The Polish tourist sitting opposite me is in ecstasy. He grins and gives a double thumbs-up as our helicopter tilts for an even better view of the largest waterfall in the world. Beside him, his wife looks utterly terrified. I’m just thinking, ‘Wow, this might cost £137 for a 13-minute flight but, boy, it’s worth it.’
Down below, waters that have flowed 745 miles from northern Zambia tumble into a sheer-faced chasm, with a thunderous roar that has been going for 150,000 years.
When viewed at ground-level these raging torrents look like a mammoth sheepskin rug that is more than a mile wide. Capping all this are the most intensely-coloured rainbows I have ever seen – at times in triplicate – that arch across a billowing spray that ensures all spectators get a thorough soaking.
Phew! No wonder World Heritage-listed Victoria Falls is a sight few miss out when touring southern Africa, although itineraries often only give you a night or two here.
‘I wish we could stay longer’ is a common refrain once visitors learn how much there is to see and do, starting with the Victoria Falls Railway Bridge, once the highest in the world. Spanning the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, this colossal steel arch was opened in 1905 having been pre-fabricated in Darlington. Its construction is a riveting tale, brilliantly told in a 90-minute guided tour where we clamber along the original maintenance gangway, wearing safety helmets and protective harnesses.
Nigel Tisdall explores the mighty Victoria Falls in Africa. ‘When viewed at ground-level these raging torrents look like a mammoth sheepskin rug that is more than a mile wide,’ he writes
The World Heritage-listed Victoria Falls is the world’s largest waterfall
Monkeying around: Nigel recalls being joined by a troop of baboons during his visit to the Victoria Falls Railway Bridge
At one point, we are joined by a troop of nimble baboons and every so often there’s a piercing scream as yet another bungee jumper plunges into the gorge 420 ft below.
Adrenaline activities such as whitewater rafting, ziplining, jetboat rides and a fearsome gorge swing have long been part of the scene here, so much so that the burgers at the Bridge Cafe sport deliberately unsettling names like ‘Big Drop’ and ‘Bye Bye’. Now, Victoria Falls is trying to broaden its appeal with fresh attractions like the family-friendly Bamba tram ride and birdwatching cruises at sunrise to avoid the flotilla of boats that crowd the Zambezi in late afternoon. ‘The ones blaring music are from Zambia,’ I’m told.
In the town centre, where warthogs trot around like fussing matrons, we find an inviting craft brewery with live music and a 150-seat open-air theatre is under construction. This post-pandemic revival has also seen a proliferation of spas, including a tip-top one at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge with serene views over the bush and treatments that include a the ‘African Spirit’ journey – a two-hour treatment consisting of a full body scrub, mask and hot-stone massage to leave you with a healthy glow.
It’s a smart move. Most travellers come here at the end of a tour and all those early starts and bumpy game drives can be exhausting.
Nigel says that The Victoria Falls Hotel, which opened in 1904, is the place to go in town for a sundowner
Dancing on air: Nigel experiences The Boma, a ‘stellar buffet and drumming show’
IT’S A GREAT PLACE TO MOONBOW!
WET, WET, WET
Victoria Falls Rainforest is the world’s only permanently rained-on forest, with a vivid flora that includes orchids, fireballs and the flame lily.
NOW THAT’S A RARE SIGHT!
When there’s a full moon and favourable conditions it’s possible to see a rare lunar rainbow (above) as moonlight gets refracted in the rising spray.
A nerve-wracking Tandem Gorge Swing, where you and a companion free-fall for 230 ft into the Batoka Gorge – then swing for another 390 ft – costs £114pp.
While other colonial figures have fallen from grace, David Livingstone is well-regarded here for putting Victoria Falls on the map and campaigning against slavery.
SLOW BUT STYLISH
From 1948-1950 Solent flying boats stopped at Victoria Falls as part of a BOAC service from Southampton to Johannesburg, a four-and-a-half-day journey.
RIDE IN LUXURY
You can travel to Victoria Falls on Rovos Rail, ‘the world’s most luxurious train’. A three-night journey from Pretoria costs £1,636pp all-inclusive.
Among a flurry of new hotels, Pioneers Victoria Falls stands out for its gracious design and spacious gardens with two pools, while the larger Palm River Hotel has a winning location beside the Zambezi. Here the first 100 ft of riverbank is a protected game corridor. At night hippos and elephants come to feed while guests tuck into a lavish barbecue served on the adjacent lawns.
A smiling chef kindly illuminates their hulking bodies with his head-torch in between flipping crocodile steaks and I quietly give thanks for the low, discreetly-placed electric fence that prevents any incidents.
Framed in national parks, Victoria Falls is still a place where wild animals roam. Driving in from the airport we slow down to let elephants cross the road and the guides tell entertaining stories of hippos stuck in swimming pools and the night a pride of lions came to town.
You can tick off the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, buffalos and rhinos – at the Stanley And Livingstone private game reserve, while the Through The Eyes Of An Elephant experience offers a close encounter with a herd of rescued jumbos. This includes feeding them with game pellets (a slobbery business) and is an excellent way to introduce children to conservation issues.
In the evening, many visitors end up at The Boma, a stellar buffet and drumming show that culminates in a mass of bodies thumping and dancing. For us, the highlight is trying grilled eland (think venison), which is delicious, but our best tasting of Zimbabwean cuisine comes at Dusty Road.
This is a deservedly popular neighbourhood restaurant decorated with vintage cars, railway lamps, flour bags and domestic paraphernalia. Here we enjoy Zambezi bream, curiosities like marula nuts and the mopane worm, and a hearty beef stew with sazda – a thick porridge made from cornmeal.
For our final night there is only one place to go for a sundowner – the terrace of the venerable Victoria Falls Hotel, opened in 1904. This is where the railway bridge designers stayed and its splendid lawns shaded by mahogany and zebrawood trees offer an unforgettable view of their achievement and the clouds of spray rising from the Falls. Cocktails start at £7 and sport names like Devil’s Cataract and I, Presume.
When explorer David Livingstone arrived here on November 17, 1855, he was the first European to set eyes on this magnificent natural wonder, journeying overland with a retinue of 114 porters. Now we can jet in from the UK on an overnight flight – but the sense of wonder is just the same.
As the Scot famously wrote: ‘Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.’ As they are today, by gleeful tourists in helicopters.