Through seven years of guerrilla warfare, tourists shunned the Victoria Falls as assiduously as they might a leper colony.
Now they're back to see one of natural wonders of the world without fear of being killed in the process.
"For about five months last year, it was frightening. Nobody came," a tour operator said recently. "But from July on, business picked up, and now we are starting to get groups again. We have had one group from Taiwan, and a big French group is on the way."
It seems only a matter of time until the American tourists are back, too.
Victoria Falls is far from being the highest waterfall in the world, but there are none so wide and probably few so spectacular.
"Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight," wrote David Livingston, the great missionary explorer who on Nov. 16, 1855, was the first white man to see the falls.
During the recent war, few visitors except Rhodesians and South Africans saw the falls. Tourists from other countries generally shunned all of Rhodesia, now the Republic of Zimbabwe. When guerrillas shot down two Rhodesian airliners -- the second one in February 1979 -- interest in the two-hour flight from Salisbury to Victory Falls plummeted even further.
For those who did make the trip, the view of the falls was relatively safe. The village of Victoria Falls was surrounded by a mine field to discourage infiltrators from Zambia, on the other side of the falls.
Even after the downing of the airliners, daily flights of small planes taking visitors over the falls were non interrupted. Only once was one of these planes fired upon. A heat-seeking missle was fired from the Zambian side of the falls at the plan. It missed the plan but landed on the thatched roof of the luxurious Elephant Hills Country Club several miles from the falls. The club went up in flames in a matter of minutes.
It is still closed, as are some cottages in the nearby Victoria Falls National Park. But the village's six motels and two casinos are very much in business.
Not that it will ever be comparable to Niagara Falls in commercial terms. Victoria Falls is too remote for that to happen, and government officials deliberately limit the flow of tourists into the area by restricting the number of hotels. Their aim is to maintain the unspoined natural beauty of the site -- something that would be impossible if thousands of visitors poured in every day.
There are no souvenir or refreshment stands, tour guides or hawkers near the falls themselves. Stone pathways have been built along the top of the gorge opposite the falls, but otherwise things have been left much as David Livingston found them. Even the trash cans have been placed discreetly inside hollowed-out tree stumps.
Victoria Falls is twice as high and 1 1/2 times as wide as Niagara Falls.
It is on the Zambezi River, Africa's fourth-largest, which runs 1,620 miles from northern Zambia to the Indian Ocean in Mozambique.
Just before it reaches the falls, halfway along its course, the river is more than a mile wide and dotted with lush green islands. Hippopotamuses wallow in the mud at the edge of the islands, and elephants, water buffalo and other animals come down to the river's edge to drink during the dry season.
As the river approaches the falls, the current suddenly picks up speed and then vanishes over the edge of a gorge that is 5,600 feet wide. It is the greatest curtain of falling water in the world wioth up to 120 million gallons of water cascading over the lip of the valls every minute.
The water plunges as much as 355 feet into a narrow canyon where the milewide river, now boiling and foaming, is compressed into a torrent less than 100 feet wide.
Livingstone paddled down the Zambezi to the falls and first saw them from an island -- now named for him -- that perches on the very edge.
The natives who showed the falls to him called them mosi-oa-tunya -- the smoke that thunders. It is an apt name.
Victoria Falls is unique in that it is possible to walk along almost the entire length of the falls on the cliff that faces them only 150 feet away. But when the river is flowing at its peak -- from December to July -- parts of the falls are completely obscured by the clouds of spray. The best time to see them is between August and November.
The falls are so vast that it is only possible to photograph the entire scene from a plane. The aerial view also offers a better appreciation of the geology that gave rise to the falls.
The zambezi flows over a layer of hard basalt rock of volcanic origin. Between the rock, at intervals, are deep deposits of limestone. Millions of years ago, the force of the rushing water chiseled away one of the layers of limestone, creating the falls at a point about 60 miles downstream from the present location.
The direction of erosion of rivers is opposite to the direction of their flow. Thus, in succeeding years, the Zambezi created new fissures in limestone deposits farther upstream, causing the falls to move with each new cut.
There have been eight such cuts in the last two million years, and they have left a series of zigzag gorges through which the river now flows below the falls. Currently, those flying over the falls can see a new fissure developing near the western end. This eventually will create a new location for the falls.
The Victoria Falls Hotel is the oldest and finest in the village, in fact, one of the best in Africa. It recalls some of the sumptuous, turn-of-the-century hotels found in European spas. It offers a single room at $25.50 a night and a double for $42. Ryan, the manager, said rates will go up slightly toward the end of this year. "But we will still be 25 percent cheaper than the rest of southern Africa."
Next door is the Victoria Falls Casino Hotel, built in 1966, and with comparable rates. Cheaper accommodations can be had at four smaller hotels in the village.
Visitors in Salisbury can book a package tour of the falls that includes air fare, bed, and breakfast for $205.50 for one night. The inclusive rate for two nights is $270.
When not viewing the falls, visitors can take a 90-minute, $9 sundowner cruise -- also known as "the booze cruise" -- on the Zambezi above the falls. You can watch hippos frolic in the water as the sun sets on the river, and have as many drinks as you want.
One word of caution: Bring your own film if you want to take pictures. Because of economic sanctions imposed on Rhodesia during the war, film has been in short supply throughout the country, and not long ago one visitor found none available anywhere in the Victoria Falls area.