The Smoke that Thunders
The indigenous name for Victoria Falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya or The Smoke that Thunders, and it is a fitting name. The constant spray is as thick as smoke, and the roar of the water is indeed like thunder.
We were staying in Victoria Falls for just a few days, as an add-on to our holiday in Botswana, and had decided to treat ourselves to a helicopter flight over the falls. We were picked up from the hotel after breakfast and taken to the helipad a couple of miles out of town. There we were briefed on the flight path and weighed! There were to be five of us on the helicopter and seats were allocated to balance the weight. We were strapped in, given headphones (which served both to muffle the engine noise and provide a commentary) and we were ready for take-off.
Once in the air we flew towards the falls, approaching from the upper reaches of the Zambezi. The flights are designed to take a figure of eight route, so that everyone gets the same views, and Chris and I had the falls on our side at first.
The falls from the air
Our guide Patrick had told us yesterday that 70% of the falls were here in Zimbabwe and just 30% in Zambia, and now I could see what he meant. From above I could appreciate what we had failed to see through the spray at ground level: the topography of this natural phenomenon. Unlike other falls I have visited, which usually lie at right angles to the river’s banks and face directly downstream, the Victoria Falls face an abrupt narrowing of the river and therefore look towards an escarpment. The river flows away through a narrow gorge, creating a sort of wonky T shape, with the smaller right-hand arm lying in Zambia and the larger part on the left in Zimbabwe.
We looped around over the bridge to fly over the Zambian side, from where we caught some great rainbows in the spray. Then it was the turn of those on the other side of the helicopter to get the best views of the falls, while we looked out over the landscape beyond and towards the upper part of the river. Again, I could appreciate from here something that Patrick had mentioned – the spray creates its own microclimate, with the area immediately around the falls forming a small rainforest in the midst of dry savannah.
Below the falls
Next we flew down the gorge below the falls, Batoka Gorge. This is in fact not one gorge but a zigzagging series of them. They were formed by the waters as they retreated – each gorge was cut by the falls across fault lines in the basalt rock created from lava 150 million years ago which cracked as it solidified. The gorges are numbered, with First Gorge being the one into which the falls spill their waters today, Second Gorge the one spanned by the bridge, and so on down to Fifth Gorge. The falls are currently cutting another gorge, through Cataract Island that will over time become their new location.
The gorges are popular for a variety of activities, including ziplining and white-water rafting. We could see rafters in the river far below us and the spray of the falls in the distance.
Above the falls
This is the point at which shorter flights turn back to the helipad but we were going further! We looped back over the falls once more, spotting our hotel below us at one point. We got some great views of the Zambezi and could see hippos in the water and a crocodile on the bank in one spot.
Then we flew over the dry national park area, with the pilot making several loops to ensure we all also saw something of the wildlife here. There were plenty of elephants to be seen and I also spotted a giraffe. The latter was sitting on the ground but got up, in an ungainly fashion, as we passed overhead, presumably disturbed by the noise.
All too soon our time was up, and the pilot turned back to base; but I still got a few more shots of the river and the distant spray of the falls before landing. The helicopter flight had been all and more than we had hoped – what a treat!
I visited Victoria Falls in 2018