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Development of the Victoria Falls

The First Zambezi Regatta



The following text is adapted from 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2018. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.



The first Zambezi Regatta was held on 13th June 1905 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary year of Livingstone’s first arrival at the Falls and the construction of the Bridge. The regatta was the highlight to three days of sporting events and celebrations aimed at promoting the accessibility of the Falls to the wider world.

The regatta was held on a mile and a half (2.4 km) straight stretch of water between Luanda Island (also known as Long Island) and the north bank. A camp site and temporary grandstand was set up at the finish line. Two of the Bridge engineers, Varian and Everard were involved in surveying the river above the Falls in preparation for the event. Varian also competed in one of the races, and gives a detailed account of events:

“During the construction of the first section of the line beyond the Falls, preparations were made for a celebration of the completion of the bridge. The programme consisted of a one-day regatta, a day’s racing, and a day of athletic sports, for all of which courses had to be arranged. The celebration was a great success, especially the regatta. The course for this was a mile and-a-half [2.4 km] in length, on a straight reach of the river between Luanda Island and the left bank. While the bridge works were in progress, Mr Everard, assistant-engineer on the Rhodesia Railways, and I were detailed to begin a preliminary survey for a power scheme of the Falls, the initial work of which took us along the left bank five miles [8 km] upstream to Secuti’s Drift... With the experience thus gained, we were able to set out the regatta course, as well as a continuous path along the river’s edge for the use of trainers of the various crews.

“A mile-and-a-half of railway [known as the Regatta Spur] was built from the Maramba depot to the river, to take the boats to the water, and carry spectators to the different sports-courses, which adjoined the finishing post of the regatta course. Part of the race-course was used for the sports meeting. A camp site was also prepared for the visiting crews.” (Varian, 1953)

Coryndon imported a punt from England especially for the event. Umpire for the regatta was Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Marshall Hole.

“There were many reminders of boating events and leisure back home. The Administrator at Livingstone [Coryndon] had punt imported from England, which had been launched on the Thames and which he used for the first time at the regatta.” (Arrington-Sirois, 2017)

Sir Charles Metcalfe arranged the importation of four boats from Oxford especially for the event. The boats used were heavy clinker four-oars, coxed with fixed seating for the four man crew and thole pins holding the oars.

The Zambezi Challenge Cup

The main race was the Zambezi Challenge Cup ‘Fours’, with four-men crews from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London invited to compete. Teams from Johannesburg and Durban (as well as Bulawayo, Salisbury and Beira) had also been invited to participate but did not send crews.

The Reverend Alan Williams, Chaplin to South Africa and Vice President of the Alfred Rowing Club, travelled with the Cape Town crew, combined from the Alfred and Civil Service Rowing Clubs, and recorded their arrival at the Falls.

“We reached Victoria Falls at dawn on Whit-Monday, and from our carriage, which had been shunted during the night, and which was our ‘home’ for the time being, I saw a pink-tinged cloud rising above the treetops and heard the thunder of the Falls as the sun rose through the trees behind us. That day we all went over the unfinished bridge to the north side, on open trucks, a very foolish arrangement, for a bad jolt might have shot some of us through the open girders to the bottle-green torrent 400 feet below.

“A grandstand had been erected at a point a mile or so above the Falls on the north side, where was gathered a motley strange crowd of whites and blacks - from the Commissioner, Sir William Milton, and his party, to Lewanika, Paramount Chief of Barotseland, and his followers. He was a fine tall figure in grey flannel suit and hat - with binoculars hung over his shoulder, and a hunting crop in his hand.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1952)

After a fine race East London, crewed by men from Leander Rowing Club and stroked by Mr Owen G Griffiths, came in winners with Cape Town a close second. Sir Charles Metcalfe presented the winning crew with the Challenge Cup and individual gold medals. Mr Griffiths, also carried off the win in the individual Diamond Challenge sculls.

The winners of the coxed fours at the first Zambezi Regatta, 1905
The winners of the coxed fours at the first Zambezi Regatta

The Rhodesia Challenge Cup

The Rhodesia Challenge Cup was presented by Mr Lawley for competition between the Rhodesian crews. Northern Rhodesia fielded three teams of fours, from Livingstone, Kalomo (manned by Company Civil Servants) and Kafue (manned by a crew selected from Pauling’s construction engineers - none of who had yet seen the Kafue River). The race was won by Kafue, with Livingstone second. During the race the boat of the Kalomo crew began to take on water and slowly sink. The crew and boat were rescued, and to the sombre tune of the ‘Dead March’ the boat was carried away.

Varian found himself part of the Kafue crew and describes the scene:

“The South African crews were naturally in a class of their own, so there were two major races, one for them, and one for the Rhodesians. Marsland and I, with Cumberpatch and Micklem as stroke in the Kafue boat, were all more or less lightweights, and won the Rhodesian race by a length. The Kalomo boat carried sixty-four stone with their cox, and included such giants as O’Sullivan of the Police, Skipper Swanston, and others of the same stamp. Of course, they hadn’t a chance. After paddling up a mile-and-a-half on a hot afternoon, there was a delay at 2 o’clock owing to some fault in the steam-launch that carried the umpire, Mr Marshall Hole. By this time their boat, the Bleeding Heart, which had shown very little freeboard throughout, appeared to be definitely sinking. They managed to get home before it foundered, however, and carried the much-tried craft up to the boathouse, to the strains of the Dead March.” (Varian, 1953)

Zambezi Regatta The Broken Heart
The Broken Heart and Kalomo crew, shortly before abandoning the race.

Kalomo based Company administrator Knowles Jordan records taking part in the scratch pairs.

“By a stroke of luck I became cox in a race for Scratch Pairs over half-mile course and we won easily. The three of us all came from different parts of South Africa and we each received a valuable silver cup.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1951)

Also included in the regatta schedule were two ‘native races,’ with four and six man teams from Lealui, Sesheke and Livingstone competing in dug-out canoes.

“The race for Royal crews of native states was very exciting. The paddlers stood in native dugouts, some six a side and urged by the cries of natives on the banks urged their craft forward at a great pace. The crew of the Chief Litia of Sesheke was the winner. It was said that Lewanika told his crew that if it did not win he would put the lot on an island of the Zambesi on their return, and leave them there for the benefit of the crocodiles.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1952)

Zambezi Regatta Native crews
'Native' crews competed against one another.

In the event the crew of Chief Letia (Lewanika’s son) were victorious. It was not recorded what happened to Lewanika’s loosing crew! In photographs Lewanika is seen proudly dressed in the expensive flannel suit, top hat and overcoat purchased during his visit to England. The local Leya people under Chief Mukuni and Chief Sekuiti, who had traditionally controlled the river crossings, were notable for their absence from the event, having been eclipsed by the relationship formed between their Lozi overseers and the Chartered Company.

The View from the Grandstand

The Railway Company ran reduced fares on trains to attract travellers and the event was attended by an estimated seven hundred visitors, flooding the Falls, and the Hotel, with an unprecedented number of tourists. Varian, recorded:

“In those days the hotel at the Falls was a small galvanized affair, quite incapable of dealing with the situation, so the hundreds of visitors from all parts of South Africa were housed in trains on the nearby sidings. A disused engine-shed, brought up from Mafeking, was suitably decorated and transformed into a dining-room. It served as such for many years, until the present palatial building was erected.” (Varian, 1953)


The First Annual Zambezi Regatta Grandstand
The First Annual Zambezi Regatta Grandstand, 1905

Visitors drank dry the stocks of beer and whisky and there were apparently ugly scenes in the ‘outside bar’ of the Falls Hotel when the last bottles were emptied. Percy Clark was less than impressed with the rush on local supplies:

“Crews came from all parts of Africa to compete, and there were close on a thousand visitors altogether. The capacity of the hotel was good only for about a hundred of these, so the rest had to camp out. By the second day the hotel was cleared of beer and whiskey, and food had almost run out. I was invited by a friend to dine there. The feast was worthy of the rude fellow’s grace: ‘Gawd! What a meal!’ I wished I had invited my friend to my own place. The service was terrible, with a wait of twenty minutes between each of the courses. These were: soup - with the taste and appearance of weak Bovril; one bony cutlet and half a potato; biscuits and cheese with no butter. There wasn’t a scrap of butter in the hotel, no joints, no poultry. For this magnificent (!) spread we were charged seven-and-six apiece. I’d sooner have bought a marriage licence. Along the regatta course were the usual ‘joints’ - poker tables, ‘Under and Over, ‘Crown and Anchor,’ canteens, and the side-shows. The concessionaires, so to call them, must have raked in pots of money...

“I was besieged in my huts by Bulawayo friends who could not get accommodation in the hotel. They dossed down in rows and tiers in my huts, and all about them, and in the kitchen. Several had brought their own nosebags, and foodstuffs in bottle were plentiful, but my larder was sadly depleted. I had to feed them ultimately on bully beef and hard tack. But, as the saying is: ‘A good time was enjoyed by all!’” (Clark, 1936)

The band of the Barotse Native Police were on hand to entertain guests.

“The Barotse Native Police Bugle Band discoursed music. It sounded strange to hear them play ‘Come listen to this Band,’ a very popular tune in England at that time.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1952)

The regatta finished with an evening of festivities, with 80 guests attending a special dinner. Coryndon’s speech was interrupted by the constant grunting of a bull hippo in the river nearby, loudly expressing its disapproval of their presence.

“After dinner, visitors and Rhodesians gathered round a large camp fire exchanging experiences and many friendships were formed. The broad river gleaming in the moonlight, the rustling palms, the distant roar of the Falls, and the occasional splash of a hippo or big fish combined to make up an African picture to be remembered for many a year.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1951)

During the course of the festivities it was decided to hold a cricket match, and on 23rd July a team comprised from Pauling’s railway construction crew challenged local residents of the Old Drift to a game held ‘on a very bumpy Maramba yard’ (Shepherd, 2008).

The event received much promotion and coverage back in Britain, with the London Evening News describing the Zambezi as ‘Our New Henley,’ and a promotional booklet produced in 1905 by Union Castle encouraged travel to the Zambezi, ‘the World’s Riviera.’

The Company’s annual report for the year recorded that “thanks in a great measure to the organising ability of Sir Charles Metcalfe, Mr R T Coryndon, and Mr A L Lawley, the Regatta was a great success” (British South Africa Company, 1906).

Hippo Hazards

Mr (later Colonel) Jack Rose, one of the Cape rowers, recalled:

“It was a wild and exciting place in those days... Fever was a constant menace and there were few amenities but we enjoyed ourselves. There was lots to talk about - a bull hippo entered the marquee near the river where the boating club dinner was being held. We all cleared out pretty quick.” (Green, 1968)

Hippopotamus have always been a hazard along the river, easily capable of capsizing a canoe and to be treated with utmost respect in the water or on the river bank. Sykes also writes of the dangers of encountering hippopotamus on the river:

“Hippopotami may be seen occasionally amongst the islands above the Falls. They have been known to attack and capsize boats, and therefore should be approached with caution, or better still, avoided as much as possible.” (Sykes, 1905)

He wrote from personal experience.

“In 1905 at the time of the regatta, Mr F W Sykes, a government official at Livingstone, escaped when the hippo overturned his boat near the lip of the Falls. Several natives were drowned. Gavuzzi the hotel manager, was rowing about the same area with a crew of natives when a hippo tore a hole in the bottom of the boat. They all had to swim for their lives and all reached the shore safely. A journalist who was visiting the Falls at the time wrote; ‘I have little sympathy with the idea of some visitors that these brutes should be allowed to multiply in the river at this place on the plea that they form picturesque adjuncts to the scenery. I should not only permit them to be shot off but I should put a reward on every hippo’s head.’” (Green, 1968)

Crafty Curiosities

Keen to develop craft skills and trading opportunities for his people Lewanika even established his own trading store on the north bank of the Falls, selling traditional African ‘curios,’ wooden carvings and woven crafts to early travellers.

Second Zambezi Regatta

A further regatta was held in July 1906, but with the competing crews coming only from within Rhodesia.

"The regatta and gymkhana, which has now become, we hope, an annual institution, was held on July 23rd, and was attended by visitors from every corner of Rhodesia. Boat-races between crews of the Livingstone and Kafue (Pauling & Co) Rowing Clubs, including an exciting four-oar contest over a mile and a half, Native canoe races etc, occupied the morning, and in the afternoon, the Zambesi Cup, the Maramba Cup and several [equestrian] gymkhana events were hotly contested." (Livingstone Mail Xmas Issue, December 1906)

Third Zambezi Regatta

After apparently missing a year, the Regatta returned in September 1908.

"The Regatta was held on the 10th September, and was attended by, besides the townspeople, a fair proportion of excursionists from the Cape and Transvaal, who happened to be visiting the Falls at that time. Candour compels us to admit that the events were, on the whole featureless and unexciting, but the Zambesi Boat Club intend to make the institution an annual fixture, and future regattas will be planned on a more ambitious scale." (Livingstone Mail Xmas Issue, December 1908)

Fourth Zambezi Regatta

The 1909 Zambezi Regatta saw the return of competing crews from South Africa, with crews from Durban, Port Shepstone, East London and Cape Town competing in addition to local Rhodesian crews.

"There has been considerable excitement here during the past two days on the occasion of the Zambezs regatta, in connection with which Mr Guy Nickalls is now visiting Rhodesia. The regatta attracted a large concorce of people, including Mr Wallace, Administrator of North-West Rhodesia, and Mrs Wallace. The races were principally for pair oars and four oars, and crews representing Durban, Port Shepstone, East London, Cape Town and the Zambezi Rowing Club competed in them. The regatta opened with a canoe race for natives over a full mile and a half course. Five crews competed. The Zambezi challenge cup for the four-oared championship of South Africa was won by East London after a most exciting struggle with Cape Town and Durban which were second and third respectively. Other races were a mixed doubles sculls and a race for dug outs with native crews. an open canoes race, in which five crews competed, was won by the Zambezi Club, which beat East London by half a length. The regatta was a complete success, and no hitch of any description occurred. Mrs Wallace presented the prizes. The meeting, concluded with a successful racing gymkhana and festivities, closed yesterday evening with a banquet." (Glasgow Herald, June 5 1909)

Next page: Opening of the Victoria Falls Bridge

References

Arrington-Sirois, A. L. (2017) Victoria Falls and Colonial Imagination in British Southern Africa: Turning Water into Gold. Palgrave Macmillan.

British South Africa Company, (1906) Annual Report.

Clark, P. (1936) Autobiography of an Old Drifter. Harrap, London.

Glasgow Herald, June 5 1909

Green, L. G. (1968) Full Many a Glorious Morning. Timmins.

Livingstone Mail Xmas Issue (December 1906) Livingstone in 1906 - A Retrospect. Christmas Edition, December 1906.

Livingstone Mail Xmas Issue, December 1908) Our Annual Retrospect. Christmas Edition. December 1908.

Northern Rhodesia Journal (July 1951) Early Days in Kalomo and Livingstone. Vol.1, No.4, p.16-23.

Northern Rhodesia Journal (July 1952) The First Zambezi Regatta. Vol.1, No.6, p.64-65.

Shepherd, G. (2008) Old Livingstone and Victoria Falls, Stenlake Publishing

Sykes, F. (1905) Official Guide to the Victoria Falls. Bulawayo

Varian, H F (1953) Some African Milestones Wheatley : George Ronald. (Reprinted 1973 Books of Rhodesia).

Recommended Reading

Roberts P (2016) Sun, Steel and Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge. 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.

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