Initial view of Falls walking into park on Zimbabwe Side (Copyright 2007: P. B. Eleazer)

Initial view of Falls walking into park on Zimbabwe Side (Copyright 2007: P. B. Eleazer)

Less than an hours’ drive from the Chobe entrance is Victoria Falls, one of the eight natural wonders of the world.  The African name translates as “The Smoke that thunders”, the current locals mostly call it “Vic Falls”.

My South African friends who have seen both Niagara Falls and Vic Falls claim the African falls are far superior.  I have seen both, and am not sure I agree.  Both are impressive, but very different.  With Niagara Falls, one has a great and easy to access vista of the drop – especially from the Canadian side.  Vic Falls is a very long and impressive crevice in the earth.  The problem for me is that there is no viewing location to appreciate the entire Falls.  One solution for overcoming this is offered at locations near the Falls – a helicopter flight.  If you search for famous photos of Vic Falls, you will see that many of these are indeed aerial shots.

To get to the Falls,  most folks cross into Zimbabwe (Zim for short) at the Kazangula Border Crossing, just a few miles outside of Kasane.  After paying US$40 for the visa, it’s a short drive of less than an hour.  It sounds easy, but there are a few problems:

  • If you have rented a vehicle, your contract probably does not allow travel into Zim
  • Zim has political and economic strife, so one must use care
  • When I went, the visa must be paid in US dollars, so make sure you have a few.  The reason for this is that the inflation rate within Zim is out of sight, so everyone prefers the more stable US currency.

It’s a bit of a hassle and the view is limited, so should you go?  Definitely!  The trip is quite an experience.  The people of Zim are quite friendly.  The souvenir deals you can pick up near the Falls are the best in Africa.  There is a lot of game along the drive, so the trip is like another game drive.

Zimbabwe school children walking along path at Victoria Falls (Copyright 2007: P. B. Eleazer

Zimbabwe school children walking along path at Victoria Falls (Copyright 2007: P. B. Eleazer

As I noted above, it may be difficult for you to take your rental vehicle into Zim.  If you plan on taking the car into Zimbabwe then tell this to your rental company when you make your reservation. The reason for this is that to take the car out of the country where you rented it you need a cross-border permit from the rental company. I am not sure if all companies  will issue you a cross-border permit  for Zimbabwe, but may for a small extra charge. Do not take your car over the border without a permit as you will then not be insured for damages!  I was lucky enought o be traveling with some South Africans who took their personal car.  Others I know have gone with organized groups easily found in Kasane.  You can get there … but it takes planning.

One tip for when you visit the Falls is to go there wearing T-shirt, swim shorts and to take some shampoo, don’t take a bag and keep your money in a waterproof container, the reason being that at some point you will go closer to the Falls and go through a part where you will literally experience the heaviest rainfall in your life. It was perfect for a shower and to wash your hair, just a shame we didn’t take shampoo with us!  I am told that the Falls is actually considered a tropical rain forest region due to the heavy mist – not sure if that is true, but I know you will get wet.

Some Facts:

Located on the Zambia/Zimbabwe border, the Victoria Falls on the river Zambezi is the largest water curtain in the world. The Victoria Falls is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are several game viewing opportunities in the area. Victoria Falls is 3 times wider and twice as deep as the Niagara. The mist rising from the falls can be seen 35-40miles away even by air. This mist leads to the name “Mosi-oa-Tunya” which in the local language means ‘ the mist that thunders’. It is not possible to see the total width of the falls at a time as the falls are almost 2 miles wide, interspersed with small islands. The entire region forms the Mosi-oa-Tunya national park. Thus the only way to see the entire falls as mentioned earlier is by air! I understand that it costs US$100 for a 15 minute helicopter ride for the experience of a lifetime.

The Falls are about 1000km from the source of the Zambezi River in western Zambia. Towards the end of a normal rainy season the flow of water over the Falls reaches 500 000 cu m per minute. The towering column of spray when the river is high can be seen from over 20 km away, and the thunder of the falling water will take your breath away. Politically speaking the Victoria Falls is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. You can visit the falls on both sides, but the Zimbabwean side is considered by many to be the more beautiful with direct viewing of the “Devil’s Cataract” and “Rainbow Falls” .

A flea market round the corner will sell African crafts.  These crafts are mostly wood carvings which include ornate bowls, masks, and animal shapes.  Woven baskets can also be found for sale.  You can also walk down to the Zambezi river or go for an elephant back safari, river safari or river cruise.
The people are very friendly and every smiling.

One of the guys in our last group went whitewater rafting in the downstream rapids.  Pretty cool, but I can’t get over the fact that the Zambezi has a dense population of crocs! For those of you looking for even more of a thrill, there is a bungee jump set up on the bridge crossing between Zimbabwe and Zambia (you have to leave the country through immigration to get there).

From the Fodor’s web site:  Victoria Falls Travel Guide

Romance, intrigue, myth, decadence, awe, and terror: the largest curtain of falling water known to humankind reveals itself like an irresistible read. Roughly 1,200 km (750 mi) from its origin as an insignificant spring, the Zambezi River has grown more than a mile wide. Suddenly there’s a bend to the south, the current speeds up, and a few miles downstream the entire river is forced into a fissure created in the Jurassic age by the cooling and cracking of molten rock. Nearly 2½ million gallons of water disappear over a vertical drop 300 feet high in a matter of seconds. The resulting spray is astounding, the force splashing drops of water up into the air to form a smokelike cloud that is visible 40 miles away on a clear day.

Dr. David Livingstone, a Scottish medical doctor and missionary, visited the area in 1855 and is widely credited with being the first European to document the existence of this natural wonder. He named it Victoria Falls in honor of his queen, although the Makololo name, Mosi-oa-Tunya (literally, “the Smoke that Thunders”), remains popular.

Livingstone fell madly in love with the falls, describing them in poignant prose. Other explorers had slightly different opinions. E. Holub could not contain his excitement and spoke effusively of “a thrilling throb of nature,” A. A. de Serpa Pinto called them “sublimely horrible” in 1881, and L. Decle (1898) expected “to see some repulsive monster rising in anger.” The modern traveler can explore all of these points of view. There is so much to do around the falls that your only limitations will be your budget and sense of adventure (or lack of sense!).

The settlements of Livingstone, Zambia and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, both owe their existence to the falls. In different countries and intriguingly diverse in character, they nevertheless function like two sides of one town. Crossing the border is a formality that generally happens with minimum fuss. Although the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls remains perfectly safe and far away from the documented strife, Livingstone, on the Zambian side, is currently the favored destination. Not only are the visitors spoiled with choices in Zambia, which has a plethora of top-class safari lodges along the Zambezi, but strong competition places the emphasis on individualized service, which enables you to tailor your visit. In Zimbabwe, the general mood is not always upbeat, but the absence of throngs of travelers is lovely, and it currently provides excellent value for money. The region deserves its reputation as an adventure center and offers adrenaline-inducing activities by the bucketful. The backdrop for any of these is stunning, and the safety record superb.

Fodor’s Review:

Literally translated as “The Smoke that Thunders,” the falls more than live up to its reputation as one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. No words can do these incredible falls justice, and it’s a difficult place to appreciate in just a short visit, as it has many moods and aspects. Though the Zimbabwean side may offer more panoramic views, the Zambian side—especially the Knife Edge (a sharp headland with fantastic views)—allows you to stand virtually suspended over the Boiling Pot (the first bend of the river after the falls), with the deafening water crashing everywhere around you. From around May to August the falls are a multisensory experience, though you’ll get absolutely drenched if you venture onto the Knife Edge, and there may be too much spray to see the bottom of the gorge. If you get the sun behind you, you’ll see that magic rainbow. A network of paths leads to the main viewing points; some are not well protected, so watch your step and wear good, safe shoes, especially at high water, when you are likely to get dripping wet. You will have dramatic views of the full 1½ km (1 mi) of the ironstone face of the falls, the Boiling Pot directly below, the railway bridge, and Batoka Gorge. At times of low water it is possible to take a guided walk to Livingstone Island and swim in the Devils Pool, a natural pond right on the lip of the abyss.

1 minute and 30 second YouTube footage of the Falls (Copyright Valpard Films):