The Geology of Victoria Falls

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Discovering Victoria Falls Victoria Falls, also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya (“the smoke that thunders”), is one of the most impressive natural wonders on the African continent. The site is the result of millions of years of geological evolution and tectonic shifts, the history of which reveals much about the development of the world as we know it today .


Victoria Falls: Quick Facts Victoria Falls stands at 108 meters tall and 1,708 meters wide. It is located on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe in southern Africa, along the path of the Zambezi River. The mist cloud from the falls can be seen as far as 48 kilometers away!


In the Beginning… The foundational bedrock of Victoria Falls is made of basalt, a dark volcanic rock that was formed around 180 million years ago. Over millions of years of volcanic eruptions, lava cooled into layers of basalt, which were then covered by new layers of lava. This process repeated many, many times over.


An Island of Stone This ancient volcanic activity created a 200-kilometer basalt “island” in the surrounding sandveld (land characterized by dry, sandy soil). In the area around Victoria Falls, this basalt is up to 300 meters thick. As the land shifted, giant cracks known as “joints” appeared in the rock, and were filled in by softer, clay-like sediment.


The River Runs Through It When the basalt first formed, the area of Victoria Falls was a river-less desert. As the land continued to shift, water and tropical vegetation began to move in and change the landscape. Eventually, a massive continental shift caused the creation of the Zambezi River, which began to flow over the giant joints in the basalt and erode the clay sediment built up there.


The Big Spill What we know as the Zambezi River was originally two rivers that weren’t connected. 10 to 15 million years ago, geological upheavals shifted the land once again, causing the two rivers to combine into the modern Zambezi. This would create the conditions necessary for the formation of Victoria Falls.


A Faulty Theory For many years, it was incorrectly believed that Victoria Falls was created as the result of a fault line opening up in the path of the river. This theory was first presented by Dr. David Livingstone, the famous explorer who was the first European to see the falls, and who named them after Queen Victoria.


A Long History Victoria Falls is not the first giant waterfall in the area. Though the current falls are believed to be between 100,000 and 250,000 years old, there were at least seven waterfalls of comparable size that formed in the area in the past.


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