Victoria Falls & the mighty Zambezi

The Victoria Falls and the mighty Zambezi River can be epitomized by the famous words ‘Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’ uttered by David Livingstone.

No one can deny the awe-inspiring sight that 540-million cubic metres of water plunging 180m into a narrow chasm creates. Nor the spray plume that is visible from about 20km away, drenching everyone that walks the nearby paths in light rain, or the myriads of rainbows that dance within its spray. It was this plume that led the Tonga people, known as the Batoka/Tokalea, to call the falls Shungu na mutitima, meaning ‘boiling water’ or in some cases, ‘roaring lion’, the Matabele called it aManz’ aThunqayo, ‘water that roars’ and the Kalolo-Lozi people, Mosi oa Tunya, ‘the smoke that thunders’.

In November 1855, escorted by members of the Makololo tribe, David Livingstone made his way by canoe down the mighty Zambezi. At a distance of ‘five or six miles’ they saw plumes of what looked like smoke rising in the distance. The wide lazy expanse of water would have soon gathered speed and the distant roar would have become thunderous. His Makololo guides led him to what is now called Livingstone Island directly upstream from the Falls and accessible from the Zambian shore. It is from here that he crept 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 and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen to twenty yards… the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa” – David Livingstone.

Said to have been the first European to have set eyes on this magnificent sight he penned the well-known words: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” and so awed was he that he named it the Victoria Falls, after his Queen. Maps from 1715 and 1750 however show that he was not the first European to set eyes on the falls but was the first to spread the word of its existence to the Western World. And despite its historical and cultural significance as Mosi oa Tunya, the name Victoria Falls has stuck and, in this marketing-orientated world is the brand by which this natural wonder of the world is most known.

As the largest waterfall in the world, based on width (1.7km) and height (108m), and which combined creates the largest single sheet of flowing water during its peak, it is worthy of inclusion in the Seven Wonders of the World. Additionally, in 1989 the Victoria Falls was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – meaning it belongs to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of where they come from. And come, they certainly do!

Here are a few of the ways visitors can experience the splendour of Mosi oa Tunya and the mighty Zambezi River from the picturesque city of Victoria Falls… 

Get drenched in the spray: There is nothing more exhilarating than getting drenched in the spray created as the mighty Zambezi plunges into the depths below – and you will be, whether you’re wearing a poncho or not.  Guided by renowned guide and storyteller Clive Wakefield, we walk the slippery trails through the verdant rainforest. Ferns grow with abandon under a canopy of rain as I gaze at the mighty Victoria Falls in awe, each of the viewpoints revealing a different facet of this incredible World Heritage Site and appreciate the thunderous sound of Mosi oa Tunya. High water season is generally from about February to July and low-water season from August to January, but no matter what time of year you visit, the awe-inspiring Falls will be a highlight.

Take to the air: There is no better way to get a perspective of the expanse of the Zambezi River being squeezed into a narrow chasm than from the air. The anticipation is great as I climb aboard the helicopter for the aptly named ‘Flight of Angels’. As we lift off, I get a greater sense of the magnitude of this incredible life-giving river; its islands, channels and the ‘smoke’ rising in the distance. We fly in a figure-eight pattern, so that all occupants get the perfect view, the extent of the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls and the Batoka Gorge beyond becomes evident. All too soon we’re back on terra firma – physically, that is, as this ‘must do’ experience will be a memory for a lifetime!

Leap off a bridge: On a walk across the bridge to the Zambian side of the Zambezi River we see a large sign – one that invites what I’m sure would be an adventurous, if not harrowing experience!! The Victoria Falls Bungee Jump. I’m not even tempted, but if you’re looking for a terrifying, challenging, and crazy experience, this is sure to fulfil. Besides being one of the most scenic bungees in the world, the 111-meter free-fall and four seconds of unadulterated adrenalin rush will leave your heart pumping and your knees quaking.  The Victoria Falls Bridge links Zimbabwe to Zambia and is part of a rail network envisaged by Cecil John Rhodes as a link from the Cape to Cairo. Just remember that as it is located in no man’s land between the Zimbabwe and Zambia border you will need your passport.

Swing over the Batoka Gorge: If the idea of bungee jumping is way out of your comfort zone, but you still want an adrenalin rush, then the Wild Horizon’s Adventure activities over the Batoka Gorge are an option. Experience the adrenalin rush of the Zipline as you hurtle 425m across the gorge while suspended 120m above the churning Zambezi River. A slightly tamer option is the Gorge Swing which has you free-falling 70m before swinging over the gorge, and for an even tamer experience, the Flying Fox will have you flying horizontally through the air over the gorge.

Raft the rapids: This, I’m told is the ultimate river rafting experience. The Batoka Gorge is considered one of the world’s premier white-water experiences and is said to have some of the most exciting and challenging rapids on the planet, with 23 navigable rapids during the low water season, and 13 in the high-water season. An experience that is not for the faint hearted or those averse to getting wet – you are guaranteed to get drenched, numerous times!

Cruise on the Zambezi River: There are several options when it comes to cruising the Zambezi. Whether early morning to catch the sunrise, late afternoon for sundowners or at night on a dinner cruise, make sure you take some time out from all the adventures and relax on the water.

I am on the water early with guide Fanuel from Old Drift Lodge. Mist hovers over the inky water as the sun inches its way over the horizon. I have camera and binoculars at hand – to catch the sunrise as well as the prolific birdlife. We spot grey-headed parrots flying overhead, white-fronted bee-eaters as they fly to-and-fro from their nest holes in steep riverbanks and an elusive African finfoot as it scurries out of sight in the overhanging branches and undergrowth.

There is no better way to enjoy sundowners than from the upper deck of Pure Africa’s luxury cruise boat. We watch vervet monkeys frolic in the riverine bush, male hippos jostle for superiority and to claim their turf, and crocodiles laze on the riverbanks soaking up the late afternoon sun – in addition to just sitting back and taking in the magnificent views – palm trees, lush vegetation and in the distance, the ‘smoke that thunders’.

Care for some fine cuisine with a difference? Then let the Bush Cuisine team create a memorable experience for you aboard their vessel, Into Africa. We boarded just in time to for sundowners, enjoying local Zambezi Lager and G&Ts as the sun slowly dropped towards the horizon. It was to a soundtrack of cicadas, tree frogs and distant nightjars that we were served a delicious three course buffet meal – a selection of canapes, followed by Zambezi Bream with salad, roasted potatoes and seasonal vegetables, finished off with the most delicious ‘assiette’ of apples.   

Explore the Zambezi National Park: When in the region one cannot forgo spending time in the Zambezi National Park, a 56,000-hectare game reserve on the Zimbabwean side of the Zambezi River. The riverine bush alongside the Zambezi, with its distinctive ilala palms and giant sycamore figs, soon gives way to mopane woodland (Colophospermum mopane), Ana (Faiderbia albida, previously known as Acacia albida) as well as baobab trees (Adansonia digitata).  In addition to game drives, a guided bush walk in this wildlife area offers more of an up-close and educational experience – such as learning about elephant dung, and how to identify different bones found lying around and what animal they came from as well as several interesting fauna and flora bush facts.

The park is home to a variety of larger mammal species including lion, elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra and several antelope species such as eland, kudu, waterbuck, impala and Zimbabwe’s national animal, the majestic sable.

Vulture Culture Conservation Experience: The Vulture Culture Conservation Experience is located at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and guests can witness the spectacular sight of hundreds of vultures swooping down to feed on leftover meat scraps and bones from the onsite restaurants. In addition to the experience being entertaining, its main purpose is to create awareness about the plight of vultures and to enable their numbers to be monitored.

Vulture populations are under threat and their numbers are dwindling due to a variety of issues, from loss of habitat, poisoning, and poaching for the use of their body parts in traditional medicine, amongst others. It was fascinating to learn about these remarkable and endangered birds and watch as they squabbled for food. We spotted white headed vultures, hooded vultures, lappet faced vultures, white backed vultures, as well as marabou storks. Victoria Falls Safari Lodge works in collaboration with VulPro, a leading vulture conservation program based in South Africa, and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust.

The small city of Victoria Falls delivers in every way – nature, wildlife, adventure, luxury and epic experiences. Go there, now.

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Words & images Tessa Buhrmann

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