Victoria Falls is more than a waterfall. It’s the hub of a host of adventure tourism activities that sprawl across three countries. We spent two weeks there partaking in a canopy tour, the best one-day white water rafting in the world, two safaris, a swim in Devil’s pool, a sunset cruise, and of course, a day at the falls, which are amazing. And what we did doesn’t even count some of the most popular activities; bungee jumping, a gorge swing, or a helicopter tour. While we did a lot, we still took a slow pace and ended up spending much of our time like hippos, submerged in the pool or lazily drying next to it.
But any visit to the falls is ultimately framed by two questions: Where to stay (Livingstone, Zambia or Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe)? and When to go (high water or low water)?
Where to stay? Zambia v. Zimbabwe
Let’s be clear, no matter where you stay you’ll be able to see the falls from both the Zambia and Zimbabwe sides. It’s fairly easy to cross the border and return in a single day. Doing so requires 3 taxis. From Zimbabwe you take one taxi to the border ($5), one across the border ($5), and one to Livingstone ($10). Then repeat on the way back. There are plenty of taxis lined up at each point. Just make sure you get a Kaza Visa when you fly in. It’s $50 but allows for unlimited border crossings between the two countries. Otherwise, you’ll get hit with serious visa fees each time you want to cross.
Still, the question remains, which side to choose?
Seeing the Falls
For views of the falls Zimbabwe is definitely a stronger choice. The falls drop from Zambia and fall in the river that divides the two countries. From the Zimbabwe side you can walk the entire length of the falls and there over a dozen viewing points which face the falls head on. Also, we enjoyed finding monkeys who make their home in the rainforest on the Zimbabwe side.
The Zambian side however offers a view from the side of the falls that is dry during low-water. During high-water your limited in your perspective and during low water you can’t see much at all. This photo is from the Zimbabwe side, but you can see what you might view from the Zambian side. This whole area is covered by a wall of water during high season.
Some older research online says that Zimbabwe is cheaper so we were not so pleasantly surprised to find some of the highest prices we’ve seen anywhere in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The reason being that after a bout of hyper-inflation (you can buy 10 billion dollar notes in the street) Zimbabwe switched to the US dollar as its currency. The dollar is strong now so prices are expensive. A driver confided to us he was afraid the strong dollar would keep away the local tourists who normally come around Christmas. On the bright side, you can get $50 bills from ATMs which comes in handy when traveling across Africa.
Zambia was much cheaper for expenses like food and accommodation. However, the cost for activities, which are priced in US dollars on both sides of the falls, are pretty much identical.
We encountered both scheduled and unscheduled power outages on both sides of the falls but they were definitely more frequent of the Zambian side. Apparently Zambia is dependent on hydro-electric power and when the river is low electricity becomes harder to produce.
Our first night there was a mess. Power went out in our hostel, taking the water pump with it. We ventured into the street to find comfort in a nice dinner and found the whole city was in darkness. Fortunately the super market had a generator. It was packed, and people were sweeping the floors to prep for closing, but we got some sausages, bread, and cheese and made due.
Victoria Falls is a small tourist town, built completely around the falls. The main street is mostly tour companies and places to buy souvenirs. Baboons hang out in the streets. You see the occasional warthog. The OK supermarket is pretty well stocked. You can also walk to the falls from the town, which is quite charming.
Livingstone on the other hand is a proper city with more options for restaurants and night life and two substantially nicer supermarkets.
The only activity that can’t be easily done from both sides is a game drive in the private Stanley and Livingstone game reserve. They are a certified participant in the black rhino breeding program and are probably the single best place to get a chance to see this very endangered species amongst other animals.
We had a better time in Zimbabwe. But this may be largely due to the number of unexpected outages in Zambia, a lack of air circulation at our hostel (Fawlty towers) which led to very unpleasant nights and the fact we met a lot of great people at our backpackers (Victoria Falls Backpackers). We did find the souvenir markets to be better and more affordable in Zambia and transportation in and out of the area is easier and cheaper to arrange.
When to go? High Water v. Low Water
Victoria Falls gets its fame from being the longest waterfall in the world. However, this is only really true in high water. During high water you can see the fall in all its 1.8km glory and there’s enough mist to drench anyone who gets near. As one guide told us, “you may as well bring shampoo.”
But we were there during low water. At first we were disappointed that there was no water for over half of the falls, but we ended up being glad we visited during this time since low water season has many distinct advantages.
1.Devil’s Pool & Livingstone Island – On the edge of the main falls there’s a spot called Devil’s Pool where you can safely swim right up to the edge of the falls and look into the gorge while water drops from the cliff just a few feet away. It’s a phenomenal experience and not an option during high-water when it would be impossible to not be taken over the edge. The featured photo also shows us on Livingstone Island, which is the entrance point to Devil’s Pool and only accessible during low water.
2. Rafting – Obviously we didn’t raft in both seasons but apparently some of the best rapids are closed during high water for safety reasons. Low water has the reputation of being the best season for rafting. Will says it was one of the most exhilarating experiences of his life.
3. Animals – If you also want to go on a safari low water is a better time for two reasons. 1) There’s less water so animals are more concentrated around the areas where water exists. 2) The bush is dry and it’s easier to spot animals. During high water, leaves and green bushes end up obscuring your view.
Still if seeing ‘the smoke that thunders’ in its full Discovery Channel scope is your sole focus you want to make sure you’re there during high-water. (High water is Feb-Aug, with a peak in April, Low water is Sept-Jan)
All the best!