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The view from our helicopter ride shows the Zambezi River cascading into the Victoria Falls gorge. (Photograph by Marcus & Kate Westberg)

Victoria Falls: The Smoke That Thunders

Scottish explorer David Livingstone may have named the falls after his reigning queen in 1855, but the Kalolo-Lozi people had their own name for it — Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders.” And you immediately know why after seeing the plumes of mist that hover around the largest waterfall in the world as it roars over the edge.

Smoke that Thunders

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Victoria Falls is the world’s largest sheet of falling water. (Photograph by Marcus & Kate Westberg)

We could see the spray all the way from the Zambian town of Livingstone as we made our way to Victoria Falls. The full width of the Zambezi seems to drop off the edge of the Earth, falling more than 350 feet into a churning chasm that has been carved out by the river over thousands of years. Despite our umbrellas and ponchos, we got soaking wet on the slippery trails around the waterfall, but our sodden state was soon forgotten at the sight of such mind-blowing beauty.

Flight of the Angels

In his diary, Livingstone wrote of the falls: “scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Strapped into a six-seater helicopter, we rose over the thundering smoke on our own 15-minute flight of angels, looking down at a curtain of falling water stretched more than a mile wide. From the air we had sweeping views of the raging rapids at Batoka Gorge and the Victoria Falls Bridge that spans the river separating Zambia from Zimbabwe.

Island on the Edge

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The island where David Livingstone first set eyes on Victoria Falls now bears his name — as seen on the plaque at right. (Photograph by Marcus & Kate Westberg)

Having heard stories of a spectacular waterfall, Livingstone paddled down the Zambezi in a dugout canoe and landed on a small island at the lip of the falls. We took the same route, but by motorboat, to the same island (now known as Livingstone Island) and walked around barefoot in the mist as a double rainbow hung over the gorge. From the island we could look across to the Devil’s Pool, but the fast-flowing water made it impossible to swim to the edge.

Sundowners on Safari

Drifting down the Zambezi on a sunset cruise in the late afternoon, we floated past troops of black-faced vervet monkeys swinging through the trees. With the Mosi-oa-Tunya and Zambezi national parks lining the banks of the river, there was no shortage of wildlife. Wide-jawed hippos wallowed in the shallow pools and elephants came down to the water to drink. We pulled ashore for sundowners near a Nile crocodile basking in the last light of the day before heading back.

Retreats on the River

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Hippos submerge themselves in the Zambezi River to keep cool under the African sun. (Photograph by Marcus & Kate Westberg)

Just upstream from the falls, we were hosted by two different Wilderness Safaris lodges on the banks of the Zambezi. Stuffed to the rafters with Old World charm, the River Club took us back in time with its tennis courts and croquet lawn, set around a majestic 1940s homestead. At Toka Leya Camp our safari tent was decked out in modern African décor, just a few steps away from an infinity pool. Both lodges offer guided tours of the falls, river safaris, and wildlife tours in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.

People of the Zambezi

The thundering smoke was home to the Tonga and Makalolo peoples long before Livingstone first saw the falls. On the outskirts of Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, villagers live in mud-and-thatch huts and tend maize fields.

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Getting to know the local people and their way of life is a vital part of visiting Victoria Falls. (Photograph by Marcus & Kate Westberg)

The River Club supports an Elephant Chili Pepper Project, where farmers from Simonga plant chili to protect their crops.

On a visit to a school funded by Toka Leya Camp, the children grabbed our hands and led us around the village, giving us a glimpse of their day-to-day life.

With its constant roar and spray rising high into the sky, Victoria Falls is a sight to behold at any time of year and from any angle. We have visited the falls twice now; there is something about this natural wonder that keeps drawing us back. Whether floating down the Zambezi River or flying over the falls in a helicopter, the smoke that thunders always makes us feel like one of Livingstone’s angels.

Photojournalists Marcus and Kate Westberg cover travel and conservation topics for Intelligent Travel, News Watch, and other publications. See more of their work on Life Through a Lens, on their Facebook page, and on Twitter.

Published with special thanks to Wilderness Safaris and Livingstone’s Adventure.