Behind the Pictures – Tips for Victoria Falls

This is the second of three blogs for our trip to Victoria Falls. The first covered the amazing itinerary for Marathon Adventures. There was so much going on behind the scenes that added to the trip that I wish we’d been more prepared for it.

Things to know before getting to Victoria Falls

1) Buy entry visas in bulk
With the itinerary including the Chobe National Park in Botswana and the Microlight at Botaka Sky in Zambia, it would have paid to get the multi-entry visas if they are available. We were only offered $30 single or $45 double entry at the Vic Falls airport (one entry is used for Zimbabwe), but the US Passports and International Travel website says there is an option for a 60 day, multi-entry visa for $60 available at airports or other points of entry. That would have been convenient for this trip. Depending on the timing, the wait for another visa could be 10 – 30 minutes and cost another $20 – 30.

2) Bring cash, and especially small bills
While there are ATM’s in Vic Falls, there have been occasional warnings of US dollar shortages. If you stay at the Kingdom, everyone is so helpful you’ll want to show your appreciation. If you do find trinkets and souvenirs from vendors walking around town, prices usually start in the $20 range and you would most likely be able to talk them down to $5. Most won’t carry small bills for change. The local OK supermarket doesn’t take US coins. They’ll take the higher bill and give you back local coinage. I’d recommend $50 – 60 in $1 bills and another $40 in $5 bills for the week.

Credit cards work, but some of the hand-held chip readers are wi-fi connected (see 3 below). Definitely check your bank to make sure your card doesn’t charge fees for international purchases. There were some internet reports a $1.25 fee per charge for use or 10-20% surcharges on Visa cards. I haven’t seen it hit my statement, so that may be just a rumor. Don’t bother with travelers checks. The hassle isn’t worth the small amount of security.

If you’re in the market for novelty items, shop the street vendors for the highly devalued Zimbabwe currency. In June of 2015, they retired their currency as hyperinflation made the exchange rate a staggering 35 quadrillion Zimbabwe dollars to $1 US. I found a set of bills including two 10 Trillion Dollar bills and 7 smaller denominations and paid $35. I’m pretty sure I could have haggled him down or gotten two full sets, but was in a bit of a hurry at the time.

Before the currency was discontinued, this was worth less than a penny in USD.

3) Connectivity may be sketchy over broadband and is wi-fi
I got the AT&T International Passport Gold plan – $120 for 800MB of broadband data. The 3G network was unreliable, so I only ended up using about 250MB and depended more on hotel or restaurant wi-fi. The Kingdom Hotel gave out access cards (ask for the 1GB for 1 week) but speed depended on where you were on the grounds – the hotel lobby and the pool area were good locations. Other restaurants like Mama Africa and The Lookout Cafe have better networks, maybe because there are fewer people trying to connect. Adam and Allison had T-Mobile’s unlimited international data plans. I’m considering activating a phone for future trips and having a one-month T-Mobile plan for our next continent.

4) Power up
If you’re depending on your phone to take pictures, be sure to bring extra power. This was the first time I recall seeing the camera function take up 65% of the power drain for a 24 hour period! I regularly drained my iPhone 6 battery and most of my on-board myCharge pack. Taking a multi-port charger like the Anker Powercore let’s you charge several devices at once, perfect to top you off at lunch and keep you taking pictures and video well into the afternoon.

Sharing is caring. More pictures means everybody wins.

Better yet, bring a real camera. There are a lot of low-light and high-shadow situations where phone cameras fall short. Pack binoculars also if you have them. They’re great for the safari tours.

5) Street vendors are impossible to avoid
Once you get outside of the gates of the hotel grounds, you’ll run into locals trying to sell you hand crafted items, mainly bowls, wall hangings and animal figurines. They’ll start out with a cordial greeting, maybe ask where you’re from and ask ‘Do you know how much this is?’ That’s the starting of the negotiation. They’re persistent enough to walk with you for half a block if you don’t cut them off quickly, but it was rare that they get aggressive or start begging.

If you DO see something you like and you’ll be around for a while, feel free to shop around or try to hit the wholesale market or the Curio Market in Zambia. Except for the custom paintings or tapestries, we saw a lot of places to buy the same items.

6) Victoria Falls is relatively safe…
Vic Falls is described as a resort town. The locals know how important the tourist industry is, so every effort is made to make visitors feel welcome. People great you on the street. What little crime that happens is usually burglaries committed by outsiders and the Vic Falls citizens put out bounties to encourage good behavior. Sam told us that even at night, it’s safe to walk alone between the hotel and restaurants. At the hotel, the water is safe to drink out of the tap. We brought a UV steri-pen but I never really felt like I needed to use it. Susan found it relatively easy to find vegetarian and even vegan options as well.

7) …but it’s still wild
We woke up every day to dozens of baboons and a few warthogs crossing outside the fence behind our room, not even 20 yards from our back porch. Those are generally charming nuisances, but we also had a few run-ins with a group of 5 elephants on the unlighted walkway to the Lookout Cafe. Adam, Allison, Ken and Jaddy actually got charged by one of them. Do not take chances. These are not tame zoo animals and there are no walls.

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A current issue is the Zika virus. In addition to malaria, the mosquitoes carry this new disease and should be taken seriously with the possibility of birth defects. They bite all day, not just in the dawn and dusk hours. Use DEET or permethrin-treated clothing to stay bite-free.

8) Your extra items can make a huge difference
Take some time to get outside the hotel to visit the locals. Our friend Cindy did this when she ran the Vic Falls Marathon and what she saw broke her heart. Just on the outskirts of the hotel areas, the residents live in crowded, simple housing in need of maintenance. She told us that if she knew before she left, she would have packed more stuff and given them as much as she could. Susan brought two soccer balls, giving one to Sam’s daughter and the other to a government school whose soccer team didn’t have one.

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We overpacked, like usual, and brought a lot of extra race gear, shoes, pens and accessories. When we had the chance,  we gladly donated about six bags of generic race gear, Rock n Roll participant tees, running shoes and many other personal items. We hoped we tipped generously enough at the end of the trip. The rest of our group did the same. We asked Sam and Freedom if we could send more items when we got back to the states. They weren’t confident that items would actually reach them.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable with a straight donation, you can use items to barter for souvenirs and discounted prices with the street vendors. They’ll make offers for clothing, including socks and underwear, and shoes (even if you’re still wearing it!). Vendors with kids really appreciate little things like hair ties and pens for their kids to use at school.

9) The economy will open your eyes
Mining exports bring in most of the country’s income, mainly in precious metals and diamonds. With a 70% unemployment rate and a per capita income of $253/month (the highest government salary is $508/month), it’s not surprising that Zimbabweans are thankful for the chance to work. Wages are low relative to the US.

At the local level, Vic Falls’ economy is mainly driven by tourism and being employed in the hospitality industry is a privilege they don’t take lightly. Sam pays $120/month for two rooms in a house shared with at least one other family and his daughter attends an A school for another $200 per semester. He considers himself very lucky to be able to provide for his wife, two daughters and his nephews.

10) Be in the moment
Just a personal observation here. In the last year, I’m noticing a lot of people viewing life through their phone or tablet screen. They shoot a video of a wedding, a graduation or a child’s first step and concentrate so much on centering the focus on the screen that they forget to actually look at what’s happening in real life.

There are things we saw in Victoria Falls that we are likely never to see again in our lifetimes. A cell phone video doesn’t adequately capture the sound of the falls, the range of colors of the rainbows, or how the ground rumbles when a herd of elephants stroll past.  Be sure to load your own memory and not just capture it on digital media.

These were things we wish we would have known before starting the trip, and we’ll be adding more as we think of them or if our fellow Marathon Adventurers call them out. Our amazing guide, Whitney Powell, posted 10 Ways to Experience Zimbabwe  on her blog at Iron Will Productions. We’re hoping to connect with Whitney this fall at Rock n Roll Los Angeles for the world’s biggest costume party.

The third blog for the marathon should go up before we leave for Rock n Roll Chicago. Let’s cross our fingers for cooler weather!

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