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

To The Victoria Falls

Discovery of the Victoria Falls

In Livingstone's Footsteps

Baxter (in Clark, 1952), records:

Visitors after Baines and Chapman were a little more frequent. Sir Richard Glyn and his brother visited the Falls in 1863, Thomas Leask in 1869, Edward Mohr in June 1870, the Honourable Guy V Dawney in 1873, F C Selous in June 1874 and again in October 1877, Frank Oats on New Year’s Day 1875, Dr Emil Holub in September 1875, Frederick Hugh Barber in 1875 [Barber also painted pictures of the Falls], Alfred Musson in July 1876 and Major Serpa Pinto in November 1878.

George Lacy, who himself visited the Falls in 1868, has left the following account of the visitors who came after the Livingstone brothers and Kirk in 1860

A trader, H Polson, was at the same time within 50 miles but didn’t trouble to see them. The following year three or four Boer hunters made their way there, but except Martinus Swartz, they all died of fever. The year 1862 as marked by Chapman’s arrival there on his great journey from Walfish Bay, on which he was accompanied by T Baines, E Barry, H Bell and J Laing. A trader, H Reader, was there in the same year. Twelve months later a party consisting of Sir Richard Glynn, Capts. Glynn and Osborne and J Gifford were the visitors, but there were none in 1864 and only one, Paul Zietzman, a Boer hunter, in 1865. The following years three or four more Boer hunters were there, in 1868 the writer and in 1869 Leask and Dr Coverley, who reached there by way of Gwai and Wankie. These were all the visitors previous to 1870

G. Clay (in Fagan, 1963) commented:

Later research has led to a few amendments in this list for Bell and Laing never reached the Falls and one Horn arrived there not long before Lacy in 1868. No doubt Lacy heard that Bell and Laing were with Chapman and Baines and hearing the latter had reached the Falls assumed that all their companions were with them. As regards Horn, he was working with and accompanied Leask but the latter fell ill and Horn went on alone to the Falls. Leask had to return within having reached the Zambesi and came back the following year in 1869. Lacy also throws no light on who it was accompanied him, and to whom he refers throughout his own account as ‘F’. As Lacy pointed out, it is known that a number of Boer hunters reached the Falls but not all of their names have survived. These men left no published records of their visits and it is satisfactory that the names of at least two of them have been carried down to posterity.

Concerning Reader there is something of a mystery, for while tradition has it that he visited the Falls in 1862, and while Chapman mentions meeting him on 15th august of that year not far away, the later Professor J P R Wallis, in his Life of Thomas Baines, records that on their way back from the Falls ‘They met one, Reader, with his wife and child on his way to the river to trade, who gave them coffee, sugar, tea, rice and the like luxuries that they had not tasted for months...’ Professor Wallis believed that he got this information from Baines’s early diaries, but it has not been possible to trace the relevant diaries. If Mrs Reader was with her husband it seems likely that she was the first European woman and the child was the first European child to see the Falls.

The fourth group of Europeans to visit the Falls, Sir Richard George Glyn and his younger brother Robert, arrived in 1863. Sir Richard kept a diary of his four-and-a-half-month journey from Durban, and hunting played a large role in their plans, lured by tall tales of wild animals and places where "a man could shoot until his arm grew too tired to lift his rifle and not make a dent in their masses". However, by 1863, the herds were rapidly declining after three decades of uncontrolled hunting, especially in the areas within modern day South Africa, Sir Richard noting in his diary that "the country is covered with skulls of wildebeest".

Arriving at the Zambezi River opposite an uninhabited island, and one and a half miles above them, they reached sight of the Falls on 22 July 1863. Sir Richard records their arrival:

Started with the first light, and soon we heard a distant roar, which we knew to be the falls. Three hours toiling over thirsty sand, through forest - brought us to the edge of the plateau, and far away to the north-east we could see the tall pillars of vapour rising over the trees and marking the spot we had come so many thousand miles to see. As we stood to admire, lo! six bull elephants appeared on the opposite cliffs. Quietly they tore up a great tree and fed on the leaves. As if they knew that they had chosen the only place in southern Africa where they would not be made to feel the weight of our bullets for, for 40 miles or more down, nothing with-out wings can scale the cliffs and cross the stream of the boiling Zambezi.

When Sir Richard Glyn and his party arrived on Livingstone Island they found that the initials of the two Livingstones and Baldwin were nearly grown out, so they re-cut them and inscribed Glyn 1863 by their side:

Livingstone’s garden, though strongly fenced, has been breached in many places by the seacows, and is nothing but a mass of rank grass. I could only frind the stump of one peach tree. We found his and Baldwin’s initials nearly grown out, so recut them, and inscribed ‘Glyn 1863’ by their side.

Thomas Leask, a hunter from Natal, was the first man to reach the Falls from the Matabele country, on Thursday, 23rd July 1869. Clay (1963) records:

In his diary he tells several stories regarding Livingstone which he had heard from native sources. How Livingstone crossed the Falls with the aid of pieces if string and calico – presumably an exaggerated version of the measurement of the Falls. How Livingstone was able to make people die at will and bring them back to life again and how he was able to walk on water – all stories showing the awe in which Livingstone was held.

Turning now to visitors after 1870, George Lacy recorded:

After this date they became much more numerous. There have been as many as a score of more in a year finding their way there, but later, as the game became scarcer, and partly in consequence of political conditions which had developed in South Africa, sometimes a year passed without a single white man gazing upon the unique scene.

Another early visitor, the German explorer Edward Mohr, who visited the waterfall in 1870, was overawed by the Falls:

It seemed to me as if my own identity were swallowed up in the surrounding glory, the voice of which rolled on forever, like the waves of eternity... But I threw down my pen. No human being can describe the infinite; and what I saw was part of infinity made visible and framed in beauty.

Mohr christened the 'Rain Forest'; he also mentions meeting near the Falls three Englishmen, Kirton, Martin and Colville, and two Norwegians, Broderson and Anderson, all of whom probably visited the Falls.

During the following decade several further Europeans, mainly hunters, reached the Victoria Falls. By 1870 the names of twenty-five such visitors are recorded, but there are undoubtedly others whose names have been lost. During the two years 1874-75, however, these numbers were doubled, an indication of the rate at which the area was being drawn into the sphere of European activity.

Frank Oates, British naturalist and explorer (and uncle to Antarctic explorer Captain Lawrence Oates) was one of the first few Europeans to see the Falls in full flood, visiting the falls on 31 December 1874. Unfortunately he died of malaria on the return journey, before he had time to write up his notes and journal of the experience.

In the 1950s, researcher R Sampson tried to put together a list of all early visitors to the Falls and the territory comprising the modern Zambia, and counted less than fifty Europeans, and most of these hunters, who had seen the Victoria Falls in between 1855 and 1875 (of which as many as ten saw them in that last year, 1875). Of all these, only four were not British subjects - two were Germans (traveller and explorer Mohr in 1870, and hunter Schinderhutte in 1873), one Norwegian (and/or Danish) trader Anderson in 1875 and an Austro-Hungarian citizen of Czech origin Emil Holub.

Dr Emil Holub

The Czech explorer, cartographer and ethnographer Dr Emil Holub, made the first detailed plan of the Falls and its surrounding area in 1875 and which is now in the archives of the Náprstek Museum of Asian and African Cultures in Prague. The result of his work was a booklet, published in Grahamstown in 1879, was the first such work on the Victoria Falls ever published. His map was only published in 1880 when a professional re-drawing of it was published in both Czech and German editions of his first travelogue Seven Years in South Africa - but even then then English translation lacked this key detail, and that of another plan of the upper Zambezi.

Emil Holub's map of the Victoria Falls
Dr Emil Holub's map of the Victoria Falls

Holub describes his first sight of the Falls:

...I mounted a hill, and scrambled through another thicket, when all at once I found myself on the brink of the abyss, into which the seething waters were rolling with a tremendous plunge. The impression of that scene can never be effaced!

In 1890 he wrote:

Even the greatest literary masters would certainly have fallen silent facing such majestic and everchanging scenery. Human being is totally incapable of describing Mother Nature where she performs with such a might as at the Victoria Falls - there, Man just has to adore her!

Holub visited the Falls twice, in 1875, and - together with his newlywed wife - ten years later. He visited Sesheke (now Mwandi) in 1875-6, and with the support of Westbeech he obtained the consent of Litunga Sipopa, to travel deep into Barotseland and explore upstream reaches of the Zambezi. Holub tried in vain to reach the heartland of the Lozi kingdom, turning back from Sioma due to disease and loss of possessions.

Holub made his second expedition to the region in 1885-6 when he and his wife travelled north as far as the Ila or Mushukulumbwe, whilst trying to fulfil his ambition of traveling from the Cape to Cairo. In 1886 the Ila attacked Holub in the Kafue Flats, forcing him and his party to abandon their route and return to Sesheke.


The Portuguese explorer and trader Serpa Pinto examined some of the western tributaries of the river and made measurements of the Victoria Falls in 1878 (and published in 1881). Unlike most visitors he was not enchanted by the scene, but saw a darker side to the Falls, recording:

That enormous gulf, black as is the basalt which forms it, dark and dense as the cloud which enwraps it, would have been chosen, if known in biblical times, as an image of the infernal regions, a hell of water and darkness, more terrible perhaps than the hell of fire and light.

F C Selous
F C Selous, relaxing on hunting trip

Many early European explorers, hunters and traders to visit the Falls published accounts of their travels, and include the hunter F C Selous who in 1881 described his visit:

One stands, on the very verge of the chasm, on a level with the river above, and only separated from the cataract by the breadth of the opening, into which it dashes, so that when a sudden puff of wind blows away the spray immediately in front one sees the beautiful blue river, studded with thickly-wooded, palm bearing islands, seemingly as still and quiet as a lake, flowing tranquilly on heedless of its coming danger, till with a crash it leaps in one splendid mass of fleecy, white foam into an abyss. At whatever part one looks the rays of the sun, shining on the descending masses of foam, form a double zone of prismatic colours, of whose depth and brilliancy no one who has only seen the comparatively faint tints of an ordinary rainbow can form any conception. Such are the Victoria Falls - one of, if not the, most transcendentally beautiful natural phenomena on this side of paradise.

Two German scientists, Schulz and Hammar visited the Falls on the 26th May 1884 on their way to trace the Chobe River to its source. They were a little disappointed by the spectacle as they did not have a good view owing to the mass of blinding spray.

Lionel Decle who visited the Falls on 12 December 1891, whilst on an expedition to study the ethnology of South and East Africa on behalf of the French Government, was also disappointed. He said:

All that I have read about them and all the descriptions that had been given e had created an impression in my mind quite different from the real thing. I expected to find something superb, grand, marvellous, I had never been so disappointed. Of course, to anybody who passed half his existence in South Africa, like Livingstone, or who had never been out of his country before, like Serpa Pinto, it is possible that these Falls present a wonderful sight. But anyone who has travelled about in the world cannot help saying; “After all, other wonders of nature have impressed me so much more than this”. Or, to make a clear comparison, what spectacle is more imposing that the Falls of Niagara? – the more you look at them the more you are compelled to wonder. The Falls of the Zambesi produce another impression. It is hell itself, a corner of which seems to open at your feet: a dark and terrible hell, from the middle of which you expect every moment to see some repulsive monster rising in anger... If it were possible to see the Fall in all their height and breadth, the spectacle would certainly be magnificent.

Clay (1963) summarised:

Looking at the list of the early visitors it is apparent that they may be classified into a comparatively small number of categories. First there are the missionaries such as Livingstone himself, Coillard, Arnot and the Roman Catholic priests. Then the great hinters, men who spent many years and sometimes all their lives hunting big game and especially elephants – Baldwin, Chapman, Selous and the Afrikaaners Swartz and Zietsman. After them traders – Reader, Westbeech and the like, though many hunters were also traders and many traders were hunters. Then the visiting sportsmen like Sir Richard Glyn and his brother, the Garden brothers, Dawney and Sir Ralph Williams. Then the visiting scientists such as Holub and Mohr, and lastly came what might be called the residents such as Deans and Clarkson, who came up from Bulawayo on a short visit just as sightseers. In 1875 a party consisting of Barber, Cross, Anderson, Wilkinson and Levitt Frank visited the Falls and in Barber’s words:

“The day before we started on our return journey, while sitting around our camp fire, we heard a cheery shout of, “Hullo, there, you fellows!” Looking up our eyes were gladdened at the sight of two old friends, Messrs Deans and Clarkson, who with about twenty carriers had tramped all the way from Bulawayo, Lobengula’s chief town, a distance of about 200 miles, on a shooting trip and to visit the Falls. We still had a little French brandy left, but it was speedily imbibed by these thirsty hunters, ably aided by ourselves. Next morning early, our whole party started on our long back tramp to Pandamatenga, making a formidable number, seven whites and at least sixty carriers and servants..."

...Claims are sometimes made for the first honeymoon couple at the Falls and as late as 1904 is sometimes quoted. In fact, the first honeymoon couple to the Falls were Mr and Mrs William Francis who visited the Falls on their honeymoon in 1875 in a party which included Dr Holub and Mr and Mrs Westbeech. If Mrs Reader did not visit the Falls, then Mrs Frances and Mrs Westbeech were the first ladies to arrive there. Both were South Africans and the first English woman was Mrs Jessie Williams who arrived there with he husband As regards the first child to visit the Falls, it is possible that a child of the Readers was there in 1862, but if this is not substantiated then Elise Coillard who went at the age of fifteen with her uncle the Reverend Francis Coillard in 1875 was the first, followed by the Williams’ child, aged seven in 1883.

Next page: George Westbeech

Recommended Reading

Bethell, A J (1887) Notes on South African Hunting and Notes on a Ride to Victoria Falls of the Zambesi. Sampson, York.

Decle L (1898) Three Years in Savage Africa London.

Gibbons A St H (1897) Explorations and Hunting in Central Africa. Methun, London.

Gibbons A St H (1904) Africa from South to North. Through Marotseland. Lane, London.

Holub Emil (1881) Seven Years in South Africa. Travels, Researches and Hunting Adventures, Between the Diamond-Fields and the Zambesi, 1872-79 London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, (reprinted Johannesburg: Africana Book Society 1976)

Mohr, Edward (1876), To the Victoria Falls of the Zambesi, translated by N. D'Anvers. Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivingston, London (Rhodesia Reprint Library, V28)

Oates, Frank (1881) Matabele Land and the Victoria Falls: A Naturalist's Wanderings in the Interior of South Africa. C.G. Oates, editor. London: C. Kegan Paul and Company.

Pinto, S (1881) How I crossed Africa; from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, through unknown countries London

Sampson, R. (1956) They Came to Northern Rhodesia. Being a record of persons who had entered what is now the Territory of Northern Rhodesia by 31st December, 1902. Lusaka: Northern Rhodesia Government

Selous, Frederick Couteney (1881), A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa. London. (Rhodesia Reprint Library, Vol 14. Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

Selous, Frederick Couteney (1893) Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa Being the Narrative of the Last Eleven Years Spent by the Author on the Zambesi and its Tributaries, with an Account of the Colonisation of Mashunaland and the Progress of the Gold Industry in that Country. London: Rowland Ward and Co.


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