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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Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls

To The Victoria Falls

Discovery of the Victoria Falls

Return to the Zambezi

Livingstone returned to the Zambezi in May 1853, spending a month in Linyanti (in what is now Botswana) with Chief Sekeletu, the son of Sebetwane, of the Makololo. Livingstone was determined to explore the possibility of opening up trade routes from either the east or west coasts, having realised the difficulties of a route from the south, whilst also preparing the way for a mission among the Makololo by the London Missionary Society under whose auspices he was travelling.

In June 1853 Livinstone, Chief Sekeletu and a large entourage of Makololo set out for Old Sesheke on the Zambezi and they followed the river upstream, north, to the Barotse Plain, before returning to Linyanti. In August 1853 he encountered two Arab traders from Zanzibar who were assessing the slave and ivory resources of the area. Livingstone believed that Christianity and free trade would liberate Africa from slavery, and determined to explore the possibilities of an overland route to the west coast, before eventually returning to the Zambezi and following it downstream to the east coast.

In November of the same year Livingstone set off on his ambitious quest. Leaving Linyanti he retraced his journey upstream into Barotseland before branching off to the west and finally reaching the Atlantic coast at Luanda (in Angola) in May 1854. Along the journey he enountered the Balonda who traded slaves to the Mambari and the Portuguese. Further northwest at Katema slave trading was even more pronounced.

The party consisted of 27 Makololo porters and carried three muskets, a rifle and a double-barrelled shotgun plus 10 kilos of beads, a small tent, a sheepskin blanket, a horse rug, some tea, coffee and sugar, a sextant and some spare clothes "to be used when we reached civilised life". Livinstone later recorded "I had always found, that the art of successful travel consisted in taking as few impedimenta as possible". There can be few finer Victorian understatements than his observation: "It is not all pleasure, this exploration". During the journey Livingstone suffered 27 attacks of malaria, and was reduced to "a skeleton".

At Luanda Livingstone recouporated and recovered his health, and was offered passage back to England by sea, which he refused. "I resolved to decline the tempting offers of my naval friends," he penned in his diary, "and take my Makololo companions to their chief [at Linyanti] with a view of trying to make a path from his country to the east coast by means of the great river Zambezi."

Discovery of the Victoria Falls

Livingstone arrived back at Linyanti on 11th September 1855, and was again well received by Sekeletu and his Makololo. There he found fresh supplies waiting for him sent by Moffat via Mzilikazi, the great Matabele Chief.

Realising the impracticability of the western route he had explored, Livingstone set out again in a courageous attempt to cross the African continent to the Indian Ocean. Here, as previously, he heard tales of the great waterfall, and in November 1855 he finally set out to visit it. Accompanied by Sekeletu and, initially by some 200 Africans, he left Linyanti again for Old Sesheke, and then followed the river downstream. Soon after leaving, the chief asked Livingstone: "Have you smoke that thunders in your country?", pointing at columns of vapour rising in the distance.

The rains had already broken and the party had an uncomfortable passage downstream to the Katombora Rapids. At the rapids the party was forced to leave their canoes and proceed along the riverbank. Two days after leaving Old Sesheke, Livingstone reached Kalai Island on which he saw the graves of Sekute Leya Chiefs, surrounded with a fence of seventy large elephant tusks.

It is interesting to note that 150 years later, the grave is still visible, marked with heavily weathered teak railway sleepers buried upright in the ground, with which the descendants of Chief Sekute replaced the ivory-tusk fence when it had weathered away.

After a night on the island, Livingstone set out to the Falls. Sekeletu had intended to accompany him, but as only one canoe could be found, he had to stay behind.

A diary entry, in one of the rough notebooks which he wrote up once or twice a week, reads matter-of-factly;

"Musioatunya bears SSE from Sekota islet after 20 minutes sail thence on 16th November, 1855, saw three or five large columns of vapour rising 100 or more feet"

Livingstone must have wondered what lied ahead as they travelled down the rapids towards the rising coloumns of cloud, with the ever present roar growing closer. One can only image his awe as the local boatmen arranged by Sekeletu took him to an island right on the very edge of the lip over which the water rolls".

The Victoria Falls of the Zambesi River
The Victoria Falls of the Zambesi River (from Livingstone's Missionary Travels 1857) This etching was commissioned by the publisher from an artist in London, who having never seen the Falls relied on Livingstone's written descriptions to detail the scene. Livingstone noted in the text that "The artist has a good idea of the scene, but, by way of explanation, he has shown more of the depth of the fissure than is visible, except by going close to the edge"

Livingstone later expanded in his journal notes, published as 'Missionary Travels and Reasearches in South Africa' in 1857, writing:

"After twenty minutes' sail from Kalai we came in sight, for the first time, of the columns of vapour appropriately called 'smoke,' rising at a distance of five or six miles, exactly as when large tracts of grass are burned in Africa. Five columns now arose, and, bending in the direction of the wind, they seemed placed against a low ridge covered with trees; the tops of the columns at this distance appeared to mingle with the clouds. They were white below, and higher up became dark, so as to simulate smoke very closely." [Livingstone, 1857]

He was struck by the beauty of the river and its banks, recording emotively:

"The whole scene was extremely beautiful; the banks and islands dotted over the river are adorned with sylvan vegetation of great variety of colour and form. At the period of our visit several trees were spangled over with blossoms. There, towering over all, stands the great burly baobab, each of whose arms would form the trunk of a large tree, besides groups of graceful palms, which with their feathery-shaped leaves depicted on the sky, lean their beauty to the scene. Some trees resemble the great spreading oak, others assume the character of our own elms and chestnuts; but 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]

This last passage has often been misquoted in reference to the Falls themselves, but it was the stretches of the river upstream of the falls which had already enchanted Livingstone, who felt the landscape only missing a backdrop:

"The only want felt is that of mountains in the background. The falls are bounded on three sides by ridges 300 or 400 feet in height, which are covered with forest, with the red soil appearing among the trees." [Livingstone, 1857]

About one kilometre upstream of the falls Livingstone transferred to a smaller, lighter canoe and proceeded in this to the island between Main and Rainbow Falls which is today known as Livingstone Island. Landing on the island, he obtained his first view of the falls, which he named after Queen Victoria, from what must be one of the most impressive viewpoints.

The following passage describes his journey to the edge of the Falls:

"When about half a mile from the falls, I left the canoe by which we had come down thus far, and embarked in a lighter one, with men well acquainted with the rapids, who, by passing down the centre of the stream in the eddies and still places caused by many jutting rocks, brought me to an island situated in the middle of the river, and on the edge of the lip over which the water rolls. In coming hither there was danger of being swept down by the streams which rushed along on each side of the island; but the river was now low, and we sailed where it is totally impossible to go when the water is high. But, though we had reached the island, and were within a few yards of the spot, a view from which would solve the whole problem, I believe that no one could perceive where the vast body of water went; it seemed to lose itself in the earth, the opposite lip of the fissure into which it disappeared being only 80 feet distant. At least I did not comprehend it until, 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 or twenty yards... the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa." [Livingstone, 1857]

Livingstone's estimates of the length and width of the gorge are gross under-estimates - he wrote in 1857 "Whoever may come after me will not, I trust, have reason to say I have indulged in exaggeration."

The Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls (etching)

Livingstone incorrectly concluded that the Falls were the result of a fault line in the rock being pulled apart to create a fissure into which the river fell, and he assumed the gorges below to be a series of hills through which the river then flowed:

"In looking down into the fissure on the right of the island, one sees nothing but a dense white cloud, which, at the time we visited the spot, had two bright rainbows on it. From this cloud rushed up a great jet of vapour exactly like steam, and it mounted 200 or 300 feet high; there condensing, it changed its hue to that of dark smoke, and came back in a constant shower, which soon wetted us to the skin...
"On the left of the island we see the water at the bottom, a white rolling mass moving away to the prolongation of the fissure, which branches off near the left bank of the river... On the left side of the island we have a good view of the mass of water which causes one of the columns of vapour to ascend, as it leaps quite clear of the rock, and forms a thick unbroken fleece all the way to the bottom. Its whiteness gave the idea of snow, a sight I had not seen for many a day. As it broke into (if I may use the term) pieces of water, all rushing on in the same direction, each gave off several rays of foam, exactly as bits of steel, when burned in oxygen gas, give off rays of sparks. The snow-white sheet seemed like myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam." [Livingstone, 1857]

Livingstone returned to the island the following day, in the company of Sekeletu, who had not seen the Falls before. On the island Livingstone planted a number of peach and apricot stones and some coffee seeds. He arranged for one of the Makololo to return and make a hedge around the garden to protect it from hippopotami. When the garden was prepared, Livingstone cut his initials and the date 1855 on a tree on the island, which he called Garden Island. Baldwin, the second European to visit the Falls and who was still there when Livingstone returned for his second visit, recorded "the Doctor tells me that it is the only place, from the West Coast to the East, where he had the vanity to cut his initials."

Today there is no sign of the garden and the tree bearing indecipherable marks commonly thought to be the initials carved by the missionary cannot be the original. Indeed Thomas Baines, who visited the Falls in 1862, only seven years after Livingstone, records that he visited Livingstone Island and found that the garden planted by Livingstone had planted there had been trampled by hippopotami and was completely overgrown. Elephant and hippopotami were until recently the only regular visitors to the island, and today's visitors are rewarded with the magnificent view, virtually unchanged since Livingstone's first sight of the Falls.

Leaving the Falls, Livingstone headed north-eastwards to the Kafue following it downstream to its confluence with the Zambezi, which he then followed, with only a detour near the Cabora Bassa rapids, to reach the Indian Ocean at Quelimane in May 1856, from where he returned to England.

He later received a gold medal from the London Royal Geographical Society as the first explorer to cross the African continent from west to east.

Debate on Discovery

It is accepted that stories of the existence of the falls had reached European settlers in the south some 15 years before Livingstone first set eyes on them, and there has been much debate on if Livingstone actually was the first European to visit Falls.

Writing in the The South African Handbook (No33) ‘The Victoria Falls’, and published in the early 1900’s, George Lacy records that:

“Englishmen in the south had, as early as about 1840, heard reports of the existence, far, far away in the north, of a phenomenon called ‘Mosivatunya’, (the smoke that sounds), but little attention had been paid to them. They were brought by Bechunaland hunters… who had ventured as far as the Chobe branch of the Zambezi, where, at Linyanti, dwelt the Makalolo. No European, however, was within a hundred miles of them until 1851. In that year, W C Oswell and David Livingstone reached Linyanti, and three weeks later S K Edwards and L H Wilson, and these four were the first in the district. None of them, however, made any attempt to visit the Falls. Oswell was on a hunting expedition, and Livingstone was his interpreter and wagon manager; Edwards and Wilson were hunters and traders.”

He concludes that Livingstone discovered the Falls, and as he himself was one of the early visitors, having visited the Falls in November 1869, his contemporary record is significant.

Numerous authors have addressed the issue, and in particular the claims including Karel Trichardt in 1838, Jan Viljoen, Erasmus Jacobs and Engelbrecht Viljoen, 1851 and W H Pretorius and Stoffel Snyman in 1855.

However in 1939 the Afrikaaner author Servaas Le Roux wrote "Pioneers and Sportsmen of South Africa 1760-1890". Le Roux's purpose was to highlight the discoveries of Afrikaaners, but on p119 he wrote:

“For many years past, especially amongst people who do not draw a clear distinction between vague and ill-founded impression and a properly substantiated fact, there has been prevalent an idea that the Victoria Falls had been visited by European hunters before Dr Livingstone first saw them in November, 1855…
"I have no hesitation in saying, after many years of careful investigation of the claims of all the possible visitors to the Falls before Livingstone, that there are no grounds whatsoever for believing that anyone but Livingstone was the first European to see them".

Debate on Date

In the build up to the 100th and 150th anniversaries of Livingstone’s discovery, there was much debate on the exact date of Livingstone's discovery of the Falls. Over the years there has been much confusion over this date.

Clark & Heath (1910?) state:

"The date of the discovery of the Victoria Falls is frequently miss-stated. A common error is to assign it to November 5th, 1855. But the evidence of Livingstone's writings points to the date given in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, namely November 17th, 1855."

According to the chronology set out in ‘Missionary Travels’, Livingstone states quite clearly that he left the Victoria Falls on the 20th of November after taking two days to explore the Falls themselves, giving a date of arrival of the 18th. However, on completing his journey across the continent and arrival at Quilimane (Mozambique) he found it was four days later than he reckoned, drawing into doubt the whole chronology of his journey.

The debate over the date is thought to been laid to rest on the centenary when Mr P C G Adams (London Missionary Society) had unearthed correspondence from Livingstone stating that he was certain that the date on which he actually first viewed the Falls was the 16th November.

Next page: Livinsgtone's Second Expedition

Recommended Reading

Livingstone, David (1857), Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa, London.

Henderson, L (unknown) John Murray and the Publication of David Livingstone's Missionary Travels (available online here http://www.livingstoneonline.ucl.ac.uk/companion.php?id=HIST2)


Sun, Steel and Spray - A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Corridors Through Time - A History of the Victoria Falls Hotel

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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.

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