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.
Following UDI life in the white-ruled, but internationally unrecognised, Republic of Rhodesia initially carried on as normal, despite international sanctions, but the call for majority rule was beginning to gain momentum.
As relations between Zambia and Rhodesia deteriorated the Bridge was frequently closed to goods and passenger services. In 1969 the passenger service over the Bridge was discontinued, with Rhodesian trains terminating at the Falls.
The early 1970s saw an escalation in the struggle, with independence fighters based in Zambia launching strategic incursions and attacks against communication and infrastructure facilities. Land mine incidents and train derailments occurred over subsequent months as the conflict escalated.
On the night of the 16th January 1970 the Police camp and Sprayview Hotel was attacked and shots were also fired at the Victoria Falls Airport buildings. During the subsequent operation to capture the fighters the railway line south of Victoria Falls was blown up. On 3rd August 1971 a train was derailed near Victoria Falls in an attack for which ZAPU forces later claimed responsibility.
Eventually, on 9th January 1973, Smith announced the closure of border posts with Zambia, including Victoria Falls, until he received satisfactory assurances from the Zambian Government that it would no longer permit terrorists to operate and launch attacks against Rhodesia from within its territory.
In response Zambia closed the border with Rhodesia on 1st February 1973, and the border area remained tense. In May 1973 an tragic incident occurred resulting in two Canadian tourists being killed by rifle fire from the Zambian side of the river whilst exploring the gorges below the Victoria Falls Hotel. The independence war gained intensity in the second half of the decade and tourism collapsed, on both sides of the river.
Despite the official closure of the border, freight was still transported over the Bridge. A Rhodesian engine would shunt a string of freight trucks out to the middle of the Bridge, and a Zambian Rail diesel would back onto its end of the Bridge and pull them into Zambia. The reverse would also happen - several times a day.
The closure of the border had significant impacts on tourism, preventing tourists from the south crossing into Zambia, cutting off the south bank from the services provided in Livingstone and stimulating the growth of the small town under the shadow of the spray from the Falls.
“Little further development took place until the mid 1960’s when major political changes caused significant growth in the village. Until this time, the residents of Victoria Falls were primarily railway or government employees with a few individuals involved in tourism. Financial, commercial and social services for the village were provided by Livingstone. Moreover, a large proportion of the visitors to the Falls arrived via the international airport at Livingstone and the majority of the tourist facilities were provided there. With the closure of the border between Rhodesia and Zambia, Victoria Falls was forced to become self-sufficient and also to provide a far wider ranger of tourist facilities if the tourist market was not to be lost to Zambia.” (Heath, 1977)
In 1973 the town was estimated to cover 310 hectares (PlanAfric, 2001). Heath records the population of Victoria Falls Town in the mid-seventies at around 3,000 (Heath, 1977).
“The rapid growth of Victoria Falls during the last decade has caused considerable planning problems. It is of paramount importance that the immediate vicinity of the Falls should be altered as little as possible if its natural qualities are to be preserved. Conservation needs, however, may conflict with the need to provide facilities for tourists and in recent years there has been a proliferation of tourist services along the river bank upstream from the Falls.” (Heath, 1977)
Elephant Hills Country Club
The original Elephant Hills Country Club was opened in 1974, located a short distance upstream of the Falls on a site known as Dale’s Kopje. The development included a golf course designed by international golfer Gary Player and opened in 1975. The course was famed for its wildlife, hazards including elephants, hippos and ball stealing baboons, being described among golfers as ‘more like a wildlife reserve than a golf course’ and giving rise to some rather curious local rules.
Among the locals, Charlie the crocodile was well known for leaving his water hazard home on the eighth hole to roam the fairways. The club rules clarified that ‘a ball striking or deflected by a wild animal may be replayed from as near as possible to the spot from which the original ball was played.’
Bridge Over Troubled Water
On 25th August 1975 the Bridge was the site of unsuccessful peace talks, known as the 1975 Constitutional Conference, when the parties met in a train carriage poised above the gorge. The talks, lasting for nine and a half hours, took place aboard a white South African Railways coach stationed in the middle of the Bridge. The Rhodesian delegation sat in home territory while the ANC sat on the Zambian side. The staff were apparently rather too liberal with the bar service and two members became intoxicated and disruptive, helping talks to continue throughout the day. The talks fell through because of the intransigence of all the participants. The civil war escalated and tourism collapsed.
On 12th December 1976 a passenger train travelling south of Victoria Falls detonated a landmine. The locomotive and four passenger coaches were lifted from the track but did not overturn and no serious injuries were sustained. The passenger service to the Falls was suspended until after the war.
By 1977 hotels and campsites were closing in the face of security concerns, including the Rainbow Hotel, mothballed until more favourable tourism conditions returned. Upstream of the Falls the Zambezi Camp was closed and access to the river controlled as a cordon of security surrounded the tourism resort.
Elephant Hills Burns
The original Elephant Hills was destroyed by a fire caused by a SAM 7 heat seeking missile launched from Zambia on 2 November 1977. Apparently fired at a light tourist aircraft which was circulating above the Falls, it missed its target and by chance landed on the thatched roof of the Hotel. The explosion was reportedly heard at the airport, 20 kilometres away.
“It was the day after the conclusion of the Elephant Hills Golf Classic, and the luxury hotel, full to capacity the day before, was ‘recuperating’ from the excitement of the famous golfing tournament, and all the local and international celebrities that it always attracted.”
“The guests had all left the evening before, on the daily Air Rhodesia flight back to Salisbury, and the hotel was empty, apart from hotel staff busy cleaning and preparing for the next expected influx of guests.
“The terrorist rocket, fired at the hotel from Zambia, hit the top floor Gary Player Suite, vacated just the evening before by Commander, Combined Operations, Lt General Peter Walls, a guest of the golfing classic.
“The missile, attracted by the heat of the air-conditioning unit, caused extensive damage, and an uncontrollable fire soon raged throughout the building with staff running in and out of the stricken hotel trying to retrieve prized furnishings and equipment. There was no fire brigade in the Victoria Falls village, and the nearest fire engine was at the Airport, some 13 kms away. Used only for the occasional slow run along the runway, the fire engine now raced at top speed along the main road from the airport to the hotel. The first problem encountered was to find that the electricity to the hotel had been switched off in the village, presumably as a precaution, and the fire engine was unable to pump water; it was quickly decided to pump water from the swimming pool and it was then that the fire engine, overheating from its rush to the scene, seized with a loud bang! Everyone on the scene then had to help manually pump water from the pool.
“The hotel was destroyed, and remained a shell for the next five or six years, with only a squash court and a bar still operating.” (Moore, 2012)
Luckily there were no casualties, but the Hotel was completely gutted by the fire. The passengers from the light aircraft apparently took it all in their stride. One, a Mr Lief Bjorseth, was reported as saying “It’s not every day you get shot at - I got something extra for my money”! (Teede & Teede, 1991)
With the ongoing independence struggle and closure of the border Victoria Falls was the scene of much military activity, and the cause of much concern for the managers of Falls Hotel.
“There was no particular reason to suspect that there might be an attack on the hotel as the Victoria Falls area was a hive of Security Force activity from the outset, although precautions were taken after the destruction of the Elephant Hills. Care had always to be taken not to alarm guests, nor to scare off would-be visitors, and after a failed mortar attack on the Victoria Falls area, with one off target shell narrowly missing the laundry outbuilding, causing slight damage, it was decided to warn guests by sticking notices onto their bathroom mirrors. The hotel quickly found that the stickers were being removed by guests as souvenirs, and new stocks had to be constantly reprinted!” (Moore, 2012)
In the early 1970s tourist arrivals to the country hovered at around 340,000 per annum. By 1979 there were only 79,000 - the lowest total since 1963. Over sixty percent of the Hotel’s guests came from South Africa, as international arrivals evaporated.
“Tourism was badly affected by the war and the country’s hotels survived only because of support from Government in the form of subsidies and subsidised travel by local and international visitors. To help the battered tourism sector, the national airline and hotel groups introduced the Super Six scheme, in which guests went on air and road packages for up to six nights at significantly discounted prices. The scheme met with reasonable success and the number of visitors to hotels, including the Victoria Falls Hotel, was remarkable given the overall situation in the country.” (Creewel, 2004)
To prevent opposition forces crossing into Rhodesia the road surface was removed and in late 1978 the Bridge set with explosives, ready to blow a critical section should it be necessary (Burrett and Murray, 2013).
Extensive minefields were laid along 220 kilometres of border between Victoria Falls and Mlibizi during the period of the war. The minefields would continue to pose a serious threat to people and wildlife for decades. As of early 2013, a total of about 190 kilometres of the minefield had been cleared and 51,000 mines destroyed.
“South African Airways has suspended Salisbury stopovers on its Johannesburg-London services, cutting the last direct air link between Britain and Rhodesia... It is also reported that SAA has suspended services from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls and has stopped selling inclusive tours to Rhodesia’s northern border resorts.” (Flight International Magazine, Feb 1979)
Zambezi National Park
Under the Parks and Wildlife Act (1975) the Victoria Falls National Park was subdivided in 1979 to form Zambezi National Park, covering 56,000 hectares upstream of the Falls, and the smaller Victoria Falls National Park, covering 1,900 hectares, under the management of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.
The Falls Park includes the area of the Falls, Rainforest and gorges stretching some 12 kilometres downstream, with a narrow strip of riverine fringe extending six kilometres upstream connecting with the Zambezi National Park. The redrawing of the park boundaries degazetted some 3,000 hectares surrounding the expanding town of Victoria Falls.