I had expected Victoria Falls to overwhelm—there's a reason that it's one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Still, I hadn't imagined a place where rainbows form complete circles around you, where baboons run wild, and where (in most spots) no amount of neck craning can take in the full view of the falls, from precarious top (355 feet) to cauldron-like bottom. I might never have experienced any of this had my brother, Joe, not joined the Peace Corps and deployed to Zambia, where the falls tumble along the border with Zimbabwe. (These days, many travelers prefer the Zambian side because of political instability across the way.)
My intrepid brother convinced us that we didn't need a guided tour—we could easily follow a series of signs starting at the park gate. The thrills came fast: Paved paths wound us along cliffs directly facing the falls, and soon the sheet of tumbling water was right there, rattling our bones. We crossed a number of bridges, including the unspeakably rickety Knife Edge, which dangled us right over the gorge. August, when we traveled, is supposedly the dry season, but still we got caught in a cold rain. I hadn't packed a raincoat, and refusing to rent one of the park's questionable ponchos, I ended up completely drenched.
In late summer, the Zambezi River roars at a fraction of its peak, and the lower flow translates to less mist and better visibility. Another bonus: There are also far fewer mosquitoes and creepy-crawly things. I had heard, however, that no matter when you go, a colony of bold baboons can be found roaming around. My brother had advised me to remove any food from my backpack and pockets and to avoid eye contact with the beasts, and thankfully, we never had to tangle with one of the 50-pound primates.
After a few hours, we drove to the nearby Jollyboys Backpackers guesthouse in the town of Livingstone. We refueled with egg sandwiches at the poolside restaurant while falls-goers mingled and booked local adventures, including safaris in nearby Botswana. We'd debated staying here but chose a more authentic option instead: the Bushfront Lodge, where our chalet had, fittingly, a waterfall-like shower with walls of stone.
We'd seen the cascade's view from the top, but the bottom is where the real action happens. So the next morning we set out to take in the churning broth at the base known as the Boiling Pot. The descent was dangerous—100 steps embedded in a steep slippery hill with a BEWARE OF FALLING ROCKS sign along the way. (At least at this point there weren't hungry apes to contend with.) At the bottom, we waded calf-deep through a chilly stream and did some light bouldering before hanging out by the river's edge. We took in the majestic top-to-bottom view, enjoying it all the more because we now felt we had truly earned it.
Most visitors fly to Johannesburg, South Africa, and catch the 105-minute connecting flight (on British Air-ways or South African Airways) to Livingstone International Airport in Zambia, the gateway for the falls (round-trip flights start at $1,400). Secure visas in advance via zambiaembassy.org, or on arrival for $50 if you plan to stay in Zambia and $80 if you're going to visit neighboring countries. The entrance fee at Victoria Falls National Park starts at $10.
WHERE TO STAY
The Bushfront Lodge has 14 thatched chalets in a bush setting—at night you can hear trumpeting elephants. (011-260/213-322-446, safpar.net, doubles $160).
ADRENALINE À LA CARTE
Victoria Falls adventures—from a gentle cruise to a gnarly plunge.
Sundowner River Cruise The upper Zambezi is so glassy at night that you'd never know the falls were just a few miles away. Watch for frolicking hippos and elephants along the banks. Safari Par Excellence, 011-260/213-320-606, safpar.net, from $45 for a 2.5-hour cruise.
Helicopter Trips The only way to take in the enormity of 144 million gallons per minute of spewing water is from above. Hop an eight-minute flight for an aerial view, or take the 30-minute tour into the gorge and over the lip of the falls. United Air Charter, uaczam.com, from $99.
White-water Rafting Navigating 15 miles of rapids (up to Class V) on the Zambezi is not for the faint of heart. No experience needed: Guides teach you everything you need to know. Safari Par Excellence, $145 for a full-day trip, including all meals.
A Falls Bungee Jump With 364 feet of free fall, it's one of the world's most scenic and dramatic plunges, higher than the Statue of Liberty. Shearwater Adventures, Zimbabwe, 011-263/134-4471, shearwateradventures.com, from $110.