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Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya)

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 17.9239 S 25.8535 E
No:398        (list of all attractions)
Values:Geology, Visual
Address:Africa, Zimbabwe, Matabeleland North and Zambia, Southern State, in the Zambezi river
Alternate names:Mosi-oa-Tunya ("The smoke that thunders (rises?)" in Tokaleya Tonga language), Mo ku sa tunya musi, Masisatunya, Musa-l-nunya, Shongwe, Shungue, Shungu na mutitima(Tokaleya Batoka language), aManz' aThunqayo (Ndebele language)
UNESCO World Heritage status:"Mosi-oa-Tunya / Victoria Falls", 1989, No.509
Height:108 m
Width:1,708 m
Average annual flow:1,088 m3/s
Highest recorded flow:12,800 m3/s
Stream:Zambezi river
Part of the largest screen of falling water in the world - Mosi-oa-Tunya
Part of the largest screen of falling water in the world - Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) / Valentina Buj, / CC BY-SA 2.0

The most impressive waterfall in the world could be Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-Tunya). This unique waterfall unites significant height (108 m), width (1,708 m) and flow (average annual flow - 1,088 m³/s) and forms the largest curtain of falling water in the world.

Victoria Falls from air
Victoria Falls from air. Zambian part in the forefront, Zimbabwe is in the other side of Zambezi / Joachim Huber, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


Victoria Falls have formed on some 300 m thick layer of 179 - 180 million years old basalt of Batoka Formation.

Waterfall has peculiar form. Well before the falls Zambezi river widens from some 350 m to more than 1 km, it becomes more shallow and with many islands. Here it flows on the surface of basalt layer.

Cooling of the basalt formed fractures which were widened some 110 million years ago and filled with sandstone - less sturdy material than basalt.

As the powerful stream of Zambezi reached these sandstone filled fractures, sandstone was washed out, gradually forming a deep gorge with wide waterfall falling into it.

It is considered that the first waterfall on Zambezi formed some 5 million years ago - it was located further downstream.

Current waterfall is the sixth consecutive waterfall and formed some 250 - 100 hundred thousand years ago.

Victoria Falls in June
Victoria Falls in June / Steve Jurvetson, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Description of waterfall

These are not the only falls on Zambezi river - 360 km upstreams are the 2 km wide and 10 - 25 m high Ngonye Falls, further upstream are more falls.

Victoria Falls though are by far the most impressive ones. Zambezi river here flows through a plain and this dramatic abyss could come as a surprise - if not the thundering noise of falls and enormous cloud of mist above the gorge.

First Gorge

The fracture of the basalt is fairly even and thanks to this the front of falls is almost straight. At the falls Zambezi reaches the width of 1,708 m (at high water - up to 1,951 m) and whole river falls into a deep abyss - the First Gorge.

First Gorge is only 50 - 120 m wide. At the western end falls are considerably lower - 80 m, at the middle the height reaches maximum - 108 m.

Victoria Falls in December
Approximately the same place in December / Charles Haynes, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Islands and streams

Waterfall is dissected by two larger islands - Boaruka Island closer to the western bank and Livingstone Island in the centre. When water is low, there appear many more islands.

Starting from the west the most pronounced streams in the waterfall are - Devil's Cataract, Main Falls, the highest part - Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract.

At Livingstone Island in Zambian side is located Devil's Pool. Between September and December, when the water is low, the stream here is less powerful and natural stone barrier prevents from fall in the abyss. Then the adventurous swimmers can enter this basin, but should do this with great care: mistakes lead to imminent death.

In Devil's Cataract forms a new gorge, which will add a new stage of zigzag, starting at the western end of current falls. Most likely some 10,000 years from now there will be another waterfall - the seventh one.

Moonlight rainbow, Victoria Falls
Moonlight rainbow /Calvin Bradshaw, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Rainforest and fish

In the plains around the falls has developed woodland savannah - this region of Africa has rather dry climate. The mist of waterfall though has facilitated the development of a small patch of true rainforest in a cliff pocket below the falls. This rainforest contains numerous rare species of plants and animals.

Below the falls in Zambezi live 39 species of fish, but above - 89 species. Species in both sides of falls are different - a testimony of the times when in the site of present day Zambezi were two different rivers, which were later united by tectonic movements.

Other gorges - previous falls

Water leaves the First Gorge through 110 m wide cleft and enters the zigzag of earlier waterfalls. Next comes the 2.15 km long Second Gorge, which is crossed by the gracious Victoria Falls Bridge. Then comes 1.95 km long Third Gorge, 2.25 km long Fourth Gorge, 3.2 km long Fifth Gorge and 3.3 km long Songwe Gorge. The last - Songwe Gorge - is the deepest, 140 m deep. All these gorges in the past served as the fronts of waterfalls, one by one receding upstreams. Thus, when the waterfall 5 million years ago was falling in Songwe Gorge, it was 3.3 km wide - much wider than now and 140 m tall: taller than now.

Rainforest at Victoria Falls
Rainforest at Victoria Falls / Christiaan Triebert, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Rainy season and dry season

Contrary to the two other giant falls on Earth - Iguazu Falls and Niagara Falls - Victoria Falls have pronounced fluctuations in flow throughout the year.

In late November - early April there is rainy season and in April come floods. Then Victoria Falls are heard from a long distance. Even further away - up to 45 km far can be seen mist from falls, which can rise up to 300 - 500 m high.

The flow of water then can reach 12,800 m3/s - unsurpassed by any major waterfall in the world.

At high water falls are definitely impressive but not easy to observe - all the area is shrouded in mist, it is not advised to use photocameras. Spray is as powerful as strong rain and often falls upwards, driven by the turbulence of air in the deep crevices.

When the dry season comes, the stream becomes scarce. In November the flow rate falls to 170 m³/s. Then it becomes possible to enter the First Gorge with a boat and to walk along some stretches in the gorge.

Victoria Falls, swimming in Devil's Pool
Swimming in Devil's Pool / Sarah Depper, Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Human history

People have been living at the falls for millions of years - here were found stone artifacts made by Homo habilis 3 million years ago.

As the time went by, people speaking in different languages came and left, leaving traces of different cultures.


There is a possibility that some Europeans saw the falls earlier (falls are shown on European maps, which were issued in 1715 and 1750), but the first one to appreciate and describe the falls was Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, who reached the falls in 16 November 1855.

Livingstone was excited about his discovery and wrote: "No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight." He named the falls in honour of Queen Victoria, although noted that locals called it Mosi-oa-Tunya - "the smoke that thunders" (could be that more exact translation is "the smoke that rises" (1)).

Tourism development

After Livingstone falls were visited and described by several European explorers but more visitors came when railway was built in 1905.

Gradually tourism developed here. Warfare lasted for long decades in this region of Africa in the 20th century - but area around the falls was comparatively calm. Since the 1980s mass tourism developed, Livingstone town (Zambia) and Victoria Falls town (Zimbabwe) became comparatively prosperous.

Stay in this area is expensive also by European and American standards - but short visit is not that expensive. Unfortunately the development of tourism gradually removes the natural charm of falls, there are increasing problems with waste management.

Local people in general recognize the importance of Victoria Falls. Since 1934 falls are protected, Mosi-sa-Tunya National park was established in 1972. Waterfall was included into UNESCO World Heritage list in 1989, but improper development and management of this unique landmark is a matter of concern.


See Victoria Falls on the map of Zambia or Zimbabwe!


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