Hailed as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls is on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. It was named by Scottish explorer David Livingstone in honor of Britain's Queen Victoria when he became the first European to see it in 1855. Local people still call it Mosi-oa-Tunya: the Smoke that Thunders.
Zimbabwe – Been There

The Smoke That Thunders

Photo by Colin Hoskins

Zimbabwe – Been There The Smoke That Thunders

For most visitors to Zimbabwe, their journey starts in Victoria Falls, the town named for Africa’s biggest waterfall.

Arne Doornebal
Arne Doornebal Journalist

Flying in direct from South Africa, I join the other passengers in craning my neck for a glimpse of its column of water vapor, driven high out of the flat African plateau by the Zambezi River’s 300-foot plunge. This plume of spray gives the falls the first part of its local name: Mosi-oa-Tunya – the “Smoke that Thunders”.

As I get closer, the thunder builds, reverberating in my chest with every step. The falls themselves remain hidden by the thick tropical rainforest that thrives on the constant mist. This must have been the experience in 1855 of Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, the first European to see them.

Unlike him, primed by photographs and films, I know what to expect but, even so, it is an astonishing sight to first see the Devil’s Cataract shining in the blazing afternoon heat, the calm-looking river pouring endlessly over a cliff to tear itself apart on the rocks below.

At first, I welcome the cooling spray that blows off the torrent but am soon soaked and chilled. Smart entrepreneurs sell one-day raincoats for three dollars each. Umbrellas don’t work: the water comes from below and all around.

The long trail, slippery with the plants and mosses that enjoy the constant damp, ends at the Victoria Falls bridge. I warm in the sun, steaming myself dry, and watch the fearless bungie jumpers drop into the gorge, their screams of delight breaking through the non-stop roar of falling water.

For those familiar with the neon-rich sights at Niagara, one of the remarkable things about the falls is how relatively free they are of such commercial ventures. I even spot zebra and giraffe wandering around a small game park nearby. Still, with its luxury hotels and stalls selling souvenirs, wild Africa this is not.

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Confusingly, Victoria Falls are not the world's widest or highest but are the world's largest, being wider AND higher than any other. In other words, Iguazu Falls are wider (2.7km vs 1.7km) but not higher, while Angel Falls are higher (979meters vs 108meters) but not wider – making for the world's largest sheet of falling water. Photo by Géraldine Mathonnet / Readers Photo

Géraldine Mathonnet

Géraldine Mathonnet

Agency
Readers Photo

Confusingly, Victoria Falls are not the world's widest or highest but are the world's largest, being wider AND higher than any other. In other words, Iguazu Falls are wider (2.7km vs 1.7km) but not higher, while Angel Falls are higher (979meters vs 108meters) but not wider – making for the world's largest sheet of falling water.

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