A Guide to Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls

The most wonderful sight I have witnessed in Africa. None can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.
— David Livingstone

 

There are few British explorers so synonymous with Africa, than Livingstone.

And so, in 1855, when this remarkable man first set eyes on the natural wonder we now know as Victoria Falls and proclaimed it to be the most wonderful sight he had seen in during his time on the continent, well, the man probably had a point.

 

Zambezi River, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

Located in Southern Africa, and straddling two countries (Zimbabwe and Zambia), Victoria Falls has long been a bucket list item for adventurers. Indeed, at over 100m tall and a mile wide, this vast curtain of water is considered the largest waterfall in the world - more than warranting their inclusion in the 2008 project to create the new 'Seven Natural Wonders of the World'. 

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we were unable to visit both sides of the falls, and so will be focusing purely on the Zimbabwean section throughout this post. However, both of us have little doubt we'll make it to the other side someday...

 

 

How to Visit the Zimbabwean Side of Victoria Falls

To avoid confusion, we just want to clear up that both the town and the waterfall are called Victoria Falls. The waterfall is slightly outside the town, whilst most accommodation, restaurants and everything else are within the town. The airport of the same name is about 20 minutes outside the town of Victoria Falls!

Unlike the Zambian side, that requires a little more logistical organisation, reaching Victoria Falls (the waterfall!) from the small stone's-throw-away town of the same name is incredibly straight forward.

Simply head on to the main road that passes through the town centre (if you're not sure which it is, look for signs pointing towards the Zimbabwe-Zambia border, ask at your accommodation or ask a local - they're very helpful) and keep on walking. Depending on the heat, you'll likely reach the entrance to the park in around 15 minutes, on the left hand side. Opposite the entrance there is a small car park and a few stalls selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs. 

Entrance depends on nationality and age, with a standard adult rate for non-Zimbabweans being $30 USD (as of May 2018). Do note that this a single entry fee so if you choose to leave, you will have to pay again to re-enter. Payment can be made in cash USD and also euros, whist card payment is also possible (but there is a 5-6% charge).

When you enter, staff at the front gate will advise you to take a path to your left which is the start point of a self-guided tour encompassing 16 viewing points. The first view points is beyond the David Livingstone statue, and then you loop back to follow the path to the remain 14 viewing points. You can go as slow or as fast as you like with the average visit between one and two hours.

For the keen photographer, it's worth noting that the Falls open before sunrise, providing a wonderful opportunity to capture the natural wonder at golden hour and without many crowds.

If like us, you're not visiting the Zambian side of the Falls, you should still take some time to visit the bridge that connects the two countries. Whilst you technically cross over into Zambia halfway across, you don't actually need to purchase a visa in order to do so. Instead, simply let the border guards know that you only intend to enter for the view and you'll be handed a slip of paper to return once you're back on Zimbabwean soil. This post explains everything wonderfully. If you've purchased a Kaza Univisa - which provide multiple entries & exists between Zimbabwe and Zambia - then you'll have no issues, but just remember to take your passport!

Winter opening hours | 6.30 a.m. - 6 p.m.

Summer opening hours | 6 a.m. - 6 p.m.

Note that, within the Victoria Falls Park, there are bathrooms, a restaurant and drinks / snacks sellers.

 

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

Best Time to Visit Victoria Falls

This all depends on what you want to experience.

Long before Livingstone visited this area, this vast waterfall went by another name;  Mosi-oa-Tunya, or 'The Smoke that Thunders'. Visit, like us, during the height of rainy season (November-April), and this name is incredibly accurate. The sheer force of 625 million litres of water cascading over the edge every minute creating a rain storm that appears to fall from below and a thunderous bellow echo out across the land.

This did however also mean that we and everybody else got absolutely soaked on our walk around the site (and our cameras had be kept firmly in our backpacks during the worst of it) and there were a few view points where visibility only went as far as the end of your arm. It was an incredible experience seeing the falls at full force, but it certainly put limitations on our photography.

The general consensus is that the very best time to visit the falls is June or July. You still have a large volume of water left over from the rainy season to showcase the splendour of the falls, but not so much as to affect visibility.

If you're keen to walk across the top of the falls (just the thought of it makes us feel a little unwell), peak dry season (September - November) should be your aim - but just bear in mind that from viewing platforms you'll likely see more rock face than falls.

 

 

Victoria Falls Activities and Tours

Naturally, a large chunk of your time spent here will be dedicated visiting the falls themselves, however there are plenty of things to do in Victoria Falls and activities to undertake in and around the town. 

White water rafting | Not one for the risk-averse, the mighty Zambezi river is home to many grade five rapids providing the adventurous with an up close and personal experience of the falls. Trip duration is dependent upon time of the year, with the wet season and therefore very high water levels meaning that certain rapids are simply not safe. Please do note that you will find cheaper tours from touts on the street, but in order to drop the price, safety is often compromised. For those that like to book things in advance, this tour and this one come highly recommended.

Helicopter Flights | A number of people from our G Adventures group took this tour and, despite all the awesomeness they encountered in Africa, stated that their helicopter flight over the Falls remained their firm favourite. Naturally, for jut 15 minutes fly time, it's not terribly cheap, but it doesn't get more 'bucket-list' than this. Tours can be booked here.

Sunset Tour | Popular for a good reason, this tour guides you slowly down the Zambezi River at sunset whilst providing unlimited drinks (yes, that includes booze) and snacks - all for just £30. Book and find out more here.

Bungee Jumping from Victoria Falls Bridge | As much as we'd love to do this, quite frankly neither of us have the cajones any more - but this 111m bungee jump (said to be one of the best in the world) remains a firm favourite for those in the region. Pricing is $120 USD per person, and can be booked in advance here. A bridge swing and bridge slide are available in same location.

A Bike Tour | For those not planning to visit the Zambian side of the Falls, with a route that passes through a local township, over the stunning border bridge and along the Zambezi, this tour provides at least a passing glimpse of what lies over the border. Highly recommended by those that take it. Priced at around £80 for three hours. Click here for more information.

Chobe National Park Day Trip | One for the animal lovers, this tour involves two safaris (one river-based, the other in a 4x4) in the Botswana's incredible Chobe National Park (no, that's not a typo - you go to Botswana!). Find out more here.

Visit the Market | By the Shearwater Village, there is a nice little market (directed at tourists rather than locals) to buy souvenirs etc.

Take Afternoon Tea | The Victoria Falls Hotel is perhaps the grandest spot to stay in town but those on a more modest budget will likely baulk at the price tag. Afternoon tea here however, with spectacular views over the Falls provides a wonderful opportunity to experience a piece of (controversial) history, whilst indulging in tea and scones. For more information, see their website

With the exception of the bike tour and afternoon tea, all the above are optional extras that can be included as part of the G Adventures Tour we took, starting from Victoria Falls.

 

A word about animal welfare

Driving from the airport to our accommodation, we were shocked to see a number of billboard advertisements for up-close and personal experiences with wild animals within Victoria Falls - namely elephant safaris and lion walks - a trend that continues once you are in town, and within the hotels themselves.

Often marketed as sanctuaries, these establishments provide elephant rides and the opportunity to interact with lions in a manner that defies common sense or any sense of responsible travel. 

Whilst these are undoubtedly popular, we implore you to give these tours a miss. In most cases (albeit regrettably so), sanctuaries are often only a sanctuary in name.

To find out more about animal-based tourism that should be avoided head on over to this post.

 

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

The Best Accommodation in Victoria Falls

Given the popularity of Victoria Falls, accommodation options are plentiful and cover from the most modest of budgets to the heights of luxury. Here our our top picks:

Shoestrings Backpacker Lodge | We spent a single night here when we first arrived in Vic Falls, and absolutely loved it. There's a small plot for camping, but most people choose to stay in the dorms or good-sized privates. It's nothing fancy, but to be honest, most people pick Shoestrings for its atmosphere - especially on the weekend when the bar becomes a popular place for both backpackers and locals to party. If you're a backpacker, we highly recommend Shoestrings. Check prices For more and availability, via their booking pages on either booking.com or Hostelworld

Shearwater's Explorer Village | The start point of many overlanding trips (including our 21-day tour with G Adventures), Shearwater's provides a variety of accommodation options to suit a range of budgets including camping spots, permanent tents for those travelling without equipment, plus rooms and suites of a high standard. There's an on-site restaurant, bar, pool and tour office. For more information or to check prices and availability, check here.

Victoria Falls Hotel | The Queen Mother's hotel of choice, this hotel sits firmly in the luxury hotel category. Built in 1904, it mixes colonial charm with modern comforts in a grand setting. The very first hotel to be built in the area, The Victoria Falls Hotel continues to be a very popular choice.

Victoria Falls Safari Lodge | Whilst the facilities and rooms are exceptional, the real reason to stay at this safari lodge is the spectacular view overlooking a large watering hole. Watch wild elephants, antelope and more from your balcony and enjoy a truly African experience. For more information, or to check prices and availability, click here.

 

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

How to get to Victoria Falls

By far the easiest way to get to Victoria Falls is by plane, with several flights a week from Harare, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Windhoek and Addis Ababa. For those travelling to Africa from Europe, Asia or the Americas, your journey to Victoria Fall will mean a connection transfer at one of these five airports.

Taxis are available at the airport and can be arranged with the information desk (takes 20-30 minutes and costs $30 USD), however if you are able to book in advance, this pre-arranged transfer service which you can easily book online upto 24 hours before your arrival works out cheaper for couple or individuals.

Please note that immigration at Victoria Falls airport is not a swift process, with the need for most to obtain visas on arrival meaning that fairly large queues can form. If you choose to use the transfer service noted above, ensure that you plan your pick-up time accordingly and notify them of any delays on your plane journey.

 

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

What Visa Do you Need for Zimbabwe?

Firstly, with recent large-scale change in the Zimbabwean government and subsequent loosening of entry requirements, we highly recommend you check your own government's advice on entry requirements before you travel.

If you choose to not purchase your visa in advance, or simply aren't able to, then you will quickly arrive at the immigration checkpoint within Victoria Falls airport after you touch down. As noted, the queues become quite lengthy, so you may have to wait a while. When we visited, queues were split into people buying single entry, the Kaza Univisa and those who already had entry paperwork. We opted for the Kaza Univisa, which is valid for 30 days providing you stay within Zimbabwe and Zambia (although the Zambian government notes that it also covers "those who visit Botswana for day-trips through Kazungula Borders"). The visa covers multiple entries between the two countries for the duration and costs $50 USD (May 2018).

If you have no plans to take travel within Zambia, then you will be better off simply purchasing a single entry visa for Zimbabwe for $30 USD (May 2018 ) - note that certain nationalities may be charged more, but there is a list of pricing in the immigration office where you purchase the visa.

We recommend paying for your visa in cash with USD (a big tip for Africa is that you can never bring enough USD with you, especially if you're travelling in the continent for a long period of time), as the card terminals were a little hit and miss (and we think there was an additional charge of 5-6%). 

 

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

 

Don't Forget to Pack...

On our flight from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls, the cabin of our plane was a sea of beige and khaki, a mass of people that left little doubt that they had boarded a plane to enjoy the best of Africa's nature. Us on the other hand, well, let's just say that we valued comfort over practicality.

That is not to say however that there are not a number of items that a trip such as this requires. Here are the things that we took to Victoria Falls (plus a couple that we certainly wish we had!):

Sunscreen | With winter day temperatures as high as 27C, this part of Zimbabwe is not great for those not too disposed to the heat. Add in the potential wet weather, and you really need a good sunscreen that won't wash away.

Mosquito Repellent | Malaria is a genuine concern here, so whilst you should be on anti-malarial (we're going to ignore any of you shaking your head right now), it's still advisable to limit exposure to mozzy bites. After years of alternating between plastic-melting DEET concoctions and next to useless natural ones, we've finally found something that contains no chemicals and actually works! Incognito is completely natural, not tested on animals and worked so well that three weeks in Africa, and we each only got a couple of bites.

Waterproof Jacket / Poncho | Visiting the falls any time during rainy season? A waterproof is kind of an essential. We, stupidly, left ours nicely laid out on our bed in the UK (Emily has this one, Andrew this one), leaving little choice but to join the drowned rat brigade. The visitors centre does sell flimsy but effective waterproof ponchos at the visitors centre, and in retrospect, this would have been ideal (especially as they are able to cover a backpack as well) - buying them in advance (and in a multi-pack) works out cheaper, and is something we'll probably keep in an emergency pack for the future although we'd rather not use the extra plastic.

GoPro | Despite having two cameras the manufacturers assured us were 'weather proof', we're pretty sure that this doesn't apply to being soaked by the world's largest waterfall - we probably should have used our GoPro for certain parts of the route. We have the GoPro 5 - but they realeased a newer version a few months ago. It's a bit of kits that's essential if you're doing the bungee jump.

Waterproof Phone Case | These little cases don't cost a fortune, but being able to provide an extra protective layer for your phone is worth its weight in gold and means that you don't have to constantly put in and take it out of your pocket. We like this one - it's cheap, but works so well.

Practical Shoes | A pair of Tom's and a pair of converse. In case you're wondering, these were our highly impractical shoe choices for our visit to the Falls. A shoe like this, that can get wet, still has good grip and is great for lots of travel purposes would have been much better. Although, do note that the pathways within Victoria Falls are all tarmac / asphalt. 

Water Filtration Bottle | Tap water in Zimbabwe is not safe to drink, but plastic water bottles are dreadful for the environment. The solution? A water bottle with a built in filtration device, such as the Water-to-Go bottle (use the code ADR15 to get 15% off) - makes all water safe, making it an essential part of any African adventure.

 


 

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One of the '7 Natural Wonders of the World', Victoria Falls is a landmark on most people's bucket lists - and for good reason, they're incredible. Here is everything you need to plan a trip including information about the park, how to get there, where to stay, visa requirements, Victoria Falls activities and tours, the best time to visit the falls and what to pack.