My head was spinning, my senses were pounding, and my heart was soaring. I had the opportunity to fly in a helicopter over Victoria Falls with Bonisair Helicopters and found it truly spectacular. Alas, it was over much too quickly, but long enough to take in some interesting sights. Here’s what to keep your eyes opened for…
Bakota Gorge and the spray
From the air, the enormity of the spray was overwhelming – a mirage of snow-covered mountains. As we flew closer, we made our way over a series of forested gorges that the Zambezi River has carved out over millions of years in a massive erosion process (each gorge representing a past waterfall). It was a like flying over a living map of the Fall’s geological history…fascinating!
The Victoria Falls Bridge
Of course, you can’t miss it! But knowing a bit about the bridge’s history makes its sight more meaningful. Here’s how it came about…
To further his dream of British colonisation in the early 1900s, Cecil John Rhodes began building his much dreamed about grand “Cape to Cairo” railway. But his chosen route presented a rather large challenge, the Zambezi River and it’s gorges. What could be done? Build a bridge of course. But not just any bridge, “the bridge should be built so that the spray will wet the railway carriage”, instructed Rhodes. And so it was. Construction started in 1904 and took just 14 months. It was the highest bridge of its kind in the world at that time, with a central span of 152 metres, a length of 198 metres and rising 125 metres above the water at low water level.
One of the first tasks was to establish a cable system across the gorge. This was managed in October 1903 by firing a rocket, attached to a string, across the gorge. Building the bridge was a groundbreaking and impressive feat. It was designed by Sir Douglas Fox and constructed by the Cleveland Bridge company. In charge of the project was a man by the name of Sir Charles Metcalfe under strict instructions by Rhodes (who had actually never even visited Victoria Falls).
The local Loya chief, Chief Mukuni was sceptical. Watching from a vantage point on a rock he said, “Of course the white men are very clever, and can do most things, but as soon as all this zimbe (iron) gets further from the bank it will of course fall down the gorge”, he strongly claimed. When the first train went over the bridge in 1905 the chief concluded “It must only be the finger of the white man’s God that keeps the bridge up.” Chief Makuti later became the first African chief to bungee jump! He appeared on the bridge in full ceremonial regalia with most of the village watching. After a few false starts he tumbled into the gorge to wild whoops and cheers.
“Amidst the sunlit vapour is born the crowning spectacle of the falls… the glorious double rainbow follows one, whether in the rich prismatic colours of the daytime or the neutral tints of the moonlight.” – A J C Molyneux (geologist describing Victoria Falls).
I loved seeing this rainbow from above and was particularly happy to get a photo of it. Don’t forget to put your camera down too though. I was conscious of this, taking time to see the beautiful scene through my lens as well as just my naked eye.
While circling the falls, you will notice a lot of islands. The largest is Cataract island (also called Boaruka island). Another of the largest, once named Goat Island, is now known as Livingstone’s island. The story of how this came about is told best by TV Bulpin in “To the Banks of the Zambezi”
“A half mile above the falls, Livingstone had changed into a lighter canoe and expert paddlers took him to an island in the middle of the river on the very lip of the giant waterfall. Creeping with awe to the extremity of the island, Livingstone received a staggering first view of the falls by peering down directly into the prodigious fault which causes the whole spectacle. His guides informed him that at three spots near the falls, the Tonka chiefs offered sacrifice to their ancestors. Each spot was within sight of the rainbow which seemed to them to mark the presence of God. The next day Livingstone revisited the island and planted on it peach and apricot stones, as well as coffee seeds. He also cut his initials and the date (1855) into a tree trunk. This was the only place, as he told Baldwin, from the west to the east coast of Africa where he had the vanity to leave his initials.” (Page 136)
Victoria Falls Hotel
The Victoria Falls Hotel, built in 1904, was the very first hotel to be built in Victoria Falls. It’s easy to see, perched atop the south bank, with an unobscured view of the falls. The original hotel building was constructed as lodging for the men working on the bridge and railway line – just a simple structure of wood and iron. But the Falls become so popular for tourists that it was turned into a hotel. From the sky, it looks very grand and I can imagine that it’s still full of old colonial charm.
Many famous people have stayed at the hotel over the years.
Agatha Christies’ 1924 novel, The Man in the Brown Suit was inspired by her stay at Victoria Falls Hotel. While she was there she wrote a letter to her mother saying “It has been lovely here. I can’t bear to leave. It’s not just the Falls themselves, although they are very wonderful… but the whole place. No road, only paths, just the hotel and primeval woods for miles and miles stretching into blueness. A delightful hotel, long and low and white, with beautifully clean rooms, and wired all over like a fine meat safe against malarial mosquitoes.”
In 1947 the present Queen of England, Elizabeth ll (only 21 years old at the time), and her family visited the falls, named after her grandmother Queen Victoria stayed at Victoria Falls Hotel.
It’s not as easy to spot from the air as the hotel, but it’s worth looking out for, especially if you are staying at this awesome hotel (I was). I thoroughly enjoyed my time there – a relaxed, comfortable, family atmosphere where there is always something exciting going on!
How to book:
I flew with Bonisair Helicopters an activity arranged by Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. The pilots and ground staff were friendly and professional and I felt in very good hands! I would definitely recommend it.
Toll Free: 080 800 29 / 080 800 30
Mobile: (+263 774) 752 487
How did I get to Victoria Falls?
Airlink – Airlink offer a wide network of regional and domestic flights within southern Africa and operate as a franchisee to South African airways which means that travellers can connect conveniently with SAA, their partner airlines and other carriers throughout Southern Africa and the world. They are also a member of SAA Frequent Flyer loyalty programme, Voyager. (www.flyairlink.com/ Flight Bookings: online, booking agent or SAA Central Reservations +27 11 978 1111)