Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Victoria Falls - The ‘Smoke That Thunders’

Mosi-oa-Tunya. The phonetics of the word is romantic all on its own, but the translation is even more so. ‘Smoke that Thunders’! This is the Tonga name given to one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world and possibly the most visually spectacular experiences any Smithsonian Traveler can ever have. I am of course referring to the mighty Victoria Falls.

Our visit to this tour highlight is delayed by another truly African experience – the border crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Little did we know that the pressing lines, bustling taxis and buses, colorful people, laden bicycles, mingling baboons, rumbling trucks and general melee of a busy border post would contribute so much to our appreciation of Victoria Falls. As time ticked away and each passport was laboriously stamped, so the sun started its journey from zenith to nadir, beginning the play of shadows and light that makes photography in Africa so rewarding.

At last we are through and quickly make our way to the Victoria Falls National Park. It matters not how many times one sees the Zambezi River plummeting 330 feet into the giant scar of the Earth’s crust that is the Batoka Gorge; it is literally breathtaking every time and always exceeds the expectations of the novice visitor. David Livingstone’s 1855 description of ‘…a scene so beautiful, that angels must gaze upon it in their flight.’ still holds true and few could describe the scene more eloquently than that. Our border delay has been an unforeseen blessing. The late afternoon light backlights a 500 foot curtain of white spray whilst rainbows arc across a chasm of black rock that is fringed with the verdant accents of the perpetually wet rainforest.

The resonance of 40,000ft3/sec of water crashing into the gorge is palpable; reverberating beneath our feet, in our ears and against our bodies. Our guide tells us that Devil’s Cataract is so named because the flow of the water above the precipitous plunge has been used for centuries as a form of baptism by the local tribes to wash out and banish evil spirits to the gorge’s depths. The falls extend from this cataract for another mile to the Eastern Cataract and we follow the drenched pathway within the rain forest, emerging every so often onto a lookout point for another view that always seems better than the last. We happen upon bushbuck and vervet monkeys, and get serenaded by birds that are near impossible to see through all the foliage. Suddenly there is a commotion up ahead and a ripple of excitement passes through our group. We step out of the rainforest and are treated to a scene that is primeval Africa - three bull elephants are grazing and walking between the islands just back from the brink of the falls. This is a drama that has surely played out countless times in the 150,000 year history of Mosi-oa-Tunya, but it is a first for me! The ‘diminutive’ figure of the largest land mammal on Earth bestows a sense of scale to Victoria Falls that makes it hard to tear our eyes from the image. For the travelers who set out on this Smithsonian Journey hoping to see this iconic animal in its natural habitat, there can be no better fulfillment of this vision than what is lit before us in the golden afternoon sun. In a matter of minutes the scene dissolves as the elephants wander into the deep forest and reed beds of the islands.

To Zambian border bureaucracy, I say a big ‘Thank You’ for reminding me that impatience in Africa goes against the grain of its Karma. Every delay is just a new, and often wonderful, opportunity to experience something unique and deeply gratifying.


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