The famous bridge at Vic Falls

The famous bridge at Victoria Falls is 100 years old this year. It is a time of celebration and this poses the question about its history. Why was it built? Who built it? And how did the engineers span the gorge? Now an historic bridge tour, the first of its kind, has been created and tourists not only learn the answers but get the true feel of its power by descending to steel walkways beneath the towering structure which links Zimbabwe and Zambia. Walking beneath the bridge like this, as the original engineers did, brings people closer to the majesty of the construction and the swirling waters of the Zambezi 120 metres below. Tied to a safety rope (used for mountain climbers), one is secure yet has the freedom to experience the awesome nature of the challenge that faced the builders. Says Philip van Tonder, general manager of this unique enterprise: “This is a very special experience for people who have come from far and near to Victoria Falls and want to know something of the history of the bridge that, both functionally and scenically, is so important to it.” The bridge, of course, is known for its breathtaking bungi jumps. Benjamin Mweene has helped hundreds of people to plunge over the bridge over the past seven years. Now he has taken on the role of a bridge tour guide. “People want to know about its history,” he says, starting off with the fact that the missionary-explorer named the Victoria Falls for his queen 150 years ago. Warming up, he gets to the point of the reason for the bridge, which was the dream of the Victorian magnate, Cecil Rhodes, who wanted to have a railway from the Cape to Cairo. The orginal site chosen for the bridge was the Kariba Gorge but when rich coal deposits were discovered at Hwange this opened up new avenues and it was decided to build the bridge where the spray from the Falls could be felt by passengers on the trains crossing it ‘ a special directive in Rhodes’ will. The Victoria Falls Hotel, which at the time was highly rustic, housed the bridge engineers and eventually was to grow into an Edwardian masterpiece. But prior to this a hotel and bar existed at the Old Drift, nine kilometres from the Falls, and this became a meeting point for traders from both Northern and Southern Rhodesia. At the time the population of the Falls was 68 but this number was soon decimated by blackwater fever. The Old Drift hotel was built by Percy Clark, one of the great veterans of the Falls history. He was said to have had the first meal at the Victoria Falls Hotel, which opened its doors officially on 8 June, 1904. The hotel has always been inextricably linked to the bridge. The early rafting expeditions by the adventure company Shearwater were prefaced by safety talks from terrace of the Victoria Falls Hotel. By 1904 the railway line from Hwange ‘ with its starting point at the Cape ‘ had reached Victoria Falls. Rhodes, who had actually died in 1902, had earlier explained his desire about the cross-gorge bridge to his friend Charles Metcalfe. Rhodes was very much interested in transporting timber and coal as well as furthering his imperial ambitions. The bridge was built by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company of Darlington in England, and designed by Sir Douglas Fox. The first step in its building was to fire a rocket across the gorge to connect a rope to the other side.and get a measurement. The great steel girders were dismantled and transported by ship to Beira by the S.S Cromwell and then brought to the Falls by rail and reassembled. This in itself was a mighty undertaking. When it arrived, the engineers set up telephone cables and then an electrical winch which was used to lay some sections. A further link in the process was to set up a dynamo, which was powered by a special steam train. When completed, the bridge had a main arch span of 500 feet and the whole superstructure weighed 1868 tonnes. It had taken the engineers nine weeks. Our guide Benjamin recalled that an old chief called Mukune of the Tonga tribe used to come and watch the progress of the bridge and wondered how it might be held together. “You can see there is no central pillar,” he exclaimed, adding “I am sorry for the white people as they work for no profit,” meaning that he thought the bridge was going to collapse. By 31 March, 1905, the two ends of the bridge were ready to be joined. But despite taking the utmost care with calculations, they found that the structure was six inches too long. Fortune smiled during the night, however, as a “breeze flew over the bridge” and contracted the steel. Thus on 1 April the two ends were permanently joined. The total cost was 72,000 pounds. Although safety was a paramount feature of the enterprise, it did not stop the bridge designer, Mr Fox, falling a hundred feet on to a ridge set in the gorge. Benjamin had this story to tell to his intent audience: “It happened while he was exploring but no rescue attempt could be made on the night he fell. In the morning Jackie the Blacksmith volunteered. His valiant bid to reach Mr Fox failed, however, and he came up very scared. He was persuaded a second time. ‘Give me a bottle of whisky and maybe I’ll try again’, he said. “As soon as he received the bottle he got some courage and was lowered again. “The victim was very much hurt but he was still alive.This time he was hauled up and quickly recovered and was able to continue his work on the construction.” The bridge, of course, has been a place of romance. But not the kind one would expect. According to Benjamin, there have been two suicides from the bridge between the years 1905 and 1960. One involved a young bride who rushed from the Victoria Falls Hotel to the bridge and and then threw herself to the gorge below and the other was that of a jealous lover, who first pushed his girl friend over the side of the bridge and then “realised he did something wrong” and plunged over himself. These days bungi jumping takes the place of these fatalistic events The first creature to cross the bridge, according to Benjamin, was a leopard and the first train (loco no. 8) was driven by the daughter of one of the South African engineers. The train bore the emblem: “We have a long way to go”, referring to the distance from Victoria Falls to the ultimate destination in Cairo ‘ never really reached because of terrain hazards and different rail gauges. Thus Rhodes’ dream was never fulfilled. But the bridge remains his monument. It was opened on 12 September, 1905, by Professor George Darwin, grandson of the famous evolution theorist Charles Darwin.

April 2006
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