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 first published in 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.
The Coming of the Railway
At the beginning of 1893 the railway from Cape Town ran as far as Vryburg, seat of government of British Bechuanaland, nearly a thousand kilometres away. In May that year the Buchuanaland Railway Company was incorporated (it would be renamed Rhodesia Railways Ltd on 1 June 1899), and within a month a contract entered into with Pauling & Co Ltd for the extension of the line from Vryburg to Mafaking, a distance of 155km.
Rhodes had first met Pauling in 1891, having summoned him to Cape Town from Barberton, where the engineer had been gold mining, to talk about extending the railway from Vryburg. Nothing came of this initially for financial reasons, but in 1893, with finances in place, Pauling was invited to bid for the contract. George Pauling and his cousin Harold had already travelled the distance to be covered by cart, but there were still concerns over the costing of the contract, and he determined to travel the route a second time. Costs were agreed and the contract signed. Harold Pauling was in charge of the construction of the line.
The line was opened to traffic in October 1894. At its year-end meeting the railway board of directors, under the chairmanship of Rhodes, declared:
"When extended, the railway will form the main trunk line connecting the markets of the Cape Colony with the British South Africa Company’s territory and, ultimately, on joining with the Beira Railway Company’s line to Salisbury, will afford through means of transport from Cape Town to Beira."
At the time, the only regular service to Bulawayo was by mail coach. The traveller arrived at Mafeking (Mafikeng), the end of the railway line, to take the weekly Zeederberg coach covering the 850km journey to Bulawayo. The week-long journey was scheduled thus: Boulderpits - Monday midnight, Gaberones -Tuesday 5 a.m, Palapye - Friday noon, Tati hotel - Sunday 6 a.m, Mangwe Pass - Sunday midnight, Bulawayo - Monday 9 p.m.
The daily service north left two hours after the arrival of the train. Most of the coaches were of American manufacture, lightly built and wheeled but remarkably robust. They carried up to twelve passengers with room on top for mail and baggage and were usually drawn by ten mules. The lurching journey to Bulawayo, changing animals at post stations every 25km or so, took five to six days when the mules were in condition, frequently longer. The famous Zeederberg mail coaches could cover 240km or more in a 24-hour run, depending on the weather. Mules generally provided the power, but Zeederberg once used a span of trotting oxen and even tried to train zebras, although they lacked stamina and he soon abandoned their use.
Wagons crossing drift
The following description appeared in 1894:
"In fine weather, when the roads are in good condition, a coach journey may be very enjoyable, but in bad weather capsizes are unpleasantly frequent and occasionally a coach with its freight and passengers will stick in the mud for many hours. Teams are changed every ten or fifteen miles, and some idea may be inferred of the number of horses and mules kept at the different stations from the fact that frequently four or five coaches will require fresh teams at one place during the day. The rate of travelling, including stoppages, is not much more than six mph. Fares are high, ranging from 9d. to 1/- per mile. The allowance of luggage per passenger ranges from 25-40lb., and every additional pound weight is charged 6d. to 1/6d. extra according to the distance traveled, whilst, if the mail should happen to be heavy, luggage is frequently shut out".
Everything, from the smallest home necessity to heavy farm and mine equipment, had to be transported by lumbering wagon drawn by oxen or mules. It was agonisingly slow, hazardous and very expensive. When Bulawayo became the latest dusty outpost of the British Empire after the 'occupation' of Matabeleland by troops of the British South Africa Company in November 1893 its streets were laid out wide enough to allow a wagon and full span of sixteen oxen to turn around (and they remain so today, a striking feature of the city).
A guide book issued in 1896 for the benefit of the traveller making his way to Bulawayo gave full information on alternative forms of transport, including hints for those considering the journey on horseback, by bicycle, or even on foot. It noted:
"Except walking, the cheapest mode of travel is on horseback, and considering the amount of food required, it is a question whether walking is much cheaper after all. Horses suitable for the journey can be purchased for £18."
Walking was not recommended, although farther north, in the tsetse fly country, it was often a necessity, in which event it was normal to use a pack donkey or local carriers. A fit cyclist could apparently get along fairly well on the footpaths which ran beside the wagon road almost all the way to Bulawayo; a man in good training could pedal as fast as a cart or horse and could expect to reach Bulawayo within ten days. It was pointed out however, that a bicycle cost as much as two horses.
Zeederberg & Co, Coach Proprietors had been launched by four Zeederberg brothers in Pretoria, and was at first a purely South African concern. It was his subsequent friendship with Cecil Rhodes, and the tremendous demand for transport north of the Limpopo, which had led Christian Hendrik (Doel) Zeederberg to set up in Rhodesia. In 1890 Cecil Rhodes commissioned Doel Zeederberg to survey the country and suggest likely road links. The work took him three years of hard riding and walking from Fort Tuli and the Limpopo to Fort Victoria, Salisbury and Broken Hill.
Restored Zeederberg coach
Zeederberg extended their Pretoria/Pietersburg coach service as far as Fort Tuli in April, 1891, via a pontoon built by Zeederberg over the Limpopo river, and thence via Fort Victoria and Fort Charter to Salisbury. According to the yearbook "Guide to Southern Africa" for 1893, the fare Tuli to Salisbury was £15 and the journey took 14 days.
Rhodes himself said that no other individual had done more to open up Rhodesia than Doel Zeederberg. George Beet, writing as part of Weinthal's 'The Story of the Cape to Cairo Railway and River Route from 1887–1922' (published in 1924), recorded:
"In his own sphere of activity 'Doel' may be said to have been among the few who played a leading part in the development of Central South African resources. In conjunction with Cecil Rhodes, this sturdiest of pioneers recognized the potentialities of the great North Land, and about 1901 the first rough survey of a coach route from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls was undertaken jointly by Sir Charles Metcalfe and himself. A weekly service was opened to the Wankie coal fields and the Falls, chiefly for facilitating the exploration of the mineral and other resources of the country. This... was eventually extended to Broken Hill, and later was replaced by the advancing Cape to Cairo railway."