VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe — Many places in the world claim to be one of the seven wonders of the world, but few truly deserve it. One deserving place is Victoria Falls, on the Zambezi River bordering Zimbabwe and Zambia.
Since its discovery by explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone in 1855, this geological marvel has been a must-see destination in southern Africa. But today's tourist finds a new twist on this old favorite: the sport of river rafting.
You can reach Victoria Falls via daily Air Zimbabwe flights from Harare, or from the Zambia side of the border by air from Lusaka to the town of Livingstone, about 10 kilometers from the falls.
Many travelers stop over at the falls on their visits to the region's wildlife areas, which include the game parks of Botswana's Okavango Delta and Zambia's Luangwa and Zimbabwe's Hwange national parks.
Tourists have been coming to Victoria Falls ever since it was practical. In the early years of this century the trans-African railroad from Cairo to Cape Town was engineered to pass close to the falls, and almost at once the Victoria Falls Hotel opened on the southern edge of the great gorge created by the river's tumble.
The hotel was run by Pierre Garuzzi, straight from the five-star Carlton and Savoy hotels in London, and featured a French chef, Arab waiters and an American barman, a classic use of national talents.
But it is neither hotelier nor guidebook hype that draws people to Victoria Falls. It is simply the pure physical miracle of the place that has attracted legions of visitors over the decades, for to stand near the edge of this cascade is to rediscover a sense of wonderment.
At this mile-wide cleft in the basaltic skin of southern Africa, the Zambezi River plummets more than 300 feet, twice the height of Niagara, into a narrow gorge of black rock.
And from the long chasm into which the torrent falls far below, a single narrow passage slips like a snake through a switchback canyon as the Zambezi continues its long journey to the Indian Ocean.
Five distinct falls plunge over the long lip, but in the full spate of the rainy season, usually from January to June, the five falls are obstructed from view by towering clouds of spray caused by the water's plunge.
For the visitor who ventures down the Rain Forest Trail on the Zimbabwe side of the falls, rain gear is essential and the noise of the cataract is overwhelming. Hence the native name for the falls, Musi-o-tunya, "the smoke that thunders."
Until 1981 visitors were content with simply looking at this wonder: No one had tried to go over Victoria Falls in a barrel, or to challenge the wild course of the Zambezi River from the base of the falls.
Then California-based Sobek Expeditions, with backing from National Geographic and a film crew from ABC's "American Sportsman," took the wild ride down the river.
A week and several flipped boats later the crew floated into the quiet waters of Lake Kariba 100 kilometers downstream. They pronounced the trip a classic, and the screening of the "American Sportsman" film was one of the series' most popular episodes. (The barrel-over-the-falls trick has yet to be tried, however; most experts agree that it's certain death.)
Sobek began taking paying customers down the Zambezi in 1982, limiting the season to the low-water months between August and December. It offers two trips: a one-day ride from the base of Victoria Falls through 10 major rapids and a weeklong expedition to the quiet waters of Lake Kariba.
In 1985 another river company--known simply as Raft Inc.--from Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe, began offering one-day trips on a different section of the river below the falls. In that relatively short time, since 1981, the rafting of the Zambezi has transformed the tourist industry of Victoria Falls.
The falls are still the big draw, but once visitors reach the small town of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, or cross the border toward Livingstone, Zambia, a virtual media blitz (in African terms, at least) publicizes the attraction of river running on the Zambezi.
Posters and price lists are evident in hotel lobbies, car rental agencies, Air Zimbabwe ticket offices, even at the usually circumspect border stations. Tourists from Australia, Europe, Asia and the United States who might never consider a rafting trip in their home country find their curiosity piqued.
Were a hydraulic engineer to design the perfect white-water river, he would merely duplicate the efforts of nature on the Zambezi. In its first seven miles below the falls, 10 steep chutes lead into rolling waves and boiling holes, one after another, with calm pools of 72-degree water beneath each. The result is a one-day river trip that must surely be among the wonders of the rafter's world.