Also often referred to in short as Vic Falls, it forms the highlight of many a Southern African safari.
The reason why the area is known as Africa’s Adventure Capital, is because there is so much to see and do on a trip to the Victoria Falls. The Falls is not just a sight you see for a moment and then you are satisfied, you want to see them from different viewpoints and angles. This is quite possible, since there are ample opportunities to see them from the air on either a helicopter or microlight trip – or even both.
After you have seen the phenomenon, it is time to experience it too. For that you can hit the water in a small canoe, a raft or a cruising boat. You can admire the habituated elephants and other game in the area, and swim in the mischievously named Devil’s Pool. If you are really brave enough, you can leap off the historic bridge that spans the Zambezi River.
Apart from such adrenaline filled activities, there are also plenty of historic avenues to explore, or doing some shopping in the local shops or from local craftsmen, and eventually you can just spend a lazy day in the sunshine – of course after you had joined a bumper safari into the wild around the Falls.
Not only is Victoria Falls regarded as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, it has also long ago been declared as an official World Heritage Site. It has earned the title as the biggest waterfall in the world because of the sheer volume of water falling over the cliffs and as such has thrilled people from all over the world for the past centuries.
Victoria Falls is situated almost exactly halfway along the Zambezi River’s 2 700 km journey from its source to the sea. The river here plunges headlong into a vertical chasm spanning a lengthy 1,7 kilometre of its width, creating the biggest curtain of falling water in the world. The height of this chasm varies from 70 m to 108 m.
The highest ever flow was apparently recorded in 1958 when it reached more than 700 000 cubic meters of water a minute and the water in the gorges rose 18 metres above its normal flood level.
The falls got its name when Dr David Livingstone was taken to the edge of these falls in a canoe by the local Makalolo people in 1855. Livingstone was a Scottish physician, pioneer missionary and explorer in Africa and became so overwhelmed by his first sight of these falls, that he named this wonder of the world after Victoria, his British queen.
Even today a visitor can experience it almost exactly as him since there is very little building or development around the Falls itself. On the Zimbabwe side, you can spend hours on footpaths in the lush rainforest to get extensive views of the Main Falls and in Zambia the Knife-Edge Bridge takes you close to the cascading water with a steep footpath leading to a huge whirlpool at the base of the Falls, called the Boiling Pot.
The Victoria Falls are 1 700 m wide and are made up of five different “falls” of which four are in Zimbabwe and one is in Zambia. The different falls are known as The Devil’s Cataract, Main Falls, Rainbow Falls and Horseshoe Falls in Zimbabwe and the Eastern Cataract in Zambia.
The Devil’s Cataract is 70 meters high and got its name from the adjacent island in the river where the local tribes used to perform sacrificial ceremonies. When the first missionaries arrived in the area, they referred to these ceremonies as “devilish” and hence the name was given to this cataract.
The Main Falls is 93 meters high and is the largest and certainly the most majestic of the falls with its wide curtain of water, with a peak flow rate of 700 000 cubic metres per minute. The sheer volume over the height of the falls is so great that the water is buffeted by the strong rising winds and turned into mist before getting anywhere near the ground.
The Horseshoe Falls is 95 meters high and are shaped like a horseshoe, from there the name. This is the section that has the least volume of water and is usually the first to dry up in drier times which may be between October and November.
The Rainbow Falls is 108 meters high and the highest point of all the falls. On a clear day a beautiful rainbow often forms at this point and even on a moonlit night a Lunar rainbow may sometimes be seen in position here.
The Eastern Cataract is the second highest fall at 101 metres high and is situated completely on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. One can however get a stunning view of them from danger point at the Zimbabwean side.
The several gorges seen at the falls are also named.
First Gorge is the one the river falls into. The entire volume of the Zambezi River pours through the First Gorge’s 110 metres wide exit for a distance of about 150 metres before entering a zigzagging series of gorges designated by the order in which the river reaches them. Objects (even humans and the occasional hippopotamus or crocodile) that are swept over the falls, are frequently found swirling about here or washed up at the north-east end of the Second Gorge.
Second Gorge is 250 metres south of the falls. It is 2,15 kilometres long and spanned by the Victoria Falls Bridge. Water entering the Second Gorge makes a sharp right turn and has carved out a deep pool there called the Boiling Pot.
Third Gorge is 600 metres south, 1,95 kilometres long and contains the Victoria Falls power station. Fourth Gorge is 1,15 kilometres south and 2,25 kilometres long while Fifth Gorge is 2,25 kilometres south and 3, 2 kilometres long.
Songwe Gorge is 5, 3 kilometres south and 3,3 kilometres long. It is named after the small Songwe River coming from the north-east, and the deepest at 140 metres.
The level of the river in these gorges varies by up to 20 metres between wet and dry seasons.
What to see and do at Victoria Falls
So, you need to walk through the rainforest and have a good look or two, or three at the falls. But what else can you do at the venue? You will be surprised at the variety of adventure activities offered at and near Victoria Falls, so put aside at least a few days for your visit.
Here is a short summary of a number of these activities:
Bungee jumping at Victoria Falls
At the top of the Victoria Falls adventure activity list is a bungee jump from the famous Victoria Falls Bridge. If anything is going to kick-start your adrenalin, it would be this jump, one of the highest in the world, and the freefall of 111 m with the falls in the background.
For a similar experience (just facing the right way up and secured in a harness) you can also do a Bridge Swing or a tandem swing into the gorge for double the fun.
Swim on the edge of the Falls
One can take a guided trip to Devil’s Pool from the Zambian side and go splashing in the pool, but this is only done during the dry season (from about September to December) and when water levels are low enough for swimming.
Helicopter or microlight flights over Vic Falls
A flight over the Falls gives you a bird’s eye view of the sheet of falling water and gives a completely different perspective on this natural wonder.
This activity is known as The Flight of Angels after David Livingstone’s description of the waterfall when he first saw it. He called the scene so lovely that it must have been “gazed upon by angels in their flight”. It can be done by helicopter or microlight and one can also take helicopter flights upstream to do some game viewing from above.
White water rafting on the Zambezi River
The Zambezi here offers one of the best places in the world for white water rafting. Hurtling down the 8 m drop at the Stairway to Heaven rapid or down the three waves of Oblivion is definitely an adrenaline-inducing experience, leave alone the most infamous Commercial Suicide rapid rated 5 to 6 in difficulty.
Take a Zipline or Flying Fox
The wire activities at Vic Falls include the Flying Fox zipline ride, which slide across the 200 metre-wide gorge about 120 metres above the floor or the gorge. You are attached to a high-wire in a face-down position or sitting in a harness to enjoy some stunning views.
A longer zipline ride runs 425 metres across the gorge, starting out at about 120 metres above the floor of the gorge where you can reach speeds of up to 106 km’s as it runs downhill.
A Gorge Swing, the next level of daring
The Gorge Swing is like the Bridge Swing, but off the 120 metre high edge of the gorge. It starts with a heart-stopping 70 metre freefall before swinging 95 metres across Batoka Gorge.
Tandem skydiving at the Falls
This is the ultimate of activities at Vic Falls, now talking 10 000 metres instead of just the 100 metres of the bungee, zip line or bridge swing. After flying over Vic Falls in a small plane, you and your instructor jump out at some 10 000 metres above ground level to first freefall at around 200 kph until the parachute opens and you drift down to the drop zone in the Zambezi National Park.
Canoeing on the Zambezi River
Canoeing or kayaking trips on the Upper Zambezi, above Victoria Falls, are also quite popular, with more challenging river boarding, jet boating and rafting options below the falls also offered. You can go for an easy family paddle or be a daredevil with the white water options.
Canopy Tours at the Falls
This is a perfect family activity in which both children and seniors can participate. A network of nine elevated slides and a bridge walkway between platforms in the forest canopy can be explored in this way, with more views of the river, the Falls Bridge and the spray of the falls itself.
Abseiling at Vic Falls down Batoka Gorge
This is known as rappelling and counts among the softer adventures at Vic Falls. Abseiling for 53 m, you can once again take in the spectacular views of the Eastern Cataract, with rapids below and the Victoria Falls bridge in the distance.
Zambezi River sunset boat cruises
One of the most entertaining things to do at Vic Falls is a Zambezi River Sunset Cruise. Such a boat cruise is very relaxing after an action-packed day, while you can sip on sundowners and enjoy the wildlife along the banks of the Zambezi. A more intimate trip on a smaller speedboat is another way of enjoying a sunset cruise.
When you need to relax, Victoria Falls has plenty more to offer, both in Victoria Falls Town on the Zimbabwean side and in Livingstone on the Zambian side.
History and culture enthusiasts will find a lot to learn and food lovers can try lots of different traditional African meals.
Further you can learn to drum or dance the traditional way, take high tea at the colonial Victoria Falls Hotel where a young Queen Elizabeth II once stayed, enjoy dinner on a steam train or shop in markets for souvenirs and gifts.
More attractions than just the falls
With a lot of mist created by the falls, lots of moisture are around which gave birth to a rain forest-like ecosystem adjacent to the falls and on the opposite cliff. Here one can find mahogany, ebony, fig and palm trees, which are otherwise rare for this area.
Lots of raptors – about 35 species – fancy the gorges and cliffs, hence birdwatchers can look out for Taita falcons, black eagles, herons, fish eagles, peregrine falcons and Augur buzzards. Klipspringers, honey badgers, lizards and clawless otters can be glimpsed in the gorges.
In the river above the falls, large populations of hippopotamus and crocodile live, while elephants regularly cross the river at different crossing points during the dry season. Almost 40 species of fish are found below the falls and more than 80 species above it.
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.
There are a few relatively small national parks at the falls – the Zambezi National Park, Victoria Falls National Park and Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.
The Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park is 66 square km big and Victoria Falls National Park is 23 square km big. On the southern bank is also the Zambezi National Park, extending 40 kilometres west along the river.
Animals can move between the two Zimbabwean parks and can also reach Matetsi Safari Area, Kazuma Pan National Park and Hwange National Park to the south.
On the Zambian side, fences and the outskirts of the town Livingstone confine most animals to the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park itself, and fences that were put up by lodges in response to crime, further restrict animal movement.
The national parks house abundant wildlife including populations of elephant, Cape buffalo, giraffe, Grant’s zebra, and a variety of antelope. Lions, leopards and cheetahs are only occasionally seen. Baboons and Vervet monkeys are common.
Where to stay at Victoria Falls
Accommodation at Victoria Falls includes a variety of options, from family-friendly resorts to gracious hotels where you can experience old worldly charm with white-gloved waiters serving you on the manicured lawn or in in dim lit dining rooms.
You can choose between romantic riverside cottages and luxurious chalets or check into one of several upscale hotels with air conditioning, room service and swimming pools. If you prefer more pristine environments, you can choose an upstream laidback lodge on the Zambezi. Staying upstream is quieter and more exclusive anyway.
Although some hotels offer free shuttle services, staying in town will however allow you easier access to the activities and attractions.
Some award-winning establishments on the Zimbabwean side include the well-known Victoria Falls hotels – Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, Victoria Falls Safari Club, Victoria Falls Safari Suites, Lokuthula Lodges.
On the Zambian side you find the Zambezi Sun and the Royal Livingstone fairly close to the Falls, while the rest of the lodges and hotels are a long way upstream and beyond walking distance of the falls. All the lodges do however offer regular and frequent shuttle services so that their residents are not isolated from the action at all.
There are daily flights from South Africa’s international airports to Livingstone Airport (LVI) in Zambia and Victoria Falls Airport (VFA) in Zimbabwe and a road transfer from VFA to Vic Falls Town take only about 20 minutes.
The Zimbabwean side vs the Zambian side – which is best?
When you look at pictures of Victoria Falls, you can discern whether it was taken from the Zimbabwean side if the water is to the left of the picture and land to the right. The reverse will be seen when they were taken from the Zambian side. Then the water will be on the right and land to the left.
About two thirds of the Victoria Falls frontage is on the Zimbabwean side and most of the falls plunge down this section. With so much frontage on the Zimbabwean side, the views are much more picturesque and available, and the rain forest opposite the falls is dense from the constant spray.
The quaint town of Victoria Falls and the many hotels on the Zimbabwean side are merely a short walk from the official entrance to the falls, which gives visitors the freedom to explore the area at their own leisure and be near enough to easily participate in many activities.
The Zambian side of Victoria Falls has its fair share of amazing experiences though.
The falls from Zambia can be seen more close-up and from other interesting angles, with attractions like the footbridge, Knife-edge and Rainbow Falls at hand. Not to forget about the chance to swim above the falls in the Devils Pools.
If you are in doubt about which side to stay on, the time of year may influence your decision. The dry months from about October to December often leave the Zambian side of Victoria Falls completely dry while the Zimbabwean side of the Falls is reduced to a relatively demure but still picturesque cascade.
The best time to visit Victoria Falls and do all these things
The tricky thing about visiting Victoria Falls is that the most impressive spray doesn’t coincide with peak safari season in nearby Chobe in Botswana or Hwange in Zimbabwe.
When is the best time to visit Victoria Falls? This handy travel calendar gives you on overview of each season and what to expect. Need more detailed advice? Speak to one of our experienced safari consultants. We design custom trips to Victoria Falls to suit any budget. Enquire Now to ask about our special offers.
What to expect from the different seasons at Victoria Falls
Visitors should keep in mind that every year is different, and more than just slight variations may occur. Water levels will depend on rainfall, and the rains may start early or late, while extreme droughts are also often experienced in this part of the world.
Summer runs more or less from October to April, during which time it gets extremely hot – up to around 30 degrees Celsius – in this area. Temperatures in the evening and during the night may drop to approximately 14 degrees Celsius.
Dramatic thunderstorms may be experienced during the afternoons, with the much welcomed summer rains washing through the area during the months between November and March.
Winter weather is experienced from May to September or October. During these months the days are more mild than actually cold, and usually quite dry and sunny with temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius. The temperature during the night drops and can sometimes get as cold as 5 degrees Celsius.
Since the summer months are generally hotter and the short afternoon thunderstorms often cause magnificent sunsets, his is the time of year when visitors can relax at their hotel pool sides and just enjoy the views.
The winter months are characterised by longish sunny days with colder nights when warm clothes will be needed. Swimming may not be the most enjoyable activity at this time of year, unless you are used to colder water back home.
The Zambezi River’s level are high in the month of April meaning that white water rafting isn’t usually possible at this time. But the dry winters often result in sparser vegetation which makes game viewing another bonus in the area. Wildlife are forced to congregate around scarce water sources and large herds of elephant and buffalo may be spotted along the water’s edge.
Regarding most of the activities around Victoria Falls, the three factors that determine seasonal availability are the weather, the amount of rainfall, and the amount of water coming over the Falls itself: high, medium, and low water season.
‘High Water’ occurs between February and July, peaking from March to April. During this time a rise of only one metre in the level of the Zambezi River produces a five metre increase in the level of the water forced through the gorge. The spray that is thrown up is very dense and thick with rainbows, which will get anyone that goes nearby totally drenched, but provides a fantastic sight when viewed from the air.
‘Low Water’ describes the period between the months August and January and is at its lowest from November to early December. This is the time when there is very little spray visible and visitors can better appreciate the geological formation of Victoria Falls and fathom the full length and breadth of it.
The water level in the gorge drops to such an extent that the river’s conditions are ideal for white water rafting – although it still retains the reputation as one of the wildest in the world. This is also the time of year when you can dare to take a dip in the Devil’s Pool.
Let us look at the influence of these three factors in more detail:
High Water Season: March – May
The annual summer rains in Zimbabwe fall between November and April, with the peak of the rainy season occurring in January. Following this refreshing summer rainfall, the volume of water cascading over the Falls is at its greatest during this time and results in a spray so thick that it literally rains upwards!
While this is the time for a magical and unforgettable walk through the iconic Rain Forest, the spray is so dense that it often entirely blocks one’s view of the falls itself. At this time of year, the Victoria Falls truly lives up to its local name – Mosi-oa-Tunya – or ‘the smoke that thunders’ since its mighty roar can be heard kilometres away.
During the High Water Season, days are hot, and nights are warm, and brief yet spectacular thunderstorms often cause the sky to light up while providing sustenance to the land and wildlife.
In terms of activities, this is not the ideal time to try white water rafting as the water levels are often too high to allow for an enjoyable and safe experience. Swimming in Devil’s Pool is not allowed during this time of year, as the volume of water flowing over the Falls is at too dangerous a level.
Low Water Season: September to December
The Low Water Season is a good time to photograph Victoria Falls, as the rough cliff face is most exposed with the spectacular geographical formation clearly revealed for all to see. While the Rain Forest on the opposite side isn’t so rainy at all, the site itself usually is a lot less crowded. Mostly, the skies are clear and the sun shines all day.
Low water levels mean that white water rafting experiences are fantastic with rapids still vicious and challenging. Although October is a very hot time of the year in Zimbabwe, with daytime temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius and above, game viewing can still be amazing with wildlife congregating around waterholes and rivers.
The Main Falls and Devil’s Cataract on the Zimbabwe side flow year round but at low water levels, the river is diverted for hydro-power on the Zambia side, and the falls there all but dry. Photography opportunities are still good, especially allowing for close up and spray-free shots.
Medium to High Water Season: January, February; June to August
Though there can be a great variance during the medium water periods, conditions are generally best for viewing the falls and enjoying the water-based activities.
With the level of the Zambezi River neither too high, nor too low, this season is considered to be the best time of year to view the Victoria Falls.
Zimbabwe’s version of winter falls between June and August, with mild weather that is preferable to the extreme heat of summer. Boasting warm, sunny days and cool nights, this is a very pleasant time of the year, but some warm clothing may be needed for those chilly evenings outdoors.
Almost all water-based activities are available during the Medium to High Water Season, so you can take a pick from river-boarding and white water rafting, to canoe trails and Tiger Fishing.
Parts of the cliff face may be exposed, allowing you to see all the way to the bottom, but still with a decent amount of spray and thunder to make the everything impressive enough. Rainbows by day and even moonbows (full moon rainbows) in the towering plume of spray still make photographers go delirious and transform even the most inexperienced into photographers too.
A month to month guide on visiting Victoria Falls
Unfortunately, it is neither easy nor fair to pick just one ultimate month or season of the year to punt as a best time to visit the Victoria Falls, due to the fact that each season caters to different tastes and preferences.
However, to help you make up your own mind, let us see what every month of the year will offer you:
December and January
The months from December through to March mark the height of summer and rainy season in the area. Dramatic thunderstorms often occur in the afternoons, especially on hot days.
The Zambezi River itself is usually still low in December, but it steadily swells and becomes more and more spectacular as the rainwater start to arrive from further upstream.
The weather is hot and humid at this time of year, with temperatures that can reach well over 30 degrees Celsius in the daytime.
February and March
White-water rafting season usually closes around February due to water levels getting too high as more water reaches the spots from upstream. Livingstone Island and Devil’s Pool often close already in January or February with high water levels.
The days in March can become a bit cooler, with the scorching temperatures of January and February getting less. It is however still a long way from any cold winter feelings.
April to June
These months mark peak high water season, with the Zambezi River usually in flood and the falls at their most magnificent with water abundantly flowing down.
Visibility from most of the lookouts may be quite limited due to the amount of spray and mist, hence nobody should attempt the walkways through the rainforest without waterproof jackets and umbrellas unless they want to get wet. Hikers should also beware of slippery rocks and pathways.
The rafting season is normally closed because of the high water levels and Livingstone Island and Devil’s Pool on the edge of the falls are closed. Days can be warm and pleasant with temperatures of 25 to 30 degrees Celsius, making it more comfortable to enjoy the spectacular views, often enhanced by rainbows, from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean
This is a very good time for a helicopter or microlight flight over the falls for a breath taking bird’s-eye view of Mosi-oa-Tunya.
July and August
The two winter months of July and August mark peak season at Victoria Falls. Apart from being school holidays in many countries, the lower water levels and less spray gives visitors excellent visibility of the falls. Livingstone Island and the rafting season open as soon as the water drops to a safe level.
Although it is officially wintertime, one can still expect warm and sunny days with temperatures between 20 and 28 degrees Celsius.
Both sides of the falls are great to visit, and you may still expect to see beautiful rainbows created by the spray. Game viewing in the nearby Chobe National Park, Hwange and other game reserves is also at its best if you intend to combine that with a Vic Falls visit.
September to November
These months often cause anxiety and scare mongering about excessive earth warming in the rest of the world, since the end of the dry season cause the falls to be at their very lowest level.
The very low levels however provide excellent visibility from the Zimbabwean side, while the falls may dry up almost completely on the Zambian side, leaving just a dry rock wall.
This is peak white-water river rafting season and Livingstone Island and the Devil’s Pool at the edge of the falls on the Zambian side are open.
Weather is already very hot, with day temperatures averaging 30 to 35 degrees Celsius, occasionally even peaking at more than 40 degrees Celsius.
In September and October game viewing may be fantastic along the Chobe River and surrounds, because the first rains usually have not arrived by then. The rains only arrive late in October or in November, when it transforms the dry and dusty landscape into a lush and green oasis.
This all being said, Victoria Falls makes a fantastic year-round destination thanks to its very mild winter climate, hot but beautiful summers and enviable location near some other popular safari destinations in both Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Victoria Falls is spectacular at any time of year, and views from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean side are good. For convenience and the best views, it is often recommended to rather stay on the Zimbabwean side. Of course, you must also try and have a look from the Zambian side for some great photographic angles, close-up shots and interesting perspectives.
There is no reason to be concerned about safety on any side, you can just as easily stay on the Zambian side and day-pass through to the Zimbabwean side. Even if the quality and value of accommodation is a big consideration for you, you can assume that both sides offer equal numbers of luxurious but still affordable options, and that the same kind of activities are available.
Both sides of Victoria Falls can easily be incorporated into any itinerary, whether you are coming from South Africa, Botswana or anyone of the other regional destinations such as Namibia, Zimbabwe or Zambia.
It really doesn’t matter what side you choose to stay, just make sure that you do visit the falls from both sides and, if at all possible, from the air too by treating yourself to a ‘Flight of Angels’ by helicopter or microlight aircraft.
It is further worth noting that both Zimbabwe and Zambia permit tourists to make day trips across the border to view the falls from both viewpoints. Visitors with single entry visas are required to purchase a visa each time they want to cross the border, but visas can be obtained at both border posts.
Visa regulations change frequently however, so visitors are advised to always check the rules currently in effect in both countries before attempting to cross the border in either direction.
Foreign tourists may purchase a KAZA visa that will permit them to travel between Zambia and Zimbabwe for up to 30 days as long as they remain within the covered countries.