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

Discovery of Lake Ngami

Livingstone had met a wealthy English hunter and explorer, William Cotton Oswell and as early as 1847 he suggested they go in search of Sechele's mysterious lake. Oswell had earned his reputation, and money, in India as a renowned elephant hunter and ivory trader, and was now looking for new hunting fields. Livingstone was looking to establish another mission station in the region.

In June 1849 Oswell, Livingstone and another Scotsman, Mungo Murray, set off acorss the trackless Kalahari Desert, ‘the great thirstland’, which at that time was believed to stretch as far as the Sahara, in search of the unknown 'great lake'. They were supported by an accompanying group of Bakwena, who acted as guides, passing through what is now Lephepe and Serowe, then northwest to Letlhakane and the Botete River.

Five months later, after crossing three hundred miles of desert and nearly dying from lack of water, they became the first Europeans to discover Lake Ngami. Livingstone received a Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his discovery, although Ngami, which is fed by rivers debouching from the Okavango Delta, was already known to European traders and hunters, not to mention the Batawana people who lived on its shores.

Livingstone describing it as a "shimmering lake, some 80 miles [130 km] long and 20 wide". During the 19th century it was a substantial waterbody, and it took them several days to circumnavigate its perimeter. It is one of the fragmented remnants of the ancient Lake Makgadikgadi which once was fed by the Upper Zambezi and covered a huge area of modern-day Botswana. Beyond Ngami, Livingstone was told, in the land of the Makololo, were mightier waterways.

Oswell, as the expedition organiser and financial backer, was awarded the medal of the Paris Geographical Society for the discovery. When, in later years, his more famous companion began to receive total credit for their joint exploits, Oswell accepted the fact philosophically.

Lake Ngami
Lake Ngami Discovered by Oswell, Murray & Livingstone (from Livingstone's Missionary Travels)

A year after his first visit, however, Livingstone returned to Lake Ngami, determined to continue to the Makololo country to the north. Mary refused to be left behind, and their children, Robert, Agnes and Thomas, aged (respectively) four, three and one years old, travelled with them. Mary was also pregnant again.

He would pass off the hardships it entailed. "Wagon-travelling in Africa is a prolonged system of picnicking... Excellent for the health and agreeable to those who are not over fastidious about trifles, and who delight in the open air". It took them four months and 10 days and nearly ended in disater.

"In some parts we had to travel both day and night continuously for want of water, and then tie up the oxen to prevent them running away ’till we had dug wells. I lost four in pitfalls made for game, two from drought, one by a lion..."

When they reached the mature woodland of the Boteti River and then the shores of Ngami, the atmosphere became almost festive as the children splashed in the shallows.

However two of the children, Agnes and Thomas, went down with malaria, and soon all his men were sick. The mosquito was not yet suspected as the vector for malaria, with Livingstone recording he "could not touch a square half inch of the bodies of the children unbitten after a single night’s exposure." Using a mixture of jalap resin, calomel, rhubarb and quinine – a remedy he hit on by trial and error he cured them. His medicinal remedy became know as the 'Livingstone Pill' or 'Livingstone's Rousers', and was manufactured in tabloid form by the firm of Burroughs Wellcome until the 1920s.

A remedy composed of from six to eight grains of resin of jalap, the same of rhubarb, and three each of calomel and quinine, made up into four pills, with tincture of cardamoms, usually relieved all the symptoms in five or six hours. Four pills are a full dose for a man -- one will suffice for a woman. They received from our men the name of 'rousers', from their efficacy in rousing up even those most prostrated. When their operation is delayed, a dessert-spoonful of Epsom salts should be given. Quinine after or during the operation of the pills, in large doses every two or three hours, until deafness or cinchonism ensued, completed the cure. The only cases in which, we found ourselves completely helpless, were those in which obstinate vomiting ensued.

The constant outbreaks of feaver caused Livingstone to abandon the journey and return with his family to Kolobeng. Their forth child, Elizabeth, was born almost as soon as they were home. Mary suffered a stroke shorly after giving birth, and her new daughter caught pneumonia. Mary recovered, but her baby died.


Lake Ngami has changed dramatically since Livingstone and Oswell discovered it just over 150 years ago. The Thaoge river flowed into the north-west corner of the delta and was the main inflow to the lake in the 19th century. This source of water dried up between the 1870s and 1898, and now the lake recieves water only in flood years, fed by the Nghabe and Kunyere rivers flowing into the north-east edge of the lake. The Kunyere is the more reliable source of water. Maximum levels were recorded in 1898, 1899, 1904, 1925, 1926, 1968/69 and 1978/79. Since the 1980s it has been dry most of the time, with low water levels in the whole Okavango system during the 1990s.

During the late 1990s, there was a significant change in the distribution of water in the Okavango Delta with more water flowing down the western side (towards Lake Ngami, via the Kunyere). However the history of low flow meant that it was only in 2000 that the Kunyere floodwaters reached the lake. In 2001, a few square kilometres of the lake bed was flooded and with the higher flood levels experienced subsequently, the lake has flooded substantially every year since 2004. It has become an important habitat for birds and wildlife.

Discovery of the Upper Zambezi

It was not until 1851 that the course of the Upper Zambezi became known to the western world. On 3 August 1851 Livingstone, with his wife (who was again pregnant) in tow and again travelling with Oswell, reached the river at Old Sesheke, now Mwandi (in modern day Zambia).

Their fifth child, 'named Oswell after their benefactor, was born on the banks of the Boteti River, but not before the entire party had almost perished in the barren Mababe Depression, now part of Chobe National Park. It was only the superior sense of the oxen that had saved them. As the dehydrated children cried and weakened, the oxen were turned loose and had happened to sniff out a trickle of foul-smelling water slimy with rhino dung.' [Davidson, Travel Africa Magazine]

Travelling from the south up the Savuti Channel, they meet the Makololo people under Chief Sebetwane who had recently established control over the area of the Linyanti River. When they reached Sebetwane’s capital, named after the river, the party was given a tumultuous welcome. Within weeks, however, the old chief died, reportedly from pneumonia.

Portuguese influence had extended this far into the heart of Africa, and Livingstone found the Makololo wearing cotton traded from Angola to the west by way of intermediate native traders, the Mambari. The Mambari were also notorious slave traders, and the Makololo, Livingstone soon discovered, were selling subjected tribes to the Mambari.

To the north at Sesheke Livingstone and Oswell were amazed to find a river which was nearly half a kilometre wide with huge floodplains. They had discovered the Chobe, and Livingstone rightly concluded it to be a main feeder of the Zambezi.

Although Livingstone quickly realised the identity of the newly discovered river as the Upper Zambezi, his claims were disputed by geographers at the time. Cooley's map of 1852 even shows two rivers, the upper Zambezi and Livingstone's "new" river, the two being separated by a continuous mountain chain, others claiming that Livingstone's river had "no connection with the Zambezi but flowed under the Kalahari desert and became lost".

His aim was to start a mission station in this area, but he could not find a district which was sufficiently free from fever, and they returned to Sebetwane's capital at Linyanti. Sebetwane had died, Livingstone records from pneumonia aggravated by an old wound. Clay (193) recrods:

The Makololo version however, is a little different. This is to the effect that one day, Sebituane insisted on riding Livingstone’s horse, in spite of warnings from the missionary that the animal was not fully broken in; Sebituane insisted that he was a very good rider and so Livingstone acceded. Unfortunately, Sebituane was thrown. He was carried to his hut in great pain and died two or three days after Livingstone left. Livingstone does not mention this incident but it is significant that the symptoms as described by him could have been caused by such an accident; no blame appear to have been attached to Livingstone.

It was whilst here that they were told of a great waterfall which lay some distance downstream. However they made no attempt to reach it, and after a brief stay, retraced their steps southwards to Kuruman.

Oswell marked the position of the unknown waterfall on a manuscript map which he made at the time, but which was not published for almost 50 years, when his eldest son, W E Oswell published an account of his life (Oswell 1900). It appears that Oswell and Livingstone did not see the spray from the Falls themselves, but he recorded "Waterfall, spray seen 10 miles off" on his map, using information from local people.

An interesting result of their expedition is that the Falls are marked, in nearly their correct position relative to the Upper Zambezi, on a map published by W D Cooley in 1852 - three years before Livingstone actually saw them for the first time.

In 1907 Major General R S S Baden Powell wrote:

"The Falls were first made known by my relative, W C Oswell, who after being the first Englishman to visit Lake Ngami out in the Kalahari Desert, made his way to the Zambezi River and mapped the country up there, including Barotseland, in 1851. He shows the Falls on his map with the remark that their spray is visable ten mile distant, and he called them by their native name, 'Mosi-Oa-Tunya', meaning 'Smoke that roars' in th elanguage of the Makololo. Dr Livingstone visited and described them three years later and named them the Victoria Falls."

It is not commonly realised that there are other candidates for the honour of being the first European to discover the Upper Zambezi. A Portuguese trader in slaves and ivory, Silva Antonia Francisco Porto, travelled east from Angola and entered Barotse country in 1848. It seems probable that he reached the river, but he was unaware of its connection to the lower Zambezi, and when Livingstone met him in 1853 he apparently satisfied himself that Porto's knowledge of the Falls certainly did not predate his. Livingstone's habits of keeping detailed journals and publishing and publicising his discoveries have ensured his reputation as the first European to explore much of the southern African interior, dispelling much of the myth of the 'Dark Continent'.

Other Europeans, including the Hungarian Laszlo Magyar and the Portuguese Candido also explored the region. Magyar travelled in the region of the watershed between the Congo and the Zambezi between 1852-4.

After discovering the upper Zambezi with Oswell in 1851 Livingstone returned to Cape Town and in 1852 he retraced he steps to the Zambezi, his wife and family having returned to England.

But even Livingstone doubted his own actions. "Am I on the way to die in Sebetwane’s country?" he recorded. "Have I seen the last of my wife and children? My soul, wither wilt thou emigrate? Where will thou lodge the first night after leaving the body?"

Next page: Discovery of the Victoria Falls

Recommended Reading

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

Oswell, W. E. (1900), William Cotton Oswell: Hunter and Explorer, The Story of His Life William Heinemann, London.

Schapera I [Editor](1960) Livingstone's Private Journals 1851-1853. Chatto & Windus, London.


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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