Great waterfalls of Africa
The continent of Africa is wild and difficult to penetrate. Its high central plateau contains vast deserts and dense forests, and is surrounded by mountain ranges that fall steeply into the sea. Through this varied terrain flow some of the world’s greatest rivers. They follow the winding valleys of the plateau, and sometimes, when the level of the river changes, tumble dramatically down in waterfalls. Gradients of varying steepness form different sorts of waterfalls. A fall is water flowing over a drop so sheer that the river falls free to the plunge pool below, losing contact with its bed. Falls of tremendous volume are called cataracts. A less steep gradient causes a cascade, or a series of falls, over which the river flows while still keeping contact with the rock beneath. Rapids occur where the slope is gentler.
The water level of African rivers varies considerably according to the time of the year; raging torrents die away to a mere trickle in the dry season even where the main river is joined by tributaries. In desert areas much of the river water is drawn off for irrigation. These frequent changes in level, together with the many waterfalls, make it almost impossible for steamboats and other craft to use many of the rivers, except over certain stretches for a few months at a time. Frequent detours into the forest have to be made, but the dense undergrowth beside the rivers is a further hindrance to travel. It is for this reason that Africa remained so long unexplored.
The Victoria Falls.
About halfway between the source and the mouth of the Zambezi is the most spectacular waterfall in Africa known as Victoria Falls. Here the river is over a mile wide and dotted about with small islands.
A continuous roar can be heard several miles away. Jets of spray leap upwards into the sunshine, forming brilliant rainbows. A cloud of mist hangs over the forest, as this great river disappears through a slit of fissure set at right angles to its path, and hurtles some 400 feet down into a gorge.
At the eastern end an outlet known as the Boling Pot, leads into a 45 mile long canyon, only 400 feet wide in places, before the river widens once more. Mosi–aa-tunya is the local dialect name for the falls, meaning ‘smoke that thunders’. David Livingstone who discovered the falls, named them after Queen Victoria in 1855.
Victoria Falls are remarkable not only for their height and volume, which is the greatest during the flood period from April to June, but also because the general level of the land is the same where the water tumbles over, and on the opposite side.
The Congo River
The Congo River is about 2,000 miles long, is the second longest river in Africa after the Nile and has the greatest number of waterfalls. It rises as the Lualaba River, 4,560 feet above sea-level in the Katanga tableland. The Lualaba is partly navigable, but frequently broken by rapids, and becomes the Congo River at the Equator. Above Stanleyville the Congo River rushes over the seven cataracts of Stanley Falls, dropping 200 feet in 60 miles.
Its width increases to 8 miles as it sweeps westwards, becoming navigable for most of the year for over 1,000 miles. The river narrows to 1 mile wide before spreading out into the Stanley Pool, a vast swamp 20 miles long and 13 miles wide, 350 miles from the mouth of the Congo River. Below Leopoldville the river bed plunges again over 32 Falls named after David Livingstone dropping 850 feet in 220 miles. Stanley was the first explorer to conquer these rapids, when he succeeded in journeying down them in 1877.
The Wissman Falls, rapids are on the Kasai River, a tributary of the Congo River.
The River Nile
The remotest headstream of the White Nile is the Luvironoza River, which rises about 3,700 feet above sea-level and flows into Lake Victoria. It emerges as the Victoria Nile, and later flows over the Owen Falls Dam, where it drives a major hydro-electric station. It drops 400 feet into Lake Albert over three steps only 19 feet wide, known as Murchison Falls.
Farther north it breaks up into many rapids as the flat countryside abruptly changes level. Between Khartoum (where the White Nile and Blue Nile unite) and Aswan the river descends 935 feet over six famous cataracts.
Other Great Falls
So far I have described the falls on the most important African rivers. But some of those on smaller rivers are higher than the Victoria Falls, although their fame is much less. They are:
Tugela Falls, river Tugela, Natal: a series of cascades dropping over 2,800 feet.
Kalamba Falls, river Kalambo, Zambia: 3,000 feet over 6 miles, including a sheer drop of 704 feet
Maletsunyane Falls, Orange River, Basutoland: 630 feet
Aughrabies Falls, Orange River, Cape Province: 480 feet.
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