Westerners tend to start the historical clock ticking on Victoria Falls from the moment that David Livingstone first laid eyes on them in 1855. The Scottish missionary came upon them as he was exploring upstream from the falls in today’s Zambia. Such a dramatic sight, he believed, deserved an honorable name, and so he named the torrential waters after his Queen.
Of course, the history of the falls extends much farther back in time than the relatively recent days of Mr. Livingstone. When ancestors of today’s local Lozi people saw the powerful cascade centuries ago, they named it for the immense and, to be sure, frightening force of its power: Mosi-oa-Tunya, they called it, “the smoke that thunders.”
Inverted Rain and Moonbows
And thunder it does. Though Victoria Falls are neither the widest nor the tallest waterfalls on the planet, they do form the largest falling vertical curtain of water. During its peak times of year, it measures 5,604 feet by 354 feet. That’s a sheet of water that’s almost 2 million square feet.
During the rainy season, from November to April, the volume of the Zambezi River is such that its spray rises more than 1,300 feet into the air and is visible from 30 miles away. Walking along the misty pathways that line the falls, the water shoots upward from the gorge like upside-down rain. And the light of a full moon creates a “moonbow” in the mist.
Imagine the impression this powerful river made on prehistoric humans, long before Mr. Livingstone arrived. Artifacts and archaeological sites have been uncovered dating to Homo habilis 3 million years ago. Middle and Late Stone Age items (50,000 and 10,000 years ago, respectively) reveal the presence of tool-using tribes. Later, iron-using Khoisan hunter-gatherers arrived, to be displaced by the Bantu who came down from Central and East Africa. Of course, Victoria Falls looked much different in Africa’s earliest days. They were likely located farther downriver, and inched its way to its current location over time, sculpting away at its rocky bed to form the gorge into which it now falls.
Putting the Falls on the Map
A 1715 map pinpoints the falls at the place where we see them today; a later rendering 35 years later merely labels the falls as “cataracts,” no doubt an understatement even for its day. Arabs, who had colonized parts of eastern Africa, are believed to have headed down the Zambezi River and been so astonished by them that they called them “the end of the world.” When Europeans heard about such a dramatic waterfall from the Arabs, they were skeptical. How, they wondered, could a land that was so flat, with no mountains or valleys, be sliced open by such a deep fissure?
After Livingstone’s discovery, Victoria Falls lured cartographers, explorers and artists from all over Europe. One businessman in particular, Cecil Rhodes, began the rush to mine the region and constructed a railway into Victoria Falls to boost the economy and ease transport of extracted minerals. By 1904, the railway completed, the Victoria Falls Hotel opened, still a grand building today. Soon, Europeans flocked here not only for the promise of wealth from minerals, timber, ivory, and animal hides—but also to see the incredible Victoria Falls named for their former queen, who by all accounts was also a force of nature.
A Span to Cross the Zambezi
But Rhodes was not finished with his railway. By then, Britain had gained control of many African nations and the ambitious magnate wanted to connect them all by train, from Cape Town all the way Cairo. The Zambezi River—and Victoria Falls—was a major obstacle to his project. So he insisted to his engineers that they build a railway bridge “across the Zambezi where the trains, as they pass, will catch the spray of the Falls.” He was a practical man, to be sure, but he also knew why the tourists came.
The bridge was an international effort. Built in England and shipped to Mozambique on Africa’s eastern coast, its pieces were transported on the railway that had already been laid. The steel girders were assembled on site. The Cleveland Bridge & Engineering Company oversaw the project, earning the bridge a place as a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark on a prestigious list kept by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
A century later, Victoria Falls—the natural wonder and the town by the same name that has grown around it—is one of Africa’s most visited sights.