It probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. I presume everyone has heard of the Victoria Falls. And the person doing the original presuming was none other than a journalist with a tenuous link to the man who named the falls.

Morton Stanley was sent to Africa to find an explorer, a missionary and, to some, a liberator. This explorer was, of course, Dr. Livingstone, who was, famously, the first European to see the Falls in 1855, and promptly named them for the queen of England. Stanley, incidentally was sent to find Dr. Livingstone only in 1871, quite a few years later…

The African name for the falls is “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, literally translated as “Thundering Smoke”. And you can see why, when you walk along the 1.7 kilometre width. The Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park is on the Zambian side of the Falls, as well as Livingstone, the town named for the intrepid explorer.

The Victoria Falls are known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, right there amongst the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, and Mount Everest et al. As the largest waterfall on earth, it is certainly impressive being twice the size of the Niagara Falls!

How to get here

If you are in Kasane, the best way is to organise a shuttle service from your lodge, or campsite. Chobe Safari Lodge handled everything for us, and we were met at 8am by a taxi van operated by Chobezi (you can see where they got the name). This deposited us at the Botswana/Zimbabwe border where we were collected by a bus run by Shearwter in Victoria Falls. This is (based on hearsay) the most convenitent way to visit the falls, instead of using your own vehicle. The falls are about an hour from the border at Kazungula (call it seventy kilometres), but the red tape to bring your own vehicle seems to be rather a chore. So hop on the bus, and let’s go!

Some history

Victoria Falls as a town started way back in the early 1900s, principally by the railway reaching this point and the installation of the bridge connecting Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with Nothern Rhodesia (now Zambia). This bridge formed part of Cecil Rhodes’ plan to extend to Cairo and is a feat in itself by being constructed in England before being assembled on site, with hardly any margin for error. It is the same bridge that stands today (and a hot one).

Tourism formed the second growth impulse for the town of Victoria Falls, and also its counterpart in Zambia – Livingstone. So if, like me, you find the adventurous explorative history of colonial Africa intriguing, inspiring and evocative, business is and was actually at the heart of it. Back then it was for the natural resources. Now it is for the tourist dollar.

And so we find ourselves in Victoria Falls, a town that is reliant on curiosity and commerce. One of them comes to view the tremendous waters of the Zambezi river, the other to cross it, on the way to the African hinterland heavily laden with goods.

Entry to the park

There is an entry fee to be paid, perhaps a little surprisingly. I thought it was a national monument and a natural wonder, so excluded commercial enterprise. But, hey, this is also Africa – where there is a buck to be made, go for it. And most around need it, it seems. No problem there.

There is a curio shop at the entry gate, a restaurant and a very good set of geological, historical and informative displays. Livingstone has a statue here, which is somewhat incongruous when viewed through our South African eyes, where everything has a new (African) name when compared to its colonially-nominated moniker.

It’s so wide!

Be prepared to walk. It is, after all, a mile of water flowing over the edge. And be prepared to get wet as well! We first shrugged this off as sensationalism, but I can now confirm that a Sony Handycam is remarkably waterproof.

The ‘smoke’ of the spray rises metres above us as we look across the gorge to the Zambian side, from which the water is tumbling over the edge. The superbly flat ridge stretches for nearly one-and-a-half kilometres for the wide river to tumble down one hundred metres. We were told that the falls were only at 28% capacity (how they measure this is a mystery) but the volume of water is staggering.

There is a walkway that follows the full width of the falls as you look over the gorge at about the same level as the other side. It is well-marked with a dozen viewpoints, and old Livingstone even has a statue! As you progress down the route it gets wetter and wetter, and the ‘thunder’ roars nonstop. There are, of course, plenty of tourists, but everyone is in a good mood and excited to see this spectacle, even the baboons at the end at the point overlooking the bridge.

a walk to Zambia

So, as if we hadn’t already got our steps in by walking the 1.7 kilometres, and then back to the entrance, we decided to check out Zambia. The border post on the Zimbabwe side will give you a stamped piece of paper that will allow you back into the country (probably to avoid extra paperwork) and the walk from there is about a kilometre to the bridge. There is also a bungee jump here, about eighty metres high.

We didn’t do the jump, but walked over to the other side and put a foot into Zambia. This may not sound super exciting, but it was something you wouldn’t normally do, so we felt it was an achievement. And doubly because of the blistering heat of the sun and the tarmac burning its way through your shoes.

A really welcome local (Zambezi) beer was procured at a roadside bar, which we nursed while watching the truck and bicycle traffic go by. A freight train by passed us a couple of times, coming in from Zambia. Perhaps trying to sort out the red tape before continuing south.

A tourist trap?

At the entrance to the Vic Falls are many souvenir stalls, and the hawkers accompany you everywhere (outside the park). This is their livelihood as well, and they take every chance to get a little break. Like the guy on the Zambia side who sold us a small trinket in exchange for our ‘support’ (what’s in a name?).

We also didn’t make it to the Victoria Falls Hotel, since you are dropped off at the Vic Falls gate at 10 am and the bus leaves back for the border at 3 pm. This is plenty of time to explore the falls, but (other than a stroll to another country) not much else besides a lunch at the Vic Falls diner. Or maybe a bungee…

It’s a fascinating place. Yes, there are many tourists (that’s the point after all) but it is also one of nature’s spectacular creations. A huge mass of water tumbles over the cliff edge into a deep gorge over a vast distance. It is one of the icons in the natural world, and it truly is impressive, with rainforests palm trees, and an endless supply of water disappearing towards Lake Kariba and the Indian Ocean.

the border

The shuttle is a pretty good deal, mainly for the convenience. It runs well according to time schedule and does exactly what it says on the tin. The border controls are dispatched quite easily, although it is noticeable how much more ‘shabby’ the Zimbabwean side looks compared to Botswana. Perhaps it is because there isn’t much traffic from Zimbabwe into Botswana, although the potholed road indicates otherwise. And Kasane/Kazunugula is a major checkpoint between four countries (and a lot of freight) so Botswana has more resources for this? Speculation indeed. Also, remember you will pay to enter Zimbabwe if on a foreign (non-SADC) passport. Where this money goes is equally up for speculation.

It’s a nice visit, a bucket list item checked off. Like anything, you can’t do it all, there is always something that you will have missed. Next time we may do the Zambian side or even take one of the helicopters for a quick aerial view. and we might even make it to the Victoria Falls Hotel for that G&T, as only Africa can do!