To The Victoria Falls
Development of the Victoria Falls
The Flying Boat Service
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 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.
Imperial Airways Empire Class Flying Boat advertising poster, 1937.
In 1947 British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) introduced the famous Short Solent S45 class of flying boat, based on the military Sunderland float planes, and a new trans-African airmail route was launched from Southampton to Vaaldam, Johannesburg, transporting mail across the world in days rather than weeks.
Operating the route twice-weekly (later increased to three services) the flying boat service evolved as an airmail service between England and South Africa, but also offered a unique mode of tourism travel, bringing more visitors to the Falls.
The low-flying Solents weighed 35 tons and were powered by four Bristol Hercules engines with a cruising speed of 210 mph (338 kmph). The aircraft carried a crew of seven, with up to 34 passengers plus mail and cargo. Tickets for the 6,350 mile (10,219 km) journey were advertised at £167 single and £300 12s return. There was no flying at night, and the route included overnight stops in Sicily, Luxor, Kampala and Victoria Falls. The flying boats landed, and were serviced, on a wide flat stretch of the Zambezi River some seven kilometres upstream of the Falls, stretching 2,500 yards (2,286 m) in length, and 500 yards (457 m) wide.
Construction of a terminal reception, landing stage and jetty, as well as a road linking with the Victoria Falls town and Hotel, was completed in late 1947.
“Passenger reception buildings have been built on the banks of the Zambesi by the government of Southern Rhodesia, and a road was cut through the bush in 6 1/2 weeks from Victoria Falls to the hotel... Such co-operation from the government of Southern Rhodesia has saved BOAC considerable expense in opening and maintaining the base.” (Flight Magazine, May 1948)
Solent on the Zambezi, Inaugural Flight reception at Victoria Falls (Flight Magazine, May 1948)
The first Solent flying boat landed on a test flight on 11th December 1947, and the first commercial service was operated on 4th May 1948.
“The BOAC Base comprised of a small group of buildings with the usual offices, workshops and passenger facilities on the southern river bank, with an unmade road some four miles [6.4 km] long connecting this to the Vic Falls ‘village.’ There was also a locally made bus ‘garage’ for a pair of passenger coaches owned by BOAC. This was a thatched roof spanning between several palm trees, just to keep the coaches cool, and which the local elephants took pleasure in knocking down periodically. There was a pier leading down to the river, with a hinged gangway from the pier down to a floating landing stage, which allowed for the rise and fall of the river, and from which passengers embarked into launches. On landing, the aircraft taxied to a large inflated buoy, which was moored to the river bed. The Radio Officer had the task of leaning out of a small hatch in the aircraft nose and hooking on to the buoy with a boat hook.” (Critchell, 2007)
The stopover at the Falls Hotel soon became one of the highlights of the route for those few lucky enough to experience the journey, and the stretch of river and terminal reception where the planes landed became affectionately known as the ‘Jungle Junction,’ a nickname apparently first given by a reporter from the Bulawayo Chronicle.
“These wonderful aircraft... represented the best and most luxurious form of transport at that time. They were two decked, with comfortable seating, quite unlike today’s aircraft, even providing a couple of four-seater cabins on the lower deck. There was a powder room for the ladies with a make up table, complete with illuminated mirror, and the top range of make up and accessories were provided free of charge. There was a cocktail lounge, complete with a well stocked bar where you could sit on a high bar stool and watch the ground slowly unroll below through large windows, whilst sipping the drink of your choice.”
BOAC travel poster, Victoria Falls, 1949 Frank Wootton.
“As these were unpressurised aircraft, they flew below 10,000 feet [3,048 m], or a little under two miles high, and frequently much lower. There being virtually no conflicting air traffic in those days in those places, pilots had more of a free hand as to whereabouts in the sky to go. It was not unusual to descend lower to afford passengers a first class view of a herd of animals below.” (Critchell, 2007)
The Hotel was responsible for providing the onboard catering for the return journey. Food rationing was still in force in England after the war and the passengers were apparently always impressed by the sumptuous catering on board.
Up the Junction
Mr Andy Carlisle, engineer on Solent G-AHIR ‘Sark,’ recorded an incident-packed few days after landing at the Jungle Junction on 22nd November 1949:
“[I was] on the wing after landing when we heard screams from one of the first passengers ashore... in the trees bordering the pathway up from the jetty a lady passenger had come face to face with darkest Africa. A mighty python was draped along an overhanging branch and in its mouth was a half-swallowed monkey! Rest of night uneventful at Falls Hotel. Take-off next morning was at 06:30 and downstream, just about to unstick when nasty, grinding noise brought proceedings to a halt.
“We had hit a rock and not done a lot of good to the keel. I shinned down the central ladder and beheld a strange sight. The passengers were still sitting, belted in, whilst around them floated a miscellaneous assortment of newspapers, handbags, magazines etc.
“I got our steward, Bert Davies, bailing with a large, plastic waste bin while I kicked out one of the port windows and took on board the four inch suction hose from the service launch, tied up a couple of lines and slowly proceeded to a sand-bar on the Northern Rhodesian bank and beached the waterlogged monster. Got the passengers clear, stripped off and did a bit of diving to try to find out by feel just how extensive the damage was. About a 12 foot [3.65 m] rent in the port keelson...
“We decided that as we were over that side of the Zambezi we should night-stop in Livingstone for a first-light, minimum crew ferry flight. In the hotel where we were downing a few ‘Tuskers,’ a tall, leathery individual approached and started giving us a hard time. It transpired that the sand-bar where we had beached was the one that he used to stake out goats to catch crocodiles! And
after two days of disporting ourselves almost naked in these same waters, now he tells us.” (Stirling, 2015)
BOAC Flying Boat moored on the Zambezi, 1948. Picture by Raymond Critchell, fireman based at the river.
During the period from 1948 to 1950 when the flying boats operated, a BOAC emergency rescue team was stationed at the Jungle Junction. Raymond Critchell was one of the six man team based on the south bank of the Zambezi and records in his online memoirs:
“Around this time, ...I met a chap, [Syd] Brown, who operated the Hotel tourist launch, which carries guests up the river. This was a very posh affair, all polished brass and varnish, with a shady canopy to keep the sun off. He had also been a signalman and used to call us up on his signal lamp to ask when the aircraft was due in so that he could pull well into the river bank. He would also pass on details of any dolly birds he had on board in case anyone from BOAC wanted to go down the pub that night to meet them.”
In the early 1950s the Victoria Falls settlement was still not much more than a village, Critchell continuing:
“The community was centred around the hotel which had quite a large staff, the Railway station with an on-site Post Office, the Vic Falls Conservator who lived at the small government camping site, a Police/Customs/Immigration post, and of course, the ubiquitous Trading Store... The Police Post was manned by a Sergeant and two troopers of the British South African Police, plus a Customs and an Immigration Officer, and they controlled the to and fro traffic, such as it was, along the Great North Road...”
“In those days there was a small, grass airfield at the falls from which light aircraft, including the de Havilland Rapide - a light, twin engined bi-plane built of pipes, canvas and string - used to offer sight seeing trips around the falls. Spencer Airways, operated by the Spencer brothers were based there... Livingstone over the river was building the first International Airport in Northern Rhodesia, equipped with all mod cons including an electric flarepath to accommodate the new generation of intercontinental machines coming off the drawing boards, such as the Comet.” (Critchell, 2007)
Solent Flying Boat taking off on the Zambezi (Flight Magazine, May 1948)
The period of the flying boats was brief, operating for just over two-and-a-half years before being overtaken by the development of a new generation of pressurised aircraft. The Solent service ended in November 1950, replaced with the Hermes airliner which completed the journey between London and Johannesburg (via the new Livingstone Airport) in just under a day and a half. The flying boat service was commemorated by British Airways in December 1982 with the erection of a cairn and plaque dedicated to the flying boat service at the site of the Jungle Junction jetty, which still stretches into the river to this day:
“Between 4 May 1948 and 7 November 1950 passengers and cargo to and from Rhodesia disembarked/embarked from this pier on the Short Solent flying boats of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) on the United Kingdom - South Africa trunk route. This concluded 26 years of continuous flying boat operation by British Airways’ predecessors - Imperial Airways and BOAC.”
A mural at the back entrance to the Victoria Falls Hotel also celebrates this unique period of transport.
Victoria Falls Hotel mural celebrating the Flying Boat Service.
Flying boats were to return to the Zambezi in 1988, when a Catalina seaplane (Z-CAT) operated by the Catalina Safari Company (owned by Frenchman Pierre Jaunet) would stop on the route from Cairo to the Cape. The plane operated for six years.
Catalina seaplane (Z-CAT) over the Falls
External Link: You Tube - The Last African Flying Boat (1993 Documentary)
References and Further Reading
Creewel, J. (2004) A history of the Victoria Falls Hotel - 100 years 1904-2004
Critchel, R (2007) A fireman in Africa. From 'The Great North Road' website: http://www.greatnorthroad.org/boma/Fireman_in_Africa
Croxton, A. (1982) Railways of Zimbabwe
Pearl, R (1948) Inaugural Flight, Flight Magazine, May 27th. From Flight Magazine online archives: http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive
Pearl, R (1948) Air Cruise, Flight Magazine, June 3rd. From Flight Magazine online archives: http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive
Scannell T (1960) Aviation in Central Africa. Horizon Magazine, II, 18-22. From 'Our Rhodesia Heritage' website: http://rhodesianheritage.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/aviation-in-central-africa.html
Stirling, W. G. M. and House, J. A. (2014) They Served Africa with Wings. E-book Edition (First published 2002).