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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To The Victoria Falls

Formation of the Victoria Falls

The Origins of the Victoria Falls

The indirect effects of foreign activities and settlers had been felt in the region for many decades, if not hundreds, of years before the first Europeans penetrated the area in middle of the 18th century, since when the Victoria Falls have became known to the wider world.

For Dr David Livingstone, the first European visitor to witness the Falls in 1855, it appeared as if the earth had been torn apart by some great cataclysmic event, and that the river had fallen into this cleft in its bed. However the history of the Zambezi River and story of the formation of the Victoria Falls is not quite so straight forward, and is one which teaches us a lot about the geography, geology and history of south central Africa.

Livingstone incorrectly concluded that the Victoria 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:

"The entire falls are simply a crack made in a hard basaltic rock from the right to the left bank of the Zambezi, and then prolonged from the left bank away through thirty or forty miles of hills.
"The walls of this gigantic crack are perpendicular, and composed of one homogenous mass of rock. The edge of that side over which the water falls is worn off two or three feet, and pieces have fallen away, so as to give it somewhat of a serrated appearance. That over which the water does fall is quite straight, except at the left corner, where a rent appears, and a piece seems inclined to fall off. Upon the whole it is nearly in the state in which it was left at the period of its formation."
"The Victoria Falls have been formed by a crack right across the river- when the mighty rift occurred, no change of level took place in the two parts of the river thus rent asunder, consequently in coming down the river to Garden Island [Livingstone Island], the water suddenly disappears, and we see the opposite side of the cleft, with grass and trees growing where once the river ran, on the same level as that part of its bed on which we sail."

Livingstone's theory was widely accepted, and descriptions by subseqent visitors, and indeed even artistic renditions followed this assumption in their interpretation of the Falls.

However, Molyneux, in 1905 questioned this theory.

"I hold the conviction, that here, no less than at Niagara, the combination of canyon, gorge, chasm, and falls is due to the ever reducing action of moving water, eating back with relentless energy, year by year, and age after age, into the hard stubborn wall of igneous rock."

Geologist G W Lamplugh, in 1905, was one of the first to survey the area fully and supported Molyneux's belief that the gorges and waterfall had been eroded by the power of water:

"It is difficult for anyone standing on the brink of the Chasm, after having seen the placid flow of the Zambesi above the Falls, to believe that the fissure into which the river is so suddenly precipitated has been formed gradually by the action of the river itself, and not by some great convulsion during which the very crust of the earth was rent. The narrowness of the abyss, the strange zigzags along which the tumultuous waters rush after their first great plunge, the mystery which has long surrounded the further course of the river after it swings away out of sight among its forbidding precipices, and the knowledge that the rocks across which it plunges are of volcanic origin, are all factors that have aided the illusion. Hence it is not surprising to find that the explanation given by David Livingstone half a century ago, that the majestic Zambesi has here been intercepted by a rent due to some earth movement in the solid rocks, has been adopted without question in all the later descriptions of this wonderful spectacle." (Lamplugh, 1905)

Lamplugh had earlier visited the gorges immediately downstream, where the river swings sharply to the east into the Batoka Gorge. It narrows some 30 km downstream at the Chimamba Rapids, where there is a small fall of some 6–7 m and recorded:

Insignificant in height it is true, but when one stands on the brink of the lower cataract and sees the whole volume of the great Zambezi converging into a single pass only 50 to 60 feet in width, shuddering, and then plunging for twenty feet in a massive curve that seems in its impact visibly to tear the grim basaltic rocks asunder, one learns better than from the feathery spray-fans of the Victoria Falls what force there is in the river, and one wonders no longer at the profundity of the gorge! (Lamplugh 1907)

Livingstone was the first European to discover these falls, which he called the Moemba Falls, but he considered them insignificant and he did not descend into the gorge to inspect them.

However it was may years before further research would unveil the geomorpholigical history of the wider region and release the secret to the epic events that herealded the birth of the Victoria Falls, and we must next look to the history of the great Zambezi River itself.

Next page: Formation of the Zambezi


Bond G (1975) The Geology and Formation of the Victoria Falls. In: Phillipson D W (Ed).

Clark, John Desmond. (1952) The Victoria Falls : A Handbook to the Victoria Falls, the Batoka Gorge, and part of the Upper Zambesi River Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia : Commission for the Preservation of Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics.

Lamplugh G. W. (1905) Notes On The Geological History Of The Victoria Falls (from Sykes, 1905)

Lamplugh G. W. (1907) Geology of the Zambezi Basin around Batoka Gorge Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 63, pp 162-216

Lamplugh G. W. (1908) The gorge and basin of the Zambesi below the Victoria Falls, Rhodesia Geographical Journal, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Feb 1908), pp. 133-152

Molyneux, A. J. C. (1905), The Zambezi River and the Victoria Falls. Proceedings of the Rhodesia Scientific Association 5:25-29

Molyneux, A. J. C. (1905), The Physical History of the Victoria Falls, Geographical Journal. Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan., 1905), pp. 40-55

Molyneux, A. J. C. (1905), The Victoria Falls of the Zambezi, Bulletin of the American Geographical Society. Vol. 37, No. 4 (1905), pp. 213-216

Newman, M. (1987) Victoria Falls : a visitors guide to Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls Publicity Association. [Reprinted 1990's]

Phillipson, D. W - Editor (1975) Mosi-oa-Tunya : a handbook to the Victoria Falls region Salisbury : Longman Zimbabwe

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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