Largely considered one of the planet’s greatest natural wonders, Victoria Falls is an unforgettable sight to behold. It may not rival the world’s highest waterfall – that accolade goes to Angel Falls in Venezuela – nor can it claim to be the widest with the little-known Khone Falls in Laos nabbing that title, but it is definitely one of the most impressive with the world’s largest sheet of falling water. Translated from the local Tonga language as ‘the smoke that thunders’, it’s the sheer force of nature that makes Vic Falls so utterly compelling and sees it featuring on many travellers’ bucket list.
Bordering both Zimbabwe and Zambia in southern Africa, a visit to Vic Falls often begs the question – “which side is best?”. Our founders Jay Lakshman and Scott Braidwood recently visited both sides and here’s their view to help answer the eternal ‘Zim versus Zam’ comparison.
Flying Into Victoria Falls
First thing’s first – before you stand in front of the mighty cascades you need to get there and flying in is the easiest way to go. Victoria Falls Airport serves as the international gateway to the Falls in Zimbabwe yet despite this, the airport remains a remarkably laid-back affair with little more than a tin hut and a one runway. Not ideal for uneasy flyers but something of an experience in itself, especially with views of the mist rising from the Falls visible as you come in to land.
Zambia, on the other hand, is served by Livingstone Airport (now officially known as the Harry Mwanga International Airport), which is far more modern with premier lounges and WiFi. It’s also the closest international airport to the Falls so anyone in a rush to get there will find Zambia a better option for starting point.
The best hotels at Victoria Falls
Both countries have capitalised on the popularity of the Falls with a varied range of accommodation on both sides. A number of hotels on the Zimbabwe side are within walking distance from the Falls, ideal for those short on time or planning a few days beside the Falls. This includes the glamorous Victoria Falls Hotel, a colonial property with a superb outdoor pool and wide terrace that affords views of Vic Falls. Whether you’re an overnight guest or not, here you can enjoy an afternoon high tea with the spray of mist rising in the background. Another plus is the chance of spotting elephants on the short walk from the hotel’s grounds to the main entrance of Victoria Falls.
Those looking for a somewhat quieter stay will find Zambia’s offering of hotels more appealing with a small selection of properties set on the edge of the Zambezi River and also within walking distance of the Falls. Top choice is the Royal Livingstone, a luxury hotel known for its large and immaculate enclosed grounds where wildlife roams freely. With no predators around, it’s not unusual to find yourself relaxing by the pool with a herd of zebra beside you or giraffe peering in your veranda. The views of the Falls here are as equally as impressive with a decking area over the Zambezi River from which you can take in the full panorama.
Best views of the Falls
The all-important question when planning a visit tends to be, which side will offer the most spectacular views of the Falls? As in any good contest, each side has their own advantage. To witness the Falls in all their expansive glory, Zimbabwe is the winner, claiming 75% of the total area. Those classic full-length shots of Vic Falls were all taken in Zimbabwe with dozens of viewpoints to choose from, all accessible via well-laid out walking trails. This is the best option for those planning a quick visit and gets our vote for the ‘wow’ factor.
You might wonder how Zambia could possibly compete with this and yet it does with its exhilarating footpaths that get you right up close to the crashing cascades. On this side of the Falls you can see the Devil’s Pool, walk along the aptly named Knife Edge Bridge and visit the large whirlpool known as Boiling Pot (depending on the season). Zambia’s side also offers the better views of the steel Victoria Falls Bridge that connects the two countries. All in all, what Zambia claims of Vic Falls may be small but it sure is mighty!
Things to do at Victoria Falls
Victoria Falls has become the unofficial adventure capital of Africa with a plethora of thrilling outdoor activities from bungee jumping to white-water rafting, kayaking to zip-lines, as well as more relaxing options including sunset river cruises on the Zambezi. The majority of activities are available on both sides of the Falls though you’ll need to transfer to Zambia for the highly desirable microlight flight over the Falls, which departs from the Aerodrome at Livingstone airport. For this reason Zambia pips Zimbabwe to the post.
Best time to visit Victoria Falls
This region of Africa experiences two distinct seasons – the dry and the wet, each having a direct effect on the Falls. During the height of the dry season (November to October) the might of the Falls is less impressive with a lot less water cascading over the 108-metre-tall rock face while in the height of the wet season (February to May) gallons of water plummet over the edge and create dramatic clouds of spray. The Zimbabwean side of the Falls remain fairly impressive even in the dry season, and this is the best time for photography too, whereas the Zambian side resembles a decidedly dry rock sculpture. However, at this time of year you can take a dip in the Devil’s Pool on the Zam side and lean over the natural ledge of the rock pool for truly breathtaking views of the Falls.
You’ll definitely need your rain poncho if visiting during the wet season, and a cover for your camera. There’s no question that this is when the Falls are at their most spectacular but the amount of spray does mean that you’ll see very little of the gorge below and some parts of the Falls themselves may be obscured by mist. Having said that, nothing quite beats catching sight of not one, but two, rainbows decorating the spray. When the water levels are at their highest, Devil’s Pool remains out of bounds so there’s no clear winner with both sides having their pros and cons regardless of the season.
Safari opportunities near Victoria Falls
No visit to Africa would be complete without embarking on a safari adventure in search of the continent’s most iconic animals and a visit to Vic Falls is the perfect opportunity to do so. Here’s where Zimbabwe wins outright with a large stretch of land along the Zambezi River protected by the Zambezi National Park where you’ll find the Big 5 and lots more. For the best game viewing in Zimbabwe, Hwange National Park is the perfect option for those with time on their hands, located as it is 100km south of the Falls. Alternatively, the wildlife-packed Chobe National Park in neighbouring Botswana is just an hour’s drive from Vic Falls.
Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park incorporates Victoria Falls and stretches 12km upstream. The circular route enables visitors to take game drives in search of herds of elephants, giraffe and zebra, with hippos a common sight too. The one thing missing is big cats though the chance of catching sight of the endangered white rhino makes up for this.
The Ultimate Vic Falls Experience
For the ultimate Vic Falls experience, visit both sides! The simple border crossing and seamless transfer between Zimbabwe and Zambia makes this an easy option and one that’s well worth considering. Ease yourself in by flying into Zambia first where you can explore the laidback town of Livingstone, which still retains much of its colonial character. Spend a night or two on the Zambian side before making the short trip to Zimbabwe to spend a few nights on the other side. This way you can take full advantage of the activities available, enjoy every possible view and end with plenty of options for safari adventures. If Vic Falls wasn’t on your bucket list already, we’ll sure it will be now!
If you would like to know more about visiting Vic Falls, get in touch using the comments section below. Alternatively, browse our selection of safaris that include time at Vic Falls.