Living History

A Bygone Era Comes Alive During A Stay At Zimbabwe's Iconic Grande Dame
Meet the Storyteller

There are hotels that make you feel pampered, then there are hotels that make you feel humbled. The Victoria Falls Hotel, a 1904 grande dame steps from one of the seven natural wonders of the world in Zimbabwe, is one of the rare few that does both. History comes alive as soon as you cross the colonnaded portico and greet the uniformed doormen, entering a space that’s more a museum than merely a posh place to stay: the rooms and halls are laden with priceless antiques and vintage photos that tell stories of a bygone era. Queen Elizabeth II holidayed here as a princess in 1947; Agatha Christie set a novel here; and countless royals, dignitaries, and celebrities have partaken in the genteel high tea on Stanley’s Terrace, gazing at the historic Victoria Falls bridge with the mist from the thundering falls rising in the background. But how is an unenlightened guest to know what legends lie around each storied corner?

Enter Sindiso Madodana Mabhena, a guest relations officer who began his career at the iconic hotel 21 years ago. Beginning in January, he’ll be leading visitors on guided history tours of the 161-room property, sharing its secrets with anyone who’s interested in diving deep into the hotel’s provenance.

“I grew up in the sticks,” Sindiso says of his childhood in a rural village in Zimbabwe that’s still barely on the electrical grid. “It’s around the fireplaces where some of us grew to be natural storytellers. Each of us would tell a story in the evening and entertain the others,” he remembers.

The iconic entrance to the Victoria Falls Hotel, which opened in 1904.
The lounges and hallways of the Victoria Falls Hotel resemble museum galleries, brimming with antiques, art, and photography.
A view from the hotel gardens of the Victoria Falls Bridge and the mist rising from Victoria Falls itself.
The walls of the hotel are lined with photographs and travel posters from across the region and the colonies, a visual chronicle of a bygone era.
Cape to Cairo

A lifetime of storytelling has paid off. Today, Sindiso is a captivating raconteur, and it’s easy to see why guests are riveted by his tours.

“I came to work here as a janitor, and looking at the pictures on the wall, I saw they were telling the stories of times gone by,” he says. The hotel’s walls are indeed a good start for any amateur history buff: they’re lined with black-and-white photographs and travel posters from across the region and the colonies, a visual chronicle of a bygone era.

Sindiso begins his narrative many years before the foundations for the hotel were cast, with the European discovery of the falls in 1855 by Dr. David Livingstone. Long known to local tribes as Mosi oa-Tunya, (“the smoke that thunders”), Livingstone described the falls as “a sight so wonderful it must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight,” says Sindiso. “He named the waterfall after the queen and made this place famous.”

If Livingstone made it famous, tycoon Cecil John Rhodes made it prosperous by constructing the Victoria Falls Bridge as a pivotal part of his dream for a Cape-to-Cairo railway. “In 1904, as the rails arrived, the Victoria Falls Hotel opened its doors and led you into the heart of Africa,” says Sindiso.

Some of his favorite stops on his history tour include a large portrait of King George V whose foot faces you no matter where you stand—much like the Mona Lisa’s gaze; the Livingstone Suite, where King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stayed; the hand-pulled carriage that they and their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, rode in to visit the falls; and the flagpole past the rolling lawns, where you can look out over the gorges leading toward the falls. “That wonderful view shows us what nature has entrusted upon us for us to keep for generations to come,” Sindiso says.

But as much as Sindiso loves sharing stories, some of his favorite tales have come from guests themselves, many of whom descend from families that have visited the hotel for generations. “Our marketing is hereditary. If someone’s grandma has been here, they’re bound to come back again,” he says. “With guests I’ve learned some history as well—oral history passed by word of mouth from one person to another.”