Large waterfall glimpsed through spray
Landscape,  Monday walks,  Zimbabwe

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.

David Livingstone

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.

Small waterfalls in a river
The Zambezi and Cataract Island, just above the falls

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!

Large waterfall glimpsed through spray
Devil’s Cataract and First Gorge, from viewpoint 3

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.

Churning white water over a fall
Large waterfall with ferns in foreground
Churning white water over a fall
The Devil’s Cataract

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.

Large waterfall glimpsed through spray
Cataract Island (on the left) and Main Falls
Large waterfall glimpsed through spray
Start of the Main Falls

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!!

Large waterfall glimpsed through spray
Main Falls from viewpoint 8, with Livingstone Island visible beyond through the spray

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.

Large waterfall glimpsed through spray
Main Falls from viewpoint 8

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.

Large waterfall glimpsed through spray with dry grass in foreground
This photo from viewpoint 13 shows the grassland drenched in spray
Peering carefully you may just make out the falls beyond!

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!

Large waterfall glimpsed through spray
At viewpoint 14 we were a little further from the face of the falls, so photos were possible again
This is the section known as Horseshoe Falls
Large waterfall glimpsed through sprayLarge waterfall glimpsed through spray
But what a difference a couple of seconds can make!

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.

Rainbow above long grass and palm trees
Rainbow in the spray

Danger Point

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!

Wan walking by large waterfall glimpsed through spray
Chris returning from Danger Point

Rainbow Bridge

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.

Metal bridge across a gorge with rainbow in front
Rainbows 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.

Looking down at a large waterfall
Victoria Falls from the air

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

Map of the Victoria Falls footpath

I visited Victoria Falls in 2018


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