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.
The Victoria Falls Hotel Rebuilt
By 1912 plans were well advanced for the redevelopment of the Falls Hotel. Having secured the future of the Hotel on the site, the Railway Company now planned to expand the Hotel and erect permanent brick buildings. Preliminary drawings were supplied by Sir Charles Metcalfe but the final designs, dated April 1912, were executed in Bulawayo by the Railway Company’s chief architect Frank Scott.
The new buildings were constructed from 1914, with completion of the work delayed several years by the impacts of the First World War. The final furnishing and fitting further delayed the opening of the new Hotel until mid-1917, at an approximate construction cost of £40,000.
The cool and spacious single-storey building, consisting of a central wing and two flanking side wings, housed twenty-four bedrooms and two private suites. Two observation towers, either side of the main wing, gave panoramic views over the gorges to the Bridge and rising spray of the Falls. Guests could relax in the Lounge, find time for quiet reflection in the Writing Room, or socialise in the Drawing and Music Rooms, Smoking Room or small private bar. A darkroom was provided for the use of amateur photographers.
The spacious new Dining Room was designed with echoes of features from the original railway shed which had served as the Hotel’s first dining room, an example being the high oval windows, also a feature of the Lounge. Another short wing housed the Hotel’s kitchens. The Hotel laundry was steam operated from the customised boiler of a Kitson-Meyers railway engine, decommissioned in 1912 after service at Wankie Colliery, and which remained on site and operational for over eighty years.
The Victoria Falls Hotel rebuilt
Brick by Brick
“The first permanent building outside the Railway Reserve was erected in 1914 when the police camp acquired a brick building which was used both as an office and for accommodation... In 1916 six acres were surveyed and set aside for the police camp and a rifle range. This was the first official government land to be surveyed and was located north of the proposed township and some distance west of the Railway Reserve, around the existing police camp buildings; an example of planning following rather than preceding development.” (Heath, 1977)
Efforts to encourage tourism included the running of two special trains, in 1926, carrying 350 American tourists from a world-cruise liner and including visits to Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, with the parties staying at the Victoria Falls Hotel for a couple of nights. The success of this tour, to be the forerunner of any more, led to the enlarging of the hotel in 1927. Another fifty bedrooms were built, with bathrooms and other facilities, were included in the new 'hammerhead' wings, along with modern rail station in a style to harmonise with the hotel.
On the River
The growth of Percy Clark’s boating business on the river above the Falls had not gone unnoticed by the Falls Hotel. Recognising the potential profits if managed ‘in-house’ the General Manager of the Railway Company, Colonel Birney, made Clark an offer for his boats.
“As I refused to sell, the hotel bought a launch for itself. This cooked my goose, for… all the bookings were made at the hotel office. I had about as much chance of carrying on in opposition as I would have of coughing effectually against thunder.” (Clark, 1936)
The Falls Hotel purchased the launch boat ‘Diana,’ named after Colonel Birney’s daughter, and carrying up to 30 passengers. Two huts and a boat shelter were developed at the launch site, with boat trips operating upstream to Kandahar Island, where passengers would alight for a picnic, and the canoes downstream to Cataract Island, on the very lip of the Falls. In 1928 the Hotel invested in a second launch, the ‘Daphne,’ and soon after a third, the ‘Dorothy.’ The Hotel’s boat and canoe service was managed by Mr Victor Pare, who appears to have had more than the occasional close encounter on the river.
“Soon after World War I, the Victoria Falls Hotel launch set out full of visitors and a vindictive hippo appeared. It made an unprovoked rush for the boat, tore a piece from the stern, dived underneath and holed the boat amidships. Mr Pare was injured but the boat reached the river bank without sinking.” (Green, 1968)
War and Peace
During the period of the First World War (1914-8) the Falls Bridge was a strategically important transport link for the movement of British South African and Rhodesian troops - and a potential target for German saboteurs, with German South West Africa (now Namibia) only 80 kilometres away. To prevent attack the Bridge was defended with a military guard, observation blockhouses and a rail mounted searchlight.
After the war the fashion slowly returned for luxury cruise liner trips to distant destinations. Union Castle reintroduced the ‘Round Africa’ cruise service in October 1919 and during the early 1920s visitors to the Victoria Falls numbered around three thousand per year.
Many of the Union-Castle line’s vessels had been requisitioned by the British government for national service as troop or hospital ships during the War, and eight were sunk by mines or German U-boats. During the late 1920s and early ‘30s Union Castle dominated the route with a new generation of 20,000-ton steam liners, including the Carnarvon Castle, Winchester Castle and Warwick Castle, sailing weekly from Southampton to the Cape in only 14 days.
In August 1923 a cenotaph was erected on the northern bank close to the Eastern Cataract, honouring the names of the men from Northern Rhodesia who lost their lives to the War. It was unveiled by His Royal Highness Prince Arthur of Connaught, grandson of Queen Victoria and Governor-General of the Union of South Africa (1920-4).
Following her first visit to the Falls shortly before the arrival of the railway, Catherine Mackintosh returned to the Zambezi in 1920. Travelling to the Cape on the Union Castle Line S.S. Saxon, she recorded of her journey:
“There were only two drawbacks, the excessive overcrowding of the decks, especially with children, who, poor little things, had not nearly enough space to play about; and the fact that I knew no one on board. However, one makes acquaintance somehow, and it is surprising how in chance talk some illuminating word may light up a wholly new point of view.”
After travelling by train to Bulawayo and then on to the Falls, Mackintosh compared the journey to her previous trek in 1903 and contrasted the many changes at the Falls since her earlier visit.
“We reached Victoria Falls station, near the hotel, on the south side of the Zambesi gorges, at 8.15 am on Friday, June 11, having left Bulawayo at 1pm the day before. In 1903, our light spring cart (not a waggon) took us from before dawn on August 24, Monday, till mid-day on the following Saturday. Now there is a little station at the Falls, and the hotel is seen through the forest, as if standing in its own park. My companions alighted here, as did most of the passengers... After a long halt, the train started again and we were summoned to breakfast (and glad of it!). Another halt; the train whistled to warn foot-passengers and waited for them to clear off the bridge, and then we found ourselves crossing it, lashed by the spray from the Falls, at that moment thundering down in fullest flow.”
On exploring the Falls Mackintosh noted:
“All is now tidied up, paths constructed and marked with white stones, rustic seats pavilioned with thatch placed at the right view-points. One can’t say that, in this respect, the change is for the better; one feels no more the thrill of the wilderness, but... the custodians jealously guard the natural beauties, and certainly all these changes make for the greatest happiness of a greater number, including the fairly numerous tourists who had come up in our train and were already (some of them) walking about with cameras. No shooting is allowed for five miles [8 km] round, so that baboons and hippos disport themselves audaciously and sometimes alarmingly. The very next week the latter attacked a boat full of tourists and bit a piece out of it! “ (Mackintosh, 1922)
Always on the lookout for a new business opportunity, Percy Clark claims to have been the first to see the potential of a local rail transport system, along the lines of that already established in Livingstone, to take tourists from the Hotel to the river:
“I now got another idea of making money, and I took a trip home on the strength of it. My notion was to run a trolley-line down to the bridge and the landing-stage. I was very kindly received by the BSAC office in London, ...but after exhibiting details of my scheme I was told that the whole thing was in the province of the railway company... Then years went by, however, before the trolley-line came into being. I have always believed that I got the idea first, and believing that I think I ought to have shared the profit.” (Clark, 1936)
The local rail trolley system was finally developed in 1920 by the Railway Company, at a cost of £4,000, and operated by the Hotel.
“The trolley system had three sections, not physically connected. From the hotel, a double track ran one mile northward to ‘Trolley Junction,’ where passengers changed to two single track lines leading to the various points of interest. One line (the longest) ran eastward beside the Rain Forest to the Victoria Falls Bridge, and was later paralleled by a road; the other ran northward to the Landing Stage and Boat House...
“From the terminus of this line, three-quarters of a mile upstream from the Falls, tourists could join launch or canoe trips to the islands in the river. Photographs show two types of vehicle, a four-seat trolley with cross seats pushed by two Africans, and a knifeboard eight-seat trolley pushed by three or four. Each trolley had a roof and canvas awning, and a screw handbrake applied from either end.” (Price, 1966)
The hand-worked Victoria Falls rail trolley service which was in operation from the 1920s to 1957.
Telephone boxes were installed at each terminus and junction so that a trolley could be summoned when required. The fare was one shilling each way. The trolleys were available during the hours of daylight only, although special arrangements could also be made with the Hotel Manager for night-time trips to see the lunar rainbow.
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.
View our special Gallery of images from 1947, including many of the trolley system: Life Magazine Gallery