Tell me, how does the mist thunder?

6 March 2015

Words & Photos: Davison Matanga, Lifestyle & Travel Feature Writer

A visit to Victoria Falls is a very special thing, and my wife and I got the bug again to visit this enigmatic place.

The word Victoria Falls began creeping up in our conversations from time to time. It started with an innocent comment from my wife, “Mosi-oa-Tunya, what does that really mean?” I answer, “The smoke that thunders.” She counters, “It’s the water that thunders. How can smoke thunder?” I explain that the water, which is falling from a great height, becomes mist (and looks like smoke) as it plunges downwards, making a noise like thunder. She insists once again that ‘mist’ cannot thunder. Mist is the most intangible thing in the world. You can even touch it. So yes, how can it thunder? Good point.

We decided to go and see the ‘thundering smoke’ in Zimbabwe for ourselves again last year. Leaving Johannesburg, we drove our Jeep Cherokee Sport from Johannesburg to Beitbridge. From the border, it was approximately 760 km to Victoria Falls, via Bulawayo.

As Zimbabwe was going through economic upheavals at the time, we didn’t want to spend any money there because the prices for everything were going through the roof. With this in mind, we decided to make it a 48-hour trip. Fast in. Fast out. And to ensure that we could drive as far as possible with reasonably priced petrol, we came prepared with two 20-litre petrol containers in our car.

The 320 km journey from the border to Bulawayo was punctuated by regular stops every 50 km or so at impromptu police road blocks, where the police tried their best to find something wrong either with the car, its occupants, the car’s papers or the occupants’ papers. At Gwanda, a small town about 90 km from Bulawayo, our luck ran out. The police discovered that our car did not have a carbon tax certificate. As visitors to the country, we thought that the border officials would have told us about any paperwork that needed to complete before entering the country. It turned out that this was a very serious offence!

Furthermore, we had to wait by the side of the road for hours for an important receipt book to be delivered from Bulawayo later that day, so that we could be properly fined and be on our way. Why the receipt book had to be delivered from Bulawayo remains a mystery. We soon realised that this whole, intricate inconvenience could be avoided if we could somehow find a way to make the police officers ‘happy’. Needless to say, I came up with a solution that made the officers very happy and with that, the receipt book was quickly forgotten and we were finally on our way.

We realised that if we were to complete our journey in good time, we would have to continue to make the police officers ‘happy’, and this solution ensured that our journey became an uneventful one in that respect.
We slept over at a friend’s house in Bulawayo and left at dawn the next morning for ‘the smoke that thunders’. We drove the 440 km to Victoria Falls in relative peace, and the fact that we did not have a carbon certificate did not seem to bother anyone anymore.

We arrived in Victoria Falls at approximately 3 p.m. in the afternoon, and not wanting to waste any time, we drove straight to the falls. The entrance is about 100 m from the Zambian border post. We paid the entry fee and started walking down to the falls. Immediately, we noticed the higher humidity in the air. The mist. Oh yes, the mist that we had come to see. We walked to the Livingstone monument and just a short distance from the monument we had our first side view of the falls. Intimate. From the side. Like a secret.
Standing there and watching the water cascade down is special. In days gone by, the local Tonga people spoke of a Nyami-Nyami God who used to live at the falls. This might not be a literal entity. Other people say there is an ancient time gateway for alien craft under the main falls. One can forgive people for assigning a mystical, other-worldly status to the falls. It is just such a spiritual place. And to cap it all is that rainbow, hanging in the air on nothing, made up of nothing but mist. An alien craft in plain sight … .

We looked across to the Zambian side and saw some daredevil young tourists sitting right where the water approaches the point of falling into nothingness. I think that sight summarises the journey that the falls has taken over time. The mystery is, in a way, being uncovered. From the ancient times, where the local people revered the falls and approached them with fear and respect to the modern age where people dangle over the falls, with ropes, hove above with helicopters, unveiling the mystery. A necessary genesis.

We keep moving, viewing the mighty falls from every angle and every perspective. There is a poignant point to witness the immense mass of water, a solitary chair that sees all, and that is from the tiny Livingstone Island. The same place where Dr David Livingstone first glimpsed Mosi-oa-Tunya. If you had to take about five steps forward from that chair, you would quietly and easily fall into the chasm below. That’s how close the chair is to the cliff-edge of fall’s wall face. And from that chair you can almost touch the rainbow. It hangs just in front of you, like a ribbon. Being scared of heights I did not sit in that chair.

I did see different people sit in the chair from time to time. A woman. A girl. A thoughtful elderly man looking dreamily at the falling water. I admired his composure.

The falls must be a powerful sight from that angle. I tried to strike up a conversation, but he did not hear me. It’s like that here.

I think the question on everyone’s mind is the creation of the falls. Did the falls come into being as a result of a succession of accidents that eventually led to water falling in this singularly mystical way? Or are the falls a deliberate miracle that stands defiantly to confound us? When you are standing there, you know the answer to this question. But after you leave, you are puzzled to find that you have left the answer behind. Or is it just an excuse to return to this magnificent place?

Did you know?

• The Victoria Falls constitutes one of the most spectacular natural wonders of the world.
• The Victoria Falls is 1,708 m wide, making it the largest curtain of water in the world. It drops between 90 m and 107 m into the Zambezi Gorge and an average of 550,000 cubic metres of water plummet over the edge every minute.
• The falls and the surrounding area have been declared National Parks and a World Heritage Site, thus preserving the area from excessive commercialisation.


• The 'Flight of Angels' provides a fabulous vista of the falls, the upstream river and its many islands and for the more adventurous there is micro lighting with stunning views of the falls.
• Rafting the wild rapids below the falls is a very popular adventure. Visitors can also kayak, canoe, fish, go on guided walking safaris, ride on horseback and lunch on Livingstone's Island.
• Game viewing via boat or open vehicles is a popular activity above the falls or in in Chobe in Botswana.


View Victoria Falls Accommodation options with guest ratings, grading and rates - request a quote and book online.


Victoria Falls town (in Zimbabwe) lies on the southern bank of the Zambezi River at the eastern end of the Victoria Falls themselves. Victoria Falls Airport is 18 km south of the town and has international flights to Johannesburg and Namibia.

Livingstone (in Zambia) is a historic colonial city and tourism centre for Victoria Falls lying 10 km south on the Zambezi River, and a border town with road and rail connections to Zimbabwe on the other side of the Falls. The Airport has international flights to Lusaka and Johannesburg in South Africa.

Various accommodation options are available in Zimbabwe. See also the options for Accommodation in Livingstone across the river in Zambia.

National Parks

Open to visitors throughout the year, the Victoria Falls National Park in north-western Zimbabwe protects the south and east bank of the Zambezi River. It covers 23.4 km² extending from the larger Zambezi National Park about 6 km above the falls to about 12 km below the falls.

The national parks contain abundant wildlife including sizable populations of elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, and a variety of antelope. A notable feature of the park is the rainforest which grows in the spray of the falls, including ferns, palms, liana vines, and a number of trees such as mahogany not seen elsewhere in the region.

Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in Zambia is an UNESCO World Heritage site and is twinned to the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwean side. The Park covers 66 km² (25.5 square miles) from below the falls in a north-west arc along about 20 km of the Zambian river bank.