Seven Natural Wonders is an organisation created with the mission of protecting and promoting the natural wonders of the world. Their list of the natural wonders includes Aurora Borealis, The Harbour of Rio de Janeiro, The Grand Canyon, The Great Barrier Reef, Mount Everest, Paricutin and The Victoria Falls. And when you see the Victoria Falls in all their glory, you can see why our majestic Victoria makes the list.
One of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World
The Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya which means The Smoke That Thunders is classified as one of the largest waterfalls in the world, with a width of over 1,700 metres and a height of 108 metres. Whilst there are waterfalls greater in width and height, there is no comparison for shear volume of water that cascades over the drop of the Victoria Falls at their peak. No where else in the world does a river, in an instant, go from a mile-wide slow moving current to a raging white water torrent as it gets squeezed through a narrow gorge 108 metres below.
The Calm Upper Zambezi River
Upstream of the Victoria Falls the Zambezi River flows over a sheet of basalt forming a shallow valley surrounded by small sandstone hills. There are no mountainous regions or escarpments creating a plateau that extends for hundreds of kilometres in all directions.
The Upper Zambezi is host to several game parks with the Mosi-oa-Tunya national park being the local Livingstone favourite. Elephants, hippo and crocodile call the sedate upper river home, as do many species of antelope, birds and everything in between. It is the geography of the Zambezi River and its surroundings that allow wildlife to flourish above the Victoria Falls. Taking a game drive or walking safari is a must when you visit and is the only place in Zambia where you can see the endangered white rhino.
The Zambezi River originates in Northern Zambia and then makes its way along the Western border of the country until it starts to widen across the flat basalt flood plains. The river is mostly calm and slow moving with the occasional section that contains small rapids. One of the best views of the river is to be on it. Viewing wildlife from the vantage point of the river is a very different experience to a game drive. Taking a canoe trip or raft float are great ways of enjoying this quiet, unspoiled part of the world. A river safari in a speedboat or a sunset cruise are also great ways to experience the calm Upper Zambezi River.
The Victoria Falls and a Raging Torrent
The wide, meandering Zambezi River then plummets over a vertical drop that was carved out by a fracture zone in the underlying basalt. The river falls over the chasm into a gorge where the sedate Zambezi is squeezed through the narrow Batoka Gorge making for some of the best white water rafting in the world. Witnessing these two extremes of the river is an experience that should not be missed. Sipping cocktails on an calm upper river sunset cruise one day, to negotiating the class five raging torrents in a raft the following day. What better way to experience the magic of this mighty river and the Victoria Falls.
White Water Rafting on the Grade 5 Zambezi Rapids
There are several islands situated above the falls which act as breakers, dividing the curtain of water and creating several sections that make up the Victoria Falls. These sections are called the Devil’s Cataract, the Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract. The main island situated near the centre of the falls is called Livingstone Island. This is where it is said that David Livingstone first viewed the Falls, which he consequently named after Queen Victoria of Great Britain. In the low water season it is possible to reach this island and swim in the Devil’s Pool – a pool of calm water situated at the top of the cliff-face making for one of the best views of the Victoria Falls and the gorge below.
The Devil’s Pool accessible during the low water season.
The Highs and Lows of Seasonal Change
Zambia experiences a rainy season from late November to early April, and a dry season the rest of the year. This heavily influences the water levels of the Zambezi River as it travels from North-Western Zambia down to the Victoria Falls. The upper river tends to flood between February and May, peaking in April. It is during these months that the falls are in full-flow making it impossible to keep dry when viewing them (unless you choose to see them from the vantage of a helicopter or microlight). The spray from the falls during this period rises to a height of over 500 metres and after a particularly heavy rainy season it can double that.
Viewing the Victoria Falls in full-flow is an experience that can’t quite be compared to anything else. Whilst visibility is somewhat obscured by the shear volume of spray, the roar of the falls may cause sensory overload in the hearing department, making quiet conversation impossible. The smoke that thunders indeed! Surrounded by rain forest as you walk the trails along the falls, keeping dry is impossible too. And unless you have a waterproof camera, photography opportunities are not the best. Walking across the Knife Edge Bridge on the Zambian side during full-flow can be a nerve wracking experience. Whilst completely safe, walking across a narrow bridge with drops into the gorge on either side and being battered by spray, from all directions, as the Victoria Falls thunder loudly in your ear might not be for everyone. Fortunately, you do not need to cross the bridge to experience the Victoria Falls.
The Victoria Falls Does Dry Up (Somewhat)
During the dry season the water levels of the Zambezi start to drop. This tames the Victoria Falls somewhat but at the same time reveals the geography that lies underneath it all. The river is at its lowest from October through to January but the water levels start to fall as early as August. This is when you can start to see the foot of the Falls and the cliff faces start to reveal all of their nooks and crannies. It is also possible to have a quiet conversation as the roar turns into a quieter rumble. Walking across the Knife Edge Bridge becomes a less daunting task and photography becomes a viable option again.
It is during the dry season that white water rafting is at its most adrenaline fuelled best. Whilst rafting in the high-water season is possible, only when the waters are low can you experience all of the 25 rapids in the Batoka Gorge. During high-water the first ten rapids are closed because of the shear volume of water, making it too dangerous to raft. When the river is at its fullest, rafting may stop entirely for a month or two. The dry season also provides guaranteed sunsets pretty much every night so you know that your sunset river cruise on the upper river will end with a sunset and not a thunderstorm. Having said that, thunderstorm cruises make for a great experience in their own right. Livingstone Island is closed during high water but is a must-visit destination once the waters drop. Swimming in the Devil’s Pool directly above the Victoria Falls is a must for this time of year… If you dare.
The Victoria Falls Bridge
During the early 1900’s European visitors to the Victoria Falls started to increase. In part this was due to the railway that was built by Cecil Rhodes in his attempt to connect the Western Cape to Cairo. Whilst his vision was never completed, the railway made it as far as the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). This massive engineering undertaking hit a snag when it came to Livingstone. Crossing the Zambezi was problematic. Until 1905 barge ferries were used to cross the river but once the railway arrived, a bridge was required. Rhodes insisted on building the bridge over the gorge where the spray from Victoria Falls would fall on passing trains. In 1905 the bridge was opened and is still in operation today.
Used as a viable route for commercial traffic the bridge is utilised by all forms of vehicles, from large trucks and cars to freight trains. But that is not all the bridge is used for today. If you are brave enough you can opt to jump off the bridge with a piece of elastic tied to your ankles. Bungee jumps have been a feature of the bridge since the early 1990’s. If that is not your cup of tea then you can always try out the Gorge Swing which, as opposed to jumping head first, you jump feet first and are swung from one side of the gorge to the other. As one of Livingstone’s most popular activities it is always busy. So even if you plan to keep your feet entirely planted on terra firma, you can always go and watch others take the plunge from the safe vantage point of the Bridge Cafe where light meals and drinks can be consumed at the edge of the gorge.
In the old days the bridge was only used by steam trains or foot passengers. In the here and now it is possible to experience what it must have been like in those intrepid days of exploration. In Livingstone there are two beautifully restored steam locomotives; a 10th class No. 156 and a 12th class No. 204. These pull completely renovated and restored carriages one of which was built by the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, and went on display in London at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. It was shipped to the Union of South Africa and entered service on 19th May 1926. Today the trains and carriages are used for visiting the bridge and viewing the Victoria Falls accompanied by a 5* dining experience.
The Livingstone Express 5* experience
Dr. Livingstone I Presume
“scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
It is thought that the first European to see the falls was David Livingstone although there is speculation that a Portuguese priest caught a glimpse of them nearly 200 years earlier. Europeans had heard of reports of the falls before but were sceptical due to the geography of the area and the lack of any mountainous regions and valleys. In 1855 David Livingstone made claim to the falls and promptly named them after Queen Victoria. He was paddled to a small island, now called Livingstone Island by some local tribesmen and it was from that vantage point that he first saw this mighty waterfall. He later wrote of the Victoria Falls “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
Little did Dr. Livingstone know that a century and a half later people from all over the world could witness what angels in their flight gaze upon every day. The Flight of Angels helicopter and microlight flights over the falls are one of the most popular activities in Livingstone. Seeing an aerial view of the Victoria Falls is an experience that you will never forget. No matter whether the river is running high or low, the vantage point from up above leaves no details uncovered. You can see the zigzagging of the gorge and picture how the falls formed and geographically moved over time. You can also witness the wide, meandering upper river and the wildlife that surrounds it. Seeing the Victoria Falls like this is something David Livingstone could only have dreamed of.
Flight of Angels helicopter ride above the Victoria Falls
The Ferocious and the Sedate Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls invite contemplation from many different viewpoints and whilst seeing them from our modern vantage point, it is still possible to experience what ancient tribesmen and early settlers experienced all those years ago. Where now there may be a fence or barrier when before there was none, this National Heritage site still has an untouched charm about it. Trails invite you to walk around the area of the falls, but they are certainly not an example of over-engineering. Simple and rustic paths ensure the surrounding rain forest and the Victoria Falls themselves look much like they have done for millennia.
The Victoria Falls as seen in 2018
Unique views, impossible for David Livingstone to have witnessed are to be had from the Knife Edge Bridge and Victoria Falls Bridge. And gazing upon the falls like angels in their flight can be experienced in a way Livingstone could only ever have dreamed of. River-level views from below the falls are a good way to experience their power up-close by taking a rustic trail down to the Boiling Pot – a section of river below the falls that swirls and bubbles in the gorge. Down here things will certainly not look any different to what they have done throughout history. And no early settlers or ancient tribesmen would have ever had the chance to experience the raging torrents of white water cascading through the gorge. Seeing the gorge up-close from within, and experiencing the might that it has always carried, is our modern privilege.
The Zambezi River used to flow south through Botswana and join up with the Limpopo river until some 2 million years ago a shift in tectonic plates elevated the land, forcing the river to head eastwards and along its current route. This turned the Zambezi from an average river into Africa’s longest river, and in turn created one of the world’s largest waterfalls. Since then the Victoria Falls have been eroding a basalt fracture for hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of years, slowly edging the falls further north-west. This process continues today and will continue far into the future ensuring that what we see now is just a snapshot of a brief period in time. When you look at this natural wonder you can’t help but feel small and insignificant, yet at the same time it is one of the most awe inspiring sights in the world.
Sunset looking across to Zimbabwe from Zambia.
Today we have shopping malls, lodges, hotels, helicopters, speedboats, rafts and elasticated bungee cords. Yesteryear they had nothing but nature itself. And whilst we may get views of the Victoria Falls that no one in history had the chance to see, there is one thing we all have in common – when we gaze upon the falls today we experience the same awe and wonder as any person in history that has gazed at this same natural wonder.