Approaching the Victoria Falls by aeroplane is awe-inspiring. If you press your face against the window like an impatient child, you will catch a glimpse of the Zambezi River from above, twinkling silver and blue, calm and deliberate as it drifts towards the inexorable precipice. And then all hell breaks loose. You will feel the Victoria Falls before you see them. It’s like pressing your chest against a bass speaker: the thundering of 500 000 cubic metres of water per minute reverberates though you as it plummets 108 metres into the mists beneath.
Dr David Livingstone (I presume), allegedly the first European to set eyes on the Falls, dedicated his discovery to his Queen in 1855. Perhaps he simply couldn’t pronounce the evocatively befitting local Bathonga name, Mosi oa tunya, or ‘the smoke that thunders’. Awestruck by the power of the Falls, he is quoted as having said, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
The Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls pulse with an annual flood cycle of high and low water. Summer rains in the upper reaches of its catchment area, in Angola and Zambia, flood the river, causing significant rises in its levels. At high water the spray plume can rise up to 500 metres and is visible from over 20km away. During the dry winter months, before the regional rains return in November, the river recedes to a ribbon of water, and the Falls runs dry for much of its length.
It is during the dry season that the sheer magnitude of the Falls can be truly appreciated. Clear of the shroud of spray, one can marvel at the solid rock walls of the gorge, worn smooth by the abrasive power of the water. However, the best time to view the Falls is probably between May and August, when the river is running at mid volume.
Victoria Falls is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, but it is the world's largest sheet of falling water. It is roughly twice the height of North America's iconic Niagara Falls and is rivalled only by Argentina and Brazil's Iguazu Falls in its combination of height and width. But what makes Victoria Falls special is that nature has provided man with a front row seat, as it were, from which to view the whole 1.7km width of the Falls. Except at the point where the river exits through the narrow channel into the whirlpool known as the Boiling Pot, it is possible to walk the whole length of the Falls through the Rain Forest and gaze at every part of this awe-inspiring spectacle. The Victoria Falls Rainforest, as it has become known, is an area of dense woodland vegetation, supported and nourished by the constant spray from the waterfall.
It was Cecil Rhodes whose ambition drove the construction of the railway from Cape Town to the banks of the Zambezi at the Victoria Falls. The discovery of coal at Hwange brought the line north from Bulawayo, and it was Rhodes’s dream to build a “bridge across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, would catch the spray of the Falls”. Opened in 1905, the bridge was hailed as a man-made engineering wonder to rival the Falls themselves.
There are a variety of wonderful activities at the Falls. A sunset cruise allows you to get up close and personal with the power of the Falls from the safety of a luxury boat. For the more intrepid, the bungee jump off the Victoria Falls bridge is a must. It is the second highest jump in the world, with a view of the gorge below that makes leaping 110 meters into thin air one of the most picturesquely insane activities available!
The white river rafting is one of the most exhilarating experiences you will ever have. It does require a certain level of physical ability, as the climb in and out of the river gorge is a little strenuous, but it is definitely worth the effort. The run consists of 19 of the biggest rapids in the world that are open to commercial rafting. Depending on the flow of water, some of the larger rapids may be closed at certain times of the year, and when there is heavy flooding, the river will be closed completely. The guides are incredible, and take safety very seriously.
On the other hand, if it is adrenaline without the stiff muscles you are after, the ‘flight of the angels’ is one of the best way to see the Falls. Safely cocooned in a bubble-shaped helicopter, you will be able to get a view of the Falls that only a lucky few are able to enjoy.
Zimbabwe has the greater frontage of the Falls, and the deepest channels run along that side. This means that the Zimbabwean side of the Falls will still be running when the Zambian side has long dried up.
The Zambian side, on the other hand, is more intimate, and offers the chance of a swim literally on the lip of the Falls. Whichever side you stay on, take a day pass through to the other side so that you can experience the Falls from both perspectives.