Victoria Falls

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Terror and awe sublimely mingled

Terror and awe sublimely mingled

Terror and awe sublimely mingled

On 17 September 1875 a weary and footsore European traveller, Dr Emil Holub, arrived at Victoria Falls.

He soon forgot the agonising pains brought about by improper shoes and was enchanted by the natural wonder before him. “The Victoria Cataract presents so much loveliness and beauty in unison with terror and awe, so sublimely mingled, that they fill the mind with admiration, at the same time clearly showing man’s nothingness and vanity.” (Holub 1879). How many travellers in successive generations have been equally captivated by this, one of nature’s greatest wonders? Emil Holub was born on 7 October 1847 in what is now the Czech Republic, then part of the greater Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a young boy he was captivated by the writings of the African explorer, David Livingstone and it was always Holub’s aim to follow in his footsteps.

He studied medicine and natural science in Prague and in 1872 established a practice on the diamond fields of the northern Cape Colony. On 2 March 1875 Holub set out north for the Zambezi, crossing into Barotse country in what is now Western Zambia on several occasions. During this time, together with a party of other early tourists/traders he visited the Victoria Falls in September 1875.

The romance of it all was forgotten as Holub’s scientific bent got the better of him during this, his first visit to the Falls. He wrote copious notes on the geology, botany and birds that he saw both in the Rain Forest and in the gorges downstream. On the basis of careful observation he produced the first detailed map of the natural wonder. These records were subsequently published in 1879 as a small booklet, The Victoria Falls: a few pages from the diary of Emil Holub M.D. For many years this publication was forgotten, although Books of Zimbabwe, with the assistance of the Czech Embassy in Zimbabwe, have now reprinted it making it once more available to the modern traveller.

Many of Holub’s observations, 138 years later, still hold true. The Rain Forest still hugs the east bank, dripping from the spray created by the waterfall. “A gentle shower fell over me, and sprinkled the leafy crowns of the gigantic trees, whose sturdy limbs were entwined with the delicate tendrils of vines and creepers behind me, as well as the thick foliage of the palms to my right, so that their broad leaves glistened with thousands of pearly drops. These, again, fell on the soft velvet of the verdant moss, forming small rippling streams, urging their way through the saturated turf, to be precipitated over the bare and slippery edge of the precipice into the dark abyss, about four hundred feet deep, opening a few yards before me.” (Holub 1879).

However other aspects of the Victoria Falls have certainly changed. His journey by foot and wagon took seven months, merely from Kimberley in the northern Cape, South Africa. It would require a further ten months to get back to Cape Town, while Johannesburg was not yet there. The party camped somewhere in the vicinity of ‘the Big Tree.’ What would Holub and his fellow travellers have made of today’s air and rail travel, as well as the variety of shops, luxury and budget hotels and various forms of entertainment inseparable from the modern tourist’s visit? His map of 1875 would certainly have many additions.

Unlike many other early travellers, Holub also took an active interest in the local people and he has left us a detailed picture of their way of life, their material being and their social and political beliefs. These documents and sketches form a very important record of the indigenous communities of the time.

Holub again visited the Victoria Falls a decade later, this time with his newly wedded wife and several travelling companions drawn from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The second time around the spectacle was not blunted. It was still a great sight, a landmark in any late 19th century European traveller’s itinerary. His memoirs of his second journey record: “Even the greatest literary masters would certainly have fallen silent facing such majestic and ever-changing scenery.

A human being is totally incapable of describing Mother Nature where she performs with such might as at the Victoria Falls – there, Man just has to adore her.”

A small memorial to Emil Holub now stands near the entrance to the Livingstone Museum, Zambia’s national cultural institution, not far from another, older memorial to his childhood hero, David Livingstone.

Statues commemorating other heroes of post-independence Zambia will join them soon. The bust, sculptured from Zimbabwean soapstone, is a visible reminder of this early traveller and his efforts to document the Victoria Falls 138 years ago. One can only hope that modern visitors will likewise take away memories to share with others; visions of this world class natural wonder.

More on early explorers at the Falls:
The 'discovery' of the Falls (ZT11, Dec 2012)

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Victoria Falls

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)