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Cruising on the Zambezi

Tourists take photos at the first of 16 viewing spots of the Victoria Falls (LEFT).  Visitors read up on Dr. David Livingstone at Victoria Falls ( RIGHT). 

Lessons aplenty for Uganda from Zimbabwe’s water tourism

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe | RONALD MUSOKE | On a sunny late afternoon, Victor Madzimbamuto, 50, our boat captain welcomes us aboard Dighani Tours, a mid-sized vessel that is in effect a floating bar for patrons as they cruise on the Zimbabwean section of River Zambezi in southern Africa.

I am aboard the boat alongside dozens of other patrons from various countries who have just arrived for the inaugural Africa Wildlife Economy Summit in the Zimbabwean resort town of Victoria Falls on June 23.

Madzimbamuto asks us to sit comfortably at the tables set out on the boat as he introduces his crew shortly before we begin our two-hour sunset cruise on the Zambezi. Shortly, we are served juice, soda, wine, beer and gin accompanied by sizzling sticks of meat, sausages, saucers of nuts, potato chips and more drinks.

I am seated at the same table as Dr. Akankwasah Barirega, the commissioner for wildlife conservation in the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities in Uganda and other delegates from other countries around the world.

On this expansive placid section of the Zambezi, there are dozens more tourist-laden boats crisscrossing the river as they watch hippos bask in the evening sun.

Madzimbamuto attempts to give us details about the Zambezi and its place in the Zimbabwean economy but the camaraderie and the conversations going on among the patrons drown his voice.

The visitors are busy taking in scenes of the fluttering birds either side of the river’s banks. There are many clicks and beeps on their cameras as they take vantage points to shoot photos of bullish male hippos that are menacingly opening their huge mouths to scare away the humans on the vessels. We also chance upon an elephant couple’s romantic affair in the water and this sends the patrons into frenzy.

This section of the Zambezi is quite busy. Ronnie Kembo, a dimunitive traditional dancer wearing Rastafarian hair says there are about 20 companies doing boat cruises on the Zambezi River and that is from Monday to Sunday.

Madzimbamuto, our captain says he works five days a week and takes two days off. He starts at 10:00am and works up to 4:00pm. On the boat, patrons can be served breakfast, lunch and even dinner.

He told The Independent that he has done this job for the last 18 years.  “I find meeting people from different backgrounds quite exciting,” Madzimbamuto told The Independent as he struggled steering the boat to avoid hitting a hippo underneath.

“Helicopter tours” are a recent addition for the visitors’ experience.  The buzzing sound of the helicopters overhead is constant throughout our cruise. Kembo says these are quite popular with tourists who want to have an eagle’s eye view of the Victoria Falls. For a 15 minute tour, a tourist parts with at least US $ 100 and every tour takes four people.

At this point, we are 2.5km away from the UNESCO world heritage site as we can see the misty sprays of the Victoria Falls. But Madzimbamuto says big boats like our own, Dighani Tours, cannot go so near the falls as it would be a struggle coming back.

We enter the international waters of Zambia as more drinks flow and more platters of meat are served.  It has been about two hours since we set off. Our captain eventually takes a detour and gets back to the dockyard just below the Elephant Hills Hotel—the venue of our summit.  Kembo tells The Independent that the Chobe River on the Zimbabwe-Botswana border, has similar business booming.

My mind, however, cannot stop flashing back to Uganda. We have similar water bodies yet we cannot replicate what Zimbabwe has perfected.

The Zambezi, the fourth longest river in Africa after the Nile, the Congo and Niger Rivers, is known by many in southern Africa as the “River of Life” as it drains seven countries and supports millions of people.

From its source found in Zambia’s northwest closer to the DR Congo-Zambia border, the river starts its 2700km languid journey flowing through Zambia, Angola, Namibia and Botswana where it meets the Chobe River.

At this point, the river forms a border with Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Namibia. It then takes a turn along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and meanders for about 80km down towards the Victoria Falls—one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

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