To The Victoria Falls
A Tour of the Victoria Falls
If walking on foot, there is no better way to start you walk to the Victoria Falls than the terrace of the Victoria Falls Hotel. Opened in 1904, the Hotel has a view along the second gorge of the river, upstream to the Victoria Falls Bridge, built in 1904/5. To the left lie the Victoria Falls themselves, under the shadow of the rising column of spray and falling rain.
The view from the Victoria Falls Hotel can be an incredible site to watch the sunrise, the spray cloud tinted with the oranges and pinks of dawn. It is also a good time to enter the Victoria Falls Park itself, which opens at six every morning, especially if you are looking to escape the crowds. Many visitors however choose to spend an afternoon at the Victoria Falls, when the rainbows are strongest, and what better way to start your trip than with a quick snack on the balcony of one of the world's finest hotels.
From the terrace walk out to the flag-pole, and then left, where a small gate leads out into the bush. The straight path, taking only about 15 minutes direct, or much longer if you have the time to explore side paths, leads down from the Kalahari sands onto the basalt rocks of the old river bed. As you walk down from the Kalahari ridge, tall trees give way to bush and scrub, from mixed woodland to mopane scrub as the sandy soils give way to rock. A trip to the Victoria Falls can take a couple of hours if done quickly, or all day if you have the time. Take water with you, even if you plan to be quick, and some snacks to munch along the way.
The path follows the route of the old trolley line, established in the 1920's and, by the time of its withdrawal in the 1950's had transported more than 2 million visitors to the Victoria Falls. The trolley line itself followed the original route of the railway, which initially ran in front of the hotel, but which was washed away in a torrential down-poor in 1908. The railway was re-routed behind the hotel, and the remains of the line formed the basis of the trolley system.
As you walk down to the Falls you will undoubtedly encounter curio sellers waiting to tempt you with their goods for sale. Strictly speaking these traders shouldn't pester tourists here, as there are designated curio markets and selling stalls all around town, including the car park to which you are heading. It is therefore best to politely refuse their offers, although they will probably still walk with you! Most will be keen just to talk, learn something of your home country and practice their English (or any other language!). Security guards and 'tourism police' regularly patrol the route, and will be equally keen to chat and walk with you.
You should be aware of the potential to bump into potentially dangerous animals such as elephant and buffalo whilst walking in any area of bush around the edges of town. However, if you are careful and observant you should be aware of any such animals and be able to give them the respect they deserve. If you are unsure ask someone to walk with you. Baboons will often be found, as will Vervet Monkeys. Do not feed the baboons or any other animals you encounter, as they can become pests and end up having to be shot.
The walk offers a good opportunity to spot birds and other wildlife, and for the keen birdwatcher or interested visitor there are several other paths which can be explored. One path runs along the edge of the gorge, with quiet spots to sit and wait for raptors such as Peragrine Falcon and Black Eagles which nest on the gorges steep cliffs, although the increasing pressures of tourism in the area has impacted negatively on these birds.
About half way down the main path to the Falls, a dirt road runs off to the right. This will take you to the Gorge Swing and Viewing Point, located on the second gorge line, and well worth a visit to examine the nature of the gorges themselves. Witness the solid rock walls of the gorge, and pause to consider all this rock has been eroded by the forces of water alone - and that you are standing on an old line of the Falls which has now been left dry as the river has eroded upstream. Colonies of swifts nest on the cliffs and can be seen circling in the gorges.
The View Point offers refreshments and toilets for customers, and is the reception point for the Wild Horizons Gorge Swing and zipline, from which screaming tourists can often be found hanging across the gorge. From here a short walk continues along the edge of the gorge, before looping back to the main track, from where you can rejoin the path down to the Falls, or continue on smaller less defined paths through the bush.
Back on the main pathway down to the Falls, before you cross the railway, another track leads off to the right. This dirt road leads to the entry point of the gorge for the white-water rafters, and if often only used in the mornings. It is a nice walk to a quiet viewpoint, close to the bridge, where steps lead down into the gorge itself.
Continuing to the Falls and crossing the railway line, you will pass through the Victoria Falls Visitor Car Park, where a line of licensed stall holders will offer you cold drinks, postcards and curios (note there are no refreshments available in the Park itself). You can also hire waterproofs and umbrellas if you are unprepared for the spray of the Falls. These traders all pay for their pitches, and have formed an Association to manage and promote their businesses, and will be very pleased for your custom.
A visitor to the Falls at any time of year should be prepared to get wet, if not soaked to the skin. It is best to dress lightly and have a waterproof ready for the really wet bits. An early guide to the Victoria Falls recommended the wearing of a bathing costume under waterproofs, and this is probably still the best advice, especially during high water periods when the spay is heavy along almost the whole length of the Falls. Valuables should be carried in plastic bags and take special care of digital cameras and phones.
Crossing the road which leads to the border post and Victoria Falls Bridge, you have arrived at the gates of the Victoria Falls Park, managed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Service, and where you will have to pay an entrance fee. Most guide books will tell you that you need your passport, but in truth you only really need this if, as a national of Zimbabwe or another SADC country, you are want to claim a lower rate. For all other tourists the rate is a rather steep USD30 or equivalent, but the funds raised from the Victoria Falls entry fees help to support Zimbabwe's protected network of National Parks, in theory at least.
Once through the turn-style entrance gate there is a small outdoor interpretation area. The main thatched building, now a privately run shop, used to be the main information centre, but after many years of neglect the displays were in very poor condition and much in need of a revamp. Unfortunately the displays have lost their home and are now outside, but at least the new display panels are up to date and informative.
There are toilets off to the left and the right, and in 2010 a small and much needed cafe was established within this visitor services area, although due to political wranglings the cafe remains closed. As part of this development the toilet block to the right was refurbished.
After pausing to examine the information displays, head off on the path to the left. This short walk will lead you right to the western end of the Falls, and the best starting point for your exploration of this natural wonder.
The small area of the Victoria Falls Park is fenced to control access, not just of people but also animals. The rich vegetation which grows under the constant spray cloud would have been a favoured spot for grazing hippopotami, elephant and buffalo. They are now all excluded, and the vegetation within the Park is noticeably different from outside. Young trees grow un-damaged by the attentions of elephant (compare the stunted and broken trees along Zambezi Drive) and the thick grasses grow tall. In fact many of the pathways you are walking on were originally hippo trails, which were developed into formal pathways. Tourists should keep to the paths at all times and avoid trampling the delicate flora of the rain forest. Obviously you should use the bins provided or, even better, take your rubbish home with you.
Protected within the fence, the Park offers the tourist a rare opportunity to explore on foot. Wildlife abounds, from lizards and skinks, snakes, birds, butterflies and flowers can all we studied at leisure. The trees within the Park have in many cases been identified with small metal tags on the trunks and viewable from the pathways, offering a chance for you to get to know the common species. Baboon and Vervet Monkeys are ever present, and you may find groups of banded mongooses and even warthog. If you keep a sharp eye out you should find the Park's resident bushbuck, a small family group of which were fenced into the Park and which make the most of the lush grazing.
After a short distance you will find the pathway splitting, with a path turning to the right. Ignore this for now, you will be back to this point soon, and carry on to the left. A short distance further are steps which descend down into the gorge itself. Again, we recommend that you continue past these initially, and explore them on you return.
As you continue the pathway opens up and in front of you you will find the famous statue of Dr David Livingstone overlooking the Falls. It is said that Livingstone perhaps never even set foot in modern-day Zimbabwe, always camping on the northern bank of the river and viewing the Falls from the islands along its edge. Whilst it is true that his writings do not specifically mention visits to the southern side and the rainforest, it is hard to imagine that he did not explore the area, especially on his second visit when he undertook detailed measurements and descriptions of the Falls. In 2003 Zambia asked for the statue to be relocated to their side of the Falls as part of the 150th celebrations of Livingstones discovery of the Falls. In the end they had their own statue made.
Many visitors however give Livingstone little thought, instead following his gaze and letting their attentions be drawn by the spectacle which unfolds in front of them. The view here is of the western end of the Falls, along the line of the Falls.
This is known as Viewpoint 1 and is one of the most spectacular viewpoints - a great 'first-view' of the Falls. It is the perfect spot to watch the sun-rise for those keen enough to get to into the park for dawn. Often in the afternoons a double rainbow rises from the gorge. This section of the walk is nearly always dry, and offers a nice spot to perhaps re-visit at the end of your tour.
Immediately in front of the viewer is the Devil's Cataract, where the river has cut almost 10 meters lower than along the rest of the Falls, and a large volume of water thunders over a narrow fall. The drop is only 62 meters, the water breaking on rocks slightly higher than the rest of the base of the gorge. Beyond lies Cataract Island.
Cataract Island is also known as Boaruka Island, Boaruka being a Tonga word meaning 'divider of waters'. It is thought that here, where the river has cut down some 10 metres lower than the rest of the Fall level, will be where the river eventually erodes a new gorge and waterfall.
The Devil's Cateract, by Thomas Baines
The view looks into the cleft into Cataract Island, which at times of high water flow carries a substantial volume of water. As one looks along the chasm of the gorge it is possible to see up to the Main Falls section and beyond - depending on the clouds of spray!
The path continues a short distance upriver before ending by the fence. There are no other viewpoints here, but it is worth the walk just to get the feel of the river as it flows towards the Falls. If you were to continue here you would be walking along the section known as Zambezi Drive, which is open to the public (and animals) and is a popular are with locals for walking and enjoying the river.
Re-trace your steps back past the Livingstone Statue and perhaps explore what used to be known as the 'Chain Walk', a track which used a chain rope to help people up and down, but now a series of 73 steps run half-way down into the gorge for a breathtaking close-up view of the Falls. This is the only spot in the Park where you can venture down into the gorge itself, and it is well worth doing, not so much for the view, which is partially overgrown, or the photo opportunities (it is nearly always wet down here), but just to feel the presence of the water as the Devil's Cataract thunders down onto the rocks below and be buffeted by the clouds of spray.
Western view of the Victoria Falls, by Thomas Baines
Following the pathway which runs along the edge opposite Falls, there are a series of viewpoints offering views of the Devil's Cataract and Cataract Island.
The vegetation becomes thicker and more developed, vines hang from large trees. This is the beginning of the Rain Forest as it is known, a small area of riverine jungle supported by the spray of the Falls and moist conditions. Edward Mohr, who visited the Falls in June 1870, is believed to have first named them romantically as the 'rain Forest'. The forest is not ecologically speaking a section of 'proper' tropical rainforest, but an extension of the natural riverine edge forest vegetation, supported by the dense spray of the Falls.
Along the edge of the rain forest small streams trickle over the saturated rocks and soil, caused by the constant rainfall. As they trickle back into the gorge they disapear in the clouds of spray and gusts of wind which rise back up from below.
Woods (1960) records:
In winter icicles have been known to form on trees in the Rain Forest during an occasional heavy frost but theirs is a shortlived span once the sun appears in the heavens. Sir Peveril and Lady William-Powlett on their first visit to the Victoria Falls in 1953 were lucky to see and photograph this most unusual occurrence at dawn on 4th July that year.
Between Viewpoints 4 and 5 a short path leads directly back to the visitor centre and entry gates. Most of these early viewpoints have small natural fences to prevent you standing too close to the edge of the gorge. Avoid the temptation to lean on or over these as they are flimsy and will not support any great weight. The drop from the edge of the gorge is sudden and dramatic, and if you accidentally drop anything over the edges do not be tempted to climb down.
Continuing along the main pathway, the next veiwpoints show the Main Falls from varying angles, with Viewpoint 7 offering the best view. The Falls here are some 830 meters wide and drop up to 93 meters into the chasm. This section carries a significant volume of water even at during the low season. Most of the year there will be rain here, to varying degrees depending on the volume of the water and direction of the wind. The Rain Forest here is at its most developed, with the nurturing spray from the Falls supporting the varied trees and under-story plants which create this fragile mini ecosystem. Of particular note is the rich ground flora which is supported by the forest.
Often here you will hear the calls of Trumpeter Hornbills, their strange child-like cries often giving away their presence amongst the mahogany, ebony and fig trees - the bird being particularly found of the figs which grow in large clusters. You may also spot small fast flying sunbirds, such as the Collard Sunbird, with its emerald green body and bright yellow belly. There is also a wealth of insect life here, from butterflies to beetles, too numerous and varied to name.
The Main Falls, by Thomas Baines
From Viewpoint 8, 9 and 10, opposite the Main Falls, you are likely to see little more than dense swirling clouds of spay when the river is in flood, and you will by now more than likely be soaked to the skin.
Livingstone Island is the next break in the Falls, and it is here that Livingstone, travelling downstream by canoe, first witnessed the Falls in 1855. The island itself projects forward from the general line of the Falls, and it must truly have been an incredible experience for Livingstone when he first looked over the edge into the chasm. Today the island is only accessible from the northern bank, being in Zambia, and you can book a boat trip and tour of the island in Livingstone at low water. A small tented structure has been erected which you will probably be able to spot between the trees.
Between Viewpoints 12 and 13 there is another path which splits off and takes you back to the entrance gate. Continuing on, Viewpoint 13 is opposite the section called the Horseshoe Falls, so named for the horseshoe shaped crescent being eroded into the rock.
At low water the Falls get progressively drier towards the Eastern Cataract, offering the opportunity to view the bare rock of the face of the Falls, worm smooth by the power of the water. This dry period prevents the establishment of the rain forest along this section, and the vegetation thins out to scrub, scattered palm trees and open grassland. Watch out for the amazing colourful Schalow's Turaco, a large but secretive bird, mostly coloured a beautiful bright green, but with a blaze of red feathers on the wings, which show in flight.
Also along this section is the 'devil's armchair', a deep pool right on the edge of the Falls, where it is possible to swim, in relative safety. It is accessible only at low water from the Zambian side, when it is possible to walk out along the top of the Falls to this point.
Viewpoint 14 shows the wide section known as the Rainbow Falls. The depth of the gorge here is at its greatest, plummeting 108 meters to crash on the rocks below. From here onwards there is little vegetation and the path follows close to the edge of the gorge without any fencing. Be particularly careful when this area is wet and the become rocks slippery.
From Danger Point, Viewpoint 15 and the most easterly point along the Zimbabwean side of the Falls, you can see the remaining section the Falls, the Eastern Cataract, opposite the Zambian side of the Falls. It is here at Danger Point that the river exits the first gorge and enters the Boiling Pot before embarking on its journey through the gorges and rapids beyond, and the drop here is vertical, so take care peering over the rocks.
During low water these final sections of the Falls are largely free of water and there is no spray, making this the perfect spot for a picnic or spot of sunbathing. However durng high water Danger Point is constantly saturated by the spray of the Falls, the clouds of spray making it impossible to see anything of the Falls themselves.
The neck of the Falls, by Thomas Baines
A final viewpoint, number 16, looks at the Victoria Falls Bridge and into the second gorge - a good vantage to watch the crazy bungee jumpers as the hurl themselves into the gorge. We now look upon the bridge as part of the history and environment of the Victoria Falls area, however its construction, so close to the Falls themselves caused much controversy and objection at the time.
A pathway leads back to the entrance gate, and this is a pleasant walk through scrub and woodland. Take time to look out for blue waxbills and firefinches, among many other species of bird to be found. Along the way you will meet the short-cut path from Viewpoints 12 and 13, but continue to your left if you are ready to return to the visitor centre and exit.
On the way you will pass the new cafe development, and wonder at the refreshments you could have enjoyed if it were open! Your best port of call are the car park curio sellers and stall holders who will have cold drinks to quench your thirst. From here you can get a taxi the short distance back into town, or walk back either up to the Victoria Falls Hotel, or via the tarred footpath that runs from behind the car park up into town, which beings you out on the road just below the Kingdom Hotel.
Eastern view of the Falls, by Thomas Baines