With political strife and domestic issue dominating the news in Zimbabwe, the southern African nation isn't exactly focused on tourism at the moment. Sertan Sanderson found why that is a crying shame at Victoria Falls.
Bureaucratic procedures in southern Africa are — like elsewhere in the world — nothing anyone truly ever looks forward to. But at border posts throughout the region, there's almost a sense of calm amid chaos. Officials work diligently to ensure the proper movement of goods and people.
This appears to be particularly true at the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe, where Zimbabwean officials pay close attention to all details and refuse to accept even slightly worn-out US dollar bills to pay for the visa fees, which can make for a hassle if you're not used to spending cash on your travels.
The reason why the American currency appears to be the go-to standard here is the skyrocketing hyperinflation that took place in the country a decade ago, which — according to estimates published by the US-based CATO Institute think tank — saw Zimbabwe's currency lose its value at a rate of 80 billion percent month-on-month during the financial crisis of 2008. A year later, the Zimbabwean dollar, which by that point was being printed in denominations of up to 100 trillion, was abolished.
However, you won't hear the echo of those alarm bells signaling an economy spiraling out of control into abject poverty as you drive 45 minutes from the border post at Kasane to Victoria Falls. Whizzing past elephants, giraffes and other wonderful wildlife on an immaculately asphalted highway, you eventually reach the town of Victoria Falls, where you will notice signs inviting you to visit the world's largest waterfalls.
That term, however, is a bit misleading, as the torrents here are neither the highest nor the widest in the world, but with the combined width, height and volume of water passing through, they are indeed home to the world's biggest water mass tumbling down at such ferocious speeds.
A rather wet experience
More recently, these cascading waters hit the headlines in 2019 on account of a report alleging that the Victoria Falls were drying out amid widespread drought in this part of Africa. The story turned out to be a false report, but the knock-on effects were felt throughout the region: many tourists canceled their trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site over the Christmas holidays, which the region is still trying to recover from; normally, Victoria Falls is frequented by roughly a million visitors a year.
That number, however, reflects visitors to both sides of the falls, as the waters straddle the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Historically, the Zimbabwean side has attracted more tourists, as most of the cascading waters are to be seen here. But the Zambian side is catching up, offering tourists to try more adventurous ways to explore this unique wonder of nature.
The 'Main Falls' look like a wall of water; some tourists wade through the water pool at the top in the dry season
From aerial tours in helicopters to bungee-jumping to actually wading through the pools at the top of the falls during the dry season, daredevils of all shapes and sizes can get even closer to the action on the Zambian side of the falls. However, if you choose to experience the falls, be prepared to get soaked, as water will surprise you from all directions when you least expect it. In fact, this is believed to be the only place on earth where it rains all day, each day of the year as a result of the vapor from the falls.
Even without the adrenaline kicks offered in Zambia, visiting the Victoria Falls on the tamer Zimbabwean side is still a spectacular experience.
Don't go chasing waterfalls
In the local siLozi language, the waterfalls are known as "Mosi-oa-Tunya," which translates as "the smoke that thunders." And indeed, this is the kind of spectacle of nature you'll hear thundering long before you can catch a first glimpse of it. The roaring noise of the water starts the moment you enter the Victoria Falls national park.
You have to walk several hundred meters until you reach the first water feature, known as the Devil's Cataract. With a drop of 60 meters, it is the lowest point of the falls, but perhaps also the most intimate. This is where the prelude takes place, where you warm up to what is yet to come.
Then for several hundred meters, you walk along Victoria Falls through rainforest landscapes, witnessing the sheer force of water in close proximity. Surrounded by wonderful bird calls and up to 90% humidity, you enter a micro-climate unlike anything you've ever witnessed before. It's the kind of weather that makes you want to dance in the rain.
The various points you pass have names like the "Horseshoe Falls" and the "Main Falls," but unless you are here for scientific reasons, you won't even notice such details as you stand in awe staring at the majesty of this force of nature.
For the tribes and people inhabiting this beautiful part of the earth, the falls have been part of their lives for millennia. But it wasn't until Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone arrived here as the first European in 1855, that the waterfalls started to draw global attention. He named the falls after the reigning British monarch at the time, Queen Victoria. The name stuck, even with the local population.
Less than a half century later, railroad links to and lodgings at Victoria Falls were built under the directive of Cecil Rhodes, who around the turn of the century was the prime minister of the Cape Colony. Victoria Falls thus became a crown jewel of the British Empire.
Some of that colonial drive and spirit is still preserved today. The Victoria Falls Hotel with its pristine gardens feels like time travel in that regard. It is the kind of place where you will enter multiple drawing rooms and move on to salons and tea rooms where the only reason you're sipping gin and tonic is the fact that is too hot for tea.
To say that this place is an institution would be an understatement. It's a small British outpost in Zimbabwe that has witnessed little change in over a century. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing remains in the eye of the beholder. Still, it's quite fantastic to dry off your soaking clothes here while having a spot of lunch.
An uneasy departure
From here, you might want to explore some other highlights in the region, such as the Chobe Game Reserve in Botswana or Lake Kariba in Zambia. But as you leave Victoria Falls, you finally do notice some of the current problems that Zimbabwe is facing beneath the veneer of the tourist welcome at the waterfalls.
There are more people are begging on the street than elsewhere in the region; vendors are desperately trying to sell trinkets to tourists. And suddenly, you find yourself confronted with some serious decisions like whether there is enough petrol in your tank or if you might want to cut your losses and put up with the 20-minute queue for petrol at the service station.
While cascading waters may be overflowing here, fossil fuels clearly are not. Amid ongoing fuel shortages, you realize that having a full tank of gas is a luxury you bring with you — and take away with you as well.
With economic mismanagement of such magnitude that petrol stations have to ration and micromanage their supplies, it becomes evident that all it takes is just a scratch underneath the surface of the manicured environs of Victoria Falls to understand that enjoying this place is a privilege in more ways than one.