Expect the unexpected at Victoria Falls
We all have travel dreams — bucket lists that are brimming with places we would love to see in our life.
Right at the top of my very long list was the Victoria Falls — one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
I didn’t know too much about the falls, except that they are magnificent and everyone who has been there raves about what a fabulous experience it is.
And the thing I loved the sound of most was that there are rainbows suspended in the mist that sprays up from the falling water.
Though our blog is about chasing a figurative rainbow — the ideal of contentment, peace and happiness — this was one literal rainbow I was craving to see.
To my absolute delight, the opportunity to visit Victoria Falls recently presented itself and with great excitement and anticipation we headed to Zimbabwe to tick off our dream.
When you have high hopes of something, it’s always a bit worrying that the actual experience could fall below your lofty expectations, which would be a really sad disappointment.
What I swiftly realised though, was that my expectations of Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls way too low and far too narrow.
Here is what we did not expect to experience at Victoria Falls.
1. How wild it is
From when we flew over the SA border, to arriving at Victoria Falls, I marvelled out of the window at the endless wild landscape — a stereotypical picture of untamed Africa with red soil covered with thick green foliage of thorn trees as far as the eye could see.
Over a thousand or so kilometres in the approach to the remote town of Victoria Falls, I did not spot any farmlands or settlements, just pure, raw nature stretching beyond the horizon in every direction.
The highway from the airport into town runs right through the unfenced Zambezi National Park, where the wildlife coexists with local villagers.
We were fascinated to hear how the locals make sure their livestock stays on their side of the road as they all know that if they allow their livestock to stray into the park, they have no claim if they get eaten, and if the wild animals stray into the villages, they politely shoo them away back into their wilderness.
2. Safari experience
Victoria Falls sits right at the North Eastern tip of Zimbabwe, bordering Botswana, Zambia and Namibia.
It is literally surrounded by some of the best-known safari parks in the world — including Zambezi, Hwange and Chobe.
When planning our trip, we didn’t know you could take a walk into Zambia or take a short day trip into Botswana.
Many visitors combine a safari stay with a visit to the falls, but we had the best of both right in our hotel, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge.
The lodge overlooks a huge waterhole with a constant flow of wildlife.
We dined by candlelight, watching herds of elephant and buffalo quenching their thirst, we sipped our elegant sundowners watching the sun set behind cheeky warthogs and graceful kudu and we lounged around the pool while impala and waterbuck wandered past.
Absolute safari bliss!
3. Vulture culture
Twenty years back, an elephant died near the magnificent waterhole right in front of the hotel.
Its bulky carcass attracted hundreds of vultures from far and wide, and after a few days the meat was all picked clean from the bones.
The hungry vultures kept coming so the hotel chefs laid their offcuts on the elephant bones for them to eat.
This has evolved into a daily routine and a formalised supplementary feeding programme that helps conserve and monitor these endangered scavengers.
Each midday, the air fills with the swoosh of thousands of gigantic raptor wings circling and waiting for their meal.
It was an incredible experience to sit a few metres away from these awesome creatures as they swooped in and tore into the scraps, squabbling with each other for their piece of meat.
4. The people
The Zimbabweans at Victoria Falls must be the friendliest people on the planet.
Even the customs official received us with a smile as he welcomed us to his country and wished us an enjoyable stay.
We were greeted by literally every person we walked past and many were keen to chat about everyday life in their country and find out more about ours.
They are proud of their magnificent country and natural heritage, and feeling so welcome really added to our experience of Victoria Falls.
5. The falls
Though we knew that the Victoria Falls would be an incredible waterfall, we really had no idea how vast, powerful and absolutely unique it is.
When we arrived at the falls complex, our guide started off with talking us through a large diagram of the falls.
He explained that we were going to start on the left of the falls and work our way across 16 viewpoints all the way to the right where the infamous Victoria Falls Bridge leads across the gorge into Zambia.
So many people had asked us if the falls were running, as photos of the dried up waterfall have been doing the rounds on social media.
We learnt this was fake news and that the Victoria Falls never stop running.
They are 1,800m wide and when the mighty Zambezi is running lower in the dry months of October, November and December each year, only the shallower part of the river closer to the Zambian side runs dry, which means only one small part of the falls is not in flow.
We visited in February, when the rains had started and the entire couple of kilometres was gushing heavily.
The spray from the water plummeting into the gorge could be seen from miles away so it was easy to see where the name “Mosi-oa-Tunya” — meaning “the smoke that thunders” — came from.
There are paved walkways running next to the falls, and we started off at viewpoint number one.
Our first glimpse of the Western tip of the waterfalls was completely awe-inspiring.
The flat land literally cracks open into an enormous deep forested gorge and the fast-flowing river plummets into the giant chasm in an incredible volume of water.
It is spectacularly beautiful and I saw right away that my expectations were paltry compared to this natural wonder that was just too big for my mind to comprehend.
As we worked our way from that first magnificent view to the next and the next viewpoint, I could hardly breathe.
This is one of those rare places on Earth where you feel so tiny and yet so significant at the same time.
There are no large railings, just some woven sticks to indicate the barrier, and it was really easy to peer down into the gorge, where I was delighted to find my double rainbow dancing in the mist.
As we neared the centre of the falls it was like walking through a torrential rainstorm.
The spray was bucketing down and despite our ponchos we got absolutely soaked and were unable to take photos as the spray splattered our lenses.
A lush and green rainforest dwells along the gorge, nurtured by the constant spray, and as the path wound through the trees, butterflies of every colour imaginable fluttered around us.
Once through the thick spray, we looked back to find more rainbows and spotted a group of adrenaline junkies swimming in Angel’s Pool, right at the edge of the waterfall on the other side.
I was surprised to hear that there have not been reports of photo accidents as we watched in horror while other tourists teetered on slippery rocks at the mouth of the chasm, trying to take the perfect wonder-of-the-world selfie.
The Victoria Falls is really far too big to get your mind around and I don’t think one visit is enough.
The place is full of magic that spills and sprays into the atmosphere, and though we have managed to tick it off our bucket list, it still remains right there as I definitely need to go back again to dance in the waterfall rain among the butterflies and rainbows.
Where to stay
We stayed at the family-friendly, self-catering Lokuthula Lodges at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge in Zimbabwe.
Rates are from R2,775 — R3,750 a night for a chalet sleeping up to six guests.
Entrance to the Victoria Falls National Park is US$20 (R300) a person a day for SADC residents.
There are multiple daily flights from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, starting from R4,300 (return) a person.
- Sarah Dirsuwei is the writer behind the Chasing the Rainbow travel blog. For more family adventure travel inspiration visit www.chasingtherainbow.net