2 Nations, One Natural Wonder: Victoria Falls

By Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
October 24, 2021 Updated: October 26, 2021

The night has turned black, and the cascades are loud. The tumble, rumble, and crash drown out all the other nocturnal sounds of the usually lively African forest. Navigating down a winding path illuminated only by the flashlight in my hand, the cacophony intensifies as I approach the edge. Part of a small tour group, we’re all here to see the same phenomenon. Everyone speaks in hushed tones, voices low but rising with anticipation as we approach.

And then, it’s there. The forest falls away at our backs and the land opens up to a great chasm, somehow even more dramatic in the inky dark. My imagination fills in the picture when it comes to the unseen—the bottom feels infinitely below. Above, the main attraction: a lunar rainbow, often called a “moonbow.”

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A view of Victoria Falls from a helicopter. (Pierpaolo Romano/Shutterstock)

While regular rainbows can form pretty much anywhere, moonbows are special, possible only when there’s enough lunar light coming down from the heavens with sufficient spray in the air to reflect it. Aristotle wrote about this marvel more than 2,300 years ago. And now, in the night sky, with bands of gray and white—the light is too faint to make an impression on the color receptors of the naked eye—the lunar rainbow rises above the majesty of the world’s largest waterfall: Victoria Falls.

Stretching more than a mile in length, the legendary Zambezi River plunges more than 30 stories at Victoria Falls. Surrounded by vast, flat stretches of African plains, it’s a geological surprise, pouring through a fracture in the basalt. Its spray rises as high as 2,600 feet in the air, making it visible from 30 miles away. The falls, known in all local languages as “the smoke that thunders,” form the border between two nations—Zimbabwe and Zambia (both of which are open to U.S. visitors). Between them, they present a number of ways to enjoy this natural wonder—moonbows being just one of the more remarkable examples.

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For the daring, a micro flight over Victoria Falls is an option. (GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock)

For Thrill Seekers

For the more adventurous travelers, you can dangle part of your body over the edge of the falls. It’s a favorite of thrill-seekers. You approach the Devil’s Pool from Livingstone Island on the Zambian side. While it would be unimaginable to wade into the Niagara River above those falls—a healthy fear of being swept over the precipice keeps most people on shore—that’s exactly how you approach this pool. As we swim across, guides keep a watchful eye on our small group, but the river’s flow is actually quite gentle, tamed by a relative lack of water in the heart of the dry season.

As we make our way across, the lip is visible just downstream. The land just ends and opens up to a vast gap, the green trees visible on the opposite side. Soon, we approach the edge, our adrenaline-pumping swim finishing with a paddle around a rock pool, deep and calm, but literally right on the verge of the furor of the falls. Little fish nip at our feet. The guides encourage us to get up on the flat span of rock that forms the far side of the pool. One guide holds our ankles, just in case, while another grabs our cameras, as we walk a tightrope along the edge for a once-in-a-lifetime photo.

Devil's Pool
The Devil’s Pool. (Courtesy of Zambia tourism)

It’s a strange sensation, the cool water of the river unceasing, rushing by, then falling away to a bottom far below and obscured by mist. Visitors on the Zimbabwe side wave to us, and we wave back. Each of us hangs there, in turn, hauled up there on the rock with arms dropping into the cascade. The whole experience feels somewhat unbelievable, even in the moment, surrounded by the full force of the falls and immersed in the middle of their might.

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Morning light falls on Victoria Falls. (Kanuman/Shutterstock)

The national border is artificial, of course. Now designated a World Heritage Site, the missionary and explorer David Livingstone was the first European to see Victoria Falls, naming them in honor of the reigning British queen. But local populations have lived there for millennia, with archaeological digs revealing Stone Age tools and Iron Age pottery.

Crossing the line can be a bit tricky. For Americans to enter, both Zambia and Zimbabwe require a negative PCR COVID-19 test. In addition, both countries mandate a tourist visa, sometimes available for purchase at the port of entry. Both sides have an international airport (the town on the Zambian side is called Livingstone, while Zimbabwe’s town is called Victoria Falls), and the countries share a road border, linked by a soaring, 650-foot bridge that spans the canyon.

And each side offers multiple ways to get a new perspective on this natural attraction. You can fly over it in a helicopter or even a hot air balloon, as the full, incredible length of the falls is revealed from above, and the dark water tumbles white into a crack in the endless forest all around. From the bridge, take a bungee jump, leaping more than 300 feet into the abyss. Glide on a zipline, reaching speeds of close to 60 miles per hour, flying high over the gorge. Or you could just take a leisurely stroll—both sides offer pleasant walking paths to view the falls.

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An elephant herd in Hwange National Park. Zimbabwe is known for its safaris. (Paula French/Shutterstock)

Safaris

In this part of Southern Africa, safari is never far away. On the Zimbabwean side, Hwange National Park is only a couple of hours’ drive away. Roughly the size of Belgium, this massive park offers up-close experiences with Big Five animals, as well as packs of painted dogs. But you needn’t actually go that far. Close to the main town and inside Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side, The Elephant Camp allows you to feed a semi-wild herd of injured and orphaned elephants. The animals are free to come and go as they please, and their sheer size and strength are truly awesome when you experience them up close.

Rafting is also an option. At a nearby camp, I enjoy the opportunity to get out onto the river, climbing into an inflatable kayak. The Zambezi is one of the continent’s most storied rivers, flowing more than 1,500 miles from Zambia to its final outlet through Mozambique and into the Indian Ocean. The falls aren’t visible from here, but my guide assures me that they’re there, although we don’t plan on going quite that far.

“Unless you packed a parachute, of course,” he says.

Despite some initial nerves, we roll down the river, navigating rapids and seeing no sign of the beasts that inhabit these waters, such as crocodiles and hippos. The latter, despite their bumbling, cartoonish image, are some of the most dangerous animals in Africa. We’re literally boating along the border, Zambia on one shore, Zimbabwe on the other. Making our way about seven miles, we arrive safely at our take-out spot, happy and uneaten—and no parachute required.

Tim Johnson
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.