Destination Guide

Stephen Bailey
Mosi-oa-Tunya - "The Smoke That Thunders:
Mosi-oa-Tunya - "The Smoke That Thunders:
Stephen Bailey

The thunder of Victoria Falls can be heard continuously from as far as 20 kilometres away.

It’s the sound that is so impressive, and that puts this waterfall above any other I’ve witnessed — maybe, above any other waterfall there is.

But it’s not only the sound. Imagine what it is like to look on a waterfall that is over a kilometre wide.

The falls are split into very distinct sections. Around two thirds are on the Zimbabwean side — that’s where you get the best view — and the other third is on the Zambian side.

You can cross the border for a day without needing a visa for the other country. You just have to trust that it’s okay to leave your passport at the border, with the border officer, to go into the park on the other side.

This way you can see both sides in one day.

Zambia is where you get closest to the spray, to the roar, especially in high-water season. There is a bridge that goes from the mainland to a cataract in the Zambezi River, and it is impossible to walk for more than half a second and not be completely drenched.

It’s like being in the bath — not just in the shower.

What happens is that for six months of the year, the waterfall is so powerful that the water drops over a hundred meters into the Zambezi river below, rises high as a cloud of droplets and mist, and afterwards comes down again. So, anything within a hundred metres of the falls gets completely drenched in the spray.

You can go there with a cagoule, you can try and stay waterproof, but it’s just impossible. You have to get completely wet.

You have to embrace how nature can provide such a humbling, mammoth, power and scale.

The first time I visited Victoria Falls, I was attacked by baboons. This wasn’t the first time I’d been attacked by baboons, and it was not the last either — that seems to happen to me a lot. So, this time the baboons stole my lunch. They were very mischievous, very aggressive, and I only felt okay about myself because I then watched the baboons steal — a load of traffic cones.

There were workers doing basic work on the road, alongside the fence of the entrance gate, and those baboons took all the traffic cones. They started banging and shouting, making a commotion, until the workers turned up to try and get their traffic cones back.

And the baboons playfully showed that they would drop the traffic cones over the edge of the valley into the canyon, towards the falls, if they weren’t given any food or if they weren’t bribed enough to give the traffic cones back.

In the end, the workers didn’t give any bribe. I don’t think they really cared about the traffic cones. So, five traffic cones ended up in Victoria Falls, courtesy of the baboons who had also just taken my lunch. And although it was humorous, it’s not great that there are now five traffic cones at the bottom of the Zambezi River.

But this does show how isolated and natural the area is.

I also saw elephants within two or three kilometres of Victoria Falls — on two occasions, and on both sides. This area is on the migratory route of the biggest herds of elephants on the planet, and people weren’t even surprised to see an elephant in the area. It was just part of the scenery.

There were also zebra, antelope—overall, a lot more nature than you would expect if you were thinking of Niagara Falls, where it’s mostly fast food joints and cafes and way too many people.

Victoria Falls is nothing like that.

And the first time I went, I thought it was strange to travel a long way into the middle of nowhere, just to see a waterfall. But what I found was that the waterfall is more than impressive enough to warrant such a long journey. It’s worth going out of your way to see this thing — it’s beyond remarkable.

The second thing I found out is that the towns on both sides — Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, and Livingstone in Zambia — are good travel hubs. There are great transport connections if you’re flying between African countries, and there is also much to do beyond just seeing the waterfall.

You can visit Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and go walking with wild rhinos, which is an incredible experience. You can canoe and kayak on the Zambezi river alongside hippos. You can do a bungee jump in no man’s land between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

I did the bungee jump. I’m not going to recommend it because it was absolutely frightening and I don’t want to do it again.

I do want to do the whitewater rafting again, though. It’s among the best whitewater rafting in the world. Grade four and grade five rapids, that have you falling out of the boat. It’s absolute chaos, frightening, but full of adrenaline. Also, a bungee jump lasts three seconds and I couldn’t take anything in—whereas the whitewater rafting trip was a whole day on the Zambezi River.

People in a raft in the rapids of the Lower Zambezi River in Zimbabwe.

But the most profound activity I did, other than the falls, was to visit a local community, and meet the people who have lived in the area since long before Livingstone turned up with malaria and named the falls after his queen, Victoria.

It’s those local people who taught me that the real name of the falls is Mosi-oa-Tunya. In the indigenous Lozi language, it means “the smoke that thunders”.

And when you visit the falls, you realize this is a name that does make sense.

The smoke is the mist. The thunder is the sound. And Mosi-oa-Tunya is an evocative, ancient, meaningful-sounding phrase, that truly reflects the location — being out in the wild, in Africa, among one of nature’s greatest spectacles.

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