“I’m not going down there!” I could understand my father’s trepidation. The steep ladder leading to the underbelly of the Victoria Falls Bridge was slick with spray, and the water in the boiling pot more than 100m below was swirling furiously. I was trembling slightly as guide Kim Adams coaxed our small group over the edge.
The world below the glistening steel of the bridge is wet and wild. Every second, up to 700 000 m3 of water plunges into the Batoka Gorge in a breathtaking cascade. It’s the starting point for some of the world’s most spectacular white water rafting and where some Toka Leya people still come for a baptism of spray as they’ve done since pre-colonial times. It’s also close to a spot where my father, Cedric Tipping-Woods, used to fish as a boy growing up in the Zambian town of Livingstone. He’d ride down to the bottom of the gorge on a trolley from the small hydro-electric power station that was commissioned in 1936.
Standing under the bridge, this fact seemed marvellous to me, but as we stared down into the gorge, we spotted a small group of people at the water’s edge. “You see, the stories I’ve always told you are true,” said my dad just before we watched a daring individual plunge into the gorge – bungeeee!
We’d travelled to Livingstone to rediscover the place where he’d “spent the happiest years of his life” in the 1950s and 1960s. My grandfather, William Tipping-Woods, had worked on the railways here and my dad and I were exploring the town’s rich rail heritage. I was looking for glimpses of a grandfather I’d never met, who always scrubbed the railway grease from under his nails, and of a wild and happy boy who’d had the mighty Zambezi as his playground and was rocked to sleep by the sound of trains at night.
This bridge was a crucial part of this story. It’s where arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes chose to site that vital link in the railway line he hoped would connect the Cape to Cairo, so that the spray from Mosi Oa Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders), the Lozi name for the Falls, would wet the windows of the passing steam trains. When it was officially opened on 12 September 1905, it made rail travel through southern Africa not only possible, but convenient and even luxurious, albeit for those who could afford it.
It was geography usurped by engineering and, in the colonial imagination, it meant anything was possible. You could get from Cape Town to Livingstone and beyond in just days – a journey that had taken months before the railway line was built. Of course, the reality of the colonial endeavour and its effects on local people were far from romantic. This fact must colour any visitor’s experience of the Victoria Falls Bridge, because it is a symbol of division and disenfranchisement as much as it is a structure connecting two countries.
“Shortly, we’ll see that spray Rhodes was talking about on the windows…” said historian Peter Jones, as the Royal Livingstone Express steamed onto the Victoria Falls Bridge later that evening with us on board. Built by the North British Locomotive Company in 1922, the fully-restored Locomotive 156, a 10th Class, has an observation car, an elegant lounge car, a Wembley dining car (named for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition where it was exhibited), a Chesterfield dining car and a club car for the kitchen. While it was originally used on the Mulobezi Line to pull logging carriages from the teak forests, tonight it was taking us on a fine-dining excursion to the bridge and back. As we left town we’d seen the sheds where my grandfather had worked. When driver Lamick Sambula sounded the locomotive’s whistle, it felt like we were heading into another era.
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“The bridge was first built in England, then disassembled, shipped here and built from both sides simultaneously,” explained Jones later, as we disembarked amidst steam and spray. The setting sun had turned the world gold and glorious. I tried to imagine materials being moved across the gorge in contraptions that would almost have put today’s adventure activities in Livingstone to shame. “That’s the kind of courageous people we had out here in those days,” said Jones, who has been instrumental in reviving and documenting the town’s history.
It’s a fascinating history. From pre-colonial days right through to the present day, Livingstone has attracted its share of dreamers, adventurers, mavericks and refugees: the Mukuni chiefs, David Livingstone, Jews fleeing persecution in Lithuania and, perhaps, even Jones himself. Certainly the lodge he owns, The River Club, is a place for dreamers, where time loses its hold. Drifting on the river in front of the renovated farmhouse 18km upstream from the Falls, it’s easy to imagine that nothing much has changed in decades.
A pied kingfisher dives for dinner, a hippo bellows and the odd boat passes by. Jones’s collection of old photos, posters, newspaper articles about Livingstone’s development and prominent Zambians, records of sporting achievements, period furniture and objets d’art create a fascinating mosaic of information. The billiards room and croquet lawns may be a nod to the Edwardian garden party and languid days of leisure, but the team running the lodge is mainly Zambian – born after the country achieved independence in 1964 and their story is about the country’s future, not its past.
It’s a future that’s in the making in the bustle and chaos of Livingstone. While we found my dad’s old home – one of a series of railway cottages built in 1931 that still lead all the way down to the railway line – it’s now a row of curio shops and businesses geared towards tourism. “Look, this is the mango tree that had the sweetest fruit. I used to pick them and sell them for 10 pennies each,” my father said, pointing out a mature and leafy tree close to the station.
We also visited the Livingstone Museum, found the shop where he’d bought his first bicycle (Nicky Iljohns), the school he’d attended (Hillcrest) and the old Scout hall, now in the middle of a busy informal market selling kapenta (dried fish), mbwiila, (indigenous black-eyed peas), colourful wax-printed Chitenge cloth and more. Many classic Art Deco buildings are still well-maintained and a handy walking guide available at most hotels tells the story of the town through various easy-to-find landmarks.
The town’s rail history has its own museum, but was brought to life by Ben Costa, the man responsible for keeping Bushtracks locomotives running. “I’ve worked on locomotives every day of my life since 1979. I’m still working on them. We are repairing Locomotive 523 right now. You have to strip them right down. No detail is too small. There is no room for error,” he explained, detailing with obvious relish the custom parts that have to be sourced and manufactured. While my grandfather was a fitter and turner, I imagine him to perhaps have been something like Ben, a man who took pride in his work and tools.
With the town’s rail history so interwoven with tourism, its primary industry, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the official opening of the bridge in 1905 also included a trip to Livingstone Island for the passengers on that momentous occasion. “If we go over the edge, at least I’ve made this journey with my dad,” I thought, as we gunned full-speed towards this small piece of land just above the mighty Victoria Falls. Instead, though, our twin-engined speedboat turned into some reeds and we followed our guide Alpha Omega on a soggy footpath until we were standing above the dancing water, about as close to the edge as anyone can get.
David Livingstone – perhaps the Fall’s first tourist – first viewed them from this very same vantage point on 16 November 1855. Like the poo at the foot of the Falls, it’s a sacred site for the Toka Leya people. As the light wove in and out of the spray, leaving rainbows in its wake, I understood their devotion. In the low season, you can swim here, as local people have always done, and there’s no experience like it.