The Victoria Falls: A Journey into the Realm of Mosi-Oa-Tunya
"The sound is terrific if not a trifle terrifying"
As our train left the platform at Cape Town Station I somehow felt privileged to be following the same route pioneered by Cecil John Rhodes, the English-born businessman, mining magnate, empire builder and founder of the vast new country of Rhodesia, for my own epic journey would take me through Matjiesfontein, across the Great Karoo to De Aar, Kimberley, Johannesburg and on to Pretoria, where I would spend a night before rejoining the train for the 3-day journey through Botswana to Bulawayo and my final destination, the spectacular Victoria Falls.
It was Cecil Rhodes who gave the instruction that the streets of Bulawayo be wide enough to allow an ox wagon with its full complement of 16 oxen to turn a complete circle. Small wonder today, the vibrant capital of Matabeleland and Zimbabwe's second city has the distinction of having the widest streets and the longest railway platforms in the world!
Rhodes had always dreamt of a railway track linking Cape Town to Cairo. His dream was never realized, but in 1898 the railway line at least reached Bulawayo having come up from the Cape via Mafikeng and Francistown and so skirting the Transvaal Republic of President Paul Kruger.
This is the route it was recently my good fortune to follow on Rovos Rail's now legendary The Pride of Africa train in a personal quest to reach the Victoria Falls by a means perhaps more familiar with the golden age of travel. Moreover, as a Fellow of The Royal Geographical Society, I had always been inspired to follow in the footsteps of the first European to cast his eyes on the Falls, the indefatigable Scottish medical missionary and explorer Dr David Livingstone.
Thanks largely to the association with Agatha Christie, there has always been an aura of glamour, a hint of mystery about rail travel and the Queen of Crime's "Murder on the Orient Express", both the book and on film, have done much to increase the cachet of this mystery.
Shortly after leaving the jacaranda-lined city of Bulawayo the train travels along one of the longest stretches of straight railway line in the world – 114 kilometres – the stretch from Gwaai to Dete along the eastern edge of the Hwange National Park. In daytime, we were fortunate to enjoy the occasional sighting of wild animals, including elephant, zebra and baboon but after dark the sky was ablaze with a spectacular electric storm which lasted well into the evening as we approached the outskirts of the isolated township of Victoria Falls.
The existence of Hwange rests upon the great steam-coal reserves estimated at 3000 million tons, which lie beneath the surface. Hwange (747 metres) sits on a 14 metre coal seam a mere 50 ft below the surface. The operation is now run by the Wankie Colliery Ltd. Rhodes gave orders that the railway line be diverted to pass through the coalfields, rather than continue straight to the Victoria Falls.
A decision was later made that the railway line would run from Bulawayo to Hwange and then to the Victoria Falls for a crossing of the mighty Zambezi and northwards to Cairo. For the Victoria Falls that was a fortunate decision! The line reached Hwange in September 1903 and the remaining 68 miles to the Falls were completed in only seven months, with the first train steaming into the station on 24 April 1904.The following month two trains a week were running to the Falls from Bulawayo, carrying intrepid travellers anxious to see this most spectacular "Wonder of the World".
After climbing higher to 913 metres, our train ultimately reached the little station at Victoria Falls shortly after 7.00pm, where we disembarked for the short walk to The Victoria Falls Hotel, which formed a charming oasis of sweetness after the tortured topography of the landscape behind us.
This is "The Grand Old Lady of Africa", the first Zimbabwean hotel to achieve 100 years of operation and the first to mark a centenary in 2004. The story of The Victoria Falls Hotel is not simply the story of a hospitality establishment; it is also the story of the creation and development of the town that grew around it. In addition, it is in reality the story of the Zimbabwean tourism sector, since the Victoria Falls are the country's premier tourist attraction and its greatest natural asset, and is the sector's very foundation.
The clouds of spray billowing from the Victoria Falls can be seen from as far away as 30 kilometres (20 miles), and this is usually the first indication any traveller has that they are approaching the world's most spectacular waterfalls. "Mosi-oa-Tunya", or "The Smoke that Thunders", was how the local Makololo people described it – and early explorers were equally spellbound. "Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight", wrote Dr David Livingstone when, in 1855, he became the first European to explore the area around the Falls.
Victoria Falls is the largest, most beautiful and certainly the most majestic waterfall on the planet, and is the "Seventh Wonder of the World", as well as being a Unesco World Heritage Site. A trip to Southern Africa would not be complete without visiting this unforgettable place. It is believed that there have existed no fewer than seven different 'Victoria Falls' over the past two million years. These cascades correspond to the lower gorges of the Zambezi.
Plunging over the tip of the Falls is the largest body of cascading water on earth, although they are neither the highest nor the widest waterfalls in the world. The mighty Zambezi River – fourth longest river in Africa, is about 2 kilometres wide above the Falls; where it cascades dramatically over a precipice 1.6 kilometres in length and 108 metres deep (at its deepest), compressing the vast volume of water into a chasm 50 metres wide. When you finally reach the Falls the sound is deafening, the aspect magnificent and the memory indelible.
A rather curious fact is that this mass of water tumbling over the Falls does not come from rainfall anywhere near them for they are set in a very dry area, fringing on the Kalahari semi-desert. The Zambezi River rises in the remote north-western corner of Zambia, and then crosses into Angola gathering tropical rainfall as it rises. It returns to western Zambia, fanning out over the Barotse floodplain where it reaches an extent of 50 kilometres wide at peak season. This slows down its flow so that the mass of water of the upper Zambezi reaches the Victoria Falls only in Autumn (March/April).
The sound is terrific if not a trifle terrifying, and the spray produced by the Falls is so great it inhibits good photography. Low season (October/November), whilst still producing a fine effect at the Main Falls, reduces the flow by about 10%, leaving large slabs of brown basalt exposed on the lip. This too is not very good for photography, the best time for which is between May and September. Along one stretch – opposite the Rainbow Falls – the entire volume of the Zambezi roars through a narrow chasm, at the end of which is a deep pool known as the Boiling Pot.
How were these spectacular Falls formed ? About 200 million years ago, great sheets of volcanic lava coming from long vents in the earth's surface in central Africa covered the face of Southern Africa all the way to Lesotho. The lava set hard and metamorphosed into basalt. An upwelling of the tectonic plate occurred in the area of the present-day Victoria Falls, pushing up with great pressure the 300 metre-thick layers of basalt, cracking them along the zigzag pattern of the gorges visible (and invisible) today. Then the Kalahari Period occurred when the whole of Southern Africa was covered with a desert of fine, yellow sand, which filled up the 100 metre-deep gorges to their lips. Through time and pressure the sand turned to sandstone.
Approximately 500,000 years ago a huge river, the proto-Zambezi (not the same route as the present river), started flowing over the region. The water found a chink in the sandstone and started excavating the softer portions of the rock, leaving a gorge in its wake. This would have been the very first Victoria Falls and would correspond to Lower Gorge No.6 today. However, because the gorges are connected in a zigzag fashion, at the corners, the river continued its work and eventually removed all the sandstone in the gorge behind so that the river then moved back and you had the second phase of the Victoria Falls, which is Gorge No.5 today.
When you stand at the lookout opposite Cataract Island, with Livingstone's statue behind you, look along the diagonal line to the left, taking your eye behind the existing waterfall; that is the line of the next Falls which, it is believed, will take a mere 50,000 years to be cut out. That day, the Falls will move back one gorge and where today millions of litres a second cascade in a majestic curtain of water into the gorge, there will be the dry viewing plateau. The approach will have to be from the Zambian (eastern) side.
Considered to the first European to have seen the Falls in 1855, David Livingstone was on his first expedition from the Cape to Luanda (Angola), then back again, via the Zambezi to the Port of Quelimane in Mozambique. A truly heroic journey! The greatness of Livingstone lies in his painstaking research and accurate observations. His book, 'Missionary Travels and Researches in Southern Africa including a sketch of Sixteen Year's Residence in the Interior of Africa' was published by John Murray in 1857 and sold 70,000 copies within three weeks. It probably did more to influence Western attitudes towards Africa than any book written before or since.
Livingstone first approached the Falls from upstream in a dugout canoe, catching his first full glimpse of their magnificence – from a spray-clouded island on the rim – on 17 November 1855, on what is today called Livingstone Island. He wrote: "When about half a mile from the falls, I left the canoe by which we had come down thus far, and embarked in a lighter one, with men well acquainted with the rapids, who, by passing down the centre of the stream in the eddies and still places caused by many jutting rocks, brought me to an island situated in the middle of the river, and on the edge of the lip over which the water rolls".
"In coming hither, there was a danger of being swept down by the streams, which rushed along on each side of the island; but the river was now low, and we sailed where it is totally impossible to go when the water is high. But though we had reached the island, and were within a few yards of the spot, a view from which would solve the whole problem, I believe that no one could perceive where the vast body of water went; it seemed to lose itself in the earth, the opposite lip of the fissure into which it disappeared, being only 80 feet distant".
Livingtsone continues: "At least I did not comprehend it until, creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent that had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad, leaped down 100 feet, and then became suddenly compressed into a space of 15 or 20 yards. The entire falls are simply a crack made in a hard basaltic rock ... In looking down into the fissure on the right of the island, one sees nothing but a dense white cloud, which, at the time we visited the spot, had two bright rainbows on it ... From this cloud rushed up a great jet of vapour exactly like steam, and it mounted 200 or 300 feet high; there condensing, it changed its hue to that of dark smoke, and came back in a constant shower, which soon wetted us to the skin", which he renamed the Victoria Falls, in honour of the British Queen.
Nowadays, you can fly over the Falls and the Zambezi National Park on 'The Flight of Angels', a 15-minute helicopter tour, or courtesy of an aircraft, microlight, hot-air balloon or parachute. You can take a leap of faith from the Victoria Falls Bridge on one of the world's highest bungee jumps, or join a high wire adrenaline activity such as the breathtaking Gorge Swing, Foofie Slide or Zip Line such as 'The Flying Fox'.
Downstream of the Falls you can ride the rapids in the zigzagging chasm known as the Batoka Gorge, go straight into the whirlpools on a Jet boat, or simply canoe the calmer stretches of the Upper Zambezi . After a hectic day enjoying all the activities the Victoria Falls has to offer, it is especially relaxing to treat yourself to a "sundowner" cruise on the mighty Zambezi where you are sure to see hippo and even crocodile catching the last rays of sunshine in the shallows.
But despite laying claim as the 'Adventure Capital of Africa', Victoria Falls is not solely the realm of adrenaline addicts. The town of Livingstone on the Zambia side of the river offers an intriguing glimpse into the region's colonial past. There are several cultural and craft centres as well as museums on both the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls and the Zimbabwean town of the same name, including the Elephant's Walk Shopping Village and nearby curio market, where you are sure
to pick up a bargain.
For wildlife enthusiasts, the Victoria Falls and Zambezi National Parks support a variety of species, including elephant, water buffalo, lion, black rhino and giraffe, and the best way to catch a glimpse of them is to join an elephant-back safari. So why not follow in the footsteps of those early explorers such as Livingstone and chart a course to the spectacular waterfalls of "Mosi-oa-Tunya".
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