Victoria Falls: The Smoke That Thunders

Dr. David Livingstone had been traveling down the Zambezi River in Southern Africa for several months. Perhaps a hundred miles upriver during this expedition he had come to Ngonye Falls. Livingstone had found the cataract very impressive. The falls were only about 60 feet high but extended over the whole length of the wide river and the amount of water that rushed over them was staggering.

However, on this day, November 17th, 1855, he been told he would be seeing a spectacular cataract that would dwarf the one at Ngonye. Livingstone, like most Europeans, had some doubts about this. After all, at this point the river was flowing sluggishly across a flat plateau without a mountain or valley in sight. How could you have a big waterfall without a land feature that would cause a sudden change in the height of the river?

As the canoe they were paddling in headed downstream, however, Livingstone began to hear a distant rumble. Ahead a plume of mist arose from seemingly nowhere. By the time the canoe was pulled up on a small island and Livingstone had walked to the edge of the cataract, the sound had become a deafening roar.

Seven Quick Facts
Height: 360 feet (108m)
Width: 5,604 feet (1,708m)
Name: Local name is Mosi-oa-Tunya which means the 'Smoke that Thunders'
Discovered: The first European to visit the falls was David Livingstone in 1855
Location: On the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe in Southern Africa
Formed By: The Zambezi River as it removes soft sandstone from cracks in a basalt rock plateau.
Other: The mist cloud formed by the falls can be seen 30 miles (50km) away

Below him, the river, which was over a half mile wide, plunged 360 feet (108m) down the side of a narrow gorge which was only 80 to 240 feet (25m - 85m) wide. "Creeping with awe to the verge," he later related, " I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi…" Livingstone had never seen anything quite like this in his entire life. Afterward he wrote: "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."

Livingstone, the first European to see the mighty cataract, would name it for his queen, Victoria. However, the name used by the African residents of the area, Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means the 'Smoke that Thunders,' seems a much more accurate description of this natural wonder.

Formation of the Cataract

Victoria Falls is the result of soft sandstone that fills huge cracks in the hard basalt rock of the plateau. As the Upper Zambezi flowed across the plateau in ancient times, it found the cracks and started wearing away the softer rock, eventually creating a series of gorges. Geologists estimate that the river has been falling into these gorges for at least the last 100,000 years. As the rock wears away, the cataract follows these gigantic cracks and moves further upriver across the plateau.

In this picture taken from the International Space Station it is easy to see the zigzag cracks that the river follows after it falls into the first gorge.

Currently the falls are almost a mile wide where they enter the first gorge. From there they take a zigzag course through a series of gorges which are designated by numbers. When the river travels through the second gorge, it passes along a pool known as "Boiling Pot." During high water this part of the river is filled with heavy turbulence and whirlpools. It is often at this location that objects, animals, and unfortunately sometimes people, are deposited along the edge of the water after they have been unlucky enough to have been swept over the falls.

The river continues zigzagging through a total of six gorges, which range from 400 to 800 feet (120-240m) deep, before settling into a steep, walled chasm known as the Batoka Gorge which is filled with wild rapids. After traveling 120 miles (200k) the river finally empties into Lake Kariba. In ancient past, each of these gorges has been the location of an earlier version of Victoria Falls which has moved further upstream as the river has eroded away the sandstone.

In the rainy season from November to early April, the falls are (by volume of water) the largest in the world only rivaled by Iguazu Falls in South America. Victoria is higher than Iguazu by a hundred feet, but at 5,604 feet (1,708m), it isn't nearly as wide the South America cataract (8,858 feet/ 2,700m).

Victoria Falls Bridge crosses the Second Gorge. (Photograph by JackyR licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)

The character of Victoria Falls is greatly influenced by the time of year. During the rainy season, only two islands appear at the top of the falls. These are Livingston Island (the location where the explorer first glimpsed the cataract), and Boaruka Island, near the western bank. As the flow of the river drops during the dry season many more temporary islands appear. The change in the amount of water is so dramatic that while Victoria has had the highest recorded peak flow, it is the third behind Niagara Falls and Iguazu Falls in average yearly flow.


Archeological sites around the Falls indicate that this area has been occupied by humans since the Middle Stone Age 50,000 years ago. To the people that lived in the area, the Matabele, the Batswana and the Makololo, the falls became a familiar sight, but for most of its history was little known outside of the region. Even after Livingstone's visit, European visitors were infrequent due to the remote location. Then in 1905 the Victoria Falls Bridge opened as part of an ambitious effort to build a railway from Cape Town to Cairo. Cecil Rhodes, the English-born South African businessman behind the project, directed engineers to "build the bridge across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls". The bridge, a beautiful steel arch, crosses 420 feet (128m) above the second gorge.

About the same time the railway started operation, Victoria Falls Hotel opened. Finally visitors could use the train to travel to the site and stay in the relative comfort of the hotel. From that point on, tourism increased (though occasionally has been discouraged by unrest or war in the region) until at the end of the 20th century the location was getting over 300,000 visitors a year.

Daring tourists can swim to the edge of the cataract at the "Devil's Pool." (Photo by Ian Restall released into public domain.)

Today, visitors can land at the nearby airport and easily visit the falls. The cataract straddles the boundary of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and both countries have established national parks in here to preserve the natural beauty and ecology of the area. In addition to visiting the falls and the surrounding parks, the adventurous can take a rafting ride down the rapid-filled gorges or bungee jump from the Victoria Bridge.

One activity at the falls which is both terrifying and exhilarating is a swim in the "devil's pool." During the dry season the water level drops enough that a shallow pool forms along Livingstone Island at the edge of the falls. Normally anyone entering the water here would be swept by the strong currents over the edge to their death. When the levels are low, however, a natural lip forms at the edge of the pool that keeps swimmers from being carried over the cataract. It is possible for those bathers with nerves of steel to lean over the slippery rock lip and peer directly into the gorge.

The dry season may not be just the best time to view the gorge from devil's pool, but also from most of the surrounding area. The heavy mist that forms while the falls are at maximum flow can totally obscure the bottom of the gorge and make viewing from much of the edge difficult.

However, the mist itself can sometimes be as fascinating as the falls. Normally it rises to over 1,300 feet (400m) and under certain conditions it can reach double that height. The cloud it forms can be seen sometimes as far away as 30 miles (50km). In the bright sunlight the mist can cause multiple rainbows to appear. Even more startling is that Victoria Falls is one of the few places in the world where under strong moonlight you can actually see a "moonbow" at night.

The mist from the falls normally rises 1,300 feet and on nights with a full moon can cause a "Moonbow." (Photo by Graham Bould released into public domain).


Copyright 2012 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.