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I was lucky enough to visit this stunning destination a couple of years ago, and I must say that while I have been to some beautiful places in the world, this has got to be near the top of the list.
The Victoria Falls, as they are known to us in the west, or "the smoke that thunders" to the local people, are amongst the biggest waterfalls in the world with a total height of over 100m. The falls are part of the Zambezi River which runs through southern Africa. The falls are almost right on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe (if you don't know your Cape Town from your Cairo when it comes to Africa geography, these two countries are just north of South Africa and west of Mozambique), in fact I am pretty sure you can access views of the falls from both countries.
When I visited the area I flew into Zimbabwe rather than Zambia - there is an airport about 40 mins away from the falls, which is accessible from Johannesburg. This is quite an experience, and probably one of the only negatives of the trip. Be sure to have sufficient cash in American dollars to pay the 'entry tax' to the airport officials (I use the word 'officials' here quite loosely).
There are a number of accommodation options available near the falls both on the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides. I stayed at a Backpackers lodge on the Zimbabwean side and at about US$2 per night for a place that was clean, had a bar, and even a pool, I was pretty darn impressed. It was bunk accommodation though. There are also quite a few upper crust accommodation options that you could look into.
A bridge runs across the river, just below the falls, between the two countries and offers an amazing view of a large section of the falls. One of the things that makes the falls so unusual though is their width, and to fully appreciate this you really need to get closer. We got right up close to the falls on the zambian side, and you can actually walk out in front of the falls on the opposite rock face, to get absolutely drenched by the spray, deafened by the noise, and blown away by the view. It was one of the most exhilerating things that I have ever done and I highly recommend this spot to any nature lovers, adventurers, or sightseeers in the region.
For the more fearless amongst you, you can also bungy jump off the bridge near the falls, or go white water rafting in the rapids above the waterfall. The surrounding area is heavily forested and there are great opportunities for wildlife watching, bushwalking, and much more. There was a company running hot air balloons when I was there too - you can go up in the balloon and get a view of the falls and the countryside from there.
My biggest tip though would be to take sufficient amounts of foreign currency with you when you go, the crazy inflation of the Zimbabwean dollar means that the currency is almost worthless and for some things (like border payments etc) you can only pay with American dollars and we really struggled to get any of the hotels to exchange our currency for us. I found the area to be quite safe, and the people were absolutely lovely. This is a tourist destination and people understand that the visitors are their livelihood, therefore you will be treated well. Of course there is some begging, but nowhere near as much as in Asia and if you ignore unwanted attention people will leave you alone. I still wouldnt recommend this location to women travelling on their own though - its probably more suited to couples or small groups or families with slightly older children.
First things first - don't be put off by the political unrest in Zimbabwe. I was a little apprehensive before heading out here on my own in June 2001, but It turned out to be one of the friendliest places I've ever been. That's not to say that I didn't think I was going to die (of which more later) - but I'd paid for that experience, so I'm not complaining! The raison d'etre of Victoria Falls town is, as you would expect, tourism. When you first arrive you will get a lot of hassle from touts trying to sell you everything from rafting trips to wooden hippos. It can get a bit tiresome, but the sales pressure is friendly, not aggressive. In any case, once you've been there a day or two, it seems to die down - it's the new arrivals that get it. On to the falls themselves, then. Rather than just walking straight down to the park entrance, I recommend taking Parkway road (up towards Elephant Hills hotel) and turning off to the right to the Big Tree (a huge baobab). I was lucky enough to encounter an elephant grazing on the lower branches of this tree - it's one thing coming across an elephant when you're in a safari bus, quite another when you're out walking on the edge of a town! From here you can continue to the river's edge and curve back round to the right, following the river. In the distance you can see the plume of spray and hear the roar of the falls. You'll probably see more wildlife - warthogs, maybe a few impala - en route too. The national park costs the equivalent of US$20 - but that's calculated at the official exchange rate (about Z$55 to US$1 when I was there). If you change your money at a forex bureau rather than a bank then you can get double this, so entry only costs $10. And boy is it worth it! No photos can do justice to the falls - they're so huge it's almost impossible to take them all in at once. The river is over a mile wide at this point, and
it plunges over 300ft into a narrow gorge. You will get wet! If you go when the river is at its highest (April - June) the spray is unbelievable - like a constant downpour. In fact, it creates a mini ecosystem - in contrast to the dry bush nearby, in the national park it's lush rainforest. The best vantage point on this side is Danger Point - a slippery outcrop of rock on the lip of the falls. There's no fence or anything boring like that - take care! That wasn't the scene of my near-death experience, though! The big thing at Vic Falls (apart from the bungee jump, of course) is white-water rafting. Now, I've been rafting a few times before and like to think I'm not easily scared. Vic Falls goes one better - as well as rafting you can go riverboarding. This involves riding the rapids on a tiny little bodyboard (think Baywatch). These rapids are big - Grade 5, the biggest you can ride even in a big raft, and riding them on a bodyboard is just mad. They suck you under, they spit you out and theres nowt you can do about it. But if you survive, you're on an adrenaline high for about a week afterwards! One final recommendation for Victoria Falls - make sure you see them from the Zambian side. It's no problem to cross the border for a day (don't forget your passport - you have to pay a few quid for a day visa if you don't already have a Zambian visa). Head to this side late in the afternoon, so you can watch the sunset. On the Zambian side you can get right up to the edge of the river, only a few metres from the lip of the falls. At sunset, the river turns to gold, the cloud of spray turns bright pink, and the setting sun is crimson through the mist. It's absolutely beautiful.
Into the northwest of Zimbabwe runs the Zambezi River. This great river enters Zimbabwe from Zambia in an astounding manner. It crashes over one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world - Victoria Falls. David Livingstone was the first outsider to stumble across this incredible nature feature and reported it to the world in 1860, naming it after his Queen - Victoria. However, the 'natives' had already given it a name - Mosi-oa-Tunya - meaning The Smoke that Thunders. This is a very apt name which they gave it as the roar of the falls can be heard from the town of Victoria Falls which is situated about 15mins walk away. The spray - or smoke as they described it - can be seen from miles away as the water falls 100m into a deep gorge. The falls themselves are situated in their own National Park, protecting them from the destructive nature of some humans. Entry into the Park costs around $5 Zim for the Zimbabweans but $5 US (for children) or $10 US (for adults). These prices may well have risen since I visited in December 1999 as the Zimbabwean dollar has depreciated greatly since then. On entering the Park there is a small hut containing a short history of the falls along with photos and maps of the area. It really is very small and probably won't take more than 15-20mins to look at everything. You then walk through a rain forest, this is an amazing area as it is all natural. This rain forest survives because of the spray from the falls and the high humidity in the surrounding areas. I'm sure that is one of the few natural rain forests to be found so far south of the Tropics. Anyway, to get back to the Falls. After a short walk through the humid forest you get your first glimpse of the 2km long falls. The first part that you will probably see is called Devils Cataract. A short walk along through the Rain Forest will bring you to the main part of the falls. This is the section that you will see on your Tourist
Information Sheets and the like. At this point its probably quite a good idea to put away anything which you want to keep dry and if possible take out the umbrella. We got soaked and the rainy season had only just begun. Further along the walk you leave the rain forest behind you, and the fences to stop you falling over, and approach Rainbow Falls. Peering over the edge of these falls you will see a rainbow, or at least part of one - again this depends on the time of year you visit. At the end of the walk, before you turn back to return to the exit, you can see the Boiling Pot. Here the water, which has fallen from the heights, turns an abrupt corner before continuing along to form the rapids where you can white water raft. You can also get a glimpse of the bridge that crosses the gorge in Zambia and from where - if you're mad enough - you can do a bungee jump. The toilet facilities are very limited, we only saw one little block and they were quite dirty, with no toilet paper. However, there may well be more - we had to rush back from the far end of the falls as a huge storm blew over the Zambezi from Zambia. If you want to buy souvenirs and food its best to wait until you get back to the town. There are street vendors outside the Park gates but they will charge you extortionate prices because they KNOW you're a tourist. If you want to see the falls from a different angle there is the Flight of the Angels. This is a trip which sadly I didn't have time to go on, but apparently is spectacular. It's a flight over the falls in a small plane, I believe it takes around 30mins and is quite expensive. If you're travelling in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia or even South Africa I strongly recommend including a trip to Victoria Falls. I promise you won't be disappointed.
Musi-oya-tunya - 'the smoke that thunders', is the local name for Victoria Falls, where the mighty Zambezi river plunges into a drop over a mile wide and 350 feet deep. The spray is visible hundreds of feet above the falls and remains visible and audible over 6Km upstrea. The Falls and their surrounding area have been declared a National Park to prevent over commercialisation - but don't worry - there's plenty for tourists. The Falls themselves are divided into five sections, Devil's Cataract, Main Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract, The chasm the river plunges into is quite narrow and you can walk quite close to the edge and watch on average, an incredible 120 million gallons of water PER MINUTE hurtle into the void, become atomised and rise again to hang in glittering rainbow veils hundreds of feet above the gorge. Rainbows are everywhere. And this is one of only two places I know on Earth where you can see a moonbow or lunar rainbow by night - an hauntingly beautiful sight. Surrounding the Falls is essentially a mini-rainforest, due to the vast amount of water in the air - quite incredible. Take one of the sunset cruises on offer down the Zambezi and watch the river turn to molten gold as flocks of birds skim homewards over the gleaming surface, crocodiles slip like silent menace into the stream and you will suddenly realise that hippos are not at all cuddly and you are a very long way from home - and the river bank. On a more mundane note - the bar on the boat - steer clear of the complimentary sundowner cocktails, (you can actually feel them stripping the enamel off your teeth). Stick to rum and coke, (local and fairly cheap) or gin & tonic, (imported & horribly expensive). Sadly, sunsets this close to the equator are fairly short. But for an after dark thrill visit the traditional dancing display in the Falls Craft Village open air theatre behind the post office.- examples o
f traditions from a whole range of different ethnic groups. The most exciting have to be the Shangaan - a warrior people, related to the Zulu, who settled the eastern part of Zimbabwe and the Mwaso Makishi dancers, almost completely hidden beneath huge masklike costumes or balancing on tall, slender poles . It's all a bit touristy - but with the flaming torches, hypnotic rhythms and exotic costumes - hey, let's go for it. Come back to the Craft Village during the day and see examples of traditional living from many of Zimbabwe's different people's. As the brochure sadly comments, 'The modern social behaviour has vastly affected the tradition, culture and heritage of our country, hence the need for such a museum'. The many different building techniques used and different traditional designs will soon reveal the phrase 'mud hut' to be a particularly pathetic, inadequate and derogatory expression. As usual, you will have ample opportunities to avail yourself of souvenirs in the gift shop. (You have to go through the gift shop to get out - smart design!) The little town of Victoria Falls doesn't have a great deal to offer - although I am not yet blasé enough to find the spectacle of baboons and warthogs wandering round town anything other than fascinating. (Take note of the signs displayed in the hotels though please, and don't feed the wild animals. This is not a zoo - the clue is right there in that phrase 'wild animals'). But if this dies begin to pall, you can always check out Spencers Creek Crocodile Ranch and Animal Sanctuary, a little outside the town, just past the A'Zambezi Lodge Hotel. Here you can hold a crocodile, (a very small crocodile) and get excitingly close to some of the largest captive crocodiles in Africa. You'll be amazed at how fast they can move when they want to - so don't do anything rash like climbing over the fence. Guess what colour the inside of a crocodil
e's mouth is? Bright orange - like a pumpkin! That came as a surprise. I stayed at the A'Zambezi Lodge, ( 3 star), which is right on the banks of the Zambezi. It's a modern hotel built using traditional materials and influenced by traditional design - thatched roofs, wooden exterior - it's a bit different. A lot of the air conditioned, en-suite, bedrooms overlook the river Air conditioning's a big plus - Vic Falls is in the north of the country where it gets very hot. There's a nice pool and the restaurant has a good variety of dishes. Unfortunately Zimbabwean cuisine has inherited much that is dull from the English. The standard set lunch menu in city hotels is likely to be hot soup, hot roast dinner followed by hot pie and custard - whatever the weather. Anyway - vegetarianism is an alien concept in Zimbabwe but the hotel will run to a mushroom omelette - or anything else that isn't on the menu if they can. Try and avoid imported drinks if you don't want a huge bar bill. I've plugged the rum & coke above - the local lager-like beer Castle, Lion or Zambezi is fine too and also cheap. (Mind you I'm not much of a beer drinker). I booked the whole of this Flame Lily tour in Harare, (although it took a long time - the tourist office is totally geared up to stuff booked months in advance from abroad - the idea that someone might walk in off the street and book a tour for Vic Falls for NEXT week took them a bit by surprise), the whole thing, including; flights to and from Harare, transfers, 2 nights half board, sunset cruise, traditional dancing, craft village and crocodile ranch trips cost something like eighty quid. Oh yes - and there's the added thrill of seeing game from the plane - that was good too - felt like David Attenborough ought to be doing a voice-over.
Open to visitors throughout the year, the Victoria Falls National Park in north-western Zimbabwe protects the south and east bank of the Zambezi River in the area of the world-famous Victoria Falls. It covers 23.4 km2 extending from the larger Zambezi National Park about 6 km above the falls to about 12 km below the falls.