Victoria Falls, one of the World’s 7 Natural Wonders, is an absolutely “must see” for travelers to Southern Africa. It offers an intriguing sense of history – Dr. Livingstone, I presume? – and a bucket list opportunity to witness one of the planet’s grandest sights!
There is no better way to appreciate the absolute immensity of Victoria Falls than by air. So, when my tour offered the option of a sightseeing helicopter ride over the Falls, I was all in – and so were most of my adventurous group! We made an afternoon reservation with the Zambezi Helicopter Company (also known as Shearwater Adventures). They’re the only helicopter operator in town but they do a great job.
Flight Over Victoria Falls
We chose the most popular flight, the 12-13 minute “Flight of Angels.” The cost is $150 plus a $12 government fee, which includes hotel transfers. As is probably true most days, two helicopters were operating. While waiting for our turn, it was great fun watching the colorfully painted whirlybirds taking off and landing. There’s something almost primal about helicopters for me! You cannot actually see the Falls from the hilltop base, but we could certainly see the huge spray rising from the Falls!
Now it was show time! We headed out to the pad, loaded up in our 6-passenger helicopter and off we went. It didn’t take long to reach Victoria Falls. There, the pilot flew left and right hand circuits over the Falls and the upper Zambezi River in both directions. This provided us passengers on both sides of the copter with amazing views!
Our 13-minute flight was over way too soon, but it was an exhilarating experience that was worth every penny! Besides the thrill, it gave us a much better understanding of the sheer magnitude of Victoria Falls and the flow of the Zambezi River before it precipitously drops into the first gorge.
I learned that the term “Flight of Angels” was originally expressed by Dr. David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and adventurer. Dr. Livingstone was the first “outsider” to discover the Falls in 1855. He wrote about them in his diaries, saying it was “a sight so wonderful that Angels must have gazed down on it in flight.” How poetic!
More About Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls and the mighty Zambezi River straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. My tour group and I spent two nights in the pleasant tourist town of Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side. Yes, the Falls and town share the same name – makes it easy to remember! Livingstone is Victoria Fall’s main town in nearby Zambia.
Victoria Falls’ African name is “Mosi-oa-Tunya,” meaning “the smoke that thunders.” While it is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls is classified as the largest, based on its combined width of 1,708 meters (5,604 ft.) and height of 108 meters (354 ft.). This results in the world’s largest sheet of falling water (per Wikipedia).
Walking Tour of the Falls
To best experience the grandeur of Victoria Falls, you really should see the Falls from both air and ground level. As much as I loved the helicopter flight, I equally loved our morning “walking tour” inside the Victoria Falls National Park. There you get spectacular close-up views of the Falls – their amazing 350-foot drop into the first gorge and the incredible mile-wide curtain of cascading white water.
Inside the park, you follow a scenic walking path through beautiful lush rainforest, with side paths that pop out at various points to the edge of the gorge for grand views of the Falls. We first followed the path to the left to see the Devil’s Cataract, passing by a larger-than-life statue of Dr. Livingstone. Photo op!
Then we headed back to the right, following the path along the Main Falls all the way to the end to the aptly named “Danger Point.” Here, an unfenced, sheer 100-meter drop-off is not for the faint of heart. With my strong self-preservation instinct, I stayed a safe distance back. The path then curves to the right along another river gorge (the Boiling Pot), ultimately ending at a viewpoint of the iconic Victoria Falls Bridge.
Depending on the wind’s direction, our views of the Falls would often be clear. Then suddenly, we would be covered in heavy mist which soaked us. We were wearing large black standard issue raincoats (provided by the tour company). They certainly helped but we all ended up happily drenched, which felt good in the strong heat. Of course, trying to keep our cameras dry was the biggest challenge!
We visited the Falls in latter January, which was “medium flow” season – a great time! I hear that during the Zambezi River’s peak flow time (April/ May/ June), the falls can be so covered in mist that you really can’t see much (except by air). During the dry season with the lowest flows (like in October), the Falls are underwhelming, to say the least! This “When to Visit the Falls” webpage has good info plus two photos showing the dramatic contrast between high and low flows.
The Historic Victoria Falls Bridge
The Victoria Falls Bridge has a fascinating history. Opened in 1905, it was part of Cecil John Rhodes’ vision of a railway line stretching across the African continent from Capetown, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. Rhodes insisted that the railway bridge be built in a location where spray from Victoria Falls would fall on the passing trains.
During the British-South-African Rhodes’ lifetime, the Cape to Cairo railway extended as far north as modern-day Zimbabwe – which was known in that era by its colonial name Rhodesia (in honor of Rhodes, whose statesmanship and entrepreneurism made its founding possible).
The Victoria Falls Bridge spans the Batoka Gorge at a height of 128 meters (420 ft.) above the mighty Zambezi River’s low water mark. The bridge crosses the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, carrying cars, trains and pedestrians.
Bungee Jumping for Adrenalin Junkies
The famous bridge is also the venue for some unique adventure activities, most notably the 111-meter (364-ft.) Victoria Falls Bungee jump with a 4-second free fall! No big surprise that no one in our “more mature” group opted for this high adrenaline activity! However, it was quite fun to watch a few bungee jumpers take their plunge – from the bridge viewpoint on our Victoria Falls walk.
The Shearwater Victoria Falls company offers four different bridge-related activities, from the terrifying Bungee Jump and Bridge Swing to the less adventurous Bridge Slide and Historic Bridge Tours. We didn’t have enough time during our visit, but I would certainly consider the last two options on a future trip!
Colonial Grandeur at Victoria Falls Hotel
The Victoria Falls Hotel, a beautiful English colonial hotel, is another “must see” to add to your list. The hotel was originally built in 1904 as accommodation for the workers building the Victoria Falls Bridge. The hotel, popularly known as “The Grand Old Lady of the Falls,” is steeped in history. Its walls are lined with fascinating, historical old photos.
Today, it’s a 5-star luxury hotel with manicured lawns and beautiful views of the Victoria Falls bridge in the near distance. Their website states that the hotel “was splendidly redecorated in 2013 to combine its traditional majesty with modern sophistication.” Apparently, their High Tea – served on the wide veranda – is legendary.
My group did not stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, but we went there one evening for dinner so we could explore and soak up the British colonial ambiance. We enjoyed a delicious dinner buffet at the Jungle Junction restaurant – along with an excellent music/dance cultural show included with dinner.
Bottom Line: If you don’t have plans or the budget to stay at the Victoria Falls Hotel, make sure to visit – whether for lunch or dinner, High Tea, a gin & tonic in the cozy Stanley Bar, or a sundowner drink on the terrace. And don’t forget to walk the halls in the main building and check out some of the historic photos. Hint: they’re on the way to the bathroom!
The Town of Victoria Falls & Final Wrap
We stayed at the A’Zambezi River Lodge, an upscale river-side resort two kilometers from Victoria Falls town. This tourist-focused town has neat, walkable streets lined with hotels, bars and shops with good handicrafts from Southern Africa.
While some of us were taking the helicopter ride over the Falls, the rest of my group went shopping at Elephant’s Walk Shopping & Artist Village, offering specialty shops and studios. My travelmates returned from this Zimbabwean retail jaunt, reporting that they loved it! Since the Elephant’s Walk looks interesting from their website, I wanted to share this with you.
You might be wondering how do you get to this part of Southern Africa to visit the Falls? One popular way is to fly via Johannesburg, South Africa. South African Airways (SAA) and British Airways fly every day to JoBerg, which is less than a 2-hour flight. The busy Victoria Falls airport, 20km southeast of town, is about a half-hour drive.
Zimbabwe or Zambia?
Lastly, there is a constant “Great Victoria Falls Debate” on whether it’s best to visit the Falls from the Zimbabwean side (Victoria Falls town) or from Zambia (Livingstone). Lonely Planet cleverly calls it ZIM vs ZAM. I will not attempt to answer this question, especially not having been to the Zambian side.
However, I found a helpful article that will provide you with a really good comparison. Of course, the best answer is to spend time on both sides for their different perspectives of Victoria Falls. I guess I need to add a visit to Zambia’s Livingstone to my list for a return trip!
COMMENTS: Have you been to Victoria Falls? On what side/country did you stay? If not yet visited, is Victoria Falls on your travel dream list?