Tranquil town a memorial to explorer Style and big splash luring Livingstone visitors

Email|Print| Text size + By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / March 27, 2005

LIVINGSTONE, Zambia -- ''Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"

Dispatched by the New York Herald to find David Livingstone, the missionary-explorer whose whereabouts had become one of the mysteries of the ''Dark Continent," the journalist Henry Morton Stanley uttered the famous line in 1871. (Unless it was only Spencer Tracy who said those words. There's no one around to swear to the truth, and Stanley was famous for embellishing it.)

While the town of Livingstone in Zambia is named for the man who himself named the Victoria Falls after the queen, Stanley actually found Livingstone in Tanzania. Stanley had a deadline and eventually headed home, but Livingstone felt he had not completed his mission ''for commerce and Christianity," as he put it, in that order.

Two years later, Livingstone was back in Zambia, where he caught malaria and died. Most of him is buried in Westminster Abbey; but, at least according to legend and some biographers, his heart was interred in Zambia. It's a sign of the nation's love for him that the town of Livingstone is the only one in Zambia that kept its Western title after the country gained independence from Britain in 1964.

The first plots of land in Livingstone were auctioned off on Feb. 25, 1905, by the British South Africa Company. It's a quaint and quiet place. The houses have tin roofs and wide verandas. While it was briefly the capital of what was Northern Rhodesia, in 1935 the capital moved to Lusaka, where it remains, and Livingstone reverted to sleepiness, with its bimonthly journal, The Livingstonian, debating such issues as whether a shopkeeper who claimed to be out of change could give customers bubble gum instead.

Centennial or no, Livingstone and its surroundings are a delightful inclusion in a southern African itinerary, with little-known attractions including the Livingstone Museum, with ethnographic and archeological displays as well as some of the explorer's artifacts, a Railway Museum that's a must for those intrigued by the ways in which railroads shaped modern Africa, and a craft scene including furniture and accessories made of indigenous rosewood, pod mahogany, kiaat, and teak. While the town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side of the Zambezi River is more famous and more touristy, Livingstone is tranquillity itself.

There are three other, more compelling reasons to visit. One, there's a fabulous way to get there in style. Two, there's a great out-of-the-way hotel a few kilometers from town. Three is Victoria Falls itself, one of the great natural wonders of the world, called, in the local language, ''Mosi-O-Tunya," the smoke that thunders.

On getting there. The most opulent means of transportation in this part of Africa is Rovos Rail, the restored Victorian-era trains billed as ''the most luxurious in the world." The company -- named for its creator, Rohan Vos -- offers a number of journeys in southern and East Africa, with Livingstone a regular stop. The rebuilt carriages cosset passengers with wood-paneled walls, Edwardian-style furniture, claw-footed bathtubs, and elegant dining. A brass gong signals meal times, and guests then choose to dine in the 1911 car with fluted teak pillars and draperies tied with tassels, or the 1935 car, an erstwhile Art Deco restaurant in Johannesburg, reconfigured for the proportions of a railway carriage.

Vos is adamant about not having televisions, radios, or newspapers aboard. His goals are to revive the art of conversation and encourage passengers to look at the scenery, not the screen. He is likewise adamant about reviving the romance of travel in an era when airports have become nightmares to negotiate. He has, by the way, bought and restored two 1954 Convair 440 airplanes for clients who want to remember the glamour of flying.

On where to stay. The most basic amenity you would expect in a hotel room is four walls, right? The River Club is hardly basic, but guests staying in the 10 thatched chalets get only three walls. The space where the fourth would be is open to the Zambezi, at a point far more peaceful than the roaring falls 10 miles away. The chalets perch on a steep incline, and while you can hear lions and hippos at night, they don't seem eager to meet you personally. Mosquitoes are more of a threat, but the beds are all shrouded by white gauze to ensure a good night's sleep broken only by the sounds of wildlife. (The only dangerous thing about the chalets is going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The bedroom is on the upper floor and the bathroom is on the lower; the two are connected by a treacherous flight of stairs.)

Fittingly enough, you arrive at the River Club via the river itself. A small canopied motor launch whisks you from Livingstone to the resort; you climb up the steep banks and along the trail to the chalets and the main house. It's in a colonial style, as in ''Out of Africa," with wide verandas and rattan chairs, accessorized by croquet mallets, cricket bats, pith helmets, and steamer trunks, all the accoutrements of empire.

The history of the River Club is almost as sleepy as Livingstone itself. The property's original name was Quiet Waters Farm. In 1971 the place earned attention when William Arthur Clarence Stewart, who was leasing the farm, ''murdered his wife Betty in what is now the dining room," as the club brochure so delicately puts it. If you've been hiking along the Zambezi all day, even this knowledge won't put you off your feed.

The club drives guests to the falls every day, where they hike along the steep precipice, and it offers other activities including fishing, elephant rides, white-water rafting, and bungee jumping. During sundowner cruises on the river a guide points out the animals in the water and on the land: crocodiles, a vast variety of birds, and clans of baboons eating, fighting, and fondling each other, pretty much as humans do. The actual sundown is spectacular and quick, the soft drop of a ripe peach leaving only a blush behind.

Meals are served outside whenever possible, and in true British picnic fashion, indoor furniture is carried outdoors for dining, then lugged back in. Like Rovos Rail, the River Club is a deliberate throwback to the Edwardian era, a place to unwind. Also like Rovos, there is little contact with the outside world: no telephones or televisions in the chalets, only a whistle by the bed to blow in case of emergency.

On the falls. Along the way, you see trees toppled by elephants, the roots forced out of the ground. There is local controversy about how to treat the huge animals, which are also in the habit of crushing crops on local farms.

You hear the falls before you see them. They are spectacular: over a mile wide, with water plunging more than 300 feet. You walk (carefully) at the edge, on slippery wet stones and narrow bridges. At a site dubbed ''the boiling point" the crashing water sends up mists that, even in the dry season, cause visitors to put up umbrellas. The path is so high and the drop so deep that you find yourself looking down at a rainbow. Nature got the details as well as the grandeur right: A white egret sails against the dark, wet stone; tiny blue wildflowers border the path.

At the falls is a World War I memorial that lists the names and ranks of all the British colonists who were killed. At the bottom, like an afterthought, is an inscription noting that hundreds of indigenous people of the area also died. Not a single individual is named. Colonialism is still an uncomfortable subject here.

The River Club staff report that, inconceivable though it may seem, there have been guests who didn't care whether they saw the falls. One such couple, about to depart the club, were asked if they really didn't want even a glimpse of the majestic wall of water. They settled on being driven past the falls on their way to the airstrip.

Stanley was far less nonchalant. On first seeing the falls, he cabled back to his editor with typical hyperbole: ''Have seen Victoria sell Niagara!"

Christine Temin can be reached at

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