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
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Development of the Victoria Falls

The following text is adapted from 'Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.

Cape to Cairo Railway

Whilst at Oxford, Rhodes had become firm friends with Charles Metcalfe, who in 1878 joined the firm of Sir Douglas Fox and Partners and arrived in South Africa as a consulting engineer. Metcalfe succeeded to a baronetcy on the death of his father in 1883, becoming Sir Charles Metcalfe, and he and Sir Charles Fox were appointed joint consulting engineers to Rhodes’ Exploring Company to survey Bechuanaland (now Botswana). In 1888 the firm was engaged by Rhodes as consulting engineers for the extension of the railway from Kimberley to Vryburg and thereafter he was continuously occupied on surveying ongoing stages of the northward construction.

Sir Francis Fox remarked on Metcalfe's abilities:

"Sir Charles Metcalfe possesses, to a remarkable degree, an intuitive knowledge of the course which any projected railway should take. He walks over the route, even when it extends to hundreds of miles, and lays down on a map the direction the railway should take. This is then carefully adjusted by level and theodolite, and the result is found to agree most remarkably with the route which he selected."

As a close personal friend of Rhodes, Metcalfe worked with him in all the original schemes of the envisaged Cape to Cairo Railway. Metcalfe later wrote, as part of Weinthal’s 'The Story of the Cape to Cairo Railway and River Route from 1887–1922' (published in 1924):

"Every great project has been foreshadowed by thinkers in the past. Long ago it must have occurred to many minds that there would someday be a line of railway travelling the continent of Africa from north to south, but until 1888 no definite plans had been formulated with regard to it."
"I was asked [in June 1888] by the exploring company if I would undertake a survey of the line from Kimberley to Vryburg and as the idea occurred to me that this might be the first section of a great railway from Cape to Cairo, I accepted at once."
"The High Commissioner at Cape Town tried to dissuade me from proceeding with our project, but we started for Kimberley. There I met Rhodes, whom I had known some twelve years before at Oxford. This fact assisted us, and he at once suggested that we might join forces with him."
"I had seen clearly... that without Rhodes we should not have much chance of success… and I had advised our group at home to that effect, but it was not till after Lobengula had signed a concession of mineral rights to Rhodes' agents, and after I had completed the railway survey to Vryburg, that we got a cable from home at the end of 1888 saying 'Join hands with Rhodes'."

At Rhodes' suggestion, Metcalfe produced a substantial article called The British Sphere of Influence in South Africa which was published in March 1889 in the Fortnightly Review, one of the most important and influential magazines of the time, and which set the stage for their plans. "It will come better from you," Rhodes said to him, "as I am looked on with some distrust at home".

It began by raising recent fears:

"The plans of the Transvaal Boers and the Germans to join hands and cut us off have been frustrated by the action of the British Government..."

But then continued to make a bold jump in vision:

"...the passage of the iron track... must ultimately join the Cape with Cairo, and carry civilization through the heart of the dark continent..."

Rhodes and Metcalfe planned an 'African Trunk Line'. In 1874 Edwin Arnold, an editor with the London Daily Telegraph, had coined the phrase ‘Cape to Cairo’. A railway from the Cape to Cairo would cover some 5,700 miles if laid in a straight line.

Rhodes soon realised the potential of the railway as the means to connect and consolidate British interests beyond the Cape.

Metcalfe’s influential vision continued:

"There is a race for the interior of Africa, and nothing but a firm policy will maintain British interests and keep open the way for the development of British trade in Africa. It is not generally known that there has been actually a proposal to cede to Germany a strip of territory extending from east to west right across the continent north of the Zambezi, which would have effectively barred the passage of the iron track."
"The iron way is the great civilizer... what has been done hitherto towards developing the mineral resources of South Africa may be set down as nothing compared with what must be done in the near future, for almost the whole of that vast zone to the Zambezi... may be said to be auriferous."

The next stage in the railroad was to push into 'Zambesia', the region of the Zambezi river catchment. Metcalfe even suggested how the whole thing could be done, sewing the seeds of Rhodes's dream:

"But what as to government?... Perhaps the best way of effecting what we are bound to do would be by granting a charter to some powerful company or corporation."

Metcalfe also later acted as joint consulting engineer with Sir Douglas Fox and Partners for the Benguela Railway through Portuguese West Africa, which was begun in 1903, and reached the Congo frontier in August, 1928. The Benguela Railway was the triumph of another great African pioneer and a friend and coadjutor of Rhodes, Sir Robert Williams.

The southern section of the Cape to Cairo Railway was extended from Cape Town, through Kimberley to Bulawayo, and on to the Zambezi. It was originally intended to carry the line from Bulawayo due north through the Mafungabusi coal district, crossing the Zambesi at the Kariba Gorge. It was found, however, that the country north of the Zambesi at this point offers immense difficulties at for railway construction, and that the value of the coal deposits is not to be compared with that of the Wankie coal fields. The certainty of a large tourist traffic if the line were carried to the Victoria Falls formed a further incentive to choose the western route, even though it represented a significant diversion away from the north-south axis of the route.

The Cape to Cairo railway was then planned to traverse Northern Rhodesia and Nyassaland to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, where the Chartered Company’s influence terminates. To prepare the ground, Rhodes's would later grant Williams's company, Tanganyika Concessions, "...a 2,000 square miles mineral concession, together with the right to locate a township at the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, to be the Rhodesian terminus of the Cape-to-Cairo railway." (Strage, 1973).

From this point onward, however, the plans for Cecil Rhodes’s scheme had to be modified as the nature of the country around the chain of lakes stretching from the Zambezi to the Nile came to be known to surveyors. Lake Tanganyika is hemmed in by steep mountains offering well-nigh insurmountable difficulties to railway construction, but the lake itself offered a magnificent waterway of 400 miles on the direct line between the Cape and Cairo, and an alternative means of transport to rail.

Parallel Lines

In 1880 the Kimberley region had become annexed by the Cape Colony and awarded six seats in its Parliament, one of which Cecil Rhodes, only 27, put himself forward successfully as a candidate.

One of his first projects upon election was to support the development of a railway from Cape Town to Kimberley, now the second biggest settlement in the colony. Rhodes knew that further development of the mines would require heavy industrial equipment, and that a railway transport link was the key to success, not just for the people of Kimberley, but also his own expanding aspirations.

A railway had first been proposed in 1828, and again in 1845. Actual construction began in 1857, when 54 miles of track were laid to Wellington, and opened in 1859. Construction was for a private company for who Sir Charles Fox was consulting engineer. The line was taken over by Cape Government in 1873.

Plans to extend the railway 350 miles (560km) from Cape Town, with the potential for continuing the line all the way to the Zambezi River were suggested as early as 1871. The railway was eventually extended to Worcester, 120 km from Cape Town, in 1876. However surveying the line ahead, engineers concluded that a 200 foot tunnel was required to pass the mountains that lay ahead. Such an undertaking was beyond the skills and resources available, until a young British engineer, George Pauling, arrived on the scene. The tunnel was completed and the line extended to Beaufort West in 1880. Here it paused while its next destination was decided.

Rhodes, naturally, saw the line as running to Kimberley: "Where else should any railway extension go than Kimberley?"

By 1884 the railway had reached the south bank of the Orange River, and George Pauling stepped forward as the man to bridge the river. The first train arrived at Kimberley, 647 miles from Cape Town, on 28 November 1885.

Pauling & Co

George Pauling, a self-made engineer from England, is the name most closely associated with the building of the Cape to Cairo railway in southern Africa. A giant in stature and personality, he was a forceful and colourful character, noted for his drive, capacity for hard work and physical strength. His enterprise knew no bounds, For some years his railway contracting activities alternated between Africa and the Middle East, where he built the line from Heifa to Damascus in Syria. In South Africa, his company, Pauling & Co, had already earned a reputation by laying several branch lines. "In my time," he wrote, "I have had submitted to me schemes for work in nearly every country in the world – from Alaska to New Zealand, from Manchuria to Peru." One of the then fanciful schemes that he investigated was for a tunnel under the English Channel at Dover.

The firm of Pauling & Co. Ltd. was formed in 1877 and, in 1881, they completed their first railway construction contract - the 65 mile Port Alfred Railway in the Eastern Cape.

Rhodes met Pauling in 1891, having summoned him to Cape Town from Barberton, where the engineer had been gold mining, to talk about extending the railway from Vryburg. Nothing came of this initially for financial reasons, but in 1892 he was invited to build 80km of narrow gauge line from Fontesvilla, 56km inland from Beira, towards Rhodesia. Construction started in September of that year and the border town of Umtali (Mutare) was finally reached on 4 February 1898.

In 1893, Pauling was invited to build the Vryburg-Mafeking line, the first section of what would become the ambitious Cape to Cairo Railway of which, over a period of 18 years Pauling & Co was to build nearly 2,500km – through Bechuanaland (Botswana) and the Rhodesias (Zimbabwe and Zambia) to Elisabethville (Libumbashi) in the Congo, which was reached in 1910.

Baron Emile D'Erlanger said;

"The success of the construction and finance was greatly due to the genius of the railway contractor, George Pauling, who never once exceeded his estimate, though cost per mile was kept lower than for any other railway system in the whole of Africa."

Mr Hugh Marshall Hole wrote of Pauling:

... he was a man of shrewd business qualities, and indomitable enterprise. When the history of the development of South Central Africa is recorded the name of Pauling will take a place among its Pioneers second only to that of Rhodes."

Based in London, the company, renamed Pauling plc, marked its centenary in 1977 and was still engaged in major overseas projects, especially within the Middle East, India and Pakistan. The company was dissolved on the 2nd April 2002.

Next page: The Coming of the Railway

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

Roberts P (2017) Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls. Zambezi Book Company.

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

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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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