A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
Further Information
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To The Victoria Falls

The Victoria Falls Gorge

The depth of the first gorge varies from 80 at its western end to 108 metres at its greatest, and is approximately 120 wide. Its unique formation allows the Falls to be viewed along its length from the opposite side of the gorge, close enough to feel the wind created by the water as it falls into the chasm.

The gorge is formed along a weaker fracture zone in the basalt rock by the erosive power of the water and suspended particles which it carries. This erosive power is higher during periods of heavy flow when the water carries more sand and small particles, turning it reddish brown. At this time of year it is difficult to see even the Falls themselves through the spray. The structure of the gorge can be best seen when visiting the Falls during low water, when for the majority of the width of the Falls only small isolated waterfalls tumble from above - exposing the walls of the gorge, worn smooth abrasive power of the water.

The Boiling Pot

From near the eastern end of the Falls, about three quarters along the width of the Falls, the river emerges through a narrow opening, only 60 metres wide at its narrowest point, into a deep pool called the Boiling Pot, about 150m wide, before turning westwards and continuing its journey through the Batoka Gorge.

The depth of the Boiling Pot is unknown, but a rise in the water level above the Falls of one metre results in a 5 metre rise in the gorge below, and the level of the river in the gorge varies by up to 20 metres between maximum flow in April and the end of the dry season in October.

The Batoka Gorge

The Batoka Gorge by Percy Clark
The Batoka Groge, photographic postcard by Percy Clark

From the falls at 17°56’S 25°52’E, the Batoka Gorge system is about 120 km long, reaching to Sidinda Island (just west of the Matetsi river mouth) at 18°00’S 26°34’E. The depth of the gorge progressively increases downstream, from approximately 100m at the Falls, to over 350 meters downstream, as the river descends on its journey downstream to sea level. Over the centuries, the Falls have been receding upstream, the river slowly eroding back along its bed, exposing successive lines of weakness in the rock. This has created the zig-zagging gorges which we see today - each section representing an older 'face' of the Falls, where the river used to flow before cutting a new path. The area of the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwean side is therefore the old river bed, over which the river would have flowed, before it eroded back through the 'neck' of the Boiling Pot to create latest gorge and Falls we know them today. The series of gorges are numbered downstream - so the current Falls are in the first (but most recently formed) gorge. The Victoria Falls bridge spans the second gorge, and so on downstream. See section on the Formation of the Falls for more information.

The country below the Falls is extremely rugged and remains even today largely inaccessible and uninhabited. Livingstone avoided the region by travelling the high country to the north of the river, naming the area the Batoka Highlands. "The worst walking I ever encountered", wrote William Baldwin of his visit to the "fearful gorge" in 1860. Another hunter, F C Selous, worked his way overland through the area in 1874, and described it;

"about the roughest country in the world, cut up... into innumerable steep sides, precipitous ravines and gullies, which find their way down to the deep narrow chasm at the bottom of which the Zambezi runs, in a boiling, seething torrent, for many miles below the great Falls"

One author, writing of the Victoria Falls in mid 1900s, soon after the arrival of the railway and shortly before the building of the first Zambesi Bridge recorded:

Mr. Sykes, the Conservator of the Falls, has followed its course down, a task of the utmost difficulty, owing to the many clefts and gorges which join it on either side. He found very few spots where it is possible to get down to the water-level, some of them known only to natives, who have in time past established a sort of sanctuary there. There are many legends of game herded on to some of the narrow necks of land, and destroyed there, or of natives driven over the precipice in the different tribal wars, all of which are in keeping with the romantic character of the place.
Hutchinson (1905)

W G Lamplugh was the first geologist to explore the gorges in 1905, and gave them their name.

Clark (1952) records:

In the Batoka Gorge itself there is only one place where there is anything like a waterfall and with this exception the river descends over a series of rapids from the foot of the Victoria Falls to the Matetse confluence; a difference in height of approximately 850 feet. This exception is at the Chimamba Rapids, approximately 23 miles east of the Victoria Falls where the change in the topography of the plateau, from unbroken to broken country seems to be a fairly quick one. A small fall of 20 feet exists here in the gorge at low water and several others of approximately the same height at high water.

Livingstone was the first European to view these falls, which he calls the ‘Moemba Falls’, but he considered them very insignificant when compared with the Victoria Falls so that he did not descend into the gorge to inspect them closely. The first description of them we owe to Lamplugh, and it is very well worth quoting. “Insignificant in height it is true, but when one stands on the brink of the lower cataract and sees the whole volume of the great Zambezi converging into a single pass only fifty or sixty feet in width, shuddering, and then plunging from twenty feet in a massive curve that seems in its impact visibly to tear the grim basaltic rocks asunder, one learns better than from the feathery spray-fans of the Victoria Falls, what force there is in the river, and one wonders no longer at the profoundity of the gorge!”. Although Chimamba is only 23 miles from the Falls the roughness of the country has rendered it unknown to all save a half a dozen Europeans. This gorge country is very fascinating with towering black cliffs falling in places a sheer 300 feet to the floor of the gorge and the bottoms of tributary gorges filled by thick forest growth which hides numerous baboons, and rock rabbits and is the occasional of the leopard. The upper gorges as far as the Songwe river on the north bank are accessible by motor roads and a day devoted to exploring them is well spent...

Next page: The Victoria Falls Photo Gallery


Coppinger M & Williams J (1991) Zambezi - River of Africa. Struik, Cape Town.

Gupta, A (2007) [editor] Large Rivers: Geomorphology and Management John Wiley and Sons, England.

MacDonald J R (1955) Zambesi River. MacMillan & Co Ltd, London.

F B Macrae (1938) Some notes on part of the Gwembe Valley In Northern Rhodesia. The Geographical Journal, Vol. 91, No. 5, May, 1938

Main, Michael (1990) Zambezi – Journey of a River, Southern Book Publishers.

Teede, Jan & Fiona (1990) The Zambezi - River of the Gods Andre Deutsch Ltd, London

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

This website has been developed using information researched from a wide variety of sources, including books, magazines and websites etc too numerous to mention or credit individually, although many key references are identified on our References page. Many of the images contained in this website have been sourced from old photographic postcards and publications and no infringement of copyright is intended. We warmly welcome any donations of photographs or information to this website.

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