Although you will be expecting it, the spray will catch you by surprise. It will drench your happy face and leave a lasting mark in your heart. You will have seen the spray from miles away as it often rises to heights of up to four hundred metres.

The spray is created when torrents of Zambezi waters plummet for more than one hundred metres into the Zambezi gorge.

When you finally make it to one of Victoria Falls nineteen viewing points, you will come face to face with the spray and the majestic waterfalls themselves. 

That moment when your eyes first behold something that you have waited for your whole life to see can drench you in mixed feelings. This is how I felt when I finally stood at one of the fifteen viewing points on the Zimbabwean side. On the one hand I was utterly speechless. In total awe and instantly comprehending why the gushing waterfalls were a sacred site for riverine communities like the Leya.

I understood why David Livingstone, the nineteenth century explorer described the waterfalls in glowing terms, ‘scenes so lovely they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight… the snow-white sheet like myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam.’

The grandeur of Victoria Falls inspires awe and I was duly awestruck. But on the other hand, this awesome moment was punctured by a lingering feeling of, ‘now what?’

Now that the Victoria Falls were right there before my eyes, the sheer joy of anticipation had dissipated with the spray. What next?

An answer slowly came into my mind when I walked through the moist pathways of the rainforest that borders the waterfalls. By the time I was gazing at the mighty falls from below, I was drenched. It felt like standing in rain and just feeling the water fill every pore in my body.

What next? It occurred to me that through the spray, I was interacting directly with Zambezi’s water. This reminded me that Victoria Falls was in actual fact the waters of Zambezi both tumbling down and shooting upwards in a spectacular dance of Mother Nature.  It was time to know the heartbeat of these waterfalls and comprehend what made them tick.

Behind the wonder of this seemingly divine spectacle are wandering waters that underpin ecosystems without which the waterfalls would not be there.

Before the day that is Victoria Falls breaks out and stuns the world, there is a night without which this dazzling morning would not be possible.

When Zambezi River arrives at Victoria Falls, it is just over two kilometres wide meaning that a leisurely walk across it would take you half an hour. When it is flowing in full force during the rainy season, the falls become a two-kilometre wide, 100-metre plunge into Zambezi gorge.

Before the mist-forming waters take the deep plunge, they are engrossed in occasional rapids and a gentle flow that has its origins in Zambia’s Kalene Hills close to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. As such, the hills precede the falls. The Zambezi waters meander through hills, valleys and plains that contribute uniquely towards the overall wellbeing of the river. 

Along the way, the river provides shelter for fish, crocodiles, hippos plus a host of diverse flora and fauna. Diverse fish species like tiger fish, catfish and cichlids reside in the river as do the bigger boys and girls – crocodiles and hippos.

Crocodiles flap their bulky tails in the raging waters as their powerful jaws delve into the rotting flesh of wildebeests that lost the battle against the Zambezi as they tried to cross it.

Along the way, the raging waters create two smaller, lesser known waterfalls – Chavuma Falls and Ngonye Falls. These falls are more of warthogs compared to the elephant that is Victoria Falls but they are waterfalls nonetheless, harbingers of Victoria Falls, in essence preparing the way like John theBaptist.

Ngonye falls are like gates that mark the river’s departure from Kalahari sand floodplain and entry into the basalt dyke geological formation that makes the Victoria Falls possible. Indeed, the riverbed that ferries Zambezi’s waters was carved out over ages in a unique fashion that facilitates Victoria Falls.

Ngonye falls is only one fifth of Victoria Falls but it is part of a natural architecture that carves out Victoria Falls superhighway.  

Etched firmly on this superhighway in the wider upper Zambezi, are dambos, as the small headwater wetlands are known. Of particular significance is the marshy wetland in north-West Zambia that births the river. As noted in a comprehensive report on Zambezi River’s Ecosystems, ‘although the impact of individual small wetlands on flow may be negligible, because there are so many of them, their cumulative impact may be significant.’[1]

Cumulative impact is the name of the game in the bigger picture of upper Zambezi. The wetlands and floodplains like Barotse together with other ecosystems all join forces to ensure that River Zambezi keeps flowing on, delivering the water that ends up cascading as Victoria Waterfalls.

The upper Zambezi section of the river is uninterrupted by large dams that can be found in subsequent sections of the river. In this regard, the waters of the upper section are blessed with a natural, unhindered flow.

This flow also surges in underground streams that replenish the river during dry season between April and October. Some of Victoria Falls tumbling waters stem directly from those unseen underground streams of upper Zambezi. Many of these streams break into the surface through dambos that subsequently channel more water into the waiting arms of River Zambezi. Indeed, it is a replenishing cycle of nature that feeds into Victoria Falls on a constant basis with a tireless dazzle.

In the same vein, by the time Zambezi creates Victoria Falls, it has already benefited from smaller rivers that power into it with cheerful roars. In Angola, Luena and Chifumage rivers join Zambezi and become part of the great river. In Zambia, Kabompo River also joins the Zambezi with a cheerful flow. This river has its origins on the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lungwebungu River, which is the largest tributary of Upper Zambezi, similarly pours into Zambezi in Zambia although it commences its journey in Angola.

Against this backdrop, the gushing waters of Victoria Falls are a mosaic of four large tributaries and several smaller streams. Consequently, when that spray from the waterfalls moistens ones face, it contains water drops from all these great rivers and streams that deposit their waters into upper Zambezi.  

Behind the wonder that is Victoria Falls are dazzling flora and fauna without which the tapestry of Upper Zambezi would be incomplete. Amongst them are stunning birds like the lilian’s lovebirds aka nyasa lovebirds, small African parrots whose green yellow plumage matches perfectly with their red-lipstick lips; marabou storks whose massive beaks remind one of flying rakes; the mostly pink southern carmine bee eaters that can be seen building their nests along the banks Zambezi River and the red billed quelea whose wise visage add an air of beautiful maturity to the Zambezi tapestry.

Every once in a while, these birds can be seen flying through or above the Victoria Falls spray. Although their cheery chirps are lost in the hiss and thunder of the waterfalls, their bright colors and flapping wings add beautiful music to the sight of the falls.

Gazing down from their birds’ eye view, the birds can appreciate that Victoria Falls is a wondrous culmination of equally wondrous ecosystems in the upper Zambezi.

 



[1] McCartney, M.; Cai, X.; Smakhtin, V. 2013. Evaluating the flow regulating functions of natural ecosystems in the Zambezi River Basin. Colombo, Sri Lanka: International Water Management Institute (IWMI).