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Victoria Falls
20160705 105240 Livingdtone.jpg
Location Livingstone, Zambia
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
Type Cataract waterfall
Total height 108 m (355 ft) (at center)
Number of drops 2
Average flow rate 1088 m3/s (38,430 cu ft/s)
Watercourse Zambezi River

The Victoria Falls or Mosi-oa-Tunya are situated on the Zambezi River, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, (17°55′24.05″S, 25°51′22.32″E) and are roughly 1.7 km (1 mile) wide and 128 m (420 ft) high. They are considered a remarkable spectacle because of the peculiar narrow slot-like chasm into which the water falls, so one can view the falls face-on.

The falls are part of two national parks, Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia and Victoria Falls National Park in Zimbabwe, and are one of Southern Africa's major tourist attractions. They are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Vastly larger than North America's Niagara Falls, Victoria is only rivalled by South America's Iguazu Falls (excluding large rapid like falls such as Livingston de Chutes). Whilst Iguazu is divided into over 270 (relatively) 'small' falls and cataracts, Victoria is the largest single sheet of water in the world , over 100 metres tall, and over one mile wide.

History

Statue of David Livingstone at Victoria Falls
David Livingstone gazing upon the Falls, in bronze, from the Zambian shore

The earliest known inhabitants of the area around Victoria Falls were Khoisan hunter-gatherers (bushmen). They were followed by Tokaleya people, who called the falls Shongwe. Later, the Ndebele named them aManza Thunqayo, and the Makololo Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning "The smoke that thunders".

The first European to see the falls was David Livingstone on 17 November 1855, during his 1852-1856 journey from the upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river. Livingstone reached the Falls from upriver and rowed across to a small island that now bears the name Livingstone Island. Livingstone had previously been impressed by the Ngonye Falls further upstream, but found the new falls much more impressive, and named them after Queen Victoria. He wrote of the falls "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".

In 1860, Livingstone returned to the area and made a detailed study of the falls with John Kirk. Other early European visitors included Portuguese explorer Serpa Pinto, Czech explorer Emil Holub, who made the first detailed plan of the falls and its surroundings in 1875 (published in 1880), and British artist Thomas Baines, who executed some of the earliest paintings of the falls. Until the area was opened up by the building of the railway in 1905, though, the falls were seldom visited by other Europeans.

The falls

Satellite view of Victoria Falls
Satellite image showing the broad Zambezi falling into the narrow cleft and subsequent series of zigzagging gorges (top of picture is north)
Victoria falls
Victoria Falls

The falls lie about midway down the course of the Zambezi, at approximately 17.925° S 25.855° E. For a considerable distance above the falls, the Zambezi flows over a level sheet of basalt, in a valley bounded by low and distant sandstone hills. The river's course is dotted with numerous tree-clad islands, which increase in number as the river approaches the falls.

The falls are formed as the Zambezi plummets into a narrow chasm about 120 m (400 ft) wide, carved by its waters along a fracture zone in the earth's crust. Numerous islets at the crest of the falls divide the water to form a series of falls. Over the centuries, the falls have been receding upstream, falling at different eras into numerous chasms which now form a series of sharply zig-zagging gorges downstream from the falls.

The falls are extremely broad at about 1.7 km across, and the height of the cascade varies from 80 m at the right bank to 108 m in the centre. This makes Victoria roughly twice the height of Niagara Falls, and well over twice the width of the horseshoe falls (Niagara's main portion). The falling water generates spray and mist that rises typically to a height of over 400 metres (and sometimes even twice as high), and is visible from up to 50 km (over 30 miles) away. At full moon, a "moonbow" can be seen in the spray instead of the daylight rainbow.

During the wet season the falls have over 500 million litres (19 million cubic feet) of water falling over its crestline each minute, and spray from this rises hundreds of metres into the air because of the incredible force of the falling water. The 1958 flood of the Zambezi saw the falls reach record volumes of over 770 million litres (27 000 000 cubic feet) per minute. This compares to the Niagara Falls (North America) which has slightly about 6 million cubic feet (about 170,000 ) of water passing its crestline per minute in peak flow. This compares also to the Iguazu Falls of South America in terms of of size with peak volume. In debatable terms, Victoria compares well to the most regarded waterfalls on earth.

The fall is broken into four parts by islands on the lip of the precipice. Close to the right bank is a sloping cataract 35 m wide called the Leaping Water, then beyond 300 m wide Boaruka Island is the main fall, about 460 m across. Livingstone Island divides the main fall from another broad channel about 530 m wide, while on the left bank of the river is the Eastern Cataract.

Below the falls

Victoria5
Victoria Falls near the end of the dry season, September 2003

The only outlet to the chasm the river falls into is a narrow channel cut in the barrier wall at a point about two thirds of the distance along from the western end. This channel is about 30 m (100 ft) wide, and the whole volume of the river pours through it for 120 m before emerging into a zigzagging series of gorges about 80 km (50 miles) long which conduct the river past the basalt plateau.

At the end of its first gorge, the river has hollowed out a deep pool called the Boiling Pot. About 150 m across, its surface is smooth at low water, but at high water is marked by slow, enormous swirls and heavy boilings. As the river exits the Boiling Pot, the channel turns sharply westward and enters the next of the zigzagging gorges. The walls of the gorges are over 120 m high.

Victoria Falls from the air 1972
The Smoke that Thunders – plenty of water in 1972

In the wet season (typically October through April), the river discharges as much as 9,100 m³/s (320,000 ft³/s) of water. At this time, the water rolls over the main falls in an unbroken expanse. The dry season may see the falls diminish to just a few narrow cascades, with the spray and mist almost absent and the flow reduced to as little as 350 m³/s (12,500 ft³/s). At this time it is possible to look into the normally obscured depths of the gorge. The level of the river in the gorge varies by up to 20 metres between maximum flow in April and the end of the dry season in October.

Railway bridge

Just below the Boiling Pot, and almost at right angles to the falls, the gorge is spanned by a bridge, one of only five over the Zambezi river, which was completed in April 1905 and was initially intended as a link in Cecil Rhodes' Cape-Cairo railway plan. The bridge is 250 metres long, with a main arch spanning 150 metres, and the top of the bridge is 125 metres above the low-water level of the river. Today, regular rail services connect the towns of Victoria Falls and Livingstone, Zambia with Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, with another line running from Livingstone to Lusaka.

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