One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Victoria Falls are wider than Niagara and higher than Iguazú – and have more activities on offer than both of them combined. Rough Guides Managing Editor Keith Drew has the lowdown on everything you need to know about Africa’s adventure capital.
Both. The lion's share of the Falls are in Zimbabwe, and it's here that you'll get the best overall impression of their epic scale – all 1700m of thundering whitewater cascades. The numerous lookouts that run along the gorge inside Victoria Falls National Park include show-stopping views of the Devil’s Cataract; precarious Danger Point; and the spectacular Main Falls, the largest single sheet of water in the world.
On the Zambian side, the lookout points in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park give you another angle entirely. Watch the water plummet over the edge from just a few feet behind the Eastern Cataract, or cross the sliver of a bridge to Knife Point Island for that in-the-thick-of-it feeling.
You can also climb down to the river’s edge to the so-called Boiling Pot, named for the way the water rebounds off the rock face to create a treacherous swirl of criss-crossing currents.
When the water levels are high, from around March to June, you’ll get absolutely soaked, particularly at Viewpoints 9 to 15 on the Zimbabwean side and around Knife Point Island in Zambia. The spray from the Falls can be so heavy that the island (and its bridge) are showered in a constant “downpour”.
Wear quick-drying clothes and flip-flops and hire one of the ponchos that are available to rent on both sides – they’ll also protect your camera.
It’s not cheap, but for sheer once-in-a-lifetime thrills, a morning microlight flight over the Falls is an absolute must. Exposed to the rushing wind, you’ll buzz over the Zambezi River, soar around the Falls and then plunge through the upper wisps of the Smoke That Thunders itself.
The flight will also give you an aerial lesson in geology that you just can’t get from the ground; you’ll get a good view of the previous gorges that have been carved out over millennia further down the river. Batoka Sky, on the Zambian side, is the only company in the Victoria Falls area that organises microlight flights.
You've heard right. Though that's something of an understatement. In many ways, rafting was where it all began for Victoria Falls Town, and in season (around August to December), the Zambezi still boasts the best whitewater on the planet.
Pick a company that knows its stuff, such as Shearwater, and prepare yourself for a day of getting bucked off rapids with names such as The Washing Machine, Double Trouble and Oblivion.
The quintessential end to a Vic Falls day is a tranquil sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. Many of the three-storey cruisers are packed to the gills, so opt instead for something like the Ra-Ikane, an elegant little wooden boat – designed like the one used by David Livingstone in the mid-1800s – that can drift into the shallows and takes a maximum of eight.
Hippos are a guaranteed sighting, and there are usually a few suspicious-looking crocodiles soaking up the last rays of the day. The undoubted highlight is watching a blood-orange African sun sink slowly into the horizon.
You’ll see plenty of baboons around Victoria Falls Town, and there’s a family of warthogs that likes to hang out at passport control on the Zimbabwean side of Vic Falls Bridge.
But for a proper big-game experience, you’ll need to head to Zambezi National Park, 5km west of town. Walking safaris and game drives through the park’s mopane woodland and riverine forest will probably turn up antelope, zebra and giraffe – you might even spot a lion crossing the open grasslands further inland.
Spend the night in one of the luxurious riverfront tents at Zambezi Sands (complete with four-poster beds, outdoor showers and private plunge pools) and there’s a real chance you’ll drift off to the sound of elephants trumpeting in the bush. The lodge is famous for its canoe safaris down the Zambezi, an early morning exploration that gives you a real appreciation for this majestic river.
Ilala Lodge is your best bet if you want to be as close to the Falls as possible. Occupying lovely grounds, the lodge has stylish rooms, a small pool and an excellent restaurant. Best of all, though, it’s just a 10-minute walk to the park’s entrance; from the hotel’s terrace, you can see clouds of spray rising from the Falls.
On the opposite side of Vic Falls Town – and a good choice if you’re more interested in getting a flavour of the bush so close to the city – is the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge Estate. The Lodge itself is the focal point, with many of its sleek, contemporary rooms overlooking a waterhole. But there’s also the more upmarket Victoria Falls Safari Club and the attractive (and good-value) Lokuthula Lodges, whose large, self-catering thatched cottages share a beautiful pool and come with their own terrace and braai.
Spectacular Gorges Lodge, 25km east of Victoria Falls Town, is by far the best place to stay if you’d rather be a bit more removed from the action. The lodge’s stone chalets, and its sister camp’s designer tents, are strung out along the very edge of the Batoka Gorge, and enjoy dizzying views over the Zambezi some 200m below.
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South African Airways fly daily from London Heathrow to Victoria Falls via Johannesburg. The new 30-day KAZA Visa, available on arrival at Victoria Falls Airport, covers you for entry into both Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Top image © Efimova Anna/Shutterstock