The smoke that thunders

Thrill to the roar power of the world’s largest waterfall – Victoria Falls

VicFallsNo wonder it made such an impression: the cascades known to the Makololo people as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’ – ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ – are both jaw-droppingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. Here, the full flow of the Zambezi River crashes down into Batoka Gorge, a torrent over a mile wide creating the largest curtain of water in the world. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Victoria Falls are unforgettable because there are so many facets to absorb – the deafening rumble and tower of spray created by the plummeting Zambezi, the rainbows arcing above by day (and, on special nights, by moonlight), the lush, wildlife-bustling rainforest framing the scene, and the rich history of the area. It’s impossible not to fall for Africa’s most iconic natural wonder.

The story
In November 1855 David Livingstone was midway through an expedition to trace the mighty Zambezi River all the way to the Indian Ocean. His mission was, thanks to various obstacles, to prove unsuccessful – but his discoveries en route transformed the history of Africa.

Livingstone had heard tales of the ‘Smoke that Sounds’, and on 16 or 17 November, he arranged for local boatmen to paddle him there – to the island that now bears his name, on the very lip of the falls. Here, amid the thunderous roar and spume, he peered over the edge and witnessed the Zambezi hurtling down into the seething cauldron below.

Within a few decades European settlers arrived at the falls. By 1900, the Victoria Falls Bridge and railway were completed, and a town grew up nearby: Livingstone, for over two decades the capital of Northern Rhodesia – now Zambia.

The course of the Zambezi has changed many times over the past 100,000 years or so: the vast flow of water erodes east-west cracks in the basalt, resulting in the creation of new gorges and the retreat upstream of the falls. Already, the next stage of erosion is underway at the Devil’s Cataract, the westernmost stretch of the falls; at some point over the next few thousand years the rocks beneath that section will collapse and the cascade will leap backwards.

For now, though, small islands on the lip of the falls divide them into a series of cascades (Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls and Eastern Cataract) spanning a total of about 1700m, with a drop of 108m – neither the widest nor the highest waterfall in the world, but creating the largest curtain of water.

The experience
Your memories of Victoria Falls will be shaped by when you visit – in dry season or wet, at sunrise, sunset or by moonlight – as well as where you view them from. The flow is greatest just after the end of the rainy season from around April, and lowest at the end of the year, but each season has its advantages.

The most obvious way to see the falls is to visit the section of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park opposite the Eastern Cataract, where a path over the Knife Edge Bridge and along the cliff provides various viewpoints; there’s also a path down to the river’s edge below the falls. Admission costs US$20. Guided tours providing interesting information on geology and natural history are offered by several operators, and there’s a good museum opposite the park entrance. You can also cross the Victoria Falls Bridge and admire the falls from the Zimbabwean side, though you’ll need to allow time and money for immigration.

For a thrillingly close encounter, join an excursion to Livingstone Island, from where the explorer first peered over the edge. Tours run by Tongabezi (www.tongabezi.com; US$90/
150/120 for morning/lunch/afternoon tea excursions) allow you to explore the island and, when conditions are right, take a dip in the Devil’s Pool right at the lip of the cascades – not one for vertigo-sufferers.

Both microlight and helicopter rides over the falls – branded ‘Flight of Angels’ – offer breathtaking aerial views (www.livingstonesadventure.com; microlight 15/30 mins US$150/300; helicopter 15/22/30 mins US$160/230/320).

For more adrenalin-pumping action, consider a bungee jump from the bridge, a slide or swing – all offered by Shearwater Adventures, who also run a tram tour and a walk on the walkways of the bridge itself (www.shearwatervictoriafalls.com; bungee or bridge swing US$135, bridge slide US$40, tram and bridge tour US$65).

And then there’s the rafting. The rapids of Batoka Gorge are world-famous for their ferocity, providing a heart-in-mouth insight into the power of the Zambezi. Riverboarding – running the whitewater on a special surfboard – is another popular option. Safari Par Excellence is a top operator on the Zambian size (www.safpar.net; half/full day rafting from US$150/175, from US$185/215 including riverboarding), while Shearwater also runs rafting tours.

A more sedate option is the Royal Livingstone Express, a steam train that chugs into the game section of the national park for dinner rides, and, occasionally, onto the bridge for a snacks and sundowners run (www.royal-livingstone-express.com).

Note that national park fees (currently US$5/10 per day for SADC nationals/international visitors) apply if taking part in activities or staying at accommodation within Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.

Need to know
KQ flies to Livingstone Airport three times weekly. The airport is 6km northwest of Livingstone, a little farther from the riverside lodges; a taxi should cost US$10-20. A taxi between the town and the falls themselves, 10km to the south, costs about US$10-15.
• Money: Currency in Zambia is the Kwacha (Kw). Many hotels and some shops also accept US$. There are ATMs in Livingstone and at the airport.
• Visas: Many nationalities require a visa to enter Zambia, though nationals of Kenya and several other African countries don’t. Tourist visas, available on arrival at Livingstone Airport, cost US$50 (payable in US$ cash). Check the latest details at http://zambiaimmigration.gov.zm
• Tourist info: The Livingstone Tourism Association runs a helpful website with information on accommodation, attractions, activities and places to eat. | www.livingstonetourism.com.  Zambia Tourism also provides information on the falls and Livingstone. | www.zambiatourism.com

And don’t miss…
Cruises above the falls offer a relaxing view of river life; several boats ply the waters, including the African Queen and African Princess (both www.livingstonesadventure.com) and Lady Livingstone (www.safpar.net); sunset cruises start at US$65, including drinks and snacks. Canoeing and relaxing raft ‘float’ trips are also popular, as are fishing safaris, all offered by Safari Par Excellence among other outfits.

Livingstone has several worthwhile attractions, including Livingstone Museum, with local history and archaeology exhibits, and the Railway Museum on Chishimba Falls Road, displaying old steam locomotives.

The game section of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park (US$10) harbours elephants, giraffes, zebras and a handful of white rhinos, as well as wonderful birdlife. Safari Par Excellence runs game drives (US$55), elephant rides (US$185), walking safaris and horse rides in the park.

Several other reserves are within touching distance; local operators offer trips to Chobe National Park in Botswana, while Victoria Falls, Zambezi and Hwange National Parks in Zimbabwe are also accessible.

Where to stay
• Victoria Falls Waterfront  (+260 (0)213 320606 | thezambeziwaterfront.com | Camping US$10 per person, Adventure Village tents from US$22 per person | chalets from US$70 per person B&B;) With a terrific riverside location, friendly bar and popular restaurant, this good-value lodge offers camping, beds in pre-erected dome tents and spacious rooms in chalets.
• Zambezi Sun (+260 (0)21 3 321122 | www.suninternational.com/fallsresort | check rates online) This lively 3-star hotel with a great location close to the falls offers comfortable rooms with balconies overlooking the verdant lawns. The adjacent Royal Livingstone, also owned by Sun International, is a few notches up in class and price.
• Tongabezi (+260 (0)213 327450  www.tongabezi.com   from US$495 per person per night). The thatched cottages, chalets and private houses of this beautiful lodge offer luxury, superb cuisine and excellent service. Prices include meals, most drinks and activities.

Local view
Dom Mwahamubi is a rafting guide with Safari Par Excellence.
“My top tip for a place to eat in Livingstone is the Golden Leaf Indian Restaurant, which serves the best Indian food outside the subcontinent – great value, with big portions. It’s run by an Indian family who have been here for many years, and has a wide selection of continental dishes for those not into really spicy dishes. Cafe Zambezi is the spot to try local food – fancy mopane worms or croc burgers?”
“Looking for souvenirs? There’s a curio market at the falls entrance, and a bigger one selling the same kind of stuff at Makuni Park in the centre of town.”