The sheer might of the Victoria Falls will blow you away. But what’s more, it’s at the heart of one of Africa’s most diverse and exciting regions. Our guide will help you to make the most of your visit. Compiled by Mana Meadows
Whether you take a dawn helicopter flight over this natural wonder of the world or watch the moon rise over the two million-year-old gorge, your experiences here are bound to be stirring and will involve spectacular scenery. Known in the Tonga language as Mosi-oa-Tunya (‘the Smoke that Thunders’), due to its eternal roar and ever-present spray it was renamed by Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone,the first European to view the spectacle in 1855.
Accessed from either the eponymous town in Zimbabwe or Livingstone in Zambia, the Falls are the lifeblood of these small tourist centres. Both are laid-back and yet offer first-class hospitality. And getting here has just become even easier. With the ability to accommodate 1.7 million passengers annually, the new Victoria Falls Airport can handle the world’s largest aircraft, allowing long-haul, international flights to land here.
The Zambezi is the thread that weaves this vibrant tapestry together. At a width of 1700m before the gorge, it flows, unhurried, towards the edge, before plummeting 110m into the chasm below. Here it morphs into a crazed, frothing monster, the perfect companion for white-knuckle whitewater rafting, for which its torrents are famous.
But the Falls can claim even more than this. They lie at the centre of some of the most diverse and beautiful wilderness areas on the planet, with destinations such as the Okavango Delta and Hwange National Park just a short hop away.
It was hot. Piping hot. Heat waves trembled over the sunbaked tarmac, like a mirage. Earlier, I had watched that ever-rising, swirling wall of seemingly impenetrable mist from a distance, but now, as I meandered towards that roar, I could feel it, too.
Soon I was in the thick of it. Gripping my futile umbrella, I slipped and slithered along the sodden path while the resolute spray clung to me, caressing me and soaking me to the skin. I stopped to take it all in: the Falls before me, vast, magnificent and unspeakably beautiful. As I gazed in awe at the crashing torrents — so violent in their descent into the jaws of death — I could hear nothing but that deafening roar. The furious white water frothed and spewed.
The raw power of that mighty cascade was astounding. It was exhilarating to perceive those bubbling, coughing, foaming waters in reality, that terrifying cauldron far beneath me. As the water pounded, my heart fluttered as if butterflies had been let loose within me, my breath was quick and light, and I mused on how phenomenal Mother Nature is. The water droplets, fairy-like, danced around me as if in celebration. Figures standing on a cliff on the Zimbabwean side were mere pinpricks on the horizon.
Later, I stopped beside the ink-smooth waters at the top of the waterfall, so deceptively tranquil before they plummet 110m into the chasm below. As the bulrushes blew serenely in the wind, their whispering drowned out by the roar, a vivid rainbow formed, its two ends nearly meeting in a full circle above the shimmering waters and spray, surreal and yet as clear as day.
Laura Griffith-Jones, Editor
Victoria Falls is the undisputed adventure capital of Africa. The activities are professionally run and have impeccable safety standards, with the raw beauty of the Falls and their surroundings as backdrop.
Rafting here is the ‘best one-day whitewater experience in the world’, a title it was given with good reason. Nearly half of the rapids are classified as Grade 5 (Grade 6 is unrunnable), with chilling names such as the Devil’s Toilet Bowl and Stairway to Heaven. The excitement, exquisite scenery and camaraderie will remain etched on your mind long after the certificate has faded. Outings head off early and finish by mid-afternoon, allowing another activity afterwards, such as river boarding or jet boating.
Bungee jumping is another adrenalin-junkie must-do. With the thundering at your back, you plunge 111 metres off the Victoria Falls Bridge towards the Zambezi’s whirling whitewater below. Alternatively, the Bridge Swing involves free falling and then swinging in a huge arc. Both require a minimum age of 14 years and bodyweight of 40kg. The more family-friendly Bridge Slide (a zip-line) is suitable for six year olds and up.
The Canopy Tour is a two-hour treetop adventure consisting of various slides and a walkway over the Victoria Falls rainforest. Please note it is not available to pregnant women, people with heart conditions or with mobility, back or shoulder problems. Otherwise, try the nearby Zip-Line or Gorge Swing (both are similar to their bridge-based counterparts). The aptly named Flying Fox sees you soaring horizontally through the air after a running jump. For these activities there is no age limit, but younger children may be required to ride in tandem. You can also go quad-biking in the area around Livingstone and the Batoka Gorge, as well as abseiling.
Wildlife and nature
There are also more mellow ways to experience the river. Canoe trips (half-day, day and overnight) offer a serene and unobtrusive way to explore the Zambezi’s flora and fauna. The popular sunset cruises are easy to squeeze in between day- and night-time activities. You can also do a gorge hike, go fishing or try the region’s finest golf courses at Elephant Hills Golf Club in Victoria Falls or Livingstone Golf Club.
Both of the towns have nearby national parks for game drives and walking safaris, and private concessions often offer even better chances of seeing rhino and other exciting game. Visiting one of the nearby crocodile parks (The Crocodile Ranch in Victoria Falls and Gwembe Crocodile Farm in Livingstone) is another fun family outing.
Alternatively, you can combine some game viewing with horse riding; inexperienced riders are also catered for. Helicopter flights provide unique and heart-stopping bird’s-eye views over the falls, while microlighting (available only in Livingstone) does the same, but with the wind in your hair.
Conserving the region
The Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are surrounded by the 2340-hectare Victoria Falls National Park and the 57,000-hectare Zambezi National Park. The VFAPU (Victoria Falls Anti-Poaching Unit), set up by Charles Brightman and the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in January 1999, aims to mitigate the consequences of human pressure on nature in the region. To play your part, visit vfapu.com.
People and culture
In Livingstone, try the Local Cowboy Cycle Tour, a no-frills excursion that directly benefits schools in the area. Chief Mukuni’s Cultural Village Tours to Mukuni village provide an organised way to learn about the community. Floating Skies offer various options, including market, historical and cooking jaunts. In Victoria Falls town, Dingani Tours offer similar cultural encounters, as do many of the bigger companies.
Mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes had a vision of a Cape-to-Cairo railway, and though he never actually saw the Victoria Falls, he is said to have envisaged “a bridge across the Zambezi, where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls”. The railway never materialised, but the Zambezi got her bridge. A Victoria Falls Bridge Tour will teach you more about this fascinating period in history. You can learn more on the Zambian side of the bridge, where there is a small museum (entrance is free). Train enthusiasts will enjoy Livingstone’s Railway Museum in Chishimba Falls Road, while the modest Livingstone Museum has an interesting section on David Livingstone as well as galleries focusing on ethnography, art, history, natural history and archaeology.
Building the bridge – Peter Roberts, author of Sun, Steel & Spray: a History of the Victoria Falls Bridge
The Victoria Falls Bridge is an iconic and integral part of the modern landscape of the site, spanning the narrow Batoka Gorge a short distance downstream of the gorge. Opened in 1905, its location so close to the Falls caused much controversy, with contemporary commentators divided over its merits. To some it was ‘a poem in steel’, to others it was a ‘manmade monster’, desecrating nature’s magnificent spectacle. But it soon became a popular tourist attraction in its own right, offering pedestrians and train passengers a spectacular new perspective of the cataract below, as well as a vital transport link with the north. Today the bridge hosts a visitor centre (with a restaurant and museum) on the northern bank, and offers tourist activities from bungee jumping to interpretive historical tours.
Eating out and sundowners
Whether you’re looking for fine dining or a cocktail with a view, there are plenty of good restaurants and bars on both sides of the Falls. Here’s our pick of the best:
The Boma – Place of Eating is brilliant for families and friends alike, promising an evening of fun. The buffet includes local specialties such as warthog and mopane worms, and the interactive drumming will bring out the rhythm in everyone. For an African township dining experience, memorable ‘shebeen cuisine’ and live music, go to Mama Africa Eating House. The more rustic Chipala Cultural Experience has a ‘traditional festival’ theme.
The Zambezi Explorer Signature Lounge combines great food with a spectacular setting on board the Zambezi Explorer luxury vessel. For intimate dining under the African stars, book The Elephant in the Moon.
For a quick bite, head to The Shearwater Cafe, open from 8am until late. For a Falls view, stop by The Bridge Café. Feast with the thunder of crashing water for background music at The Rainforest Cafe, which serves top-class food in the forest; it’s closed in the evenings.
With stunning views of a waterhole from a game-viewing platform, Buffalo Bar at The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is a superb place for sundowners. Alternatively, The Lookout Cafe overlooks the brooding gorge, and if you time it right, you can catch moonrise over the Falls Bridge from here. Gorges Lodge is also in a stunning setting right on the edge of the chasm.
Luxury vintage travel meets fine dining and wildlife viewing when you dine on board The Royal Livingstone Express during a steam safari in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. The Zambezi Waterfront also offers lovely river views and a recently introduced pizza oven. In town, The Golden Leaf has a solid reputation for superb Indian food. Also try Feeling Livingstone Lounge for top-notch Mediterranean food, Olga’s Italian Corner for pizza, pasta and gelato and Kubu Cafe for light meals.
A good spot for a cocktail is the David Livingstone Safari Lodge and Spa, where you can relax on its beautiful pool deck overlooking the Zambezi.
Shopping in Victoria Falls and Livingstone is a low-key, relaxed affair dominated by small owner-run shops and vibrant open-air curio markets:
Elephants Walk centre, at the end of Adam Stander Drive, is an essential stop for high-quality mementos. Try the Ndau Collection for eclectic silver jewellery with an African touch. Chitenge Tenga sells groovy, recycled items and bright chitenge (meaning ‘fabric’) products. Prime Art Gallery features sculptures and paintings from internationally acclaimed Zimbabwean artists such as David Chinyama and Dominic Benhura. The Ruoko Project is an inspiring, community-based venture that promotes local crafts such as wirework, mosaics, sketching and scrimshaw. Artisans are given an area rent-free within the mall’s courtyard, and visitors can interact with them, watch them at work and buy directly from them. There is also a small museum called the Jafuta Heritage Centre, which is free to visit and has visual and material displays of local history and culture.
Landela Centre is home to several boutiques, curio shops and a few cafes and booking agents, you’ll find this shopping outlet along Livingstone Way, between Shearwater Cafe and the railway tracks.
There are also two major curio markets: one near Elephants Walk, where there is a better selection, and the other outside the entrance to the Falls.
Kubu Crafts, at Mosi-oa-Tunya Square or Livingstone Airport, is the top spot for art and crafts, artefacts, presents, souvenirs and interior accessories.
Treat yourself to a visual feast at Livingstone Art Gallery, on Sichango Road behind Livingstone Show Grounds, which provides a modern space for contemporary Zambian art exhibitions. Many pieces are for sale. Another good place for buying art and gaining an insight into the work of local craftsmen is Wayiwayi Art Studio & Gallery off Airport Road.
There are curio markets on this side of the Falls, too. Makuni Market, on Mosi-oa-Tunya Road, is a well-established indoor market. There’s also an open-air bazaar towards the Falls.
Time for tea
As scone lovers know, English-style afternoon tea is having an extended moment. For several years, stylish hotels from Sydney to Singapore have been vying to produce their own version of ‘tea at the Ritz’, some even dubbing it ‘high tea’ in the mistaken belief that this sounds even more posh. In time, most will move on to the next food fad. But at The Victoria Falls Hotel, afternoon tea never has been, and never will be, out of style.
Stroll through the hotel’s Edwardian courtyards to the garden terrace on a sunny afternoon and you’ll find it simmering with contented chatter as tea takers sip from monogrammed cups and tuck into tier upon tier of neatly trimmed sandwiches and cakes.
Beyond the terrace, on the grand sweep of lawns, you might spot a family of warthogs dodging the water sprinklers. In the distance, there’s the spray from the Falls, billowing behind Cecil Rhodes’ Victoria Falls Bridge.
It’s a view that visitors have been enjoying since the 1900s. But there’s much to admire inside the hotel as well. Among the twentieth-century memorabilia lining the corridors, you’ll find photos of past guests arriving in tailored outfits and visiting the Falls in elaborate bathing suits.
In the afternoons, you’re free to peer through the open doors of unoccupied rooms, some of which have hosted aristocrats, statesmen and members of the British royal family. Better still, you can book a tour with the in-house historian who, with evident pride, will reveal hidden treasures such as the hotel’s chapel, a charming haven within a haven, dating back to 1929.
The power of a picture
We asked local photographer Tom Varley for his top tips on how to capture the Falls on camera
1 Escaping the crowds Go at dawn or dusk . Not only do you get the place to yourself, it’s also one of the most impressive places on the planet to watch the sun rise or set.
2 Best season Contrary to what you might expect, a dramatic sky is better than good light when it comes to the Victoria Falls. Therefore, photographs taken during the rainy season are most powerful. At this time of year, every morning starts out crystal clear, but by 11am the first few puffs drift in and by 2pm you have an ever-changing natural backdrop of awesome cloud formations.
3 Night-time shooting After dark, the zoom-focus function is fundamental. All cameras have one of these. I use a bright object, such as lights on the horizon or the moon, to check my focus. Then using the highest ISO and widest aperture (in my case, about ISO 6400 and f/2.8), I work on my composition. Then I play with different exposures. Below one fifteenth of a second will slow the water down and more than thirty seconds will start to give you star trails. Please note, you can only access the Falls at night on full-moon evenings.
4 Optimum shutterspeed Victoria Falls is vast, so don’t get caught up with trying to slow the shot down.
5 Equipment Take a good lens cloth or rain cover with you. (Even your showercap from your hotel bathroom would do!) I’d also recommend carrying a tripod, a cable release, a polariser and ND filters — plus the widest lens you have.
With the opening of the new international airport, Victoria Falls has become one of Africa’s most convenient wildlife hubs
From delta to desert, grassland to mountains, vast inland seas to ancient salt lakes, the diverse list of destinations will have even the most decisive nature lover overwhelmed by the choice. Most parks are within a 300-mile radius of Victoria Falls (just an hour’s drive or two-hour flight away), making it the epicentre of one of the greatest wildlife regions on the planet. Here are the highlights of the hub:
1 Kafue National Park, Zambia
This national park, one of the oldest and largest in Zambia, is all about big game, boat trips and fishing.
Getting there A two-hour drive.
2 Liuwa Plains National Park, Zambia
Most people travel here in the hope of catching sight of the massive herds of wildebeest that pass through this relatively unvisited park. But other reasons to come, whatever the season, include its abundant birdlife and pristine, dramatic landscapes.
Getting there A two-hour private charter or a four-hour flight via Lusaka.
3 Okavango Delta, Botswana
Explore the picturesque lagoons and channels of this UNESCO World Heritage Site by mokoro (dugout canoe) or on horseback. Encompassing permanent marshlands and seasonally flooded plains, this is the world’s largest intact inland delta and is a life-giving oasis in the heart of the Kalahari Desert. Its birding and game viewing are exceptional.
Getting there A one-to-two-hour flight, depending which camp you choose.
4 Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana
The sheer beauty and uniqueness of these vast, otherworldly saltpans (the largest in the world) will take your breath away. You can expect to see enormous flocks of flamingos, pelicans, ducks and geese and, of course, meerkats. This is a good place to combine with a stay in the Okavango Delta.
Getting there A four-to-five-hour drive or an hour-and-half flight.
5 Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe
This immense manmade freshwater dam is famous for its sunsets, stunning vistas, fishing (especially tigerfishing) and houseboats. The mountains of Matusadona National Park hug its shores and big-game sightings such as elephant, buffalo and lion are frequent by the water’s edge.
Getting there About an hour-and-twenty-minute flight.
6 Caprivi Strip, Namibia
Wedged between Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Angola, this game-rich sliver of land belongs to Namibia. Containing four national parks (Mamili, Mudumu, Mahango and Bwabwata) and four major perennial river systems (Zambezi, Kwando, Chobe and Linyanti), the region’s wildlife is fantastic; more than 450 species of bird are found here. Combine a trip to Caprivi with a visit to Chobe or the Okavango.
Getting there A two-and-a-half-hour drive.
7 Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
The country’s largest national park, which is roughly the size of Belgium, is renowned for its huge elephant herds and incredible wildlife diversity. There are more than a hundred species of mammal, 400-plus bird species and the landscape comprises beautiful, open plains, thick mopane woodland and dry Kalahari scrubland.
Getting there An hour’s drive.
8 Chobe National Park, Botswana
If you are time-starved, head for Chobe. Only an hour’s drive from Victoria Falls and Livingstone, it’s one of the few places that allows a rewarding day trip. It has one of the highest concentrations of elephant in the world, boat safaris and plenty of big game.
Getting there An hour’s drive.
• Getting there The recent opening of Victoria Falls Airport will allow long-haul flights direct access to the epicentre of one of Africa’s most diverse and astonishing wildlife regions. A new international terminal in Livingstone will also be completed in October.
• Entry fees Admission to Victoria Falls is restricted in both countries. On the Zimbabwean side there’s a US$30 fee to enter the Victoria Falls National Park, which affords views of the Western Cataract, the main Falls and the bridge. In Zambia, the fee is US$10 to go into the area facing the Eastern Cataract. This allows you to access both the riverbank path opposite the Falls and to cross the bridge to the rock buttress known as the Knife Edge.
• The new UniVisa With the exception of those visiting in periods of very high water, or on a tight timetable, most people will want to see the Falls from both sides. The new KAZA Univisa (available to visitors from 40 countries), which covers both Zimbabwe and Zambia, makes this more affordable than in the past. It is valid for up to 30 days and costs US$50.
• When to go As ever, this is a complex question. Different seasons will give you diverse experiences, each as spectacular as the next. Between March and May the Zambezi River is at peak flow, so Victoria Falls is at its most impressive. In April, about ten times more water flows through than in the lowest months. However the effect of all this water on the surroundings is that massive clouds of spray obstruct your view, the ground shakes and close-up viewing is almost impossible. In full flood, the Falls cannot be seen on foot from the Zimbabwean side, but the aerial view of the spray rising hundreds of metres into the sky is spectacular and can be observed from a helicopter or a microlight. Between January and February, and again from June to September, the water is mid to low (about a third of the maximum); at this time, the Falls are still impressive but the spray isn’t an obstacle, so viewing from both sides is spectacular. Sections of the mile-wild cliff face become exposed, which can be impressive. Between September and December, when water levels are low, sections of the cliff (particularly on the Zambian side) dry completely. At this time of year, when the main Falls and Devil’s Cataract are still flowing, you can see where the river is eroding upstream and appreciate the Falls’ geological formation and the full length and breadth of them.
• How long to go for At least two nights and three days.
• Health and safety Ask your GP or travel agent for advice on vaccinations before you travel. Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana are not considered Yellow Fever Risk Zones but malaria is present, so take antimalarials. If you become unwell, T.H.B Private Hospital, built specifically for tourists, is good. There is also a Medical Air Rescue Service (MARS) if an emergency evacuation is required. Most operators and some hoteliers include MARS cover in their charges.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Zambia (5th Edition) by Chris McIntyre; Bradt Guide to Zimbabwe (2nd Edition) by Paul Murray
John Addison, Wild Frontiers
“You should spend at least three days at Victoria Falls itself. But remember, it is a superb starting point for visiting parks in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, so leave plenty of time to explore the region.”
Blessing Munyenyiwa, Love for Africa
“Tourists should purchase a 30-day KAZA Univisa upon arrival. It costs US$50 and allows you to travel between Zimbabwe and Zambia as often as you please. It also covers those who would like to go on a day trip to Botswana through the Kazungula Border.”
Bill Adams, Safari Consultants Limited
“Take a ‘Flight of Angels’ by either helicopter or microlight, so you can experience the overall magnitude of the Falls. Visit both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides, and take a raincoat to protect your camera from the spray. It gets everywhere!”
Richard Smith, Aardvark Safaris
“Two of the little-known features of the Falls are rainbows and moonbows. Rainbows form throughout the year, with the exception of the low water period, and in medium and high water seasons, you often see circular rainbows in the mist. Moonbows, caused by the light of a full or almost full moon, are even more special. They are best seen from the Zambian side between March and July on clear full moon days or a day either side. Access to the Falls is possible on these evenings.”