Thursday, February 14, 2013

MOSI-OA-TUNYA – the smoke that thunders

I am writing this week as an introduction to Michael’s blog next week on one of Africa’s most famous explorers – David Livingstone.
Statue of David Livingstone on Zimbabwe side of Victoria Falls
Although it is probable and even likely that some Voortrekkers may have seen what are now called Victoria Falls before Livingstone did in the middle of November 1855, he is generally credited as being the first European to do so.  (Voortrekkers were Dutch-speaking inhabitants of the Cape of Good Hope who jumped into their ox wagons and trekked into the interior of Southern Africa to escape the liberal English who had abolished slavery in the Cape.)
Panoramic view of Victoria Falls from Zambian side
If you read any list of the world’s great waterfalls, Victoria Falls is always in the top three.  And a visit there will show you why. To read Leighton's blog about another of the top three falls, go to Iguaçu.
The Zambezi River rises in Zambia and winds its way through Angola, and along the borders of Namibia and Botswana.  From just before Victoria Falls, the river is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe until it reaches Mozambique, where it flows into the Indian Ocean.  Overall it is only 3500 kms (2200 miles) long, and is the fourth largest river in Africa.
The Zambezi is nearly 1.7 kms wide (just over a mile) when it reaches the falls and drops uniformly for about 110 metres (360 feet) into a narrow gorge.  All the water rushes through a series of six gorges, each only about 150 metres (500 feet), wide until the river reaches Lake Kariba - a huge lake formed by a hydro-electric dam.
A small part of the falls - from Zimbabwe
Each of the gorges has been carved from the sandstone-filled cracks in the surrounding basalt over hundreds of thousands of years.  After a period of time, a new gorge is formed, and the falls change.  You can see how this has happened from the satellite photo below.
Satellite view of the gorges.  The next one is already being formed.
Victoria Falls.  Zimbabwe on left; Zambia on right.  You can see how all the water funnels from First Gorge into Second Gorge.

Second Gorge (left) and Third Gorge

When the Zambezi is full, usually in February to May, so much water goes over the falls that the narrow gorge forces much of the spray upwards, sometimes more than 500 metres (1700 feet) above the surrounding land.  This means that you can see the spray from 50 kms (30 miles) away.  At full moon, it is possible to see a “moonbow” above the falls!  
The spray soars into the sky.

The falls in dry season.
The falls with the Zambezi at high water.
The amount of this spray also creates a unique micro-climate at the top of the falls – a small rainforest in a normally quite arid area.  In fact, visiting the falls during the high-water season can lead to disappointment because there is so much spray that you can’t see very much.  Plus, you need to wear rain gear and protect your camera from water.  It is better to visit when the water is lower, not only because you can see better and take photographs, but also you can scramble across the top of the falls to Livingstone Island on the Zambian side and peer right over the edge.
Also, because this huge volume of water falls into such a small space, the noise is great – hence the local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya – the smoke that thunders.
Today Mosi-oa-Tunya is a major tourist destination.  In itself it is worth visiting, but it is also close to some of Africa’s great wildlife parks – Hwange in Zimbabwe and Chobe in Botswana. 

It is also a destination for thrill-seekers, because when the water is low, white-water rafting the Zambezi (below the falls, not over them) is regarded as some of the best in the world.  I’ve done it twice and can proudly say that the raft I was in on both occasions was the only one not to dump its occupants into the water.  A day’s trip will include 19 rapids, some of which are class 5.  We walked around the class 6 one, called Commercial Suicide!  There is also bungy jumping from the bridge joining Zambia and Zimbabwe (which I haven’t done) and swimming in Devil’s Pool at the top of the falls (which I definitely haven’t done!).

Swimming in Devil's Pool right above the falls.

More at my pace is bird watching.  At the falls and in the immediate area are 450 species to be spotted and recorded.  For some of these, this is the only area you will find them.
Lilac-breasted roller
Grey-headed parrot
Schalow's turaco
Rosy-faced lovebird
Most tourist agencies suggest that you visit the Zambian side through the town of Livingstone.  They will tell you that you get the best views from Zambia.  I disagree.  The Zimbabwean side is much better and, if you like to indulge in nostalgia, spend a night or two at the venerable Victoria Falls Hotel, built over a hundred years ago and recently refurbished.  Whatever you think of colonial powers, they knew where to build their hotels.
Of course, none of today’s tourist attractions were present when Livingstone first saw the falls.  And when he did see them, he was moved to write:
“It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
Next week Michael will tell you about Dr. Livingstone – a most intrepid explorer.
Stanley - Thursday


  1. Stan, your posts never fail to teach me something new and interesting. But in this instance you left something out: Just what sort of drugs were those Devil's Pool swimmers on?

  2. Stan, I wish I had read this before I went. I would have understood the the surrounding terrain better, which would have much enhanced my enjoyment. And I would have left my camera in my hotel room. I visited in April when the falls were at their thundering height. Though wrapped in several layers of plastic and held closely under my rain gear, the camera's motherboard died. Fortunately, Victoria Falls was the last stop on that trip, and I already had my photos downloaded and safe. I hope I will be able to see the falls from the Zimbabwe side one day. When I went, nearly seven years ago, that view was not recommended because of the political upheaval in Zimbabwe.

  3. Love your posts, Stan! Thanks especially for the always spot-on pictures - really brings another level of depth to your explanations.

  4. Thanks Michael. Annamaria, your advice probably came from the US State Dept via your travel agent! If you read its website, you wouldn't travel anywhere.

  5. Stan, actually the advice came from my South African travel agent, Jeremy Williamson, a travel god. Remind me to describe for you how we traveled from the Okavango Delta to Livingstone by plane, van, boat, and van on one of the most magical days of my life. I love to tell it because it brings me back there.