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Victoria Falls 101: How to Visit the World’s Largest Waterfall

There’s no denying it: Victoria Falls is indeed one of the top natural wonders of the world.

The Zambezi River, forming the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, slowly fans out until it spans nearly a mile at its widest point. Then, from cliffs reaching 355 feet, the river dumps a veil of rushing water into a chasm below.

With so many exciting safari destinations in the region, as well as fascinating cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town just a short plane ride away, you might be tempted to pass on Victoria Falls. But truthfully, the site is a must-see for anyone visiting southern Africa, particularly nature lovers or adventure sports enthusiasts.

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Is it really that beautiful?

Yes. Victoria Falls isn’t just another waterfall. All that moving water creates a cloud of spray that can be seen from more than 30 miles away. The almost ever-present rainbows are particularly stunning against the blue sky and the Victoria Falls rainforest, with vibrant green ferns, palms, and fruit trees nourished by the constant droplets of water. You can also get frighteningly close to the edge, much closer than they’d ever permit at Niagara, even though the cliffs are more than twice as high. It can move even the most unsentimental traveler to tears at the power and beauty of nature.

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What's the origin of the name?

David Livingstone, considered the first European to lay eyes on Victoria Falls in 1855, named it in honor of Queen Victoria. Of course, the local people already knew all about the falls, and the region’s local Kololo tribe was already calling it Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning “The Smoke That Thunders.” Both names are still in use today.

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Is it really the largest waterfall in the world?

Yes, but it’s complicated. It’s neither the highest nor the tallest waterfall in the world, but its combined width of about 5,604 feet and height of more than 354 feet makes it the largest in the world. Victoria Falls is roughly twice the height of Niagara, but Iguazu Falls on the border of Argentina and Brazil beats it in the width department.

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Where is Victoria Falls located precisely?

The waterfall straddles the Zambezi river, the fourth largest in Africa, and forms the natural border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. It’s here where the full width of the river dramatically plunges into a deep chasm. The most significant nearby town is also named Victoria Falls, in Zimbabwe, while the settlement on the Zambian side goes by Livingstone.

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Should I stay in Zimbabwe or Zambia?

The town of Victoria Falls is larger and has more hotels, restaurants, shops, and other conveniences. It also has a better view and easier access to the airport. Zambia, however, also has several lodges in the town of Livingstone, and it offers quite a few unique activities that you can’t do in Zimbabwe.

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How do I get there?

Arriving by plane is easy. Victoria Falls Airport, located about 11 miles south of the town of Victoria Falls, makes the site more accessible than ever, especially following a $150 million renovation completed in 2016. British Airways, South African Airways, Kenyan Airways, and Ethiopian Airways all operate flights there. Even more convenient, a full tour (like those from Collette, Globus Journeys, and Extraordinary Journeys) will arrange all your lodging, transportation, and activities.

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How do I get to the falls after getting settled?

Most of the viewing points are accessible within Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side of the river. Victoria Falls National Park has 16 separate points along a two-mile-long footpath. The entrance fee is $30 for international visitors, and you should arrive in Zimbabwe prepared to pay it in cash. Although the U.S. dollar is now the official currency in Zimbabwe, you can’t rely on ATMs.

If you book a day tour or visit as part of a comprehensive tour, your guide will likely handle logistics like transportation for you. But the park is also within walking distance of several hotels, and many lodges provide regular shuttle service. You won’t need any gear besides sturdy walking shoes, a waterproof camera case, and maybe a poncho or raincoat.

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How can I see Victoria Falls from a different perspective?

A helicopter ride with the Zambezi Helicopter Company ($150) will provide an aerial view of the region. Don Louw, a South African tour guide who works with Collette Tours, and others, takes groups to Victoria Falls about 15 times per year. He says, “To see it from the air is just mind-boggling. It gives you a totally different perspective.”

From about late August until December, visitors can also do a guided hike down Batoka Gorge to get an up-close look at the falls. The park on the Zambia side, called Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, also offers several unique lookout points, including the spot on Livingstone Island where Livingstone first saw the falls, as well as the famous Knife-Edge Bridge for pedestrians.

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Where can I get the best photo?

While you’ll need to take a helicopter ride to get that coveted aerial shot, Victoria Falls National Park still offers excellent views. Point 7 provides a clear view of the Main Falls without too many trees or spray obstructing it. At the so-called Danger Point (point 14), you’re bound to see crowds of tourists risking their lives for the perfect selfie, but proceed with caution before joining them. It’s possible to fall since the edge is wet and slippery. To get a photo of the Victoria Falls Bridge in the background, proceed to Point 15. A local tour guide can also show you the absolute best places to take photos.

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Can you go in the water?

When the river flow is at a certain level, usually between late August and December, adventurous swimmers can take a dip in the naturally formed “Devil’s Pool” on the edge of the falls on Livingstone Island on the Zambia side. It’s relatively safe to go with a guide, but a few people have died after slipping past the rock barriers and over the edge of the Falls.

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What else can I do at Victoria Falls besides look at them and go in them?

Okay, so you spent some time at Victoria Falls National Park, splashed around in the Devil’s Pool, and then took a helicopter ride. That’s enough to fill two busy days at Victoria Falls, but there’s plenty more to do if you have one or two days more to spare. Adventurous sorts won’t want to miss ziplining or bungee jumping from the 112-year-old Victoria Falls Bridge. More laidback visitors will opt for a sunset cruise, where you’ll likely spot some elephants, hippos, and crocodiles. Cultural experiences including visiting nearby villages or meeting orphaned elephants at Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust. Check with your tour leader or book excursions with local companies like Wild Horizons, Shearwater, Adventure Zone, and Shockwave Adventures.

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What visas do I need?

You’ll need to purchase a visa for Zimbabwe upon arrival at Victoria Falls Airport, and visitors with a single-entry visa ($30) going to the Zambia side or heading on safari in Botswana will need to purchase a visa each time they cross the border. Luckily, Zimbabwe also offers double entry for $45 and multi-entry for $55. In Zambia, it’s $20 for single-entry, $50 for double-entry, and $80 for multi-entry.

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When is the best time to visit?

Late August is ideal for many reasons. It’s the tail end of dry season, so the reduced spray gives better visibility of the falls and malaria risk is also lower. Activities like white water rafting and the Devil’s Pools are also open, and there aren’t any thunderstorms to deal with in the afternoon. But, the falls won’t look quite as dramatic as they would during the rainy season. Verify the time of year that your activity of choice is available before booking your trip.