The following text is an extended version of a short section originally published in 'Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2017. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.
The first group of railway tourists known to visit the Victoria Falls travelled on a specially booked private train from Cape Town in June 1904, the first through train to the Zambezi. The trip was organised by Mr Henry Mathew Arderne, a successful solicitor based in the Cape, who hired the Cape Railway’s Train de Luxe, complete with refrigerator truck and dining car. Mr Arderne and friends had previously travelled to the opening of the railway to Bulawayo in 1897, and hoped one day to mark the eventual arrival of the railway in Cairo in similar fashion.
The party departed Cape Town on 22nd June 1904 with six white-clad stewards attending to the party of discerning passengers.
“Platform No. 12 in the Cape Town Railway Station presented a busy scene to-day from noon till half-an hour later. The Rhodesia Railway special Train de Luxe - the one used by Mr. Chamberlain during his South African tour - was drawn up ready to receive its complement of passengers for the Victoria Falls. The train was composed of two engines, a Library Car, three Sleeping Cars, a Dining Saloon Car, a Kitchen Car, a Refrigerator and a Luggage Car. The centre car bore the legend: ‘First Through Train, Cape Town to Victoria Falls.’
“Nearly a hundred and fifty people had assembled to see the thirty odd passengers off on their long journey, and the ubiquitous snap-shotter was taking pictorial notes on account of one of the Cape Town papers. A few minutes before 12.30 the order ‘Stand Clear!’ was given, and amidst hearty cheers and the explosion of fog signals the train glided out of the station.” (Arderne, 1904)
The travellers arrived at the Falls on 28th June 1904.
“At three o’clock the train drew up at the present terminus of the line, about half a mile (as the crow flies) from the waterfall, and in a few minutes the train was deserted, most of the party following the line of rails in the direction of the new bridge, thus getting their first impressions of the Falls from Danger Point. A smaller company, following a path to the left, came suddenly upon that most magnificent of all views - that seen from the Devil’s Cataract.”
They stayed six nights, and such was the luxury of the train that they ate and slept aboard, despite the Victoria Falls Hotel being open for business (although unable to accommodate the whole group of over 30 visitors). After a quick visit to the Falls the members of the party returned to the luxury of their train, which they had grandly nicknamed the ‘Victoria Falls Railway Carriage Hotel.’
“After the return from the Falls to our comfortable Victoria Hotel, the Train de Luxe of the Rhodesian Railway Co., the afternoon tea was especially appreciated. Then there was a busy hour, many of us writing letters, sending telegrams announcing our arrival, and postcards to friends, which had been specially brought to be posted here, that they might bear the stamp of the Victoria Falls post office. One young lady was so anxious to have such a card that she addressed one to herself to her Cape Town home.”
Quinine was served daily at breakfast for the days prior, during and after their visit, one member recording “that a liberal supply of quinine had been stocked, and each member would be served with a portion at every breakfast from the morning of the 27th until our return to Bulawayo.”
The chef devised a special customised menu during their stay at the Falls with themed names, including a Victoria Falls pudding with ‘spray effect.’
“At dinner this evening and during our stay at the Falls, our chef excelled himself in providing toothsome delicacies, amongst which were ‘Arderne Poudin,’ ‘Zambesi Poudin,’ ‘Victoria Falls Poudin.’ This last was quite an artistic triumph, the Falls being represented by light foaming materials in pyramidal form, just ready to fall over with the least encouragement, and underneath them was the genuine ‘Ice Cream,’ which, in these tropical parts, was highly appreciated.”
After dinner on their first night the party returned to the Falls by moonlight.
“Through the thoughtfulness of the excellent organiser of this trip, the time arranged for our visit was that of a full-moon on the day of our arrival, so after dinner we went for a second excursion to the Falls to see them in the clear light of the moon. The evening was a delightful one - cool, clear and calm, and under such favourable circumstances we reached the part known as the Devil’s Cataract, closely adjoining the entrance to the Rain Forest, and gazed, and gazed again with rapturous delight at the immense volume of sparkling water which was rushing, foaming, tearing down the Falls with alarming rapidity into the deep chasm, causing clouds of river spray and mist to rise to great heights, which can be seen at a distance of five miles [8 km] and as we gazed into the unfathomable depths beneath, a deep sense of awe and solemnity filled our minds at the stupendous and marvellous sight, the like of which none of us had ever seen.”
One of the women in the group, who presumably had difficulty walking, had prepared a hammock to be carried through the Rainforest.
“A hammock had been brought from Bulawayo for one of the ladies, who for a time was carried by four stalwart, lightly-clad Zambesian boys, but before half of the trip to the Forest had been completed the hammock netting gave way, nearly precipitating the fair occupant to the ground. The hammock was now useless; the boys were paid off, and the lady with her customary energy resolved to walk rather than miss an opportunity not likely to occur again.”
Members of the group were further surprised to bump into other ‘tourists’ at the Falls. On their second day the party met Sir William Milton, Administrator of Rhodesia, who with Lady Milton was also touring the Falls.
“About half-way through the Forest we met another Cape Town lady. Lady Michell, the wife of Sir Lewis Michell, a member of the Government of Cape Colony. Lady Michell who was most suitably attired in yellow oilskins, looked a picture of health and energy, and with her daughter was evidently thoroughly enjoying the grand surroundings.”
The party then passed on to Danger Point and then the site of the Bridge, crossed by wires.
“After passing through the Forest, we come to the chasm over which a suspension bridge is being erected to carry a double line of rails. This bridge will be one of the highest in the world - so high that if St. Paul’s Cathedral were floating on the river below it would not reach to the bridge. Already engineers, workmen and rail material are being conveyed over the temporary wire bridge which has been constructed.”
The party fully explored the vicinity of the Falls, collecting varied geological and botanical samples - activities which soon after would become prohibited in order to preserve the environment of the Falls.
“The afternoon of Wednesday, 29th June, was spent in separate parties exploring the inexhaustible scenery surrounding the Falls. Some gathered interesting specimens of agates and pebbles, together with portions of glistening stalactites from the edge of the gorge facing the point of the first zig-zag; others, bent on horticulture, sauntered through the forests, collecting curious specimens of the plant world; while the indefatigable photographers were snap-shotting every possible peep of river, cataract and gorge.”
On the train was a piano - the first one ever to be heard at the Falls.
“The day’s expeditions at an end, the company after dinner assembled in the drawing room and adjoining compartments; and the gentlemen smoked their cigars to the strains of ‘Polly Wolly Doodle,’ ‘Do you ken John Peel’ and ‘Tell me, have you seen my Flora pass this way?’ The latter struck me as being a rather ridiculous question to ask in these far distant parts, and it is questionable whether ‘John Peel’ has ever been heralded before amidst such romantic surroundings, to the accompaniment of a modern piano, the first piano played within sound of the Victoria Falls. Our piano had been hired for the ten days’ absence from Bulawayo and was much enjoyed. Before retiring for the night, the whole gathering reverently joined in singing ‘Sun of my soul,’ the well-known evening hymn.”
On their third day at the Falls the party travelled upstream to the ‘Big Tree,’ before being ferried over the river, probably at the Palm Tree crossing point, and exploring the north bank and Old Drift settlement, again called Livingstone after the general name for the scattered settlements on the north bank.
“On Thursday morning, June 30th, the party started on our first trip up the River to visit one of the islands and the trading station of Livingstone on the north bank in Barotzeland - about five or six miles [8-9.6 km] above the Falls. This necessitated first a land journey of three miles [4.8 km] (the local people called it a mile and a half) to the boats. Carts and coaches had been arranged for those who felt unequal to the walk, and these were soon under weigh. The vehicles were drawn by mules and oxen, and the ride down to the River was through typically African and tropical scenery. Here we saw the great Baobab tree, 50 to 75 feet [15.2 - 22.8 m] in circumference and very peculiar in appearance. To those who had no previous experience of such means of locomotion, it was a strange novelty. The long whips cracked, the drivers yelled at the animals as they laboured strenuously through the thick red sand, which rose in heavy clouds around us; and after sundry bumpings over tree stumps and through stony watercourses, we arrive at the river bank. Here we were met by a Mr. Trainor and his detachment of ebony black boatmen, arrayed in bright tartan-like kilts and white Jerseys, paraded under the shadow of the tall palms, where the remainder of our party were cooling themselves after their hot walk through the bush.”
“Safely launched through the reeds, the five Canadian canoes and two ship’s boats gathered together, and under the direction of our pilot commenced the journey up stream, pushing out into the broad waters of the great Zambesi, which at this part is literally studded with picturesque islands (we counted thirty seven) covered with thick and luxuriant vegetation, fringed at the water’s edge with tall, feathery grasses, and crowned with tall palms which rear their stately heads above the general sky-line... Our pilot told us that ours was the first party to engage their fleet of boats.”
The group then held a picnic lunch on one of the islands.
“Returning again to the island, lunch was spread ‘neath the shade of the sheltering palms;’ and here, midst prospects wild and grotesque, and the brilliant sunshine streaming through the luxuriant vegetation, we lunched as sumptuously as at any Oxford Street cafe. A few minutes after sitting down, Mr. Cartwright came along with a full-sized puff adder, which he held suspended on a stick over our festive lunch table while he enlarged eloquently upon the dangers with which we were surrounded, beseeching one and all to be most careful wherever they went on the island, and specially to look where they stepped, which in many places was not an easy matter.”
Of the Old Drift settlement itself little is recorded.
“Loth to leave this spot, where doubtless the white man’s foot had seldom trod, we again embarked in the canoes to cross to the northern bank of the river, landing at the village of Livingstone in Barotseland. Here the party secured several specimens of native craftsmanship in the shape of dug-out bowls, weapons of war and native-made pottery. Some skins and horns were also secured.”
The Saturday was left to individuals to explore independently, and Sunday, their last full day at the Falls, saw the party gathering at the temporary railway station for a Sunday morning service - possibly the first to be held on the south bank - before visiting the newly-built Victoria Falls Hotel, and then passing on to visit Mr Beresford-Fox at his camp.
“Some have gone boating, some searching for precious stones, some collecting curios and visiting a Mission Station, one shooting game, others quietly resting, and some revisiting the beautiful Victoria Falls...
“With no church bells but the distant booming of the Falls to call us to prayers, we assembled at eleven o’clock on the stoep of the Station to worship God. Our service was a bright and impressive one, the address earnest, thoughtful and poetical, leaving in each heart a longing for higher and better things.
“Service ended, many of the party strolled on to the stoep of the newly-erected hotel to admire from this vantage ground the beautiful view of the Zambesi river, winding its tortuous way through its narrow channel, walled in on both sides by grand rugged, rocky cliffs. The situation of this hotel for scenic effect is perfect, and many a traveller, I feel sure, will leave with innumerable regrets a spot so fitted to satisfy his love of the beautiful.
“Three o’clock found a goodly number wending their way to the camp of the Chief Engineer (Mr. Beresford Fox) to avail themselves of his kind invitation to join him at that most sociable of meals, ‘Afternoon Tea.’
“The camp is situated on a high eminence overlooking the Falls, and early in the afternoon from this point you can see the most wonderful rainbows displaying themselves in the cloud of mist that overshadows the Falls. Unlike the ordinary Camp of Engineers, Mr. Beresford Fox has his built of Matabele huts, which gives it a far more picturesque appearance than the camp formed of prosaic houses built of bricks and mortar, and crowned with a roof of corrugated iron, the inartistic invention of civilized man, who in his love of the useful so often ignores the love of the beautiful. This fault has not been Mr. Fox’s, for very pleasing to the eye were the conical-shaped thatched roofs and rounded walls of the huts - for it took five of these to make his home.
“After a very pleasant visit, we wished our kind host good-bye, and went down to view for the last time those fascinating Falls, that seem to hold one spellbound by their extraordinary beauty, and sadly we gave them our farewell call.”
Preparations for the construction of the Bridge were by now well advanced, with the gorge spanned by cable and crossed by the ‘bosun’s chair.’
“Some members of our party were desirous of thus immortalising themselves, but the engineers said that it would interfere too much with their work, which admitted of no delay. We have since seen two natives cross at the same time, locked in the said chair.”
Sunset brought the group back to the railway station for evening prayer.
“Twilight brought with it the hour for evening prayer, and again the party assembled on the stoep of the station to offer their service of hymn and praise.” (Arderne, 1904)
The party departed for Bulawayo by train the following morning, 4th July, beginning their long journey south to the Cape. A descriptive and illustrated account of this inaugural tour was published in Cape Town as a souvenir (Arderne, 1904).
Arderne, (1904) The Arderne Party Chronicles. Cape Town. Free download.
Roberts P (2017) Footsteps Through Time - A history of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls. Zambezi Book Company. Available to buy online.
Roberts P (2018) Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905. Zambezi Book Company. Available to buy online.