Karl’s Chronicles. Victoria Falls – High & Dry
Mist, clouds, rain and thunder on a bright blue day!
Such a contradiction would puzzle a meteorologist as two opposites couldn’t compete without one losing ground, but the performance continued across the day and through the night. The exchange of sunshine to moonlight made no difference as the clouds and mist remained absolute, and the rain, well to behold it had managed to invert itself. That ferocious roar, however, would terrify a lion and drown out several jet-engines, never falling in pitch or breaking for air, its force resonating with the gods. This frenzied weather came from below, a secondary cause to a hurried beast that stood still, forcing another contradiction. From above, her shape could have resembled a grotesque snake, a long, lithe body culminating at a sunken head, unfurling a white tongue rivalling her body in length.
She came with many names; the Toka Keya people referred to her as Shongwe -The Place of the Rainbow, the Ndebele, the dominant tribe in the South credited her as Manza Thunqayo, while the Makololo defined her as Mosi-oa-Tunya – The Smoke that Sounds. David Livingstone, a foreign missionary named her in honour of his Queen in the mid-19th century, a title most visitors still refer to, of this powerful presence that scars the land – The Victoria Falls.
“Have you the smoke that sounds in your country?” asked the sebitaune (Makololo chief) to Livingstone when he visited the falls, having journeyed east from Linyanti in Namibia, following the Zambesi and Chobe rivers. Livingstone noted the Makololo looked at the falls in awe, always from a distance, never making any further advancement. The thunderous noise and vapour were enough to command a respectful position.
David Livingstone became the first European to set eyes on the falls. Describing some of the flora to a companion back in England, he wrote ‘Some trees resemble the great spreading oak, others assume the character of our own elms and chestnuts’, but that’s where similarities stopped. The extreme force and scope of the cascades had no British equivalent. Livingstone’s November 1855 visit saw that ‘the falls are bounded on three sides by ridges 300 or 400 feet in height, which are covered in forest, with the red soil appearing amongst the trees.’ Had Livingstone been around today, the gentle-mannered Scottish missionary would affectionately recognise the dominant power of the Mosi-oa-Tunya and remain no less surprised at the expansive numbers of foreigners strolling along under the same opinion.
On the opposite side of the falls, away from Livingstone’s descriptions regarding similarities to trees back home, rises a lush wall of a rain forest. Fed by the constant spray, the forest is of immense biological importance, supporting several species of rare tree, like old mahogany, ebony, wild date and various lianas. Across the Mosi-oa-Tunya NP, Victoria Falls NP and the nearby Zambezi NP, wander large herds of elephants, Cape buffalo, Grants Zebra, and antelope. Upstream from the falls reside pods of hippopotami and bank-side crocodiles. Herons hunt between the rocks while African fish eagles survey the river from nearby trees. Taita falcon, Black eagle and Augur buzzard prefer the sheer walls of the downstream gorges for breeding.
Though classed as the worlds largest falls, she is neither the highest (Angel Falls 979m, Bolivia) nor the widest (Khone Falls, 10,783m, Laos), but claims the accolade on a combined total of the two. Walking upstream for a while gives you some peace from the pounding falls and the harried behaviour of too many visitors absorbed with taking selfies. The river flows across a featureless basalt plateau, void of mountains and escarpments, but the Zambezi is dotted with several small islands, gaining in number towards the drop. The river undertakes a single fall into a transverse chasm, having long pounded through a fracture zone of the basalt plateau. This long chasm, 1700 metres in length is the First Gorge, the river passes through a single hundred-metre opening to resume a course through eight further gorges, cut east to west along fault lines in a zig-zag formation. These were once great waterfalls from where the river sculpted each one in turn, wearing back the lip of the falls as it clawed a deeper trench within the basalt, from where the original Falls retreated upstream. Once this motion had established the wall, the river would erode the rock until it discovered the next faultline running behind the wall. The process would start again as the next faultline became the new Falls.
Several paths scout close to the canyon’s edge, both in Zambia and Zimbabwe from which the falls and the second gorge act as a natural boundary. These paths afford numerous advantage points to appreciate the tremendous volume of noise and water generated across the First Gorge. But ascertaining during the rainy season (late Nov-early Apr) soon turns into a miserable soaking from the deluge of water thrown into your path. Umbrellas and waterproofs immediately flounder like a canoe in an Atlantic gale, out of depth as the water vomited up from the deep silvery bowels, trounces every weak point. Of course, when it’s happening to somebody else like the four Chinese visitors I saw battling the deluge engulfing the Knife Edge bridge, it takes on a comical stance. Smugly watching a broken link of yellow anoraks fumbling through the mist only to be bullied by another downpour. It bore a faint resemblance to lifeguards heading through the grey to reach an angry sea. The swollen Zambezi pushes the Falls to her maximum, sending 750 million litres of water over the lip every minute. The bloated volume smashing onto the gorge floor manifests the sprays and clouds that often linger 400 metres above the ground, and it’s not unusual to double that distance making them visible from over forty kilometres away.
The dry season conjures up a much different personality as receding waters drop to a tenth of the April flow. Much of the thick white curtain that hangs across much of the gorge is only active along the Main falls. The remaining lip east of Livingstone island that incorporates Horseshoe and Rainbow Falls and tiny Armchair island remain dry. Though the water’s volume is drastically reduced, the change allows a better exploration of the First Gorge. Gone is the impenetrable wall of mist and spray providing access right to the edge of the wall. It’s even feasible to descend to the gorge floor, and local fishermen brave the climb to partake in a spot of line-fishing. This temporary shift exposes an opportunity to observe the gorges fascinating geology alongside the uncanniness of a Natural Wonder stripped back to its skin.
Halfway along, between the Main and Horseshoe Falls, stretching right to the lip is Livingstone Island. Writing in his autobiographical Journeys in South Africa, David Livingstone arrived by a much riskier approach. ‘I left the canoe by which we had come down this far, and embarked in a lighter one, with men well acquainted with the rapids, who, by passing down the centre of the stream in the eddies and still places caused by many jutting rocks, brought me to an island situated in the middle of the river, on the edge of the lip over which the water rolls.’
Livingstone had heard of the Falls formidable and ineffable worth long before he reached Rhodesia and quite possibly Voortrekker hunters already knew of them. On the tail of Livingstone’s visit, a gradual thread of merchants, hunters, and missionaries established a European settlement ten kilometres upstream. Set to developing around Old Drift, the only ferry crossing on the Zambezi which operated a cable-pulled barge. But expansion met pernicious resistance from mosquito-infested marshes nearby, as Malaria devastated the populace.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, Old Drift settlers had relocated to higher ground at Constitution Hill. Cecil Rhode’s pushed plans ahead for his ambitious but unachievable scheme of a Cape to Cairo railway. With the Victoria Falls bridge effectively spanning the gap between Northern Rhodesia’s (Zambia) northeastern Copperbelt and coal deposits in Rhodesia’s (Zimbabwe) Wankie district.
In England, the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company prefabricated the steel parts before shipping them to Mozambique, then transported across Rhodesia on Rhode’s new railway. The 198-metre long bridge would take a further fourteen months to construct. Cecil Rhodes had passed on before construction began, so Sir George Darwin, son of Charles Darwin, was handed the honours of opening the bridge. On that 12th September day in 1905, the bridge made travel from the Cape all the way north to Belgian’s Congo achievable. Today, the 115-year-old bridge sees few trains but plenty of people willing to throw themselves off!
Plummeting down through the Second Gorge to the frothing waters 111 metres below, connected to sanity with nothing more than an elastic chord. Bungee jumps take place from the bridge’s centre, so there is something both historical and bureaucratic about the adrenaline-soaked activity. Jumping off where two countries meet, then bouncing back up, one trajectory in Zimbabwe, the next into Zambia. It is one of the worlds highest jumps, so it’s not for the timid or acrophobic. To bridge the gap (pardon the pun!) one can don a harness and explore the structure, learning about its history and the astounding feat of civil engineering in bringing the entire formation together. The central arch spans a whopping 156 metres, so seeing that up close and personal must be a unique high-light with its own accompanying adrenaline rush.
With Victoria Falls being a major tourist destination, capitalised from both sides of the bridge, an entire array of opportunities have developed to appreciate the site from a different perspective. You can spend several days (and plenty of money) completing activities, both white-knuckle and comfortably grounded. Creating your own unique climate much like the Falls themselves. But instead of vapour and spray it will be one dictated by drifting and changing emotions. Extreme in their scale as you swing through shock, surprise, trepidation, amazement, and appreciation. Ending with euphoria at the privileged experience of witnessing one of natures most dramatic and beautiful pieces of work in constant motion.
Below are some of the options to expand on a Victoria Falls exploration.
Livingstone Island: Located in the middle of the Zambezi and right up to the Falls’ lip, this historical strip of land was where Livingstone witnessed the wild waters disappear into this deep laceration. Visitors can enjoy the same vistas as Livingstone once did as well as enjoying a dip in Devil’s Pool. Various packages offer breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea backed by a full bar. Around October, when the river is lower, it’s occasionally possible to explore the top of the Falls as well as swim. www.tongabezi.com (Zambia)
Sunset cruises: Offer a relaxed way of enjoying the Zambezi River upstream from the Falls. A chance to observe birdlife, crocodiles, hippos and elephants against a spectacular sunset. Cruises include finger snacks, alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. www.wildhorizons.co.za (Zambia)
The African Queen Cruise Co. also operates a selection of cruises from their fleet. The African Queen is a triple-deck 70ft catamaran. Morning, lunch and sunset cruises take the visitor along the Zambezi from the Zambian side. Guests can hire out the entire vessel for private events. www.livingstonesadventure.com (Zambia)
Fishing Excursions: Experienced guides for Angle Zambia will transport you upstream to the best sites. Over 75 species inhabit the river with the Tiger Fish being the prized catch on many peoples list. Half-day and full-day excursions include refreshments/equipment & tackle/hotel transfer/boat, guide and fuel. The company employs an ethical catch and release policy. www.zambezifishing.com
Microlight: A microlight journey above the Falls will be the closest you can get to feeling like a bird. Batoka Sky flights last fifteen minutes, heading over the Zambezi river to circle the Victoria Falls. A thirty-minute program incorporates a low-level approach over Mosi-oa-Tunya NP in search of animal and birdlife. Cameras are prohibited due to the passenger seat’s proximity to the propeller. The companies wing-mounted high-res camera can record footage for an additional fee. Max weight limit-110kg. Children below 12 fly at the pilot’s discretion. www.livingstoneadventure.com/microlights/ (Zambia)
White Water Rafting: Run by several companies in both countries. Most of the 25 rapids extending from the First Gorge are grades IV, and V. Rafting in low water (July-Jan) leaves from the Boiling Pot (Zambia), a natural alcove at the head of the Second Gorge. In Zimbabwe, boats launch from the fourth rapid. Some might presume the low water would be more problematic, but waves and troughs have a greater definition, materialising in an experience both enthralling and draining. From Feb-July, high-water rafting only operates half-day trips. Suspension of all rafting happens if the river level becomes too high. All companies should employ briefings, safety checks and safety lessons before launch. Aside from single day exploits it’s possible to join lesser run multi-day expeditions, up to a week long.
For further information about Victoria Falls and further afield it is worth checking out both the Zambian and Zimbabwean tourist offices.
Zambia Tourism www.zambiatourism.com
Zimbabwe Tourism www.zimbabwetourism.net