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 published in 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.
Percy M Clark
Once the bridge was open, Livingstone grew as the main tourism centre for the Falls and there was little further development of the Victoria Falls town for many years. Apart from hotel staff, most of the population consisted of police or railway officials and a handful of curio or general dealers. A club built by community members provided the main source of entertainment.
Percy Missen Clark, originally one of the early settlers at the Old Drift on the north bank of the river had sensed an opportunity, and moved to the south bank in 1903. Clark established the first curio, or souvenir, shop, Clark's Curios, in the same year. The original site, known as 'The Huts' was located opposite the railway station, which in those early days of town planning was the centre of the small community. The mud hut doubled as his photography studio and booking office - as early as 1908 Clark also ran river trips by canoe, and he was a keen fisherman.
Clark was a photographer, and with the builders of the railway making steady progress towards the Falls, and with the bridge engineers preparing to span the gorge, Clark saw potential in developing his small photography business, which he had started from the Old Drift. Initially his main income was from sales of photographic postcards and small curios, but with the arrival of railway Clark was in pole position:
At the rail-head by the Falls a Customs House was established. I acted as clearing and forwarding agent for Mopani Clarke, of the Old Drift. Mopani's wagon came in under the charge of a young Dutchman, and all I had to do was to clear and check goods out of bond, weighing them, and watch the Dutchman lad them into the wagon. For this service I was paid at the rate of one shilling per 100 lb weight. It was very easy money, which came to a substantial amount each month.
With the railway came Clark's first neighbours, and a small settlement grew, although they did not always last long.
With the completion of the railway a contingent of the British South African Police was posted for duty. They made camp in huts of the pole and dagga type. Their advance guard, so to speak, was chap called 'Tubby', who arrived weeks ahead of the others. A great boy was Tubby, and he and I soon became good friends... One night he sent for me to go over and see hi. I found him in bed with a fever which he maintained was of the blackwater sort. To cheer him up I pooh-poohed the idea, did what I could for him, and left him a good deal brighter. Next day I had to go away on a journey, and in my absence some friends took Tubby to Livingstone hospital, where he died before night.
Clark was well rehearsed in the pioneer art of storytelling, and can be imagined, whiskey in hand, telling his tales to pale faced visitors around the evening fire:
The police contingent which came after Tubby was seven in number. Keeping order at the Falls did not exercise the much. Once they had to arrest a man ho was working on the bridge They had only a pole and dagga hut to put him in, so they leg-ironed him for the night In the darkness he escaped, leg-irons and all. Next day the detachment under the corporal hunted for him all over the countryside, but without success. In the early hours of the morning that followed the corporal looked out of his window. On the fence six feet away from him dangled the leg-irons. Whether the offender was too honest a man to take away Government property or merely gifted with an acute sense of humour I cannot guess, but he was never caught.
Among amusing memories of the police contingent is an incident connected with the building of one of my huts. The operations were being supervised by a trooper, who acted as my clerk of the works in his spare time. One day, in company with this trooper, I was coming away from one of my frequent visits to the police camp when I spotted, outside the corporal's hut, a very nice window-frame. It was just want I wanted for the new building, and my clerk of the works agreed with me. In due course the hut was finished and the corporal was asked over to inspect it and have a 'sundowner.' While putting back his drink he suddenly spotted the window. It was draped with curtains, but he recognized it.
"Well,I'm damned!" said he. "So it was you, was it, you blighter, that pinched my window!"
"How the devil did you recongnize it?" I asked.
"How the devil shouldn't I recognize it?" he replied. "I had a hell of a job pinching it myself in the first place!
The window had come from a dismantled hut belonging to the Cleveland Bridge Company.
With the commencement of work on the Victoria Falls Bridge, Clark was contracted in late 1904 by Sir Charles Metcalfe to document the construction of this engineering marvel.
During the building of the bridge Sir Charles Metcalfe stayed at the Falls hotel and he commissioned me to photograph the structure at varying stages of its erection. He often came to my place, and if there were any visitors he was sure to bring them over. He rolled up one day with two of the Coats brothers, the cotton-spinning millionaires, and introduced them with: "Here you are, Clark - two gentlemen with plenty of money. See what you can get out of them." He then went off laughing. Sir Charles was very popular with the men, who called him 'Uncle Charlie,' and he was a very good friend to me.
The Bulawayo Pictorial Post Card Depot were also quick to see the potential buying power of visitors to the Falls. By Nov 1904 they produced a Letter Card booklet (print run 2,000) containing "a few gems from Rhodesia" – a series of 12 photos one of which was Livingstone Drift. The booklet is worded "... purchase these Letter Cards in order that visitors may take them up to the Falls and send them away through the VF Post Office to their friends". [The use of photographs stuck on to postal stationery cards was started in the U.S. and known as 'Pioneer cards' or RPP ('Real Photographic Postcard').]
Clark soon developed a portfolio of photographs of the Falls, entitled 'Souvenir of the Victoria Falls', of which there were several variations produced over the years, and he must have sold many, many thousands (his son, Victor Clark, took over the photography business and continued producing the album in later years). Percy Clark became a local personality of some note, later writing an autobiography of his adventures as a pioneer and photographer, and experienced a certain amount of fame, from the early visitors to the Falls, who undoubtedly all bought his postcards and photographs, to those all over the world who received or saw them and bringing the Victoria Falls to the wider world.
Clark recalls the times:
The first through train from Cape Town arrived with a large party. The journey was apparently a grand adventure for these good people; the train was placarded through all its length and on both sides with legends informing the world how wonderful it was.
On the Suday I was visited by many of the excursionists, who bought photographs of the Falls. One gentleman betrayed great interest in an album of views which I had made up. He asked me its price. I told him my charge was five pounds.
"I never trade on Sundays," said this pious gentleman. "It is against my principles."
"What a pity!" I replied. "It is the last album I have, and it is sure to be snapped up. But I have plenty of loose photographs that you can buy tomorrow."
"If it wasn't Sunday," said he, "I would give you four pounds for it."
"Since it is Sunday, however," I said, "you ought to pay more - to salve your conscience. My price is five pounds."
He hung around for some time with his 'ifs' and 'peradventures,' but I gave him no encouragement.
"Well," he sighed at last, "I suppose I'll have to pay your price."
And pay it he did. I have often envied him his conscience - at least, as regards its flexibility.
In addition to 'The Huts', which served as his photography studio and shop, Clark established a stall at the recently opened railway station:
An excursion from the Cape was due to arrive late one evening and, the hotel being full, most of the passengers had to sleep in the train. I had the station bookstall, and I opened it that night with my wife and myself behind the counter. We did a roaring trade in pictorial post cards at four shillings a dozen and mahogany beans at threepence per pod. That first night we took twenty-eight pounds, and as the excursionists stopped three or four nights at the falls our takings altogether served to put us on a fair footing.
At The Huts, our residence at the Falls, we often had nightly visitors. Some of them were not very welcome. At this time the bush about the settlement had not been cleared to any extent, and jackals would come and sit, giving tongue to their weird and very exasperating yowling. I would get up, go out, and fire in the direction of the howling, which, for the moment, would cease. But I would be no sooner settled down again than the chorus would rise up as exasperating as ever.
We had a couple of cows that we kraaled just outside our fence. The scent of them often brought lions round in the dark hours. We also had fowls, and leopards came after those - with more success than the lions. At the back of our place, about three hundred yards off, was the police camp, with donkeys and horses used for patrol work. The smell of them was an additional attraction for the ions.
Three young bloods decided one lovely moonlit night to sit up and get the lions that came on the prowl about the police camp practically every night. They climbed - the young bloods, not the lions - to the roof of the stables with a full equipment. This included a bottle of whisky, and the hunters must have fortified themselves well, for they were fast asleep when the lions turned up. Oh yes! The lions turned up all right, because their spoor was to be seen all around the stables in the morning. Which goes to prove a quite elderly axiom that one cannot mix whiskey with lion-hunting.
Clark claims a series of notable 'firsts', being the first resident of Victoria Falls Town, establishing the first tourism business, and also the writer of the first guide to the Victoria Falls. The guide takes the form of a day to day programme of walks and tours, general notes and a couple of short stories, tales one can imagine Clark was fond of telling round the fire, and which give insight to the times, if not in a totally positive manner:
A native is a curious animal, but very useful; many of the superior race, after living in the country a few years, imagine they know all his little idiosyncrasies, but ask the pioneers and early settlers, and you will hear that the native is more difficult to understand than a woman, and that the more you know them, the less you know them, and the more you think you know them, the less you think of them.
Clark made no attempt to describe the Falls in any detail. He is the first, however, to give advice on attire:
In the Rain Forest the oldest clothing, thick boots and a mackintosh are necessary, which latter should be worn until the hotel is reached. Experience teaches that it is advisable to wear the least possible amount of clothing. In the case of gentlemen a pair of old trousers and a sweater are all that is necessary, and ladies should wear their oldest clothes.
The Wet Season (Summer) extends from November until the middle of April. Winter (during which there is no rain) the remainder of the year. Both in summer and winter it is advisable for gentlemen to have a helmet or wide-brimmed soft felt hat, and ladies should use at all times a sunshade (preferably a green-lined cotton article).
On a couple of his recommended walks, Clark observes 'ladies are advised not to undertake the trip, as it entails a lot of climbing and hard exercise'.
He also makes sure to mention of his own claims to fame in relation to the local history of the Falls:
The Gorge on the south side of the river was descended for the first time (February 1904) by C Beresford Fox, Esq, and Percy M Clark (the writer) the latter of whom caught the first fish known to have been caught in the Gorge, in the same month and year.
Jack Soper later arrived in the Falls as toll-keeper for the bridge and in 1911 he opened up a large shop next to Clark's Curios and with the added attraction of a crocodile pool, set about providing Clark with some friendly competition.
Boats and Business
By 1910 the enterprising Percy Clark had been running a fleet of nine Canadian canoes on the river for some years. Guests could be paddled across to Cataract Island from the southern bank, and to Livingstone Island from the northern shore. In March 1911 Clark announced the arrival of his new motorised launch, called Inyandiza, which operated Sunday afternoon cruises from the old boathouse. All reservations were to be made by the Victoria Falls Hotel, to which Clark paid a percentage.
Clark advertised his river tours through his guide to the Falls:
A whole day should be devoted to a trip up the magnificent Zambesi River. The trip may be made in Canadian canoes, paddled by expert Native boys, or in a modern, roomy and comfortable motor launch. The river trip is one of some seven miles up the river, and above the Falls. Many picturesque islands are visited on the journey, the regatta course is negotiated, and ultimately Kandahar Island is reached, where a most enjoyable picnic can be held. After luncheon the return journey should be commenced, say at about 2.30 pm, and a break made upon one of the charming islands for tea. The return trip is perhaps the more pleasant, as one catches the gorgeous tints of the setting sun on the tree-topped islands with their wealth of palm trees and semi-tropical growths, and the multi-coloured tints of the spray from the Falls, as seen from behind.
Clark also promoted trips to the islands on the lip of the Falls:
From the middle of June until the end of December is it possible to visit Livingstone Island (originally named by David Livingstone ‘Garden Island’), the trip being made by canoe. The trees on which he carved his initials is still to be seen, and visitors should be careful not to mutilate it in any way. The whole of the Rainbow Fall is usually visible, and the view of the Main Fall is unique.
Recognising the business potential, the Victoria Falls Hotel soon made Clark an offer for his boating business, which he politely declined. They promptly bought their own motor-launch, and as nearly all the tourist visitors to the Falls stayed in the Hotel, captured the majority of his business. This was the beginning of the hotel's involvement in providing tourist activities and transport, and established the competitive nature of business in a developing tourism town.
Zambezi motor-launch with tourists preparing for sunset river cruise
By the late 1920's the Victoria Falls Hotel ran two motor-launches on the river, the Daphne, accommodating 10 passengers, and the larger Diana. They ran two or three times a week across the river to Livingstone, and then up the river to Kandahar Island for afternoon tea. A third launch, the Dorothy, was later introduced.
Rickshaws and rail-trolleys
Undeterred, Percy Clark bounced back with the idea of running a rail-trolley service from the hotel to the Falls. The walk to the Falls proved arduous and tiring for many of the elderly hotel guests. His scheme was politely received, but ignored (until many years later). Undaunted, Clark then had the idea of importing rickshaws to convey tourists to the various points of interest in the vicinity, and which proved to be very popular. However, Clark was to loose out again after a price disagreement with administration officials led to the Victoria Falls Hotel becoming the owner and operator of the rickshaws. Yet again Clark had lost out to big business.
Rickshaw at Victoria Falls
In 1920, the hand-worked rail trolley service first proposed by Percy Clark was built, as many guests visiting the Falls were elderly and found the existing walk, or rickshaw rides, too exhausting in the heat. A two-foot-gauge track was laid from the hotel, following the original railway line which was washed away in the flood of 1909, down to the rainforest, crossing the main line to the rainforest and Devil's Cataract. Telephone boxes were installed at the terminus and junctions so that a trolley could be summoned when required. The fare was one shilling each way. The trolleys were basically back to back garden seats under a striped canvas awning, carrying eight people and propelled downhill by gravity and uphill by local muscle, usually two men per trolley. The service was very popular and during their 37 years in operation they carried more than two million passengers. Tourist maps show the trolley rail system had tracks running down to the Falls Park entrance and continuing towards the bridge. A spur line ran a short distance upstream along the banks of the Zambezi to the old boathouse, located half way along the current Zambezi Drive, where tourists could take river cruises before returning.
The hand-worked Victoria Falls rail trolley service which was in operation from the 1920s to 1957.
One tourist however was not so pleased with his trip. George Graves, a famous London comedian of the time, on a visit to the Falls in 1923, was injured in an accident when his trolley de-railed, resulting in a claim for UKP2,000 being met. The trolley service continued until December 1957 when busses were introduced. One is preserved in the courtyard of the Victoria Falls Hotel, and another in the Bulawayo Railway Museum.
Clark, P. M (1925) Guide to the Victoria Falls (Fifth Edition)
Clark, P. M. (1936) Autobiography of an Old Drifter. Harrap, London.
'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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