One of the most spectacular sights in Africa, Victoria Falls is a mile-long marvel of mist and spray marking the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Known to locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”, the roar from the world’s largest single curtain of falling water can be heard 40km away.
The falls were named after Britain’s Queen Victoria by David Livingstone, the first European known to have crossed the Dark Continent. On coming face to face with the waterfall in 1855, the explorer and missionary incredulously recorded, “It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so wonderful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
Chief Sekeletu, of the local Makololo tribe, paddled the adventurous Scotsman to Goat Island, now Livingstone Island, which is as close to the dramatic cataract as you can get. Well, almost. Today’s tourists take the same route until they, too, are surrounded by the tossing, tumbling Zambezi River. Water levels are at their lowest from late August to early January and this is when fearless (or foolish) foreigners dive in and swim to Devil’s Pool. A submerged ledge enables show-offs to lie on the lip of the falls, barely a metre from the raging rapids, without being swept over.
The ultimate infinity pool is reached from the Zambian border town of – you guessed it – Livingstone. The easy-going former capital is a popular base for visitors wary of the political, economic and social unrest just across the river.
Zimbabwe may be about to bounce back from its tourism slump, however. Lonely Planet has included the nation once known as Rhodesia in its top 10 of countries to visit in 2019, Victoria Falls (also the name of the town) hotel occupancy rates are at their highest for 20 years and 300,000 people are expected this year – a far cry from 2008, when visitor numbers dwindled to 25,000.
Tourism chiefs on both sides of the river realise the destination they share has what it takes to become a lucrative year-round attraction (the waterfall draws even bigger crowds during the rainy season). Victoria Falls might be twice as high as Niagara, in North America, but it’s a lot less commercialised, although that’s changing. Helicopter flights and hot-air-balloon rides offer birds-eye views, and adrenaline junkies go white-water rafting down the mighty Zambezi or zip-line over it. They can also follow in the footsteps of Hollywood actor Will Smith, who gave the local tourism industry a boost last year when he bungee jumped off the 111-metre bridge that links Zim and Zam.
On the subject of adrenaline sports, (Zimbabwean) ground was recently broken on a Grand Prix circuit for Victoria Falls, bankrolled by a Dubai-based consortium. Besides the racetrack, there are plans for convention facilities, a medical centre and shopping mall.
Further afield, both countries offer world-class game viewing. Safari goers have an excellent chance of spotting the Big Five in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, which is home to one of Africa’s largest elephant populations. In Zambia, South Luangwa National Park is renowned for its walking safaris. Frankly, I’d rather sit on the ledge at Devil’s Pool.
It’s 12 months this week since Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe was ousted in a coup. After years of corruption, financial mismanagement and plummeting exports, tourism is the only bright spot in a beleaguered economy, which helps explain the ambitious Grand Prix project.
Local hoteliers suspect the plans are nothing more than a publicity stunt but if construction does go ahead, the environmental impact at the Unesco World Heritage Site is likely to be devastating.
Meanwhile, empty ATMs and queues for petrol and food mean panic buying and hoarding are part of everyday life for Zimbabweans and, despite the introduction of a multiple-currency system, American dollars are scarce. In fact, the strength of the greenback (if you can get hold of any) has made Zimbabwe the most expensive country in the region – another reason tourists are basing themselves on the Zambian side of the falls. Inflation and a ballooning national debt have also resulted in a chronic shortage of medicines. Try not to fall ill in Zimbabwe.
Failed state it might be, but Zim is famous for its incredibly friendly people. Times are tough, though, and street vendors have had to become persistent to survive. Even those employed in an official capacity, such as tour guides and shopkeepers, occasionally indulge in price gouging scams. You may not realise you’re being fleeced, or, in some cases, robbed. In a four-month period last year, 100 Victoria Falls hotel guests had money and other items stolen from their rooms.
Safety and security risks aren’t restricted to light-fingered humans, however. This is Africa and wild animals present an altogether different kind of threat. In August, a crocodile was captured on Victoria Falls Bridge, not far from where Will Smith bungee jumped. Then, in September, a German tourist in Victoria Falls, the town, was attacked and trampled on by an irate elephant. He survived after hawkers threw stones at the beast to distract it.
Another tragic Victoria Falls pachyderm tale that appeared in African newspapers last year had an air of fake news about it. The headline: “Motorist dies when elephant falls on his car” sounds surreal enough, but read on and you discover the 44-year-old victim was called John Banana.
Hippos are responsible for more human fatalities than any other large animal in Africa and boating out to Livingstone Island is arguably riskier than sitting in the Devil’s Pool. Capsizing incidents are not unheard of in these parts. In 1910, a Mr Orchard and a Mrs Moss were swept into the misty abyss after an inquisitive hippo upended their canoes at the top of the falls. Their bodies were later found to have been mutilated by crocodiles.
With long, razor-sharp canines, baboons are perhaps the most menacing animals that tourists are likely to encounter. From pulling power cables loose, which left 50,000 residents in Livingstone without electricity last year, to ambushing shoppers as they carry groceries home, the opportunistic primates are at best a nuisance, at worse unpredictable and aggressive. In April, a baboon mauled a one-year-old baby in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, causing life-threatening injuries.
To add insult to injury, mother and daughter had to cross into Zambia for emergency treatment due to a lack of medication on their side of the border.
Ethiopian flies from Hong Kong to Victoria Falls airport, in Zimbabwe, via Addis Ababa. South African connects Hong Kong to Livingstone airport, in Zambia, via Johannesburg.