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Protx
Mar
21
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The Livingstone Legacy

In just ten years, the town of Livingstone has blossomed from a crumbling backwater into the adventure capital of southern Africa. How is it coping with this startling metamorphosis?

From the small hill on which the town of Livingstone is perched, you can clearly see the great cloud of water vapour that hangs over Victoria Falls, 10km to the south. The Makololo people called this awe-inspiring sight Mosi oa Tunya (‘the smoke that thunders’), and David Livingstone himself famously waxed lyrical about its beauty. Today ‘Mosi’ is the name of a local beer, and the small settlement that was founded in the great explorer’s name has mushroomed into a tourist boomtown.

Livingstone was founded in 1905 with the arrival of the railway line that Cecil Rhodes grandly envisaged would link Cape Town and Cairo. The town was laid out with wide, tree-lined streets in keeping with its role as the capital of colonial Northern Rhodesia. In 1939, however, the administration moved to Lusaka and, after only twenty years of privilege, Livingstone was stripped of its rank. This marked the start of a long, slow decline that left its once majestic streets pot-holed and neglected.

Until ten years ago the town had very few visitors, but since then its apparent slide into obscurity has been radically reversed. Last year, nearly 150,000 international passengers landed at Livingstone Airport – roughly equal to the town’s current population – and the overwhelming majority of these were tourists. They came from all over the world to sample the host of adventure activities available around the Falls, from white-knuckle rafting to bungee-jumping, quad-biking and elephant-back safaris. They came to see wildlife in the nearby Mosi oa Tunya and Zambezi National Parks. They came because Livingstone is a gateway to the world famous safari destinations of Kafue, Chobe and Hwange. And most of all they came to see one of the natural wonders of the world: the Victoria Falls themselves.

The nearest Zambian hotel to the Falls is the Zambezi Sun, which clearly benefits from having one of the world’s most spectacular sights right on its doorstep. “The key is location, location, location,” says manager Sean Tomkins, who points out that visitors must now book six months to a year in advance just to get a room.

Ten years ago Livingstone’s tourism industry was merely embryonic. Sun International’s investment in the Zambezi Sun and Royal Livingstone hotels has been a significant catalyst in the subsequent boom. Now there are more than 25 lodges in the town and along the Zambian banks of the Zambezi. There are also numerous guesthouses and backpacker lodges in town, and new hotels under construction. This adds up to around 3,000 tourist beds, a radical increase in a decade. The airport has already expanded to take bigger aircraft and even more new accommodation is planned.

There is a paradox here. The success of Livingstone is built on the wild beauty of its natural surroundings. Yet all this growth means the area is much busier than it was a few years ago: more pleasure flights over the Falls, more boats on the river and more traffic on the streets. With Livingstone’s desire to expand its tourism over the next three years, the pressure on the environment and local infrastructure will only increase.

It’s the potential damage to the environment that Nick Katanenkwa, Chairman of the Livingstone Tourism Association, sees as the most pressing concern. “People are not coming for hotels, they are coming for the quality of the environment,” says Nick. “If it is not sustained, why come?” He fears that without taking steps to manage the situation, Livingstone may be left with growth that will eventually crumble and an environment that has lost its wilderness value. “We want to work to ensure there is protection for our environment,” he asserts.

It isn’t just green issues that need tackling. Tourism has brought considerable prosperity and development to Livingstone: over 4,700 jobs have been created, and many other people earn a living from tourism by growing food, repairing vehicles and trading. But as Dauty Mwape, Chairman of Livingstone’s Mkuni Curio Market, explains, most tourists themselves have little contact with the local people outside their hotel or lodge complex: “They are taken from the airport to their hotels, they eat breakfast, they see the Falls and they check out. We don’t see enough benefit. Only the businesses at the doorstep of the Falls see the benefit. Most of the money stays with the lodges and the companies that own them overseas. There must be a deliberate policy to empower local people.”

So 'protect the treasure and spread the wealth' are the two messages that Livingstone must heed if its current good fortunes is to be sustained for coming generations. Tourism needs to grow, local people need to see real benefits from tourism and everyone needs to look after the unique beauty of the Falls, the local wildlife and their precious natural environment.

Doctor Livingstone was perhaps the first of a long line of visitors to be captivated by the magic of the Falls: “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” he famously confided to his diary in 1855. Although much has changed since then, Victoria Falls today is no less heart-stopping a sight. The people of Livingstone are its custodians. Getting the balance of growth and protection right won’t be easy, but at least they are awake to the challenge.


White-Water Wobbles
Rafting the Zambezi may not be everyone’s idea of fun. Marianne Taylor describes her experience.

“Get down!” yelled Simba. We all seized hold of the ‘Oh-sh*t!’ safety rope around the side of the hull and threw our bodies towards the middle of the raft as it tipped slowly towards the rapid. Eyes jammed shut, I gripped the rope with all my strength as the furious water took hold of us and the inflatable bucked and lurched madly forwards. When we made it to calmer water and gingerly returned to our seats, I was disconcerted to find that my paddle (a sturdy metal one) now had a right-angled bend halfway down its length. How had that happened?

The crew laughed uproariously and found me a new paddle. I lost that one altogether a couple of rapids later, when the raft upended and dumped us all in the river as we attempted to negotiate the last and nastiest of the ‘Three Sisters’. A passing kayaker gave me a lift back to the raft, my arms and legs wrapped round the front of his kayak. I felt profoundly grateful that I’d worn old clothes and that the only crocs I’d seen were little ones.

Rafting the Zambezi is scary stuff, but I’ll never forget the exhilaration of plunging through ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Washing Machine’, ‘Oblivion’ and the rest on this rollercoaster ride down 18 of the most challenging rapids in the world. Climbing out of the gorge on jelly legs, I felt I’d had a true immersion in the magic of this amazing river – in every sense.


Thrills and Spills
Livingstone and Victoria Falls have a few treats in store for the adventurous visitor.

By water
White-water rafting
The Bakota gorge below the falls offers one of the world’s best and most popular white-water rafting rapids.
http://whitewater.safpar.com

Jet boat
Race the Zambezi rapids at speeds of up to 95km/h in a purpose built jet boat.
http://www.advanced-advertising.com/sites/jetx/pages/brochure.htm

River cruise
Unwind after the adrenalin rush by sipping sundowners as you drift down the Zambezi on a colonial-style river boat.
http://www.theafricanqueen.co.za

By air
Microlight
Ride pillion whilst an experienced pilot swoops down to give you an eagle’s eye view of the Falls.
http://www.batokasky.com

Helicopter
Board a helicopter for a spectacular flight along the Zambezi, over the Falls and down the narrow river gorge.
http://www.batokasky.com

Bungee-jump
Plunge 111m from the Victoria Falls Bridge down to the raging Zambezi.
http://www.shearwateradventures.com/bungi/default.asp

On land
Elephant-back safari
Ride on a jumbo for a unique encounter with wild game along the banks of the Zambezi.
http://www.safpar.com/elephant_back_safaris.htm

Quad biking
Drive a quad bike along special bush trails or take longer excursions to the edge of the Batoka Gorge.
http://www.batokasky.com/Quad%20bike.htm

Horse-riding
Saddle up to track game in the National Park or drink in views of the Zambezi and the Falls. Suitable for all levels
http://www.batokasky.com/Victoria%20Carriage%20Company.htm
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