When I was invited to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, for work meetings and realized that I’d have a few extra days in between scheduled stops, I knew I had to get to Victoria Falls. The world’s largest waterfall, straddling the border between landlocked Zambia and Zimbabwe in southern Africa, is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Zimbabwe would also be a travel milestone for me – my 30th country! But I knew if I was going to do this trip, I’d have to go alone.
While I was excited about seeing the falls, the idea of going alone was daunting. I was really nervous…maybe even scared. This probably surprises those of you who know me. My friends and family consider me the “world traveler”. It seems that I’m always headed off somewhere, and not necessarily the most well-known destinations (think Bangladesh, Paraguay, Burkina Faso). But it’s rare that I go alone to a city where I don’t know anyone and stay there for multiple nights. Where I have to navigate a border crossing. Where I have to take a bus across a country I barely know. Where the internet isn’t much help and I’m far away from anyone I know. I like to have everything planned and I’m shy so I don’t always enjoy talking to strangers. People always talk about how many friends they make traveling and that’s never been my experience, probably because I keep to myself. Traveling alone can be lonely.
The next challenge was the cost. Since my flight and visa fees would be covered by work, I only had to cover my lodging, transport, food, and activities for two days. But I had some serious sticker shock when I began planning. First I had to decide between a six-hour bus ($15) or a one-hour flight ($170) from Lusaka to Livingstone, the Zambian town right outside the falls. Then there was the park entry itself, which was $20 on the Zambian side and $30 on the Zimbabwe side. Both countries have tourist visa fees which I was able to avoid by strategically purchasing a $50 Kaza visa that allows you to cross between the two countries at the falls as many times as you want (if you visit both, it will save you money). Then there was the plethora of activities. The Falls is a hub of adventure excursions: helicopter rides, microlights, bungee jumping, ziplining, swimming on top of the falls itself (!), white water rafting, sunset cruises, animal game drives…but it seemed like nearly everything was $100+ and even the most “budget” activities would be $70. Yikes, if I wasn’t careful this place was going to gobble my savings quick.
I planned obsessively for the trip and, well, it did NOT go as planned. The first roadblock was getting a ticket. The internet was no help in this regard, only listing companies but no guidance on how to actually purchase a ticket. I asked for help and I eventually did get a ticket, but not the company, time, or date that I wanted. I was given directions to arrive at the station at 6:15 for a 7:30am bus. My gut said that was early…and I was right. They were shocked to see me there so early and I had to wait for a long time.
It’d been awhile so I’d forgotten the key lessons about buses from my time in Uganda. On arrival at the bus station, you will get absolutely swarmed by handlers, shouting in your face as they vie for your business. If you don’t know exactly what you want it can be quite overwhelming. The second quirk that buses often won’t leave until they have enough customers. Because of my early arrival I sat on the bus for over an hour, and then waited another 45 minutes as the owners tried to wrangle more customers. My 7:30 bus left at 8:15. It also didn’t have a bathroom. It made me nervous but I figured we’d stop. We did – 4 hours into our 8 hour ride. This trip was NOT 6 hours as the internet had promised.
I stumbled off hungry, dehydrated, and uncomfortable after 10 hours sitting on this bus. The taxi I had booked didn’t show up and again there was a swarm of people around me, offering me a ride. I waited a few minutes before I gave up and hopped in a cab with the nearest driver. When I reached the hotel I thought the challenges were over. The first thing I did was take a shower, but the knob broke in my hand and, with water gushing from the showerhead at an alarming rate, I had to sheepishly ask for help turning it off. Next, I went to look for Cafe Zambezi for dinner…but not before the gut punch of finding out that my debit card had been turned off due to fraud. Really things probably could not be worse, until in my hangry dehydrated stress fog I struggled to navigate my way into town because Google maps wasn’t placing me in the right spot and I honestly wasn’t thinking the clearest. I made it eventually, but it took way longer than necessary and I snapped at a few pesky curio vendors along the way.
This was a low, a true travel low, and my trip hadn’t even started. I had doubts about whether I was making a mistake. I had hoped to arrive in early afternoon but I had so poorly misjudged the bus that I knew I’d need to rearrange my plan. I had booked a morning tour with Local Cowboys Cycle Tours, a social enterprise that provided bike tours to support a local school, but given my delay I knew I would have to cancel if I wanted to see both sides of the falls. It was heartbreaking because I had been excited for their tour but it just did not fit into the time I had remaining.
All of the struggle faded away when I got my first glimpse of the falls from the Zim Zam bridge. So many magical moments were to follow…The first views of the falls. Realizing that the water spray was so heavy in February that a poncho was not optional (unless of course you wanted to look as though you’d walked out of the shower). Having lunch at The Lookout Cafe, overlooking the stunning Bakota Gorge while zipliners whooshed across. A relaxing sunset cruise where I made new friends and even a professional connection. A quiet morning on the Zambian side where there were more baboons than people, where I saw the best rainbows, and where I took some of the most incredible photos ever. It was worth all of the obstacles to get here.
So yes, it’s daunting to travel by yourself, especially as a woman. And it’s not always easy. Things can go wrong and you don’t have the assurance of someone else to rely on. But it’s also incredible to choose your own adventure. It’s empowering to find your own way, ask for help, and make connections with people. It can push you out of your comfort zone but grow your confidence. Don’t let being alone stand in your way of doing that thing, whatever it is, that you really want to do. After all, we only get to go around once.