Bridge in the mist
Bridge in the mist
The Victoria Falls Bridge is one of the most recognised bridges in the world and, I am reliably informed, has been photographed more often than David Beckham in his underwear - and yet here is the thing: it should not even be there.
Cecil John Rhodes, as an asthmatic young Englishman, came to Africa to escape the wet British weather and went on to become an early mining magnate and among the continent’s richest men. One of his grander dreams was to build a railway line from the Cape to Cairo and this he decided needed to pass within sight of the Victoria Falls, so the passengers could experience its spray.
This was not the cheapest option as it would have been far more cost effective to have built a bridge across the Zambezi upstream from the Falls, and it also received heavy criticism from many, including his brother, that it would spoil the natural beauty of the Victoria Falls.
Rhodes, in true character, swept aside all opposition, despite the fact that he had never visited the Falls himself, and pushed ahead with what at the time was the construction ofthe highest bridge in the world.
The bridge was made in England before being shipped to the Mozambique port of Beira, from where it was railed to Victoria Falls. The assembly happened simultaneously from both sides of the Second Gorge. A rocket was fired across the gorge carrying a string and successively heavier ropes until finally a 7cm cable was in place that supported a Bosun’s chair – all this to avoid the long 12km detour that getting around the gorge would have entailed.
On 31 March 1905, a warm tropical day three years after Cecil Rhodes had died, the final two parts were ready to be bolted together. Alarmingly, they proved to be 15cm too long. Much scratching of engineering heads would have taken place that night but in the morning after the mists had cooled the metal, it had contracted and slotted into place perfectly. In the century or more that it has been in existence the bridge has variously been an invaluable rail link between Zambia and Zimbabwe (in fact the only one), a commercial weapon during the Rhodesian war era, a venue for (failed) peace talks and now the site of one of the highest bungee jumps in the world.
It has been described as ‘a hideous monument to Victorian vanity’ but it is now widely accepted as part of the Victoria Falls experience, and many claim that its stately elegance enhances the atmosphere of the Falls. Whichever view you share, I suggest that you embrace it or decry it now, for there is talk that this aged bridge will soon need to be replaced to keep up with modern demands.
Fact File - The Victoria Falls Bridge
Architect : George Anthony Hobson of consultants Sir Douglas Fox and Partners.
Location : Second Gorge, Victoria Falls.
Length: 198m long with a main arch spanning 156.5m.
Height: 128m above the lower water mark of the river in the gorge below.
Fun Fact : Sir Ralph Freeman, designer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, is often credited as being the designer of the Victoria Falls Bridge, but at the time of the design, in those pre-computer days, he was an assistant in the firm and was calculating stresses.
Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)