The Victoria Falls constitutes one of the most spectacular natural wonders of the world. The Local people call it 'Mosi-oa-Tunya' - 'The Smoke That Thunders'. There is a magic about them manifested in the towering column of spray when the river is high, the thunder of the falling water, the terrifying abyss and tranquil lagoons upstream in which hippo and deadly crocodiles lurk.
For a considerable distance above the falls, the Zambezi flows over a level sheet of basalt, in a shallow valley bounded by low and distant sandstone hills. The river's course is dotted with numerous tree-covered islands, which increase in number as the river approaches the falls. There are no mountains, escarpments, or deep valleys which might be expected to create a waterfall, only flat plateau extending hundreds of kilometres in all directions.
The falls are formed as the full width of the river plummets in a single vertical drop into a transverse chasm 1708 meters (5604 ft) wide, carved by its waters along a fracture zone in the basalt plateau. The depth of the chasm, called the First Gorge, varies from 80 metres (262 ft) at its western end to 108 metres (360 ft) in the centre. The only outlet to the First Gorge is a 110-metre-wide (360 ft) gap about two-thirds of the way across the width of the falls from the western end, through which the whole volume of the river pours into the Victoria Falls gorges.
There are two islands on the crest of the falls that are large enough to divide the curtain of water even at full flood: Boaruka Island (or Cataract Island) near the western bank, and Livingstone Island near the middle - the place that David Livingstone first saw the falls from in Zambia. At less than full flood, additional islets divide the curtain of water into separate parallel streams. The main streams are named, in order from Zimbabwe (west) to Zambia (east): Devil's Cataract (called Leaping Water by some), Main Falls, Rainbow Falls (the highest) and the Eastern Cataract.
Around the Falls is rainforest sustained by the spray of the Falls with some plant species rarely found elsewhere in Zambia or Zimbabwe. During peak flow (January to June) the Zambian side of the Falls is the most spectacular and there are walkways to look out points and across the swaying Knife Edge bridge.
The first European to see the falls was David Livingstone on 17 November 1855, during his 1852–56 journey from the upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river. The falls were well known to local tribes, and Voortrekker hunters may have known of them, as may the Arabs under a name equivalent to “the end of the world”. Europeans were sceptical of their reports, perhaps thinking that the lack of mountains and valleys on the plateau made a large falls unlikely.
Livingstone had been told about the falls before he reached them from upriver and was paddled across to a small island that now bears the name Livingstone Island in Zambia (one can visit this island from Livingstone, a truly incredible experience). Livingstone had previously been impressed by the Ngonye Falls further upstream, but found the new falls much more impressive, and gave them their English name in honour of Queen Victoria. He wrote of the falls, "No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.
The falls and the surrounding area have been declared National Parks and a World Heritage Site, thus preserving the area from excessive commercialisation.