Victoria Falls - A view from our expert author

Lying just outside Botswana, the Victoria Falls are one of the natural world’s must-see attractions.

We can be sure that the Falls were well known to the native peoples of southern Africa well before any European ‘discovered’ them. After the San/Bushmen hunter-gatherers, the Toka Leya people inhabited the area, and it was probably they who christened the Falls Shongwe. Later, the Ndebele knew the Falls as the aManza Thunqayo, and after that the Makololo referred to them as Mosi-oa-Tunya. However, their first written description comes to us from Dr David Livingstone in November 1855: ‘It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.’

First gorge, Victoria Falls from the Zambian side, Botswana by © DoctorJoE, Wikipedia

The Falls are 1,688m wide and average just over 100m in height. Around 550 million litres (750 million during peak months) cascade over the lip every minute, making this one of the world’s greatest waterfalls. Closer inspection shows that this immense curtain of water is interrupted by gaps, where small islands stand on the lip of the Falls. These effectively split the Falls into smaller waterfalls, which are known as (from west to east) the Devil’s Cataract, the Main Falls, the Horseshoe Falls, the Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract.

Around the Falls is a genuinely important and interesting rainforest, with plant species (especially ferns) rarely found elsewhere in Zimbabwe or Zambia. These are sustained by the clouds of spray, which blanket the immediate vicinity of the Falls. You’ll also find various monkeys and baboons here, whilst the lush canopy shelters Livingstone’s lourie amongst other birds.

The flow, and hence the spray, is greatest just after the end of the rainy season – around March or April, depending upon the rains – then decreases gradually until about December. During low water, a light raincoat (available for rent on site) is useful for wandering between the viewpoints on the Zimbabwean side, though it’s not necessary in Zambia, but at high water a raincoat is largely ineffective as the spray soaks you in seconds. Anything that you want to keep dry must be wrapped in several layers of plastic.

The Falls never seem the same twice, so try to visit several times, under different light conditions. At sunrise, both Danger Point and Knife-edge Point are fascinating – position yourself carefully to see your shadow in the mists, with three concentric rainbows appearing as halos. (Photographers will find polarising filters invaluable in capturing the rainbows on film, as the light from the rainbows at any time of day is polarised.) Moonlight is another fascinating time, when the Falls take on an ethereal glow and the waters blend into one smooth mass which seems frozen over the rocks.

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