The Smoke that Thunders: Victoria Falls

You may have seen the iconic photographs of the Zambezi river cascading over Victoria Falls, with the sunlight catching the mist rising off the gorge to form a perfect rainbow.

And like with most major tourist attractions throughout the world, your actual visit plays out quite differently. No one tells you, for example, that the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio is generally so packed with tourists it is almost impossible to move around its base. Or that the Mona Lisa is actually quite small (and is also always surrounded by a mob of tourists).

Spoiler alert for this trip’s write-up: it was not all rainbows and sunshine.

But let me start off by saying this: Zimbabwe was a delight and so were its people. They speak of their education system with great pride and politely evade questions about the recent government transition. Most Zimbabweans are multilingual (this is no surprise since the country has 16 official languages!), which I am discovering is quite typical for Africans. Like most of southern Africa, the country is populated with zebras, antelope, kudu, impala, elephants, leopards, lions, vultures, etc.

The Watering Hole at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. Can you spot the zebras and vultures?
The view of the Batoka Gorge from the Lookout Café

Yet traces of British colonial rule are still very apparent–visit the Victoria Falls Hotel and you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to the heyday of imperialism. Past colonial ties have also shaped Victoria Falls’ tourist industry: aside from the Israeli and Korean tour groups that arrived with us, we mainly encountered British and other Western European visitors during our stay. We quickly realized that as a couple in our mid-thirties, we were well below the average age of all the other tourists. I was puzzled by this observation and wondered why we saw no more than two couples with small children. Part of this was likely due to the time of year that we visited; most school-aged children would be attending school in March and therefore not able to travel.

The Victoria Falls Hotel

But a few days into our trip, I also realized that there are very few options in Victoria Falls for toddler-aged children. Activities and tours are either geared toward adrenaline junkies and risk-seekers (bungee jumping, zip-lining, white-water rafting) or toward retirees looking to fulfill their lifetime dream of experiencing the African bush and checking one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World off of their list. I’d also add that the latter group is not always accepting and friendly toward couples with small children, leaving us feeling slightly defensive and irritated throughout our trip.

Our little explorer

Nevertheless, there were certainly beautiful moments during our vacation and we had some unforgettable experiences. My husband did the infamous “Gorge Swing” over the Batoka Gorge, where you jump off of a 120 m cliff, free-fall for 70 m and then swing out over the Zambezi River. We attended an African drum concert and dinner buffet, where our son was mesmerized by the music and played along on a tiny drum. We took a sunset cruise along the Zambezi River, upstream from the Falls, and spotted hippos and crocodiles in the water before a storm came sweeping across the sky. And we boarded a helicopter for a quick flight over the Falls to capture their full magnitude from the air.

African dancers at the Boma drum concert
Boarding the helicopter
Aerial shot of the Zambezi River approaching Victoria Falls
Sunset over the Zambezi River

This leads me to my final point: unlike Niagara Falls or Foz do Iguaçu (see my post on it here), it is hard to grasp the breadth of Victoria Falls on the ground at this time of year. We visited near the end of the rainy season, which extends until April. This means that the water was very high and the Falls were almost at maximum flow. On the Zimbabwean side, you walk along the narrow gorge and are placed directly opposite the Falls. Thus, from the lookouts, it was nearly impossible to see the Falls; everything was shrouded in a cloud of white mist. At times the mist and winds were so strong, that you felt as if you were in a colossal rain storm. We left the park completely drenched after both visits. With the incessant “rain” and thundering sound of the water, it was quite the visceral experience. In the local language, Tokaleya Tonga, the Falls are called Mosi-oa-Tunya, which translates to “The Smoke that Thunders”. I would say that is quite the apt description.

Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls Bridge from the Victoria Falls Hotel

I left Victoria Falls glad that I had witnessed and experienced the sheer force of nature in this form. It reminded me of visiting the breathtaking landscape of Utah four years ago; I felt small and humbled by the environment that surrounded me.

For anyone interested in visiting Victoria Falls, I found this site very helpful (and at times amusing!):

Check out the following places for dining options with relatively fair prices:

The Three Monkeys – A family-friendly restaurant located along the train tracks that go through Victoria Falls. If you’re lucky, you can watch a steam train pass while you dine. Great beers on tap and fantastic pizza.

Shearwater Cafe – A low-key, casual café in the heart of Victoria Falls. Stop here for some good coffee, an afternoon drink, or an early dinner.

The Lookout Café – For a breath-taking view of the Batoka Gorge, go here for lunch or dinner. Try the crocodile or ostrich skewers if you’re feeling adventurous and sip on their deliciously flavored gin and tonics. Reservations recommended.

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge – Enjoy a sundowner and some appetizers on the deck overlooking a watering hole that attracts all kinds of wild game. The upscale restaurant opens after sunset; though you miss the view, the food selection makes up for it!

Victoria Falls Hotel – If you are traveling on a budget and still want to witness this historic high-end, luxury hotel first-hand, stop by to have a morning coffee on the terrace overlooking the Victoria Falls Bridge. Or, if you want the true British experience, check out High Tea in the afternoon!

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