“The Falls, outstanding – scenes so lovely, they must have been gazed upon by angels in flight.”

– from the diary of David Livingstone


The first billboard you see when you leave the airport in Lusaka had a panoramic view of Victoria Falls and some asinine tagline like, “Welcome to Zambia – the land of thundering smoke.” I commented idly on this to my taxi driver, and he nodded. “Yes yes, Mosi-Oa-Tunya, ‘The Smoke That Thunders’ in my father’s language, the Tonga language.”

I thought about this for a moment, then told him the story of Uluru, Australia’s most famous inland landmark. Long considered a sacred site by the indigenous Aborigine people, it was “discovered” (or “first spotted by a white dude”) in 1873 by British surveyor William Gosse. This memorable monolith outside of Alice Springs was dubbed “Ayer’s Rock” (in honor of the Secretary Chief of Australia, Henry Ayers) for over a century. In 1993, the Australian government decided that after centuries of systematically crushing the Aborigines under their collective boot heel, the least they could do would be to return this site to indigenous stewardship. It still draws tens of thousands of people every year, but is now known by its more respectful Aboriginal name: Uluru.

The driver made all the polite response sounds one makes when listening to a boring story by someone you’re being paid to be helpful towards. I then asked him: what did he think of the potential for doing the same for Victoria Falls?

At this, he rolled his eyes and made the sort of “thk-thk”-ing noise I’ve come to associate with village Mamas judging the length of my dress. “A thing is a thing and a name is a name,” he said cryptically, “Isn’t it?”

I asked him to clarify.

“People are always meddling with things that have no need or cause to be meddled. Changing the name will not undo the colonial period in our history. It WILL undo the recognition tourists have for one of the World’s Greatest Wonders. Don’t you see?” His explanation continued, pointing to the most pragmatic of reasons for letting it stay as-is:


More than a century of free advertising – Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, the crown jewel of the African jungle! – has worked its magic. Why gamble with the almighty tourist dollar?

Which, having seen the number of people drawn in for booze cruises and bungee jumping and sunrise hikes and ultra-light plane flights and full moon lunar rainbow galas and hang glider adventures and cross-border viewing safaris and zip-lining and observation-deck photographing and white-water rafting and inflatable kayaking and plunge-taking and Falls-swimming and horseback riding and everything else, I am quick to agree … that dollar is nothing to sneer but.

He makes a salient and thoughtful point.

But regardless of the name, regardless of EVERYTHING … Victoria Falls (or Mosi-oa-Tunya) is every bit as magnificent as you’ve heard.

Perhaps even more so.

Whatever they call it, it will always take your breath away.

Our chariot awaits …

Me, in the helicopter swooping over the falls