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Discover Victoria Falls

Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls

By Peter Roberts

(Article first published in Discover Zimbabwe Magazine, 2012)

The Victoria Falls have always been a destination for the adventurous – from intrepid early explorers to modern day thrill seekers the Victoria Falls are a magnet for those in search of something more than just a waterfall.

The Zambezi River, and their most significant geographical feature, the Victoria Falls, provide a unique draw for tourists, and have done since David Livingstone first published his descriptions of them. Livingstone travelled down the Zambezi from the confluence of the Chobe in 1855, transported in traditional canoes by skilled local boatmen and accompanied by Chief Sekeletu of the Makololo, who Livingstone had befriended and whose power extended over the region. Explorers and missionaries followed, their epic journeys into the interior measured in months, in some cases years, but they were soon to give way to a new wave of visitor.

At the turn of the last century the development of global transport turned explorers into excursionists - those with the time to travel from Europe and beyond on the new ocean cruse liners, docking at the Cape from where the great iron railway ran its way north. From England the cruise took 16 days, and it was another three on the train to Bulawayo (which the railway reached in 1898). Before the extension of the railway to the Falls, a wagon road wound its way through the bush, making this last stage slow and uncomfortable. As the railway progressed it was not uncommon for travellers to be carried on the construction trains which traversed the expanding route to the railhead.

The railway reached the Victoria Falls in 1904, with ambitious plans to bridge the gorge of the Zambezi itself and carry on northward to Cairo. Initially a cable line was thrown across the gorge, and a winch system established allowing engineers and workmen to cross to the opposite bank and avoid a detour of several hours. Visitors wishing to cross in this manner were charged a small amount for the convenience. It could be said that this was the early beginnings of adventure activity tourism at the Falls!

The first Victoria Falls Hotel was built in early 1904 and opened for business on 8 June. By the beginning of 1905, tourist traffic to the Victoria Falls had increased considerably and it was necessary to enlarge the accommodation at the Falls Hotel. Two locomotive sheds in use on the Beria line were dismantled and sent to the Falls. One was commissioned as accommodation and the other as a dining room.

Sun, Steel and Spray - A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The Victoria Falls Bridge opened in 1905, bathed in the spray of the Falls, exactly fifty years after Livingstone first visited them. It was grandly claimed that the railway had brought ‘civilisation’ to the Zambezi, opening up the region to influence and trade, and completing Livingstone’s dream of bringing ‘Christianity, Commerce and Civilization’ to the region

The railway brought the Victoria Falls within reach of the world, and the first organised tourist trips in an emerging global tourism industry. Local entrepreneur Percy Clark (photographer and first resident of the town of Victoria Falls) was ideally placed to promote his small photographic studio and curio shop. He soon brought the first Canadian canoes and motorised boats to the Zambezi, and started offering boat tours and cruises on the river. He later set up the first rickshaw service, carrying tourists from the growing town down to the Falls and bridge.

In those early days, the only accommodation available on the southern bank was at the Victoria Falls Hotel (owned by the railway company at the time), and after making Clark an offer to buy his canoe business, an offer he refused, the hotel bought canoes and established boat trips of their own, cutting Clark out of the loop. After a disagreement with local authorities over the fees charged for his rickshaw rides, the administration confiscated the rickshaws, which promptly ended up being operated by the hotel!

Corridors Through Time - A History of the Victoria Falls Hotel

In 1920 the Victoria Falls Hotel started operating a trolley service, running on old rail lines, to take tourists down to the Falls, bridge and jetty points on the river (and an idea originally proposed by Clark but rejected at the time). The service ran for over 35 years and transported an estimated two million people.

As old fashioned explorers and adventurers gave way to fashionable excursionists and tourists, the Victoria Falls grew as an unrivalled tourism destination. The development of commercial flight reduced travel times yet further - no longer measured in months or days but instead in hours. A rapidly growing global tourism industry delivered ever increasing numbers of visitors to the Falls, heralding the dawn of modern tourism; of sunset river cruises and safari sundowners.

Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls

In the 1980s Victoria Falls reinvented itself as a top destination for a new type of tourist – the adrenaline junkie. The first rafting companies started offering rafting trips down the ‘mighty’ Zambezi white-water rapids, possibly the wildest and craziest commercially operated stretch of white-water in the world. Canoeing and river-boarding are also available. And just in case your adrenaline levels need topping up, why not bungee jump off the historic Victoria Falls bridge? Or, in an echo of those early bridge engineers, you too can zip across the gorge with nothing but a cable and harness to support you from the 100 metre drop into the raging rapids of the river!

Visitors can capture a glimpse of the past history of the region through several historical tours and trips, including an original Rhodesia Railways steam train tour, talks on David Livingstone and historical tours of the Victoria Falls Bridge, where you can walk on the workmen’s gangways under the bridge and discover how this amazing engineering marvel was built.

The rickshaws and trolley service have long gone, but you can still take leisurely trips by canoe on the upper river. Adventure companies offer multi-day trips with camping along the 60 kilometre stretch of the Zambezi River which borders the Zambezi National Park upstream of the Falls, overnighting in temporary camps along the riverside in much the same way as the early explorers. Many companies offer sunset cruises on the Zambezi, a timeless experience which allows the visitor the chance to imagine David Livingstone, travelling down the river for the first time, and setting sight upon one of the greatest natural wonders of the world, the Victoria Falls.

Peter Roberts is a freelance researcher and writer with a special focus on the Zambezi. He is author of ‘Sun, Steel and Spray – A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge’, published in 2011, Corridors Through Time - a History of the Victoria Falls Hotel, published in December 2015, and Footsteps Through Time - a History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls, published in July 2017.

Discover more on the history of the Victoria Falls at 'To The Victoria Falls'.

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