Best way to see Victoria Falls

The Zambezi River, the longest east flowing river in Africa, encounters a dramatic impediment to its smooth course as it reaches the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia – a sheer drop which at its highest point is 108m, over which the river plunges, forming a vast curtain of water measuring 1.7km wide. When the Zambezi is in full flow, the spray formed can be seen 20km away. Interestingly, this spray isn’t formed by water hitting the rock at the base. In fact, the volume of water and the height of the falls is so great that before getting anywhere near the ground, the water is buffeted by the strong rising winds and turned into that famous mist.

Victoria Falls is not the highest waterfall in the world by a long way – the Angel Falls in Venezuela takes that prize – but when height, width and flow rate is taken into account, it is the largest. It’s undoubtedly one of Africa’s most iconic highlights, heard and felt before it’s even seen, the spray pulling the temperature down and filling the air with a roaring sound. Suddenly, the local name, Mosi oa Tunya, or ‘the smoke that thunders’ makes perfect sense.
Officially, Victoria Falls is made up of five different falls, four of which are in Zimbabwe and one in Zambia. The Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls (the highest point of the falls) and Horseshoe Falls are in Zimbabwe, while the Eastern Cataract lies in Zambia. The falls plunge off a basalt plateau and have been slicing through it slowly over the last two million years. Over this period, the river has slowly retreated and the remains of earlier, ancient falls can be seen in the gorges downstream from the current cataract.

Not that you really need to know any of these measurements or facts to admire the falls – although there are handy infographics at lookout points to put you in the picture – just seeing it, hearing it and feeling it is enough. You’ll find adjectives such as ‘awe-inspiring’ ‘mighty’ and just plain ‘wow’ popping into your mind as you take in its vastness and get drenched in its mist.

You won’t be alone in feeling moved by the falls, either. Scottish 19th century explorer Dr David Livingstone, who gave them the name Victoria Falls, was so captivated by the sight that he said “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, meanwhile, was moved to leave her troubled marriage while gazing at the Victoria Falls, and wrote a beautiful poem about this natural wonder. She said: “the experience of the Victoria Falls gave me courage to endure the difficult years to come. The falls became to me a symbol of spiritual strength...”

How to see Victoria Falls

Organised holidays to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia often include Victoria Falls, and visit it from both the Zimbabwe and the Zambia side. There’s a handy Univisa available now which allows travellers access to the falls from both sides. This is worth getting hold of, as the view of the falls is limited from the Zambia side (although the view from Knife Edge Bridge here is great – if wet!). Only around 25 percent is viewable from Zambia, while you can see around 75 percent from Zimbabwe.

National Parks flank the falls on both sides. On the Zimbabwe side there are about 2km of gardens in front of the falls that you can pay to go into with lots of different trails, vistas and viewpoints to explore. Look out for the warthogs and other small game running round while you’re here. The mists sustain a rainforest-like ecosystem around the falls, and you can walk through mahogany, fig and palm trees and admire the blue lobelia flowers that thrive in the misty conditions. You don’t need a guide to view the falls, but you’ll need to pay the single entry fee, which is currently $30 for adults on both sides.
You can also get good views from the Victoria Falls Bridge, which crosses the Zambezi just below the falls. The bridge links Zimbabwe and Zambia and border posts lie at either end. River level views from below the falls are a good way to experience their power up close. Keep your eyes peeled for the birdlife here; the gorges and cliffs below the falls are prime territory for falcons and black eagles. On the Zambia side, you can walk along the banks of the Zambezi, upstream of where it tumbles over.

If you favour an adrenalised experience, you’ll be pleased to hear that at certain times of the year it’s possible to take a dip in the Devil’s Pool, a natural pool right at the edge of the cataract. You can also choose to bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge, take a helicopter ride over the falls, ride a zip wire, white water raft along the Zambezi…

Best time to see Victoria Falls,
month by month

The falls look different month on month, in direct relationship to the rains and how full and fast flowing the Zambezi is, so it’s important to plan your visit, if you don’t want to be disappointed by too much spray or tiny trickles. December to March is the height of summer and the rainy season, with often dramatic thunderstorms in the afternoons. In December, the Zambezi is low, but begins to swell towards the end of the month as rains fall upstream. In January and February, the water levels are climbing. White water rafting often stops on the Zambezi in February because the river is too high. Similarly, it’s not possible to use the Devil’s Pool in January and February. The river is in full flood during February and March, when as much as 540 million cubic meters of water fall over the edge every single minute. At this time, the plumes of spray billowing up from the base of the falls can obscure the view. You can hear it, but you can’t really see it – a bit like standing inside a noisy cloud. April, May and June, at the end of the rains, is when the most water is rushing over the falls. This is spectacular, but be aware that mist can obscure views from several lookout points. This is the best time for a helicopter ride over the falls. July and August are the best time to see the falls, when slightly lower water levels mean less spray and better visibility. This also coincides with the best time for game viewing in the region, too. Days are warm now, hitting max 28°C. September, October and November mark the end of the dry winter season, and the falls are at their lowest. The curtain of water splits into individual channels of falling water now. It’s not as spectacular, but you do have the advantage of being able to peer right down to the base of the gorge, without spray interfering with the view. Head to the Zimbabwe side for the best views. Horseshoe Falls, which has the least volume of water, is the first to dry up, usually between October and November. This is peak white water rafting season. Temperatures are high, sometimes hitting 40°C in September and October, before the first rains arrive in November. Game viewing is superb now, if you can stand the heat.

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Bruce Taylor, from our supplier Sunway Safaris, discusses different viewpoints:
“There’s now a Univisa between Zambia and Zimbabwe, which is the same price for visitors to either side and means you can visit the Victoria Falls from both countries, multiple times, only paying the park entry fee for the side you’re not staying on. In May and June when the Falls are high and there’s lots of water in the river, the Zimbabwe side is very impressive, but at times there’s such a deluge of water that you can’t see across the actual falls through the spray and mist, although you can get a great view if you go and stand at Livingstone’s statue. At that time of year, if you want to go through the rainforest and look at the falls directly in front of you, the Zambian side is preferable.”
Joanna Simmons, one of the Responsible Travel writing team, visited the Victoria Falls with her family after a Botswana safari and has this advice:
“We saw the Falls in mid August, when the Zambezi is still high, so you do get a lot of spray blowing up, which both obscures the view now and then, and drenches you. We took shower proof coats with us which proved completely useless, so either hire capes there or just enjoy getting wet. You can see more of the Falls from the Zimbabwe side, but to be honest, even what we saw from the Zambia side was spectacular so don’t worry if you don’t take in both sides.”
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mario Micklisch] [Intro: Russell_Yan] [How to see Victoria Falls: flowcomm] [Bruce Taylor Quote: clintonafrica0]