The simplest (if cheekiest) answer as to when is the best time to visit Victoria Falls on safari is any time, as it’s always a worthwhile and impressive addition to your safari itinerary. However, high or low water will determine which version of the falls you encounter, and what experiences are on offer.
Regardless of when you visit the falls, you’re bound to be impressed by the scale of the gorges, the localised rainforest that clings to the vertical rock walls, and the water tumbling over 100m to continue its journey to the Indian Ocean.
That said, for sheer breathtaking majesty, it’s hard to beat Victoria Falls when the water is high. That’s typically from February to July, a period that spans the transition from Southern Hemisphere summer to winter.
The Zambezi River flows year-round, but during this time it’s swollen by summer rainfall in its catchment area, and the falls become one contiguous sheet of water that roars over the lip of the precipice, throwing up gouts of spray and providing a background roar any lion would be proud of. This combination of spray and noise gave rise to the very appropriate local name, ‘The Smoke that Thunders’.
At its peak, in March and April, a 1m rise in the level of the water translates into a 5m rise in the volume of water being compressed through Batoka Gorge. Of course, this is incredible, but the sheer volume of spray thrown up by the violence of the falls means it can be hard to fully appreciate the view from up close – and practically guarantees you a refreshing soaking! There’s a great workaround to the visibility issue though, and that’s viewing Victoria Falls from above, either on a helicopter or microlight flight.
Rainbows become an almost permanent presence around now, and if you happen to be at Victoria Falls on a full-moon evening, the unique lunar rainbows make for a magical nocturnal experience.
Although some local activities aren’t possible during this time due to the high-water levels, a visit to the falls at their most exuberant can be combined with a green season safari in Hwange or Mana Pools, or neighbouring Botswana. As winter progresses, peak safari season begins – the reduced flow over the falls mirrors a gradual drying-up across most parts of the region, causing game to concentrate by waterholes. For this reason, it’s also a wonderful season to be on safari beside the Zambezi.
From August to January, Victoria Falls has much lower water levels, and is quite a different beast – a significantly tamer one. The falls separate into individual ribbons of water during this period (and may dry up completely on the Zambian side), allowing for a more leisurely appreciation of their geology and magnitude – and with the added pro that no raincoats are required!
Although the falls are smaller, a wealth of seasonal activities become possible as the level of the river drops, including picnics on the midstream Livingstone Island, and even swimming in the Devil’s Pool at the very edge of the waterfall. There’s nothing a like a brush with your own mortality to make you really enjoy the moment. For more thrills and spills, the Zambezi offers excellent white-water rafting with the creation of seasonal rapids.
The lowest flows of all happen in November and early December, and this can be the best time to visit in terms of value for money, with many safari lodges offering excellent deals.
Some of the more tranquil (but equally wonderful) water activities that can be enjoyed year-round include sunset Zambezi cruises and canoeing above the falls. Whether you see Victoria Falls in full flow or a more sedate state, there’s always something to do, and you can’t fail to be impressed. Follow in Livingstone’s footsteps – you’re sure to share his sense of wonder.