Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls 1898-1905

Life and Death at the Old Drift

Victoria Falls 1898-1905

The following text is adapted from 'Life and Death at the Old Drift, Victoria Falls (1898-1905)', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2018. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.

A New Commissioner

In May 1901 Mr Francis (Frank) William Sykes, an Australian, arrived at the Falls, reporting for duty on the north bank as the new District Commissioner for the Falls region.

“In May, 1901, on one of those bright clear mornings which follow each other with such commendable regularity on the high veld of Rhodesia during the winter months, I saddled up in Bulawayo for the Falls. In those days it was a ride of close upon three hundred miles [483 km]... We duly arrived at the wonderful Falls after a sixteen days’ journey. Although for some years afterwards duty or pleasure took me twice or thrice a week into the spray-zone of the Falls, one can never forget the first impression conveyed to the mind by that mighty avalanche of water hurled from the upper river into the seething abyss... It is the sensation of a lifetime.” (Sykes, 1909)

Sykes, no doubt in anticipation of the arrival of his wife and young daughter, chose to establish his camp away from the river at Constitution Hill.

Conservation of the Falls

The District Commissioner on the north bank, Frank Sykes was also appointed the first Conservator of the Falls, responsible for the Falls Park established around the immediate area of the Falls on the north and south bank. The Chartered Company had been alerted to the need to take action to protect the natural environment of the Falls after it was rumoured in 1894 “that some enterprising individual [sadly un-named] was going to ‘peg out’ the land around the Falls and charge gate admittance” - an initiative they were keen to forestall.

“The Company wanted ‘immediate action’ to protect the Falls - and particularly its timber resources - from ‘disfigurement at the hands of transport riders, traders and others’ ...A park was designated around the waterfall itself, and a Conservator was appointed... Frank Sykes, who filled this post, was also Civil Commissioner for the Livingstone area.” (McGregor, 2003)

In June 1903 a brick house was being constructed for Mr Sykes at the growing Administrative camp on Constitution Hill. The house, as with his role as Conservator, was jointly funded by the administrations north and south of the river.

“Sykes felt the landscape [at the Falls] needed to be manipulated to ‘excite the wonder of the onlooker’ and to maintain its ‘primitive charm.’ He felt it necessary to ‘open up views of the river by judiciously cutting down trees,’ ‘to fill up gaps by plantations’ and to enlarge hippopotami tracks which were ‘the only means of approach to some of the best points of view.’ He also wanted to charge admission, a proposal that was dismissed by the Company as impractical and ‘undignified.’” (McGregor, 2003)

The regulations protecting the environment of the Falls not only restricted over-enthusiastic ‘sportsmen’ from shooting animals, but also limited access to the river and Falls for the local Leya people. Sykes was later assisted by a Curator, Mr C E F Allen, who was appointed in 1904.

Sykes’ Guide to the Falls

As the Conservator at the Falls, Sykes authored the first ‘official’ tourism guide, published soon after the railway had arrived, with the Falls Hotel less than a year old and the Bridge complete but awaiting its official opening.

A fold-out map shows the original railway layout, with a dead-end and turning points extending from the Railway Station, where trains turned before passing back through the Station and then looping round in front of the Hotel and passing down to the Bridge. Early pathways from the Hotel down to the Bridge, Falls and river are also shown. Sykes introduces his guide with the arrival of Dr Livingstone at the Falls in 1855, and goes on to record interesting local names and their meanings.

“The Native (Sekololo [Makalolo]) name for the Falls is Mosi-oa-tunya, meaning ‘the smoke which sounds.’ It is a most appropriate one, as, viewed from any of the surrounding hills, this rising columns of spray, more particularly on a dull day, bear an extraordinary resemblance to the smoke of a distant veldt fire... The native in their songs say ‘how should anyone lose his way with such a land-mark to guide him?’”

Several features of the Falls had yet to be given their common names, Danger Point being identified as Buttress Point, and the Boiling Pot as The Cauldron. The Devil’s Cataract is identified as the Leaping Water, so named by Thomas Baines in 1862. Cataract Island is named, whilst also identified as Boruka Island, “the native name, signifying ‘divider of the waters.’” Of the Rainforest, first named by Edward Mohr in 1870, Sykes notes the “natives themselves refer to it as ‘the place where the rain is born.’”

Cataract Island

Early visitors to Cataract Island

On Livingstone Island Sykes wrote:

“Situated on the edge of the chasm almost in the centre of the Falls is the Island named after David Livingstone. ‘Kempongo’ was the old native name, which means ‘Goat Island.’ He himself named it Garden Island. It is a curious coincidence that it should bear a similar name to that other island which occupies almost an identical position at Niagara.”

In those early days visitors to the north bank had to undertake a rather tricky scramble across the ‘Knife Edge’ if they wished to view the Falls from the buttress beyond:

“Proceeding along the path down a steep declivity, one reaches a dripping grove of palms and shade trees, at the end of which is an Arête known as the ‘Knife Edge,’ a peculiar depression with narrowed surface, and only to be negotiated at some risk, if the end of the promontory, which faces Buttress Point across the Cauldron, is to be the objective.”

In the corner of the Eastern Cataract, known as the Eastern Recess, was a rope assisted pathway down into the gorge:

“There is a ravine or gully at the Eastern end of the Falls, by which it is possible to descend to their base with the assistance of a rope here and there; but, on reaching the bottom, the spray is so dense that little can be seen, and a thorough wetting may be regarded as a certainty.”

Sykes offered his advice on viewing the Falls:

“For the guidance of visitors it may be remarked that, as the line of the Falls is almost East and West, in order to obtain the best effects from a light and shade point of view - and the beauty of the Falls so much depends upon the angle at which the rays of the sun illumine the rising spray - the Eastern end should be seen before mid-day and the Western end in the afternoon. Those who come armed with a camera should especially take note of this. From 8 to 10 o’clock in the forenoon the Falls present a magnificent spectacle when viewed from the cliff top on the Eastern extremity. As the spray lifts, the long array of falling water, extending as far as Livingstone Island, breaks into view. At full flood the scene from this spot is majestic, and leaves and impression of overwhelming power on the mind.” (Sykes, 1905)

The guide included several chapters written by knowledgeable experts with detailed information on aspects of the Falls, including geology, written by G W Lamplugh, notes on the flora, by C E F Allen (Sykes’ assistant and botanist), and an introduction to the birds of the region by W L Slater of the South African Museum.

The back pages carried several adverts for local businesses giving an interesting insight into the scope and scale of their commercial activities at the time, including ‘F J Clarke, General Merchant, Livingstone,’ with “branches at Kalomo and Sesheke. A very fine assortment of provisions of all kinds... Shooting and Prospecting Parties Completely Fitted Out at the Shortest Notice.”

The advert also referred to ‘Clarke’s Hotel and Bar,’ with “Finest brands of liquors, wines and cigars only stocked. Picnic parties fitted out and catered for on moderate terms. Steam Launch and Canoes (Canadian) always available. Horse hire and general transport work undertaken.”

And another for ‘Smith & James, Pioneer Butchers and Bakers,’ proudly declared:

“Have always on hand a well selected stock of Beef, Mutton and Pork. As we have now engaged a Baker who is the holder of Prize Medals and Diplomas of Highest Awards at London Exhibitions for bread and cakes, the public can now reply upon being supplied with bread and pastry of first class quality only. Wedding and birthday cakes a speciality. Orders entrusted to our care will receive prompt and careful attention.”

A final advert, for the ‘Victoria Falls Motor Launch, Boat and Cart Proprietors,’ operated by G. Walker and E. Goodwin, offered “experienced guides. Visitors conveyed to the many points of interest, including Cataract and Livingstone Islands. Picnic, fishing and shooting parties provided for. Visitors can arrange for the above with us at the Victoria Falls Hotel.” (Sykes, 1905)

The Livingstone Tree

Sykes records interesting details relating to the tree on Livingstone Island upon which Dr David Livingstone had carved his initials in 1855, and which were said to still be faintly visible:

“The Name Tree upon which he cut his initials still remains. Its identity was determined two years ago by the writer... An old white-haired native, by name Namakabwa, who spent most of his time down the gorge catching fish, on being questioned said he well remembered Livingstone, whose native name was ‘Monari,’ coming to the Falls, and described how he (Namakabwa) a day or two after Livingstone’s departure, made his way over to the island and found that a small plot had been cleared of bushes, also that he had made some cutting on a tree. When asked ‘which tree?’ he immediately went to the Name Tree, and put his finger on what had evidently been a cut. The authenticity of the above then is based on the evidence of ‘the oldest inhabitant,’ and may be accepted as genuine. The bark of the tree is so rough and the marks so nearly obliterated that one would have had some doubts on the subject, were the source of information less worthy of belief.

“It is to be recorded with regret that a certain class of tourists, to whom nothing is sacred, had commenced to strip and carry away pieces of the bark from this tree, and so came the necessity for a notice-board and tree-guard, in themselves a witness against the relic hunting vandal who lightly destroys what can never be replaced. Even Livingstone, the discoverer of the Falls, excuses himself for ‘this piece of vanity.’ Would that others were only as sensitive on this point as the great explorer, and delay carving their meaningless initials on the trunks of trees until they can boast such a world-wide fame as was his to excuse the act!” (Sykes, 1905)

The Livingstone Tree

The Livingstone Tree

Rules and Regulations

At the end of the guide Sykes lists the regulations which visitors were expected to follow for the protection of the Falls environments, detailing the prohibiting of:

“- Shooting of any and every description within a radius of five miles [8 km] of the Falls on either bank.
- Netting and dynamiting in the river.
- The cutting of initials on or other defacement of the boles of trees.
- Plucking of flowers and ferns, uprooting ferns, orchids or other plants.
- Setting fire to the grass in the park.
- Trespassing of animals.
- Washing of clothes in the river above the Falls.
- Picnic parties are requested to remove all traces of their presence, such as tins, bottles, paper, etc, before leaving.

“The importance of the above will be obvious to all visitors who are lovers of nature, and their loyal observance is confidently relied upon.” (Sykes, 1905)

Fines and punishments are not recorded, although Mackintosh commented that “punishment for carving one’s name in the neighbourhood of the Falls is to be penal servitude for life in the Wankie’s Mine!” (Mackintosh, 1922).

It was estimated that by 1905 some 5,000 visitors had now travelled to view the great waterfall:

“Five thousand people have now seen the Falls, and though that number is a long way off the 500,000 who go to Niagara every year, the ball of information about them has now been well set a rolling by the Chartered Company.” (South Africa Handbook, 1905)


South Africa Handbook, No.34 (1905) A Trip to the Victoria Falls and Rhodesia. Winchester House, London.

Sykes, F. W. (1905) Official Guide to the Victoria Falls. Bulawayo.

Sykes, F. W. (1909) The Riddle of the Zambezi. The Wide World Magazine. May 1909, p.116-126.

McGregor, J. (2009) Crossing the Zambezi : The Politics of Landscape on an African Frontier.

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