Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls

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A short history of the Falls

A short history of the Falls

The view of  Devil’s Cataract as seen from Cataract Island
The view of Devil’s Cataract as seen from Cataract Island
TOM VARLEY

The Victoria Falls is surely an Oscar-winning star of the natural world. Included in the list of the world’s seven natural wonders, it is also a World Heritage Site, Africa’s adventure playground and is listed by Zimbabwe as a RAMSAR site.From that day in 1855 when David Livingstone first experienced the marvel as a scene ‘gazed on by angels in their flight’ and then revealed his sighting to the world, they have been high on many people’s bucket list.

The earliest sightseers travelled from South Africa by ox wagon and, because of the tsetse fly belt and the almost certain death of their livestock, they left their beasts at the village of Pandamatenga in Botswana and walked the remaining 170km through dangerous game-filled wilderness. The journey took grit as well as months, often years, to complete.

A mere 158 years later travel has become almost instantaneous by comparison and has allowed many millions of visitors the privilege of experiencing the majesty of this waterfall first hand, almost all of whom, I am certain, were overwhelmed by its power and beauty. How many of those breathless witnesses, I wonder, paused to contemplate just why the Falls are where they are and quite how long they have been there.

The answer to the second question is a surprisingly short time on the geological scale.  Considering that the earth is thought to be 4.5 billion years old, give or take a week or two, the Victoria Falls is a mere puppy on the face of the planet. At the outside, just 250,000 years and maybe less than 100,000 years have seen the Victoria Falls in their current position. Only 15 million years ago they were not a twinkle in an elephant’s eye. 

In those days the Upper Zambezi joined the Okavango in creating LakeMakgadikgadi, more vast than present day Lake Victoria. But a combination of geological factors caused the Upper and Middle Zambezi to join forces: an upliftment of land in the centre of the continent, which changed the course of rivers; the layering of 300m of hard basalt rock by intense volcanic action over a relatively small area from Kazungula to the Matetsi River confluence in the Batoka Gorge; and subsequent tectonic movement which opened cracks in the rigid rock and allowed for soft clays and sand to fill them.

The new direction of the river followed the yielding rock and created at least seven earlier falls downriver, each as impressive as the one we have today. Devil’s Cataract is where the river is now eating away at the rock face and will in time create the ninth and newest fall line.

Click for more on information on RAMSAR

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 13, June 2013)

Other articles in this series:
Paradise unveiled
A short history of the Falls
The sacred hills of the Matopos
The smoke that thunders
Valley of abundance
Superlative and unexplored
The great enigmas
Africa’s grand anomaly
The Middle Zambezi
The Zambezi’s final triumph