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

To The Victoria Falls

Known to the local inhabitants of the region for centuries, the majestic natural wonder of the Victoria Falls was first brought to the attention of the wider world by the famous Scottish missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone in 1855.

On the 4th August 1851, on his first journey north into the unmapped interior, Livingstone arrived on the banks of a large river which local inhabitants called the Liambai, and which he correctly identified as the upper reaches of the Zambezi, known only to Europeans by its lower stretches and great delta on the east coast.

Livingstone befriended the Makalolo chief, Sebetwane, who had established power in the region, noting that some of the Makalolo wore European cloth, no doubt traded with slave traders or their intermediaries.

Livingstone and his travelling companion William Oswell were told of a great waterfall some distance downstream, although they did not travel to visit them. The Makalolo knew the Falls as Mosi-oa-Tunya, which Livingstone roughly translated as ‘Smoke that Sounds’ (and today is commonly adapted as ‘Smoke that Thunders’).

“Of these we had often heard since we came into the country; indeed, one of the questions asked by Sebituane [in 1851] was, ‘Have you smoke that sounds in your country?’ They [the Makalolo] did not go near enough to examine them, but, viewing them with awe at a distance, said, in reference to the vapour and noise, ‘Mosi oa tunya’ (smoke does sound there). It was previously called Shongwe, the meaning of which I could not ascertain. The word for a 'pot' resembles this, and it may mean a seething caldron, but I am not certain of it.” (Livingstone, 1857)

Oswell marked their rough location on a map published in 1852, but it was not until 1855, when Livingstone returned to the Zambezi that he saw their grandeur for himself.

Journey Downstream

It was not until 1855 that Livingstone returned to the Zambezi and finally explored downstream, escorted by Sebetwane’s successor, Chief Sekeletu. Travelling by canoe and then along the north bank to avoid the Katambora Rapids.

Livingstone records visiting Kali Island whilst travelling downstream to the Falls in 1855, seeing the graves of the ancestors of the Sekute chiefs. He describes the graves over-arched by elephant tusks set into the earth, as well as finding human skulls on poles at the old chief's derelict palace.

"Having descended about ten miles, we came to the island of Nampene, at the beginning of the rapids, where we were obliged to leave the canoes and proceed along the banks on foot. The next evening we slept opposite the island of Chondo, and, then crossing the Lekone or Lekwine, early the following morning were at the island of Sekote, called Kalai.
"It is large enough to contain a considerable town. On the northern side I found the kotla [fortress/palace] of the elder Sekote, garnished with numbers of human skulls mounted on poles: a large heap of the crania of hippopotami, the tusks untouched except by time, stood on one side. At a short distance, under some trees, we saw the grave of Sekote, ornamented with seventy large elephants' tusks planted round it with the points turned inward, and there were thirty more placed over the resting-places of his relatives." (Livingstone, 1857)

Sekeletu arranged a canoe and local boatman to take Livingstone the final distance downstream to the waterfall.

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 later wrote up more detailed notes in his journal, edited and published as 'Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa' in 1857:

"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)

Scenes so Lovely

Livingstone was enchanted by the beauty of the island studded river, its forested fringes and exotic wildlife, 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 first fired Livingstone’s imagination. Of the Falls themselves he would later write it “is a rather hopeless task to endeavour to convey an idea of it in words” (Livingstone and Livingstone, 1865).

Most Wonderful Sight

On 16th November 1855 Livingstone was guided to a small island on the very lip 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.." (Livingstone, 1857)

Scrambling through vegetation to "the very edge of the lip over which the water rolls," Livingstone struggled to understand the scale of what lay before him:

“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 Zambesi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet [30.5 m] and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen or twenty yards... the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.” (Livingstone, 1857)

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

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 boatmen to return and make a fence to protect the plants from the wanderings of hippopotami, hoping that the eternal spray from the Falls would nourish the small garden. In an uncharacteristic act of vanity Livingstone also cut his initials and date into the bark of a tree on the island, which he called Garden Island (now commonly known as Livingstone Island).

Baldwin, the second European to visit the Falls and who was still there when Livingstone returned for his second visit in 1860, 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."

Named in English

On his explorations Livingstone carefully recorded local names for geographic landmarks. Here, however, he also named them in English - the Victoria Falls - in honour of his monarch, the reigning British Queen Victoria.

“Being persuaded that Mr. Oswell and myself were the very first Europeans who ever visited the Zambesi in the centre of the country, and that this is the connecting link between the known and unknown portions of that river, I decided to use the same liberty as the Makololo did, and gave the only English name I have affixed to any part of the country.” (Livingstone, 1857)

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 continued his epic journey following the Zambezi downstream to the east coast, completing a 3,000 mile (4,828 km) trek from the west to east coasts of the continent in the process. Returning to England Livingstone’s accounts of his African travels caught the imagination of Victorian Britain. His first book, ‘Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa’ was published in 1857 and became an instant best-seller. Livingstone was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London for his explorations and scientific observations.

First to the Falls?

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 was the first European to see 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". (LeRoux, 1939)

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.

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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