The Victoria Falls is the result of thousands of years of erosion. The Zambezi River, flowing across a basalt plateau in ancient times, found cracks that were filled with sandstone, and started wearing away at the softer rock, eventually creating a series of magnificent and dramatic gorges. In fact the Victoria Falls have been gradually receding for over 100,000 years!
This process of erosion has been repeated over and over again, and the zigzagging gorges downstream of the current falls represent the formation and abandonment of seven previous waterfalls. Today the Zambezi crashes over a wide cliff, plunging down 108 metres into a powerful whirlpool, forming the greatest curtain of falling water on the planet, and transforming the placid river into a ferocious torrent. In the height of the rainy season, more than five hundred million cubic metres of water per minute surge over the edge of the almost 2km wide falls, and plummet into the gorge below… columns of spray can be seen from miles away, hence its local name, Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”.
Aside from the lure of the Victoria Falls themselves, there are numerous activities to keep even the most ardent adventure seeker busy…
1. Bungee jumping
Jumping off the Victoria Falls Bridge has to be one of the ultimate adrenaline activities to do in Livingstone. This is the highest commercial bridge jump in the world, and in the most spectacular setting. I, of course, was neither brave, nor foolish, enough to throw myself off the bridge, but my two teenage sons had no such qualms. Shearwater offers bungee, bridge swing and zip lining off the iconic bridge and without any trouble at all, I convinced my sons to throw themselves into the abyss – one decided to bungee and the other chose the gorge swing.
It was only once both boys were fully ‘safety talked’ and kitted out in harness etc that my husband voiced what was in both of our minds… “we’ve only got two children, do you think it is wise for them to both be throwing themselves off this bridge simultaneously?” My heart stopped momentarily and I held my breath as my boys leapt into space, free falling for what seemed like forever, before being propelled upwards again, at speed, by the rebound of a giant elastic band! The looks of excitement on their faces when it was all done said it all… they were on an adrenaline high for the rest of the day!
I thought I would ease myself more gracefully into this ‘adrenaline business’ and so signed the family up with Livingstone’s Adventure for an afternoon’s privately guided canoeing safari on the Zambezi, upstream of the Falls. We paddled between the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on the Zambian side and the Zambezi Game Park on the Zimbabwean side, gliding past elephants, pods of hippos and a great selection of birdlife.
I was a little surprised how much we actually saw given how much noise my husband and younger son were making in the other canoe! Having been told clearly as we set off, that the person in the back seat was in charge of steering and the person in the front was the ‘powerhouse’, there seemed to be a great deal of unnecessary gesticulating and exasperation as the two of them ‘discussed’ who was supposed to be doing what and got progressively further off course! Silence reigned supreme in my canoe, and I was feeling rather smug about it, until I turned round and discovered that my eldest son was doing what teenagers do best, and having a ‘power nap’ in the back seat, whilst I both paddled and steered! Clearly the adrenaline rush of the morning bungee jump had taken its toll.
3. Game drives and rhino walk
The 66sq km Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, home not only to Cape buffalo, Burchell’s zebra, Angolan giraffe, elephants, various antelope, warthog and more, but also home to several endangered white rhino. We were staying at Thorntree River Lodge and they took us out on a combined game drive through this tiny park, and a rhino walk, which gave us the unique opportunity to get up close, on foot, to a few of the white rhino. After some searching, we found a mother and her baby and were able to approach pretty close. The baby, Virginia, was in a remarkably playful mood, and very curious about us. It was a really special experience to get so close on foot.
4. White water rafting
We decided on a family rafting trip the following day, with Bundu Adventures, down what is quite probably the wildest commercial white-water in the world. A rafting adventure on the Zambezi River is an adrenaline rush not to be missed. Downstream of the Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River is a long stretch of deep, zigzagging, torturous channels gouged out of the surrounding basalt and the incredible volume of water guarantees an exhilarating day of white-water. When, at the pre departure briefing, you hear that there are rapids called ‘The Terminator’, ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Gnashing Jaws of Death’, you have an inkling of what lies ahead. The day starts with a hike down to the ‘Boiling Pot,’ a massive whirlpool at the base of the Victoria Falls, where we clambered aboard our raft and set off. The sun was shining, the water was surprisingly warm. Our guide, nicknamed Black Lizard (apparently his real name, Kelvin, wasn’t ‘cool’ enough!) knew exactly which line to take through the rapids, usually giving us the option to choose the route based on whether we wanted to ‘flip’ or not… and a few flips were definitely had! Although stretches of the route are classed a high-octane Grade 5, after lunch there are several areas of scenic, calm water where we had the chance to swim alongside the raft. The whole day was an unbelievable experience and definitely worth the steep hike out of the Batoka Gorge at the end of the day.
5. Microlight flight
If flying over the Falls in a contraption that resembles a couple of garden chairs, attached to a beach umbrella, with a lawnmower engine for propulsion is your cup of tea, then microlighting with Livingstone’s Adventure is definitely for you!
Seriously though, whilst a microlight may look as fragile as a dragonfly, it is obviously far stronger than it appears, and in the hands of an experienced pilot it is without doubt one of the most unique ways to see the one of the seven natural wonders of the world in all its magnificence. My sons took to the skies and loved every minute of the ride.
6. Helicopter ‘Flight of Angels’
Having microlighted before and not keen to be outdone by our children, my husband and I opted for a spectacular helicopter flight over the Falls, again with Livingstone’s Adventure. Known as the ‘Flight of Angels’, this thrilling flight is a definite bucket-list activity. Not only did we have the luxury of a private flight just for the two of us, but the views were breathtaking, an entirely new perspective on the falls and the landscape below. We had a bird’s eye view of elephants swimming across the river, saw pods of hippos congregating in the water, and as we flew over the National Park we found ourselves looking directly down on its various inhabitants.
7. Sunset cruise
A visit to Livingstone would not be complete without a Livingstone’s Adventure river cruise, preferably at sunset, on the Zambezi. We chose The African Queen, and despite the fact that the sun was hiding behind some clouds as we set off, and it didn’t look like we were destined to get a very photogenic sunset, we enjoyed ourselves immensely; no doubt aided by the numerous gin & tonics and tasty snacks brought to us as regular intervals by our ever attentive waitress. We travelled at a stately speed up the Zambezi above the falls, catching glimpses of hippos and crocs, and just in the nick of time, the clouds cleared temporarily and we got our sunset after all.
8. Dinner on a steam train
The Royal Livingstone Express is a unique and different experience; a trip back in time to the luxury and grandeur of the bygone era of steam trains. An actual red carpet welcomed us and we mounted the stairs to the train with a glass of wine in hand. Wandering through the fabulously restored and renovated carriages, we chose a seat in the elegant lounge car.
The train set off, and we nibbled on smoked salmon canapés as we listened to a passionate, fascinating, humorous and informative talk about the history of the train, the bridge, Livingstone and Zambia in general. The train meanwhile was making its way to the Victoria Falls Bridge, where we alighted to view the Falls, and those who were interested joined the driver in his compartment to learn more about the inner workings of the engine itself. The driver showed us how to stoke the engine, even allowing us to pull the cord that sounded the whistle, which had my husband grinning like a school boy! Boarding the train again, but this time in the dining car, where we were treated to a delicious five course dinner as we headed off into the night.
9. Tour the famous bridge
For a brief change of scene I headed to the famous Victoria Falls Bridge to have a really good ‘behind the scenes’ look with Shearwater. Even though he never visited the falls and died before the construction of the bridge began, when Cecil Rhodes was presented with the plans of the proposed Zambezi River crossing, he is said to have drawn a line across the Boiling Pot (the point directly below the falls where the water exists from the chasm of the Victoria Falls) and declared that this was where he wanted the bridge. He envisaged the spray of the falls landing on the trains as they crossed the bridge, and indeed for many years after the completion of the bridge, trains used to stop for a few minutes in its centre, so that his dream could be realised… exactly what we had done a few nights earlier on the Royal Livingstone Express. Attached to the bridge by a series of cables and carabineers, I walked beneath it, with my guide, on the original catwalk, while learning a little more about its construction; including such finer points as, to prevent rusting, the bridge was carefully designed to constantly shed the water that it is continually exposed to, that flexibility was taken into account to allow for expansion and contraction with fluctuating temperatures, and that it is a self-supporting bridge, which eliminated the need for scaffolding during construction. Amazingly the bridge took only 14 months to construct, which considering it now takes 6 years to paint from one side to the other, is a marvel in itself! Of course facts and figures aside you also have the fabulous view up and down the gorge to admire.
When David Livingstone reached the Falls in 1855 he wrote – “Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen to twenty yards….the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.” With a description like that, it is not hard to see why the Victoria Falls is one of the most spectacular natural sites on the planet, and still continues to delight and capture the imagination of travellers. With so much to do and see this is definitely a place to add to your travel list.