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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Development of Rhodesia

The following text is adapted from 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2018. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.

On the Wagon Road

From 1898 successive wagon roads were opened north to the Zambezi, eventually bypassing Kazungula and following progressively more direct routes to the Falls. Trade wagons, carrying between three and four tons of goods, and often pulled by sixteen to eighteen oxen, ferried supplies north to the Zambezi. The Old Hunter’s Road to the north, forming the modern day border with Botswana and Zimbabwe, fell into disuse during this time.

“Most people travelled at night to spare their oxen and themselves the pain of moving in the heat of the heat of the day. Nocturnal journeys also reduced the risk of cattle being bitten by tsetse flies and infected with trypanosomiasis - sleeping sickness. The Old Hunters’ Road was supposed to be free of fly at least as far as Pandamatenga.

“Oxen were temperamental creatures, with their own names and characters - lazy or hardworking, good-natured or bad-tempered. A good transport rider knew how to train them, match them in pairs and encourage them to work without undue coercion. Even so, individual oxen sometimes went on strike, sat down and refused to move. Stories were told of wagon ‘boys’ resorting to a variety of strategies to make then get up - from biting their tails to lighting fires under them. Not all travellers used oxen and wagons. Some people used carts drawn by donkeys, which were unaffected by tsetse flies, but unable to draw such heavy loads.” (Macmillan, 2005)

Mr Stanley Portal Hyatt, a ‘transport rider’ based in Bulawayo during the days of the wagon roads, recorded the difficulties of transporting loads on the rough roads:

“Our greatest terrors on the mud flats were what we used to call ‘graves’ the pits formed by the digging out of other wagons. Sometimes, these were of huge size, quite sufficient to contain the whole fore-carriage. The men who had dug them had left them open - it was worse than useless to try and fill them in again with soft mud - but the recent rain had filled them, and there was nothing to warn you. Even if your cattle managed to avoid them, one of your wheels might plunge in, perhaps resulting in the capsize of the whole wagon. Even when I had plenty of cattle available, I have spent two days getting one wagon out of a ‘grave.’ Now and then, you came across ‘graves’ which were, literally, large enough to contain a wagon, huge pits dug with infinite labour, and having a gradual ‘pullout.’ You know, at once, what these mean - someone with a load all in one piece, a boiler, a mortar-box, an engine casting, has had a capsize, and the only method of reloading was to sink the wagon to the ground level, and roll, or lever, the load back on to it.” (Hyatt, 1914)

Hyatt recalled the route from Bulawayo north to the Falls was not favoured by the transport riders, the 475 kilometre trek taking three weeks or more depending on season.

“The road which had the worst reputation in every way was that leading from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls. In winter, it was quite impossible, owing to lack of water, neither man nor beast could get up it; whilst in summer, when the few wagons did go up, conditions were very nearly as bad. There was too much water then, wholly appalling stretches of black mud alternating with terrible stretches of rocky track; there were unlimited lions to eat your cattle, and any amount of ‘poison veld’ to kill those which the lions spared.”

One early traveller to the Zambezi, Henry Rangeley, described the journey - “the cart simply bumped from boulder to boulder and there were bits of broken wheels and wagon parts all over the track” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, January 1965).

Getting to the banks of the Zambezi was only part of the challenge. Mathilde Keck Goy, wife of Auguste Goy, a Paris Missionary based at Sesheke, recorded her first crossing of the Zambezi at Kazungula in 1889.

“Everything must be carried over in canoes, box after box, even to the smallest parcel. The wagon must be taken to pieces, and the parts separately ferried to the other side. It was an interesting sight to see the tent of the wagon resting on four or five canoes and the men rowing with all their might, trying to cross the river.

“But what terrible loss it would be if the canoe should capsize and one of the precious parts of the wagon should go to the bottom! To get the oxen across is a difficult matter. Each ox is caught by the horns with a strong ‘riem’ or leather thong. One man in the canoe holds it, while three of four others are rowing, and so the poor animal is dragged to the opposite bank quite exhausted. To carry a wagon and its load, together with a span of oxen... across usually takes two or three days when it is calm, but when there is wind, the work goes very slowly. It took us a whole week for all to cross, and to again put our waggon together and repack.” (Goy, 1901)

Traders would often return with cattle, in high demand south of the river. The explorer Major Alfred St Hill Gibbons, who travelled extensively in the region between 1895-6, recorded the Barotse cattle being well used to the river crossings, but that trek oxen from the south were much more reluctant swimmers.

“In such cases each ox is secured with a riem passed over the horns. A boy sitting in the centre of the canoe holds on to the other end, while the beast is driven, sometimes with much difficulty, into deep water. He is then drawn to the side of the canoe, and his head held and secured so as to render his struggles powerless to upset the unstable craft, and in this position he remains until his feet strike the shallows of the opposite bank. Occasionally a crocodile, more venturesome than his fellows, deems the opportunity too tempting to be wasted, but in the vast majority of cases no mishap occurs.” (Gibbons, 1898)

The Wagon Road to the Victoria Falls
The Wagon Road to the Victoria Falls, circa 1900 (Image from a postcard by Percy Clark).

Hogsheads and Disselbooms

In an article entitled ‘A Beautiful Country’ a Bulawayo-based hunter, Mr Walker, proudly promoted the potential of the lands across the Zambezi, describing in detail the process of floating wagons over the river.

“Mr Walker, a hunter of the first rank in Rhodesia, has been telling a representative of the ‘Bulawayo Chronicle’ about the wonderful stretch of territory north of the Zambezi... Mr Walker tells of the vast region north of the big waterway. ‘On the other side,’ he says, ‘is a beautiful country, and the plateau is much healthier than here... I went up there for the first time two or tree years ago, and have been there twice again. I went in for trading and hunting, but my chief idea was to have a look at the country with a view to settling there... We generally leave here in April and May and get back in October or November. There’s a road starting from the banks of the Zambesi... You get your waggons over in this way. Two hogsheads [large wooden barrels] are tied underneath the waggon, the wheels fastened to the body of the waggon, the disselboom [main haulage shaft] taken out, and then a dugout goes on each side of the waggon. Some... hold on to ropes and the others paddle... Two hogshead were left there for the benefit of people crossing; these, however, have become ant-eaten, and anyone going up now should take hogsheads with them.’” (New Zealand Herald, May 1901)

The Coaching King

In 1890 Cecil Rhodes had commissioned Doel Zeederberg to survey the new Rhodesia territory and suggest likely transport routes, and the first regular coach service was opened the same year. Doel was a shrewd businessman and superb horseman, surveying most of the routes himself over the next three years. Doel would become known as the ‘coaching king’ of southern Africa.

Christiaan Hendrik Zeederberg, or ‘Doel’ as he was known, together with his three brothers Dolf, Louw and Pieter as partners, established Zeederberg and Company, Coach Proprietors in 1887, later known as the Zeederberg Coach Company. Their first mail-coach route, between Johannesburg and Kimberley, began operating in the same year. The coaches were of American manufacture, lightly built and wheeled but remarkably robust. They carried up to twelve passengers with room on top for mail and baggage and were usually drawn by ten mules, which were changed at regular coaching stations at 10 to 15 mile (16-24 km) intervals, allowing the coaches to travel continuously without delays. In 1901 Zeederberg introduced a regular mail coach service from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls, with journeys taking 10 to 12 days.

“About 1901 the first rough survey of a coach route from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls was undertaken jointly by Sir Charles Metcalfe and [Doel Zeederberg]... A weekly service was opened to the Wankie coal fields and the Falls, chiefly for facilitating the exploration of the mineral and other resources of the country. This... was eventually extended to Broken Hill [now Kabwe], and later was replaced by the advancing Cape to Cairo railway.” (Beet, 1923)

The Zeederberg coaches ran for a number of years across the Rhodesias, opening new routes and hailing the coming of the railway, before the advancing rails made their services redundant. Rhodes himself said that no other individual had done more to open up Rhodesia than Doel Zeederberg.

“In his own sphere of activity Doel may be said to have been among the few who played a leading part in the development of Central South African resources. In conjunction with Cecil Rhodes, this sturdiest of pioneers recognized the potentialities of the great North Land.” (Beet, 1923)

The Forgotten Figure

Albert Giese may have first visited the Falls as early as 1896 and is a forgotten figure in the early days of the settlement.

“Born at Cassel, in Germany, in 1865 Albert Giese received medical training at Bonn University. Later, he migrated to South Africa to join his uncle who was a surgeon. But soon the young man grew restless. He wished to become a hunter and explorer. So, in 1889, he left his uncle’s home, crossed the Limpopo, and in the course of adventurous journeys met Chief Lobengula [of Matabeleland, now western Zimbabwe] and, later, Chief Lewanika of Barotseland. It was then that he joined the Bechuanaland Border Police.” (Fuller, 1954)

After a brief period in the police, Giese was panning for gold along the Tati River (in Botswana) in 1893 when he heard stories of ‘black stones that burn,’ brought by emissaries of Chief Wankie, who sought defence against the ruthless raids his people suffered at the hands of Mzilikazi and his successor, Lobengula. After seeking the Chief’s permission to explore the region, Giese discovered exposed outcrops of coal nine metres thick and evidence of ancient surface workings, returning later to stake his mining claim. The Wankie (Rhodesia) Coal, Railway and Exploration Company was formed in 1899 to exploit the coal reserves on an industrial scale, later evolving into the Wankie Colliery Company Ltd. Coal was produced commercially for the first time in late 1903.

“Meanwhile, he traded... beginning the chain of stores which, ultimately, he established between Wankie and the Falls. The final post in this chain stood near the spot where the statue of David Livingstone [now] overlooks the Devil’s Cataract. Near the store he kept two large canoes for trading on the Zambesi. Giese’s Drift is still marked on some modern maps.” (Fuller, 1954)

Baxter (1952) recorded that Harding meet Giese at the Falls around 1900 in the process of establishing a trading post and camp for travellers on the south bank.

“On his return, Harding travelled down the Zambesi to the Victoria Falls, where he met Albert Giese (the discoverer of the Wankie coalfields and still living in their neighbourhood), who was engaged in the work of erecting a store and rest-huts for the use of travellers on a grant of land received from the British South Africa Company - the beginning, surely, of the tourist industry at the Victoria Falls.” (Southern Rhodesia Publicity Office, 1938)

Giese later settled and farmed in the Hwange region until his death in 1938.

Next page: Cape to Cairo

Further Reading

Clark, J. D. [Editor] (1952) The Victoria Falls: A Handbook to the Victoria Falls, the Batoka Gorge, and part of the Upper Zambesi River Commission for the Preservation of Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics, Lusaka.

Fuller, B. (1954) Bid Time Return. De Bussy, Holland.

Phillipson, D. W. (1990a) The Victoria Falls And The European Penetration Of Africa [In Phillipson, D. W. [Editor] (1990) Mosi-oa-Tunya: a handbook to the Victoria Falls region. Longman, Salisbury, Zimbabwe. (First published 1975, Second edition 1990) Chapter 7]

Shepherd, G. (2008) Old Livingstone and Victoria Falls. Stenlake Publishing.

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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