The Victoria Falls, which straddles both Zimbabwe and Zambia, is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It also happens to be an African destination that combines brilliantly with so many others in Southern Africa that you were likely already considering, namely Cape Town, Kruger or even Botswana.
The Falls, as we affectionately call the region, offers so much more than just the, albeit incredible, opportunity to see (and feel and hear) this marvel up close, but is a destination that is host to so much more.
It caters to adventure seekers, by way of adrenaline-packed activities like swimming in Devil's Pool on the edge of the falls, bungee jumping, zip-lining and microlighting. And equally so appealing to those seeking a calmer experience of the region such as sunset cruises, walking tours, gorge edge lunches and elephant interactions.
The mighty Zambezi River, the lifeblood for many, divides the two countries and ultimately cascades down the mile-wide chasm into the winding gorges below. Pushing up spray to a height of well over 400 metres (1,300 ft) and crashing the 108m straight down, at a rate of 1,088,000 litres a second, forming the largest sheet of falling water in the world. Upstream, several award-winning lodges are perched on its banks, with warm smiles awaiting your arrival. Add to this a number of larger hotels and boutique guest houses, and one has a great selection of ideal bases from which to explore the area.
We've taken the liberty to answer everything you may need to know about visiting Victoria Falls
Understanding High and Low Water in Victoria Falls
The mighty Zambezi River feeds the Victoria Falls Waterfall. Therefore, it goes without saying that there is more water going over the falls when there is more water in the river. The Zambezi River's catchment area is the Angolan Highlands, and it takes about six months for the water to filter through to Victoria Falls Area. Therefore, the flow of water over the falls has absolutely nothing to do with the ambient weather.
For example, in winter, a traditionally low rainfall time, the Falls' flow is greatest. However, during the summer, which is traditionally a higher rainfall period, the flow of the Falls is exceptionally low.
However, the land gradient means that the Zambian side of the falls is slightly higher than the Zimbabwean side. Therefore, when the water level drops from the river, it subsides from the Zambian side first. This is why Zambia is home to only roughly 25% of the Falls on average year-round. Still, this side of the border has something special going for it: it is tucked away in the lush Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park and is the gateway to the infamous Devil's Pool.
Where Zimbabwe is home to roughly 75% of the Falls, viewing can be guaranteed, even during low water seasons. The more established of the two "sides", this bustling little town is home to the over 110-year-old, Victoria Falls Hotel. In recent years there has been much development on both sides of the Falls, including secluded safari-style lodges on both banks of the Zambezi and adventure activities can be enjoyed from either side of the Falls.
'High water' occurs between February and July, and peaks between March and April. During this period, a rise of one metre in the Zambezi river level produces a 5-metre increase in the level of the water forced through the gorge. The spray thrown up is dense, drenching and thick with rainbows — a fantastic sight when viewed from the air.
The 'Low Water' period runs between August and January and is lowest between November and early December. This is when there is minimal spray and visitors can fully appreciate the geological formation of the falls and the full length and breadth of them. The water level in the gorge drops and the Zambezi River becomes most extraordinary and deserving of its white water rafting reputation as being the wildest experience in the world. This is also a great time of year to take a dip in the Devil's Pool, a natural "infinity pool" perched on the edge of Victoria Falls.
Since between October and January, the Zambian side of the falls has little to no water going over it, to fully appreciate the Victoria Falls at this time of year, a visit to the Zimbabwean side is almost mandatory. The Victoria Falls bridge (linking Zimbabwe and Zambia) is easily accessible and close to the Falls. The UniVisa that covers multiple entry/exits to both countries is also readily available, making a day trip across the border an obvious possibility from either side. So, make the best of both worlds, regardless of which side you are based.
The mighty curtain of water that forms the Victoria Falls is known by the locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya or the "Smoke that Thunders". These ancient and magnificent Falls were "discovered" in 1855 by Scottish explorer, David Livingstone. He had been attempting to find a route to the East Coast of the African continent when he encountered this wonder and gave it a Western name, the Victoria Falls — named after British Monarch, Queen Victoria. He had an island in the middle of the river on the lip of the waterfall named after him, of course, known as Livingstone Island and one where the infamous Devil's Pool activity begins these days.
Livingstone's reports spread across borders, and the Falls began to attract Anglo traders. A rustic trading settlement was set up on what is now the riverbank and became the original Victoria Falls town called Old Drift.
The number of foreign visitors rose steadily, and people travelled from South Africa to view the Falls. Malaria took its toll on the settlement and, at the turn of the century, Old Drift was shifted to the present-day town of Livingstone in Zambia.
Livingstone's lack of contact with the outside world over four years whilst attempting to find the Nile's source raised concerns for his welfare. It prompted the New York Herald to send Henry Stanley to find him. Stanley achieved his goal on 10 November 1871, approaching the explorer in an African village with the immortal words "Doctor Livingstone, I presume".
The two struck up a friendship which only ended when Stanley returned to America in 1872, having failed to persuade the intrepid missionary to accompany him. Dr David Livingstone died on 1 May 1873 at age 60. He had travelled some 50 000 kilometres in Africa, making a considerable contribution to the least known portion of the planet and became one of Southern and Central Africa's legendary figures. That legendary status is felt this very day as many names of towns in Africa have been changed to indigenous names, but the exception is names connected with this revered explorer. These include Livingstone and the famous Victoria Falls, remaining to this day, as a sign of respect and in memory of the great man.
The go-to answer for "best time to visit the Victoria Falls" is during the high water season that runs from January to early May, when the Zambezi River is at full flow. The resulting spray from the Falls is so dense that, at times, it can obscure the view. Don't worry, though, frequent gusts of wind ensure regular viewing is restored. It's also when one can expect to hear the tumultuous roar of the water as it pushes down the sheer face. Not just a sight to behold, but one that can be felt and heard too! But there is an optimal time of the year to travel, all depending on your interests within the destination and for everyone, which may not be the same time.
Victoria Falls ultimately makes a fantastic year-round destination weather-wise. Its location in the northern part of Southern Africa means that it experiences mild winters. Therefore it comes as no surprise that we include this natural wonder in our itineraries on a year-round basis.
Summer is from around October to April, during which it gets quite hot — to around 30°C, while night temperatures drop to approximately 14°C. The summer months are generally hotter and short afternoon thunderstorms often make way for magnificent sunsets. At this time of year, you can enjoy the swimming pool at your hotel and feel that you are in Africa. The rainy season is from November to March.
Winter is roughly from May to September/October. The days are generally dry and sunny — around 20°C, with the temperature falling at night when it can get as cold as 5ºC.
The winter months are characterised by long sunny days, the temperatures drop at night, and you'll be grateful for a warm jersey, hat and scarf. Don't expect to use the hotel swimming pool unless you have a powerful ability to withstand the cold. Wintertime also brings with it excellent game viewing in the Victoria Falls Area. The lack of rain means that the animals are forced to congregate around known water sources and large herds of elephant and buffalo come down to the Zambezi to drink. Game viewing at riverside properties like Matetsi, Vic Falls River Lodge, Old Drift, Toka Leya, Thorntree, Sanctuary Sussi is excellent.
It's easy to get to the Victoria Falls area as the Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (Zambia) Airports receive several daily flights from Johannesburg. The flight is about 90 minutes long. Most of these leaving Johannesburg Airport generally depart early morning – which often requires that you overnight at Johannesburg Airport before travelling to Victoria Falls.
There are also a handful of direct flights from Cape Town to either side of the Falls. Another option and an exceptionally popular one is to fly directly from Kruger Mpumalanga International (which services all Kruger safari lodge departures) to Livingstone Airport, located on the Zambian side. This flight is roughly two hours in duration. This allows the same-day connection and means departing one's safari lodge in the morning and arriving at the Falls that very afternoon– amazing! It's very sought-after though as there are only one of these flights daily, which gets booked very quickly.
This will also suit those basing themselves at Victoria Falls, i.e. the Zimbabwean side and not ending up in Livingstone itself. A cross border road transfer is easily added into the mix by your consultant and UniVisas are exceptionally easy to procure. They also cover most nationalities these days, meaning one can arrive at one airport, stay on the other side, and then cross back and forth as many times as you wish.
Many travellers choose to combine a Victoria Falls stay with time in Botswana's Chobe and Okavango Delta, either before or after their visit. It is a very popular combination and an easy two-hour cross border road transfer from either Zambia or Zimbabwe into Kasane. The gateway to Chobe in Botswana, it's easily managed and works in both directions.
Thanks to the same-day connection and easy logistics, you can easily combine Southern Africa destinations such as Cape Town, Kruger, the Falls and Botswana in one trip.
Of course, the Rolls Royce of travel to (or from) the Victoria Falls is by Rovos Rail — a breathtakingly luxurious train journey through spectacular landscapes. Offering a three-night journey, you travel from (or to) Pretoria in South Africa, and your journey ends (or starts) right outside the famed Victoria Falls Hotel.
Be warned that Visa regulations and costs regularly change in Zimbabwe and Zambia. What is released and possible today, may not be tomorrow, which is why having a consultant at your fingertips is so handy when planning a trip to these far-flung destinations. Your Rhino Africa consultant will discuss your specific requirements with you on an individual basis to ensure everything is up to date for your trip.
No one is going to complain about being bored in Victoria Falls. Frequently and affectionately coined the world's adventure capital, there are lots of things to see and do in Victoria Falls.
Activities include a walking tour of the Falls and its rainforest, helicopter flips, boat cruises, canoeing, elephant interactions, day trips to Chobe, walking safaris, fishing, village tours, market tours, lunch at the Lookout Café, Boma dinners, etc.
On adrenaline days, you can look forward to bungee jumping, white water rafting, bridge swings, microlighting, zip-lining, flying fox, and more.
Activities operate on both the Zambian and Zimbabwean side of the Victoria Falls. Some activities are extremely popular, and whilst you can book these activities on arrival, we recommend pre-booking to avoid disappointment. This especially applies to the highly sought-after Livingstone Island visit, which allows for the famed "Devils Pool swim".
Accessed only from the Zambian side of the Falls, Livingstone Island is a 5-8 minute boat ride from the Royal Livingstone Hotel. It is located in the middle of the Zambezi River, touching the lip of the Victoria Falls. Access to this unique island is seasonal and depends entirely on the Zambezi River's water level. All visits to the island are during the low water season, which usually begins in mid-August and goes through to mid-January. High water visits are not possible as the island is continuously covered in the spray/downpour from the Victoria Falls. Swimming in Devil's Pool is arguably the primary reason to take this tour and is one of the world's most astounding natural pools, with a reputation for attracting thrill-seekers from far and wide.
As a general rule, we suggest a minimum stay of two nights in Victoria Falls, as this gives you time to see the Falls, take a boat cruise and thoroughly explore the area. For every additional activity you want to do we recommend an extra half a day (sometimes even a day depending on the activity). Speak to your Rhino Africa travel consultant about the best way to plan your activities in Victoria Falls.
Victoria Falls - Zambia or Zimbabwe?
An eternal debate always seems to run about whether travellers should stay in Victoria Falls or Livingstone. In our opinion, both sides stand up for themselves – each offering several accommodation choices that will suit everyone's pocket, whether you are a family with young children on a budget or honeymooners on the splurge. Crossing between the two countries for day trips is so easy these days, that you can get the best from your base and cross perhaps to the other for a day's exploration. We would advise at least a two-night stay in the area, to cover the key highlights. However, if you hope to enjoy many of the adventure activities in the region, we would recommend a stay of 3 – 4 nights.
Zambia - Livingstone
There are distinctively two types of accommodation on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. The first type of hotel accommodation is the Resort-style and consists of the Royal Livingstone and Avani Victoria Falls Resort. These are two large sister hotels built on the banks of the Zambezi. Staying here gives you unlimited access to the Falls from the Zambian side, however, bear in mind that staying here does restrict you to dining in the resort which can become pricey. If you want to do lots of adrenaline activities, then these hotels are a good choice. The second type of accommodation in Zambia is lodge-style accommodation, located west of the Falls. Situated anywhere from 15-40 minutes from the Falls, they are usually located 'riverside' and consist of small, luxury and intimate lodges, and are mostly fully inclusive.
Staying at one of these lodges (such as Tongabezi, River Club, Sussi and Chuma, Royal Chundu, Thorntree River Lodge, Toka Leya) gives you access to the falls, but also other activities such as canoeing, boat cruises and game drives. Water levels in the Zambezi drop from October to January. The water subsides from the Zambian Side of the falls first, and therefore during this period, there is little to no water flowing over the Zambian side of the Falls. If you want to get the full effect of the Victoria Falls, you will need to take a day trip to the Zimbabwean side. However, the Zambian side gives you access to Devils' Pool, so is still very popular as a base.
The Zimbabwean side of Victoria Falls is based around a village or small town. Staying in Victoria Falls allows you to explore the village, visit the craft market, and walk to and from many of the hotels to the shops and town itself. As a destination, we tend to find Victoria Falls slightly more affordable than Livingstone. There are several independent, and often family-run properties here (such as Victoria Falls Hotel, Batonka, Ilala Lodge, Pioneer Lodge, Stanley and Livingstone, Vic Falls Safari Lodge and Club, etc.) But like Zambia, there are newer lodge-type properties that occupy the Zambezi River banks, such as Matetsi, Vic Falls River Lodge, and Old Drift. We highly recommend that you discuss this with your Rhino Africa consultant.