To The Victoria Falls
Development of the Victoria Falls
The following text is adapted from 'Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls', researched and written by Peter Roberts and due for publication in early 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.
Towards the end of 1979 the first steps towards peace and normality showed with the re-opening of the Falls Bridge in November. Divided Rhodesia became united independent Zimbabwe on 18th April 1980 in accordance with the Lancaster House Agreement, negotiated between the British government, independence leaders and the Rhodesian government, and signed on 21st December 1979.
Rail services to the Victoria Falls resumed from 6th July 1980 and the Bridge reopened to road and rail transport, although passenger services have remained suspended to this day. Rhodesia Railways became the renamed National Railways of Zimbabwe in May 1980.
The total number of international visitors to Zimbabwe in 1980 rebounded to 238,000 - triple those of the previous year - rising to 314,000 in 1981. The Zambezi Park reopened as normality returned to the region. By 1982 the population of Victoria Falls Town had grown to 8,126 (CSO, 1989).
Despite the formal end of hostilities, divisions between independence factions positioning themselves within the new political power structure resulted in violent flashpoints. On 23rd July 1982 another tragic incident occurred when a group of six international tourists were kidnapped and murdered by political dissidents whilst travelling between Victoria Falls and Bulawayo. Two of the group were Americans (Kevin Ellis, 24 years old, and Brett Baldwin, 23); two were Australians (Tony Bajzelz, 25, and William Butler, 31); and two were British (James Greenwell, 18, and Martyn Hodgson, 35). Tourism again slumped in the shadow of negative international headlines and travel warnings. National tourism arrivals dropped to 276,000 in 1982 and a low of 230,000 in 1983.
Freedom of the Skies
Following independence in 1980 Rhodesia United Air Carriers evolved into United Air Carriers Ltd, later United Air Ltd. At the Falls the company offered the 15-minute ‘Flight of Angels’ in one of their twin-engined Piper Aztecs:
“Winging low over the Falls and gorges, one thrills at the grandeur of this magnificent sight that can only be truly absorbed from the air. No traveller can claim to have viewed this natural wonder of the world in its entirety without seeing it from the air. This aptly named flight in a twin-engined Piper Aztec is designed for the keen photographer and adventurous traveller, giving a bird’s eye view of Africa’s greatest geological feature - Victoria Falls.”
Operating from the Sprayview Aerodrome the Sprayview Air Safari (30 minutes) and Zambesi Sky Safari (75 min) offered extended game viewing opportunities:
“Departures from Sprayview are in the early morning or late afternoon, the ideal time to view Africa’s paradise of wildlife. Your journey takes you along the Chamabonda Vlei, across thickly forested areas to Chundu Loop on the mighty Zambesi, then down the south bank to the Falls. You circle the mist of Mosi-oa-Tunya and capture the brilliance of one of nature’s miracles.” (UAC, 1980s)
Visit of Princess Anne
Her Royal Highness Princess Anne visited Zimbabwe in 1982 as part of a tour of six African countries in her capacity as President of the Save the Children Fund, staying in the Queen’s Suite of the Victoria Falls Hotel, now renamed the Livingstone Suite, for two nights at the end of October 1982. The Princess undertook a tour of the Falls and Zambezi boat cruise - brief breaks in a busy official schedule which included visiting the local Jairos Jiri centre for severely handicapped children.
In an attempt to encourage tourism north of the river a Zambian Ministry of Tourism was formed in 1980. Tourism in Livingstone was still in the doldrums after decades of neglect and unsupportive government policies. In the national census of 1980 Livingstone’s population was recorded as 71,521 (Moonga, 1999).
Positive results showed in 1981 with Zambia receiving close to 150,000 tourist arrivals, compared to just over 50,000 in 1979. The turnaround came too late to save the town’s oldest hotel, the North-Western Hotel, which closed in 1984.
Zimbabwe was also on the rise, with the total number of recorded tourism arrivals in 1984 at 255,000. Figures steadily increased to 303,000 in 1985, 319,000 in 1986 and 339,000 in 1987.
In 1986 the Zimbabwe Tourist Development Corporation (ZTDC), a parastatal organisation, reopened the two-star Rainbow Hotel (closed during the late seventies) and later in the same year took over the three-star A’Zambezi River Lodge. ZTDC later became the government owned Rainbow Tourism Group (RTG).
The site of the old Sprayview Restaurant (demolished in 1970) was redeveloped as the family-run 16-room Ilala Lodge Hotel, opened in 1988. In the mid nineties the Hotel was expanded to 34 rooms.
By 1988 the total number of international visitors to Zimbabwe had jumped to record levels of 412,000, followed by 436,000 in 1989.
Hollywood came to the Falls with the filming of the Cannon/Paramount Pictures action adventure films ‘King Solomon’s Mines’ (released in 1985) and its 1986 sequel ‘Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold’ (1986). Staring Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone the films were shot simultaneously on location in Zimbabwe during 1985.
The empty ruins of the burnt out Elephant Hills Country Club were used as a focal filming location for the second film - transformed into an ‘opulent location set.’ Stone received a nomination for a Golden Raspberry Worst Actress Award for her performance. Chamberlain is remembered by location crew for thoroughly hating his time in Africa and spending most of his spare time back at the Falls Hotel.
Africa’s Adrenalin Capital
During the late 1980s and early 1990s Victoria Falls saw the development of thrill-seeking adventure activities, earning the town a new reputation as the ‘adrenalin capital of Africa.’ In addition to the traditional tourism activities of game drives and river safaris, new ‘high-intensity’ activities, such as white-water rafting and bungee jumping attracted a younger generation of travellers to the Falls. The section of river running through the narrow zigzagging Batoka Gorge offers some of the most extreme commercially operated white-water rafting in the world, with nearly half of the rapids classified as Grade 5 - the highest commercially runnable grading (Grade 6 is ‘unrunnable’).
White-water rafting on the Zambezi was pioneered by American company Sobek with the first expedition to traverse the rapids of the river below the Falls to Lake Kariba undertaken in October 1981 using specialist inflatable rafts. Eight of Sobek’s most experienced guides, accompanied by an ABC ‘The American Sportsman’ film crew with actor LeVar Burton as presenter, took up the challenge.
The first raft capsized in the first rapid. The Zambian President, watching from the Bridge high above, turned to a reporter and asked, ‘Is that how they do it?’ As they progressed the expedition planned to number the rapids running downstream from the Falls, but lost count after 11! The group had to do precautionary sweeps for mines before camping on sandbanks, and half-way down one of the rafts was attacked by a crocodile. After many incidents and several close shaves enough was enough for Burton and a helicopter air-evacuation soon followed.
Sobek started commercial white-water rafting with day trips covering the first 10 rapids and week-long expeditions downstream in mid 1982, operating from the northern bank and breathing life into Livingstone’s struggling tourism sector.
The fact that they had no specialist inflatable rafts did not stop the first Zimbabwean group to raft the rapids a couple of years later, notably completing the trip in home-made rafts comprised of the tractor wheel inner tubes and bamboo frames (Pitman, 1984).
Home-grown Zimbabwe based companies followed, pioneered in similar infallible spirit, with the formation of the Zambezi Wildwater Rafting Company, founded in 1982 by Paul Connolly, a lawyer with a passion for canoeing and kayaking the river, the first to start commercial operations in 1985. The company quickly evolved into the Shearwater Adventures Group, specialising in canoeing safaris on the upper and middle Zambezi and rafting the rapids below the Falls.
Other companies, such as Adrift, Frontiers and Hi-Siders soon followed. Over the first decade of rafting it was estimated that some 50,000 tourists had experienced the thrill of the rapids, the majority with either Sobek or Shearwater. In 1991 alone Shearwater handled over 12,500 rafters. From 1996 to 1999 it was estimated that 50,000 tourists rafted the rapids below the Falls each year, and at its peak in popularity saw 60 rafts containing 420 people transit down the 18 sets of raging rapids in one day (Meadows, 2000).
Safari Par Excellence started operating trips on the south bank from 1994.
3, 2, 1 Bungee!
Bungee jumping from the Victoria Falls Bridge, the first commercial jump in Africa, was started by Kiwi Extreme in the early 1990s. With a free-fall of 111 metres and the dramatic background of the Falls, it is without doubt one of the most spectacular and breath-taking jumps in the world.
“'How much do they pay you to do that?' asked an elderly Zambian incredulously, as he put down his groceries to stare at the extraordinary spectacle. When told that they actually paid for the privilege of thus risking their skins, he went off shaking his head. White men were a strange breed, as everyone knew, but this was too much!” (Teede and Teede, 1991)
Famous jumpers include the current Chief Mukuni Siloka III, who appeared on the Bridge in full ceremonial regalia and accompanied by many locals, who were all in festive mood. Having come this far, the pressure on him to jump was intense, and after a brief hesitation he toppled into the void, to the accompaniment of wild cheers from the onlookers.
Champagne Cruises and Dance Spectaculars
With the changing demographics of tourists to the Falls, and increase in young independent travellers attracted by adrenalin activities, sedate Zambezi river cruises with a complimentary sundowner evolved into party boats with free drinks - the ‘booze cruise.’
“Late afternoon found us on a sunset riverboat cruise quaintly called the Champagne Cruise, possibly so-named because the amount of wildlife was less than we would have like to have seen. But there were champagne, wine, and beer; and two of the passengers were four sheets to the wind before we returned to shore. Nevertheless, we did watch numerous hippos playing in the water…”
Local African traditional culture was showcased with the development of the African Spectacular music and dance show, performed each night at the Falls Hotel.
“The sunset itself was beautiful, and our skipper got us back to shore in time to go to the ‘dance spectacular’ at the Victoria Falls Hotel. There we saw an hour or so of very authentic tribal dancing in a small amphitheatre holding no more than two hundred tourists. The drummers in particular were outstanding, and the costumes were surprising and remarkable. Many of the dancers wore costumes the size of Big Bird from Sesame Street fame and of similar nature in construction.” (Boer, 2011)
World Heritage Site
The core area of the Victoria Falls, covering some 6,860 hectares and including the river corridor upstream and downstream of the waterfall on both sides of the river, was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site on 15th December 1989, inscribed for both its outstanding geological and ecological value under the World Heritage Convention (1972), of which both countries are signatories. The listing described the Falls as “the world’s greatest sheet of falling water and significant worldwide for its exceptional geological and geomorphological features and active land formation processes with outstanding beauty attributed to the falls” (UNESCO, 1989).
The Victoria Falls/Mosi-oa-Tunya World Heritage Site lies entirely within the protected areas of the Victoria Falls (741 ha) and Zambezi (2,340 ha) National Parks in Zimbabwe and the Mosi-oa-Tunya (3,779 ha) National Park on the Zambian side of the river. The site is protected under the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Act (1975, revised 2008) on the southern bank, and the National Heritage Conservation Act (1998) and Zambia Wildlife Act (1998, revised 2015) on the northern bank.