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

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