(dpa) – Tinashe Farawo is understandably frustrated. Reports from a year ago that Victoria Falls in southern Africa has dried up have stubbornly refused to go away, and now, despite the fact that huge masses of water are rushing down, there’s no one here.
“The Victoria Falls is at its peak as a result of the rainy season, the falls are crying out to be seen,” says the spokesman for the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority. But due to coronavirus restrictions, the water gushes down without an audience.
“It is not looking good because not many people can afford to travel, not many people are coming,” says Farawo, who points out that for years, some 80 per cent of all visitors to the waterfalls came from abroad.
The spectacular waterfalls of the Zambezi River are one of the most impressive natural spectacles worldwide. While known internationally as Victoria Falls, the UNESCO World Heritage site also recognizes them by their local name, Mosi-oa Tunya – the smoke that thunders.
These days it’s living up to its name, as the world’s largest curtain of falling water – a record 1.7 kilometres wide – drops a good 100 metres off a cliff edge on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The pure force sprays clouds of mist up into the air, and rainbows regularly appear over the narrow gorge. River authorities say that recent measurements taken at the Zambezi gauging station at Chavuma show 1,700 cubic metres of water are currently flowing per second.
The year before, that figure was just 1,163 cubic metres per second.
Local tour operators can only shake their heads when it comes to the reports that the waterfalls had dried up. That’s because the Zambezi, the longest river in southern Africa, regularly turns into a trickle during the dry season, only to swell mightily when the rains come.
But concerns about the reports have been replaced with fears about the long-lasting effects of the pandemic, which could spell trouble for the small but vital tourism industry in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In the first lockdown, “we did not have any bookings for about five to six months,” says Tinashe Chimusoro of the Pamushana travel agency. Other operators spoke of a few sporadic bookings over the holidays, but that’s been it so far.
“The sector is virtually at a standstill,” confirms Godfrey Koti, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority.
Any optimism these small outfits still had has disappeared. Despair is starting to spread the longer things drag on. “There is no revenue absolutely, there is no work that is currently going on,” says Chimusoro.
About two-thirds of Victoria Falls, which was named after the British queen at the time by an English explorer named David Livingstone when he stumbled upon them in 1855, are on Zimbabwe’s side of the Zambezi.
During the rainy season, 550,000 cubic metres of water thunder down into the Batoka Gorge every minute, a breathtaking sight that draws thousands of visitors a year from around the world in normal times.
An entire adventure sports industry has sprung up around the falls, including rafting, bungee jumping and all kinds of sightseeing flights. After a Swedish tourist fell to his death in February 1990, a network of paths and railing were built around the site.
But now, a strange emptiness has descended over the mighty falls. This season’s tropical storms brought an abundance of rain, causing the desert to bloom even in dry neighbouring countries like Namibia.
At least in South Africa, the rains have led to more visitors.
On the Northern Cape, the Augrabies Falls on the Orange River had swollen to 2,000 cubic metres of water per second for a few weeks in February 2021, drawing so many domestic visitors, the park says it broke a record; the last time it was so full was a decade ago.
“This will have a huge positive impact on the local economy,” which has been strained by the pandemic, said South African National Parks.