Thundering smoke!

After crossing into Zambia again, once again using the Kazungula ferry, we drove more or less parallel to the Zambezi River towards Livingstone. Only a few days ago, we’d driven the same road in the other direction, but it somehow felt as if we’d had months of fantastic experiences during that time. Botswana had been great, and we’ll certainly be back. But now it was time for some special Zambian experiences, too.

After reaching Livingstone, we turned right on the main road, back towards the Zambezi and in the direction of the border with Zimbabwe and the Victoria Falls. A few kilometres out of town, down a side road towards the Zambezi, we entered the premises of the Victoria Falls Waterfront, located within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. It’s one of our favourite camping spots in the country. The sites are spacious, very shady and well-served by good ablution blocks and a nice swimming pool. There’s a lively bar (with restaurant) on the other side of the reception area, on the banks of the Zambezi, but this is just far away enough so that the campsite is quite quiet. We had a few cold ones while overlooking the river, still discussing the wonderful days in Botswana and anticipating the next day’s highlight: the Victoria Falls!

Intrepid African explorer, looking towards the thundering “smoke”, and posing with a statue

The next morning saw us eager to visit the Falls, one of the 7 wonders of the natural world and a very special place. “Discovered” during November 1855, by the Scottish explorer/missionary David Livingstone, who promptly named them after his queen, the falls were already known to locals as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the “smoke that thunders”.

Marina and I had already visited the falls a couple of times, during different seasons, so we knew that the thunder and the “smoke” was not always equally heavy. There are years and months when there is so much water and spray that you can see almost nothing while you are soaked to the skin, while at other times the flow is so reduced that the cliff face behind the falls is clearly visible (and even dry in places).

On this day, the Falls did not disappoint. The rainy season had been relatively poor in the uplands of the Zambezi, which drains parts of northeastern Angola before flowing through western Zambia before it reaches the border with Namibia near Katima Mulilo. From there it forms the border between Zambia and Namibia, briefly forms the border with Botswana (at Kuzungula, the ferry location) and then becomes the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, which is also the case at Victoria Falls. There was however enough water to create a beautiful view and enough spray and sunshine for some fantastic pictures.

We spent the morning walking along the various footpaths from which it is possible to see the Falls from many different angles and distances. Seen from upstream, the river is almost placid, only the rising clouds of spray indicate that something is happening in the distance. From the business end of the Falls, however, there is a roar as the water tumbles more than 100 metres into the narrow chasm over a width of some 1,700 metres, and where the spray is flung upwards. There was enough spray to have to protect your camera, but at least we could see the different cataracts.

Marina and I posing with a rainbow and Zimbabwe in the background

As a geologist, I can never resist the urge to describe the formation of some fascinating part of the earth’s crust, like the formation of these fantastic waterfalls. The short version is that the Zambezi river flows across a plateau of hard basalt rock, where intersecting sets of joints (cracks) in the hard basalt have been filled with softer clay minerals. (It might interest you to know that this basalt plateau is a remnant of the series of lava outflows that covered most of Sothern Africa some 180 million years ago. The steep cliffs on the top of the Drakensberg mountains in South Africa are another remnant.) The river has eroded away this softer rock, forming deep gorges bounded by vertical basalt cliffs. If you look at the cliff faces in the various gorges, you can clearly see the horizontal layers formed by the different lava flows, separated by thin layers of paleo-soil that formed between volcanic eruptions. The river is constantly eroding the cliff face, which therefore retreats upstream a few centimetres per year (on average) until it intersects another joint, at which point it starts to erode into that new channel, eventually forming a new waterfall. The Falls have been in the current location for something like the last 100,000 years or so, but the gorges formed by the earlier locations of the Falls can be seen downstream. If you’re interested in a more detailed and well-illustrated description of this process, have a look at this website.

The “Knife Edge Bridge”

Walking across the Knife Edge Bridge into the little bit of temperate rainforest on the Zambian side, was a refreshing experience, like walking in a light rain. We’ve once been across this bridge when there was so much spray that the actual Falls were invisible and the water (on the narrow, sloping bridge) was ankle deep!

A and W, our happy (and slightly moist) travelling companions

For some reason there were not too many baboons in evidence on this day, so we could drink our water and cooldrinks in peace. These guys are way too used to humans and wouldn’t hesitate to just grab a bottle or a bag with sandwiches or snacks from your hand if you’re not careful. If you’ve ever been close enough to a baboon to see the size of its teeth, then you would also know that you don’t really want to fight them over possession of a Coke or a bag of crisps. Anyway, no problems like that today.

It was an impressive morning, but also a sad one, since Marina was scheduled to leave us for Lusaka during the afternoon. She had recently started a position at a new private hospital in Lusaka and had used up the leave time available. So we drove her to the airport and she flew back to Lusaka, sad that she couldn’t join us for the last couple of days of our expedition.

The Zambezi and the “smoke” from the Victoria Falls, seen from upstream, from the Royal Livingstone Hotel deck.
Mosi premium lager

W, A and I then drove to enjoy a sundowner at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, just upstream of the Falls. It’s a very luxurious place, with a very old-style colonial setting, and even if you can’t afford (or don’t want to) stay in such pampered luxury, it’s an absolutely fantastic place to spend the last hour or so of daylight in a company of friends and a cold drink or two. And possibly some zebras on the lawn. No need to wear a pith helmet while you sip your Gin&Tonic.

Mosi Lager, Zambia’s excellent and most popular beer, is named after a famous waterfall. If you’ve never been to Zambia to taste it, you have to ask yourself why…

Another perfect sunset over the Zambezi

The next instalment will cover our very adventurous drive northwards, into the Kafue National Park. This did not go exactly as planned, but you’ll have to wait for the next post to read more about it…

11 thoughts on “Thundering smoke!

  1. We had a driver take us around…did you rent a vehicle? Loved our time there crossed the bridge from Zambia to Zimbabwe…even though it was dry season ..Victoria Falls was a highlight.

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  2. Yes, Victoria Falls is indeed a highlight for anyone travelling through this region. We are fortunate to live in Zambia and we used our own vehicle. If you look at earlier posts, it’s the Toyota Landcruiser Prado with the rooftop tent. Ideal for such trips!

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  3. Hallo Ron & Marina,
    Mooie verhalen hoor en erg goed geschreven. Ik geniet er ieder keer weer van. Wanneer komt ‘het boek’ uit?

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  4. Werklik ‘n baie mooi plek in Afrika, veral na die goeie reens. Pragtige fotos en lekkerlees reisverhaal Ron en Marina. Groetnis van Hennie en Mara

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  5. Hi Ron, I have to correct you on the name of the falls. The only true name of the is the Leya name ‘Shungu Namutitima’, and the falls lie within the traditional land of the Baleya. The rest of Zambia mistakenly knows the falls as ‘Mosi-oa-Tunya’, thinking that is the Lozi name but it is not – it is seTswana and is what Livingstone’s Batswanan helpers called it. Of course Livingstone named the falls in honour of his queen, but it is Shungu Namutitima. Best, Michael Baird

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    1. Thank you for that correction, Michael! (It explains why the name contains words that sound like sePedi, to me.) Anyway, for better or for worse, and however incorrect, this is how Zambians know the falls. Interesting, also, how people name places like this after people. And then, in the future, those long-dead people fall out of favour when their actions or attitudes are measured against the norms of today. And then the names have to change again. Better to use descriptive names like “boiling water” or “smoking thunder”, I guess :).

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