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Victoria Falls

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Africa : Southern Africa : Zimbabwe : Matabeleland : Victoria Falls
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Victoria Falls is a town in the western portion of Zimbabwe, across the border from Livingstone, Zambia, and near Botswana. The town lies immediately next to the falls, and they are the major attraction, but this popular tourist destination offers both adventure seekers and sightseers plenty of opportunities for a longer stay.

The falls are on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. For information on the Zambian side, see Livingstone.

Understand

No doubt about it, Mosi-oa-Tunya (meaning "The Smoke That Thunders") -- but more commonly known as Victoria Falls -- is one of the most amazing sights in the world. Rhe Falls are twice as tall as Niagara Falls, and several times longer. Although not the highest, widest or greatest volume of water, they have the largest sheet of water for any fall in the world, and are a sight not to be missed.


History

It took thousands of years of erosion for Victoria Falls to appear as and where it does now. Mosi-oa-Tunya, or "the smoke that thunders” only became known to the western world as Victoria Falls after David Livingstone first set eyes on this astonishing natural wonder in 1855, a heartbeat ago in geological time.


How the Falls Were Formed

During the Jurassic Period (150-200 million years ago) volcanic activity resulted in thick basalt deposits covering large parts of Southern Africa. As the lava cooled and solidified, cracks appeared in the hard basalt crust, which were filled with clay and lime. Erosion and the course of the mighty Zambezi River cut through these softer materials, forming the first of a series of waterfalls. Over at least 2,000 years, the Falls have receded 8km upstream, as the Zambezi carved its way through seven gorges. This geological history can be seen in the dark basalt in the series of rocky gorges below the Falls. It is guessed that the Devil's Cataract, which is presently the lowest point of Victoria Falls, will eventually become the next gorge as the river continues to cut its way back upstream.

Essentially the river falls into a gorge directly in front of the falls, and then flows through a narrow cutting. You can view the falls straight on from across the gorge.

Dr. David Livingstone, I presume?

Scottish missionary David Livingstone first heard about Victoria Falls, known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, a full four years before he arrived there. The area was a sacred site for the Batoka and other local tribes. On the 17th of November 1855 Chief Sekeletu of the Makololo paddled Livingstone to an island in the Zambezi, known as Goat Island. Although the water was low at the time, it's little wonder that he felt a "tremor of fear" as he approached the wall of spray.

Gazing down into the churning chasm below must have been a heart-stopping experience (you can still make your way out to the island - now called Livingstone Island - during the dry season). Rumors abound that a Portuguese man beat him to it, but the evidence for this is scarce, so the first official description of the Falls, as penned by Livingstone, follows: "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."

Zambian side compared with Zimbabwean side

The big question is which side - Zambia or Zimbabwe? There are two things to consider, views of the falls and cost.

Two thirds of the actual Falls lies within Zambian territory, as does Livingstone Island, from where David Livingstone first famously set eyes on the Falls. The main viewing areas lie on the Zimbabwean side with a kilometer long pathway leading along the edge of the falls. During the wet, the view from the Zimbabwe side can be obscured by spray, but during the dry the smaller water flows are mainly on that side.

Travellers will have an assortment of visa charges involved in seeing both sides of the falls. The variables include your nationality, single or multiple entry, and whether you will stay longer than 24 hours.

To cross the border from Zambia to see the falls on the Zimbabwe side you will need to pay at least US$30 for a Zimbabwe single entry visa (depending on nationality), and if you want to return the Zambian side you will need to pay an extra US$20 for a multiple entry Zambian visa. To cross the border from the Zimbabwean side to the Zambian side you will need to pay an at least US$20 for a single day Zambian visa, and at least an extra US$15 for a multiple entry Zimbabwean visa. Don't forget you will need to decide whether you are getting a single or multiple entry visa when you first apply for it. If you are flying from South Africa just to see the falls, consider if it is worthwhile arriving on the Zimbabwean side and leaving from the Zambian, as you will minimise your visa costs this way (but may pay more for airfares). Flying to the Zambian side usually costs less than flying into the Zimbabwe side.

Still, for less than US$100 you can do both sides and tick another African country off your list.

Victoria Falls is cash only. ATMs are available in both Livingstone, Zambia, and Victoria Falls town.

When to visit

Victoria Falls

The park is open year-round, but you will get a much different experience depending on the season in which you visit.

  • In the rainy season (November to March), the water volume will be higher and the Falls will be more dramatic. You are guaranteed to get wet if you cross the bridge or walk along the trails winding near the Falls. On the other hand, it is precisely because the volume of water is so high that your viewing of the actual Falls will be obscured -- by all the water!
  • In the dry season, (April to October), the water volume will be lower, and Victoria Falls might just be a trickle. You will get a clearer view of the rocky ledge beneath the Falls, which is pretty spectacular unto itself, but "the Falls" might be somewhat underwhelming.

Get in

By plane

British Airways [1] and South African Airways [2] offer daily flights between Johannesburg (JNB) and Victoria Falls Airport (VFA). Air Zimbabwe also offers flights between Victoria Falls Airport and other destinations within Zimbabwe. Cheaper flights from South Africa are often available to neighbouring Livingstone.

By train

The Victoria Falls station with train headed for Bulawayo.

The classic way of reaching Victoria Falls is by the overnight train from Bulawayo, now back to running daily again. This train still uses lovely but somewhat downtrodden British 1950s coaches. First class tickets are $12 while second class goes for $8, no bed linen included. With old coaches and bad maintenace, do not except everything to work fine or sleep to well. However the scenery is fantastic and during the last few hours before reaching Victoria Falls you're garanted to see alot of wildlife. Depature from Bulawayo is at 7:30PM, arriving the next morning at 9AM, altough delays are rather the norm then the exception.

Trains from Zambia across the spectacular Zambesi bridge have been suspended for a few years time now, however catching a train to Livingstone and then continue by taxi is a possibility.

By car

The roads within Zimbabwe are relatively good. The most direct way to Victoria Falls overland is from Bulawayo. There is a good road network from the South African border at Beit Bridge right through to the Falls.

It's possible to drive in through Livingstone. Crossing an international border with a vehicle, however, will incur extra costs like carbon tax and insurance. Very annoying is the time consuming and disorganised procedure of obtaining a 'temporary import permit' for the car at the Zambian boarder posts. Once at the Zimbabwe boarder post, the whole procedure is to be repeated, though it is a bit faster but also expensive.

Comming from Namibia or Botswana. the best road is from Kasane in Botswana using the Kazungula border post. Distance to Vic Falls is 70 km.

By bus

Buses operated by Intercape [3] plys the route between Windhoek in Namibia to Victoria Falls three times a week. Notice that the bus stops on the Zambian side, you have to cross the border by foot. A journey takes just over 14 hours and costs from R460.

Get around

If you stay in the swanky hotels downtown, or even some of the budget accommodation options just outside the downtown area, walking is manageable. Most of places are no more than 3 km away from Victoria Falls.

Some of the hotels in Victoria Falls are not really in Vic Falls, but most of these have their own transfer services.

Cabs are plentiful, and should not cost more than $6 for a ride; bargain.

See

  • Perhaps you have seen postcards, holiday snaps, or film footage of the seventh wonder of the world, Victoria Falls. But have you actually been fortunate enough to stand beside the ‘smoke that thunders’? Watching and listening as the roar of 546 m³ of water, minute by minute, plunge down into a 100 m deep gorge below.
  • Do not miss the Zambezi River, which is beautiful above the falls. Best seen on a cruise, especially at sunset.

For a memorable afternoon tea pop in to the Victoria Falls Hotel for a 3 tiered sandwich platter and cup of tea: expect to pay $30 for the experience. A first class hotel still seemingly untouched by the country's woes though having lost the shine.

Whitewater rafting day trips sell for about $110. The price includes a full day of shooting some of the best rapids in the world (including some Class V rapids!); lunch, eaten on the water and all the beer you can chug after the climb out.

  • Visit the grand Victoria Falls Hotel for high tea. For about $30, you get tea, scones, and a magnificent view of the Falls.
  • From wherever you stay you can easily arrange for a safari (prices vary), a sunset cruise (around $45), or a helicopter ride (for about $115 plus $5 National Park fee, well worth the price) over the falls.
  • The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge has a no knock-out casino on site.
  • For a casino, The Kingdom Hotel does have something to offer.
  • For something different try an elephant ride, or a horse-back safari offered by a variety of tour operators in town.

Buy

There is substantial opportunity to shop in Victoria Falls, and you can find a good deal. The curio markets are just behind the post office and has dozens of tourist shops from which you may select wood and stone carvings, jewelry, t-shirts, curios, books, postcards, artwork, etc. (For fun, see if you can find the shop with the pictures of Senator and Chelsea Clinton, from their visit.)

Traders in the sculpture markets are prepared to barter trade: hats, your shoes, T-shirts, pens, batteries are in demand. But think twice before you reduce people to the level of beggars. Just negotiate what you think is a fair price.

Eat

The downtown area features a few coffee shops, sandwich shops, and fast food options. For a few US dollars, you can feed an entire family.

All of the hotels have restaurants, and it is common to sample a new one each night. One place not to miss for a sundowner: The Victoria Falls Safari Lodge offers a la carte dinner, and The Boma offers a buffet 'eat as much as you can' buffet dinner with authentic African dancing. The Ilala Lodge has a nice a la carte restaurant (a bit overpriced for the portions served; and the In-da-Belly Restaurant located in the camp site is a nice place to have simple meal and hang out at the pool and meet overland travellers from around the world.

There are a Spar and a Seven-Elevengrocery store in town. Drinks and Food, snacks, camping supplies, are available at almost acceptable prices now that businesses are allowed to charge in US dollars.

  • The Boma
  • Makuwa-Kuwa at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge
  • Palm Restaurant at Ilala Lodge
  • Livingstone Room at the Victoria Falls Hotel
  • Jungle Junction at the Victoria Falls Hotel
  • The Blue Baboon - Great pizzas (when they have cheese ) at Shoestring Backpackers Lodge
  • The restaurant at the Camp Site serves Crocodile burgers and Warthog steak!

There is no food available within the park so bring it in yourself if you need something. Also, the monkeys within Victoria Falls will try to snatch your food if you are not paying attention to it.

Drink

Victoria Falls is not known anymore for its tremendous nightlife. There are a few small bars near the downtown area, but they are not well-lit. It might be fun to stop in, but be careful.

Alternatively, all the hotels feature huge, well-stocked bars. However, the prices will be higher, and you might not feel that you are in Africa anymore.

Sleep

Note that price ranges quoted are in US dollars.

This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:
Budget under US$10
Mid-range US$10 to US$200
Splurge more than US$200

There are many types of accommodation in Victoria Falls. You can certainly find what you are looking for. Some of the accommodation options are not really in Victoria Falls so be careful, if booking in advance.

Budget

  • Shoestrings Backpackers Lodge has a great atmosphere with friendly staff and a self-catering kitchen, cafe as well for when you are too tired.
  • Victoria Falls Backpackers offers budget prices but is further outside of town.
  • Reynard Cottages, owned by a Zimbabwean, provides very simple rooms at affordable prices.
  • Lorrie's B&Bowned by a Zimbabwean, run by single mom and her sidekick "George." Most rooms are ensuite and meals are quite affordable. Most rooms are about $50 a night depending on season. Lovely pool and gardens with nice "sports bar" on site.
  • Savanna Lodge offers dorms and private rooms for under $30/night.

Mid-range

  • Amadeus Garden owner managed lodging B&B style two kilometers from the Victoria Falls. Eleven en-suite rooms, pool and cool garden to relax. Rates per person sharing around $70 per night incl breakfast depending on season.
  • Teak Lodge located within the residential area of Vic Falls less than three kilometers to the Victoria Falls. Prices at $30-50/person per night, coupled with impeccable service and completely furnished in teak wood.
  • The Sprayview Hotel motel like accommodation is only 2 km from the Falls for about US$100/night.
  • The Kingdom Hotel Victoria Falls. This resort is constructed in Disney-esque jungle style. Four-star themed resort, swimming pool, close to falls, from US$150/pp. Family rooms available.
  • Drifter Inn Victoria Falls [4] - only 20 min by foot from the falls, this simple but quiet inn offers rooms from $50.

Splurge

  • Ilala Lodge, +27(0)21-683-6576 (), [5]. Quiet elegance with a beutiful colonial veranda for dining. A bit closer to town.
  • Victoria Falls Hotel, 2 Mallett Drive, +263 13 44751 (), [6]. Built in 1904, this is one of the most romatic hotels in Africa with a faded grand old feeling to it. The Queen Mother herself stayed here when she visited.
  • Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, +263 13 43211-20 (), [7]. Located close to the falls and offers safari-themed elegance, a great casino and an excellent, reasonably-priced, buffet dinner.

Farther afield

  • Imbabala Zambezi Safari Lodge is carefully situated on a riverside fringe of the mighty Zambezi River where Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia and Namibia converge. Located 80 km west of Victoria Falls, access is by transfer from Victoria Falls, Livingstone or Kasane. Imbabala offers not only the chance to unwind but also some of the most amazing game viewing and bird watching in the region, in the seclusion of a private National Parks concession. The 12,000 ha concession has 14 km of private Zambezi river frontage and borders the Chobe Forest Reserve, which is renowned for its massive Elephant population. Herds of up to 1500 elephants have been seen on the floodplains below the Lodge.

Stay safe

You can expect to be met by tourist police on your arrival in Victoria Falls. They are plentiful around the town and the falls and can be trusted. You can identify them by their yellow vests. Zimbabwe is very keen to keep tourists safe following a period of instability which saw visitors at risk, and tourist on the Zimbabwean side drop dramatically. Sometimes it feels there are more tourist police than guards.

If you are staying at one of the resorts, it is likely that the guards at the resorts will keep an eye on you on the paths to the falls until you are within site of the tourist police.

Touts are aggressive and desperate and best avoided. They keep a distance from the tourist police and guards. The markets are safe, and the traders there are very polite and keen for your trade.

The path along the side of the river to the Victoria Falls hotel from the falls is not safe to walk after dark.

Get out

Victoria Falls is located within 100 km of the four corners of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia and thus provides access to all of the countries, but the only point of any note within a reasonable distance to the park is Chobe National Park in Botswana. It is a common destination, and most hotels will be able to book journey on a day safari of one or two days.

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