Corridors Through Time

A History of The Victoria Falls Hotel

The Hotel in the Sixties

Mr Peter P A Webster was appointed as the Hotel’s new General Manager on 1st July 1961, following the promotion of Mr Tones to Catering Administrative Officer in Bulawayo. Mr Webster overtook an operation suffering from years of restricted investment and inherited a comprehensive list of capital improvements “considered essential in order to keep the hotel in operation as a first class establishment” (Rhodesia Railways, April 1964). Funding, however, was limited and works had to be prioritised and phased over several years.

The Rainbow Room

One of the first improvements identified by Mr Webster was the provision of a new cocktail bar. The previous cocktail bar being described as “too small for a hotel of this size, is in dilapidated condition and enjoys no outlook. The new bar will provide a view of the bridge, will accommodate four times the number of people, and in addition will be fully air-conditioned and elegantly furnished” (Rhodesia Railways, November 1961).

The Rainbow Room was officially opened on 1st April 1962 and was the first fully air-conditioned cocktail bar in the country. Also in 1962 the private Hammerhead suites were upgraded to luxury air-conditioned suites.

“Without a reasonable and up-to-date hotel at the Victoria Falls there is no doubt that tourist traffic would suffer,” said Mr J H Allen, General Manager, Rhodesia Railways, speaking at the opening of the Rainbow Room. “I think we may face a very formidable competitor in the next couple of years,” he said, “but our opinion is that there will still be need for a hotel of the standard of this one. The new Rainbow Room is a practical demonstration of our faith in the future of the hotel and an increasing tourist trade.” (Rhodesia Railway Magazine, June 1962)

The Rainbow Room

The Rainbow Room c1969

A 1963 Hotel wine list and drinks menu shows imaginatively named cocktails inspired from the local landscape, with alcoholic cocktail delights such as the ‘Big Tree,’ ‘Boiling Pot,’ ‘Devil’s Cataract,’ ‘Knife Edge,’ ‘Lunar Rainbow’ and ‘Palm Grove.’ Non-alcoholic cocktails included ‘Eve’s Footprint,’ ‘Kandahar Monkey,’ ‘Pink Elephant,’ ‘Silent Pool’ and ‘Falls Spray.’ Sadly the ingredients and measures included in each drink were not detailed.

Changing Rooms and Roles

In an internal report to the Hotel’s Management Committee in March 1963, Mr Webster reviewed progress against a comprehensive list of maintenance issues and development requirements.

The exterior of the Hotel was one of the first issues tackled, the complete exterior needing repainting. Work had started in 1961 and was phased over several years.

One of the most urgent priorities was to repair the Hotel’s leaking roof, described as being in “very poor condition [and] leaking in many places with the result that part of the paintwork inside the hotel was in a shabby condition.”

Redecoration of bedrooms received priority once the roof had been repaired. The management were faced with the problem of walls which were “prone to cracking due to the variations in temperature. All attempts in the past to re-plaster and re-decorate had failed to provide a lasting solution to this problem.”

An experiment was conducted in one of the rooms subject to cracks with a new type of ‘elasticated’ wallpaper. This proved successful and four other rooms were selected for the same treatment. “It is hoped to continue a steady programme of redecoration in this manner until all the bedrooms with this type of wall have been done.”

The lack of dancing space had always been a shortcoming at the Hotel. “It was decided... to provide a dance floor in the existing dining room, as near the same level of the existing dining room floor as possible so that the area could also be used as dining space when necessary.”

Dinner Service at the Hotel

Dinner Service at the Hotel (c1960)

A Rhodesian teak wood parquet dance floor was laid in the early sixties, Mr Webster reporting: “The dance floor has been in use for several months and has proved a big attraction, particularly to the Livingstone residents. Dinner/dances are now possible, and live music is provided on a Saturday night until midnight, during which the à la carte menu is available.”

Conversely to the lack of space on the ground floor, the Summer Parlour, described as “a very large room situated above the main lounge, for which the manager was unable to find any other use because of the unattractive approach to it,” was to double as a games room “if and when required, but further consideration should be given to its possible conversion to suites, or some useful purpose.”

Despite having his hands full the Manager appeared confident “that the improvements so far introduced at the Hotel have had marked effect upon the clientele and as this becomes more widely known there would appear to be no reason why the present favourable trends should not continue to develop” (Rhodesia Railways, March 1963).

In early 1963 Mr Webster was transferred back to the Catering Department Head Office in Bulawayo, initially covering for Mr Tones as Catering Administrative Officer, who was himself covering for Mr Shinn, the Chief Catering Officer, and both of who were shortly due to retire. As a temporary measure Mr W Johnstone was appointed Acting Manager at the Hotel, with Mr Webster overseeing the role from Bulawayo. (Rhodesia Railways, February 1963).

Mr Johnstone, however, was the Senior Stocktaker at Head Office, and apparently did not desire the permanent post of Hotel Manager. At the same time the Management Board were reluctant to appoint a new manager whilst the uncertain operating status of the Hotel continued, with the transition to being managed independently from the Catering Department proving rather problematic (Rhodesia Railways, May 1963).

Now in a more senior role at Head Office, Mr Webster was appointed to the Hotel Management Board committee. At their 11th meeting, held in May 1963, Mr Webster successfully recommended the dropping of the off-season reduced tariff and the adoption of a universal rate - whilst at the same time it was agreed to introduce a higher rate during the Christmas, Easter and public holiday periods, when the Hotel’s accommodation "could be sold over and over" (Rhodesia Railways, May 1963).

Mr Harry Rugg was appointed Manager in May 1964. Mr Rugg remained with the Hotel for only six months, leaving at the end of October 1964 on transfer to Salisbury. Mr Webster was subsequently transferred back to the Hotel, the only person to have held the post twice (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, December 1964).

Mr Webster remained at the Hotel through to the early 1970s. ushering in a new era for the Hotel from February 1970 when the operation of the Hotel was leased by the Rhodesia Railways to Rhodesian Breweries (Rhobrew), marking the end of over fifty years of direct management by the Railway Company. Mr Webster initially remained as Manager.

Mr Christopher Jarrett joined the Hotel’s Accountants department in 1970 and was the Assistant Manager under Mr Webster when the modernisation works were undertaken. “A guest,” he recalls Mr Webster would often say, “will forgive you anything as long as they have a comfortable bed and good food.”

Beware Baboons

Living with the local wildlife has always been part of the charm, and challenge, of the Falls. The behaviour of baboons and vervet monkeys in particular presenting a never ending challenge to a succession of managers at the Hotel.

“Manager Peter Webster is a charming young Boniface with a wholesome respect for the old ways of gracious living. In fact, Mr Webster is so concerned about the comfort of his guests that he has even placed signs in the garden and on the terraces which read: ‘Warning - Do not feed or approach too close to baboons in this area.’ Troops of these simians that inhabit the trees, roofs and - on occasion - even the rooms of the Victoria Falls Hotel can become not only contemptuous but downright obstreperous at any demonstration of undue familiarity. They have been known to snatch cakes out of the hands of ladies at tea time...” (Cosmopolitan, 1962)

The Hotel Grounds

The Hotel Grounds c1970

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A History of the Victoria Falls Hotel

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