A Marathon Adventure – Victoria Falls

This is the first of three posts for this trip. Those who saw the 240+ pictures I posted the Facebook will have seen a lot of this recap. Frankly it was hard to pick just a few defining moments, so I chose a few per day. This blog is mainly to give a flavor of the tour package offered by Marathon Adventures. We did a LOT, so this is a pretty long blog.

We’ve been working on our bucket lists for over 10 years. This first list included “finish a marathon”. The updates included “finish 50 and 100 events by age 50”. Having blown by those years ahead of schedule, our wave 3 list includes a marathon on all 7 continents. After watching season 27 of the Amazing Race and their visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the marathon immediately went on our watch list. We had a wonderful experience with Steve Hibbs and Marathon Adventures for the White Continent/Punta Arenas double in 2014. When we found out they were setting up Victoria Falls marathon packages for up to 30 people we sent in our deposit immediately.

Friday, June 24th – Sunday June 26th.
We left San Francisco on an evening flight through London and Johannesburg, arriving in Victoria Falls just after noon on Sunday. Zimbabwe is on GMT +2 time, so we lost 9 hours on the time zone change on top of the 33 hours of flight and layover time. The best part about these days was actually the eight hour layover at Heathrow. We had enough time to get out with my good friends Elizabeth and Tom for a leisurely lunch at a nearby garden talking about Brexit and how sad the US election situation had become (among happier things). I’d known Elizabeth for close to 10 years from the MySpace blogging days but this was the first time we’d met in real life.

After clearing an interminable line at the Vic Falls customs/immigration, our group was waiting for us on the shuttle to the hotel. Sam, our tour organizer from Wild Horizons, was in baggage claim to greet us. There were 15 of us, including our MA guide Whitney, who was fresh off the Big 5 Marathon the previous week. On the bus we met Allison and Adam from Missouri. Adam was one of three who’d be finishing  the 7 continent circuit at Vic Falls, the others being Julia and WC/PA 2014 alum Tony. Julia brought her family – husband Tom (who would do the 7K), kids Jordan and Alex and family friend Kaylee (all doing the half). Rounding out the group were Ken and Jaddy from Alameda, Bill from Houston and Bob from New York.

Tony was the last to arrive and joined us for dinner at the Kingdom Hotel. We were feeling connected with this group right away. Most had done a Marathon Adventures package and we had friends in common from Port Douglas, Antarctica or Triple 7. Tom even sprung for dinner as a pre-celebration for Julia’s 7th continent.

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Monday June 27th. Victoria Falls, by land and by air.
This is an absolute bucket list item for anyone who appreciates nature. Victoria Falls is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world, spanning nearly a mile in width and measuring 354 feet (108 meters) from top to bottom. Spray from the gorge can rise as high as 1,300 feet and come down on the Zimbabwe side like a downpour. On sunny days (which were plentiful), rainbows were guaranteed and even at night under a full moon, ‘moonbows’ can be seen. Be sure to travel both ways from the starting point on the path to see the statue of Scottish missionary, David Livingstone and the steps below the top of the Devil’s Cataract where you’ll get some of the best pictures of the gorge. To the north, aptly named “Danger Point” marks the end of the trail on the Zimbabwe side. The mist from the falls supports a lot of lichen, making the rocks slippery. There are no railings here either, just a few signs warning people not to get too close to the edge. This was the site of the first of a lot of group selfies for the week.

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Part two of the Falls tour was from the air, courtesy of The Zambezi Helicopter Company. The 15 minute tour made me really wish I had a better camera than just my phone. The view from the air gives you a whole new appreciation of the width of the falls.

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Tuesday, June 28th. Lion Encounter, Hwange
This was the first of a few early morning tours as most of the animals are active early in the morning or late afternoon. Seeing the lion cubs walking out of the brush was surreal. Even though these animals were under good control by the guides, they were still wild. We did our best to be respectful. Getting yourself mauled the week before a marathon is generally considered a bad idea.

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Tuesday afternoon was free, so Bob went white-water rafting in the gorge (with some class 5 rapids!) and a lot of the group went shopping in town. Jordan and I went out for a 10K run on the A8 highway that to get acclimated to the 3000 foot elevation and the dry, mid-70’s heat. I got to know a lot about him in this hour or so and not just that he was dressed head to toe in cotton and we had to split my 6 oz bottle of water.

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This would be Jordan’s second half marathon. He has yet to run one on his own continent.

Wednesday, June 29th. Half Day Adrenaline Package.
I think more than anything, this day brought the group together. The Flying Fox was the first of three challenges we had available. While this line didn’t have much in the way of G-force, it was the highest of the three. This didn’t worry me, so I went first. The view was magnificent, though the harness was a bit pinchy. A bit of a side note: Tony, our resident skydiver, reached for a water bottle, took a swig and spat it out quickly. Turns out he mistakenly took Jordan’s bottle which was filled with vodka. Apparently, Jordan was going the liquid courage route. Adam passed on the rides, but he was in position to take great pictures. Never underestimate how important the support team is.

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The second ride was supposed to be the zip line, but there was another group already waiting. For whatever reason, I just had the adventure bug in me that morning so I volunteered to go first on the gorge swing. The operator gave us options on how we could go of the platform. Step forward, (usually for first timers) jump forward (more style points, experienced jumpers), fall backwards (personally, I thought this was scariest, but Tony thought that not seeing it would help the initial drop), or drop forward from an assisted handstand (see everything, style points). I figured I’d go big. Walking out to the platform raised my heart rate a bit (I have the Garmin trace to prove it), but I saw the dead hippo in the water that Bob saw white water rafting the day before and it seemed to take my mind of things. When I got hooked up, I didn’t take time to think about what I was doing.

Ken followed with the backward fall. I ran to the lookout point to get a pretty terrifying perspective.

Jordan went next, fifth of vodka and all. He nearly went over before the operators were ready. Jaddy followed with a handstand that she was planning since she saw the videos the previous day (Bad-assery at its finest!). Kaylee nearly backed off, but went for it in a spectacular way. Allison was celebrating her 40th birthday the next day. She was clearly terrified. And afterwards, she was shaking like a leaf, but she did it. It was an inspiration.

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We ended with our first tandem zip line. The initial descent was pretty steep and we estimate the speed to be about 40 mph, faster than any other zip I remember doing. Instead of landing on the other end, we were hauled back up to the top platform. It took longer to finish the ride, but it gave more time to take in the view and get some extracurricular activity in.

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We grabbed a late lunch at the Lookout Cafe. If you visit the area, this is a great place to hang out. Not only does it have an excellent view of the rides, the gorge and the bridge, they have an excellent drink and meal menu and really strong wi-fi. This is something to take advantage of because broadband in Zimbabwe is 3G (at least for AT&T customers) and can be painfully unreliable.

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Thursday, June 30th. Chobe National Park, Botswana
The safari tour is why most people visit Africa. A 90 minute drive into Botswana (including a nervous 10 minutes at the border crossing), landed us at the luxurious Chobe Marina Lodge. We took a morning sundowner boat cruise and were treated to views of impala, kudu, crocodiles, hippos, cape buffaloes, giraffes, and, my favorite, elephants.

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Half way through the boat tour, a few folks in the group found their phones running low on power, but fortunately, Susan and I were well prepared. Be sure to pack power or external batteries for these long days. You’ll want to take a lot of pictures!

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After an impressive buffet lunch, we took an open-jeep tour along the shore, paralleling the boat route on the land side. We added zebra, sable and giraffe to the collection of pictures. Kaylee proved to be an excellent wildlife spotter, seeing most of the animals even before the driver did.  On the way out, our jeep was cut off by an elephant commute. It was one of those moments where I was torn between the fascination of nature and the slight fear that at any minute we could get trampled.

The day continued well into the night with a traditional dinner at the Boma Restaurant in the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. After dinner, we had a drum lesson and talked to a fortune-teller promising that we’ll have lots of kids. Unfortunately, I didn’t get video of Jordan starting the group dance number.

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Friday, July 1st. Elephant Ride, Bib Pick up, Lookout Cafe
This was another early morning excursion, like the other animal tours. It wasn’t that bad actually, it was getting us used to getting up for the 6:45 AM marathon start time. We were off to the Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary. What struck me about this morning was how open the area was. The elephants more or less took the lead and ate non-stop during the 40 minute walk, occasionally uprooting small trees and carrying them like take-out snacks.

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Feeding time showed us how smart the elephants were. The handlers teach them a few dozen English commands. Jake only took the treats ‘trunk down’ because he realized that ‘trunk up’ meant the human had to have good aim. Otherwise, treats go everywhere and get cleaned up by the warthogs and baboons that were ready to pounce once the elephants went away.

I took another quick 4K loop towards the Big Tree, stopping only when I saw a sign warning about wild animals on the loose. “Don’t do anything stupid week” takes on a whole new meaning. We swung by bib pick up and confirmed that there would be medals past the 5:30 mark, contrary to what the website listed.

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That afternoon, Whitney, Susan and I drove the course with Sam. It turned out to be a good idea since one key turn wasn’t well monitored and sent one of our group an extra mile and a half on race day. We also made a few stops locally. I’ll expand on that in the second blog.

We finished the night with a private group dinner at the Lookout Cafe. This was the first time I’d actually looked up to see how clear the stars were without the usual city light pollution. Between that and the view of the bridge, it was a great way to end the week of scheduled activities.

Saturday, July 2nd. A Free Day
We were supposed to take this day off. With the race the next day, staying off our feet and hydrating was critical. We DID manage to sit quite a bit, but had to take advantage of a last few jaunts Ken and Jaddy recommended. First up was crossing the border into Zambia. We took an unscheduled stop at the Mukuni Big Five for the Cheetah and Lion encounter. It was a quick stop, but we added another animal to the checklist.

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Our next stop was to visit the village of the Mukuni Village. Zimbabwe has 42 regions, each one has its own Chief. The Mukuni Chief was actually traveling at the time, so we had a quick tour and participated in some of the local customs.

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Lunch that day was at the Royal Livingstone, one of the nicest hotels in Zambia by reputation. The hotel is located on the Zambezi River upstream of the Falls. From here, you could take a boat to Livingston Island, a relatively safe spot at the top of the Falls. At the right time of year, you could hop into the Devil’s Hole – basically a natural infinity pool that lets you peer over the edge of the gorge. We didn’t get to do that. We need to leave something for the next time we’re here!

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The next stop was the Mukuni Park Curio Market. This was 60 stalls of pure African capitalism/entrepreneurialism as vendors sold all manner of locally made crafts, clothing and jewelry. Bring cash and a good negotiator and be sure to stop by a few different stalls before making your purchase. Adam certainly saved the group a good amount of money with his bargaining style.

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Susan, Tony and I split from the group at this point to hit the Batoka Sky Microlite and Ultralight air tour of the Falls. This was really one of the biggest reasons we gravitated to this race and it did NOT disappoint. While the helicopter tour gave us some spectacular views of the falls, the microlite was like riding a motorcycle in the air – no floor to block your view, the wind whipping around your helmet and nothing but open air all around. We weren’t able to take cameras on the flight for safety reasons, but we got some video of the extreme angles at takeoff. Some stock pictures from the Amazing Race are also on google images here.

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There were a few times this trip when I just stopped taking pictures and tried to be in the moment – the first time the lion cubs came out of the brush, the quiet moments between animal sightings on the river cruise, and the 15 minutes soaring with the angels on the microlite. Pictures and videos are great to show other people but having that feeling of being there is something you just can’t reproduce.

We got back to dinner at the Victoria Falls Hotel just in time for our pre-race dinner. Most of us were enjoying the trip so much that race day kind of snuck up on us. Over the week, we collected a lot of good tips for future Marathon Adventurers which I’m putting together in a second blog. The race recap should post mid next week before we leave for Rock n Roll Chicago.

This was likely the best vacation we’ve ever had. The sightseeing, the bucket list checks,  the people we met, and the things we learned about Africa really opened our eyes to an amazing continent to visit. If you’re really looking for an adventure of a lifetime, this is a good place to start.

~//~

The base package for The Victoria Falls Marathon offered by Marathon Adventures (Facebook) includes:
Round Trip Airport Transfers to/from Victoria Falls Airport
8 Nights Accommodations at the Kingdom Hotel
8 HEARTY Breakfasts
2 Dinners (including a traditional Boma Dinner)
Victoria Falls Marathon Race Entry Fee
Half-Day Zip Line, Aerial Fox, Gorge Swing Tour  by Wild Horizons
Full-Day Chobe National Park Safari – Botswana (lunch included)
Lion Encounter (includes a light breakfast)
Helicopter Ride over Victoria Falls
Elephant safari (and breakfast)
Zambezi River Dinner Cruise

Many of the packages were arranged by Wild Horizons. I’d highly encourage Marathon Adventures to continue using Sam and this company for future events!

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