Mosi-oa-Tunya is the name used by the local people and Victoria Falls is the later name given by Scottish explorer Dr. David Livingstone (see pre-colonial history, below).
While it is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, the claim it is the largest is based on a width of 1.7 kilometers (1 mi) and height of 108 meters (360 ft), forming the largest sheet of falling water in the world. The falls' maximum flow rate compares well with that of other major waterfalls (see table below).
The unusual form of Victoria Falls enables virtually the whole width of the falls to be viewed face-on, at the same level as the top, from as close as 60 metres (200 ft), because the whole Zambezi River drops into a deep, narrow slotlike chasm, connected to a long series of gorges. Few other waterfalls allow such a close approach on foot.
Many of Africa's animals and birds can be seen in the immediate vicinity of Victoria Falls, and the continent's range of river fish is also well represented in the Zambezi, enabling wildlife viewing and sport fishing to be combined with sightseeing.
Victoria Falls are one of Africa's major tourist attractions, and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site (see box below). The falls are shared between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and each country has a national park to protect them and a town serving as a tourism centre: Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and Livingstone in Zambia, and Victoria Falls National Park and the town of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. (Position is at latitude (DMS) 17° 55' 31.0506", longitude (DMS) 25° 51' 27.399").
For a considerable distance above the falls, the Zambezi flows over a level sheet of basalt, in a shallow valley bounded by low and distant sandstone hills. The river's course is dotted with numerous tree-covered islands, which increase in number as the river approaches the falls. There are no mountains, escarpments, or deep valleys which might be expected to create a waterfall, only flat plateau extending hundreds of kilometres in all directions.
The falls are formed as the full width of the river plummets in a single vertical drop into a chasm 60–120 metres (200–400 ft) wide, carved by its waters along a fracture zone in the basalt plateau. The depth of the chasm, called the First Gorge, varies from 80 metres (262 ft) at its western end to 108 metres (360 ft) in the centre. The only outlet to the First Gorge is a 110-metre-wide (360 ft) gap about two-thirds of the way across the width of the falls from the western end, through which the whole volume of the river pours into the Victoria Falls gorges.
There are two islands on the crest of the falls that are large enough to divide the curtain of water even at full flood: Boaruka Island (or Cataract Island) near the western bank, and Livingstone Island near the middle. At less than full flood, additional islets divide the curtain of water into separate parallel streams. The main streams are named, in order from Zimbabwe (west) to Zambia (east): Leaping Water (called Devil's Cataract by some), Main Falls, Rainbow Falls (the highest) and the Eastern Cataract.
‘The Smoke that Thunders’, rainy season, 1972 . . . and dry season, September 2003
|Size and flow rate of Victoria Falls with Niagara and Iguazu for comparison|
|Parameters||Victoria Falls||Niagara Falls||Iguazu Falls|
|Height in metres and feet:||108 m||360 ft||51 m||167 ft||64-82 m||210-269 ft|
|Width in metres and feet:||1708 m||5604 ft||1203 m||3947 ft||2700 m||8858 ft|
|Flow rate units (vol/s):||m³/s||cu ft/s||m³/s||cu ft/s||m³/s||cu ft/s|
|Mean annual flow rate:||1088||38,430||2407||85,000||1746||61,600|
|Mean monthly flow — max:||3000||105,944|
|— 10yr max:||6000||211,888|
|Highest recorded flow:||12,800||452,000||6800||240,000||12,600||444,965|
|''Notes: See references for explanation of measurements.|
For water, cubic metres per second = tonnes per second.
Half the water approaching Niagara is diverted for hydroelectric power.
Iguazu has two drops; height given for biggest drop and total height.
10 falls have greater or equal flow rates, but are not as high as Iguazu and Victoria Falls.
The Zambezi basin above the falls experiences a rainy season from late November to early April, and a dry season the rest of the year. The river's annual flood season is February to May with a peak in April, The spray from the falls typically rises to a height of over 400 metres (1,300 ft), and sometimes even twice as high, and is visible from up to 50 km (30 miles) away. At full moon, a "moonbow" can be seen in the spray instead of the usual daylight rainbow. During the flood season, however, it is impossible to see the foot of the falls and most of its face, and the walks along the cliff opposite it are in a constant shower and shrouded in mist. Close to the edge of the cliff, spray shoots upward like inverted rain, especially at Zambia's Knife-Edge Bridge.
As the dry season takes effect, the islets on the crest become wider and more numerous, and in September to January up to half of the rocky face of the falls may become dry and the bottom of the First Gorge can be seen along most of its length. At this time it becomes possible (though not necessarily safe) to walk across some stretches of the river at the crest. It is also possible to walk to the bottom of the First Gorge at the Zimbabwean side. The minimum flow, which occurs in November, is around a tenth of the April figure; this variation in flow is greater than that of other major falls, and causes Victoria Falls' annual average flow rate to be lower than might be expected based on the maximum flow.
Victoria Falls are roughly twice the height of North America's Niagara Falls and well over twice the width of its Horseshoe Falls. In height and width Victoria Falls is rivalled only by South America's Iguazu Falls. See table for comparisons.
The whole volume of the Zambezi River pours through the First Gorge's 110-metre-wide (360 ft) exit for a distance of about 150 metres (500 ft), then enters a zigzagging series of gorges designated by the order in which the river reaches them. Water entering the Second Gorge makes a sharp right turn and has carved out a deep pool there called the Boiling Pot. Reached via a steep footpath from the Zambian side, it is about 150 metres (500 ft) across. Its surface is smooth at low water, but at high water is marked by enormous, slow swirls and heavy boiling turbulence. Objects that are swept over the falls, including the occasional hippo or even human, are frequently found swirling about here or washed up at the north-east end of the Second Gorge. This is where the bodies of Mrs Moss and Mr Orchard, mutilated by crocodiles, were found in 1910 after two canoes were capsized by a hippo at Long Island above the falls.
The principal gorges are (see reference for note about these measurements):
The walls of the gorges are nearly vertical and generally about 120 metres (400 ft) high, but the level of the river in them varies by up to 20 metres (65 ft) between wet and dry seasons.
The recent geological history of Victoria Falls can be seen in the form of the gorges below the falls. The basalt plateau over which the Upper Zambezi flows has many large cracks filled with weaker sandstone. In the area of the current falls the largest cracks run roughly east to west (some run nearly north-east to south-west), with smaller north-south cracks connecting them.
Over at least 100,000 years, the falls have been receding upstream through the Batoka Gorges, eroding the sandstone-filled cracks to form the gorges. The river's course in the current vicinity of the falls is north to south, so it opens up the large east-west cracks across its full width, then it cuts back through a short north-south crack to the next east-west one. The river has fallen in different eras into different chasms which now form a series of sharply zig-zagging gorges downstream from the falls.
Ignoring some dry sections, the Second to Fifth and the Songwe Gorges each represents a past site of the falls at a time when they fell into one long straight chasm as they do now. Their sizes indicate that we are not living in the age of the widest ever Mosi-oa-Tunya.
The falls have already started cutting back the next major gorge, at the dip in one side of the "Leaping Waters" (also known as "Devil's Cataract") section of the falls. This is not actually a north-south crack, but a large east-north-east line of weakness across the river, and that is where the next full width falls will eventually form.
Further geological history of the course of the Zambezi River is in the article of that name.
The first European to see the falls was David Livingstone on 17 November 1855, during his 1852–56 journey from the upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river. The falls were well known to local tribes, and Voortrekker hunters may have known of them, as may the Arabs under a name equivalent to "the end of the world". Europeans were sceptical of their reports, perhaps thinking that the lack of mountains and valleys on the plateau made a large falls unlikely.
Livingstone had been told about the falls before he reached them from upriver and was paddled across to a small island that now bears the name Livingstone Island. Livingstone had previously been impressed by the Ngonye Falls further upstream, but found the new falls much more impressive, and gave them their English name in honour of Queen Victoria. He wrote of the falls, "No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."
In 1860, Livingstone returned to the area and made a detailed study of the falls with John Kirk. Other early European visitors included Portuguese explorer Serpa Pinto, Czech explorer Emil Holub, who made the first detailed plan of the falls and its surroundings in 1875 (published in 1880), and British artist Thomas Baines, who executed some of the earliest paintings of the falls. Until the area was opened up by the building of the railway in 1905, though, the falls were seldom visited by other Europeans.
Zimbabwean independence in 1980 brought comparative peace, and the 1980s witnessed renewed levels of tourism and the development of the region as a centre for adventure sports. Activities that gained popularity in the area include whitewater rafting in the gorges, bungee jumping from the bridge, game fishing, horse riding, kayaking, and flights over the falls.
By the end of the 1990s, almost 300,000 people were visiting the falls annually, and this was expected to rise to over a million in the next decade. Unlike the game parks, Victoria Falls has more Zimbabwean and Zambian visitors than international tourists as they are accessible by bus and train and therefore comparatively inexpensive to reach.
The two countries permit tourists to make day trips from one side to the other without the necessity of obtaining a visa in advance, but visas issued at the border are expensive, particularly upon entering Zimbabwe. In 2008 Zambia increased the prices of their visas, and a U.S. or U.K. citizen can expect to pay US$135 or US$140 for a 3-year multiple-entry visa. Citizens of other nations will pay varying rates for a 3-month Visa, typically about $50, but may need to purchase a visa each time they cross the border.
A famous feature is a naturally formed pool known as the Devil's Swimming Pool, near the edge of the falls, accessed via Livingstone Island. When the river flow is at a safe level, usually during the months of September and December, people can swim as close as possible to the edge of the falls within the pool without continuing over the edge and falling into the gorge; this is possible due to a natural rock wall just below the water and at the very edge of the falls that stops their progress despite the current.
The numbers of visitors to the Zimbabwean side of the falls has historically been much higher than the number visiting the Zambia side, due to the greater development of the visitor facilities there. However, the number of tourists visiting Zimbabwe began to decline in the early 2000s as political tensions between supporters and opponents of president Robert Mugabe increased. In 2006, hotel occupancy on the Zimbabwean side hovered at around 30%, while the Zambian side was at near-capacity, with rates reaching US$630 per night. The rapid development has prompted the United Nations to consider revoking the Falls' status as a World Heritage Site. In addition, problems of waste disposal and a lack of effective management of the falls' environment are a concern.
On the Zambian side, fences and the outskirts of Livingstone tend to confine most animals to the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. In addition fences put up by lodges in response to crime restrict animal movement.
Klipspringers and clawless otters can be glimpsed in the gorges, but they are mainly known for 35 species of raptors. The Taita Falcon, Black Eagle, Peregrine Falcon and Augur Buzzard breed there. Above the falls, herons, Fish Eagles and numerous kinds of waterfowl are common.