Africa’s famed Victoria Falls is on almost everyone’s bucket list, but few people know the best way to experience it. On a recent trip to southern Africa, I saw it from every which way, so you don’t have to.
Why is it worth visiting?
It’s not the widest or the tallest falls in the world, but it is without doubt the most impressive.
Known by locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “the smoke that thunders,” it was first seen by Western eyes in 1855 when British explorer David Livingstone came upon it and named it after his queen. Reflecting on the experience of seeing Victoria Falls for the first time, he wrote, “Scenes so lovely must be gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
The cataract still has that power to strike awe. It spans about a mile—the entire width of the Zambezi River—and drops a distance about twice the height of Niagara into a narrow gorge in one seemingly continuous sheet, forcing mist to rise high into the sky.
Not only can you see it, but you can hear it (from about a mile away), feel it, smell it, and taste it.
Where is it?
The falls straddles Zimbabwe to the west and Zambia to the east. You can access it from either country, via the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe or Livingstone in Zambia. Both have good air connections.
Zimbabwe has historically been the more popular entry point, but political turmoil and hyperinflation in the 2000s made Zambia preferable.
Though there is continued political instability (in November 2017, the military forced longtime ruler Robert Mugabe to resign), the safari industry is resurgent and the nation’s currency has changed from Zimbabwe dollars to US dollars.
Zambia has been one of Africa’s most stable and understated democracies; its safari lodges are known for their old-fashioned hospitality and plentiful wildlife.
How do I get there?
There are national park entrances on both sides of the falls, easily accessible from the towns of either Livingstone or Victoria Falls.
If you’ve booked through a safari operator, your guide will simply drive you to the entrance. The per-person fee is $20 on the Zambia side and $30 on the Zimbabwe side.
Which side is better?
Put very briefly: To see the falls, go to Zimbabwe; to feel the falls, go to Zambia.
But I recommend seeing it from both sides, and here’s why:
The Zambia side at high flow (February to June) is an exhilaratingly visceral experience; visitors walking on the other side of the narrow gorge can feel the spray (get drenched or rent a poncho). In the dry season, because the falls are at an incline, portions of land stay dry, which opens up other opportunities (see question on Devil’s Pool, below).
The Zimbabwe side tends to offer the more picturesque views because the viewpoints are farther, offering perspective. If you go in the height of the dry season, say, in November, the water volume is at a low point and the falls can feel a little underwhelming.
Can I do both sides in a day?
In fact, I did both sides in a couple of hours. Make sure you have a multiple-country visa in your passport. From either Livingstone or Victoria Falls, visit the border-crossing office and get your passport stamped for exit.
You can drive or walk across the bridge between the two countries, get your passport stamped for entry, and walk to the national park entrance.
If you wish to return, make sure you get your passport stamped leaving the country and entering the other country.
However, I feel compelled to mention that one of the most compelling experiences I had didn’t even require park entrance. I stood on the bridge between the two countries, straddled Zim and Zam, and gazed at the world’s most famous waterfall.
There were a few other Western tourists, but I was mostly joined by the cross-border drivers and migrant workers. Safety during the day on the border road isn’t much of a concern, though travelers do have to deal with polite but pesky trinket sellers.
Tip: At the airport of the country you enter first—Zimbabwe or Zambia—make sure you obtain the UniVisa (currently U.S. $50 for nationals from many countries) that serves as a multicountry pass.
What else can I do at the falls area?
A luxury dinner train crosses from Zambia to Zimbabwe over the Zambezi River and stops in the middle for a view of the Falls (though plans call for an additional departure in the other direction).
For an aerial view, microlight flights are popular, and so is bungee jumping. There are comfortable or luxury lodges near both towns, often the launching points of multiday wildlife safaris.
I’ve seen photos of people standing at the edge of the falls. How do I do that and is it dangerous?
Devil’s Pool is an experience you can have only on the Zambia side and only during the dry season (mid-August to mid-January). It involves a boat ride on the Zambezi to Livingstone Island, from which you can swim in a natural pool at the edge of the falls.
Breathe easy: An unseen lip prevents you from actually going over. Run by a well-regarded tour operator, the Devils Pool is not a dangerous activity—provided you follow the directions of the guides. There are other unofficial natural pools in which people have gone over the edge; make sure your outfitter is licensed.
This piece was first published in the July 2015 in National Geographic's Intelligent Travel website. See article here.