What natural wonder spans two countries, is 355ft (108m), and is home to a place called the Devil's Pool? Niagara Falls! Just kidding, you're all smart people and have read the title so you'l know we're talking about the creased border between Zambia and Zimbabwe- Victoria Falls.
Before we tuck into my (hilarious and hyperventilating) experience, let's talk history and stats
Victoria Falls is on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe and is considered the largest waterfall in the world. That's not to say it's the tallest or widest - but all things considered (height, width, flow rate) its technically the biggest. Flowing off the Zambezi River, the original name (given by the Lozi people) Mosi-oa-Tunya means the ‘smoke that thunders’ - which makes perfect sense when you see the billowing mist.
Along with being on many bucket lists, Victoria Falls can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage list and has a spot as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World (though I couldn't find the christening agency).
There are a lot of things that you can do at the falls (sky diving, white water rafting, bungee jumping, etc...) - but be sure to do your research if you find activities you'd like to do since availability varies depending on the time of year (and water levels). And don't forget that it spans two different countries so plan in advance if you'll need to factor a border crossing into your day!
I'll go over a few more logistics at the end (they'll make more sense after things are in context with my experience saga).
So you're going to Victoria Falls! Now what?
This isn't some park you can just roll up to in your rented car. Well, actually, you could do that but you'd likely end up sorely disappointed. You'll want to plan your activities in advanced. Between tour times and the different stuff you should bring for each activity - you'll need to do a little research. I know, I know "I don't like to plan" or "I'll have a better time if I just go with the flow" (pun intended) - but if you just "go with the flow" you may find that you arrive and all the and activities are sold out for the day. Don't say I didn't warn ya!
Story time: We dominated the Devil's Pool
And by that I mean we joyfully and respectfully took a tour of the Devil's pool. Let's start from the beginning:
The eight of us were sorting out the tickets and waiting for our guide, when a group of four Eastern Europeans arrived for the same tour (I'm just going to call them "The Four" from here on out). The group consisted of three men and one woman and we knew pretty immediately that there was going to be some friction. They were wearing flipflops and had camera equipment (the likes of which had no business being that close to a major source of water), and were eyeing us up.
One thing we had been warned about was to be wary of the monkeys. I'm not a fan of monkeys, so keeping a distance wasn't a problem for me.When monkeys are around, you need to remain hyper-aware and not turn your back on them for even a second. Dramatic? Maybe. But had The Four been paying attention instead of making snide comments about our group, they might've noticed that a mamma baboon had her eye on their plastic shopping bag, crept up behind them, snatched it and bolted to the other side of a main road. It was pretty impressive largely due to the fact that she had a baby dangling off her front. She looked through the bag, pulled out an orange and started peeling it while making intermittent eye-contact with her stupefied victim. Though I'm opposed to theft, she was using the orange to feed her baby.
We set out for Livingstone Island and the route took us across some very rock terrain. I've read some accounts where people have taken a boat to Livingstone Island, but that was not our experience - I think it was dry enough that we were able to walk it. In total, it took us about 20-30 minutes to get to our destination. The walk didn't really require any athleticism, but given that it was a little later in the day and The Four were basically running ahead, our guide kept a pretty healthy pace.
You may be wondering how I knew that The Four were talkin' smack. Logic, my friends. For those who have spent an extensive amount of time in cultures where you don't speak the language--or just travel frequently enough-- you'll know that body language speaks volumes. I have this theory that when we understand the words being spoken, our brain chills out and pays less attention to body language; but when we can't hear or can't understand the language, then the opposite happens and we become more acutely aware of body movement. The stares, glances paired with perfectly timed giggles... it wasn't hard to see they were poking fun. Whatever.
We were about half way to Livingstone Island (which was where we would leave our clothes and anything that couldn't get wet) and another guide caught up to us. Apparently it was pretty evident to the people working the entry gate that our 12-person tour would need backup. It was lucky, because our original guide had to keep yelling at The Four for going too far ahead and not listening to instructions to stop, slow, or take a specific route. Though the trek out was fairly easy and we were able to wade through some small streams (it wasn't gushing), the water still flows towards the fall and we needed to heed instructions from the pros.
Time to defrock.
Once we got to Livingstone Island, the guides laid a mat and told us to strip down to our water-appropriate items. Ok, so they didn't exactly tell us to strip, but more like "anything that you don't want getting wet should stay here." The guides sent The Four into the water first, and then the eight of us. At this point, it had become apparent that there was going to be some actual swimming necessary which freaked me out a little because I am a g a r b a g e swimmer. Luckily, I was with group of people that I felt totally comfortable regression to "baby status" with-- and I outed my fear to my friends. I put myself in the middle of the pack (just in case) and tried to follow the guide's instructions to make it across easily. Tried. Apparently I went wrong somewhere and I started to drift and panic and hyperventilate (as I do). To be clear: there are two barriers of taut rope - both with a higher rope and a lower rope. Worst case scenario, I would've let myself drift to one of the ropes and just pulled myself back to dry land (read: gripped, cried, and waited for a guide lol). Again, lucky for me one of my friends kinda grabbed me and jolted me out of my weird panic and I was able to make it across pretty easily. In total it probably was no more than about a 90 second swim.
All kidding aside, though I am a terrible swimmer and the current is a little intimidating, there are tons of safety measures in place and and no point did I feel like I was actually unsafe. I just have a tendency to hyperventilate (and a love of writing in hyperbole), so not being able to breathe properly and being a bad swimmer was a little overwhelming for about 1/2 a second until someone said "you're fine."
Our quick swim brought us to some dry rocks, which is where we were meant to wait for our turn to go into the pool. Since The Four went ahead of us into the water initially, they made it into the Devil's Pool first. The tours are timed so both of our groups should've had about 5-7 minutes to swim around, get some pictures, and get out. They would not get out. And I don't mean that they complained and begrudgingly removed themselves... they literally refused to get out of the water. There was one guy who seemed to be the moral compass of the group, and he jumped out when he saw that there was another group coming up behind ours (and starting to form a queue).
He was able to coax his friends out of the water (...that and a few of us started to jump in so we'd just ruin their pictures and they'd get out). Though there were eight of us, we were super efficient - got loads of group shots and everyone was able to have a few individual pictures.
Bathing in the Devil's Pool
It was friggn' awesome. As you're sliding into the pool, it's hard to really see the ledge that is meant to catch you. Once you're in the water you're carried by the current to the edge and then you just stop. The natural rock barrier was wider than it had appeared from the height of the dry rocks. Once I was there I was totally unafraid. Well, unafraid for myself. The guides that take your pictures (who did an amazing job with every device he was given) stands on the ledge -- and that was spiking my anxiety.
I wish we could've spent a little more time in the pool to really take it all in, but with a crowd behind us in line, one by one we climbed out of the pool. However, before the last one of us emerged, one of The Four jumped back into the pool. Yes, seriously. It probably took about another 2-3 minutes of yelling at him (the guides, a few of us, and some of the group that arrived after us) to get him to climb out again.
Towel service on Livingstone Island
We waddled back over to our base on Livingstone Island and were handed towels and Cokes (fancy ones in the glass bottles!). We dried the best we could and had a few minutes of freedom to walk around on the rocks and take our own pictures. It's one of those tough situations where it's all just so beautiful, and you want to take a million pictures, but you also want to just enjoy it.
As I was panning over the scenery, I noticed a bottle of Jose Cuervo in the hand of one of The Four. They were all standing close to the edge and taking turns swigging from the bottle. Then, when I though it couldn't get any worse... they started to pour the tequila over the falls. They were reprimanded by the guides, but naturally that didn't really seem to have much of an impact.
The walk back felt a little longer, and we took a slightly different route. We stopped a few times and the guide pointed out some of the different formations and gave a little more info about the area that he had been able to do in our rushed walk in.
Just before we reached the exit, we passed a massive group of locals gathering on some of rocks that were near to- but a safe distance from- the falls. They were dressed in what looked like maybe church clothes and it very much felt like them coming to hang out there was a common community activity. It was really cool to get a quick peek into a local activity that included such a popular tourist destination. It was akin to seeking locals visiting the Angkor Temples to pray or (a little less notable) but seeing students study in Haaahvaahd Yaaahd (sorry, let me translate: "Harvard Yard"). Not that I wouldn't be ordinarily, but seeing locals utilize popular visitor destinations, for me, serves as a light reminder to remain reverent.
What else do you need to know?
There are a handful of things that you should keep in mind, so let's just do this in list format:
- The tour was roughly 90 minutes and needs to be booked in advance. We used Tongabezi for our tour and I was totally happy with the experience.
- Arrive early and be wary of the baboons (particularly if you have an easily-swipeable grocery bag!)
- The bathroom by the entry is pay-to-use.
- Wear good shoes that you're ok with getting wet. I wore sneakers that dry easily and was SO happy that I did. Grips = important.
- Don't worry if you're not a stellar swimmer - safety measures are in place to keep you from taking a dive over the edge.
- If you have nervous parents, maybe consider telling them about your adventure afterwards.
- When you book the tour(s), be sure to read all the details of the activity - they'll have recommendations on what to (and not to) bring.
- Bring only what you'd be ok with getting wet! Don't bring your DSLR. I put my phone in a good ziploc bag and it was perfectly fine.
- Small, well-fitting backpacks are ideal - and drawstring bags are also a great option.
- Sunscreen, a snack, and bug repellent should all make it into your bag.
- Set your phone to not lock automatically. This way when you hand it over to the guide to take your picture, they don't need to worry about it locking them out.
- Trust the guide to take the pictures. They have maybe 3 or 4 of our phones and did a fantastic job!
- We tipped $5 per person in our group.
- Listen to your guide. For the love of all that is sacred and good in this world - listen to them and don't be a reckless jerk. If you don't think you can handle keeping the tomfoolery to an absolute minimum, then reconsider taking this tour. Or any tour that requires any level of respect or caution. Maybe go on a pub crawl instead. If you follow along on my Instagram, you'll know that I'm definitely one for jokes and being goofy - but in the name of safety and respecting the locals and the environment, chill out.
- Have you done the Devil's Pool?
- What's your favorite waterfall? Or if you haven't seen one in person yet, do you have any on your must-see list??
- How do you deal with interactions with other travelers who may be disrespectful or inconsiderate?