The Smoke that Thunders

© Main Falls and Devils Cataract
Since time immemorial, humans have been fascinated by the sheer power of the geological marvel we call the Victoria Falls, the greatest falling curtain of water in the world. Photo: Courtesy Zambezi TourismThe Falls mark the dramatic transformation of the broad, placid, slow-moving Zambezi River into a raging, angry torrent that crashes into a foaming chasm before racing through gorges carved deep below the surrounding countryside. To bear witness to this phenomenon, we cannot help but consider our own mortality and what place we occupy in nature.

Shrouded in mythology, the Victoria Falls has moved and inspired millions of people since it first became known to the outside world more than 150 years ago. Obviously, it has been a source of wonder for humans for far longer.

Archaeological evidence from the area shows that humans have inhabited the Victoria Falls region for at least 1,5 million years. Its first known name - from the Toka Leya era before the 19th century - was Shongwe, which means "pot".

The name Mosi-oa-Tunya came into use with the arrival of the Karanga people in the area around 1834.

It was the Karanga who guided the British explorer David Livingstone to the Falls in 1855, prompting him to write in his diary:
"The whole scene was extremely beautiful ... 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."

Any river is an allegory of life. Creative spirits through the ages have drawn inspiration from the transcendental passage of water through earth, sea and sky, an alchemical cycle that is both obvious and mysterious. There is no obstacle that can prevent water from realising its oneness in the oceans. Its seeming purpose almost mimics the desires of a living being. It cannot but find its way.

On board a sundowner cruise on the lush, palm-fringed Zambezi a few kilometres above the Falls, there is nothing to suggest that the river is about to hit its point of geological trauma. Here, the water flows sluggishly over a sheet of basalt through a wide, shallow valley ringed by a low, distant set of sandstone hills.

Then, almost without warning, the entire 2km-wide waterway crashes into a 100m-deep fault line that runs at right angles across its face, depositing half-a-million cubic litres every minute into a gorge one-thirtieth of the width of the river above it. The river's personality changes so abruptly in such a terrifying and beautiful way that it takes your breath away, invoking a variety of responses that unmask the reality of our own mortality.

The Raw Power and Beauty of Victoria Falls

The spray is the solitary reason why there is a permanent rainforest on the edge of the gorge opposite Victoria Falls. The Falls consist of a number of individually named waterfalls, each with its own dynamic.

The heaviest flow of water is on the extreme west, on the Zimbabwean side of the river, at a section known as the Devil's Cataract, which is about 10m lower than the rest of the Falls. Here, beneath the stony gaze of the statue of David Livingstone, the water plunges 60m into the gorge below.

The Devil's Cataract is separated from the rest of the watercourse by Boaruka Island (also known as "Cataract Island"). East of Boaruka Island is the 150m-wide Main Falls, which almost always has an impressive display of water falling across its face. Here, the fall is slightly higher than Devil's Cataract, measuring up to 93m from lip to gorge, where it edges up against the next island - the 100m-wide Kaseruka Island, also known as Livingstone Island.

It was from this island that Livingstone reportedly first saw the Falls, having come downstream by canoe. The spray is heaviest at Devil's Cataract and Main Falls, which has led to the development of a permanent rain-forest on the southern side of the gorge opposite these falls. During the rainy season, when the most water is falling over the Falls, walking through the rainforest can be like walking in a perpetual thunderstorm. During the dry season, when water volumes are at their lowest, the rainforest can give one the feeling of walking in a gentle mist.

To the east of Kaseruka Island are the Rainbow Falls, which take their name from the fact that the play between light and water here result in a permanent rainbow, which may be viewed from Danger Point, on the opposite side of the river. Here the Falls are at their highest, with the bottom of the gorge 108m below the lip.

Next to Rainbow Falls are Horseshoe Falls, named for a horseshoe-shaped fissure in the basalt. When the water level is low, hippo and elephant may be seen in the shallow pools slightly upstream from Horseshoe Falls. The next set of waterfalls is called Armchair Falls, named for the fact that, during low flow periods, visitors can actually sit in an armchair-shaped rocky pool right on the edge of the precipice.

The Eastern Cataract is the final set of falls and the one most prone to drying up. Before the summer rains come, there is often no water at all passing over the Eastern Cataract, which butts up against the Zambian mainland.

Brett Hilton-Barber and Lee R. Berger. Copyright © 2010 Prime Origins.

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