Mosi-oa-Tunya, 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.
However the amount of spray and water varies with the season, at its highest in May. Our visit was in July, which should be a good month, with the water volume dropping just enough to make the falls more visible through the spray. But this particular year (2018), our guide Patrick told us, they had had more water than for twenty years; so the spray was still very thick. Whenever you come, however, you will get wet here, despite the heavy raincoats that are issued to all visitors who want them.
There is a path that follows the edge of the escarpment overlooking the falls, with a series of numbered viewpoints, 1-16. Please join me on our walk along this path for Jo’s Monday Walks.
We started, naturally, at point 1 on the path, where we saw the statue of David Livingstone. He was a Scottish missionary and explorer. He is believed to have been the first European to see the Falls, on 16 November 1855, from what is now known as Livingstone Island, which divides the waters roughly in their mid-point. It is wrong however to say, as some do, that Livingstone ‘discovered’ the falls; as of course they were known to local people for centuries before his visit. What he did do was to publicise their existence to the outside world and he can therefore be seen as the father of tourism in this area.
David Livingstone, I presume?
I enjoyed ‘meeting’ Livingstone here as way way back when I was at junior school (aged between 7 and 11, for non-UK readers) all pupils were divided into four houses for sports events etc.. All the houses were named after explorers (I guess to inspire us) and mine was Livingstone.
The Devil’s Cataract
From the next few points on the path, numbers 2 to 7, you get good views of what is known as the Devil’s Cataract. Today they were relatively clear of spray. Consequently, I found this ‘offshoot’ much easier to photograph than the main torrents further along the path. The Devil’s Cataract is separated from the rest of the falls by Cataract Island; this is one of two islands that remains visible and above the water level even at its highest.
Approaching the Devil’s Cataract from above, and then the path down to viewpoint 3
At viewpoint 3 we descended stone steps (some rather steep and all slippery, so I was glad of the wooden handrail) to see the Devil’s Cataract from a lower angle. Here you can look directly along the gorge and see the waters of the cataract shooting down into it. Even with all the spray we got a fantastic sense of the power of this section of the falls; and this is where they are at their lowest point!
From the next few viewpoints I got some more shots of the Devil’s Cataract, some of them quite clear; also some glimpses of the Main Falls beyond.
The Main Falls
At viewpoint 7 we started to see the full extent of the Main Falls; or at least in part, as they disappeared into the mist.
The other island that remains visible year-round is Livingstone Island, seen in my photo below. This separates what are known as the Main Falls from the sections that lie further east; namely Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls (the highest) and the Eastern Cataract. All of the latter flow as one when the river is in full flood, as it was now; but in the dry season they are separated by other, smaller islets, and at its driest the Eastern Cataract dries out completely and it is even possible to walk out on this ridge. No chance of that today!!
The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia runs through Livingstone Island. It then turns east along the length of the falls to twist into the series of gorges the Zambezi has carved downstream from them. This means that about 70% of the falls can be viewed from the Zimbabwe side and 30% from Zambia.
How big are the falls?
I hope my video will give some little sense of the size and power of these falls.
There are several ways we can measure the size of a waterfall; its height, its width, the volume of water. On the first two measures Victoria Falls is not the largest in the world; it is neither the highest nor the widest. The prize for highest goes to Angel Falls in Venezuela, which are 979 metres compared with Victoria Falls’ mere 108 metres! Niagara Falls, by the way, are just 51 metres at their highest and Iguazu 82 metres. The latter wins the prize for width, at 2,700 metres, whereas Victoria Falls are just 1,708 metres. These falls don’t even have the largest volume of flow. So why are they often cited as the largest waterfall in the world? It comes down to the combination of width and height, creating the world’s largest sheet of falling water.
But comparisons matter little once you are here, and confronted by this thundering deluge. From viewpoint 8 onwards we were facing the main section of the waterfall; and with the falls still in full flow there was so much spray we really had to peer through it to see the falls themselves.
The spray increases
From this point on I had to abandon using my main camera. Now we really needed our raincoats! And cameras, bags etc all had to be buried beneath them. But I kept my compact camera up my sleeve and pulled it out for a few hurried shots, the lens dotted with drops almost the instant I opened it. It was just possible to make out an alteration in the landscape here; near viewpoint 12 the rainforest gives way to grassland dotted with small shrubs and occasional palm trees.
Walking here in these conditions you would think yourself in a heavy rainstorm! But unlike rain, the spray swirls around you in all directions, even upwards. Despite the raincoats the water seeped in here and there; and of course our shoes and the lower part of our trousers were sodden! Still, nothing stays wet forever, even spray-drenched trainers!
At viewpoint 14 we were a little further from the face of the falls, so photos were possible again. But the second shot below, taken immediately after the first and on the same camera, shows how quickly the spray made photography almost impossible!
It was near here that I started to see rainbows in the spray – not over the falls but looking in the other direction, away from them towards the shrubs around the path.
Viewpoint 15 is known as the Danger Point, as here there are only slippery rocks between the path and the sheer drop into the churning waters below the falls. In the dry season it is possible, with care, to scramble out over the rocks for an excellent view of the exposed rock face that at other times of year forms the Eastern Cataract. In the wet season such a scramble is at best inadvisable and at worst impossible.
I was so soaked by now that I saw no reason to get even more so on this exposed promontory, especially as I would have no chance of any photos there, but Chris decided that having come all this way he was going to see everything possible, so he took the path around the point although of course stayed off the rocks. You can imagine how pleased I was to see him re-emerge through the mist!
At the final viewpoint, 16, you can see the bridge that links Zimbabwe with Zambia. This bridge was built at the start of the twentieth century, opening in 1905, to carry the railway line between what was then Northern to Southern Rhodesia. There was a lot of opposition, understandably, to building it here – many saw it as an act of vandalism, destroying the natural beauty of the falls, and campaigned for it to be located further upstream. But Cecil Rhodes, whose brainchild it was (part of his vision for a railway linking Cairo to the Cape), insisted that train passengers should be able to feel the spray of the falls as they crossed – even though he himself never visited Victoria Falls! On its completion his brother Frank, one of its fiercest opponents, said that all that remained to be done ‘was to pray for an earthquake’.
Since then however it has become an integral part of the landscape and forms a vital link between the two countries. It was a main driver of tourism in the early part of the twentieth century and the Victoria Falls Hotel, where we were staying, was opened at around the same time as the bridge to accommodate travellers arriving on the new railway.
At this viewpoint there was less spray on the path, but what there was created a beautiful rainbow between path and bridge.
A unique ecosystem
From here we walked back to the main entrance through part of the rainforest that surrounds the falls. The volume of spray here has created this mini-ecosystem, a rainforest in the savannah. You will find palm trees, ebony, mahogany and other rainforest plants, just a few metres from the much less lush surroundings. This photo taken from our helicopter flight the following day makes that obvious; look how the road runs between the two very different environments.
While the plains are home to typical African animals such as elephants and giraffes, here near the falls you find tree lovers such as baboons, also vervet monkeys and various deer.
Thanks for accompanying me on this walk. For more images of the falls have a look at my earlier post showing them from our helicopter flight above.
And to better understand the layout of the falls and the path we have followed, have a look at this map, credit https://www.victoriafalls-guide.net/tour-of-victoria-falls.html:
I visited Victoria Falls in 2018
Amazing! Thank you so much for the insight, I’m even more excited now!!
Thank you 😀 I’m amazed there’s somewhere in Africa that I have been and you haven’t! You’re going to love it here, but go prepared to get wet!
There are plenty of African countries still for me to explore. But yes, I have my coat at the ready. Thank you again for showing me – beautiful photos and description.
W O W These are just stunning, Sarah! Thanks for showing us that video… the waterfalls is just magnificent!
Thanks so much Teresa, I’m glad you enjoyed the video 😀 It is indeed magnificent!
Wow Sarah, amazing falls and pictures!
Thank you Anne, and so sorry I didn’t reply sooner – I only just realised that my notifications have got very erratic 🙁
I was on tender hooks all the way through thinking of the wet slippery rocks. We took the Mist Trail in Yosemite in the spring (a much smaller place and much smaller falls) and I slipped and fell on the mossy rocks on the way down (no handrails). I didn’t fall into the falls, but I did fall on my daughter who was ahead of me. She had a scraped face and it killed her upper two incisors which turned black – fortunately they were her baby teeth.
Ooh, that sounds like a nasty fall Rosalie! I’m very good at falling over which is why I left the Danger Point viewpoint well alone!
This was an incredible post Sarah. I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but you have been to some incredible places and taken some incredible photos/videos of places that many of us will never see.
Thanks so much Malcolm – you HAVE said similar before but I’m always very grateful for your positive feedback and encouragement 😀
A destination of a lifetime! So stunning! Thanks for sharing 🙂
Yes, that’s exactly what it was – it had been on my bucket list for years and I was so glad we were able to add it on to our Botswana trip 🙂
the eternal traveller
It must be absolutely fabulous when you first see these scenes. Your photos are fantastic.
It was pretty amazing – even seeing the spray from a distance (some miles away) was exciting! Thank you 😊
Stunning photograph of spectacular falls. I was so pleased you added a video as well as I was thinking how helpful it would be to see this on video.; Do you know if they have ever tried to harness this power? I imagine it could give a lot of electricity.
Yes, you really do need the video to get the full effect Mari 🙂 I had a feeling they had harnessed the power so I did a quick search and yes, they have, but on the Zambia side rather than Zimbabwe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Falls_Power_Station
Well Sarah…what can I say?
Incredible writeup… beautiful pictures…I felt I was there with you….
Can I share this on my forthcoming blog on Niagara….just the link so others can see the comparison…if you are ok with it…
Keep inspiring me..
Thank you so much Leela and I’d be flattered if you including a link in your post. I’ll look forward to seeing that one, I love Niagara in its way, although it’s very commercialised and developed compared with this of course.
Thanks Sarah!..I will put the link. It should be sometime early jan.
Great, I’ll look out for it!
Absolutely amazing photo coverage of the falls, Sarah. Thank you so much for linking to me. I can’t help but think how gobsmacked Livingstone must have been at finding these.
Thank you Jo, and that’s a great point about Livingstone. I believe he’d been told about them by locals but I bet he wasn’t expecting anything quite as dramatic!
One of your best posts, Sarah, because it evoked so many memories of my visit to Victoria Falls many years ago. But no photo, however good, can convey the majesty and awe inspired by the Falls. Is there still an old steam locomotive at Victoria Falls station?
Thank you so much Michael 😊 Yes, the train is still there and you can do special dinner rides I believe, or could pre-Covid. We stayed at the Victoria Falls hotel right by the station!
Absolutely spectacular, this must surely have been a highlight of your extensive travels. Magnificent photography!
Thank you 😀 Yes, definitely a highlight! We added a few days here on to a Botswana trip and were so glad we had done so!
You’ve captured the scope of these dramatic falls so well. What an experience it must have been!
It was an amazing experience Margaret, but oh so wet!