The first time I was invited (in 2006) to spend a few days checking out the Stanley & Livingstone Hotel, I politely (and very unusually) declined on the grounds that I was temporarily without a passport and dreaded the thought of doing battle with thousands of other hopefuls fighting to be issued with that simple but necessary document, and a platoon of hard-eyed uninterested civil servants at the “Drill Hall”.
“Why do you need a passport?” our host’s spokesman demanded.
“Isn’t the Stanley & Livingstone actually in Livingstone, Zambia, along with the Royal Livingstone Hotel, David Livingstone Hotel, Livingstone Lodge?” I asked rather gormlessly (for a travel-writer . . . that is!)
“Not at all; it’s on our side of the Zambezi, roughly half-way between the airport and Victoria Falls CBD [central business district] and absolutely drop-dead, stunningly gorgeous. You’ll love it!” gushed the person trying to tempt me into going.
“OK, you’ve talked me into it, put me down for that!”
And it was everything promised. Then, operated and run by Arab-owned Rani Resorts whom we were later to meet at the breathtaking Indigo Bay Hotel, Bazaruto Island, off the coast at Vilankulos, Mozambique, it’s still owned by them but operated by the Mantis Collection of boutique hotels of Africa.
And, whoever has run it over the past seven years — and for six years before I discovered the place — had the fine art of pampering clients perfected.
I was towards the end of a week-long trip to Victoria Falls to cover the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe’s congress, during which I stayed at four lovely hotels, ate at six of them and visited two more in this country. Plus took a whistle-stop tour of Chobe/Kasane in Botswana and clocking two more!
It was after the Botswana trip that Wild Horizons dropped its last passenger but me at the Vic Falls Hotel and whisked me away through sere, tawny bush to an oasis of cool, lush greenery which is the Stanley & Livingstone.
And that name, beats me. Okay Livingstone was the first man to see the Falls or — to be politically correct — the first white man to check them out. Indigenous Khoi-San bushmen “found” them centuries earlier, we now hear. Sure, but they thought everyone had a Victoria Falls behind their thatched huts!
Take that argument to its natural conclusions and Alexander Fleming didn’t discover penicillin: Dutch, French and English cheese makers knew about the mould for yonks. ’Course they did, but didn’t suss it would cure “Cupid’s Kiss” and a host of other nasties!
We’ve established David Livingstone’s right to be included in the luxury lodge’s name but Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh-born American hack who “found” Livingstone in what is now Tanzania, never got within 1 000 km of the place. Might as well call it The Stanley (Laurel) and Oliver (Hardy) Lodge; or Stanley Matthews Lodge, or the Victoria and Albert.
Whatever! It has given very talented interior designers full scope to work with antique collectables and wonderful recent repros in the sort of plush settings well-off Victorians took for granted.
General manager Vincent Makamure met me on the terrace, overlooking a rather depleted watering hole, which was being enthusiastically lapped at by a herd of zebra, warthogs and eland. This was in the shade of a tree, home to maybe 300 weaver bird nests.
The twilight chorus was by cicadas (Christmas beetles.) Makamure had been at Indigo Bay as, indeed, possibly a dozen people we met at the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe Congress, mainly now running up-market properties in and around the Falls.
It had been a very long, hot day, involving four border crossings, with all that implies in terms of Central African bureaucracy and the first of several bitterly cold Golden Pilsener Lagers barely touched the sides, poured down a parched, very grateful, throat.
I could have just crawled out of the gorgeously inviting, deep, steaming, foam-filled free-standing Victorian bathtub with gold taps and fittings and brass ball-and-claw feet and clambered into kip, falling asleep after five minutes’ CNN, but dinner called.
I wasn’t starving and certainly didn’t want anything too heavy which may have threatened slumber. On executive chef Jabulani Tshuma’s tip, I went for cream of leek and onion soup which came with a rich crouton.
Other starters included crispy bacon-wrapped mushrooms with garlic butter sauce, sweet-and-sour beef crepe with raw cucumber and onion, crocodile schnitzel fingers and beef carpaccio, all US$10 and crisp garden salad at US$9.
Tshuma won Best Food-Wine Paring section in the prestigious Batoka Bush outdoor cooking competition last held at the Falls in 2007 and still widely discussed. Before joining Stanley & Livingstone in 2000, he was head pastry chef at Ilala Lodge, also in the “Falls”.
For main course I had wonderful grilled bream fillet topped with fish spice and lemon butter sauce, which came with big square-cut chips and a parcel of steamed young vegetables at US$25. At the same price was prime Zimbabwean beef fillet stuffed with crab and sweet rocket with pepper sauce, or pork cordon bleu (stuffed with cheese, served with apple sauce), or chicken kiev or venison medallions (a young South African-based Australian girl raved over this dish); tagliatelle carbonara or a vegetarian risotto were US$20.
As Tshuma was in charge of puddings at Ilala, I heartily accepted his recommendation to try sweet-of-the-day which was rooibos tea-flavoured crème caramel, as light as an angel’s kiss (US$6) and declined coffee.
Next day I was awake by 5am, waiting for the bush drive well before the announced 6:15am start. Knowledgeable guide Richard, driving a Land-Rover safari conversion, said we’d find the scarce extinction-threatened black rhino and we did (mother and baby) about half-way though a three hour sweep of the 6 000 acre private game park which surrounds the five drum (equivalent of five-star) lodge.
We also saw a huge range of antelope, giraffe, warthog and buffalo and a magnificent array of Africa’s most colourful and often secretive birds. I’m particularly proud of shots taken of a mass of repulsive white-backed vultures warily watching the carcass of a kudu killed by lions the night before; lovely shots of red-billed hornbills and striking lilac-breasted rollers.
At the half-way stage, as the searing early December Zambezi Valley heat climbed mercilessly, flasks of coffee and packets of Scottish shortbread biscuits were never more welcome, enjoyed overlooking a dam filled with aquatic birds including a trio of African fish eagles.
Back to the shady terrace of the magnificently thatched stone-built lodge to hear the bad news Wednesday’s flight to Harare was full, so I’d been booked on that day’s departure. Late breakfast ordered by me (almost everything available) was a colourful platter of mixed local fruits, fruit juice, two boiled eggs and toast.
Just before my shuttle transfer to the airport, a late lunch of a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich, which came with good chips . . . and a brace of lagers (it was very hot by this time!) was enjoyed.
2013 rack rates are US$210 per person per night, bed and breakfast sharing and US$273 single; half board (bed, breakfast plus dinner) US$275/US$355 all including one safari activity per day.
I’m glad I did most of this sort of stuff when a night at the old Casino Hotel (of fond memory, The Kingdom stands there now) cost RH$8,80 dinner, bed and breakfast, less 10% if you were a civil servant, journalist or in uniform (I qualified in all three categories, but they wouldn’t give me a 30% discount); driving from Bulawayo in a Volvo 121 used about RH$8 worth of rationed fuel and the booze cruise was RH$1,50: drink as much as you could manage.
Contact: Stanley & Livingstone Private Game Reserve, Victoria Falls.