Chasing Views of a Lifetime in Zimbabwe

Testing the waters of Victoria Falls, the world's largest curtain of water straddling Zimbabwe and Zambia.  
Zimbabwe (add author's bio)
Ancient lava forms the basalt gorges of Victoria Falls, and three-million-year-old stone artefacts of Homo habilis have been unearthed in the region. Photo by: Deposite Photos/Indiapicture

It is late May, and Victoria Falls occupies our imagination as my husband, 12-year-old granddaughter, and I enter the western Zimbabwean town that the waterfall has lent its name to. The tour is scheduled for the next day, but we manage to get a good look at the rising spray, which I learn is visible even from 20 kilometres away. Rising like a cloud from a valley, the tantalising sight adds to our impatience.

Straddling the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, Victoria Falls is the world’s largest curtain of water and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Locally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya—‘the smoke that thunders’—this part of the Zambezi river plunges down basalt gorges, forming a gleaming 1.7-kilometre-wide sheet. In the months of February and March, when the Zambezi is in full flood, up to 500 million litres of water cascade down every minute, resulting in an almost mythical display of mist and rainbows.

The first sight of the falls is both exciting and disappointing. Various viewpoints dot a 2.5-kilometre-long walkway at the top of the gorge on the Zimbabwe side of the falls, inside Victoria Falls National Park. From the first, I see the water rush in a breathless torrent, surge around a bend, and tumble deep into a seemingly bottomless gorge, bringing to mind Kubla Khan’s caverns. The disappointment comes from the fact that there is no way to see the waterfall in its entirety. It must be viewed piecemeal, so we walk along to take the five different falls that comprise Victoria: The Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and Horseshoe Falls (the Eastern Cataract lies on the Zambian side, and isn’t visible).

Zimbabwe (add author's bio) 1

A sunset cruise on the Zambezi river allows its many moods to unravel. Photo by: Sergi Reboredo/age fotostock/ Dinodia Photo Library

So we trot dutifully from one viewpoint to the next, and allow the many moods of the Zambezi river to unravel. At times it flows smooth as silk, at others it crashes into rocks along the edges; but everywhere its core is clouded in a mist of rising spray. The point facing Horseshoe Falls offers a view of the water falling 354 feet—the deepest part of Victoria Falls—along a a horseshoe-shaped rock face. By the fourth viewpoint, about one-third of the route, the spray flies high above us to come back as rain. I push my phone deep into my bag. My 12-year-old granddaughter recruits my husband to hold part of his raincoat above her, and continues to take pictures. A delightful by-product of this colossal overflow are the rainbows. They arch over the falls, and under the trees where the sun shines through the faux rain.

Back at our hotel, I notice a wall covered with photos of the winding, 650-foot-long, arched Victoria Falls Bridge over the Zambezi, connecting Zimbabwe with the town of Livingstone in Zambia (both countries can issue a special two-country visa on arrival). It was the brainchild of the controversial English imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, who in the beginning of the 20th century wished to bend nature to his will. The fabricated structures were set up from either side, and linked by workers in 1905 with only a safety net to save them from the tumbling torrents. Today the bridge, lying at a height of 420 feet, is open to locals and tourists on either side, and trucks rumble across it carrying copper and farm vegetables. And this is where I see my last rainbow later, nestled under the arching expanse.

There are other ways to experience the falls. But nothing in the world will dare me to bungee jump from the bridge, falling head first towards the roiling waters. Our guide assures us there is no dearth of new age, death-defying heroes. Daredevils pay up for white-water rafting, zip lining, flying fox, and gorge swing over Victoria Falls. The less adventurous skydive. My favourite alternative is flying over the falls—I smile when I read the name of the ride: “Flight of Angels.” It is perhaps the best way to see the entire curve of the waterfall, and entirely unforgettable. In the dry season between August and January, at Devil’s Pool on the Zambia side, visitors can swim in a pool close to the very edge of the Falls.

Zimbabwe (add author's bio) 2

A safari in the Victoria Falls National Park are perfect additions to a three-day trip to Victoria Falls. Photo by: David Fettes/ImageSource/Dinodia Photo Library

But there is more to the town of Victoria Falls than just its namesake star. The next evening, we take a sunset cruise on the Zambezi. Captained by an adept storyteller brimming with river stories, the cruise includes snacks, whisky and raspberry sodas. We sail past hippos munching on shoots with no regard for good manners, see elephants sitting in the water and watch kingfishers roosting in the mudbanks. Swimming here is not an option—the river has more crocodiles than one can count.

The Victoria Falls and Zambezi National Parks are on the southern bank of the Zambezi river. One evening, we bundle ourselves in sweaters and climb into an open vehicle to view game in the former. Our guide points to the sausage tree, Natal mahogany, African ebony and the waterberry trees that offer nourishment and camouflage to animals. Alert, he follows the spoor to a cautious rhino mother and baby, and a herd of supercilious buffalo. Elsewhere, pug marks show that a lion has been around. Perhaps he killed a zebra, our guide muses. Zebra hoof marks are also evident on the same path, and the lion could well be deep in the jungle, sleeping off a heavy meal. We also spot a giraffe mother and son; the son’s legs like stilts as he runs along, and herds of impala that look at us before leaping away in a flash. As the sun dips out of sight, we drive back with the headlights reflected in the eyes of animals along the road. Four hours have swept past in a haze.

Regret floods me when the guide talks about a canopy tour along the bottom of the Falls, where visitors slide through the canopy of the hardwood forest in the gorge via airborne cables, sighting rare birds such as purple-crested turaco and peregrine falcon. It would need an extra day; something we do not have. Perhaps, there will be a next time, I comfort myself, and I will get to see the falls from the bottom up.

Essentials

There are no direct flights between Delhi and Mumbai to the Zimbabwean capital, Harare. Expect at least a change or  layover at an African gateway city such as Nairobi, Addis Ababa or Kigali. Victoria Falls lies 710 km/ 10 hr west of Harare, and is well connected by buses and flights. Indian travellers can get Visa on Arrival in Harare ($30/Rs2,150), or opt for the Kaza Univisa, one that allows visitors to travel in Zimbabwe and Zambia ($50/Rs3,600) Entry to the Victoria Falls National Park costs $50/Rs3,600.  

  • Sathya Saran collects travel stories to nudge others to get out of their comfort zone and try something new. Forts, mountains and rivers inspire her to burst into song. In her next life she hopes to scale the Mount Everest.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?

    YOU MAY ALSO LIKE