At first glance one is immediately awestruck at the impressive zig-zagging gorges and natural beauty surrounding the Victoria Falls, and an impressive location for what must have been one of the greatest engineering feats of its time, the Victoria Falls Bridge. Spanning 198m in length and over 100m above the Zambezi River, one really is enticed to ask a few questions. Of all the locations possible, why build a bridge here and how on earth was this even possible?
The Victoria Falls Bridge is more than a wonderful sight in a spectacular setting, but holds the story of the expansion of British colonialism lead by the grand plans of one Cecil John Rhodes (1853-1902). Mining magnate, businessman and politician, Rhodes was also an ardent believer in British colonialism, and it was his aim to see a “red line” across the map of Africa. He was once quoted to have said, “I contend that we are the first race in the world, and the more of the world that we inhabit the better it is for the human race. If there be a God, I think that what he would like me to do is paint as much of the map of Africa British Red as possible…”. He felt this was possible by the construction of the “Cape to Cairo Railway”, an idea which he placed a great deal of his energy towards after becoming Prime Minister of the Cape colony in 1890.
He pushed this vision and railway forward through South Africa and into then Southern Rhodesia, and in 1896 instructed that the line should move north as rapidly as possible, and that it must reach Bulawayo by 1897, by which it was 492 miles short. In a remarkable feat achieved in 500 days, the line arrived in Bulawayo in October 1897. Originally the intension was to continue onto the capital Salisbury (now Harare), but when the regions largest coal deposit was discovered north west of Bulawayo in Hwange, the routing of the line was redirected to service these new coalfields, and Victoria Falls was now added to the plans. By 1904, the line had been laid from Bulawayo through Hwange and onto the Victoria Falls, and the stage for the construction of a bridge was set.
Rhodes, having died in 1902, never did see the line reach Victoria Falls nor the development of the bridge, but his role was not yet over as he greatly influenced the location of the bridge by commenting that “I should like to have the spray of the water over the carriages”. Trusted friend, Sir Charles Metcalfe, ensured that this happened, and construction of the bridge commenced over the second gorge, in clear view of the Victoria Falls.
Now how did this all take place? The first obstacle was that to properly survey the land, access to the northern side of the gorge was needed, and so a primary line across the gorge was the first step. The first attempt to get this line across the bridge was done so with a kite, but with unfavourable wind conditions, this was soon foiled. Finally the idea to shoot the rope across by firing a rocket across the gorge with rope attached, and soon a fixed line over the gorge was achieved, followed by a thicker line and finally a steel cable. As the bridge would be constructed from both ends of the gorge towards the centre, a means to transport exceptionally heavy loads across the gorge was required. Chief Engineer Georges Imbault ingeniously constructed a heavy cable made up of nineteen steel wires surrounding a hemp core with a circumference of 8.5 inches that had a breaking strain of 270 tons. Attached to this cable was an electric carriage that would transport 10 ton loads at a time across the gorge. All the material for the northern side of the bridge was transported in this fashion, as well as railway tracks, sleepers and a dismantled locomotive so that construction of the railway line further north could continue.
With the tender to construct the bridge won by the Cleveland Bridge Company based in Darlington, England, it is impressive to understand that every part of the bridge was fabricated in England and shipped to Beira Mozambique and the by rail to Victoria Falls. One must really marvel at the fact that this entire bridge, that was built in England, was fitted together with precision more than 8000km away in the heart of Africa.
After an impressive four months the final centre girders were placed by sunset on 31 March 1905, and where the bridges two side were intended to meet, the engineers were shocked to discover that there was one and a quarter inch overlap, and the girders could not be riveted in place. The following morning, on 1 April 1905, when the workers arrived for work shortly after sunrise, they realised that the girders had contracted during the cool night by exactly one and a quarter inches, and had dropped perfectly into place. The bridge was complete.
One the 12 September 1905, grandson of Charles Darwin, and President of the British Association Dr George Darwin officially opened the new Victoria Falls Bridge.
And so with the story being told, I can only hope that for those that do visit the Victoria Falls, you may look at this grand old bridge with some sense of wonderment, and realise the grand visions, dreams and feats of engineering all came together to create a link to the interior of Africa and ultimately changed the face of Southern Africa.