Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Sun, Steel & Spray

A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The following extended feature is adapted from 'Sun, Steel & Spray - A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge', researched and written by Peter Roberts and first published in 2011. The book is available to order online through Amazon and specialist book suppliers.

The Tall Tale of Trooper Ramsay

In 1952 the following 'Short Story,' written by Murray Stuart, was published in the Tasmanian 'Voice,' a weekly news publication - and presumably syndicated widely at the time.

“In 1904, during the construction of the great Victoria Falls Bridge, which spans the Zambesi River seven miles below Livingstone, in Rhodesia, I witnessed one of the most marvellous escapes from death I have ever heard of. I was then a member of the British South Africa Police, and was stationed at the Falls as one of the construction guards at what was then the railhead of the Cape to Cairo Railway. The wet season was at its height, and the Falls were a roaring, rushing mass of water, the spray hanging in a thick mist many feet above the river level.

Work on the bridge had been suspended for the day, and several of the men of the construction party, had gathered at the brink of what is known- as the 'Boiling Pot' - a large, deep hole in the rocks at the foot of the main Fall, hollowed out by the action of the falling water through countless ages. Into this whirlpool, during the flood season, all manner of curious objects find their way - fallen trees, carcases of hippopotami and buck, and even, at times, crocodiles that have been unable to swim against the rapids. Any object which enters this pool: or 'Pot' is swept, round and round, and slowly ground to pieces against the jagged rocks at its sides, and never within the memory of the oldest native of the district had any living thing entered the pool and emerged again alive, until -

But let me recount what happened to Trooper Ramsay, of the Northern Rhodesia Police, on the evening of which I write - November 10th, 1904. As the small party of men - engineers, riveteers, platelayers and so-on - were idly watching the seething waters, a cry from the bridge far above attracted their attention, and, looking upward, they saw a figure gesticulating wildly and pointing toward the rapids.

Everybody gazed eagerly at the brink of the fall in the anticipation of seeing some unusual object descend into the pool at their feet, but not one of the assembled watchers was prepared for what actually occurred. Several men were seen climbing swiftly down the steep path which led from the bridge level to the pool. The two foremost, it was noticed, carried ropes, to one of which was attached a lifebuoy and to the other a grappling iron.

So much for what the men at the pool saw at the moment. Let me now change the scene to the top of the bank, on the level of the river. A section of the engineering staff, with sundry other officials, had gathered at the extreme end of the (partially completed bridge to watch the mighty flood of water as it swept with irresistible force over the face of the rocky wall, to crash into the depths and dash into blinding spray as it reached the deep pool far beneath.

Looking out toward Livingstone Island, seven miles up-river, Mr. Blanchard, one of Messrs. Pauling's engineers, noticed what at first glance he took to be the carcase of a large crocodile travelling in zig-zag manner down the rapids towards the main Fall. On raising his binoculars to his eyes, however, he was horrified to see that the fast-approaching object was in reality a large native canoe in the stern; of which, paddling frantically yet unavailingly, sat a white man.

Mr. Blanchard, with that promptness which is a distinguishing trait in men who have lived long in wild parts of the globe, called his companions to him, and, shouting above the roar of the water, quickly issued instructions to obtain ropes, grappling irons and a lifebuoy from the adjacent general storehouse, and descend with them with all speed to the pool, into which no power on earth could now prevent the canoe being carried.

As Mr. Blanchard afterwards explained, he realised that it was just possible that the canoe might be shot clear of the descending water by reason of its speed, and so land its occupant in the pool within reach of the rescue party.

Meanwhile, as these preparations for rescue were being expeditiously carried out, the remaining watchers, of whom I was one, saw with horror the fruitless efforts of the canoeist to guide his racing craft out of the full force of the rapids. Once the prow of the canoe struck an outjutting point of rock, but before the man could grasp its slippery surface the light craft spun completely round and continued on its wild course to destruction.

As the canoe drew nearer, I was appalled to see, through the spray, that the poor fellow who was in such deadly peril was garbed in the bush-green shirt and khaki shorts of the N.R.P., and I at once realised that he must be one of the constables stationed at Livingstone. As I knew most of the men there intimately, but could not distinguish the canoeist's features, my feelings may be better imagined than described.

Almost before I had got over the shock of my discovery, the canoe reached the rim of the Fall, and, like a stone from a sling, shot out into space. Half stunned with horror, I stumbled down the slippery bank to the edge of the pool just in time to witness the final act of what might have been one more tragedy in the already long list in the records of the N.R.P. As I regained my feet after that hurried slide, I saw my comrade, Trooper H., of the B.S.A.P., far out in the "Boiling Pot." He had a rope tied under his armpits, the shore end of which was securely held by a dozen men, and was bearing up in his arms the apparently unconscious form of the late occupant of the canoe.

It was obvious from the expressions on the faces of the men who held the line what a strain was being put upon their strength. Round and round whirled the two men, rescuer and rescued, but inch by inch, foot by foot, they were being drawn nearer to safety. Should the rope snap, under the strain upon it, then both men would inevitably be lost: or should H— be dashed against the rocks and either lose consciousness or his grip of the figure he held in his arms, the man's ultimate rescue was too remote a possibility to be worth considering.

It was a tense two minutes - it seemed more like two hours to the anxious onlookers and the men straining on the rope — but at length, with a final effort, the two dripping forms were drawn to the bank, safe above the reach of the seething water, which seemed to leap and boil more furiously at being robbed of its victim - the first it had ever lost.

The rescued man, as already mentioned, proved to be Trooper Walter Ramsay, of the Northern Rhodesian Police. Whilst on a visit to a comrade at Livingstone, not knowing the risk he" ran, he had gone out on the river in a native canoe which he found moored to the bank near the station. The rest is best told in Trooper Ramsay's own words. When he recovered consciousness at the police camp, and was asked how he came to be adrift on the Zambesi in a canoe during the flood season, he stated:-

"I saw the canoe tied up to the bank, and as my comrade was at the moment on duty, I thought I would go for a turn on the river. As soon as I felt the craft gaining speed, I tried to guide it toward the shore again, but before I knew what had happened I had passed clear of the Island, and realised that my only chance was to sit tight and trust to steering into a sandbank or a rock." (Trooper Ramsay did not know that there are no sandbanks and very few rocks above water on the Zambesi in the wet season.)

"When I saw that I was bound to go over the Falls, I just hung on, but if I had known about the 'Boiling Pot' I think I should have chanced jumping over board."

Ramsay's' marvellous escape, apart from the supreme courage of Trooper H— (who will never allow his name to be mentioned in connection with the affair; although it was witnessed by dozens and recounted from end to end of Africa at the time) was probably due to the fact that he was a very heavy man. The impetus with which he shot over the edge of the Falls caused him to land clear of the downpouring mass of water, thus enabling Trooper H to catch him before, he was sucked under by the whirlpool.” (Tasmanian Voice, 12 July 1952)

It is unknown when or where this story was first published, although other sources date the incident to 1904 and detail that Trooper Walter Ramsay apparently suffered a broken collar-bone. One of the engineers originally involved with the construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge during 1904-5, J A Powell, writing in 1930, had perhaps heard this same story and made a point of recording:

“One hears weird stories of persons being washed over the Falls, and rescued, alive, from the waters below. The thing is impossible. As the waters emerge from the chasm, with the Devil’s Cataract and the Main Falls on the left, and the Eastern Cataract on the right, they strike the cliffs on either side of the outlet, creating whirlpools 30 to 50 feet [9.15-15.25 m] across, some sucking down, others belching up, giving the appearance of a huge cauldron of boiling water. Hence the name, The Boiling Pot. Nothing but crocodiles and fishes could live in it. Below the bridge as the waters take the straight run to the first bend below the hotel, whirlpools are less but the river has the appearance of an angry sea and some strange action of the currents, objects in the water are sometimes thrown out onto a rocky ledge on the south side. During the construction of the bridge, a horse died, and it was decided to throw it into the gorge and to see what would happen. When the carcass struck water it was instantly sucked under and not seen again.” (Powell, 1930)

As Powell played such a prominent role in the construction of the Bridge it seams impossible that he would not have known about this incident had it happened. No contemporary sources report the accident, and no other local references to a ‘Trooper Ramsay’ have been found by the author. It is therefore highly likely that this tale originated as a fictional story of adventure and drama, probably published as a short-story in a journal or magazine such as Readers Digest during the intervening years... or perhaps even first appeared as one of Trayner’s tall tales published in the ‘Livingstone Liar.’

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A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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