Just imagine how overawed Dr David Livingstone must have been when he first set eyes on what is now regarded as the largest waterfall in the world — Victoria Falls in Zambia, Africa, which the famous explorer immediately named after the then reigning British Monarch, Queen Victoria.
Thought to be the first European to see what is now listed as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Natural World’, this renowned Scottish missionary viewed the falls, long known as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, this means ‘Cloud of Thunder’, from what soon came to be called ‘Livingstone Island’, an island in the middle of the spectacular falls, on November 16, in 1855. And he must have been completely speechless as, unlike the usual rugged terrain in which waterfalls are found, the area around Victoria falls is completely flat!
While being listed as the largest waterfall in existence, this massive, moving tumble of water on the Zambezi river is, surprisingly enough, neither the tallest or the widest one but the combination of its measured width (1, 708 metres) and its height (108 metres) still make it the biggest waterfall on the planet due to the size of its single falling sheet of water and, many thousands and thousands of years ago, the waterfall is thought to have been much larger and wider still.
There are quite a number of small islands along the course of the river as it approaches the falls but the largest islands, there are two of these called ‘Cataract Island’ and ‘Livingstone Island’, are the closest ones to the actual falls. And while some of the smaller ones are submerged during periods of seasonal flooding, the two big ones are always above the waterline.
Of major geological interest is that the river course flows over a huge sheet of hard basalt rock which is surrounded by low hills of much softer sandstone and the waterfall was made possible when, at some point in history or pre-history, the sheet of basalt fractured with one huge section dropping down lower than the other and it is over this fracture that the stupendous waterfall flows.
Immediately below the falls are the Victoria Falls Gorges — the First Gorge channels the entire Zambezi River through a gap of 110 metres and surges strongly for approximately 150 metres before rampaging into a series of rugged gorges which, rather unimaginatively, are called the Second Gorge, Third Gorge, Fourth Gorge and Fifth Gorge as the river roars down through them. Where the river roars into the Second Gorge it has, due to existence of a sharp angled corner, gouged out what is known as the ‘Boiling Pot’ where anything, human, animal or otherwise, that is swept over Victoria Falls itself, usually ends up floating and churning around in the vicious turbulence there.The main five gorges, there are a number of lesser ones too, are all impressive in their own right. The First Gorge is the one into which Victoria Falls descends. The Second Gorge, 250 metres to the south, is spanned by the Victoria Falls Bridge and measures 2.15km in length. The Third Gorge contains a hydro-electricity power station and runs for 1.95km. The Fourth Gorge runs for 2.25km and The Fifth Gorge for 3.2km.
Located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe and in what is referred to as the Zambezi basin after the name of the river on which they are, Victoria Falls experiences heavy rains from late November until early April (this rainy season is altering now as a direct result of global climate change) with a dry season for the rest of the year. The river is generally in flood during February, March, April and May and over this period the spray from the powerful waterfall can rise as much as an incredible 800 metres into the air and is visible from up to 50 kilometres away which, all things considered, must be an amazing sight indeed.
Archaeological evidence indicates that the area around Victoria Falls has been inhabited since as long ago as three million years when ‘Homo Habilis’ walked the earth and these Stone Age people were followed by Iron Age people and so on down the centuries to the modern age tribes and people who inhabit the area today.
Dr David Livingstone discovered the falls during his 1852 – 1856 exploration of the Zambezi River, but it is highly possible that Voortrekker hunters and Arab travellers may have seen them way before this famous explorer did so. In the years immediately after Livingstone made the falls famous, they were visited by many other European explorers too, with the most well-known of these being Serpa Pinto of Portugal and Emil Holub of Czechoslovakia. The British artist, Thomas Baines, painted some wonderful pictures of them in 1905, but ordinary Europeans remained very wary of travelling to the region to view them in person for many years to come.
Armed border disputes erupted periodically over the last 100 years or thereabouts but, since around 1990, the region has remained relatively peaceful and a huge volume of tourists, both from Zambia and Zimbabwe and other African countries, plus, from all around the world, now visit Victoria Falls around the year and excellent tourist facilities have come up to cater for this huge and still expanding trade.