Victoria Falls

There are few things as humbling as seeing how water, over time, can shape the earth. The Zambezi River passes over a cracked and crazed bit of old volcanic rock and eats its way through these cracks to shape and reshape itself. The floor of this part of the world was a smear of lava. Not an atmosphere jarring explosion but a slow oozing of molten earth until the region was frosted like a chocolate cake. It has taken half a million years to create the Victoria Falls – that is because there were eight locations for this cataract before today’s gorge was formed and today’s rim was accepted by the river. And, it is quite visible today that the river is on the move again; eating away at the weakest point of its rocky edge and creating a deep gash that will eventually gather all the water and become a new and spectacular cataract.

When on tour I think our (Smithsonian Journeys) itineraries are good enough – I don’t try to sell add-ons to our travelers. But, at Victoria Falls I do mention that the view of the falls and the ancient gorges below the current waterfall is best seen during a helicopter ride. It is money well spent. It displays the eons that the planet has been here. It shows the tens of thousands of years that the river has worn its way to the sea. It is a sobering look into time – and yet it also gives you an idea of what is ahead for the river and rock.

victoria falls
Looking from upstream the gash in the stone the is the falls is best told by the spray rising up from the crashing water. The width of the waterfall, in full flow, is about one mile. It is the widest  of the great waterfalls, by all usual measures.
victoria falls
Once at the edge of the falls it becomes obvious that the river has eaten its way down some sort of seam in the rock; the seams actually crisscross all over the surface. The ancient wet lava hardened and shrunk, creating this crisscross of cracks in the material. Over the centuries these cracks have filled with sands and clay and hardened into mudstone or shale. But, these soft rocks are no match for the power and energy of the Zambezi. It will wear them down and create a new lip, a new edge, and eventually a new waterfall. As a matter of fact the Devil’s Cataract, in the very lower edge of this image (above), has already dropped almost 20 feet below the normal and original edge of the falls. Sooner or later this groove will deepen, collect more water, and steal the flow from the rest of the river. The new waterway will eat back until it finds a soft crosswise seam and then that seam will be lowered until it forms a new gorge and another new waterfall.
victoria falls
In the top image the river is flowing from right to left. In the picture below it is flowing from left to right. The bridge that was built under the rule of Cecil Rhodes is in both photos. The lower one shows several of the ancient gorges – earlier locations of the same waterfall we now see as Victoria Falls. The river above the falls is rather flat and filled with unworn rocks that still rise above the flow and often have trees and animals on them.
victoria falls
This is a dramatic picture that shows hundreds of thousands of years of erosion and patience – water often works slowly, but it is persistent.
The bridge was built to accommodate the Cape to Cairo dream of Cecil Rhodes. It was a Herculean task and was designed to carry trains – there were no roads anywhere near this area at the time of construction. Now the bridge handles cars, buses, trains, and heavy trucks carrying copper ingots out of Zambia. It also has a bungy jump, a giant swing, and a zip line. I am sure that Mr. Rhodes would have liked that; he knew that the falls, and the bridge itself, would attract tourists.

The famous explorer and missionary (not very succesful at either) David Livingstone was the first European to hear and see the falls. He arrived at low water and was brought to the top edge by local fisherman. For many years after seeing the falls he tried to develop a river-based economy in the region. He brought boats from England and found another thing he wasn’t good at … however, he did a great deal to slow and stop the slave trade. The image on the right shows two of the men, Sussi and Chuma, who traveled with Livingstone for many years and eventually carried his body to the coast, about 1000 miles from where he died, so he could return to England to be buried among other great men. Their choice to carry him to his people is a story of friendship and hope. Imagine what would have happened to two black Africans found carrying the folded and wrapped body of a white man in the 1870s. It is a great story.

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