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Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls is one of the world's most spectacular waterfalls. The falls are situated on the Zambezi River, which at this point forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. The falls are broad at roughly a mile wide, while their height is considerable at 128 m (420 ft). They form a remarkable spectacle because of their peculiar geography — the water falls into a narrow slot-like chasm, and so one can view the falls face-on.

David Livingstone, the Scottish explorer, visited the falls in 1855 and named them for Queen Victoria, though they were known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the "smoke that thunders." The falls are part of two national parks, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe, and are today one of Southern Africa's major tourist draws. They are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



The falls had of course been known to people in the nearby areas since antiquity. The earliest inhabitants of the area were the San bushmen hunter-gatherers, but their name for the falls is not known. They were followed by the Tokaleya people, who knew the falls as "Shongwe". Later, the Ndebele named them "aManza Thunqayo", and after that the Makololo gave them the name "Mosi-oa-Tunya", meaning "The smoke that thunders".

The first European to see the falls was David Livingstone on 17 November 1855, during his 1852-1856 journey from the upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river. Livingstone approached them from above and landed on the island on the lip of the falls now known as Livingstone Island. Livingstone had previously been impressed by Ngonye Falls further upstream, but found the new falls much more impressive, and named them after Queen Victoria. He wrote of the falls "No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight".

In 1860, Livingstone returned to the area and made a detailed study of the falls with John Kirk. Another early European visitor was the Portuguese explorer Serpa Pinto, but until the area was opened up by the building of the railway in 1905, the area was seldom visited.

The falls

The falls lie about midway down the course of the Zambezi, at approximately . For a considerable distance above the falls the river flows over a level sheet of basalt, in a valley bounded by low and distant sandstone hills. The river's course is dotted with numerous tree-clad islands, which increase in number as the river approaches the falls.

The falls are formed as the Zambezi plummets into a narrow chasm about 120 m (400 ft) wide, carved by its waters along a fracture zone in the earth's crust. Numerous islets at the crest of the falls divide the water to form a series of falls. Over the centuries, the falls have been receding upstream, falling at different eras into numerous chasms which now form a series of sharply zig-zagging gorges downstream from the falls.

The falls are extremely broad at about 1.7 km across, and the height of the cascade varies from 80 m at the right bank to 105 m in the centre - about twice the height of Niagara Falls. The falling water generates spray and mist that can rise to heights of over a mile, and is visible from up to 40 km (25  miles) away.

The fall is broken into four parts by islands on the lip of the precipice. Close to the right bank is a sloping cataract 35 m wide called the Leaping Water, then beyond 300m-wide Boaruka Island is the main fall, about 460 m across. Livingstone Island divides the main fall from another broad channel about 530 m wide, while on the left bank of the river is the Eastern Cataract.

Below the falls

The only outlet to the chasm the river falls into is a narrow channel cut in the barrier wall at a point about two thirds of the distance along from the western end. This channel is about 30 m (100 ft) wide, and the whole volume of the river pours through it for 120 m before emerging into a zigzagging series of gorges about 80 km (50&nbsp miles) long which conduct the river past the basalt plateau.

At the end of its first gorge, the river has hollowed out a deep pool called the Boiling Pot. About 150 m across, its surface is smooth at low water, but at high water is marked by slow, enormous swirls and heavy boilings. As the river exits the Boiling Pot, the channel turns sharply westward and enters the next of the zigzagging gorges. The walls of the gorges are over 120 m high.

Flow variations

Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls

In the wet season, the river discharges as much as 9,100 m³/s (320,000 cubic feet per second) of water. At this time, the water rolls over the main falls in an unbroken expanse. The dry season may see the falls diminish to just a few narrow cascades, with the spray and mist almost absent and the flow reduced to as little as 350 m³/s (12,500 cu. ft/s). At this time it is possible to look into the normally obscured depths of the gorge. The level of the river in the gorge varies by up to 20 metres between maximum flow in April and the end of the dry season in October.

The railway bridge

Just below the Boiling Pot, and almost at right angles to the falls, the gorge is spanned by a bridge, one of only four over the Zambezi river, which was completed in April 1905 and was initially intended as a link in Cecil Rhodes' Cape to Cairo railway scheme. The bridge is 250 metres across, with a main arch spanning 150 metres, and the top of the bridge is 125 metres above the low-water level of the river. Today, regular rail services connect the towns of Victoria Falls and Livingstone with Bulawayo via the bridge, with another line running from Livingstone to Lusaka.


Before the railway link to Bulawayo was completed in 1905, the falls were not much visited. They were an increasingly popular attraction during British colonial rule of the area and in the years immediately following the independence of Zambia and Zimbabwe, but from the late 1960s onwards visitor numbers dropped, as guerrilla warfare in Zimbabwe and a climate of suspicion of foreigners under the rule of Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia deterred tourists. The 1980s saw a renewed surge in tourism, and the development of the region as a centre for extreme sports played a large role in this.

By the end of the 1990s, almost 300,000 people were visiting the falls annually, and this was expected to rise to over a million in the next decade. However, the number of tourists visiting Zimbabwe began to decline in the early 2000s as civil unrest brewed surrounding the continuing rule of Robert Mugabe.

The numbers of people visiting the Zimbabwe side of the falls has historically been much higher than the number visiting the Zambia side, due to the greater development of the visitor facilities there. The two countries permit tourists to make day trips from one side to the other without the necessity of obtaining a visa.

National parks

The falls are part of two national parks, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe. Both national parks are small, covering areas of 66 and 23 km² respectively.

The national parks contain abundant wildlife including sizable populations of elephants, buffalo and giraffes. The river at this point also contains a large population of hippos.

Mosi-oa-Tunya national park provides a habitat for six white rhinos. The rhinos are the only white rhinos in Zambia, but are not indigenous, having been imported from South Africa. Within the park boundaries is a small cemetary, located on the site of the original British settlement in the area, Old Drift.

External links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 08:11:02
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04