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CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY, intrepid explorer and soon-to-be famous Dr. David Livingstone was deep in the heart of Africa, mapping the course of the Zambezi River in August 1851, when he first heard about a mighty waterfall some distance downstream. A local tribal chief described the falls to him with the words mosi-oa-tunya, or "smoke sounds there", and Livingstone decided to discover exactly what he meant by that.
A few years later, on November 16, 1855, he travelled by canoe to an island in the middle of the river and made his way to a point at the lip of the falls, where he could see a vast body of water tumbling into the chasm below, hitting rocks at the bottom and rising again in a curtain of spray and "smoke". "It seemed to lose itself in the earth," he wrote in his journal, describing the scene in detail in his book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857). "It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight."
A statue of Livingstone still gazes upon the waterfall, which is 1.6 km wide, 108 metres tall (at its highest point) and straddles the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Livingstone pronounced it the most wonderful sight he had seen in all his travels in Africa, naming it Victoria Falls in honour of the long-reigning British monarch. In truth, mosi-oa-tunya, now routinely translated as "The Smoke That Thunders", remains an infinitely more evocative moniker.
Modern-day travellers are likely to agree. Thousands make the pilgrimage to this natural wonder each year, propelling it to its perennial position as the top tourist destination in both countries. No matter what time of year you choose to visit (flood season lasts from February to May and dry season is October and November) or which side you view the falls from, you will, like Dr. Livingstone, be overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of nature at work.
Getting to the falls is a simpler task now than when the good doctor first paddled up to them. Typically, visitors will fly into Livingstone, the namesake town in Zambia that still has a dusty frontier quality to it, or Victoria Falls, the gateway on the Zimbabwe side. Both towns are linked by the Victoria Falls Bridge, a 200-metre colonial-era span that caters to a steady stream of road, rail and foot traffic daily. Here in the Instagram age, when a thousand pictures are worth so few words, travellers in search of the perfect photo op will be tempted to view the falls from one side of the divide, then make their way across the bridge for a cross-border selfie.
Most people will tack on a trip to the falls as a stopover en route to, or from, a safari elsewhere in the continent, but there's ample wildlife on offer in these parts too. Southern Zambia's Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park (Mosi is an all-purpose name, shared by the likes of the main road in Livingstone and Zambia's premium brand of lager) extends several kilometres upstream from the falls. At just 66 square kilometres in size, it doesn't require more than a couple of fuss-free days to explore. Recommended activities include river safaris, rhino trekking and guided walks to various vantage points overlooking the falls. All are easily accessible, preferably from comfortable digs like the Thorntree River Lodge, a luxe tented camp pitched on the banks of the Zambezi and shaded by a stand of muchanga trees.
"The falls are different each time," says Tawanda Chibwe, one of the experienced guides at the lodge. "There's less water at low-water season so you are able to appreciate the rock formations or go swimming in Devil's Pool (a natural pool accessible in certain months) at the very edge of the falls." He adds, "My favourite time to visit is just after the rainy season (May-June), when the terrain is lush but not wet, and you're able to get a clear view of the falls." Even in late-August, when water levels are far from their peak, the 'Mosi Mist' will drench unsuspecting visitors who venture a little too close.
Back on dry ground, a trek in Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park will yield rewards of a different sort. White rhino sightings are the highlight of any walking safari and there are several in residence at the park. The rhinos are protected round-the-clock by armed rangers, who will ensure safety and escort visitors to within 20 metres or so of the (usually) docile creatures. "The major attractions here are the rhinos but this is a small, well-stocked park and there's a good chance to see giraffes and zebras as well," says Chibwe, who is given to spicing up his commentary with tales of the occasional charge by a bad-tempered buffalo or elephant.
Upstream from the falls, the placid waters of the Zambezi are a popular playground for an impressive array of wildlife, including hippos and elephants, birds and crocodiles. Over the course of a leisurely late-afternoon cruise along the broad upper reaches of the river, animals can be observed in this picturesque habitat, lounging on sandbanks, searching for a meal or simply co-existing with nature. Then, witness a classic African scene as the river and its surrounds are bathed in the fiery glow of the setting sun.
Sixteen years after he first set eyes on Mosi-Oa-Tunya, David Livingstone would be greeted near the shores of Lake Tanganyika in present-day Tanzania by journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who immortalised the moment with the line: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" The pioneering doctor was awed by the wildlife he encountered during his travels in Africa, but he also had an inkling of the perils that would be posed by the presence of humans. Proof can be found in an all-too prescient journal entry, which reads: "The number of animals was quite astonishing. I wish I could have photographed a scene so seldom beheld, and which is destined, as guns increase, to pass away from earth."
The writer's stay at Thorntree River Lodge was arranged by A2A Safaris (www.a2asafaris.com).