Zimbabwe’s majestic Victoria Falls is one of the world’s 7 Natural Wonders and a UNESCO World Heritage site. While the breath-taking falls are neither the widest nor the highest in the world, when the river is in full flow it does form the largest cascading sheet of water. For millennia the falls existed undiscovered by anyone outside of Africa. The first European to see the famous falls was David Livingstone who loyally named them after his Queen Victoria although the locals use the name Mosi Oa Tunya, which means “the smoke that thunders”, referring to the crashing noise of the falls and the towering mist that rises above it.
Signs of human in-habitation around the falls date back to 3 million years ago during the Stone Age. Further along the line, there is evidence of the Khoisan people and their descendants over the centuries. The Khoisan were eventually displaced by Batoka tribe who still remain in the area today, joined by other tribes such as the Matabele, the Lozi and the Makololo. In 1855, it was the Makololo who introduced the falls to the missionary and explorer stone who went on to tell the rest of the world about their glory. He famously said “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.”
Livingstone had his first sight of the falls from an island that now bears his name and can still be visited today. He reached the island by dugout canoe, escorted by Chief Sekeletu. After white settlers of Southern Africa heard of this amazing wonder to behold they started traveling to the area by horseback, ox wagon, and even on foot. A settlement sprung up called Old Drift, however, malaria soon plagued the area and a new town had to be established in a better location, which is now the town of Livingstone in Zambia. In 1901 people started settling in the town of Victoria Falls. The town got its start as an area of interest for hydro-electric power and a gateway to the wealth of the north but is now mainly a tourist hub, as a base for people to explore the falls and the national park.
In 1905 construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge was completed, which greatly opened up tourism to the area. The bridge was commissioned by Cecil John Rhodes, as part of his “Cape to Cairo” vision, with the specific instructions that it was in a location where passing trains would be sprayed by the mist to add a thrilling experience to the passenger’s journey. Unfortunately, he passed away before it was completed, and with it his dreams of exploiting the region’s resources for himself. The bridge and railway provided access to travellers from as far north as the Belgian Congo and as far as south as Cape Town. Now, the bridge is a popular spot for adrenaline junkies who like to bungee jump or bridge swing from its great height. For history and/or engineering fans, it is also possible to take a tour of the bridge with a guide who is dressed like an engineer from the early 1900s while you are strapped in with a safety harness, walking along the lower catwalk to explore the structural intricacies.
During British colonial rule, a trip to the falls was on many daring explorers’ bucket lists. During the 1960s independence struggles in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) closed the border posts between Zambia (previously Northern Rhodesia) and affected travel to the area. However, it again grew in popularity in the 1980s after political unrest in Zimbabwe calmed down and it became more accessible via international travel. In 1989 the magnificent falls were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status due to its size and beauty. In the 1990s it became popular with thrill seekers drawn by the wealth of adventure activities on offer, such as white water rafting and bungee jumping. It is now one of Africa’s must-see tourist attractions with over a million visitors a year who flock to the falls for a variety of reasons, honeymoons being particularly popular, but chiefly to experience the unique wonder of the smoke that thunders.