Earth : Africa : Southern Africa : Zimbabwe : Matabeleland : Victoria Falls
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. They are the major attraction, but this popular tourist destination offers both adventure seekers and sightseers plenty of opportunities for a longer stay.
Tourist numbers are now back to historical levels, with many package tour operators adding Vic Falls back to their itineraries, and this is easily Zimbabwe's busiest tourist destination. In response, there is a lot of a cartelisation and price fixing, with prices for accommodation and activities suspiciously high, even though the hotels are not full and activity operators not operating at full capacity. This destination is now considerably more expensive than other destinations in Zimbabwe.
Mosikalamosikala (meaning "The Smoke That Thunders"), commonly known as Victoria Falls, is one of the most amazing sights in the world: twice as tall as Niagara Falls and several times longer. Although not the highest, the widest or the 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.
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” became known to the western world as Victoria Falls only after David Livingstone first set eyes on this astonishing natural wonder in 1855, a heartbeat ago in geological time.
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 2000 years, the falls have receded 8 km 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 believed 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.
Scottish missionary David Livingstone first heard about Victoria Falls, known as Mosi-oa-Tunya, four years before he arrived there. The area was a sacred site for the Batoka and other local tribes. On 17 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, Livingstone still felt a "tremor of fear" as he approached the wall of spray.
Gazing down into the churning chasm below must have been a heartstopping experience (you can still make your way out to the island, now called Livingstone Island, from the Zambian Side during the dry season). Rumours that a Portuguese man beat him to it have little evidence. Livingstone described what he saw: "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 or Zimbabwean side
The big question is which side to visit: Zambia or Zimbabwe? There are two things to consider, views of the falls and cost.
Two thirds of the actual falls lie within the Zambian territory, as does Livingstone Island, from where David Livingstone first famously set eyes on the falls.
The water from Victoria Falls dives into a narrow gorge running parallel to the face of the falls, with the spray going high into the air, causing permanent rain, rainbows and the famous "smoke" which is visible from a distance, so, much of the time when you are viewing the falls, you are actually facing them. The gorge where the water exits is the limit on how far you can walk from either side. There is no crossing there. This limits your visibility from the Zambian side, as you can walk about only a quarter of the distance of the face of the falls. Although the view and the waterflow is still impressive, you simply cannot get a perspective on the full width of the falls from the Zambian side.
The walk down to below the falls is closed on the Zimbabwean side. You can only walk down on the Zambian side. The footbridge on the Zambian side gives a unique experience, with a permanent torrential rain from the wet season through to August.
Travelers 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 h.
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.
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.
Victoria Falls uses cash only. ATMs are available in both Livingstone, Zambia and Victoria Falls Town.
When to visit
The park is open year-round, but you will get a very different experience depending on the season in which you visit.
British Airways  and South African Airways  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 - NB please check whether Air Zimbabwe is operating at the time of your visit, as recently their schedule has not been reliable, and they ceased operations for a period of time. Cheaper flights from South Africa are often available to neighbouring Livingstone.
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 expect everything to work fine or sleep too 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.
The roads within Zimbabwe are not very good, with potholes commonplace. 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 border post. Once at the Zimbabwe border post, the whole procedure is to be repeated, though it is a bit faster but also expensive.
Buses operated by Intercape  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.
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.
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.
Besides the falls themselves there are numerous land and water based activities to keep you busy for a day or two. There are several tour operators in town, who all take bookings for various activities, all are on commission, and you can only seemingly haggle over the size of the commission rather than cost of the activity. Wild Horizons offer many of the activities, so it may be better to negotiate direct with them rather than with a tout / agency. Alternatively, you can use sites such as ZimShack.com to compare prices of activities between tour operators, book and pay securely online before you travel to Zimbabwe.
Victoria Falls Bridge-based
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 Hillary 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.
Vic Falls has a sprinkling of top class restaurants, several African buffets often included in package tours, and a few coffee shops, sandwich shops, and fast food options. The price/quality ratio is pretty good and for $20 US, you can feed an entire family.
There are a Spar and a Seven-Elevengrocery store in town. Drinks and Food, snacks, camping supplies, are also available.
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.
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.
Note that price ranges quoted are in US dollars.
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.
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 after a period of instability that saw visitors at risk, and tourist on the Zimbabwean side drop dramatically. Sometimes, it may feel there are more tourist police than tourists.
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 Victoria Falls Hotel from the falls is not safe to walk after dark.
Victoria Falls is located within 100 km of the four corners of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia. It 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.