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.

First Zambezi Regatta

The first Zambezi Regatta was held on 13th June 1905 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary year of Livingstone’s first arrival at the Falls and the connecting of the Victoria Falls Bridge (achieved in April 1905). The regatta was the highlight to three days of sporting events and celebrations aimed at promoting the accessibility of the Falls to the wider world.

The regatta was held on a mile and a half (2.4 km) straight stretch of water between Luanda Island (also known as Long Island) and the north bank. A camp site and temporary grandstand was set up at the finish line. Two of the Bridge engineers, Varian and Everard were involved in surveying the river above the Falls in preparation for the event. Varian also competed in one of the races, and gives a detailed account of events:

“During the construction of the first section of the line beyond the Falls, preparations were made for a celebration of the completion of the bridge. The programme consisted of a one-day regatta, a day’s racing, and a day of athletic sports, for all of which courses had to be arranged. The celebration was a great success, especially the regatta. The course for this was a mile and-a-half [2.4 km] in length, on a straight reach of the river between Luanda Island and the left bank. While the bridge works were in progress, Mr Everard, assistant-engineer on the Rhodesia Railways, and I were detailed to begin a preliminary survey for a power scheme of the Falls, the initial work of which took us along the left bank five miles [8 km] upstream to Secuti’s Drift... With the experience thus gained, we were able to set out the regatta course, as well as a continuous path along the river’s edge for the use of trainers of the various crews.

“A mile-and-a-half of railway [known as the Regatta Spur] was built from the Maramba depot to the river, to take the boats to the water, and carry spectators to the different sports-courses, which adjoined the finishing post of the regatta course. Part of the race-course was used for the sports meeting. A camp site was also prepared for the visiting crews.” (Varian, 1953)

The Restaurant on the Banks of the Zambezi

The Restaurant on the Banks of the Zambezi

Major Coryndon imported a punt from England especially for the event. Umpire for the regatta was Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh Marshall Hole.

“There were many reminders of boating events and leisure back home. The Administrator at Livingstone [Coryndon] had punt imported from England, which had been launched on the Thames and which he used for the first time at the regatta.” (Arrington-Sirois, 2017)

Sir Charles Metcalfe arranged the importation of four boats from Oxford especially for the event. The boats used were heavy clinker four-oars, coxed with fixed seating for the four man crew and thole pins holding the oars.

The Zambezi Challenge Cup

The main race was the Zambezi Challenge Cup ‘Fours’, with four-men crews from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London invited to compete. Teams from Johannesburg and Durban (as well as Bulawayo, Salisbury and Beira) had also been invited to participate but did not send crews.

 The East London crew

The East London crew

The Reverend Alan Williams, Chaplin to South Africa and Vice President of the Alfred Rowing Club, travelled with the Cape Town crew, combined from the Alfred and Civil Service Rowing Clubs, and recorded their arrival at the Falls.

“We reached Victoria Falls at dawn on Whit-Monday, and from our carriage, which had been shunted during the night, and which was our ‘home’ for the time being, I saw a pink-tinged cloud rising above the treetops and heard the thunder of the Falls as the sun rose through the trees behind us. That day we all went over the unfinished bridge to the north side, on open trucks, a very foolish arrangement, for a bad jolt might have shot some of us through the open girders to the bottle-green torrent 400 feet below.

“A grandstand had been erected at a point a mile or so above the Falls on the north side, where was gathered a motley strange crowd of whites and blacks - from the Commissioner, Sir William Milton, and his party, to Lewanika, Paramount Chief of Barotseland, and his followers. He was a fine tall figure in grey flannel suit and hat - with binoculars hung over his shoulder, and a hunting crop in his hand.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1952)

After a fine race East London, crewed by men from Leander Rowing Club and stroked by Mr Owen G Griffiths, came in winners with Cape Town a close second. Sir Charles Metcalfe presented the winning crew with the Challenge Cup and individual gold medals. Mr Griffiths, also carried off the win in the individual Diamond Challenge sculls.

The Finish line

The finish of the Zambesi Four Oared Championship

The Rhodesia Challenge Cup

The Rhodesia Challenge Cup was presented by Mr Lawley for competition between the Rhodesian crews. Northern Rhodesia fielded three teams of fours, from Livingstone, Kalomo (manned by Company Civil Servants) and Kafue (manned by a crew selected from Pauling’s construction engineers - none of who had yet seen the Kafue River). The race was won by Kafue, with Livingstone second. During the race the boat of the Kalomo crew began to take on water and slowly sink. The crew and boat were rescued, and to the sombre tune of the ‘Dead March’ the boat was carried away.

Varian found himself part of the Kafue crew and describes the scene:

“The South African crews were naturally in a class of their own, so there were two major races, one for them, and one for the Rhodesians. Marsland and I, with Cumberpatch and Micklem as stroke in the Kafue boat, were all more or less lightweights, and won the Rhodesian race by a length. The Kalomo boat carried sixty-four stone with their cox, and included such giants as O’Sullivan of the Police, Skipper Swanston, and others of the same stamp. Of course, they hadn’t a chance. After paddling up a mile-and-a-half on a hot afternoon, there was a delay at 2 o’clock owing to some fault in the steam-launch that carried the umpire, Mr Marshall Hole. By this time their boat, the Bleeding Heart, which had shown very little freeboard throughout, appeared to be definitely sinking. They managed to get home before it foundered, however, and carried the much-tried craft up to the boathouse, to the strains of the Dead March.” (Varian, 1953)

The Broken Heart

The Broken Heart crew set off for the start line

Kalomo based Company administrator Knowles Jordan records taking part in the scratch pairs.

“By a stroke of luck I became cox in a race for Scratch Pairs over half-mile course and we won easily. The three of us all came from different parts of South Africa and we each received a valuable silver cup.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1951)

Also included in the regatta schedule were two ‘native races,’ with four and six man teams from Lealui, Sesheke and Livingstone competing in dug-out canoes.

“The race for Royal crews of native states was very exciting. The paddlers stood in native dugouts, some six a side and urged by the cries of natives on the banks urged their craft forward at a great pace. The crew of the Chief Litia of Sesheke was the winner. It was said that Lewanika told his crew that if it did not win he would put the lot on an island of the Zambesi on their return, and leave them there for the benefit of the crocodiles.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1952)

In the event the crew of Chief Letia (Paramount Chief Lewanika’s son) were victorious - it was not recorded what happened to Lewanika’s loosing crew! In photographs Lewanika is seen proudly dressed in the expensive flannel suit, top hat and overcoat purchased during his visit to England. The local Leya people under Chief Mukuni and Chief Sekuti, who had traditionally controlled the river crossings, were notable for their absence from the event, having been eclipsed by the relationship formed between their Lozi overseers and the Chartered Company.

Winners of the Dugout Race

The 'Dugout' teams on the river

The View from the Grandstand

The Railway Company ran reduced fares on trains to attract travellers and the event was attended by an estimated seven hundred visitors, flooding the Falls, and the Hotel, with an unprecedented number of tourists. Varian, recorded:

“In those days the hotel at the Falls was a small galvanized affair, quite incapable of dealing with the situation, so the hundreds of visitors from all parts of South Africa were housed in trains on the nearby sidings. A disused engine-shed, brought up from Mafeking, was suitably decorated and transformed into a dining-room. It served as such for many years, until the present palatial building was erected.” (Varian, 1953)

Visitors drank dry the stocks of beer and whisky and there were apparently ugly scenes in the ‘outside bar’ of the Falls Hotel when the last bottles were emptied. Percy Clark was less than impressed with the rush on local supplies:

“Crews came from all parts of Africa to compete, and there were close on a thousand visitors altogether. The capacity of the hotel was good only for about a hundred of these, so the rest had to camp out. By the second day the hotel was cleared of beer and whisky, and food had almost run out. I was invited by a friend to dine there. The feast was worthy of the rude fellow’s grace: ‘Gawd! What a meal!’ I wished I had invited my friend to my own place. The service was terrible, with a wait of twenty minutes between each of the courses. These were: soup - with the taste and appearance of weak Bovril; one bony cutlet and half a potato; biscuits and cheese with no butter. There wasn’t a scrap of butter in the hotel, no joints, no poultry. For this magnificent (!) spread we were charged seven-and-six apiece. I’d sooner have bought a marriage licence. Along the regatta course were the usual ‘joints’ - poker tables, ‘Under and Over, ‘Crown and Anchor,’ canteens, and the side-shows. The concessionaires, so to call them, must have raked in pots of money...

“I was besieged in my huts by Bulawayo friends who could not get accommodation in the hotel. They dossed down in rows and tiers in my huts, and all about them, and in the kitchen. Several had brought their own nosebags, and foodstuffs in bottle were plentiful, but my larder was sadly depleted. I had to feed them ultimately on bully beef and hard tack. But, as the saying is: ‘A good time was enjoyed by all!’” (Clark, 1936)

Grandstand gathering

Grandstand gathering

The band of the Barotse Native Police were on hand to entertain guests.

“The Barotse Native Police Bugle Band discoursed music. It sounded strange to hear them play ‘Come listen to this Band,’ a very popular tune in England at that time.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1952)

The regatta finished with an evening of festivities, with 80 guests attending a special dinner. Coryndon’s speech was interrupted by the constant grunting of a bull hippo in the river nearby, loudly expressing its disapproval of their presence.

“After dinner, visitors and Rhodesians gathered round a large camp fire exchanging experiences and many friendships were formed. The broad river gleaming in the moonlight, the rustling palms, the distant roar of the Falls, and the occasional splash of a hippo or big fish combined to make up an African picture to be remembered for many a year.” (Northern Rhodesia Journal, July 1951)

During the course of the festivities it was decided to hold a cricket match, and on 23rd July a team comprised from Pauling’s railway construction crew challenged local residents of the Old Drift to a game held ‘on a very bumpy Maramba yard’ (Shepherd, 2008).

The event received much promotion and coverage back in Britain, with the London Evening News describing the Zambezi as ‘Our New Henley,’ and a promotional booklet produced in 1905 by Union Castle encouraged travel to the Zambezi, ‘the World’s Riviera.’

The Company’s annual report for the year recorded that “thanks in a great measure to the organising ability of Sir Charles Metcalfe, Mr R T Coryndon, and Mr A L Lawley, the Regatta was a great success” (British South Africa Company, 1906).

- Go back to the Bridge feature section index.

A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Discover Victoria Falls with Zambezi EcoTours