Victoria Falls is a town in the western portion of Zimbabwe, across the border from Livingstone, Zambia, and near Botswana. The town lies immediately next to the falls.
There are major attractions, but this popular tourist destination offers both adventure seekers and sightseers plenty of opportunities for a longer stay.
Mosi-oa-Tunya (meaning “The Smoke That Thunders“), commonly known as Victoria Falls, is one of the most amazing sights in the world: twice as tall as Niagara Falls and several times longer. Although not the highest, the widest or the greatest volume of water, they have the largest sheet of water for any fall in the world and are a sight not to be missed.
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls are wider than Niagara and higher than Iguazú – and have more activities on offer than both of them combined.
The lion’s share of the Falls are in Zimbabwe, and it’s here that you’ll get the best overall impression of their epic scale – all 1700m of thundering whitewater cascades. The numerous lookouts that run along the gorge inside Victoria Falls National Park include show-stopping views of the Devil’s Cataract; precarious Danger Point; and the spectacular Main Falls, the largest single sheet of water in the world.
On the Zambian side, the lookout points in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park give you another angle entirely. Watch the water plummet over the edge from just a few feet behind the Eastern Cataract, or cross the sliver of a bridge to Knife Point Island for that in-the-thick-of-it feeling.
You can also climb down to the river’s edge to the so-called Boiling Pot, named for the way the water rebounds off the rock face to create a treacherous swirl of crisscrossing currents.
It took thousands of years of erosion for Victoria Falls to appear as and where it does now. “The smoke that thunders” became known to the western world as Victoria Falls only after David Livingstone first set eyes on this astonishing natural wonder in 1855, a heartbeat ago in geological time.
During the Jurassic Period (150-200 million years ago), volcanic activity resulted in thick basalt deposits covering large parts of Southern Africa. As the lava cooled and solidified, cracks appeared in the hard basalt crust, which was filled with clay and lime. Erosion and the course of the mighty Zambezi River cut through these softer materials, forming the first of a series of waterfalls.
Over at least 2000 years, the falls have receded 8 km upstream, as the Zambezi carved its way through seven gorges. This geological history can be seen in the dark basalt in the series of rocky gorges below the falls. It is believed that the Devil’s Cataract, which is presently the lowest point of Victoria Falls, will eventually become the next gorge as the river continues to cut its way back upstream.
Essentially, the river falls into a gorge directly in front of the falls and then flows through a narrow cutting. You can view the falls straight on from across the gorge.
Scottish missionary David Livingstone first heard about Victoria Falls, known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, four years before he arrived there. The area was a sacred site for the Batoka and other local tribes. On 17 November 1855, Chief Sekeletu of the Makololo paddled Livingstone to an island in the Zambezi, known as Goat Island. Although the water was low at the time, Livingstone still felt a “tremor of fear” as he approached the wall of spray.
Gazing down into the churning chasm below must have been a heart-stopping experience. Rumours that a Portuguese man beat him to it have little evidence. Livingstone described what he saw: “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.”
Zambian or Zimbabwean side
The big question is which side to visit: Zambia or Zimbabwe? There are two things to consider, views of the falls and cost.
Two-thirds of the actual falls lie within the Zambian territory, as does Livingstone Island, from where David Livingstone first famously set eyes on the falls.
The water from Victoria Falls dives into a narrow gorge running parallel to the face of the falls, with the spray going high into the air, causing permanent rain, rainbows and the famous “smoke” which is visible from a distance, so, much of the time when you are viewing the falls, you are actually facing them. The gorge where the water exits are the limit on how far you can walk from either side. There is no crossing there. This limits your visibility from the Zambian side, as you can walk about only a quarter of the distance of the face of the falls. Although the view and the water flow is still impressive, you simply cannot get a perspective on the full width of the falls from the Zambian side.
The walk down to below the falls is closed on the Zimbabwean side. You can only walk down on the Zambian side. The footbridge on the Zambian side gives a unique experience, with a permanent torrential rain from the wet season through to August. Travellers will have an assortment of visa charges involved in seeing both sides of the falls.
When to visit
The park is open year-round, but you will get a very different experience depending on the season in which you visit. In the rainy season (December to March), the water volume will be higher, and the falls will be more dramatic. You are guaranteed to get wet if you cross the bridge or walk along the trails winding near the falls. On the other hand, it is precise because the volume of water is so high that your viewing of the actual Falls will be obscured: by all the spray.
In the dry season, (April to October), the water volume will be lower, and by October, Victoria Falls might just be a trickle. You will get a clearer view of the rocky ledge beneath the falls, which is pretty spectacular by itself, but the falls might be somewhat underwhelming.
This said it is still a great experience visiting the falls in the dry season (for instance November), as you can experience both “falls” and the rocky gorge. You can have the chance to swim in Devil’s Pool.
Download Map of Victoria Falls