DESTINATION: The Smoke That Thunders - A Visit To Victoria Falls
If you ever happen to find yourself in Zambia, chances are you're there to see the world famous Victoria Falls. Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989, it is considered the largest falls in the world despite being neither the widest nor tallest. Straddling the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is nearly twice as tall and well over twice as wide as the famous Niagara Falls along the Canadian/US border that many Americans are familiar with. The falls are a wonder to behold and it was definitely one of the highlights of my first trip to Africa.
You can access the falls from either the Zambian or the Zimbabwean side, though nowadays most folks seem to prefer the Zambian side due to some of the instability in Zimbabwe. I debated which country I would use as my entrance point to the falls for quite awhile. Despite the issues in Zimbabwe the reason I ended up in Zambia was that the cost of flying into the Victoria Falls airport was much higher than the cost of taxes and fees when using airline miles to redeem a free ticket to Livingstone.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I was staying at the Taita Falcon Lodge and as an incentive to lure me into booking, they offered a free ride to and from the park as well as a ticket in. Who can say no to that?
The owner of my lodge drove me the hour from camp to the entrance of the Zambian national park that houses Victoria Falls. The national park itself bears the local name for the falls - Mosi-oa-Tunya, which loosely translates as "The Smoke that Thunders". While I have nothing against the lovely Queen Victoria, from whom the falls get their English name, the native Tokaleya Tonga tongue really captures the essence of the falls much better.
I walked up to the entrance of the park and handed over my ticket. The gate area was rather .... lackadaisical. It served its purpose though and successfully divided the park from the parking lot. I was waved through with little fanfare from the staff, though a statue of the famous Robert Livingstone did greet me on the other side. Livingstone is said to be the first European to set eyes on the falls, and it was his naming of the falls after her Majesty that gave us the current English name for the falls as well as name of the town across the border in Zimbabwe.
From what I could gather based on visuals alone, there appeared to be three "paths" you could take to view the falls - walk upstream against the river to see the falls from the side/behind, walk along the dry side of the gorge and see the falls from the front, and walk down into the gorge and see the falls from the bottom.
This last option was called the Boiling Pot Trail. The name in and of itself is quite enticing, but the kicker is the portion of the sign marking the start of the trail that warns you to beware of the baboons. Oh for fucks sake, now I really want to go! Unfortunately this was the one path that I wasn't able to take during my visit to the Falls, as I had spent the previous day doing quite a bit of hiking and sore legs/feet meant the hike down the gorge just wasn't in the cards for me. I'd have to meet up with the dangerous baboons on my next visit.
While the Boiling Pot trail is clearly sign posted, the other walkways aren't marked very well at all. It's like enjoying your own live, Zambian version of a choose-your-own-adventure novel! Not sure where to go, I picked a path and decided to go with God and see where it took me.
As I made my way down an unpaved dirt path, I caught a glimpse of a rainbow through some brush and trees. Perhaps it's my inner six year old girl, but to this day I still get an overwhelming sense of excitement and joy whenever I manage to see a rainbow. It's the like the universe woke up one day and was like, "You know, I should do something magical for David today." I had to tell my inner child to hold on to its suspenders though, because the massive amount of water being thrown into the air from the falls meant that rainbows were literally around every corner. Rainbows at Victoria Falls are like drunk suburban moms at TGI Fridays - plentiful.
Working my way a little further up the path with the roar of rushing water growing stronger and stronger, I came around a bend and through the trees lining the banks of the river I could see the Falls before me. Millions of tons of water gushing over the rocky gorge and plummeting 2904 feet to the canyon below. The sound of the water crawls over your skin, the vibrations from this force of nature literally physically touches you as you approach.
Soon enough all that stood between me and precipice was two little strands of red cellophane tape lazily strung between some trees. The illusion of safety is all that's needed to keep people from getting too close to the edge I suppose. Surely this level of safeguarding would never fly in other countries, but in Zambia you can creep up as close to the edge as your heart can muster. There were no park staff or security around to stop you, blow a whistle, or caution you to be careful. Just you, the breeze, the roar of the water, and the little droplets of cast off floating in the air.
In a move that was very, very outside of my normal character, I ducked the caution tape and took a picture of myself next to the falls. My friends and family will tell you how odd it seems for me to do this because not only do I have a debilitating fear of heights and falling from high places, but I'm a rule follower. My co-workers often lament my need to wait for the crosswalk light to signal it's safe to walk even if there are literally no cars in sight. So the fact that I slipped through the tape and managed to take this picture without crapping myself is laudable. You can email me your individual "congratulations" using the Contact Me link above.
As amazing as it is to stand at the edge of the falls, after 15 minutes I started to make my way further upstream. The river is an oddity in my opinion, as it gives the impression of being a raging, dangerous current of death but in actuality it's quite accessible in some parts. The churning and gurgling of the water as it races to plummet masks the fact that in the right areas and circumstances you can walk out to the edge of the falls and relax on the edge of death. Despite the bravery I exhibited earlier by standing 10 feet from the edge but not in the water myself, I wasn't nearly insane enough to attempt to throw on my swim suit and venture out there.
The path along the river goes back quite a way, though the novelty and interest it carries diminishes exponentially the further away from the falls you get. It sounds insane to say, but walking along the Zambezi river just isn't that interesting when you've got an amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site behind you. During my visit they were constructing an area for souvenir vendors to permanently house themselves, but while that construction was going on they had broken up into little tent cities inside the park. One of the largest ones was in the stretch of land just past the falls and heading up river. The touts are of a medium level of aggression in my opinion - weaker than those in India but strong than the ones you get in Thailand.
I'm not much of a shopper and didn't really want to go any further up river, so I turned tail before I was too deep into the tent city and headed back to get a view of the falls from the front.
To get to the path that leads to the front of the falls, you need to head behind the statue of Dr. Livingstone. While the path upriver is much more open, this one cuts more deeply into the forest growth around the falls. Trees and foliage obscure the view of the falls quite a bit for much of the first part of the journey, though occasionally you will reach a clearing with a glimpse of the falls.
Before long the forest canopy cover ends and you're out in the open. The undulating top of the gorge ridge runs for quite awhile and mirroring it at a slightly higher elevation across the chasm are the blasting falls.
And there is it. Victoria Falls. Take a breath and then take it all in. Slowly. Like a fine wine.
As I mentioned above, there are other falls in the world that are taller or wider. Yet none of the taller ones are as wide, nor any of the wider ones as tall as Mosi-oa-Tunya. These are therefore considered the largest in the world, and it's not something that you can easily doubt when it's right there in front of you. I have yet to see its famous cousins like Iguazu Falls on the Brazil/Argentina border, or Niagra Falls on the Canadian/US border (what is it with big waterfalls and borders?), but I can tell you that Victoria Falls really delivers on the hype.
It's in this area of the National Park that you really start to understand why the local name translates as "The Smoke That Thunders". As you can see in the picture above, the amount of water droplets cast off from the force of so much water rocketing over the edge of the cliff creates a massive amount of cast off. These droplets float in the air like a fine mist or a light drizzle, coating everything and everyone in a slight film of moisture. It really does coat the surrounding area like the smoke from a brush fire - reduced visibility and tendancy to make you strain to see ahead of you included. The thunder portion of the moniker is obvious - you cannot have that much water plummeting that far without an enormous amount of noise raising up. Thus - the smoke that thunders.
Unlike the flimsy cellophane tape used along the side of the river at at the top of the falls, the park has invested in some sturdy rock posts with a metal bar to stop visitors from getting too close to the edge of the gorge. Unfortunately it looks like they only had enough money to build about four of those, so the majority of the chasm is open season for idiots and clumsy fools alike. You can walk right up to, and over, the edge of the chasm without ever having to worry about climbing a fence or a security guard to stop you. It's especially dangerous in this area as everything is coated in water and is quite slippery. So watch your step, or you might just find yourself a permanent resident.
One of the most terrifying (in my humble opinion) parts about this area of the falls is that if you want to continue along to the furthest ends of this part of the park, you need to cross a bridge over a portion of the chasm. Normally I'd be pretty nervous about crossing a bridge on foot due to my phobia, but combine that with the reduced visibility, water droplets in the air making you close your eyes from time to time, and the slippery nature of all surfaces, and I had to stop for a few minutes to debate whether I was going to actually call it a day or solider on.
While the park wasn't any where near crowded, I did run into a few folks here and there. Most of them seemed to be much more prepared than I was for the adverse conditions at the falls. Most had brought raincoats or ponchos to sling over themselves when the mist got heavier and turned into a full blown rain. The downpour was (because God hates me) the heaviest over the bridge. The gentle drizzle you felt in other areas turned into a torrential deluge in that specific area.
As is typical for me, I had shown up in my trusty travel pants and a tshirt with an all-purpose coat I had with me from Old Navy stuffed into my backpack. I pulled it on, zipped it up, and made my way across the Bridge of Death. Lived to talk about it, whaddyaknow?
At first I thought that the heavier water cast off was a wind issue, but once I crossed the bridge I realized it was more likely a geography/topography issue. The portion of land on the other side was much greener, much more lush. It was very obvious that this little jut of land that hugged the edge of the falls and stuck out toward the border with Zimbabwe enjoyed the benefits of being soaked in water on a regular basis.
The area beyond the bridge isn't very big as the trail essentially loops around the accessible land and leads right back to the bridge so you can head back to the entrance/exit. I really liked this craggy and compact area of the park because for a moment you felt like you'd been transported to another place entirely. The water is heavy in the air and the scene around you is shrouded in a curtain of mist and green plants. A world away from the dry browns and yellows before the bridge.
This area of the park also had a much higher number of the aforementioned guard rails to keep you from slipping off the path and to your certain death. The trail winds much more here, so perhaps they were thinking with limited space and visibility it was much more prudent to build here?
At the very end of the path before it turns on itself to loop around back to the bridge, you get a view of the Victoria Falls bridge that links the Zambian side to its Zimbabwean neighbors. Border formalities exist on both sides of the bridge, so many locals and tourists alike cross between the two countries at this spot. For the daredevils amongst us, you can also bungee jump 111 ft from the middle of the bridge. Just thinking about doing that makes my stomach run right out of my ass. Lord.
I stood here for awhile and just took in the scenery, watching folks jump off the bridge and occasionally cheering for them in the distance with the smattering of folks that had also made the trek to this point. The curtain of mist hangs heavy in the right hand side of your vision and then suddenly abruptly disappears.
What a beautiful place to be.
Victoria Falls was easily one of the ten most amazing things I've seen during my travels thus far. I really didn't know what to expect going in but I'm so glad I picked this as my "introduction" to southern Africa. The size and scale of the falls is truly breathtaking. You'll find yourself making a decision to move to another spot in the park only to realize a few minutes later that you're still starting slack-jawed at the same amazing scene in front of you.
The misty water swirling about, the lush vegetation contrasted with the dry areas at the beginning of the park, and the pounding of the sound waves against your skin all add to the sensory overload that constitutes the falls.
For those considering a visit, I give a huge stamp of approval. Go now, book now. Just remember two things - bring a raincoat and don't slip on that bridge. You'll thank me later.