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 Beginnings of Tourism
The railway from Cape Town arrived at Victoria Falls in 1904 and sparked the growth of the small town, including the building of the Victoria Falls Hotel in the same year. The bridge was opened with great fanfare and celebration in 1905, soon becoming a landmark almost as famous as the Falls themselves.
Ever since these early beginnings, the Victoria Falls have been a magnet for visitors from all over the world. The arrival of the railway brought an end to the days when a trip to see the Falls required an expedition taking months.
Now the distance was measured in days, and tourists replaced explorers. The 2,640 kilometre rail journey from Cape Town, travelling in relative comfort and luxury, heralded the dawn of modern tourism; of sunset river cruises and safari sundowners.
The Union Castle Royal Mail Steamer 'The Capetown Castle'
In 1905 a South African publication declared:
The average man in the street has hardly yet realised that the Victoria Falls are within reach of anybody having a couple of months to spare.
From England, all one had to do was catch the train to port of Southampton. From there, the Union Castle mail steamer sailed every Saturday to Cape Town, taking 16 days. From Cape Town it was a further 3 days to Bulawayo. Travel companies offered travel deals including Thomas Cook, Pickfords, the German East Africa Line and the Aberdeen Line with the last two accessing Rhodesia through the port of Beira, connected by rail to Salisbury.
From Bulawayo the regular passenger train took 22 hours to reach the Falls. There was no catering on the trains, and passengers were advised to bring their own blankets and food for the trip.
Falls on Film
In July 1906 The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal reported that "an expedition will start at the end of July, which has as its object the securing of a comprehensive series of living pictures of the African continent from the Cape to Cairo." The report stated that the films would be taken by the Charles Urban Trading Company, to be shown all over the world "with a view to bringing the resources of the country before the notice of inventors, emigrants and pleasure seekers." (The Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal, July 1906, 175).
By March 1907, there were accounts of screenings by the British South Africa Company – including a film called 'The Great Victoria Falls, Zambesi River' which "of fairyland-like beauty, captivated everyone" and was "the topic of conversation in every town where it is shown" (Cinematography and Bioscope Magazine, March 1907, 134, 141 and Convents, Framework, 1988, 108).
Advertisements for the films outlined the positive reviews from the British press and described the expedition as ‘realising Rhodes’ dream’. In July 1907, The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly published a lengthy full-page review, lavishing praise on the film and, when describing a scene of the Eastern Falls, stated that ‘it is without exception the finest kinematograph picture we have ever seen’. It praised the work of the ‘expert kinematographer’ – the viewer feels as if they are ‘standing at the water’s edge rather than merely looking at a pictorial reproduction’ – and presented the film as an ‘admirable example of the unique powers of the kinematograph, in the recreation of pleasurable sensations’. The review further emphasised the power of film as a medium – ‘words fail to convey an adequate idea of the grandeur of the scenes depicted; indeed we doubt whether the powers of a Ruskin, or a Thomas Hardy, would be equal to the task involved’ – and anticipated that ‘the Charles Urban Company’s latest triumph in kinematograph art… will create a sensation and receive the enthusiastic reception it deserves’ (Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 4 July 1907, 126).
The film was the first comprehensive documentation of the Victoria Falls in moving pictures, but there is evidence of earlier film of the Falls. The Livingstone Mail claimed in June 1906 that a cinematograph produced earlier in the year had reached an audience of six million within six months of filming. .
External Link: Colonial Films - The Great Victoria Falls, Zambesi River.
Main Street Bulawayo 1920s
The 1920s brought more visitors to the Falls, and it was not uncommon for cruise ship passengers to take the train from Cape Town to Victoria Falls, stay a couple of nights and return, a journey of 57 hours.
C W Mackintosh, returning to the Zambezi in 1920, travelled on the RMS Saxon:
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.
We reached Bulawayo at 7.30 a.m. and had to wait there some hours. A huge board announces under the name of the station: —
Distance from Cape Town... 1,360 miles.
Distance from Beira... 673 miles.
Height above sea-level... 4,469 feet.
The height above sea-level is posted up in the same way at every South African station, even the smallest. Baths were advertised at the station too, and after four days in the train, we hastened to avail ourselves of the privilege but the bathrooms and basins were all locked up. Very bad management, for if they are not ready for the mail train passengers, when would they be?
What a change since I was here last! Instead of the ankledeep expanses of dust, littered with packing-cases, tarpaulins, rusty barbed wire, and crumpled bits of corrugated iron, a series of broad, neat, platforms extends to the fine stonebuilt offices, through which the traveller passes out into wellmetalled roads. Instead of the shabby little victorias charging 12s 6d, a smart rickshaw drawn by a Matabele, magnificent in plumes and anklets, takes one the same distance - viz, to the Rhodes memorial in the centre of the town - for 1s 3d.
I went to the Post Office, a most beautiful building, with a lady from the Saxon, who was just going to rejoin her husband at Gatoomba near Gwelo. We spoke to a Salvationist there, inquiring first for a direction and then about his work. Saw a happy smile awaken and we had a brief chat. Fellowship is cheering and I imagine he did not get too much of it - from travellers at any rate. We then went into a very delightful restaurant and had "morning tea," that South African institution, and fancy cakes as our farewell to civilization. The same idea seemed to have struck a good many of our fellow travellers.
When I was here in 1903, it was very chilly indeed, except for the last day or two, and I had one of the worst colds of my life all the time. Now it was hot, though mid-winter. The town has grown up, and the vast blank spaces between the few but imposing buildings of those days have been filled up. Half the houses were then to let; now there are not nearly enough. The white men now are all smartly dressed; then, cold as it was, coats and waistcoats were scarcely seen, even in the Government offices: high officials received us in their shirt sleeves!
Our train carried almost more women than men: when I came up in 1903, there were only two in it besides myself. Beautiful shops display the latest goods from Europe and America. Provisions and groceries are dear, and so are fashionable garments, but plain cotton dresses and materials (old stock) could be bought at sale prices much below those then current in England, e.g., quite wearable muslin frocks offered for 10s and 12s.
From Bulawayo, the railway stretches in a perfectly straight line, the longest straight bit one is told in the world.
Soon we came to the places I had traversed with M. Coillard in a cattle car, but to my regret we went through Wankie's Coal Fields during the night. I saw it, however, by daylight on the return trip in October. All the brushwood has vanished; the trees too; the pretty hills are mere mounds of slack and tailings, or glaring white slopes, patterned by black trolley lines; and a row of factory chimneys beside the shaft completes the picture—a bit of the Black Country transplanted to Africa. I was told that coal could be mined here for the cost of 6d. a ton, at the pit's mouth! October is April here and in the Coal Forest the Belladonna Lily was here and there pushing its crown of waxen bells through the grimy soil, a lovely flower...
Elsewhere all is much the same here: the mopane scrub a little more dreary if possible. Natives, weirdly garbed, haunted the stations and offered curios and skins. Here were culverts and embankments I had seen under construction, and first heard the expression "a wash-out" when the rails had to be relaid after rain.
Every one was up by sunrise next morning. It was delightful in that fresh morning air to sit outside our coaches and enjoy the green forest. Everything for miles round the Falls is relatively fresh, dewy and dustless. It is like Devonshire scenery, the good red earth and all, only minus the cultivation.
We reached Victoria Falls station, near the hotel, on the south side of the Zambesi gorges, at 8.15 a.m. on Friday, June 11, having left Bulawayo at 1 p.m. 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, except the Belgians. 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.
What a moment for one who had seen the first cords stretched across that awful gulf! Of the four then standing there two have already crossed the Other Bridge.
May the missionary's work stand even firmer than the engineer's and carry as many, and more, to the Other Side. What has become of the fourth of that group, Mr. Imbault, the French engineer, who supervised the actual construction? One would like to know.
It took us about eight minutes to traverse the Bridge going at the rate of five miles an hour. Quite long enough to be hung up in mid-air! At 8.45 we reached Livingstone, two hours overdue. Here, our Missionary, the Rev. John Roulet, met me with a smart little motor bicycle and side-car and whirled me off to the Mission House on the outskirts (or rather, beyond the outskirts) of the new town.
In 1903 "Livingstone" was merely a name given to a camp, consisting of half a dozen trading stores located in makeshift shelters at the Old Ford, six miles up river. This town was actually founded about 1909, but it has only grown up during the last nine years. It stands on high ground two or three miles from the river, with wide streets fringed by pretty bungalows; even the shops are, for the most part, bungalow-built with verandahs, and all around lies the lovely forest, many of the residential houses dropped into it as though standing in a natural park. Walking about, however, is rather tiresome: only limited sections are paved. The rest of the time one is trudging through deep red sand or over sharp broken quartz.
M. Roulet had arranged to give up the day to me and proposed visiting the Falls the same afternoon. The old station at the Drift where I had stayed before was half a day's journey from them by boat. This time we went on the motor bicycle in about half an hour, Mme. Roulet riding pillion, myself in the side-car...
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 it is something to have seen it again before the gorges are lined with turbines, the banks with factories and the forests cleared for cotton fields, as may possibly be the case some day or other. [Note: The Company's Charter and Trust Deeds of the Victoria Falls Power Company contains the most stringent safeguards for the beauty of the Falls and the environment.] Moreover, 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 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! We looked down into the winding gorges. Their rocky sides formerly clothed with forests had been denuded in part by brushwood fires, due either to carelessness or malice. Part of the Rain Forest in front of the Cataract has also suffered in the same way. Every one is very sad about it.
The Farrell Line was a passenger/cargo line in regular service from New York to South Africa stopping at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Lourenço Marques (Maputo) in Mozambique. From 1928.
The first commercial Cape to Cairo tour was organised by Thomas Cook and Sons in January 1922, for which the appeal was that "the spirit of wild places can only be grasped on trek", and in which the Victoria Falls was a notable stopover. Alongside the natural wonder, Thomas Cook emphasised in 1930, "There is a splendid and comfortable hotel at the Falls and during the season the fashionable throngs in the grounds and on the verandas are more reminiscent of a European spa than of a retreat in the interior of Africa."
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.
Vintage 1931 Cunard Victoria Falls Poster
The Livingstone Statue
The famous bronze statue of David Livingstone sculpted by W Reid-Dick, placed on a natural granite plinth overlooking the Devils Cataract of the Victoria Falls, was unveiled on 5 August 1934 by Hon. Howard U Moffat, CMG, ex-Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia (1927-33), and nephew of David Livingstone's wife, with the opening address given by Rev. James Gray.
On 16 November 1955, at a ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the discovery of the Victoria Falls by David Livingstone, a second plaque was unveiled by Lord Llewellin, Governor-General of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In attendance at the ceremony was Doctor Hubert Wilson, grandson of David Livingstone, who participated in the unveiling. A short British Pathe news clip of the ceremony can be viewed at the following link : http://www.britishpathe.com/video/livingstone-centenary
Victoria Falls was proclaimed a National Monument in 1935 and in 1937 the Victoria Falls Reserve (an area extending some five miles from the Falls) came under the control of the Historic Monument Commission.
Martin (1997) quotes a Southern Rhodesian government guide to the Victoria Falls, published in the 1930's, containing the following advice for visitors to the Falls:
Waterproofs - Visitors are advised to provide themselves with makcintoshes and goloshes (boots) when traversing the Rain Forest, or when exposed to the spray-clouds. Oilskins and sou'-westers can be hired from the hotel... When spray from the Falls is heavy, visitors will find it an advantage to wear a bathing costume only underneath the mackintosh.
Swimming, golf, tennis, and fishing were all listed sports. A 15 minute flight over the Falls cost £1, the hotel had a dark-room for photographers, and the clothing advice recommended sunshades for the ladies and wide-brimmed felt hats for gentlemen.
Livingstone statue opening, 1934
External Link: Pathe News Report - Centenary of Livingstone's Discovery of the Victoria Falls.
External Link: Pathe News Report - Centenary of Livingstone's Discovery of the Victoria Falls (spare footage).
Mackintosh C W (1922) The new Zambesi trail ; a record of two journeys to North-Western Rhodesia (1903 and 1920). Unwin, London. Free download.
Martin, D. (1997) Victoria Falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya African Publishing Group, Harare.
'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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