A Natural Wonder
The Zambezi River
The Victoria Falls
Ecology of the Victoria Falls
Formation of the Victoria Falls
People of the Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
Development of the Rhodesias
Development of the Railway
Development of Tourism
Development of Victoria Falls Town
Recent History
Further Information
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To The Victoria Falls

Development of the Victoria Falls

Growth of Victoria Falls Town

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.

Bathing Costumes and Mackintoshes

With the 1930s defined by the Great Depression, the longest and most severe worldwide economic depression of the twentieth century, global tourism growth slowed significantly. Regional travel to the Falls was encouraged by the Railway Company with the offer of inclusive travel and accommodation fares, with passengers staying at the Hotel. Special fares were not available for the busy public holiday periods when the Hotel often had a long waiting list. A 1930s Southern Rhodesian government guide to the Victoria Falls contained the following advice for visitors to the Falls:

“Visitors are advised to provide themselves with mackintoshes and galoshes (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.” (Martin, 1997)

Clothing advice for tourists recommended sunshades for the ladies and wide-brimmed felt hats for gentlemen. Swimming, golf, tennis, and fishing were all listed as available leisure and sports activities, and a 15 minute flight over the Falls cost £1. The pioneering travel agent Thomas Cook promoted the Falls in 1930 as a fashionable destination:

“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.” (McGregor, 2009)

The Falls Hotel was significantly expanded during the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the addition of the ‘hammerheads,’ courtyard and western wings, which even included a small chapel.

Bridge Reconstruction

In 1929 urgently required alterations were carried out to the Falls Bridge, involving the complete removal and replacement of the top deck, which was raised and widened to include a roadway and sidewalks alongside one line of rails (instead of the previous two). The increasing popularity of motorcar travel was not the only reason for the upgrades, the structure needing reinforcing to address short-comings in the original design, and works included measures to strengthen the main arches and cross-bracing of the Bridge to cope with increasing loads. The works took several years to complete, with the road finally opening in 1931.

Visit of Prince George

In 1934 His Royal Highness Prince George the Duke of Kent visited the Falls, arriving by overnight train from Bulawayo and staying at the Falls Hotel. The Prince spent the Easter weekend exploring the Falls.

“A mile wide and with a drop of four hundred feet, the Falls presented an inspiring sight when the Prince, changing into a vest and shorts soon after his arrival, hurried from the hotel to have a first look at them. The Zambesi was coming down in flood, and enormous quantities of water were hurtling over the falls, estimated to amount to one hundred million gallons every minute. During the weekend the river steadily rose as the result of rain in the heart of Africa, and when the Prince left the Falls two days later, it had reached a new record high level.

“Because of the vast volume of water pouring into the chasm the spray was very dense, and somewhat obscured the view but the Prince spent so much time around the Falls that he saw every possible aspect of them. Declining to use a waterproof coat, His Royal Highness thoroughly explored the wonders of the Rain Forest, in which he wandered about opposite the Main cataract until he was drenched to the skin. The Prince spent many hours energetically visiting every vantage point, despite the uncomfortable heat. He was particularly impressed by the lunar rainbow...

“The Prince did a lot of walking in the countryside around the hotel, the whole area being a game reserve and abounding with animals and birds. But the Prince unfortunately did not see any crocodiles, which thrive on the Zambesi River. The flood waters had driven the reptiles way.” (Frew, 1934)

Map of the Victoria Falls (from 1950s tourist brochure)

Livingstone Statue

The famous bronze statue of David Livingstone, sculpted by W Reid-Dick, RA, was unveiled overlooking the western view on the south bank of the Victoria Falls on 5th August 1934 by Mr Moffat, CMG, ex-Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia (1927-33), and nephew of David Livingstone’s wife, Mary Moffat. The bronze statue, ten-and-a-half feet (3.2 m) high stands on a 37-ton rough hewn solid granite base, at the time claimed to be the largest block of stone quarried in Africa. News reports of the unveiling of the statue claim Livingstone’s initials were still faintly visible on the tree he had originally carved them into in 1855.

Rhodes-Livingstone Museum

The town of Livingstone added a significant tourism attraction with the development of the David Livingstone Memorial Museum, opened in 1934. The museum was originally envisaged to preserve the material culture of local ethnic groups but was expanded the to include the life of Dr David Livingstone. In 1939, following the addition of collections on Cecil Rhodes, the museum was renamed the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum (and is now known as the Livingstone Museum).

Victoria Falls Reserve

The Victoria Falls Executive Committee was established on the north bank in 1934 under the Victoria Falls Reserve Preservation Ordinance, with the primary objective to foster tourism. Developments in 1935 included the first chalets at the North Bank Rest Camp and establishment of the Game Park, later to become the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park.

On the south bank the Victoria Falls Reserve Preservation Act (1928) had been drawn up establishing the Victoria Falls Reserve, a zone extending upstream and downstream of the Falls. In 1931 the Victoria Falls Game Reserve was established under the Game and Fish Preservation Act (1929), later to become the Zambezi National Park.

“In 1931 the Victoria Falls was declared a ‘protected area’ and the use of the environs of the Falls became more strictly controlled... In 1932... the piped water supply was extended to the Police Camp and to the remainder of the village in the following year.”

“To the north of the curator’s cottage... five stands had been occupied by Messrs. Spencer, Gibson and Lloyd, and further north, by a Mr. J. Picken. It was decided to accept the status quo and to re-plan the township incorporating these five stands, the curator’s cottage and the police camp... Little major development took place between 1930 to 1939.” (Heath, 1977)

The Victoria Falls Special Area, a zone extending upstream and downstream of the Falls, was proclaimed a National Monument by Government Notice 318 on the 14th May 1937, under the Southern Rhodesia Monuments and Relics Act (1936). Government Notice 317 approved the bylaws which were to be enforced within the protected area, which now fell under the control of the Commission for the Preservation of Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics.

Worlds Fair New York

The World’s Fair was conceived in 1939 with hopes of lifting New York City and the United States out of the continuing economic depression. Four years went into planning, building and promoting the event. The Southern Rhodesia exhibit included a 186 feet (56.7 m) by 22 feet (6.7 m) working replica diorama of the Victoria Falls, one of the feature attractions of the exhibition.

“As you walk up a curved ramp toward the door of the main section of the building, the dull roar drums louder in your ears until it becomes vast thunder. You are in the heart of Africa.” (World’s Fair Guidebook, 1939)

Once inside the show, visitors could browse through displays of “native arts and crafts, Bushman paintings, animal heads and war weapons.”

The Southern Rhodesia Government Department of Publicity enthusiastically promoted tourism to Rhodesia and the Falls, ‘the open air paradise of the world’ and ‘unspoilt playground of Africa.’ In an increasingly competitive relationship, a 1941 publicity leaflet for the Livingstone Publicity and Travel Bureau positioned Livingstone as ‘the Tourist Centre for the Victoria Falls’ (Arrington, 2009).

Strip Roads

During the 1930s the Southern Rhodesian Government started laying down ‘strip roads,’ the early beginnings of a national road network. These consisted of two parallel strips of concrete or asphalt each about 60 centimetres wide and 80 centimetres apart, and allowing single file motor-vehicle traffic to run unhindered in one direction. When another, then occasional, car approached from the opposite direction, each pulled over to its respective side of the road, to the left, running inside wheels on one side of the strip road and risking the others on the wide dirt margins that ran alongside either side of the road. The strip road from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls was completed in 1941. Parts of the original strip road can still today be seen alongside the modern-day road from Hwange to the Falls in sections where the modern road has abandoned its old route for a more direct pathway.

Old Rhodesian strip road.

Wings of War

During the Second World War (1939-45) the Falls Hotel played host to many Allied soldiers and airmen receiving their basic training in the country, with a major Flying Training School operating outside Bulawayo for trainee airmen from across the British Commonwealth. A total of 8,500 British Royal Air Force (RAF) crew were trained in Southern Rhodesia over the period of the war, and training continued into the post-war period. The Falls was one of several recreational leave locations for recruits, and the Hotel offered special half-rates to RAF recruits.

Towards the end of the war Spencer’s Airways were using a fleet of one Avro Anson, one de Havilland Fox Moth, a Tiger Moth and one Fairchild UC.61A to provide short pleasure trips over the Falls and safari flights. Ted Spencer died in a tragic accident at Croydon Airport, London, in early 1947. An advert in Flight Magazine records Spencer offering free passage from London for 16 married service men looking to emigrate to Rhodesia (Flight Magazine, Jan 1947). Spencer was piloting the Dakota plane which stalled and crashed soon after take off from London on the 25th January with 18 passengers, eleven of who also sadly died (Flight Magazine, July 1947).

Ted Spencer’s nephew, Terrance, took over the family business.

“His nephew, Terry, [who] took over the mantle of chief aviator for Spencer’s Airways, had beat the odds flying a Lancaster through most of World War Two. His luck ran out almost two years after his uncle’s. On 20 October 1948, whilst on a game flight, his plane caught fire somewhere over the Katambora Rapids. Turning for home on a burning wing and a prayer, Terry Spencer coaxed the Fairchild back towards Victoria Falls. Never made it. Crashed amongst the horizon-to-horizon teak forests... on the remote Westwood Farm. It was a long time, six weeks to the day, from the wristwatches of the crash victims, before the wreckage was found.” (Meadows, 2000)

Next page: Life Magazine Gallery


Frew (1934) Prince George's African Tour Blackie & Sons.

Heath R A (1977) Victoria Falls. The Growth of a Rhodesian Village Proceedings of the Geographical Association of Rhodesia 10:15-29

McGregor, JoAnn (2009) Crossing the Zambezi : The Politics of Landscape on an African Frontier. Oxford : James Currey & Harare : Weaver Press

Martin, D. (1997) Victoria Falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya African Publishing Group, Harare.

Meadows, K. (2000) Sometimes when it rains: white Africans in black Africa. Thorntree Press.

Recommended Reading

Roberts P (2017) Footsteps Through Time - A history of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls. Zambezi Book Company.

Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

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'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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