through the mist
Victoria Falls was an afterthought – a last-minute addition to our itinerary on the way back from Namibia to Rwanda. We had to fly through Zambia anyway, so we figured we should tack on a visit to one of the world’s most famous waterfalls since we were going to be in the neighborhood anyway.
Had we done even a modicum of research, we most assuredly would have planned things differently. For one, we hadn’t bothered to read the fine print with regards to Zambia’s and Zimbabwe’s visa instructions. It was a rude surprise when we arrived in Lusaka on our way to Windhoek and learned that we could not get multiple-entry visas at the airport, especially since the double-entry visas we wound up purchasing cost just as much.
Also, we had booked round-trip flights between all of our destinations. In retrospect, we should have bought one-way flights instead: Lusaka (ZAM) –> Windhoek (NAM); Windhoek –> Vic Falls (ZIM); Livingstone (ZAM) –> Lusaka. The falls are serviced by two airports – one on each side of the border – but the Zimbabwean one handles significantly more traffic. In fact, the only reason our visit to the falls proved successful was thanks to Air Namibia’s incompetence. When they messed up our outbound flight after cancelling the inbound one, we demanded to be rebooked on a flight straight to Vic Falls. Not only did we thus avoid a layover in Lusaka, but we also gained an extra day at the falls.
We wound up staying one night on the Zimbabwean side of the falls and a second in Zambia. The contrast between the two could not be starker. Zimbabwe, having adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency a couple of years ago, is much more built up and quite a bit more expensive. The Vic Falls airport is huge and modern. The one in Livingstone, by contrast, is quite literally falling apart – just as we walked into the decrepit departures terminal for the first leg of our long journey back to Kigali, several rotten ceiling panels caved in and came crashing down around us.
We arrived in Vic Falls around lunchtime and after settling in debated what to do. We had one afternoon in Zimbabwe, a full day between the two countries, and a morning in Zambia at our disposal. We figured we’d pay a visit to both sides of the falls, but that still theoretically left us with two timeslots to do something else. Vic Falls has a ton of adventure options – rafting, bungee jumping, and so forth – all of which were lost on us, since we had Munchkin in tow. We briefly debated a sunset river cruise, but after learning that the boat does not come anywhere close to the falls (unlike at Iguazu), decided to pass on the rather pricy excursion.
We wound up going straight to the falls, and this proved the smartest decision we made during our stay. Our visit fell during the middle of the rainy season. In the dry season, supposedly, parts of the falls dry out completely. In rainy weather, by contrast, the falls swell so much that they are partially obscured by the mist kicked up by the crashing Zambezi river as it plummets 100 meters down. The weather gods smiled on us and we got a couple of hours of gorgeous weather in the afternoon – just long enough to do justice to the Zimbabwe side of the falls. The late afternoon golden hour makes for ideal lighting at the falls, and we were treated to numerous sparkling rainbows stretching over the river.
And that sunset cruise? It got completely washed out by the rain that began coming down in sheets shortly after we left the park. It drizzled the better part of the following morning so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, crossed the border, splashed around in the pool, and put Munchkin down for a long nap with the hopes of better weather in the afternoon.
We did get another afternoon without rain, but that does not mean we were able to stay dry. The Zambian side is the “wet” one – the mist from the falls creates the sensation of a permanent, localized raincloud that hangs over much of the footpath. We were drenched within minutes and our poor camera fogged over despite the precautions we took to keep it shielded from the falling water.
The Zimbabwe side offers much clearer views of the falls, but both sides are worth visiting. On the Zambian side, it is possible to approach the Zambezi before it comes crashing down, and during the drier months, it’s even possible to take a dip in the Devil’s Pool, swimming out right to the edge of the falls.
This was not an option when we visited, but we did hike down to the river at the bottom of the falls. The mist from the falls creates a miniature rainforest, where in addition to its resident trumpeter hornbills D spotted a gorgeous Schalow’s turaco. Our camera was barely usable by that point, and D toyed with the idea of returning to the falls early the following morning to do some birding in the rainforest before our outbound flight. Unfortunately, his birding plans got rained out.
Victoria Falls is neither the world’s tallest nor widest waterfall. But the combination of width and height renders it the world’s largest by most measures. Iguazu – on the border of Brazil and Argentina – is the only waterfall system that rivals Victoria Falls in this respect. For our money, Iguazu is more beautiful, in large part because in addition to bird’s eye views, it is possible to see its 275 distinct waterfalls up close from the bottom as well. But that doesn’t take anything away from Vic Falls, which is as impressive as it is scenic. Even poorly planned and partially rained out, our visit was memorable.