According to entries in his own diary, David Livingstone had learned of “Mosi Oa Tunya” (‘Smoke That Thunders’) from the local people and at first wondered if they were referring to a volcano. On November 15, 1855, he stopped his canoe safari on Kalai Island, ten kilometers upstream from the falls, and could hear the roaring at night and see the mist, and so realized a huge waterfall lay ahead.
Traveling carefully in small dugout canoes, the party proceeded to within a few hundred meters of the precipice and landed on what is today known as Livingstone Island. The island is perfectly situated for a spectacular view of about a third of the falls, and on November 16 Livingstone wrote in his diary, “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
The first settlement was established on the northern bank of the Zambezi at a place named “The Old Drift.” Most of the first settlers succumbed to blackwater fever (falciparum malaria), so the next settlement was relocated away from the river on higher ground, and it became the town of Livingstone in Zambia. During the 1960s when much of Africa gained independence, European names were replaced with African ones. Three famous landmarks, however, retain their colonial names: Lake Victoria, Victoria Falls and the town of Livingstone.
The bridge that links Zambia with Zimbabwe across the gorge just downstream from the Falls was part of Cecil John Rhodes’ plan for a Cape to Cairo railway. He decided it should be built so that people could feel the spray and see the falls as they crossed the bridge. Work on the bridge began in 1903 and was completed in 1905. Today, it is the dramatic launch for bungee jumpers.
The Zambezi is a confluence of many rivers, some which rise in the highlands of Angola. It is an interesting geographical fact that the “Continental Divide” is at this point in the southern portion of the continent moved an inordinate measure west. Rain that falls hardly four hundred miles east of the Atlantic Ocean ultimately runs into the Zambezi and out to the Indian Ocean on the other side of the continent. The famous junction of the five, where the countries of Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana & Zimbabwe meet, is where these many rivers shed their local names to become known as the Zambezi.
From this point the river flows east for 2700 km until it exits in Mozambique. This makes it the fourth longest river in Africa. (The Nile: 6,710k; The Congo: 4,400k; the Niger: 4,200k. The Mississippi is 6,000k.)
The Victoria Falls are one of the world’s seven natural wonders. It is the largest curtain of falling water on earth, 1700 m wide and divided into five distinct sections: Devils’ Cataract, Main Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract. The highest point is at Rainbow Falls where the water drops 108m. The mean maximum flow of water is 120 million gallons per minute, and the greatest fall ever recorded was after the floods of 1958 when the flow reached 160 million gallons per minute. Although there are ten other waterfalls on earth that are higher, it is still twice as high as Niagra, and none are within half its flow of water. Given normal weather in the continent, the falls are at their grandest in March and April. Shortly after this optimum flow they begin shrinking quickly until there are only “trinkels” by the end of the year.