The name Victoria Falls refers to both the body of water and the town of the same name in Zimbabwe, from where you can enter the national park and watch as the upper Zambezi River plunges 354 feet down to the middle level. Equally, the falls can be seen on the Zambian side of the river from Livingstone, the town named after Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone (below), who discovered the falls for the wider world in 1855 and gave them the name of his queen.
My wife and I arrived at Harry Mwanga Nkumbula International Airport, Livingstone, where we each purchased a Kaza Univisa before travelling across the border into Zimbabwe. The Univisa is issued on arrival in either country and allows multiple entries into Zambia and Zimbabwe for the duration of your stay (up to 30 days) and is also valid for day trips to Botswana. It costs US$50 and it’s best to have cash available as not all entry ports have credit card facilities. It can also be purchased online.
We looked at the falls from both sides on our journey through Southern Africa but settled on the Zimbabwean side because of the opportunity to stay at the grand old Victoria Falls Hotel.
Built by the British in 1904, the Edwardian-style hotel was originally intended to accommodate workers on the Cape-to-Cairo railway. Since then it has become one of the world’s most celebrated five-star hotels, playing host to visiting statesmen, royalty and celebrities, as well as myriad tourists.
The resident warthogs and baboons keep guests amused, the latter missing no opportunity to steal food, so be sure to close the windows when you leave your room.
Situated in acres of private garden, the hotel overlooks the Victoria Falls Bridge and spray from the falls can often be seen in the distance.
There is a pathway from the hotel and the adjacent Kingdom Hotel down to the falls – the sign pointing to it can just be seen on the left in the photo above. Local youths offer to escort you in return for a tip, to protect you from the buffalo that lurk in the bush alongside the path. It was difficult to see how these pint-sized self-appointed guardians could protect you from anything, but we indulged one of them on our first trip down to the falls. He led us on an unnecessary dog-leg detour, pausing theatrically and whispering “shhh” at intervals until we reached the bottom.
The few grazing buffalo that we passed appeared oblivious to our presence and it seemed to me we could have avoided them altogether had we stuck to the main path.
On the return journey later that day, minus our “guard’’, we made it back to the hotel unscathed. Flippancy aside, the Cape buffalo is potentially a dangerous animal and should not be approached.
Victoria Falls are neither the highest nor the widest falls in the world (although they are twice the height of Niagara Falls) but as every major attraction must have a superlative, they have been declared the “largest” falls in the world based on their combined width and height. Whatever their size they are a magnificent sight to behold.
You can walk across the Victoria Falls Bridge (below) into Zambia – the border is halfway across – or simply stop on the bridge to admire the view of the falls and surrounding area. You have to tell the border control officers which you plan to do, so that they can mark your passport accordingly.
There is a trade-off between seeing the falls at their best without the view being obscured by spray, and at their less impressive dry-season flow. Peak flow is in May but the spray is so intense you sometimes can hardly see the falls and you get drenched in the attempt. In November the water volume is at its lowest so visibility is excellent, but you may find the falls disappointing. Taking all factors into consideration, February/March and July/August provide a happy medium.
While this blog focuses mainly on Zimbabwe, I should mention an activity that can be undertaken only on the Zambian side and only in the dry season (mid-August to mid-January). A tour will take you on a boat to Livingstone Island and from there you enter and recline in Devil’s Pool, a rock pool in the shallows that is literally right on the edge of the falls.
The theory is that the rock lip will prevent you from being swept over the edge. Sure, there are tour guides and ropes and things to assist you, but I still regard this activity as one best enjoyed if you are slightly insane.
Back in Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls the town is a pleasant enough community with a number of interesting shops and restaurants.
It’s a 10-minute walk from the Victoria Falls Hotel and on the way one is accosted frequently by street vendors selling trinkets and handicrafts. When this became tiresome I found it helpful to remember how poor the country is.
When the 37-year iron rule of Robert Mugabe ended in 2017, the people of Zimbabwe were promised job creation, a thriving economy, human rights reforms and a democratic political system. Unfortunately, progress has been painfully slow and little has changed. Zimbabwe is now in the grip of an economic crisis characterized by high inflation, food insecurity and rampant unemployment. The pandemic has only made things worse.
I approached the ATM at a local bank intending to top-up my funds but was told by the guard outside that the machine hadn’t dispensed any cash for over a year. When I asked him where I might be able to get some money, he advised me to cross the border into Zambia! I decided to stretch my funds and make them last.
Hapless locals waiting to withdraw cash from a bank with no money.
Ending on a high note, we had dinner at the fabulous Boma Dinner and Drum Show, where you can eat a variety of delicious game meat and, if you are game enough (pun intended), the mopani worm.
The restaurant is a 10-minute drive from town. A local taxi driver not only took us there but waited while we dined – at no extra charge – and then returned us to our hotel.
From Victoria Falls we flew to Cape Town, the subject of my next blog.
Devil’s Pool photo courtesy of Visit Victoria Falls
Other photos © Judy Barford