We are frequently asked this question and it is quite confusing for many travellers who then book flights out of Livingstone (Zambia side) even though the tour they are doing will end at Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe side); or the other way around for that matter.
Which side to visit (Zambia or Zimbabwe) and the best time to see Victoria Falls depends on what a traveller wants to see and experience.
Essentially there are 3 factors at play:
1. Which side offers the best view of the actual waterfall?
2. Political / social situation
3. Flights / Airports
Below I will give some information and background on these 2 factors for travellers to use:
Which side offers the best view of the actual waterfall?
- This will depend on the time of year you are travelling, but in my personal opinion the best view of the falls under most circumstances is from the Zimbabwe side / Victoria Falls. It is only during peak flow (February to June) when the mist obscures the actual waterfall so much that viewing from the Zambia side / Livingstone is most beneficial.
- The Zambezi basin above the falls experiences a rainy season from late November to early April, and a dry season the rest of the year. The river’s annual flood season is February to May with a peak in April.
- But if you have enough time, it will even be better (in my opinion) to visit both Victoria Falls and Livingstone. The Zimbabwean side is considered by many to be the more beautiful with direct viewing of the ‘Devil’s Cataract’ and ‘Rainbow Falls’. Towards the end of a normal rain season the flow of water over the fall reaches 500 000 cu m per minute and the thunder of the falling water is something unique to experience, it will take your breath away.
- July/August and January/February offers the best compromise between a flow rate which impresses with its power, and the falls not being completely obscured by spray. During July through September is perhaps the most popular time frame to visit the falls (good views and best weather). Gradually in transition from a flooded state to a low flow state with an acceptable volume of water and fewer problems with mist.
- This would probably be the best time to go in terms of getting the best of both worlds taking in the impressive visual impact of the falls and partake in the most activities.
PLEASE NOTE: South Africa has imposed (as of June 2011) that all travellers coming from Zambia / Livingstone MUST HAVE a Yellow Fever vaccination if they return back into South Africa, even if you are only in transit.
The highest flow each year is recorded at the end of April. The river’s high water, however, can be considered from February to June. During this period, the spray from the falls typically rises to a height of over 400 metres (1,300 feet), and sometimes even twice as high, and is visible from up to 50 km (30 miles) away. You could then expect the falls to span the entire 1.7km width of the Zambezi River as it plunges over its 108m wall. Unfortunately, during this time most of the viewpoints are too wet to photograph effectively and raincoats are advantageous. This would be the perfect time to view the falls from the air.
During this time at full moon, a ‘lunar-rainbow’ can be seen in the spray instead of the usual daylight rainbow. During the flood season, however, it is impossible to see the foot of the falls and most of its face, and the walks along the cliff opposite it (Zimbabwe side) are in a constant shower and shrouded in mist. Close to the edge of the cliff, spray shoots upward like inverted rain, especially at Zambia’s Knife-Edge Bridge.
The lowest flow each year is recorded at the beginning of November meaning the rocky face of the falls is more predominant than the actual water fall. At this time it becomes possible (though not necessarily safe) to walk across some stretches of the river at the crest on the Zambia side – like for instance the Devil’s Pool.
At lowest flow, the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls being higher than the Zimbabwean side, the water goes toward Zimbabwe and the Zambian side becomes dry rock wall.
Political / social situation:
Until a few years ago, when the decisions of President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe started impacting negatively on the perception of the country, Victoria Falls was a major tourist destination with parties abounding in all the clubs and backpackers. Today, due to the President’s actions, most tourists have deserted Victoria Falls in favour of Livingstone, on the Zambian side. The town of Victoria Falls, however, is within easy walking distance of the falls and there are still many places providing safe, comfortable (even luxurious) accommodation. Personal safety is not a major issue; instead, beware of scam artists.
Zambia has not had any political / social disturbances and the plight of the Zimbabwean is even more evident visiting both sides, or when you see the steady stream of Zimbabweans crossing the border and back to get basic necessities in Livingstone.
Flights / Airports:
First and foremost, both Victoria Falls and Livingstone have got International Airports. Victoria Falls airport (aptly named Victoria Falls Airport) uses the code VFA, and Livingstone airport (aptly named Livingstone Airport) uses the code LVI.
Secondly, there are no direct flights from either Victoria Falls Airport or Livingstone Airport to any international destination; you will first have to fly to Johannesburg (or Lusaka) to then connect with your international flight home or elsewhere in Africa.