The steep fall of a river over a rocky ledge is what we know as a waterfall. These beautiful and stunning examples of the power of nature dump enormous amounts of water into a plunge pool. There are hundreds of these falls throughout many countries of the world. They form grandiose examples of the raw power of the natural order, but, even more, they transfix onlookers by their thundering sounds and aesthetic beauty–one look and you are immediately hooked for hours.
While attempting to identify the greatest waterfalls in the world is obviously subjective, based upon the magnificent cascades I have been fortunate enough to see, I suggest these three as the top contenders on the planet: #3 Niagara Falls; #2 Victoria Falls; #1 Iguazu Falls.
Niagara Falls: Easily the most famous waterfall in North America, this powerful waterfall ranks as the biggest by volume. In addition to its extraordinary power, this waterfall is one of the easiest to access and view from all sorts of angles. Some of the viewing platforms are literally within a few feet of the gushing waters. When I first saw it years ago, I couldn’t help but be awestruck by its sheer size and power. As I walked onto an overlook, the sound of the raging waters, combined with a fine mist hitting me in the face, made an impression I will never forget.
Niagara Falls is the collective name for three waterfalls that straddle the international border between Ontario, Canada and the state of New York. From largest to smallest, the three waterfalls are: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. Located on the Niagara River, the combined falls form the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America that has a vertical drop of more than 165 feet.
The Horseshoe Falls drop about 188 feet (the height of a 14-story office building), while the height of the American Falls varies between 70 and 100 feet because of the presence of giant boulders at its base. The larger Horseshoe Falls are about half a mile wide, while the American Falls are more than 1,000 feet wide. The gorge that separates America and Canada, at it widest point, is more than 3,000 feet. Since the flow is a direct function of the Lake Erie water elevation, it typically peaks in late spring or early summer. The combined flow over the three falls is something over three quarters of a million gallons per second.
On a recent visit I took a ride on the small ship called The Maid of the Mist joining some famous people who have booked this boat trip in the past like Marilyn Monroe (1951) and Princess Diana and her two sons (1993), who like me, wanted to “Explore the Roar.” Donning my yellow rain slicker, I departed from the calm port along the Niagara River, near the Rainbow Bridge, and sailed past the American and Bridal Veil Falls, then into the dense mist underneath the Horseshoe Falls. It was truly an amazing journey.
Victoria Falls: Easily deserving of a place on any list like this, Victoria Falls is the largest singular waterfall in the world. I first saw it from the airplane window as my flight began its decent into Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It was a clear day and the falling waters formed a sharp contrast with the surrounding lush fields on either side of the Zambezi River. Tourists disagree on whether Zimbabwe or Zambia offer the better views. Since I was in Zimbabwe, and since 75 percent of the falls are in Zimbabwe, I headed for the rainforest that runs alongside the falls. I followed one of the many pathways through the mist. I could hear the falls well before I could see them. It’s difficult to imagine accurately the scale of the Victoria Falls, but when you witness the sprays created by unimaginable amounts of water tumbling downwards to create the world’s largest curtain of falling water, coupled with the deafening roar that accompanies it, you will understand just how it got its original name–“The Smoke that Thunders.” More than 300,000 gallons of water crash down from the falls every second, creating a spray, forced up and out from the gorge. This spray rises some half a mile into the air, and can be seen for up to 40 miles away.
The next morning, I drove across the Victoria Falls Bridge that links Zimbabwe to Zambia. Beneath the bridge you can see the Zambezi River, its waters reflecting the turbulence of the torrents raining down from the falls. After a few moments, I was walking towards striking views on the Zambian side. These falls span a width of over one mile and have a height of over 350 feet. These falls are considered by many to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world and they are on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Also, on the Zambian side is Devil’s Pool–the ultimate challenge for the extreme risk takers. Here, during the drier months of the year, the truly fearless leap into the pool and are pushed to the very edge of the falls by the force of the river. A rock lip brings them to an abrupt halt as the raging waters of the Zambezi empty over the cliffs a few feet away.
Later I experienced the falls from the air. During my helicopter flight a man sitting next to me, I think from Denmark, whom I had never seen before, nor since, said to me in flawless English: “I feel like I am seeing the world through the eyes of God.” As I began to appreciate the awesome size and scale of these falls from this vantage point, I sensed my own finitude in a way that I never done before.
David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer who wrote in his diary: “It has never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so wonderful must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Livingstone first saw the falls from a canoe on November 16, 1855, and he named his discovery in honor of Queen Victoria.
Iguazu Falls: On a return trip to the USA from Antarctica, I booked a layover in Asuncion, Paraguay so I could make a side trip to the Iguazu Falls located on the border of Brazil and Argentina. When I arrived at the Iguazu National Park just inside the Argentinean border, I immediately noticed the absence of the commercialism that had surrounded Niagara Falls. Rather, the walkways were clearly marked and there was helpful information provided as I worked my way along to the first viewing station. Missing were the throngs of people that were present at Niagara and to a lesser degree at Victoria.
Along the pathway I encountered a crudely lettered sign on a piece of cardboard: “LORD, our LORD, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:9). Finally, after trudging more than a hundred yards, I finally arrived at a viewing platform. I was the only person there. It was a surreal moment, for before my eyes was a sight that thoroughly validated the thought of the Psalmist. The thundering sound and the fine mist that swept over me was one of the most humbling experiences I have ever had. Iguazu is indeed in a league of its own. Upon seeing Iguazu, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly exclaimed “Poor Niagara!”
With its ledge, where the waters disappear, spanning a distance of over 6,500 feet, Iguazu tops my list of the greatest falls in the world. The falls actually consist of some 275 individual waterfalls and cascades. Catwalks make it easy to get close to the falls as well as to the rainforests nearby. During the rainy season, at the peak of its flow, more than 350,000 gallons of water pass over the falls every second!
They are the largest waterfalls in the world. The falls divide the river into the upper and lower sectors. The Iguazu River, for most of its course, flows through Brazil; however, most of the falls are on the Argentine side. The name “Iguazu” comes from native words meaning “water” and “big.” Legend has it that the serpent god who lived in the Iguazu River planned to marry a beautiful woman, Naipi, but instead she fled with her mortal lover in a canoe. In a rage, the serpent god sliced the river in half, creating a massive gorge. The lovers were condemned to an “eternal fall” as they began their downward spiral.
Niagara, Victoria, and Iguazu are all beautiful in their own way, and are well worth the effort and expense required to visit them. The power and beauty of the falls enabled me to at least begin to understand the power of the natural world. The myriad rainbows that often show themselves above these falls will brighten the day and lift the soul of any visitor. Even though I had bought a book about the world’s greatest waterfalls, poured over the beautiful photographs, and read every word with great interest, it was experiencing these intense forces of nature that helped to enlighten radically my understanding of the power and wonder of the natural world.
Next time: “Easter in Jerusalem”
Dr. Watson E, Mills has traveled to every continent and to over 435 counties, regions, and provinces in the world according to the Most Traveled People website. He has visited many of the world’s waterfalls covering the major regions of the world such as the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Yet he says, “I have not, by any stretch, even begun to see them all, but among those I have seen, these three definitely stand apart.”