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
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
Further Information
Help support
this site

Discover the Victoria Falls with the Zambezi Book Company

To The Victoria Falls

Development of the Victoria Falls

Bulawayo or Bust

The arrival of the railway line at Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe) was a landmark event in the colonial development of southern Africa. Not only did the railway bring a vital communication and transport route from the south, replacing a laborious and lengthy journey by coach and horses, it relived the pioneer settlement from possible extinction. The new settlement had been under increasing pressure as, in addition to droughts, crop failure and the ongoing Matabele rebellions, an epidemic of rinderpest had broken out, killing cattle and stopping all forms of animal-drawn transport and driving freight charges sky high.

During the Matabele Rebellion, which began in March 1896, Zeederberg mail coaches were the sole means of transportation to Bulawayo. The lurching journey, changing animals at post stations every 25km or so, took five to six days when the mules were in good condition. When Bulawayo had became the latest dusty outpost of the British Empire, its streets were laid out wide enough to allow a wagon and full span of sixteen animals to turn around (and they remain so today, a striking feature of the city).

Waggon crossing drift (photograph by Percy Clark)

George Pauling, the railway construction contractor, travelled by Zeederburg coach from Mafeking to Bulawayo during the early extension of the line and later wrote:

"The journey, which took us nine days to accomplish, was a terrible one. At every coach station and frequently along the road the stench from the unburried bodies of cattle, which had died from the rinderpest, was awful, and two or three times I was physically sick from the nauseating odour which one seemed not only to smell, but to inhale.

"As the coach approached the Matopo Hills, the stronghold of the Matabele, the Matabele rebellion having broken out, we travelled during the night as quietly as we possibly could in order to avoid being attacked by the rebels. We could see their fires on the hills, but although the prospect was disquieting, no attempt was made to stop us. "

One coach, however, with nine passengers, was attacked by Matabele warriors in a running fight between Shangani and Bulawayo. The mules were eventually run to a standstill and were killed. The driver and passengers ran to the top of a nearby kopje and prepared to defend themselves. With night coming on their situation looked serious, but they were saved by the timely arrival of a patrol under Colonel Napier. The mail coach, however, had been burned to ashes.

Pauling estimated that “at least two million cattle must have died in Mashonaland, Matabeleland and Bechuanaland” during the rinderpest outbreak. Loss of life in the uprising was considerable, until Rhodes and the Matabele chiefs concluded peace in August at their famous Indaba in the Matopas hills outside Bulawayo.

The northward thrust from Mafeking, which the railhead had reached in October 1894, got off to a slow start. Late in 1895 work began on the first section, from Mafeking to Mochudi (123 miles), was built at a somewhat leisurely manner, and opened to traffic on 1 March 1897. At that time Bulawayo was receiving more than two thousand heavy wagons a year from the south, and pioneers demanded the speedy arrival of the railway. In early 1895 a passenger on the mail coach reported counting over a hundred wagons on the 200 miles stretch between Palapye and Bulawayo alone.

Railway construction

The Matabele uprisings and rinderpest outbreak made the arrival of the railway at Bulawayo a more urgent concern. Rhodes, who had commissioned the building of the railway, determined that it must be built as rapidly as possible, and gave order to George Pauling that the rails must reach Bulawayo before the end of 1897.

At the time when Rhodes gave the command to press forward the railhead was 492 miles from Bulawayo. George Pauling's cousin, Harold Pauling, was in charge of the construction and he carried out George's promise to Rhodes.

Because of the urgent need to push the railway through to Bulawayo, the line north of Mochudi was of a decidedly pioneer nature, the sleepers carrying the rails resting directly on the ground for long stretches, with little or no ballast. Such was the haste in the final stages that the surveyors were often only a day or so ahead of the construction gangs, and the route took the line of least resistance – even, it is said, deviating around anthills.

H F Varian, an engineer working with Pauling, described the nature of railway building:

"In the absence of any other means of transport for materials ahead, they were wholly dependent on their own ability to bring materials up from the base, as the rails were pushed forward. All bridges and openings were of a temporary nature, to be replaced by more permanent constructions at a later date. It was essential to make the maximum progress at the lowest capital cost, with refinements to follow when justified by sufficient revenue. "

Because of the need for urgency and the restrictions on cost the terms governing construction were not very exacting. They were that the line should "be capable of effectually conveying traffic at a speed of twelve miles an hour on completion", and that gradients and curves were not to be sharper and heavier than usual for a line of this gauge. Wherever the surface of the ground was even it was followed, the steel sleepers being packed with the minimum of ballast. Ballasting was to be used only on those parts of the line where it was necessary to ensure safety during the rainy season.

Unballasted track being laid at a rate of a mile a day north of Palapye (Rhodesiana)

Streams were crossed by the erection of 'birdcage' or trestle bridges of timber. Wider streams and rivers, which usually had dry sand beds except when flowing, were not even bridged, the line being taken across over a ford. Sometimes the water rose above the rails. The train would proceed carefully down the bank and send up a shower of spray when it ran into the water. The line was later improved and the fords were replaced by steel bridges. For the wide rivers, such as the Tati, Shashi and Mahalapye, masons were to be recruited to construct the stonework piers and buttresses for the steel girder bridges and it was well into 1898 before the bridges were completed.

Work on the railway picked up and the line advanced steadily through Buchanaland, with each successive stage being opened to traffic shortening the onward road journey to Bulawayo. The section between Mochudi and Palapye, 135 miles, was opened on 1 July 1987.

Cape Government Railways, who undertook the operation of the new line as it was handed over by Paulings, in mid 1897 advertised ‘Cape Town to Bulawayo in 5 ½ days’, with a first class fare from Cape Town to Palapye of £13 10s, and second class £8 16s 10d. From Palapye, a Zeederburg coach would take passengers on to Bulawayo, the fare being £12.

The final sections were rapidly completed, the line from Palapye to Francistown, 101 miles, opening on 1 September 1897, and Francistown to Bulawayo, 122 miles, on 4 November 1897. The last coach run on the route, from Francistown to Bulawayo, cost £7.

In a concerted effort to reach Bulawayo before the rainy season, 1897, the line north of Mochudi was of a pioneer character - unballasted and unbridged. A passenger train crossing the Tati river bed near Francistown. (Rhodesiana)

In actual practice it sometimes turned out that Paulings, for construction purposes, stopped a train with passenger carriages at some earlier station and everyone had to alight with their baggage and go forward in trucks at the end of a construction train to the connecting point with the coach service. One pioneer lady has recalled that as a young girl she and her parents, with others of the family, arrived at Gaberones to be ordered off the passenger train, and were then packed into the end of an open truck half-full of railway sleepers, from which her father strung up blankets to give a little shade for the rest of the journey. No food could be obtained on trains, which stopped at a handful of small stations, such as Lobatsi, Mochudi and Mahalapye, where there were refreshment rooms, while at a few points small hotels near the line offered some sustenance. Rugs, pillows and water bottles were necessities for rail passengers in those days.

Driven by Rhodes' will and Pauling's determination, the 850km section of the railway between Mafeking and Bulawayo was opened a year earlier than the contract date, reaching Bulawayo in October 1897, soon after the rebellion had been put down and establishing the much needed lines of communication and transport which the pioneer settlement needed to survive. It also came at great expense, the average cost of each mile being £3,500. But in completing the line, Paulings and Company had achieved a feat to go down in the annals of railway history.

Wayside station on the Mafeking to Bulawayo line, soon after construction

Sir Francis Fox, of the railway engineering consulting firm Fox and Sons, recalls in his memoirs:

"Rhodes... determined to get the railway through at the earliest moment to save the situation. His resolve, manfully aided by engineers and contractors, resulted in the construction and opening to traffic of 500 miles of railway in 400 working days. This was a feat of which all could be proud. On one day alone, eight miles of rails were laid. Pluck, patience, and perseverance had conquered. "

The Railway Arrives

The first, temporary, railway station at Bulawayo, less than a kilometre from the present one, was hastily laid out on land which not long before been the training ground of Lobengula’s feared Ingubu regiment. Being cleared of trees and flat, it was the ideal site.

Soon after the occupation in 1893 the site was originally taken over by the Bulawayo Athletic Club as their sports field, but four years later, as the advancing railway line from the south neared the town, Cecil Rhodes bought the land with a personal cheque for five thousand pounds. The Railways workshops and marshalling yard now stand on the spot.

First train into Rhodesia [From Stage, 1973]

The first construction train actually steamed into Bulawayo on 19 October 1897. It was pulled by the same engine that had been used for the plate-laying of the line all the way through Bechuanaland. Decorated with flags and greenery, it carried the banner 'Advance Rhodesia' on the front, surmounted by the arms of the British South Africa Company. The Bulawayo Chronicle reported:

"The train came to a standstill and the engine responded to the cheers with a series of shrill whistles. After gazing awhile on the wonderful invention, which brings Bulawayo within four or five days of sea breezes and makes progress with giant strides a possibility, the crowed dispersed. "

First train into Bulawayo [from Pauling, 1926]

But 4 November, the fourth anniversary of 'Occupation Day', had been chosen as the official inauguration of the railway, and the Festivities Committee had been preparing for months for the big occasion. The opening day was declared a public holiday and for the following six days all businesses closed at midday to enable the townsfolk to attend the many functions, dinners and parties.

"The Bulawayo Chronicle greeted the arrival of the railway as ‘the parting of the ways for Matabeleland, the beginning of civilization in its entirety’. It reassured its readers that… ‘The country has been well advertised all over the world. Bulawayo is as much a household word as London or Vienna, and the prospects of Matabeleland have been made known wherever the English language is spoken.’

"Serious citizens criticised the Festivities Committee for placing too much emphasis, in planning their ten-day programme, on races, dances and athletics competitions. More appropriate, the felt, would have been to show the visitors something of the mining activities, ‘to inspire in them desire to invest their savings in the country’.

"There had been no time to erect a proper station, but Pauling did agree to throw up a large, temporary pavilion, which was decorated with the Royal coat of arms and a long streamer, the work of an anonymous wit, which read OUR TWO ROADS TO PROGRESS: RAILROADS AND CECIL RHODES." [Strage, Cape to Cairo (1974)]

On the 4th November 1897, four special trains run by CGR arrived carrying 800 guests from all parts of the British Empire. Two long sleeping and dining-car trains made their inaugural 1,360 mile (2,176km) journey from Cape Town, departing on 31 October, to Bulawayo with distinguished guests including the new High Commissioner of the Cape, Sir Alfred Milner, who was to open the railway, on board. The guest list read like a Who’s Who of nearly everybody who had anything to do with the extension of the British Empire in Africa, and many of the leading citizens of South Africa.

There was concern that the trains might be cut off between flooded rivers in the event of a flash flood, so the trains carried provisions for a month to sustain the VIPs through any potential incident. Fortunately, this was not required.

The Arrival of the Commissioner's Train

All four trains overnighted at Francistown before travelling on to Bulawayo on the morning of the 4th. The first decorated train, with 96 passengers travelling from the Transvaal, Orange Free State, Port Elizabeth and East London, arrived at seven in the morning and the second, with 60 passengers from Kimberley and Bechuanaland, half an hour later. The third train, with passengers from Cape Town, Graaff Reinet and Grahamstown, derailed just before Figtree. No-one was injured, but it did block the line and hold up the forth train, carrying the High Commissioner and distinguished visitors from England and Cape Town. By the time they reached Bulawayo, the crowed which had assembled to greet them had gone home, all apart from the official welcoming committee. The opening ceremony had gone ahead without them, although the main speeches were deferred until the banquet that night.

The opening ceremony was performed by Sir Alfred Milner, High Commissioner at the Cape, before "a brilliant gathering... the largest concourse of white people than had ever assembled in Rhodesia... with music provided by the BSAP band... and about 150 Matabele including several indunas... ".

From as dais on the platform Milner read a message from Joseph Chamberlain, then Sectretary of State for the Colonies, and after speeches the opening ceremony was followed by the presentation of the Victoria Cross to Trooper H S Henderson for his bravery during the Matabele rebellion.

More than half of the 400 invited guests actually made the long journey to Bulawayo, causing Henry Morton Stanley (the journalist cum explorer who found David Livingstone with the famous words "Dr Livingstone, I presume") to write: "In any other continent the open of five hundred miles of new railway would be fittingly celebrated by the usual banquet and after dinner felicitations of those directly concerned with it; but in this instance there are six Members of the Imperial Parliament, the High Commissioner of the Cape, the Governor of Natal, scores of Members of the Colonial Legislatures and scores of notabilities, leaders of thought and action, bankers, merchants, and clergy from every Colony and State in the southern part of this continent. "

Opening ceremony, Bulawayo Station

A official luncheon followed at the recently built Palace Hotel, incomplete without its third floor but handsomely furbished and amply stocked for the occasion, where invited guests sat down to an impressive menu and wine list. It was typical of George Pauling that he should remember the excellent work done by his employees on the construction and a special chef was engaged to prepare the free meals, with drinks, that he gave his men for the week of celebrations. The hotel was to be the venue for three banquets during the ten days of festivities. They were emotionally charged occasions for speeches, innumerable toasts and replies to toasts, and round after round of hearty British 'three-cheers' for everybody associated with the venture.

Rising to the exalted mood of the occasion, the Bulawayo Chronicle declared:

"Today is the parting of the ways for Matabeleland, the relegation of the old method of transport to the past and the beginning of civilisation in its entirety. Up to the present we have been living in a kind of semi-civilised state, at times cut off from our fellows, isolated from the seething world outside… the happy-go-lucky methods so common in new towns, and indeed so necessary in the early days of the settlement, will no longer be possible, for we shall have keen businessmen amongst us, men who are not accustomed, and have no stomach for the pioneering yet who are quite ready to reap the fruits of the work done by those who bore the burden and heat of the day. In many hearts there will be feelings of regret that the old order of things is passing away… there will be greater expansion of trade, the industries will develop, our plains will smile with rich farms, and our exchanges will be busy with gold… Today means something more than a holiday, it includes the commencement of the period in which we shall either become a glorious gem in the British Crown, or a by-word amongst the nations. Let the people see to it."

It was the Diamond Jubilee year of the reign of Queen Victoria, who recognised the remarkable achievement with an appropriate telegram of approval. The British Empire, the largest in the history of the world, was at its very height, and for Her Majesty’s subjects in distant Bulawayo it was not only the day they celebrated the arrival of the railway but also the switching on of electric lighting (while London was still using gas street lamps).

But one man was noticeable by his absence - the man behind the development of the railway, Cecil Rhodes. He had contracted "a severe attack of fever in the practically unknown regions north of Umtali while personally supervising the work of carrying on a trans-continental telegraph which will stretch from Cape Town to Cairo". He sent a telegram to the opening ceremony announcing:

"We are bound, and I have made up my mind, to go on to the Zambezi without delay. We have magnificent coalfields lying between here and there, which means a great deal to us engaged us engaged in the practical workings of railways. Let us see it on the Zambezi during our lifetime. It will be small consolation to me and to you to know it will be there when we are dead and gone."

When the festivities were over and the trains had steamed out with their homebound passengers, and the town settled down to everyday life again, the Bulawayo Chronicle was in a more reflective mood:

"Beneath the surface flow of flattery and gratulation, which characterised so largely the extraordinary out-pooring of eloquence to which we listened... there ran and undercurrent ore strong and more abiding. Ever and anon the upper stream subsided, and the undercurrent became apparent in forceful words, the memory of which we should retain if we forget all else in connection with the rejoicing. That undercurrent was this: that in the complexity of motives which has brought about the acquisition of the new country and the present stage of its development, the lust for gold has not entirely predominated; that religion, patriotism, the spirit of adventure and other higher incentives have been intermingled in no unworthy measure. And this is true, though our pride in the fact should be tinged with humility, so that in doing of our future work this deeper and nobler level of motives may enter more and more largely. If this country is to become one of the brightest jewels in Victoria's Crown, these motives must largely animate the men who are to make it so. For no country ever became truly great, when wealth and pleasure were the chief aims of its people..."

Rhodesia Railway soon moved its temporary offices and quarters for its field staff from Mochudi in Bechuanaland to the railway camp near the station at Bulawayo, an area later to become known as Raylton, the centre for railway housing and recreational purposes for many decades to come.

Early photographs show how bare the veld was in the vicinity of the railway terminus on the outskirts of Bulawayo. A few mimosa trees and scrub showed green on the otherwise brown and dusty ground. On this high, open and windswept stretch was established the permanent station and other facilities. The station building, a wood-and-iron structure placed on a high-level platform, was a row of offices with a parcels store behind. Close by was a small refreshment kiosk which advertised ‘Tea-Coffee-Cocoa, Shandies 6d, Cigars and Tobaccos’, while on the other side of the station building was a separate refreshment-room serving meals.

The Zambesi Express arrives at Bulawayo

To the Zambezi and beyond

Cecil Rhodes formerly announced his plan to extend the railway beyond the Zambezi on 21 April 1898, soon after the line had reached Bulawayo.

He made a pronouncement at a meeting of the British South Africa Company's shareholders in the Cannon Street Hotel in London:

"I want £2 million pounds to extend the railway to Lake Tanganyika - about 800 miles... Look at the matter. You get the railway to Tanganyika; you have HM Government’s sanction for a railway to Uganda, and then you have Kitchener coming down from Khartoum. This is not imaginative: it is practical. It gives you Africa…...the whole of it!"

Many in England were shocked by his ambitious plans and the Government did not respond positively, possibly because more than half of Africa was under the control of other European nations. City investors however were more interested.

Rhodes was completely convinced of the importance of a railway in the development and expansion of new territories. From then onwards he devoted all his great energy and will power to the financing of railway construction to the north. Although the Cape to Cairo scheme never materialized in its entirety, the next forty years saw the spread of a web of 'pioneer railways' which penetrated the whole of the subcontinent.

Eager to gain publicity and exposure for his plans, and to find investors, Rhodes looked to set up an expedition to Northern Rhodesia and the newly discovered copper fields, to be accompanied and publicised by a competent journalist. One such prospect wrote to him in July 1900 on the following terms:

"My dear Mr Rhodes, Abe Bailey has spoken to me about a plan to send a small private expedition from Capetown ... and has suggested my coming with you... I should personally like very much to take part in such an interesting venture, and as I have to make my own living it would be a great advantage to me to do so, for what with a series of letters to a London newspaper and a good sized book to be published later, I should be able to earn a good deal of money. Now it seems to me that this writing would help to attract public attention to the Cape to Cairo route and stimulate the interest taken in your railway scheme: so that perhaps you will think that our roads lie for some small distance in the same direction."

The author of the letter, a certain young Winston Churchill, stood for election in his home country of England instead. Parliamentary duties evidently pushed the job offer from his mind, and the Cape to Cairo railway never had his services as a paid publicist.

But Rhodes was already planning ahead. In a letter to Lady Milner (date?), Rhodes expressed his exasperation when the building of the line was delayed by the latter actions of the Boer War. He wrote:

"My annoyance is that I cannot get on with my railway. We cross just below the Victoria Falls and have the money and survey finished, but cannot get rails up on account of de Wet"

Christiaan Rudolf de Wet served in the first Anglo-Boer War of 1880-81 and the Boer War of 1899 rising in rank to that of general, he came to be regarded as the most formidable leader of the Boers in their guerrilla warfare against the British.

Next page: The Old Drift

Recommended Reading

Croxton, A. (1982) Railways of Zimbabwe

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

Metcalfe, Charles (1916) Railway Development of Africa, Present and Future, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Jan 1916), pp. 3-17

Pauling, G. (1926) Chronicles of a Contractor

Strage, Mark (1973?) Cape to Cairo, Jonathan Cape

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

Search www.tothevictoriafalls.com:

Discover Victoria Falls - Click to visit site

'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.

Protected by Copyscape Duplicate Content Penalty Protection
Website text © Copyright Peter Roberts 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Webpage design by EcoElements Digital Media Solutions