They call it Mosi-oa-Tunya – “the Smoke that Thunders.”
But you probably know it by its European name: Victoria Falls.
This massive waterfall on the Zambezi River in Southern Africa has been drawing tourists for more than a century. It's the largest curtain of falling water in the world at more than a mile wide and 350 feet tall, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989. It's also unique in that two countries share it: it straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
You'll see the mist from the falls long before you see the water itself – which was probably true for David Livingstone, too, who “discovered” the waterfall in 1855. The Scottish missionary/explorer certainly wasn't the first *person* to set eyes upon the Smoke that Thunders, and in fact he may not have even been the first European! (Many suggest that Portuguese explorers saw it much earlier.)
But Livingstone is nevertheless credited with naming the waterfall Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria of Britain, and for putting it on the map – both literally and figuratively.
Livingstone is famous for describing the falls as such:
“Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
It's perhaps no wonder, then, that people put this place on their bucket lists.
Things to do at Victoria Falls
The area surrounding Victoria Falls has now become a bit of an adventure sport mecca in Southern Africa. There are no shortage of adventurous activities, whether you're basing yourself in the town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side, or in Livingstone on the Zambia side.
If you, too, plan to visit the famous Victoria Falls, here are a handful of must-do things on both sides of the border:
1. Get up close to the falls
You'll find national parks on both sides of the falls – Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe, and Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia. While both parks offer the opportunity to get up close to the thundering water, the experience is quite different depending on which side of the border you're on.
The experience can also be quite different depending on the time of year you're visiting. When the Zambezi is at peak flow (April/May), five different sections of the falls are roaring. During the height of dry season, however, some of them dry up (usually around November). I visited in May/June, when the falls were truly thundering.
In Zimbabwe, there's a trail opposite a large stretch of the waterfall that extends for more than one kilometer. During peak flow, you can see four of the five different sections of falls on this side: The Devil's Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and Horseshoe Falls.
In Zambia, you can only see The Eastern Cataract. But here you can also cross the Knife-Edge Bridge, which leads to what feels like an island in the sky covered by rainforest. And the rainforest here exists entirely because of the spray from Victoria Falls.
I can't really decide which side is “better,” since both are quite unique!
Warning: When going into the rainforest on either side of Victoria Falls, you WILL GET WET. Like, soaking wet. Bring a poncho and be sure to take care with your camera/phone. (Watch the video below to see what I mean!)
2. Fly above the smoke
Visiting Victoria Falls during peak flow can be fun (because when is splashing around in waterfall puddles NOT fun??), but you won't always get a clear view of the falls during this time because of all the roiling mist. To truly grasp the vastness of Victoria Falls, you really need to get up above it.
There are two options for flying above Victoria Falls: helicopter rides and microlights. Helicopters are always pretty cool, but in this case I firmly believe that the microlight is the way to go.
If you've never seen a microlight before, it's basically a hang-glider with a small motor attached. You sit behind a pilot and there are no windows or screens or anything between you and the open air. It's absolutely exhilarating.
I did a 15-minute microlight flight over the falls with Batoka Sky and can highly recommend them.
You can't possibly see Victoria Falls from a better angle.
3. Get your adrenaline pumping
Victoria Falls is also home to some seriously adventurous activities. For example, you can do a bungee jump over the Zambezi from the Victoria Falls Bridge (Zambia side), or do a gorge swing into one of the Zambezi gorges on the Zimbabwe side. There are also things like zip lines and canyon swings to be found, too.
The Vic Falls bungee is probably the most popular, but since I've been bungee jumping multiple times before, I opted for the gorge swing. It's operated by Wild Horizons at their Lookout Cafe, which is worth a visit for the views alone.
The gorge swing is still hella scary, but it's notably cheaper than bungee jumping in Zambia. It was also featured a couple seasons ago on “The Amazing Race.”
(And if you're thinking of chickening out, let me point out that my 63-year-old dad did the gorge swing, too! That's a photo of him above!)
4. Have an adventure on the water
With the mighty Zambezi right at your doorstep, it's kind of obligatory to have a water-based adventure near Victoria Falls, too. White water rafting is especially popular here, and it can be super intense from what I've read.
The river was too high when I visited for rafting trips, so we went canoeing further down the Zambezi instead. What we assumed would be a relaxing float trip got really real really fast, though, when a hippo started chasing our line of canoes. Hippos are NO JOKE in Africa, and one look at our guide's terrified face as we paddled away made me realize just how deadly they can be.
Thankfully, though, our canoe trip ended without any hippo chomping.
Bonus: Get into the falls
Lastly, if you're visiting Victoria Falls during the dry season, you might have the chance to go swimming IN the waterfall. Devil's Pool is a natural pool that forms at the top of Victoria Falls when the Zambezi is running low. You can jump into the pool and have nothing but a narrow rock lip of rock between you and the deadly tumbling water.
(This of course is very dangerous and is NOT for the faint of heart! Had I been there in dry season, though, I totally would have done it…)
Some things you SHOULD NOT DO near Victoria Falls include irresponsible wildlife encounters like walking with lions or riding elephants. These will be heavily advertised on both sides of the falls, and perhaps even recommended to you by your accommodation or tour guide. But please skip these. If you want to see wildlife in either Zambia or Zimbabwe, book a safari with a responsible company that allows you to see the animals in the wild.
Thinking of adding Victoria Falls to your travel list? Here's some of the essential info you'll need to know:
For most nationalities (including Americans, Australians, and Brits), you can obtain visas for Zambia and/or Zimbabwe at the border of each country. For a while there was a joint visa scheme called the Univisa that allowed easy crossing between the two countries, but this wasn't available when I was there in May/June 2016. Therefore it's important to know whether you need multiple-entry visas for each country, based on where you're staying and which activities you plan to do.
Where to stay
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
If you're staying on the Zimbabwe side, I can recommend the Bayete Guest Lodge. The lodge itself is comfortable, and the folks that run it are super sweet. You can also have dinner at the lodge every night, and I can tell you from experience that they whip up delicious home-cooked meals.
Or, if you really want to splurge, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge is also on the Zimbabwe side of the border. This hotel is all luxury, and is somewhere I would love to stay in the future! (We did go for sunset drinks, where we watched a huge herd of elephants congregate around the lodge's watering hole – amazing!)
On the Zambia side, you can check out the Zambezi Waterfront, which offers both fancy chalets along with camping facilities (this is where many overland companies stay). There's a nice bar/pool area right on the river, and the activity desk can help you book everything you could want to do.
Where to eat
I enjoyed Mama Africa in Victoria Falls town (Zimbabwe), as well as Cafe Zambezi in Livingstone (Zambia). A popular dining experience is the Boma dinner at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, which includes a barbecue of African game meat, as well as singing, dancing, and drumming for entertainment.
Is Victoria Falls somewhere YOU would like to visit?