A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
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Development of the Victoria Falls

The following text is adapted from 'Sun, Steel & Spray - A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2011. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.

Completing the Victoria Falls Bridge

The building of the bridge progressed smoothly and on 1 April 1905 the main arch was linked. In the previous twenty-four working days an average of twenty-one engineers erected some 500 tons of steelwork. At that time of year the spray of the Falls nearby is almost at its greatest intensity, and caused great discomfort to everyone employed on the works, particularly those on the south approach.

"The two centre panels of the arch were fixed about sunset on the 31st March, 4 months after the end posts had been erected, and it was found that the panels overlapped to the extent of about 1¼ inch. The steel truss had been exposed the whole of the day to the heat of the tropical sun and had elongated. When work was begun at sunrise next morning, it was found that it had contracted in the night to the extent of 1¼ inch." [Hobson, 1907]

During the night, the wind had changed and blown the spray of the Falls on to the bridge, cooling and contracting the metal.

The closing was a triumphant event and took place without a hitch. So precise were the calculations that Imbault had allowed for the fact of spray on the girders which would have slowed heat absorption and, therefore, expansion of the metal. There was great consternation just a few minutes after dawn that day when it was seen that, unpredictably, the wind had shifted and the bridge had remained dry. Fortunately, concern was unwarranted for the two great steel semi-arches were perfectly joined; the rivet holes of the cover plates and those of the boom coincided and were instantly bolted.

Finishing the lower arch of the bridge

Varian again describes the processes involved in more detail:

"Hand winches were rigged with steel ropes made fast around the two groups of twelve 1 1/4-inch steel cables which were holding up the whole... structure. In the event of any minor defect in the alignment in closing, a slight pressure from these on either side would swing and adjust the centre 250 feet away. During the erection, allowance had been made for adjusting the supporting steel cables in order to lower the structure into its final position.

"All were assembled at dawn. Connecting plates were in position, and on each side of the lower booms men stood by with drifts and service bolts ready to catch the rivet holes as they coincided and came into position. For some unaccountable reason on that morning and at that hour, the wind changed. The usual spray failed to fall on the bridge, with the consequence that the steelwork was dry and ready to absorb the heat, which might spoil the chance of a junction being effected that day. The sun rose, and started to warm one side of the steelwork, which immediately began to expand, while the gap closed perceptibly from the expansion, the warm side faster than the cooler one. There was an anxious few minutes as we wondered whether the action of the winches on the steel cables would be in time to sway the whole body of the steelwork into the direct alignment before the fast-closing gap could forestall it. Then, slowly, with the action of expansion closing, and the winches swinging the joint laterally, they coincided to make a perfect butt joint. As soon as the rivet holes of the cover plate, some four feet square, and those of the boom coincided, drifts were immediately driven and service bolts made the joint fast, very much to the relief of all concerned." [Varian, 1953]

The engineering company, Sir Douglas Fox and Partners, announced to the world that the great bridge over the gorge at the Victoria Falls, was linked up at 6 o'clock on Saturday morning, in the presence of Sir Charles Metcalfe, consulting engineer in Rhodesia, who had become known as "Uncle Charlie" to the engineers.

An engineering report from the time explained that there were anxious minutes as the sun rose and everyone watched to see whether the effects of its heat on the steel, and the tension of the structure at that critical moment when the hinged bearings took the strain had been accurately calculated.

The Daily Telegraph report was written up in the News of Barotseland:

"The British South Africa Company has received a cable from Sir Charles Metcalfe, their consulting engineer, now on the Zambesi, announcing that the bottom booms of the Victoria Falls Bridge were bolted at seven o’clock [British time] on Saturday morning, 1st April;... the two ends of the famous bridge over the Zambesi (each of which, from the necessities of the case, has had to be projected across the gorge) have now been safely joined. The slightest deviation from a just level would have caused great difficulties, and the satisfaction is the greater that this delicate feat of engineering has been accomplished."

The Bulawayo Chronicle reported:

"The junction this week of the two arms of the great steel arched bridge which spans the Zambesi gorge, over 400ft above water-level, is, says Engineering, evidence not only of British colonising enterprise, but of the skill and pluck of the British engineers, alike in design and construction. We have thus seen what was a generation ago an unexplored region subjected to the commercial and civilising influences of the railway engineer; and as the gorge spanned by the bridge was one – perhaps the greatest – obstacle to that great scheme of Cecil Rhodes for opening up Africa by a railway from the Cape to Cairo, the close of the steel-work is an event of far reaching importance."

On completion of the top boom, two hydraulic rams were inserted in the centre, exerting between them a permanent pressure of 500 tons. The joint was then riveted and the jacks removed. The upper boom was successfully connected in June, and a temporary track was immediately laid over the open steel work.

Hobson (1907) expands:

"Each half of the arch was designed to meet the other with a butt-joint in the arch-rib, and when in the course of erection the two half-arches met at this joint, their temporary character of cantilevers ceased, and the structure was transformed for the moment into a three-hinged arch, the top chord having a clearance or gap of several inches left in it. In this condition it is evident that the top chord and the spandrel-bracing only perform the duty of stiffening the arch, whilst they are themselves supported by it, and there is obviously no stress whatever in the central member of the top chord. In order, therefore, to secure the proper distribution of stress in all members due to the complete structure, it was necessary to impart the correct stress to this member artificially. With this object, hydraulic jacks were inserted in recesses prepared in the top chord adjacent to the gap, and the ends of the top chord were forced asunder until the required stress was imparted, regard being had to the temperature at the moment. Packings were afterwards specially made to fill the gap exactly. Joint-covers were then added, the rivet-holes at one end of each chord being drilled on the spot. A Table was prepared of the hydraulic pressures to be exerted in order to obtain the correct compression in the chord. " [Hobson, 1907]

Image showing the temporary rail-line and deck
Image showing the temporary rail-line and deck

By July all the steel work construction was complete, with only the riveting to be finished. The whole framework was originally connected with service bolts or pins, which were removed as the riveting proceeded. The riveting proved troublesome, taking a far longer period than was anticipated, owning to the difficulty in procuring men for this special class of work.

The temporary track was strengthened for light traffic, and alongside was laid a footway eight feet in width, made of loose timbers laid on the open steelwork, leaving the rest open to the gorge below.

Light traffic was then introduced, and was operated at night, starting in the evening as soon as the bridge-hands had knocked off for the day. The first train to cross, limited at that stage to two wagons and one light shunting locomotive, was the Jack Tar, which was then able to shunt materials between the southern construction yard and Pauling's Maramba Rail Depot on the northern side so that the rail line to Kalomo could progress whilst the bridge was completed. In fact some 50 miles had already been constructed with materials taken over the gorge by the Blondin.

Hobson (1907) describes problems with the deck of the bridge:

"With the exception of the railway-tracks... the deck was formed of carefully selected pine timber, 3 inches thick, laid in 9-inch planks with air-spaces ½ inch wide. To preserve it from the rain and spray the timber had been thoroughly creosoted; while to shield it from the heat of the sun and from the danger of fire liable to be caused by burning cinders from passing engines, it had been covered with a thick coat of Stockholm tar and strewn with sand and fine gravel.

The result had been disappointing. The fierce heat of the sun and the extreme dryness of the atmosphere in the winter months had distilled the creosote and the tar and thereby released the sandy covering, which had been gradually wafted away. Rigid injunctions against raking out ashes on or near the bridge were now therefore issued to engine-drivers and a watchman was stationed to inspect the deck after the passing of each train." [Hobson, 1907]

Eventually a final coat of cement was applied as a solution after re-treating the wood.

Opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The official opening ceremony for the Victoria Falls Bridge took place on 12 September, 1905. The residents of the Old Drift all boated over the Geise's Drift and walked up to the end of the railway line where the last sleeper was to be laid.

One of the newest 7th Class engines in the country at the time, decorated with two flags (that of the BSAC and the Union Jack), palm leaves, flowers and other vegetation, pulled the six coaches and halted on the bridge for the passengers to alight. Mr Alan Martin Bowes was the driver of the train. The party was met by Robert Coryndon, the Administrator of North Western Rhodesia. Sir Charles Metcalfe made a welcoming speech and invited the astronomer Professor George H Darwin, son of Charles Darwin and President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (now the British Science Association), to declare the Victoria Falls Bridge officially open.

The following day the Bulawayo Chronicle recorded the details of Professor Darwin's speech:

"He said it was a most fortunate coincidence that this great enterprise had been brought to a stage at which it was proper to declare the bridge open, during the visit of the members of the British Association to South Africa. Thanks to the generosity and care of the Government Railways, they had just performed an astonishing journey of 1700 miles in luxury and comfort. (Cheers.) One could not but feel that it was almost an impertinence that they should have be able to come, in electrically lighted sleeping cars, with restaurant saloons, to a place which the heroic explorers had spent many months in fruitless endeavours to reach. This was a thing which impressed itself on the imagination. Another thing which impressed them as Englishmen was that they were still under the Union Jack. (Loud cheers.) But two days ago they stood by the tomb of Cecil John Rhodes in the Matopas, and, amid that scene of wild beauty, all felt that the grave of the man who had thought in continents was fitly chosen. The great enterprise of the Cape to Cairo Railway, of which this bridge is a part, was due to his inception. It seemed nothing short of a fairy tale to stand on this bridge over the Zambesi. It was due to the influence of steam that this great enterprise had become possible, and he couldn’t refrain from quoting the remarkable forecast, written by his great grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, in 1785:

"Soon shall thy arm unconquered steam, afar
Urge the slow barge and draw the flying car. "

"How little could the writer of these lines have foreseen that his great grandson should have the honour of declaring a railway bridge open in the heart of equatorial Africa. (Cheers.)

"Professor Darwin concluded by declaring the bridge open, touching a button which fused a cord stretched across."

The first train, which had halted in the middle of the bridge for passengers to alight for the ceremony, slowly drew forward amid cheers. Guests were then ferried, by many canoes, to Livingstone Island, to view the Falls from the same spot that Livingstone had first witnessed them only fifty years earlier.

Official opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge

For the conveyance of the British Association party and other guests for the opening, Railways ran six passenger trains at half hour intervals from Bulawayo and back. In those days there were only six intermediate staffed stations over the whole 278 miles of forest and sparsely inhabited country with very unreliable telegraphic communication. The journey took over 19 hours.

The earlier trains arrived in time to enable guests to visit the Falls for sunrise. Then, after breakfast at the Victoria Falls Hotel, the visitors proceeded by train to the new bridge.

Many well known scientists, professors and engineers were present including Sir Benjamin Baker, Sir William Crookes and Lord Ross. Apparently there was much speculation amongst those present as to the height of the bridge above the water, and an informal experiment was proposed. An un-named professor held a stone ready to drop over the edge in one hand and his pocket watch in the other, with the idea to time the descent of the stone. He was left red-faced, holding the stone in one hand as he dropped his watch down into the waters of the Zambezi.

In the evening a dinner was held in Livingstone. The Bulawayo Chronicle recorded:

"At a dinner held yestereve, Mr F J Newton, representing the British South Africa Company, proposed the health of Professor Darwin and welcomed the members of the British Association to the Victoria Falls on the anniversary of the first occupation of Mashonaland by the pioneers fifteen years ago, and fifty years after Dr Livingstone first saw the Falls. Professor Darwin replied, and toasted Sir Charles Metcalfe as representing the great enterprise which to-day had marked so important a step in advance. Sir Charles Metcalfe, in the course of his speech, expressed the conviction that they saw here the germs of a great nation, and concluded by presenting Professor Darwin with a model of a railway staff, made of Mashonaland wood and mounted in gold. Music was supplied during the evening by the Barotse police band, dressed in Khaki uniforms with red turbans, not one of whom knows a note of music, and are taught by having the tunes whistled to them."

Sir Charles also read a telegram from the President and Directors of the Chartered Company, congratulating him on the opening of the bridge. It read:

"Very fitting that foremost representatives of science should be associated with inauguration of modern engineering. Regret the founder of country is not alive to witness realization of part of his great ideal."

The opening of the bridge was celebrated with typical imperial triumphalism and fan-fairing. The Financier declared the bridge "one of the greatest engineering marvels of modern times and a most important link in the Cape to Cairo Railway", and one of South Africa's journalists could see "the mosques of Cairo... already rising on the mental horizon".

The Globe's reporter celebrated this "interesting event in the heart of Central Africa", important because the bridge could "claim the distinction of being the highest in the world, has been erected in the heart of the Dark Continent and furthermore, represents the forging of another link... in the great scheme proposed and started by Cecil John Rhodes".

For Thomas Cook and Sons the opening was "an event second only in importance to the completion of the [Cape to Cairo] line itself", and their magazine described "the memorable scene" of the five special trains carrying Professor Darwin "through trackless, uninhabited tropical bush to the renowned falls". Thomas Cook later chose the Falls as their emblem for tourism for the southern African region: an advertising poster showed the waterfall superimposed with images of 'new style' transport in the form of a train counterposed to the old-fashioned discomforts of the wagon.

The bridge bore only a single track railway although later it carried two as originally designed. It was envisaged that the tracks would be used alternatively for six month periods. There was no roadway - road vehicles had to pay the railway to be transported over the river, or use the Old Drift ferry upstream from the Falls.

In all it had taken only nine weeks for the actual erection of the steelwork, with the whole construction extending over fourteen months. 1,868 tons of steel were used to make the bridge parts in Darlington, England, from where they were shipped 8,500 miles and fitted together on site. The bridge is 250 metres (820 feet) across, with a main arch spanning bridges graceful main arch is about 156.50 metres in length, at a height of 128 metres above the low water mark of the river in the gorge below. At the time it was built the bridge was the highest above water level in the world.

The railway line quickly changed the international perception of this last, 'uncivilised' part of Africa. Suddenly, it all seemed tame. Gone were the Matabele raiding parties, game was shot and began to disappear, farms and roads were established and the administrators moved in. Even so, there was still excitement and adventure around. For example, Ted Spencer had yet to fly his aircraft into the pages of local history by being the first to pass along the gorge under the bridge!

Steam train on the Victoria Falls Bridge
Steam train on the Victoria Falls Bridge, soon after completion, showing the two tracks originally installed

The local Leya chief Mukuni reportedly came with his headmen daily to a rock vantage point and watched the building of the bridge. Roughly translated, Varian records his comments as something like this: "Of course the white men are very clever, and can do most things, but as soon as all this zimbe [iron] gets further from the bank it will of course fall down the gorge". With wonder he watched the progress until the two sides were finally linked up, but still refused to relinquish his theory:

"Now with great luck, they have got this thing across, the trouble will be when they try to put a train on it, which they evidently mean to do. What they should do to save it all would be to put a stick up from the bottom to hold it up, certainly it would have to be a long stick, but as they have got the bridge across, they should be able to do that as well, but it is not for me to tell them; I am an old man, and I know these things. "

He is also recorded as saying: "I am sorry for these white men, for they work for no profit". However, the chief's forebodings did not materialise and he stood alone on his rock vantage point as the first train rumbled across the bridge. His response was that it must only be the finger of the white man's God that kept the bridge up.

Contrary to many beliefs, especially among the local people, that many lost their lives during the construction of the bridge, contemporary records from Rhodesia Railways show that there were only two deaths, one African and one European, who apparently both died in the same incident.

Late in 1904, when the third bay section on the northern side was being erected, a nine-ton girder was lowered into position by the crane, only to find that the rivet holes on the girder and the piece already in position did not all coincide. A fitter had his rivet tool jammed, failed to inform the foreman, who gave the signal for the craneman to lift. With the lifted piece still being fastened to the completed structure by the rivet, the wrought iron brake wheel collapsed under the strain and rendered the driver unconscious. The girder fell sideways onto a cross bracing girder, on which two men were working. Both were pinned down, the African was killed instantaneously, the unfortunate European lived for some three hours afterwards with most of his ribs broken and conscious almost to the last.

Rev Coisson, who had established the first mission station at the Old Drift, records in one of his letters the reaction of the local Africans to the railway. The rains were apparently very late that year, and they accused the trains, with all their smoke and noise, of driving away the rain clouds and forbidding the rain to fall.

In addition, the construction of the Bridge, so close to the sacred site of the waterfall, and also the boiling pot, which was used in rain-making ceremonies, marked the beginning of their exclusion from their traditional cultural sites, which continued with the establishment of the conservation and tourist areas immediately around the Falls.

Ticket to Walk

The Falls and the bridge were soon favourite tourist attractions and to augment revenue the railways imposed a toll on all who wished to walk on the bridge. For this a bridge guard was appointed in a small toll house close to the southern approach, from which tickets at 1 shilling each were issued. Jack Soper was the guard and he had made a 'tube' ticket dispensing system to hold the cards supplied for the toll by the accountants office. All went well until Soper went on leave and Station Master W T Breach enlisted a local resident (who sadly remains anonymous), to cover the duty. Soon a trainload of tourists arrived and their wish to walk over the bridge was to result in a small administrative disaster behind the scenes. In the evening, Breach asked his employee how the day had gone. All went well as the reply but the guard complained he thought the 'tube' idea 'stupid' since he could only get the cards out by using a pin. To Breach's horror he found that all the tickets had been issued out of sequence, having been lifted out of the top instead of drawing them out of the slit in the bottom. The whole affair need much explaining to the accountant.

Victoria Falls Bridge ticket
Victoria Falls Bridge ticket

Soper, together with another resident, is recorded as among the first to descend into the bottom of the Falls chasm down the front face of the Falls, at Livingstone Island. Soper described the first part of the descent, made with the aid of ropes, as precipitous, but the lower part as moderately easy climbing, but it was not altogether a pleasure trip, and they had no desire to repeat the attempt.

Reconstruction of the top deck

In 1929 urgently required alterations were carried out to the bridge. It had originally been designed to take two tracks of rails. One of the two rail tracks was removed and the bridge was widened to include a roadway and sidewalks. This modification involved the complete removal and replacement of the top deck, which was widened by 13 ft to carry the road and two sidewalks. The bridge floor was raised 4ft 6in in height.

The bridge had not originally been designed to take a permanent road, nor was it seen as desirable, from the railway-company's point of view, to provide a roadway, which would have added considerably to the construction cost.

The contract for the works was drawn up in December 1928, the work again being awarded to the Cleveland Bridge Company. The work commenced on 3 July and the last section was placed into position on 4 December, with only minor stoppages of the heavy railway traffic passing over the bridge.

At least three men who were engaged in the original construction of the bridge in 1904/5, were again employed in the work. The foreman, Rutherford, the painting contractor, McEvoy, and a third man, Powell.

Reconstruction of the top deck of the Victoria Falls.

The specification of the works to carried out included detailing the reconstruction of the deck of the bridge so as to provide one railway track near the centre of the bridge, a roadway on the upstream side of the bridge and a footway on the downstream side of the bridge. The whole of the original deck of the bridge down to the underside of the cross girders was to be removed. Other works included strengthening of the two bottom chord members of the bridge at both ends of each arch by the addition of side plates to the existing members, strengthening of the bottom cross bracing of the bridge by addition of transverse lateral struts, replacement of bolts on some of the existing connections of the principle members of the main span (to be removed one at a time and replaced with rivets) and the cleaning and adjustment of bearings at ends of approach spans.

The contract also detailed that all steelwork was to be painted with pure red lead and pure boiled linseed oil paint on both meeting surfaces of any steel plates or sections before they were to be installed and riveted. After the erection all steel was to be cleaned and scraped and painted with one coat of red lead and linseed oil and two further coats, the first of Dampney's graphite and he second of Dampney's Miraculum of light grey colour or other approved paints of similar character.

The roadway was to be surfaced with natural rock asphalt and broken stone placed in two layers. The lower layer, 1 1/2 inches in thickness is to consist of asphalt and stone broken to 1 inch gauge, and the top layer of asphalt and stone broken to 1/4 in gauge. It was noted that special care must also be taken to finish the surface so that it is not slippery when wet.

Excavating the road approaches to the bridge took some time, as blasting was not allowed so close to the bridge and all the work had to be carried out by hand.

The total cost of the contract was just over £32,870.

Rhodesia Railways steam locomotive crossing Victoria Falls Bridge and showing the newly reconstructed deck, complete with tar road.

The first motorcar to cross on the new road was driven by Charles K Thompson, one of the railway engineers associated with the work. The first member of the public to cross the reconstructed bridge by motorcar is perhaps a Mrs Marina King, who according to her autobiography 'Sunset to Evening Star', crossed the bridge an hour or so after it opened. However neither were actually the first motorcars to cross the bridge, a feat which had been achieved in 1908 by Paul Graetz.

World Wars

The Victoria Falls Bridge was strategically important during the First World War. German South West Africa (now Namibia) was only 80km away and the bridge was a vital transport link for British South African and Rhodesian forces. Suspecting an act of sabotage the bridge was defended with a military guard and a rail mounted searchlight. A blockhouse commanded a view of the bridge and the mobile search light was shunted along the bridge, until finally it was parked on the south side from where it could light up almost the entire bridge. S A Tomlin, foreman at the Livingstone rail depot, gave assistance with its installation.

The main threat to the bridge and British interests came from a small German unit under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who, stationed in German East Africa, ignored orders from Berlin and the colony's governor, Heinrich Schnee, and attacked British forces and railways in East Africa, gaining ammunitions and supplies. He determined to tie down as many British troops as he could, intending to keep them away them from the main theatre of war in Europe. He avoided direct engagements with British forces, instead directing his men to engage in raids into British East Africa (modern Kenya), Uganda and Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), targeting forts, railways and communications, and gaining promotion to General. It as only on the 14 November, three days after the official surrender of German forces, that von Vorbeck was informed of the armistice and agreed to a cease-fire at the spot now marked by the Von Lettow-Vorbeck Memorial in present-day Zambia. Essentially undefeated in the field, General von Lettow-Vorbeck was the only German commander to successfully invade British soil during the First World War.

In 1939, on the outbreak of World War II, the bridge was again placed under military guard, and again it escaped being targeted.

A brief history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

1905 Victoria Falls stamp
1905 BSAC stamp, red issue

Towards the end of 1904 Sir Charles Metcalfe approached Percy Clark with a contract to photograph the building of the bridge during its various stages of construction, and thus leaving us with a rich pictoral record of the bridge construction.

To commemorate the opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge, the British South Africa Company issued a set of stamps on 13 July 1905 showing the Falls, but oddly not including the bridge. The image was based on one of Percy Clark's original photographs featuring the 'Main Falls'. There have since been many stamps issued showing the bridge.

The bridge construction contract stipulated that all traces of the construction camps be removed. The site of Tower's camp was cleared and the huts burnt by Imbault after the construction was completed. Percy Clark tried, but failed, to take up residence at the site, and the whole area was quickly reclaimed by nature.

For many years the bridge was referred to as the 'Zambesi' or 'Zambezi Bridge', or even the 'Great Zambezi Bridge', but with other bridges being built across the river it later became known as the Victoria Falls Bridge.

On 21st September 1908 the first motor vehicle crossed the bridge with a receipt for the 20 shilling toll noted on the bottom "First motor car to cross Zambezi Bridge". It was driven by Lieutenant Paul Graetz on his expedition from Dar es Salam to Swakopmond, becoming the first motor vehicle to visit Livingstone and then to cross the bridge. His expedition was the first motorised transit of the continent from east to west coast.

From 1910 a local passenger train ran from Livingstone to Victoria Falls on Saturdays and Sundays, becoming known as 'The Weekender'. The train normally comprised a Nasmith Wilson locomotive, later a 7th Class, hauling one composite 1st/2nd class coach and a van. The train was replaced was by the first Rhodesia Railways railcar in 1916.

As the river is the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the bridge links the two countries and has border posts on the approaches to both ends. The bridge is still to this day the only rail link between Zambia and Zimbabwe and one of only three road links between the two countries.

For more than 50 years the Victoria Falls Bridge was crossed regularly by passenger trains as part of the principal route between the then Northern Rhodesia, southern Africa and beyond. Freight trains carried many millions of tons of goods, mainly copper ore (later, copper ingots), timber and coal. Virtually all of Zambia's material requirements, every lump of Rhodesian coal destined for Zambia's copper mines and practically every ton of Zambian export copper, were carried across the bridge.

Rhodesia Railways Garrett locomotive crossing Victoria Falls Bridge

The bridge celebrated its Diamond Jubilee on 12 September 1965. In the years preceding the bridge was stripped 'naked' of its paint, which in some parts were covered with up to thirteen coats of paint, and repainted. The old paint was chipped off and the steel exposed by using high-speed rotary brushes driven by compressed air. Repainting required 3,800 gallons of paint, applied in three coats, the first of red lead oxide, followed by a coat of micaceous iron oxide, and finally a layer of non-bitumastic aluminium with an anti-fouling compound, giving a gleaming silver finish. The work took over three years, and it was predicted that a similar task would have to be performed in another sixty years, although the bridge was to be given a new coat of aluminium paint every six years.

During the Rhodesian Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) crisis following the announcement of independence from British rule in late 1965, the bridge was frequently closed to goods and passenger services. In 1969 the through passenger service over the bridge was discontinued and Rhodesian Railways trains terminated at Victoria Falls. The few rail passenger from Rhodesia to Zambia travelled by bus.

Despite the official closure of the border and bridge, freight was still transported over the bridge. A Rhodesian steam engine would push a string of freight cars out to the middle of the bridge, and a Zambian Rail diesel would back onto its end of the bridge and pull them into Zambia. The reverse would also happen - several times a day.

The border area remained tense as more and more landmine and shooting incidents were reported. The most significant of these encounters occurred in the vicinity of the Victoria Falls on 15 May 1973, when two Canadian tourists were shot and killed by rifle fire from Zambian side of the Zambezi River whilst exploring the gorges below the Falls.

The flag of Southern Rhodesia flies from the flagpole of the Victoria Falls Hotel whilst peace talks are held on the bridge

In 1975, the bridge was the site of unsuccessful peace talks when the parties met in a train carriage poised above the gorge for nine and a half hours. On August 25, 1975 the talks (supervised by South African Prime Minister Vorster and between Smith, the Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda and the African National Council, led by Bishop Abel Muzorewa) took place aboard a South African Railways coach, from the royal 'White Train', in the middle of the Bridge. The Rhodesian delegation sat in home territory while the ANC sat on the Zambian side. Smith was in a pugnacious mood. "I think it is unfortunate," he said, as the talks were about to begin, "that at the moment the ANC seems to be divided, in that the body is resident in Rhodesia and the head in Zambia. A decapitated chicken is usually directionless". The staff were apparently rather too liberal with the bar service and two members became intoxicated and disruptive, helping the talks to continue throughout the day. The talks fell through because of the intransigence of all the participants. The ANC split (again) shortly afterwards and the war continued for another three years.

The civil war escalated and tourism collapsed. In an effort to disrupt the rail service, lines were mined, and in December 1976 a passenger train struck a mine south of Victoria Falls, an event which caused a cessation of the service until after the war.

In the latter stages of the war, during late 1978, the bridge was set with explosive charges by Rhodesian forces in readiness to blow up the Southern Rhodesian end of the bridge, should it be necessary. The road surface of the bridge had already been removed to stop light traffic crossing the bridge, but the fear was that Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU forces, based in Zambia, may invade across the bridge with their Russian made tanks.

Victoria Falls Bridge with road removed, lates 1970s

Using plans of the bridge held by the railway company, engineers identified the best locations for the explosives to be set. A shield of 10mm steel plate was erected to protect the Rhodesian army engineers from the Zambian Army snipers who frequently fired across from their side, and the decking plates removed to give access to the structure below. PE-4 plastic explosives were prepared in special aluminium cases, and, at some risk to the individuals concerned, placed at strategic points ready to destroy the southern side span.

A command bunker was built on the south bank with the firing mechanism for the explosives and the observation post manned 24hrs a day. The approaches on the southern side were also mined and booby trapped. Fortunately, it was never necessary to blow the charges, which were removed after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980.

Towards the end of 1979 the first sign of improvement in the general situation showed in the re-opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge in November. At last shunting trains on and off the bridge could stop. In 1980 freight and road services resumed and have continued without interruption except for maintenance, speed and weight restrictions.

At the time there were concerns over the potential increase in road and rail traffic over the bridge, and some organisations proposed the building of a new bridge, downstream of the present one, to take road and rail links away from the town and Falls environs. It was suggested that the old bridge be retained for pedestrian traffic and as a sightseeing footbridge for tourists.

In 2005 a major 100 year survey of the bridge was undertaken. Previous reports by officials from the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) had raised the danger posed by the bridge by heavy loads and it was closed to heavy traffic for over a year days to allow for emergency work. A report, published in January 2005 by NRZ highlighted "excessive vibrations being felt whenever a heavy truck transverses the bridge".

During the restrictions trains crossed at less than walking pace and trucks were limited to a load of 30 tons, necessitating heavier trucks to make a long diversion via the Kazungula Ferry or Chirundu Bridge. The choice for engineers was either to reconstruct or reinforce the bridge, but they settled for reinforcement. Following the repairs costing US$1.7 million the bridge re-opened to heavy traffic on 15 June 2006, and can now sustain loads of up to 56 tons for the next five years. During this period, more repairs will be done to enable the bridge to survive another century. Replacement of the bridge with a similar modern structure has been estimated to cost over US$32 million.

In November 2010 it was announced that a toll on the Victoria Falls Bridge was being considered in a bid to raise the necessary funds for maintenance. Recommendations made by international consultants have said it could last another 100 years if properly maintained. It has been estimated that more than US$1.9 million is needed to inject into the maintenance of the bridge - US$800,000 will be for the upgrade of the railway deck; US$300,000 for the upgrade of the footway deck and US$800,000 for the upgrade of the roadway deck.

Owned originally by Rhodesia Railways, Victoria Falls Bridge is now jointly owned by the national railways of Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is managed by the Emerged Railways Properties (Private) Limited (ERP), an interstate company jointly owned by the Governments of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

White-water rafters under the bridge

There are no regular rail passenger services over the bridge today. However, steam hauled excursions in a historic dining saloon are offered daily between Victoria Falls station (Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (Zambia). In addition, several luxury cruise trains make the journey from South Africa as far as Livingstone, crossing the bridge as part of their journey.

Today the Victoria Falls Bridge is the location for the 111 metre Shearwater bungee jump, which started operations in 1993.

The local Chief Mukuni appeared on the bridge in full ceremonial regalia, accompanied by most of the village, to take his turn to jump. After a few false starts he toppled into the void, to the accompaniment of wild cheers from the onlookers. It has been claimed that this feet should afford him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the first African Chief to have bungeed in the history of the sport.

Over 50,000 people have committed themselves to the thrill of jumping off the bridge without incident. The operation has now expanded to include a bungee swing and zip line. In 2010 a refurbished viewing platform, restaurant and bar, together with an interpretive museum, was opened on the Zambian side. The latest tourism activity on the bridge are interactive historical bridge tours, where groups are guided under the bridge using safety harnesses and ropes.

Next page: Death at the Drift

Recommended Reading

Fox, Francis, Sir. (1924) Sixty-three years of engineering, scientific and social work. London, J. Murray

Hobson, G A (1905) The Victoria Falls Bridge, The African World, Vol 3, 9 December, p107

Hobson, G (1907) The Victoria Falls Bridge. Institution of Civil Engineers, Session 1906-1907, Part IV, Section 1. Minutes of Proceedings 19 March, 1907 (Paper No 3675). Volume 170,January 1907, Pages 1–49.

Hobson, G (1923) The Great Zambesi Bridge - The Story of a Famous Engineering Feat. In Weinthal, L

Hyder Consulting (2007) Footprints on a Global Landscape – 100 years of improving the built environment. Hyder Consulting.

Pauling, G. (1926) Chronicles of a Contractor

Roberts P (2016) Sun, Steel and Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge. Zambezi Book Company.

Varian, H F (1953) Some African Milestones Wheatley : George Ronald. (Reprinted 1973 Books of Rhodesia).

Weinthal, L (1923) The Story of the Cape to Cairo Railway and River Route from 1887–1922 (Pioneer Publishing Co)

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'To The Victoria Falls' aims to bring you the wonder of the Victoria Falls through a look at its natural and human history.

This website has been developed using information researched from a wide variety of sources, including books, magazines and websites etc too numerous to mention or credit individually, although many key references are identified on our References page. Many of the images contained in this website have been sourced from old photographic postcards and publications and no infringement of copyright is intended. We warmly welcome any donations of photographs or information to this website.

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