During his 1852–56 journey from the upper Zambezi to the mouth of the river, Livingstone had been told about the falls before he reached them from upriver on 17 November 1855 and was paddled across to a small island that now bears the name Livingstone Island on the Zambian half of the river.
Livingstone had previously been impressed by the Ngonye Falls further upstream, but was astounded with the new find, and gave them their English name in honour of Queen Victoria.
He spent the night on Kalai Island a few kilometers upstream of the Falls, having come down river by foot, and the next morning he was paddled out by the local villagers in a small canoe to approach the thundering smoke. He landed on the biggest island on the lip of the falls, now called Livingstone Island and from there obtained his first view of the Falls.
” Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen to twenty yards….the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.”
Of the surrounding area he wrote: “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight” (Livingstone 1857).
He sent word of the Falls to England deciding he would name them after Queen Victoria.
Locals still refer to the Falls as Mosi Oa Tunya (Smoke that Thunders) and the area continues to be revered as a sacred site among the local tribes.
David Livingstone was obviously not the first person to see the Victoria Falls, although he is always credited as having discovered it. Many locals feel they should be rebranded Mosi Oa Tunya.
In 1860, Livingstone returned to the area and made a detailed study of the falls with John Kirk. Other early European visitors included Portuguese explorer Serpa Pinto, Czech explorer Emil Holub, who made the first detailed plan of the falls and its surroundings in 1875 (published in 1880), and British artist Thomas Baines, who executed some of the earliest paintings of the falls.