To The Victoria Falls
Development of the Victoria Falls
The following text is adapted from 'Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls', researched and written by Peter Roberts and published in 2017. Please visit the Zambezi Book Company website for more information.
South Bank Takes Off
On the south bank the Rhodesian Government announced a review of land tenure at the Victoria Falls, resulting in new areas being opened up for development. Land use policy up to this date had effectively restricted development and protected the natural environment of the Victoria Falls, but the changing geopolitical landscape made further infrastructure development inevitable. Victoria Falls town expanded rapidly during this period with the development of business stands and residential suburbs.
“Little further development took place until the mid 1960s when major political changes caused significant growth in the village. Until this time, the residents of Victoria Falls were primarily railway or government employees with a few individuals involved in tourism. Financial, commercial and social services for the village were provided by Livingstone. Moreover, a large proportion of the visitors to the Falls arrived via the international airport at Livingstone and the majority of the tourist facilities were provided there.” (Heath, 1977)
In late 1965 Livingstone based businessman Harry Sossen approached the Falls Hotel for support in a bid to buy or acquire a revised long term lease for the Victoria Falls Garage, which he had operated for some decades since the death of Ted Spencer. Located on the turning to the approach road of the Falls Hotel, he hoped to expand his trade by negotiating around a lease clause which prevented him from operating a tourism agency.
Being part of the Railway Reserve, however, the land was deliberately leased on a short term basis (five years) with restrictions on ‘taking bookings for, undertaking or arranging any excursions, boat trips or the like’ specifically to protect the interests of the Hotel.
Victoria Falls Casino
Growing tourism demands, however, eventually saw the construction of the Victoria Falls Casino, later known as the Makasa Sun Hotel, in 1966 on the site immediately next to the Victoria Falls Hotel.
“The modern, luxurious Casino Hotel was opened in 1966. It is air-conditioned throughout and has a bank, hairdressing salons, jewellery and other shops for the convenience of its patrons, besides a la carte restaurants serving breakfast 24 hours a day.” (Rhodesian National Tourism Board, 1967)
The casino was the first in the country and an added attraction advertised even by the Falls Hotel itself.
“The [Falls] hotel is still as popular as ever with a steady flow of visitors in and out almost daily. The nearby Casino continues to prove a big attraction, especially in the evening, and there are the usual stories going the rounds of people managing to hit the ‘jackpot.’” (Rhodesia Railways Magazine, Nov 1967)
The Casino was extended in 1969 with the addition of a new wing comprising 54 bedrooms and three luxury suites, at a cost of £175,000, and by 1979 the Hotel boasted four luxury suites and 102 bedrooms all with private bathroom, shower, radio and telephone. Controversially the development broke the local skyline of the Falls, infringing a local council building requirement that no construction should be built above the tree-line, and so be visible from the river and Falls. A small section of the old trolley line down to the Falls was preserved in the grounds of the Hotel.
The Victoria Falls Casino.
Victoria Falls Airport
The Victoria Falls Airport was opened in 1967, allowing the growing town to service its own aviation arrivals and departures and avoiding the extra rigmarole of Zambian customs and immigration formalities. The new airport was built at some distance, 20 kilometres, from the Victoria Falls and the growing tourism town. The development of the Air Rhodesia Victoria Falls, Kariba and Hwange National Park domestic air routes boosted regional tourism.
“From Johannesburg, Bulawayo, Salisbury, Kariba and Wankie, more than ten flights a week serve the new airport 15 miles [24 km] south of the Falls. Visitors from the north come via Livingstone airport, nine miles [14.5 km] north of the Falls, in Zambia. All exclusive Flame Lilly holidays starting from most centres in Southern Africa are on sale all over the world.” (Rhodesian National Tourism Board, 1967)
Despite all the new developments at the Falls, a late 1960s tourism information leaflet, produced by the Rhodesian National Tourism Board, still proudly presented the Falls as untouched by man and modern development.
“Today the Falls are almost exactly as Livingstone first saw then, unspoilt in all their grandeur. Nothing has been allowed to mar the natural beauty of the surrounding; even the disfiguring precaution of guard rails has not been permitted. As Livingstone stood, lost in wonder, so do many thousands of visitors each year.”
The town now boasted a modern Post Office and banks, including the distinctive Standard Bank building, opened in 1968. New tourist attractions included the Falls Craft Village (established in 1967), Snake Park and Curio Markets selling traditional carvings and tourism souvenirs.
“The African Craft Village is unique in its conception. It is an exact replica of a nineteenth-century Matabele kraal, representing the home of one Matabele man and his three wives. A guided tour takes about 40 minutes and is a ‘must’ for every visitor to the Victoria Falls.” (Harris, 1969)
The Falls Hotel saw another record year in 1967 with close to 22,000 visitors. The record numbers were largely due to the growth of regional air travel, and success of Air Rhodesia’s Flame Lilly holiday packages.
Cocktails at The Victoria Falls Hotel.
A Birds-eye View
Scenic flights from the Sprayview Aerodrome offered by Rhodesian United Air Carriers now included two hour and 200 mile (321 km) flying safaris. Flights could be booked from the reception counter at the Falls Hotel.
“Highlight of your stay is your flight over the Victoria Falls and surrounding countryside in search of the untamed game which roams this still primitive part of Africa. Not only do these dawn and sunset patrols offer glorious birds-eye views of the great Zambezi river, its zig-zag gorges and the mighty Falls themselves but, even more thrilling, your low flights over the broad savannah grasslands bordering Botswana and Zambia reveal great herds of stately sable antelope, zebra, tsessebe, waterbuck and many other types of antelope. As the vegetation patterns change below you, herds of buffalo arc seen in the dense bush, giraffe wander browsing in the sparsely-treed lands and along the luxuriant river banks the elephant, giant of them all, drink and cool themselves in the sluggish water. Nearby the hippo wallow and crocodile bask. Throughout your 200 mile air safari you swoop low, seeming to pirouette on one wing, for a closer view of these rare and magnificent beasts, at home in their natural habitat but undismayed by the low-flying aircraft. For amateur photographers this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for dramatic shots both of the Falls themselves and of the wild game populating the area.” (Harris, 1969)
On the Road
The reconstruction of the main Bulawayo to Victoria Falls strip road as a fully-tarred highway began in 1963 and took several years. The new road largely followed the route of the old strip road, although re-aligned to a more direct route in places.
The freedom of movement offered by the expanding road network attracted increasing overland travellers from regional markets, in particular South Africa, on self-drive safaris. The South African traveller and writer Lawrence G Green visited the Falls in the late 1960s on a road journey through Southern Rhodesia and published his writings in his 1968 travel book ‘Full Many A Glorious Morning.’ Green was not enamoured by the new breed of safari goers and relaxed clientele of the Falls Hotel, whose dress style he felt was at odds with the Hotel’s grand setting:
“People enter the Victoria Falls Hotel looking like dusty bands of dog-robbers. They simply have not got the sort of clothes that fit into a background of sophistication and elegance. Shorts do not go with chandeliers; bush shirts form a strange contrast with soft rugs and polished furniture. The final shock comes when you read this notice in the lounge: ‘Gentlemen are requested to wear jackets and ties in the evening.’ No doubt it is a necessary reminder though I have never encountered such a warning at a five star hotel...”
“It is a remote yet familiar corner of Africa, a place where you are bound to meet someone you know if you stay any length of time. This is the Café de la Paix, the Piccadilly Circus, the Capri of Africa… They come in by air and road and train and hasten out again to see the panoramas of this dramatic stretch of the Zambesi…” (Green, 1968)
Green also recalls his cruise on the river;
“I voyaged up the Zambesi to Kandahar Island in a large steel launch, hippo-proof and crocodile-proof, with powerful outboard motors. As we tied up on the island the girl in charge of the excursion led a party of natives on shore and called back: ‘No one is to land until I give the word.’ They searched the island and then allowed us to walk up to the tea shelter. These precautions were taken as a result of a tragedy earlier in the year. Mr Charles Graeme Young, a visitor from Durban, was standing on Kandahar Island when a hippo rushed out of the water and made for him… Mr Young stood his ground and tried to photograph the hippo. A few seconds later he was dead.” (Green, 1968)
Controversy over the increasing development of the Falls rose to new heights with the proposed construction of an observation tower and restaurant on the southern bank overlooking the western end of the Falls:
“In 1968, a company called African Panorama Limited applied for three acres of land to erect a 320 ft (95 m) observation tower and a restaurant about 100 ft (30 m) from the western end of the Devil’s Cataract and adjacent to the railway line... The Victoria Falls Tower was to be modelled on the London Post Office Tower, with a restaurant below it to serve tourists.”
Despite being located within the core Special Area of the Falls, government ministers supported the development which was subsequently passed to parliament for approval.
“During the debate some parliamentarians argued that the construction of the tower would promote tourism in the country while others strongly asserted that the tower would ruin the beauty of the Victoria Falls. After a considerable debate the parliamentarians eventually voted against its construction.”
In a separate proposal put forward in the same year the Railway Company applied for 4.5 acres of land to develop a tourist recreational facility including chip-and-putt golf course, bowling greens, tennis courts, a discotheque, a refreshments bar, and an amusement centre for children. These and other development pressures resulted in the decision to reduce to size of the Special Area to concentrate protection on the core area around the Falls.
“In order to preserve the beauty of the natural and cultural surroundings of the site, the Commission [for the Preservation of Natural and Historical Monuments and Relics] made a decision in 1968 to reduce the size of the original boundaries of the Special Area. Accordingly, in order to change the boundaries of the national monument, the original site was deproclaimed as a national monument, cancelling the previous Government Notices no. 318 of 1937, no. 922 of 1947 and no. 453 of 1970. A smaller area was reproclaimed [under of the Monuments and Relics Act] as a national monument by Government Notice 640 of 1970.” (Makuvaza, 2012)
Across the River
After decades of inviting investors to develop the site adjoining the Falls on the north bank, the Mosi-oa-Tunya InterContinental Hotel was finally opened in 1968. The hotel consisted of 95 rooms in two double-story blocks, set out at angles to the main building, housing the public areas and hotel administration. Developed by InterContinental Hotels & Resorts, part of the Pan American Airways, the Hotel was operated in conjunction with the InterContinental Hotel in Lusaka. Many mourned the development of a site so close to the Falls, Teede and Teede recording:
“Lights from the Mosi-oa-Tunya Hotel in Zambia interfere with moonlight viewing of the Main Falls from Zimbabwe and have ruined the spectacular series of lunar rainbows visible over the Rainbow Falls. Any more lights and the almost transcendental experience of seeing the Falls by moonlight would be totally lost.” (Teede and Teede, 1991)
The population of Livingstone was recorded at 49,063 in the census of 1969.
In 1969 improvements were made to the tourism infrastructure on the northern bank with the construction of the Knife-Edge Bridge. The footbridge opened up access to views of the Falls which tourists had previously struggled to reach, resulting in many minor injuries over the years.
Under a Southern Sun
On 1st February 1970 operation of the Falls Hotel was leased by the Rhodesia Railways to external management, marking the end of over fifty years of direct management by the Railway Company. Through its new managers, Rhodesian Breweries (Rhobrew), the Hotel was operated under the umbrella of the Southern Sun Hotel Corporation of Rhodesia Limited, known as Southern Sun, and part of a portfolio of hotels across the country - resulting in significant operational benefits and publicity opportunities, especially in the South African market. The group also had plans for a modern new hotel complex on the southern bank, which would result in the development of the Elephant Hills Country Club, opened in 1974.
The early seventies saw a period of rapid growth in the development of the town, with the construction of new infrastructure and tourism facilities, including housing suburbs, commercial centres, industrial premises, office and staff accommodation blocks and a diversification of new hotels. Local construction company Gardini & Sons, under the skilled guidance of Carlo Gardini, were responsible for a large percentage of the construction projects (including the previously built Casino and soon to be built Elephant Hills), with Carlo becoming known as ‘the man who built Victoria Falls’ (Meadows, 2000).
The 40-room, fully air-conditioned, Peter’s Motel opened in 1969, later renamed the Victoria Falls Motel (and later still the Sprayview Hotel), was built, owned and operated by the Gardini family. The riverside A’Zambezi River Lodge, with 65 double and 15 family rooms, opened in 1972, and the centrally located 44-room Rainbow Hotel in 1974 - both again constructed by Gardini & Sons.
The Spencer Creek Crocodile Ranch was established in 1971, operating as both a commercial crocodile farm and tourist attraction. The ranch has grown into a major employer in the predominantly tourism based town. The old Sprayview Restaurant was demolished in 1970.
By 1969 the population of Victoria Falls town had grown to 3,450 (CSO, 1969). National annual tourism arrivals reached 270,000 in 1970, up from 250,000 the previous year. Arrivals peaked at 360,000 in 1972. In 1972 the town management board was upgraded into a Town Council. The Victoria Falls Main Camp accommodation, camping and caravanning facilities located in the town centre were taken over by the Town Council in 1974. By the mid seventies new visitor pathways had been developed running through the Rainforest and to the various viewpoints on the south bank.
Dr William W Cowen, railway medical officer at the Falls during the 1950s, recalls returning after a long absence of many years, recording mixed feelings over the many new developments and changes in the town and surroundings.
“On arrival we noticed that a large international airport had been constructed a short distance from the falls alongside the road leading south, no longer a picturesque strip road but now a 22-foot [6.7 m] wide macadamized highway. Apart from the Victoria Falls Hotel, the village used to consist of a small police and customs post, a curio shop, a general store and a few huts for visitors. It now boasted another hotel, a large pretentious casino, bank, building society, numerous shops and a large tourist area where African arts and crafts were displayed and African woodcarvers and dancers performed... New wide roads and paths had been constructed in the vicinity of the falls, which were artificially lit up at night. The Victoria Falls Hotel had been enlarged and modernized and, in our opinion, had lost its elegant charm. When we were stationed there the Falls and the area immediately around them were left as Livingstone had discovered them and we were distressed to find all the new development. Some might see it as progress, but for us it was an appallingly retrogressive step!” (Cowen, 1995)
Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park
On the north bank the Victoria Falls Trust was dissolved and the Zoological Game Park redesignated as the expanded Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park on 25th February 1972, managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Services - now the Zambia Wildlife Authority (ZAWA). The Natural Heritage Commission (now the National Heritage Conservation Commission) continued to manage the Falls and historic cultural sites within the National Park, including the Old Drift settlement.