The grandeur of Africa seldom stands still. Seasons change, animals migrate and rains bring new life to the otherwise arid landscape. Victoria Falls, too, is constantly in motion. Twice the height of Niagara Falls and more than a mile wide, this sheer curtain of falling water is the largest on Earth.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally called Mosi-oa-Tunya, or Smoke That Thunders, by the Makololo people. It was renamed Victoria Falls by explorer David Livingstone in 1855 for England’s Queen Victoria.
Artist Thomas Baines followed Livingstone’s lead in 1862, spending 12 days sketching the falls from different lookouts. Baines published his portfolio The Victoria Falls, Zambesi River: sketched on the spot in 1865. The lithographs, along with Livingstone’s first-hand accounts, were the first tales and images of the falls to reach Europe.
Many of the visitors who followed were part of hunting parties. This included Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the continent in 1909 as part of the Smithsonian–Roosevelt African Expedition to collect specimens for the Smithsonian’s new natural history museum. Some consider 1977, when Kenya banned big game hunting, to be the end of the hunting safari era. Modern-day safaris often fund the conservation areas they visit, a stark contrast to the massive depletion of animals that their predecessors instigated.
Today, Victoria Falls is a no-man’s land between Zambia and Zimbabwe, both countries’ borders following the bends in the Zambezi River. At the peak of the rainy season, 130 million gallons of water tumble over the falls every minute, and columns of midst rise more than a thousand feet in the air. The cliffs opposite the falls have their own eco-system; a small rain forest forms there and traditionally stays green even during the dry season when nearby areas wither with the hot weather.
Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River and Climate Change
Victoria Falls and the Zambezi River act as literal and symbolic gauges of the environmental health of the continent as a whole. Droughts and flooding are part of the natural cycle of Africa and, consequently, part of the natural cycle of the continent’s wildlife and people. The Great Migration of millions of wildebeests and zebras in Tanzania and Kenya follows the rains from place to place each year. Small-scale farmers depend on annual flooding to water their crops. Power in Zambia and Zimbabwe also comes from massive dams built on the Zambezi downstream of Victoria Falls.
But with rising global temperatures due to climate change come delays in Africa’s rainy season. These delays push back harvests and cause heavier, less frequent monsoons. The resulting rainfall is harder to store in preparation for the droughts that follow.
Dams overflow or risk drying up, both occurrences wreaking havoc on those who depend on the river for water, food or power. Those downstream are subject to massive flooding from huge, unpredictable water surges.
In 2019, Victoria Falls became a symbol of the threat climate change poses in Africa when it dried to a trickle. A report by the World Meteorological Organization announced that the year was one of the top three warmest years on record for the continent as a whole. (The following year was even hotter!)
In an article for International Rivers, Isaac Mackenzie, a member of Zimbabwe’s parliament, is quoted as saying, “Climate change is water change. The two go hand in hand; heat drives the water cycle.”
The problem is clear: Rising temperatures are increasing the amount of water that evaporates, decreasing the Zambezi River flow and affecting both humans and animals alike.
Harald Kling, a Zambezi River expert and hydrologist, was quoted by Reuters in 2019, saying, “As the river gets hotter, 437 million cubic meters of water [more than 154 million tons] are evaporating every second.”
Conservation in Action: Controlling the Flow
Nat Hab’s partner in conservation, World Wildlife Fund, is involved in helping to solve the water issues along the Zambezi River. One way they’re doing this is by strategically utilizing the dams that slow the river’s flow.
WWF works with the governments of Zambia and Zimbabwe, the countries that control the Zambezi River dams, and specialty environmental organizations to design and implement environmental flows, or e-flows.
E-flows are specifically timed water releases from dam reservoirs that offset problems presented by climate change and the dams themselves. Mimicking the historic natural flow of the Zambezi, these releases have helped to revive the Zambezi River basin and provide greater security for the people and wildlife who call it home.
These actions are helping ease environmental stressors by reviving floodplain farming that sustains villages while at the same time restoring natural habitats crucial to the survival of Africa’s wild species.
Wildlife Safaris With a Purpose
While Livingstone and Baines have faded into Africa’s past, the safari legacy that they ushered in continues. The classic African safari is alive and well, with Nat Hab travelers replacing hunting and pomp and circumstance with exquisite adventures into some of the continent’s most wildlife-rich conservation areas.
Most of Nat Hab’s Southern Africa safaris to Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe include visits to Victoria Falls. Each trip is designed to give you an immersive perspective on the natural wilderness of a continent whose intrigue and allure still capture the imagination of eager travelers.
Our Southern Africa safaris also visit Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area countries. KAZA is the largest protected conservation area on the planet. Other itineraries skirt the shores of Lake Kariba, Earth’s largest man-made lake, which can hold billions of gallons of water.
Green Season Safari
Our Botswana: Kalahari, the Delta & Beyond safari takes you deep into the heart of KAZA territory during Africa’s green season. We start with a visit to Victoria Falls before heading to Botswana’s Chobe National Park and then onward to the Okavango Delta.
This is an especially exciting time to witness Victoria Falls, as it will be at full strength. This time of year, it’s easy to see why it’s considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World! Exploring the wilds of Botswana’s Okavango Delta provides a front-row seat to Africa’s natural cycle, as many of the resident animals give birth and rear their young during the green season.
Southern Africa Riverboat Safari
Another adventure that delves deep into Africa’s wilderness is Nat Hab’s Southern Africa Odyssey. The trip starts with Victoria Falls and continues to Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe’s largest) before setting sail by riverboat to explore Lake Kariba.
Lake Kariba is the largest manmade lake in the world, created when the Kariba Dam was built in the late 1950s. The lake holds as much as 185 billion tons of water. That’s enough to supply greater London for more than 400 years!
The waters here harbor hippos and crocodiles, while land excursions take you to Matusadona National Park. Two prides of lions call the park home, as do elephants, cape buffalo and impala. Many of the creatures found in the park are the descendants of those moved in Operation Noah, a rescue mission to save the animals living in the land now occupied by the lake.
And, of course, all of our Africa safaris combine adventure and conservation. Our expert Expedition Leaders are experienced naturalists who share their wildlife and natural history expertise, as well as their knowledge about World Wildlife Fund’s conservation efforts in the regions we visit.