One of the Natural Wonders of the World-
the Victoria Falls
Part 2 in a Series by Cecil Keen

In its upper reaches, the infant Zambezi gives no hint of the dramatics downstream. Its source, in a lonely grove of trees on the watershed between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), is joined by many tributary streams which grow the river to become one of Africa's largest. For 750 miles (1200 km) the river flows rather lazily over the surface of a vast sheet of lava which forms the plateau of Central Africa. The Aluyi tribespeople who live along this stretch of the river know it as the Lwambayi ('great river') and each flood season they move to the higher-lying verges.

In the season of floods ­ March, April, May and June ­ the river swells greatly in size but the shallow valley contains it and the movement of the water is still slow. Only a few minor rapids high up the valley, and the small Gonye Falls, give it a flurry of speed.

Suddenly the river experiences a great change. It reaches a series of cracks in the sheet of lava which lies directly across the course of the river, so placed that it seems as though nature decided to play a prank on the lazy river giant. The lava sheet is about 1000 ft (300 m) thick. The cracks in it are narrow and filled with soft earth and broken rock. The river, leisurely scouring out its course, found the lowest (most south-easterly) of the cracks and began carrying away the soft filling. The effect of this was the excavation of a deep trench cutting across the flow of the river.

Into this trench tumbled the water, and immediately had to find a way out again. For a time there was a chaotic rising and falling of water. Then, on the lower edge of the trench, the river found a weak spot. This could have been the dislodgement of a single boulder. The river flow was then concentrated at this point, for it offered the easiest escape route from the trench. The weak spot was steadily lowered and widened until a remarkable waterfall had been created.

The above photo looks down
the series of gorges with the youngest,
the present Victoria Falls nearest,
and the oldest of 8 falls furthest away.
The Victoria Falls bridge
spans the 2nd gorge.

The Victoria Falls at low water –
an opportunity to see into the gorge and its rocky base.

Along the full width of its course the river tumbled into a deep trench only about 650 ft. (200 m) wide. At the bottom of this trench the water rushed about in wild disorder and then shouldered its way out of the trench through the narrow gorge which formed from the original weak spot. At the entrance to the gorge a surging mass of water was caught in a series of whirlpools resembling a boiling pot.

After a time the river found another weak spot in the upper edge of the trench. This weak spot also grew to become a gorge through which the river forced its way, abandoning the fall over the remaining upper edge of the trench.

At this stage in its development, the spectacle had changed. The river now poured into the trench through one deep gorge, raced along the bottom of the trench and then out through the gap in the lower side.

So far, this remarkable series of erosions has been repeated in eight successive parallel cracks. Each crack went through a similar process of transformation in a series of vast erosions spread over the last 500,000 years. The present crack is just past the most spectacular stage of its development. Most of the river flow still falls over the full width of the crack, but a weak spot is already being deepened on the western end. This is the Devil's Cataract.

Eventually the present waterfall will disappear and the river will flow into the trench through this deepening gorge. At least two more faults lie across the course of the river, immediately above the present fall, and there are possibly even more concealed further up the course.

The Lozi (Barotse) tribespeople living along the upper reaches of the river named the waterfall Mosi o Tunya ('the smoke that thunders'). The Matabele called it Manza Thunqayo ('water that rises like smoke'). When David Livingstone became the first-known European to see the falls on November 16, 1855, he named them the Victoria Falls, in honor of Queen Victoria.

Livingstone reached the falls by canoe, paddling down the Zambezi River. He first saw the clouds of thundering spray from about 6 miles (10 km) upstream. Immediately above the falls he changed into a lighter canoe and was paddled to the island that seems to be on the verge of toppling into the thrashing waters below. From this island, Kazeruka (or Livingstone Island), he peered down into the spray and got his first glimpse of the magnitude of the falls.

The ‘smoke that thunders' –
the great columns of spray
rising from the Victoria Falls.

The rainbow is present during all sunny
hours, and at times of bright moonlight.

His guides told him that at three spots near the falls the tribal chiefs offered sacrifices to ancestors. These spots are within sight of a rainbow usually arching the spray, which to the Lozi marked the presence of God.

When Livingstone re-visited the falls the next day he planted peach, apricot and coffee seeds and carved his name on a tree.

'This was the only instance in which I indulged in this weakness', he later told William Baldwin, the second European to see the falls. The two met during Livingstone's third visit to the falls. The Victoria Falls are 5,570 ft. (1,700 m) wide and 328 ft. (100 m) high. They are one-and-a-half times as wide and twice as high as the Niagara Falls.

The Victoria Falls are divided into the Devil's Cataract (27 m. wide and 60 m. high); the Main Falls, which in turn are divided by a projecting rock (524 m. and 297 m. wide and 83 m. high); the Rainbow Falls (550 m. wide and 100 m. high); and the Eastern Cataract (304 m. wide and 96 m. high).

In April, after several months of rain, the falls reach peak volume. The columns of spray sent up by the crashing water have at times been seen 50 miles (80 km.) away. August to November are the driest months, and the best for photographing the falls because of the relative absence of mist. In particularly dry seasons the falls have been reduced to mere trickles, the bulk of the water tumbling through Devil's Cataract. During this time the other falls are little more than silver ribbons falling down the dry black basalt rock.

The Zambezi River tumbling into its gorge. The Devil's Cataract is closest in the picture. The white rapids going off at a 45° angle show the location of a developing crack that will one day become the new falls.

David Livingstone

The edge of the falls is reached through the cool, moist tunnels of the rain Forest. Always shrouded in fine spray, the forest is a fairyland of exotic plants thriving in the humidity. Concrete and gravel paths ­ the only obvious man-made intrusions since Livingstone's day ­ have been laid to stop sightseers trampling away the lip of the gorge. Parts of the precipice opposite the falls have been cleared of undergrowth to give a clear view, but the falls can also be seen from the depths of the forest through glistening, dripping, spray-soaked leaves.

Early morning is a magic time to see the falls. As the sun rises it tints the plumes of spray pink and gold. There is a statue of David Livingstone (sculptured by Sir William Reid-Dick) on the western end (Zimbabwe side) of the chasm, overlooking the Devil's Cataract ­ somewhat in a state of needing repair in recent years.

One of the dreams of Cecil Rhodes was to span the gorge at the Victoria Falls with a railway bridge ­ although there were much easier and cheaper places to bridge the river upstream. His bridge, completed in 1905, was designed by Sir Ralph Freeman, who used the same type of construction as he did on the bridge across Sydney Harbor, in Australia. The bridge was built in two sections from each bank. The first attempt to join the sections failed because the metal had expanded in the day's heat. The engineers waited patiently to allow the sections to shrink during the night. It was at 6 am on April 1, 1905 that the gap between the two spans was finally closed before an audience of Lozi tribesmen. They had been certain the bridge would fall into the gorge, but to their astonishment the impossible had happened, and a train engine with two trucks chugged confidently across the track.

Part 1: The Zambezi – Central Africa's River of Life

Part 3: The Zambezi – Reservoirs of Water: Dams on the River

To learn more about the Zambezi River, click here!

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