A small party of about twenty made the trip to Victoria Falls to attend the three-day familiarisation tour programme set up by the Victoria Falls WCPR team, headed by general manager Geoff Armand who has been racing pigeons for 47 years. Having over ten years of experience in international hotel management, it was loft site administrator Kevin Fry who showed us the variety of activities Victoria Falls has to offer - which is a lot to say the least. As Geoff puts it: "We were looking for a good place for pigeon, fancier and the fancier's family. The family aspect is what most African one loft races lack these days. After all, why should your family come such a long way just to watch a pigeon race? With the right venue fanciers can enjoy a holiday with their families as well as pigeon racing. And that venue we found in Victoria Falls." Right he is because entering the Victoria Falls World Challenge Pigeon Race is indeed much more than just racing birds.
The VFWCPR team (FLTR): Wim, Geoff, Johann, Caroline, Kevin (back), Dan (red tshirt), Karen, Daz and Bob
(missing: Trish & Richard)
Dream destination for fanciers and pigeons
Wining, dining, sightseeing and sleeping
After a short drive from the Victoria Falls International Airport on Sunday 22 May, we were dropped off at our Victoria Falls Safari Lodge hotel, famous for its view on a waterhole. Wildlife such as elephants and buffalos could not only be spotted on the banks of the waterhole, on the hotel premises harmless animals such as impala, warthogs and monkeys were also present, often even below your balcony. This hotel, along with for example the Ilala Lodge, is just one of the many fine sleeping accommodations in Vic Falls, ranging from budget overnight stays to top-notch lodges and hotels.
Hotels on the outskirts of Vic Falls offer rewarding panoramic views
Accommodations look like paradise, both on the outside and from the inside
The first official activity took place on Tuesday with a dinner cruise on the Zambezi river. While watching the sun go down, we were received in a most hospitable way by the entire Victoria Falls WCPR team. A cruise was the perfect way to get to know each other but if you'd rather explore the river in a more adventurous way, go white water rafting, canoeing or bungee jumping. Just looking at the falls from a distance at the Look Out Café or the Victoria Falls Hotel Terrace Bar as we both did is possible as well, of course.
Victoria Falls is more than its majestic falls, you can also explore it upstream for a cruise on the mighty Zambezi river
However, Victoria Falls has much more to offer than one of the seven natural wonders of the world, which we saw on Wednesday afternoon. You can also:
- explore other countries: Namibia and Botswana are just 75 km away and Zambia only five. We for example did a day trip by boat and jeep to Chobe National Park in Botswana, known for its high concentration of (biologically diverse) game.
- spot game in a breathtaking scenery during the day or at night: In both the Chobe National Park on Monday and the local Stanley & Livingstone Reserve on Wednesday morning we instantly saw wild animals including lions, rhinos, sable, hippos, crocodiles, elephants and buffalos. You can also look for wildlife in the two national parks just around the corner or enjoy a full-day experience in Zimbabwe's biggest national park Hwange.
- eat game: Numerous hotel restaurants offer tasty crocodile, guinea fowl, impala, kudu and the like at a very fair price. The full African-experience restaurant The Boma, where we had dinner twice, is highly recommended.
- visit the city and local crafts market: A real adventure! Don't worry about being hassled too much: the locals are very friendly and tourist police are always on the lookout.
- interact with elephants or meet cheetahs: We patted and fed elephants and met cheetah Sylvester, the ambassador of the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, on Thursday morning. Perfect if you'd like to see the wildlife from up close or fancy tame animals more.
As you can see, the list of things to do is very diverse and endless.
Explore other countries by jeep or boat such as Botswana with its Chobe National Park
Enjoy the African experience in The Boma restaurant with traditional dancing and playing the djembe
Dutch agent Rudolf Visser, Benzing Business Manager Thomas Zimmermann and Geoff patting the elephants
Ideal loft location in perfect weather
One of the main problems in one loft racing is the high loss of birds. The Victoria Falls World Challenge Pigeon Race, however, aims to increase the chances of good arrivals and minimise losses of birds thanks to:
- the location along a wide river: Not only is the loft constructed near Africa's fourth-longest (over 2,600 km) river the Zambezi, the mist of the Victoria Falls can also be seen from miles away when tossing the birds. In addition, birds will be liberated between two major river lines which are tributaries to the Zambezi ziver, so they just have to follow the rivers' courses. Both rivers have permanent water in them throughout the year.
- the lack of other pigeon lofts: Having only 35 members in two clubs in Bulawayo and the capital Harare, Zimbabwe is a small country when it comes to racing pigeons. No other pigeon lofts can be found in a 250-mile radius so participating birds will neither be distracted by other flocks nor will they be able to enter other lofts.
- the mild climate: From September to January, when the race will be held, there will mostly be clear blue skies with little wind which mainly blows from east to northeast (slight head wind). Temperatures vary between an average minimum of 20 degrees Celsius and an average maximum of 31, although it can go up to the mid-thirties. Heavy rain is possible in the afternoon. To avoid the birds having to fly in too hot and rainy weather, they will be liberated in the early morning for all training and racing flights. The final race will be 400 to 450 km max. and will be a fair test of the birds under these conditions.
- the flat landscape: The Vic Falls region is characterised by a flat landscape for the most part. Birds will not have to reckon with mountains or treacherous winds.
Four important advantages when it comes to racing birds!
The region mainly has a flat landscape with the Victoria Falls mist as an excellent orientation point
Experienced staff working in a well-equipped environment
A good location, climate and landscape all mean nothing if the birds aren't well looked after, however. The organisation therefore decided to import Belgian pigeon feed and the best skills South Africa has to offer:
- champion and professional pigeon racer Johann Grobbelaar: He has been racing pigeons professionally for fifteen years now, being the all-time record champion nine years in a row (2007 to 2016) in the very strong SRPC (club) and winning the TRPF (federation of 200 fanciers from several clubs) overall championship (2014). He was also crowned young bird champion four times. Johann will be assisted by five full-time loft assistants.
- the highly experienced pigeon vet Dr. Wim Peters: As well as racing pigeons for about 50 years, Wim has also written several successful books on the subject. In addition, he was crowned overall champion in seven different racing pigeon organisations. He can count on Dr. Daz Karenga to examine all birds in the race as Wim is race director as well.
(left) Loft trainer Johann showing the birds' entrance; (right) Race director Wim (l) talking to Belgian fancier Michel Debecker
During the official opening ceremony on Thursday afternoon, Johann and Wim showed us the well-equipped loft site they will work on:
- A U-shaped loft with a capacity of 5,000 birds, split into twenty-two spacious sections.
- Seven isolation 'after-race quarantine sections', as I call them, at the back of the loft where birds arriving too late from a toss or race will be shortly separated from the rest for examination. "After all, there must be a reason why the bird is too late, unless it's just not that smart", Johann laughs.
- An on-site laboratory so Wim and Daz can closely examine samples from late or sick birds on their own. Should a bird be sick, its owner will of course be informed via the website.
While prevention is better than cure, strict health measures will also be taken: No-one enters the lofts without passing through the on-site showers or disinfecting their shoes before entering the site or the lofts. The same goes for vehicles which will have to drive through a puddle of disinfectant before parking on site. Nothing will be left to chance when it comes to the birds' health.
The loft site and one side of the on-site offices
Roll-down windshields and a separate section for birds arriving too late from a race
When the birds aren't in the transporter for a race, they will be resting in one of the sections (or training around the loft)
Big prize money, guaranteed
"A race can only be credible if it delivers on its prize money promises", admin and finance manager Karen Taylor says. "We can count on our two creditworthy sponsors, the successful business couple Bob and Trish Henson." Bob owns several companies, including the biggest coal mining and marketing company in Zimbabwe. It was Bob and Trish's friend couple Geoff and Caroline Armand who brought them on board the project.
Thanks to Bob and Trish, the organisation guarantees $700,000 worth of prize money in the first edition of the race. To have a chance of winning that money, participants have to pay $950 per team consisting of one activated pigeon and up to four reserve pigeons, which will be activated free of charge if the activated bird is lost. The biggest prize money will be awarded to the 1st final race winner ($200,000, the same as the South African MDPR winner gets!), the 2nd ($100,000) and the 3rd ($50,000), and the ace bird winner ($50,000), all of which will be auctioned on PIPA along with the other best final racers and ace birds. Eighty per cent of the prize money won by non-activated birds in the final race will be given to participants as well: $1,000 to position 51 and any subsequent position until all the prize money has been split. The other twenty per cent will go to wildlife support. Check out here to whom the rest of the prize money will be allocated.
The good-hearted sponsors behind the race, Bob and Trish Henson (right on right photo)
Returns re-invested in wildlife and communities
The race is in fact the result of a synergy of many passions: Geoff's passion for pigeon racing, Bob's for wildlife and Karen's for community work. Geoff has been racing pigeons for 47 years, Bob has been supporting wildlife throughout the years and Karen returned home to do community work after being abroad for quite some time. That is why a substantial part of the proceedings will go to several designated trusts or charities, of which so far only the biggest beneficiary is known: the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT). On our visit to the VFWT, General Manager Jessica Dawson explained that "the trust serves many purposes, including assisting in veterinary disease management and prevention." Read the short summary of the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust here.
The VFWT team raising the glass with the representative of the minister of tourism and Geoff
The trusts and charities will be supported through so-called venture birds, non-activated pigeons donated to charity by their breeders and shipped to Zimbabwe free of charge. You can send them in anonymously or ask the organisation to mention your name as breeder. Any person can activate and thus become the owner of a venture bird by paying the entry fee. Should you activate a venture bird you will be entitled to win prize money with it. If the bird is sold after the race, 75 per cent will go to the VFWT and 25 per cent to the breeder (donor) who can choose to also donate this. As mentioned above, 20 per cent of the prize money won by non-activated reserve birds in the final will go directly to the VF Wildlife Trust as well. Sending in venture birds is a great way to support charity on the one hand and gain international recognition or increase your chances of winning prize money on the other. For more information on the venture birds, please check the VFWCPR website here.
FLTR: VFWT cheetah Sylvester, Dutch fancier Ton de Kovel, wild hippos and VFWT vulture Judge
A significant part of the proceeds will go back to wildlife, including supporting the Big Five
Enter now and increase your chances of winning
Since it's the very first edition, the number of birds is expected to be lower than in the future. Participating in this year's race therefore means that your chances of winning are (much) higher than usual. With the guarantee of $700,000 worth of prize money, an opportunity worth seizing. And if you're risk averse, send in some venture birds and see what gives. Or just activate someone else's venture bird if it performs well and cash. Contact the agent of your country of residence now to find out up to when you can send in birds.
We wish to thank Geoff, Karen, Kevin and the rest of the team for showing us how beautiful, safe and hospitable Zimbabwe is. We've had the time of our lives seeing Vic Falls and how professionally this new one loft race is being runned. We are sure many more will follow in our footsteps when attending the final race week end-January 2017. After all, this race truly has everything a fancier and his family need.
All invitees present at the official ribbon cutting ceremony
The video of the loft opening and familiarisation tour