The History of Victoria Falls

Dr. Livingstone's great gift to the Queen of England

Scottish explorer David Livingstone was famous for many things. Hailed as one of the most enigmatic explorers of all time, he also had an impressive moustache, and was the first European ever to lay eyes on Victoria Falls. He was led to the waterfall in 1855, by the Makalolo tribe in a dug-out canoe, during his travels from Luanda to Sesheke. Although Livingstone named the Falls after his queen, Victoria, it’s known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya – the Smoke that Thunders. 

The Smoke that Thunders

Anglo traders began to amass by the Falls after Livingstone’s reports reached their ears, which led to a makeshift trading settlement popping up on the Zambian riverbank, named Old Drift – the first Victoria Falls town. Increasing numbers of visitors from the Transvaal and South Africa arrived, travelling by horseback or ox-wagon. Malaria began to ravage the settlement, forcing its relocation to the site where Zambia’s town of Livingstone now resides. 

Dr Livingstone I presume...

Explorers lead hard lives if history is to be believed. Livingstone’s 14 years that followed his Victoria Falls ‘discovery’ included a nasty altercation with a lion that limited his use of one arm. The outside world got concerned about the poor chap when they didn’t hear from him for four years, so the New York Herald sent Henry Stanley off to look for him. After a long search, Stanley found Livingstone on 10 November 1871 in a small African village, greeting him with the immortal words, “Dr Livingstone I presume”. The two bonded over their brilliant facial bristles (and a few other common interests) and became fast friends until Stanley headed back to Britain in 1872, having failed to convince Livingstone to join him.  

After travelling some 50 000km through Africa, and opening up the previously unknown continent to the world, the legendary Livingstone died from malaria and dysentery on 1 May 1873, at age 60. His loyal attendants buried his heart under a tree in Africa (the site now known as the Livingstone Memorial), while the rest of his body was ultimately flown back to Britain.

Victoria Falls Bridge

Built in 1905, the Victoria Falls Bridge was created to connect what are now Zimbabwe and Zambia. Cecil John Rhodes commissioned the project, ambitiously desiring the ‘spray of the Falls on the train carriages’, but he died before its completion. Sir Ralph Freeman (also responsible for the Sydney Harbour Bridge) designed the arch from steel, which spans 156.50m, at a height of 128m above the Fall’s valley floor. Carrying cars, trains and foot traffic, the bridge is also the spot where the daring can do the famous 111m Shearwater bungee jump. The railway brought numerous guests to the Falls, prompting the building of the original The Victoria Falls Hotel in 1906. The village earned town status 66 years later. Today, train enthusiasts can pop into the railway museum near the Falls for more information. 

World Heritage

The Victoria Falls was declared as a World Heritage Site in 1989 for being one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. When the river is in flood, the Falls are the largest curtain of falling water in the world. The Falls and the surrounding rainforest are preserved as a 23.4 kilometre National Park and form one of Zimbabwe’s four World Heritage sites.



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