Victoria Falls National Park

by Mike Cadman

Victoria Falls National Park

The Victoria Falls National Park is a tiny national park but with its counterpart, the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park across the Zambezi River in Zambia, helps protect one of the largest and best-known waterfalls in the world.

When the river is in flood the Victoria Falls are more than 1.7 km (1.06 miles) wide and the fast-flowing water plunges 108 metres (354 feet) into the gorge below at the rate of more than 500-million litres a minute.

Over and above the scenic splendour of the area, it is also a biodiversity hotspot, providing habitat for a wide variety of animals and plants.

In 1989 the two parks were declared UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage site and in 2013 they were also inscribed as a Ramsar site – a wetland of international importance.

Countless descriptions of “The Falls” have been published and most overflow with superlatives and adjectives, and even the official UNESCO description of the site is effusive.

The Mosi-oa-Tunya/Victoria Falls is the world’s greatest sheet of falling water and significant worldwide for its exceptional geological and geomorphological features and active land formation processes, with outstanding beauty attributed to the falls i.e., the spray, mist and rainbows,” the UNESCO formal inscription of the falls, states. “Sprays from this giant waterfall can be seen from a distance of 30 km. from the Lusaka road (Zambia), and 50 km. on the Bulawayo road (Zimbabwe).

Although archaeological records show that people have lived in the area for thousands of years, the first person to write about the waterfall was the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who, guided by local residents, visited them in 1855. Livingstone, who had travelled widely in Africa, had been told that the falls were huge but admits he had no way of understanding their magnitude.

“At least I did not comprehend it until, creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad (he underestimated the width of the river) leaped down a hundred feet (again an underestimation)… the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa”, he wrote in Missionary Travel and Researches in South Africa, published in 1857.

He was no less impressed with stretch of river immediately above “The Falls”.

“The whole scene was extremely beautiful; the banks and islands dotted over the river adorned with sylvan vegetation of great variety of colour and form,” he wrote. ”There, towering over all stands the great burly baobab, each of whose arms would form the trunk of a large tree, besides groups of graceful palms, which with their feathery-shaped leaves depicted on the sky lean their beauty to the scene………It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

Local people told Livingstone that the waterfall was known as “Mosi-oa-Tunya,” which, loosely interpreted means “the smoke that thunders” in Lozi, a language spoken in Zambia and parts of Namibia, and is a description of the spray plumes and the roar of water as it surges over the lip of the falls.

Vast quantities of spray are lifted skywards by powerful updrafts formed when tons of water pound into the gorge at the foot of the falls, returning to the ground as “rain”. This “rain” falls almost permanently opposite the “Main Falls” and the “Devil’s Cataract” creating, a dense lush “rainforest”. The forest only grows in the waterfall splash zone and further from the waterfall the vegetation soon returns to the drier savanna that is found throughout the region.

“The Falls” are at their greatest volume from February to May, when the water from heavy summer rains in the Zambezi’s catchment area in northern Zambia and south-eastern Angola finally reach the area.

“The Falls” have not always been exactly at their current location. There are seven gorges downstream from the current lip, and each of these represents a waterfall that existed million years ago. As the river erodes through cracks and weaknesses in the underlying basalt the waterfall has been slowly moving upstream and, in thousands of years to come, the present lip will too be abandoned as a new gorge forms.

The seven gorges run for about 150 km downstream from the current falls and their zigzag appearance is clearly visible on Google Earth.

The Victoria Falls National Park adjoins the much larger Zambezi National Park which is home to elephant, lions, buffalo, African wild dog, giraffe, sable, and other antelope. These animals move throughout the region and are sometimes found close to Victoria Falls.

The Victoria Falls Natioanl Park stretches several kilometres downstream from the waterfall, and the mopane savanna and woodlands which occur throughout the Zambezi N.P. extends into this area too.

Victoria Falls N.P. receives about 720mm rain annually, most of it falling between November and March.

For more information about the natural history of the Victoria Falls please read:
Mike Cadman

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.