Cheat Sheet: Victoria Falls

More than 160 years ago, Dr. David Livingstone brought Victoria Falls to the Western world’s attention as one of the seven natural wonders, and what he considered a sight “gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

Many safari-goers will consider Victoria Falls either at the beginning or end of their safari time in Botswana. Logistically it makes sense, as it’s a short hop either by plane or car from Kasane to Victoria Falls town in Zimbabwe or Livingstone city in Zambia. The Falls, known locally as the “Mosi-oa-Tunya” or the smoke that thunders, is considered one of the seven natural wonders due to its immense size and grandeur, and it holds a significant place in history due to Dr. Robert Livingstone, known for his medical and cultural impact on the local area.

Millions of years ago, the Falls were created due to cracks in the weaker sandstone that fills the crevices between the basalt plateau of the upper Zambezi. A helicopter ride from either side will reveal the progression of gorges where water once flowed and visitors can see how the Falls change minutely each year as the rock face recedes upstream. Today, there is a crevice forming by Devil’s Cataract, one portion of the Falls, which will deepen and divide into a new set of waterfalls over the next millennia.

The significance of the Falls to Western culture dates back to Dr. David Livingstone, who first set eyes on the waterfall in 1855. Mosi oa Tunya already held important symbolic importance to the great chief Sekute and to the local Toka and Leya tribes. Livingstone was an important man as a doctor, abolitionist and explorer; he believed that by finding a Christian commercial route for goods into the African interior, slavery as an industry in Africa could be abolished. When he arrived, he was captivated by the majesty of the Falls and named it Victoria Falls after his queen. He also found rampant malaria in the local population and was the first doctor to administer an effective dose of quinine as a preliminary malaria treatment.

Today, the Falls remain the natural tour de force that Dr. Livingstone once gazed upon. The Falls can be accessed by both Zimbabwe and Zambia, and one side is slightly better than the other depending on the time of year. Both offer similar biodiversity, with mopane and teak woodlands that are almost jungle-like along the edge of the river.

In the driest months between October and December, the Zambian side faces mostly bare rock downstream, so the Zimbabwean side arguably features better viewing. In flood season however, between February and May, the spray from the water is so thick, that visibility is very limited from the Zimbabwean side. Traveling to the Falls during flood season is not recommended due to the mist conditions, and access to Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool, an island and small pool that are both located right at the edge of the falls, is not permitted. White-water rafting is also not allowed.

Activities at the Falls range from tours by boat or helicopter and sunset cruises down the Zambezi to white-water rafting, bungee-jumping, zip line, paragliding, and visits to Livingstone Island and Devil’s Pool. Although almost all activities are offered from either country; when considering Victoria Falls, we recommend speaking about the pros and cons of basing your stay in either country with an Indagare specialist.

Why Zimbabwe?

Zimbabwe is known for having a more direct view of the "Main Falls", which is the portion of the Falls at its the lowest point and therefore the most impressive. During the dry months between October and December, all of the remaining water in the Zambezi diverts to this point, and thus Zimbabwe offers better viewing.

The best lodging on the Zimbabwean side is the Elephant Camp, which offers an intimate luxury tented experience overlooking the Batoka Gorges about 6 miles from Victoria Falls. The property has 12 tents with large bathrooms, private decks with plunge pools and views over the Park beyond. The Elephant Camp offers an elephant experience at its sanctuary next door, which houses several rescued and re-habituated elephants that guests can feed and spend time with the animals. The property also offers game drives in a private concession and guests can also book in-suite spa treatments.

Why Zambia?

Livingstone city in Zambia is much larger than Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and the airport there usually offers more options for connecting international flights. Guests can venture into town for lunch, visit the Livingstone museum or shop at local curio markets.

It is argued that the view of the Falls from Zambia is inferior to that of Zimbabwe, since it is from a sideways perspective, especially during the dry season when most of the Falls on the Zambian side is dry rock face. That said, Zambia is the only side that offers micro-lighting (a form of tandem paragliding), as well as access to Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool. High tea or lunch on Livingstone Island can be a memorable experience, as you are perched close to the edge of the Falls. Devil’s Pool is a small pool of water right at the lip of the Falls, which is only accessible during low water months for very intrepid adventurers. Light boats depart from the Royal Livingstone to access these two destinations.

There are multiple lodging options here for different types of travelers.

For an intimate, family friendly experience with many activities: Toka Leya offers a bush-like experience about 7 miles from the Falls, and offers a smooth transition from a Botswanan safari. With 12 tents (including three two-bedroom family tents), Toka Leya offers a comprehensive list of activities like rhino viewing, sunrise and sunset cruises, fishing, game drives, guided tours of Livingstone Museum and visits to the nearby Sinde village for community outreach.

For a large, full-service, upscale experience: The Royal Livingstone is situated right on the Falls and located within a large compound on the side of the Zambezi. It has 173 rooms, a restaurant with bar and sitting area, spa with hair and nail salon, gym, multiple outdoor dining areas and patios and a large pool. The theme throughout the entire property is one of grandeur and British colonialism, and all of the rooms have balconies or verandahs. The hotel offers exclusive access and is also the departure point for visiting Devil’s Pool or Livingstone Island. 

For a honeymooner’s private, intimate experience or a convenient home base for families with young children: Sussi & Chuma offers another intimate experience in twelve stilted chalets, each with air conditioning, private decks and river views. Guests can enjoy spa treatments, rhino viewing sunset cruises, nature walks, canoeing, game drives and visits to the local health kitchen and school project. Sussie and Chuma also offers two-bedroom homes, each with a private pool, guide and driver, chef, housekeeper and butler. Children of all ages are accepted.

For a larger group who is interested in staying in a private home: A big family or group traveling together may want to consider Tangala House, located about 15 miles upstream. The home accommodates up to eight people and boasts a swimming pool, kitchen and specious terrace. In-house massages can be arranged and there is a jetty with boats for water activities on the Zambezi. For quiet reflection, there are lots of nooks on the river to relax and enjoy the view.

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