Pioneer heritage of Ilala Lodge

On his great journey, aided by the Makololo, he would have experienced the blood-red sunsets framing the ilala palms which are so much a feature of what has become known as Livingstone’s River. The palms are synonymous with an abode so close to the Falls ‘ Ilala Lodge ‘ that with the wind in the season of the great cascade clients can feel the spray. Step inside this beautiful airy retreat and you will find the famous anti-slaver very much at home there. He is among a gallery of pioneers whose portraits welcome visitors, powerfully evoking an era when explorers first encountered the thunder of the world’s mightiest waterfall. Centre stage is the artist Thomas Baines, who followed in Livingstone’s footsteps to personify the sheer beauty and drama of the Falls. His work lines the corridors of Ilala Lodge, enriching life today as much as when he first put paint to canvas. And then there is Frederick Courtney Selous, the great hunter tragically killed in the East African campaign of the First World War. There, too, is the discoverer of the Nile’s source at Lake Victoria, John Hanning Speke, and the tough explorer-writer Henry Morton Stanley who launched a rescue mission for Livingstone, finding the great missionary at Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Baines’ art meshes with hunting scenes, even invading the bedrooms, but above all it is the sepia photos of these pioneers, that sets the scene, evocative and nostalgic, for guests who come to Ilala Lodge to celebrate 150 years of history. “We are seeking to honour Livingstone’s legacy and the quest of the early explorers”, says manager Jonathan Hudson. One way to do this is to sail on the luxury cruise boat, the Ra-Ikane, a sleek white craft modelled on the Ma-Robert, the tribal name given to Livingstone’s wife in honour of their first-born son during their 1858 expedition on the lower Zambezi Ra-Ikane was the chief who helped Livingstone to receive his first view of the Falls. And it is the essence of the era that the low-draft vessel seeks to recapture with colonial-style chairs, a montage of byegone pictures and affectionate hosting for its 12 passengers. The white-uniformed staff even provide a celebrated afternoon tea which the weary Livingstone would have appreciated. Jonathan has brought a wealth of experience to Ilala, having trained at the famed Hotel Management School in Switzerland. He has worked in various capacities at the Dorchester and Sheraton in England, Meikles Hotel (banquet and conference manager) and the Victoria Falls Hotel (food and beverage manager) and after a stint in Chobe is “happy to be home.” “In terms of tourism, the lodge is very stable, very positive,” he says. “A very big American market is coming through and we are enjoying the company of the French, the Germans and Spanish. Hugely encouraging as well as the Asian market.” The secret appears to be an elegance in the lodge itself, affordable prices and excellent food served in a relaxing outdoor atmosphere beneath the expansive African night sky ‘ even those who stay at other illustrious places at the Falls make sure they visit for the cuisine in the Palm Restaurant. The link with Livingstone will also give Ilala the opportunity to offer menus from the byegone era. Meanwhile, we are pampered guests aboard the 16-passenger Ra-Ikane, piloted by John Ncube and with Tich Dube as a gracious host imparting an understanding of the river’s history. There are sometimes elephants on the shore and hippos in the water, giant kingfishers and lily trotters (the Jesus bird walking on water) and vervet monkeys in the trees and the voyagers on this elegant boat thrill to be with nature as it manoeuvres into the shallows. So much so that we could dart around a bigger boat stranded on a sandbank. And when we return to liala there are elephants on the lawn which fronts the Victoria Falls National Park. It is a wonderful sight in the twilight of the day, surrounded by those ilala palms. “Most nights we get impala and warthog directly below us and you open your window and a buffalo is there,” says Jonathan with a smile. A short ride away from liala is the crocodile ranch and nature sanctuary (children can cuddle a baby croc), a chance to experience the real Africa high on an elephant or parading with lions, the challenge of white water and a walk on the wild side as a bungi jumper from the Victoria Falls bridge. But nothing will compare with that leisurely cruise past the islands of Kandahar and Kalai, where Livingstone spent time before encountering the spectacle of the Falls. Truly God’s highway, as the explorer called it.

March 2006
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