TSZ — gateway to water and wilderness

Within the fabric of the A’Zambezi there is a powerhouse called Tourism Services Zimbabwe, a destination management company which arranges a host of activities for the guests of the Rainbow Group and those tourists staying at other hotels throughout Victoria Falls. Recently it moved its headquarters there and appointed as its general manager the very experienced Mildred Maimbo, who was with the United Touring Company for several years.

Her aim is to bring vision and quality to the operations that include boat cruises from the nearby riverside jetty, game drives into the Zambezi National Park and guided tours of the Victoria Falls and its rain forest. It is also a booking agent for other hotels and many other activities such as white water rafting, elephant safaris and horse rides, lion walks, bungi jumping, jet boat and river safaris, helicopter and ultralite flights, bridge tours and visits to the nearby crocodile farm.

“I am seeking to create a new selling point with people as the asset.” says Mildred. “Activities in Victoria Falls give you a lot of flexibility – you can package anything you want with imagination. Everyone is working together in Victoria Falls and I’m looking at new alliances and dealing with different markets, working closely with the two Rainbow hotels, the Mercure Rainbow and A’Zambezi.”

Supported by a fleet of air-conditioned buses (one 47-seater and a number of 18-seaters) for airport transfers and outreach to the group’s Touch the Wild Lodges in Hwange, Matobo Hills and Great Zimbabwe, plus land rovers for game viewing, TSZ is keeping Victoria Falls alive and definitely well.

I was fortunate to have three wonderful days experiencing the services there directly run by the company – each eclipsing anything I had “captured” during many visits in the past.

For a start, with the guiding and companionship of Elias Chiga, my wife and I toured the Falls itself.

In a lifetime one can never get enough of the ecstatic views presented by the world’s greatest waterfall. This time the rainbows over the Devil’s Cataract were ethereal, the broad expanse of the Main Falls was a bridal suite in itself and Danger Point reminded me of a woman who fell to her death there a hundred years ago. A lot of emotions grip the senses in front of this fantastic curtain of water.

The walk around the Falls with its sensibly embroidered thorn hedges and its skipping in and out of the spray brings spring back into one’s life. As millions of gallons of white water plunge over the gorge every minute, the poetry is there for the asking. I once spent five days photographing the Falls, both from the spectacular Zimbabwe side and the highly personal Zambian frontier, and now I know why. People come from thousands of miles away just to capture the moment of the world’s greatest waterfall, brilliantly changing from dawn to sunset.

My guide Elias has a pretty good feeling for the Falls – not surprising as he has probably shown it to the whole world. The interpretive centre, just beyond the entrance gates, is an important launch point for its history and its gorges are graphically illustrated.

You know where you are and what caused the great chasms in the earth’s surface. In case I forget, Elias has all the statistics – formed over 65 million years ago,`it has the widest range of falling water in the world, 1,708 metres wide with its deepest point at Rainbow Falls (108 metres). In an incredibly brave action, Livingstone lowered himself down to measure the Falls in 1855.

The tour of the Falls is prefaced by a visit to the Big Tree, a giant baobab believed to be 1500 years old. “People used it as a market place,” said Elias. In November it’s a lovely green surrounded by white flowers. Twenty-six metres high, it has a girth of 16 metres and is known as the “upside down tree” as the branches resemble the roots.

The Tonga people along the Zambezi Valley use its leaves, which contain quinine, for the treatment of malaria, and also eat them as spinach. Because it was so revered, and drew so many people to it and elephants love to chisel and chew, the tree has been fenced off and a trench dug around to protect it.

Elias was also my guide on a very special journey into the national park. My adventures there in the past have been restricted to kayaking and enjoying sundowners on the banks of the Zambezi before a blood-red sunset. But this was a game drive and I’ve not had too much success here in the past compared with the Touch Wild tours in Hwange.This was completely different and perhaps because it was before the onset of rains, the quest for elephants was highly productive. There is something very fascinating about the lumbering beasts in the wild and we had at least three encounters with them.

The elephants were dining on the succulent mopane leaves on a climbing landscape that led up to something of a cliff. And there above us was a stately family of giraffe, silhouetted against the night sky. If you see only elephants and giraffe you can be fulfilled. But the myriad birds (especially the weavers making their nests), the shy kudu, the ring-bottomed waterbuck, the leaping impala give credence to why you are there.

This tour presents even more than wild life in its natural habitat, however, for it is never far from the river, at first offering tantalising glimpses and then settling the land rover on its banks for a little picnic with friends we had met upon this superb trek. Once again memories of Livingstone came flooding back. He never regarded an ox-wagon journey as arduous but as a picnic to be enjoyed. And close to these lyrical waters with their views of islands and rocks we could do just that.

Elias spoke about the Tonga fishermen living along this part of the river, while it was the Arab traders who brought the palm trees. It would have been enough to study the weaver birds as there is a frequent and remarkable sight of their nests only on the west side of trees. The east acts as a windbreak and some nests are empty to confuse predators; others are occupied but have two holes to offer an easy escape. Hunters use them as a compass, said Elias.

Journey’s end brings us to a night of Makhishi and Zulu dancing and a candlelight dinner at the A’Zambezi. But I must first search out Maria Makarati, the branch manager of Tourism Services, who arranges for me to go on a cruise the following day. “We’ve always considered ourselves one of the leading destination companies in Zimbabwe. We have a good relationship with all the hotels,” she said, ” and even if someone wants to go to Mount Darwin we will send them. We are kings and queens of the transport business. – if we cannot do anything ourselves we will find someone who can.”

Nothing appears any trouble to the charming and efficient staff of TSZ. Hwange (with the two Touch the Wild lodges of Sikumi and Sable Valley), the Chobe River and the town of Livingstone across the border in Zambia are all on the TSZ itinerary. Maria also speaks highly of the various cruises, from breakfast to sundowner, and there is a linking plan to have bush dinners on the shoreline at the A’Zambezi. Now the lodge has an eye-catching activity centre which combines as a source for bookings and this is the ideal showcase for Tourism Services, with strategic alliances with other companies on their products and activities.

Now I completed my trio of activities upon the river boat Diruchi. No visit to Victoria Falls is complete without such a cruise. The ilala palms frame a beautiful sunset and there is hippo magic in the water. We find friends from Bulawayo who are teachers and as we glide upon the river I see, for the first time, giraffe upon the shore. David Darare, our captain, reminds us that we are at the apex of a 2,700 km flow of the Zambezi which started in northern Zambia and will discharge into the Indian Ocean. This is Africa and we are all explorers this day.

June 2006
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