooking endless views of African bush stretching to the horizon, which includes a waterhole frequented by elephant, buffalo, and other wildlife, as well as a rich variety of birds.
The room looked like a vast open-plan treehouse with a private balcony overlooking the central waterhole. It is a true oasis and the perfect retreat to honor the world’s beauty in one of the remote areas of the world.
After a full day of travel, I enjoyed spending the afternoon sitting on that balcony soaking in the breathtaking scenery and watching the wildlife I’ve only seen in books or on TV. In those first few hours, I saw antelope, warthogs, baboons, several species of birds and probably a few other animals I couldn’t identify.
The hotel includes the award-winning MaKuwa-Kuwa Restaurant, which offers magnificent sunset-facing views of over African bushveld. I snagged a spot near the window and ended the day with an unforgettable African sunset.
I will admit, the walk back to my room was the scariest part of my whole trip. With so many animals roaming free, you never know what you can stumble upon!
There is no TV at the hotel and I was traveling with a limited cell plan, but I think a digital detox is the best way to really enjoy vacation time away from busy schedules. Without those distractions, I gladly turned in for an early bedtime ready for the big day ahead.
DAY TWO // VICTORIA FALLS, ZIMBABWEAN HOMESTEAD, AND ZAMBEZI RIVER CRUISE
With a full night sleep, I woke up early to catch the sunrise and enjoyed a cup of coffee while I watched the animals come to life.
I was picked up at 8:30 a.m. and we departed on a guided tour of Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. I toured with a wonderful family of four from Westchester, New York. Meeting new people is one of the many benefits of traveling alone. Together with our guide, we started our tour at the Big Tree, then continued on to the Falls. We started at Livingstone’s statue and Devil’s Cataract, then proceeded through the rainforest to Danger Point. The complete walk was less than two miles.
We got absolutely SOAKED! A raincoat is much needed as you are walking right up to the falls and you are sure to get drenched. One big drawback to traveling in May is that it is high water season, so the mist made it really challenging to get a good view of the falls. I was a little bit disappointed that I couldn’t experience many of the spectacular views the waterfall is known for.
Upon returning to our van, I said farewell to the Westchester family and took a ride with the tour guide to Mpala Village. We visited a homestead in a local Zimbabwean village and met a woman named Elizabeth. She spoke about their daily rituals including building straw huts, walking miles to the village for work, defending their crops from animals and the rural school available for homestead children. The World Bank reported that more than 72% of Zimbabwe natives are living below the poverty line, living on less than $5.50 a day. Zimbabwe’s economy has been on a downward trend as a casualty of drought affecting their crop revenue, currency hyperinflation, and a burgeoning fiscal deficit. While it was nice to visit the homestead, I would instead recommend spending the time to help rebuild damaged homes or lend a hand in teaching local children English, as there are so many in this country that could use our help.
On the ride back to the hotel we saw baboons all over the roads. The tour guide said they can be aggressive and can efficiently open car doors and windows, so they can pose a threat to locals if they are not diligent. In fact, the turndown service at the hotel includes locking the balcony door to ensure no animals can get in!
Back at the hotel, they had an afternoon vulture feeding. A resort worked dumped a bucket of meat scraps and hundreds of vultures appeared out of nowhere and attacked. It was really gross but definitely a visual I won’t forget.
After feeling a bit disappointed after the morning’s view of Victoria Falls, I asked the hotel concierge desk about other recommendations to see the area. They suggested a helicopter tour. I hesitated to book the tour as I had never been on a helicopter before and was traveling solo, but I decided to muster the courage in the name of once in a lifetime experiences. I joined a couple from the Netherlands on the trip to the helicopter pad and enjoyed making friends from another corner of the world (be sure to check out my adventures in Amsterdam here).
The views of the falls from up in the air were unbelievable. I had a clear view of the Zambezi River running over the cliff and could see a series of gorges that I never could have experienced from the ground. Victoria Falls is said to be the largest waterfall in the world and is nearly twice the height of North America’s Niagara Falls. Words really can’t express the beauty of this natural wonder.
After a quick change back at the hotel, I was off to my final adventure of the day: a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. It was nice having the opportunity to sit back and relax after a busy day, and the cruise offered beautiful views of the river while enjoying a glass of wine and some light snacks. I was joined by four Australian women who were an absolute hoot and kept me laughing the whole time. There was also a couple from Ohio who were avid birdwatchers and were thrilled to spot many unique African species. We saw a few hippos during the cruise as well.
On the ride back to the hotel, we saw impalas and water buffalo on the road. The tour guide explained that animals such as these, and especially elephants, come to the road to stay warm at night. Animals also flock the hotels and villages to keep safe from lions, because the predator hates loud noises. These animals are what make the city so dangerous, especially for those who walk many miles to get to work.
I ended the day with another beautiful sunset and a nice meal at the hotel restaurant.
DAY THREE // ELEPHANT SAFARI
A friend I had made along the trip suggested I visit an elephant safari, and the hotel concierge was able to arrange this for me. Upon arriving at the elephant sanctuary, I was introduced to my elephant, CoCo, and guide, Norman. I had ridden a horse before, but this was an entirely different experience. Sitting atop the elephant walking through its natural habitat in Africa was something I will never forget. Norman shared so many amazing facts along the way. Did you know…
- The oldest female elephant is the one in charge, their leader. The male elephants go off with their own pack at the age of ten. They do not help care for the baby elephants and there is no such thing as marriage or monogamy. The mothers nurse the baby elephants until they are about four years old.
- Elephants get their second pair of teeth at age 45-50. After that, most of them die of starvation when those teeth are cracked or ruined. “Elephant graveyards” exist because during the course of their lifetime, elephants remember where they can find the softest bark to eat and return there at the end of their life.
- Norman and the other elephant guides work 24 days on, six days off. Every other day they get a lunch break. I will never complain about PTO again!
We were given peanuts to feed our elephants upon return. They also had a domesticated cheetah we could pet and take pictures with. My heart was in my throat the whole time!
The morning concluded with breakfast and the viewing of a video they filmed during our morning safari. I would not miss this opportunity if you travel to Zimbabwe.
A quick shower and it was time for checkout. Traveling solo in Africa was one of the most adventurous memories of my twenties, and I am so thankful that I stepped outside of my comfort zone and took time to soak in all this country has to offer. I will never forget the natural landscape, breathtaking sunsets, unbridled wildlife, and friendly locals.
What are your most memorable solo travel adventures? Any other tips or tricks on traveling to Zimbabwe? Please share in the comments section below.