Photo: Rainbow over waterfall

At Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River plunges into basalt gorges.

Photograph by Christian Heeb, laif/Redux

Site: Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls)

Location: Zambia and Zimbabwe

Year Designated: 1989

Category: Natural

Criteria: (vii)(viii)

Reason: This waterfall is among the most impressive to be found anywhere in the world.

* * *

This legendary waterfall is among the biggest, and most awe-inspiring, on the planet.

The Zambezi River is more than 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) wide when it cascades over the lip of a large basalt plateau and plunges as much as 354 feet (108 meters). The flow has been slicing slowly through this plateau for some two million years. During this time the river has slowly retreated and the remnants of earlier, ancient falls can be seen in the gorges downstream from the current cataract.

The falls generate mists that can be spotted from more than a dozen miles (20 kilometers) away. Famed Scottish explorer David Livingstone dubbed this waterfall Victoria Falls; its older, Kololo name, Mosi-oa Tunya, means "the smoke that thunders.” The mists also sustain a rain forest-like ecosystem adjacent to the falls and on the opposite cliff that faces them like a dried-up mirror image, thick with mahogany, fig, palm, and other species of vegetation.

The national border between Zambia and Zimbabwe lies midstream, and national parks of both nations exist on either side of the Zambezi. The gorges and cliffs below the falls in these parks are prime territory for raptors, including falcons and black eagles.

Stone artifacts from the hominin Homo habilis have been identified near the falls and show that early humans may have lived here two million years ago. More “modern” tools also evidence far more recent—50,000 years ago—Middle Stone Age settlements.

Today several hundred thousand visitors from around the world trek to the falls each year; several hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, and other tourist businesses cater to them.

The beauty of the falls lies in their natural state, but the area is at some risk of runaway tourism-based development—more resorts, hotels, and even a possible dam below the falls that could flood several park gorges. Operators in the area offer everything from helicopter overflights to bungee jumping, and the management of these activities while preserving a quality visitor experience for all is an ongoing challenge.

How to Get There

Most visitors visit from either Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe) or Maramba (Zambia), where complete tourist facilities exist. Each town is accessible by road, rail, and air.

When to Visit

The river is typically in full flood during February and March, when as much as 540 million cubic meters of water fall over the edge every single minute. During the rainy season, however, the spray plume can obscure the view of the falls themselves. By November, when the water is at low ebb, visitors may see the curtain split into many smaller channels of falling water.

How to Visit

The falls are massive and invite contemplation from many different viewpoints. Trails invite you to walk around the area and enjoy vistas. Unique views are also to be had from the Knife Edge Bridge and Victoria Falls Bridge. River-level views from below the falls are a good way to experience their power up-close. At certain times of the year the daring may even swim in pools on the very crest of the cataract.

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