Zambezi water levels: How it affects your visit to Victoria Falls
Located on the Zambezi River on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is called Mosi-oa-Tunya which means "smoke that thunders" by the locals. When you get there, the name makes total sense. The deafening roar the water makes as it plunges over the cliff and the cloud of spray and water vapour that results from the 108-metre fall to the bottom, inspire every visitor with awe and wonder.
If you are thinking of booking a trip to Victoria Falls, it's important to understand how the seasons and Zambezi River water levels affect what you can expect to see and do at different times of the year. This is our breakdown of the water levels throughout the year and how they affect your options.
December to March
Zambezi River water levels start rising during the rainy season which begins in December and lasts until early March. As the flow of water towards the Falls begins to accelerate, the curtain of water becomes more intense, catapulting the spray high into the sky. The ensuing dampness brings the rainforest to life. Most rainforest flowers start blooming and there is a hive of bird activity as chicks are born and nestlings are raised.
Whitewater rafting is still excellent between December and February but January is usually the last chance to take a swim in Devil's Pool on Zambia's Livingstone Island, which closes when the water levels get too high. Lesser-known Angel's Pool, situated on the other side of Livingstone Island, usually remains open longer than Devil's Pool and is a great alternative for visitors who prefer to enjoy the monumental view and the deafening roar of Vic Falls from right on the edge! Devil's Pool and Angel's Pool are highly recommended but not for the faint-hearted.
April to June
The end of the rainy season in April coincides with the arrival of water from the catchment area upstream in Zambia, sending approximately 500 million litres of water per minute roaring to the bottom of the Falls. This is high water season when Victoria Falls is at its most powerful and magnificent and when the view of the Falls from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides is awe-inspiring but often obscured by the spray.
From March to June the water can be so high and the spray so much that you may not be able to see much of the falls from many of the viewpoints. The surrounding rain forest is shrouded in a thick mist which makes taking photographs of Victoria Falls from the ground problematic. Be prepared to get wet! Visitors need to cover their clothing and valuables with a waterproof rain jacket or poncho to keep dry and wear shoes that offer good traction to avoid slipping on the wet pathways when walking.
The best way to appreciate the spectacular power of Vic Falls at this time of year is from the air. Book a 'flight of the angels' (a helicopter ride) or a microlight flight over the Falls for the best view. Due to excessively high water levels, white water rafting stops over this period, or is limited to certain rapids only, and usually resumes again in July.
July and August
The height of the dry season brings sunny days, cool nights and a peak in visitor numbers. With water in the Zambezi dropping to mid-level, the true scale of Victoria Falls can be fully appreciated. Without massive volumes of rising spray obstructing visibility, the curtain of water spanning the full 1.7 km width of the Falls presents phenomenal photo opportunities from the ground on both the Zimbabwean and Zambian sides. This is a great time to visit the falls.
Depending on the levels of rainfall in the preceding months, Livingstone Island usually reopens in June, followed by the start of the low water rafting season in July and the reopening of Angel's Pool and later Devil's Pool once water flow has dropped to safe levels.
With just the right amount of rising spray, the dry season brings optimal conditions for lunar rainbows or 'moonbows'. The dry weather and dwindling water sources also see game migrating to winter feeding grounds, making this one of the best times of the year to combine a visit to Victoria Falls with a safari in one of the nearby national parks or game reserves. The most popular major game reserves are Zimbabwe's Hwange National Park and Botswana's Chobe National Park, both within easy reach of the falls.
September to November
Water levels continue to drop even further in September, exposing the enormous scale of the gorge and its fascinating geological features on the Zambian side. By October, with very little water flowing over the Eastern Cataract, the Falls on the Zambian side are almost completely dry. What was a thundering curtain waterfall just a few months ago becomes a dry rock wall.
If you're staying in Zambia during the low water season, you can cross the border into Zimbabwe where the Falls continue to flow. While the view of the Falls on the Zambian side at this time of year is not comparable with that on the Zimbabwean side, it is possible to explore the gorge below and actually swim in the water at the foot of the Falls. Take a footpath down to the Boiling Pot and spend a lazy afternoon in the enormous natural whirlpool.
The drop in water levels not only reveals hitherto submerged Zambezi islands but also exposes rapids which makes September and October excellent months for whitewater rafting. It's also a great time to take a tour of Livingstone Island and experience the thrill of Devil's Pool, a natural rock pool right on the edge of the Falls.
Livingstone Island: Devil's Pool or Angel's Pool?
Livingstone Island, a protected World Heritage Site and the place from which Scottish explorer David Livingstone first saw the mighty Mosi oa Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) in 1855, sits perched on the very edge of Victoria Falls.
Depending on water levels, Livingstone Island is open in the low water season from July/August to December/January. A guided tour of the island, one that includes a delicious lunch, is a popular way to explore the island. The tour departs by boat from the Zambian side so visitors staying on the Zimbabwean side will need to cross the border if they want to visit Livingstone Island and Devil's Pool or Angel's Pool.
Devil's Pool is usually open between August and January but the exact timing depends on the water level. Taking a dip in this natural infinity pool which peeks over the edge of the Falls is a heart-pumping experience that is actually safer than it looks. This is not an activity you do on your own. You will be accompanied by professionally trained and highly experienced guides throughout.
When the water is too high for Devil's Pool, it may still be possible to swim at Angel's Pool which is smaller and not as deep. Don't let the name fool you, though. When the water level rises, you still get to experience the powerful force of the mighty Zambezi River. As with Devil's Pool, you'll always be in the hands of professional and experienced guides.
For more information on what to expect from the seasons at Vic Falls, take a look at our Southern African Travel Calendar, When to visit Victoria Falls.
Have you visited Devil's Pool or Angel's Pool? Tell us about your experience in the comments.
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About the author
Dianne Kokkonidis was born in Johannesburg, grew up in the Transkei and spent years exploring Europe. She returned to South Africa to live on a farm in the Outeniqua Mountains when the call of Africa got too loud to ignore. She comes from a family of storytellers, so it's no surprise she's now found her way into writing about one of the oldest stories known to mankind - the lure of Africa.