This edited article about David Livingstone and the Victoria Falls originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 732 published on 24 January 1976.
It was David Livingstone, first European to visit the great waterfall on the Zambezi River, who gave it the name Victoria Falls, after Britain’s Queen.
The Africans called it Mosioa-tunya – The Smoke That Thunders.
On his journeys through Africa, the famous missionary and explorer had been told of the place where the river, it was said, hurled itself into a bottomless pit, from which clouds of smoke rose to the sky. On his great west-to-east expedition in 1855, he was determined to see this marvel.
Livingstone and his party approached the falls from above in small canoes. While still several miles away, he could hear the thunderous sound, and see great columns of vapour in the air.
He later admitted to a “tremor” of anxiety as the canoes glided closer to the lip of the falls. But they were safely beached on an island in the centre, right on the edge of the precipice. All thoughts of danger were forgotten as he gazed at the stupendous sight of the Zambezi’s waters plunging into a deep chasm which ran at right angles to the river’s course. From the churning cauldron of water below, spray rose in dense clouds, to fall again as rain.
The Zambezi rises in eastern Angola and at first flows south. At the Victoria Falls, roughly halfway across the continent, it has already changed direction to start its long journey eastward to the Indian Ocean.
It is not the height of the Victoria Falls which is its most striking feature, the highest falls in the world are the Angel Falls in Venezuela, with a total drop of 3,212 feet (979 m), compared with the modest figure of 355 feet (108 m) at the Victoria Falls. But the latter offers a spectacle unmatched for splendour.
Most of the world’s great falls drop directly into gorges through which the river flows on without any marked change of direction. The behaviour of the Zambezi at the Victoria Falls is unique. Facing the falls is a sheer precipice, barring the way of the raging waters. The rock wall is, at it farthest, only 240 feet (73 m) from the face of the falls.
The rock barrier is broken at just one place, about a third of the way in from the left bank. At this point, a narrow gorge, never more than 100 feet (30 m) wide, allows the waters to escape. Through it they surge into the Boiling Pot, a maelstrom of churning water. From there the torrent turns sharply right into what is called the Second Gorge, running almost parallel with the chasm into which the falls themselves plunge.
Beyond the Second Gorge, the river runs through two more gorges, each at a sharp angle to the previous one. After the Fourth Gorge, the course becomes more straightforward, as the river runs on towards the man-made Lake Kariba, some 90 miles (144 km) downstream.
Above the falls, the Zambezi is at its widest, about 4,500 feet (1,371 m). Its current is comparatively slow as it approaches the drop, which is divided into four sections by islands on its brink.
Nearest to the right bank is Leaping Water. Here the formation of the rock edge causes the water to be hurled out from the face of the falls. It is separated by Boaruka Island from the most impressive section of all – the Main Falls, where the water falls in a solid mass into the chasm.
Beyond the Main Falls is the island on which Livingstone landed, and which now bears his name. Next comes the Rainbow Falls, only slightly less imposing than the Main Falls. Rainbows are in fact a beautiful feature of the falls as a whole. They result from the refraction of the sun’s rays by the drops of spray that constantly fill the atmosphere.
The spray from the falls has the same effect as rain in encouraging vegetation on the river banks and islands. Especially lush is the Rain Forest, which crowns the cliff facing the falls. Its trees include feathery date palms, the Cape fig and African ebony. Orchids and other exotic plants also flourish.
Birds, small mammals, butterflies and other insect life abound in the neighbourhood of the falls. Zambia and Rhodesia both maintain national parks on their respective sides of the river. A short distance from the falls is the Zambian town of Livingstone.
It is estimated that the Victoria Falls have taken 10,000 years to move back from the Fourth Canyon to the position they now occupy. In thousands of years, it is likely they will have retreated farther still.
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