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

Sun, Steel & Spray

A history of the Victoria Falls Bridge

The ‘Flying Fox’

One name makes a very brief, but incident packed, appearance in the history of the construction of the Victoria Falls Bridge. It is that of Mr Charles Beresford Fox, an Englishman and assistant engineer on the project, who travelled out to Africa in late 1903 full of enthusiasm and adventure, and returned early in 1904 with a bruised ego and broken bones. In that brief time, however, he can claim to be the first man to cross the gorge; the first man to descend into the gorge from the southern bank – and, subsequently, the first man to be rescued from the gorge; all of this making him an early pioneer of adventure activities at the Falls! This is his story.

The main task that Charles Beresford Fox was involved with on his arrival at the Victoria Falls was to establish a temporary cable system across the gorge in order to transport men and light materials in preparation for the building of the bridge. A heavier system would in time follow, allowing for the transport of the bridge and rail materials. But for now, a quick method of traversing the gorge was needed in order to avoid a lengthy diversion upstream and around the Falls.

The first connection across the gorge was made in October 1903 by firing a rocket across the gorge carrying with it a long string line. Before this, attempts had been made to fly the string across the gap by means of a kite, but this ingenious effort was foiled by the eddies and currents of air from the Falls which took the kite in every direction but the right one.

On the third attempt the rocket dropped in position and by means of the line a rope was pulled across, and then a steel cable. This was passed over a pulley firmly bedded in the rock on the very edge of the cliff. The tactics were then reversed, and when the free end of the pulley rope was dragged back to the south bank, it was pulled tight and taken twice round the barrel of a windlass and securely attached.

Victoria Falls Bridge Construction - Bosun's Chair   Victoria Falls Bridge Construction - The Blondin

Passengers were taken over one at a time on a ‘bosun’s chair’ suspended from small pulleys running on the cable which was worked by a hand winch. More for reassurance than safety a canvas bag was attached into which the passenger climbed and which was strapped round the legs and across the chest. Mr Charles Beresford Fox was responsible for setting up the cable system and made the first passage across the chasm, and can so claim to be the first person to cross the gorge by cable, and so becoming the original ‘flying fox’! In a letter to his father Sir Francis Fox in 1903 he wrote:

"As they tied me into the bosun’s chair I must admit to feeling a bit strange in relying absolutely on my own calculations for my safety. The chair is a piece of wood suspended by four ropes, with a canvas back and a sack and board as a foot-rest. Of course one is so tied in that were you to lose consciousness you could not fall out; this precaution, for some people is advisable."

The position of this was a few yards downstream from the bridge site, and this simple cable system successfully transported small loads, tools and even people throughout the building of the bridge.

Charles Beresford Fox was soon to have another tale to add to his African adventures and claim to his name, and we must look to several contemporary accounts to piece together the full story. A keen climber and mountaineer, he was often known to go off on his own to explore the gorge. His father, Sir Francis Fox recalled in his autobiography an event to which there are several variations:

"He had found it necessary to climb down to a point on the water’s edge which hitherto had never been reached, in order to take certain measurements and photographs. He had descended without serious difficulty, but owing to the overhanging of the cliff he found it impossible to get back without a rope; therefore one was accordingly thrown down to him, and... he climbed upward hand over hand to within 6 ft. of the top. But the rope had been wetted by the spray and the men holding it had allowed it to slip imperceptibly little by little through their hands…, and my son, after long climbing, grasped this slippery rope in all ignorance. Immediately his grip was gone: he fell head over heels down the face of the precipice a distance of over a hundred feet, and gave himself up for lost, as the sun had set and it was dark. But providentially he was caught in the boughs of a small fig tree, the only tree on the face of the cliff. The accident occurred January 11, 1904."

Victoria Falls Bridge Construction   Victoria Falls Bridge Construction

Another account of the incident, recalled by one of the rescue team, John Sharp, and published in the Northern Rhodesia Journal (1954) gives the date as 8th October 1903. The accident happened in the afternoon, and he was noted as missing by the evening, but it was not until much later, when word came from the north bank, where a local had seen the accident, that a rescue party was organised.

In this version of the story the tree that broke Beresford Fox’s fall, unfortunately for him, turns into a large cactus. Under darkness, a cable rope system was rigged up, and a young volunteer, Jack Whitten, was lowered down in an improvised ‘bosun’s chair’ arrangement to the injured and no doubt uncomfortable climber. At the first attempt, the cable was too short, and Whitten had to be brought back up. An extra length of cable was spliced together, and with a good drink of whiskey inside him Whitten agreed to try a second time. At about 3.30 in the morning, after a rescue operation of over 6 hours, Mr Beresford Fox was pulled out of the gorge "very much broken but still alive".

Old timer Percy Clark, the first resident of Victoria Falls, tells this tale in his autobiography, although without giving a date, and of his role in the story. He had descended into the gorge with Beresford Fox, but they had become separated when blasting work from above, for the foundations of the bridge, sent boulders crashing down around them. Clark climbed back up the gorge just as night fell, and spent an uncomfortable night on a ledge near the top before eventually finding his way out the following morning. He adds that Beresford Fox had got stuck coming back up a different way, and when workers had lowered a rope to him, instead of tying himself to it he attempted to climb it hand over hand. Towards the top the rope was wet from the spray of the falls, and Fox slipped and fell before eventually being rescued. Clark adds that in the meantime he had been given up for dead and that a messenger had been dispatched to Bulawayo with the news!

Victoria Falls Bridge Construction   Victoria Falls Bridge Construction

The bridge designer, George Hobson, also refers to the incident, stating it occurred in April 1904, during the construction of the foundations for the bridge. This is probably the correct date, and would fit with Clark’s story of the rockfall, and it is also at time of year when the spray from the Falls would have quickly saturated the rope. Beresford Fox sustained severe fractures, and had to be invalided back to England (he may have been one of he first passengers to travel from Victoria Falls on the newly arrived train). He later described a lighter side to his six hour ordeal:

"I had often wished to experience a long swing - suggested by the movement of candelabra suspended from the roof of a cathedral: and I attained my desire - a pendulum 110ft (33m) long with an oscillation of 40ft (12m) from side to side, with a period of about 10 seconds; moreover I enjoyed it."

One can only imagine Mr Beresford Fox would enjoy the bungee jump, swing and ‘flying fox’ zip-line which today operate off the bridge, especially as he appears to have had pioneering attempts all three, although his attempt at a bungee jump without first tying himself to the rope must be regarded as somewhat miss-guided.

His replacement on the bridge engineering works was H F Varian, who would later work with Pauling’s construction team on the line north. Varian reported for duty to Townsend in Bulawayo in August 1904, and later wrote an interesting account of his time in Africa, titled ‘Some African Milestones’, published in 1953.

Some sixteen years later, Sir Francis Fox tracked down Jack Whitten to thank him personally for saving his son's life. Mr Whitten replied:

"As to what I did at the Falls for your son, it is, or was, only what any Englishman would have done under the circumstances"

Sir Frances rewarded him for his bravery with an inscribed gold pocket watch, which he treasured until his death in 1947.

- Read more on the building of the Victoria Falls Bridge in our feature Focus on the Blondin - an extended text and photographic piece looking at the mechanical transporter used in the construction of the Bridge.

- Go back to the Bridge feature section index.

A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

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