The roar was deafening – and we were still almost a half mile away from the falls. In the local language, they are called Mosi-oa-Tunya or “smoke that thunders” – which is a pretty accurate description of the Victoria Falls Livingstone side!
“No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” – Dr. David Livingstone
Victoria Falls is twice as high as Niagara Falls on the USA/Canada border and twice as wide as Horseshoe Falls. Despite this, Victoria Falls is not the tallest waterfall in the world, nor is it the widest. But it is generally considered the largest because of the single mass of water from the Zambezi River which plunges over the rock ledge into the six narrow, zig-zag gorges below. Only Iguazu Falls in South America can rival Victoria Falls’ power and beauty.
When we started planning this trip to Africa, Victoria Falls was high on my list because it is one of the most important UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa. It is noted of having an “exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance,” as well as being an outstanding example “representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms.”
Our trip to Zambia and Victoria Falls came just after a long period of intense rains, which was unusual for this time of year. Despite being late in the shoulder season and heading into the dry season, the Zambezi River was bloated with excess water. Locals in an upstream village told us this was the highest the river had been in 12 years – and nobody could remember this much water so that late in the season. The result could be seen at the falls and the spray visible in the sky over 25 miles away!
The Zambezi River and the falls form a natural border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (formerly North and South Rhodesia). Since tourism started in 1905, most tourists have visited the Zimbabwe side of the falls due to better infrastructure. But, like most visitors these days, we chose to visit the Victoria Falls Livingstone, Zambia side because our visit coincided with a period of renewed tensions on the Zimbabwe side of the falls. Since 2001, the majority of visitors now come to Zambia instead. This evolution has made Livingstone a significant regional hub for travel and tourism.
Visiting the Victoria Falls Livingstone side during peak flow is like getting into the shower with all your clothes on – and then stepping on top of a water sprinkler. We were warned – if you go to Victoria Falls you might get wet. What they should have said is – if you go to Victoria Falls you’re guaranteed to get absolutely soaked. We had brought ponchos for this purpose, which were generally ineffective (a waterproof jacket and pants would be a better choice). The water flows from all angles, including up! As the Zambezi River plunges over the walls and into the deep gorge below, some of the water is propelled back up the far side of the gorge (where you are walking) and becomes rain falling up into the sky! I’ve never seen anything like it before.
“Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet [30 m] and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen to twenty yards.” – Dr. David Livingstone
Because of the extreme mist/vertical rain from the falls, it was difficult to see much of Victoria Falls. The deep gorges were almost completely obscured by the white, smoky mist (we had brief moments when the wind would carry the mist in the opposite direction to take a few photos). As the water vapor rose into the sky, it would even obscure the sun for periods of time. We found ourselves using our imagination to recreate what it must have been like for Dr. David Livingstone visiting the falls in 1855. Due to the high waters during our visit, it was impossible to reach Livingstone Island.
To fully appreciate Victoria Falls from the Zambia side, you have to cross the Knife-Edge Bridge. The bridge connects the main shore with a rocky ridge forming the first and second gorges of the zig-zag canyon below. Now, this might be a good time for me to mention that I’m scared of heights. Thankfully, I was able to make it across the bridge with very little difficulty (mostly because there is so much mist you can’t really see anything).
“The islands above the falls are covered with foliage as beautiful as can be seen anywhere. Viewed from the mass of rock which overhangs the fall, the scenery was the loveliest I had seen.” – Dr. David Livingstone
When Livingstone came to Victoria Falls, he approached them from up river and the numerous islands that dot this section of the Zambezi. Just as he fell in love with the beautiful islands that were dense with foliage, we were also smitten. We were fortunate enough to stay on the two Islands of Siankaba. This was a good base to explore the region and just sit on the bank and watch the mighty Zambezi River roll by.
Victoria Falls is one of the planet’s great natural wonders. We feel fortunate we were able to visit on this trip to Africa.