On November 3, 1855, when David Livingstone, doctor, missionary, adventurer and explorer first set eyes on the Zambezi as it disappeared into the 300 foot chasm of the Batoka gorge, he was moved to write, “On sights as beautiful as this, Angels in their flight must have gazed”. Although Livingstone was the first white man to see the Falls, their existence was a well-known phenomenon. Local tribes referred to them as “Mosi oa Tunya”, literally, “The Smoke that Thunders”. Despite this Livingstone named them after the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom, Queen Victoria.
The Zambezi is Africa’s fourth longest river. It cuts its way across nearly two thirds of southern Africa, rising in northern Zambia and ending its 2 700 kilometre journey at the Zambezi Delta on the Mozambique coast. It has not always been this way. Some time between the Upper Karoo era (150 million years ago) and the Pliocene era (11 million years ago), it is believed that the Zambezi was part of the Limpopo system. Instead of taking a sharp eastward turn as it does today, it continued southward, joining the Orange river in what is today South Africa.
Over an extended period, a gentle upwarping across the river’s course diverted the river in an eastward direction. This created a vast inland sea covering an expansive basalt slab in what would be the northern territory of present-day Botswana.
The receding waters of this sea deposited millions of tonnes of sediment over the basalt. Slowly cutting its way through these layers, the erosive power of the river exposed a sequence of traverse faults criss-crossing the basalt, creating a series of waterfalls and rapids. Slowly, over about the next two million years, the falls and rapids retreated westwards creating the first in a series of east-west fissures and, ultimately, the Batoka gorge. As the river eroded its way upstream it exposed a series of new weaknesses so that the falls slowly zig-zagged their way backwards and forwards to their present location.
The Victoria Falls are an awesome spectacle. A massive wall of water, 1 700m in width plunges 108m into a narrow gorge forming the biggest single curtain of falling water in the world. In the narrow gorge below, the violent mass of boiling white water crashes its way downstream through the rocky abyss of the Batoka gorge. The result is an immense tower of spray rising hundreds of metres skyward. No wonder the indigenous people of the area called it “The Smoke that Thunders”. The tropical rainforest created by this deluge is a unique environment and home to a number of endemic species of flora and fauna. The forest has an intricate network of paths and alleys through the undergrowth leading to various points along the precipice from which to view the entire width of the falls.
At minimal flow, between November and December, the volume of water pouring over the falls is approximately 20 000 cubic metres per minute and is the best time to see the falls. Compared to a high level of about 500 000 cubic metres per minute during the winter months, April to September, the spray created enshrouds the entire water face making it impossible to see. During the torrential floods in 1958, believed to be part of a 1 000 year cycle, the volume reached an impressive 700 000 cubic metres per minute.
Today, Victoria Falls attracts a new breed of adventurer and explorer. Lured by the prospects of rafting or kayaking one of the few commercially-run class-5 rivers in the world, white-water enthusiasts make an annual pilgrimage. Over the last 20 years, the small town has developed into a hub of activity, drawing people from many countries across the world. The town boasts numerous tourist and curio shops, craft villages, a crocodile farm, just to mention a few of the many places of interest to visit.
Groups of kayakers and rafters can spend anything from a day on the river to an entire week pitting their skills against the raging torrent of the Zambezi. If the river doesn’t quench the thirst for adventure there is the option of bungee jumping from the Victoria Falls bridge, which until recently was the highest jump in the world.
The Victoria Falls bridge is an impressive landmark. Built at the turn of the century it was the first link between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Originally designed to carry two railway tracks, the super-structure, spanning 152 metres, contains 1 540 tonnes of steel. It is a truly wonderful piece of engineering, testimony to a by-gone colonial era.
Victoria Falls is the ideal base for other outdoor activities. A drive through Zambezi Camp National Park, situated nearby, is a great experience. Little of the surrounding bushveld has changed since Livingstone trekked through the area. For more adventurous game watchers, the famous Hwange National Park is another option. Only a short hop from the Falls, the park is home to the “big five”. Elephant abound as do buffalo, lion, giraffe and a host of other plainsgame. The park is also one of the few places in Africa to see the endangered painted (wild dog) dogs in their natural environment.
For anglers, the Victoria Falls area offers another facet of adventure. Above the falls, the expansive river harbours numerous sport fish including robustus, catfish, African pike and the ubiquitous tigerfish. A journey by boat through the swirling rapids is an experience in itself.