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  • Writer's pictureFootsteps of Livingstone

166 Years ago David Livingstone visited Victoria Falls.

16 November 1855 – Scottish Missionary, Dr David Livingstone, sighted, explored, measured and named Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River in Central Africa.

“The Smoke that Thunders”

Seeing enormous columns of spray and hearing a thunderous roar, miles away, Scottish Missionary David Livingstone asked local people what was there? In response, he was told: “Mosi-oa-Tunya,” (“the smoke that thunders”). Some villagers described it as “Seongo” or “Chongwe,” which means, “the place of the rainbow.”

Fear and Superstition

When asked what caused the smoke and the thunder, he was told that this was the work of the spirits. Apparently, nobody had dared venture close enough to actually see what made the smoke thunder. Most were too afraid to go with Dr Livingstone to explore it, so great was the hold of superstition and fear.

“Scenes so lovely Angels must have gazed upon it in their flight”

Borrowing a canoe, Dr Livingstone travelled downstream and could clearly see: “the high columns of vapour which were called by the villagers, smoke. From a distance, it looked as though large tracts of grass were being burned.”

As he drew closer, he could see “five distinct columns, bending in the direction of the wind. They seemed placed against a lower ridge covered with trees. The tops of the columns at this distance appeared to mingle with the clouds. They were white below and higher up became dark, so as to simulate smoke very closely. The whole scene was extremely beautiful; the banks and islands dotted over the river are adorned with sylvan vegetation of great variety of colour and thorn… no one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England.

It had never been seen before by European eyes, but a scene so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

Lush Rain Forest

“The Falls are bounded by three sides by ridges 300, or 400, feet in height, which are covered with forest, with the red soil appearing amongst the trees.”

The View from Livingstone Island.

Dr Livingstone beached his canoe on an island situated in the middle of the river, (today this is called Livingstone Island) and crawled to the edge to gaze at a most wondrous sight, as “on both sides, the water rolled off into deep gorges. In coming hither there was danger of being swept down by the streams which rushed along on each side of the river, but the river was now low… the vast body of water seemed to lose itself in the earth, the opposite lip of the fissure, into which it disappeared, was only 80 feet distant. Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent, which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi River and saw a stream of over 1,000 yards broad leap down hundreds of feet and then became suddenly compressed in a space of 15, or 20, yards wide.”

“The Most Wonderful Sight in Africa”

“The entire Falls are simply a crack made in hard basaltic rock from the right to the left bank of the Zambezi and then prolonged from the left bank by way through 30, or 40, miles of hills. If one imagines the Thames filled with low, tree-covered hills, immediately beyond the tunnel, extending as far as Graves End, the bed of black basaltic rock instead of London mud and a fissure made therein from one end of the tunnel, to the other, down through the keystones of the arch and prolonged from the left end of the tunnel through 30 miles of hills, the pathway being over 100 feet down from the bed of the river, instead of what it is, with the lips of the fissure from 80 to 100 feet apart, then fancy the Thames leaping bodily in the gulf and forced there to change its direction and flow from the right to the left bank and then rush boiling and roaring through the hills, you may have some idea of what takes place at this, the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.”

The Rainbow in the Cloud

“In looking down into the fissure, on the right of the island, one sees nothing but a dense white cloud, with two bright rainbows in it. From this cloud rushed up a great jet of vapour, exactly like steam and it mounted 200, or 300, feet high; there condensing it changed its hue to that of dark smoke and came back in a constant shower,” which saturated Livingstone to the skin.

Shimmering Sights of Steam, Steel and Snow

On the left of the island, he saw: “water at the bottom, a white rolling mass, moving away to the prolongation of the fissure, which branches off near the left bank of the river…. The walls of this giant crack are perpendicular and composed of one homogenous mass of rock. The edge of that side over which the waterfalls is worn off 2, or 3, feet and pieces have fallen away, so as to give it somewhat of a serrated appearance. That over which the water does not fall is quite straight, except at the left corner, where a rent appears and a piece seems inclined to fall off upon the whole; it is nearly in the state in which it was left at the period of its formation… on the left side of the island we had a good view of the massive water which causes one of the columns of vapour to ascend and it leaps quite clear of the rock and forms a thick unbroken fleece all the way to the bottom. Its whiteness gave the idea of snow; a sight I had not seen for many a day.

As it broke into pieces of water, all rushing on in the same direction, each gave off several rays of foam, exactly like bits of steel being burned in oxygen gas gives off rays of sparks. A snow white sheet which seemed like myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam.”

Measuring Victoria Falls

Ever the Scientist and Geographer, Livingstone now began to measure the Falls and to draw sketches of it. He let down a weighted string and measured the distance from the lip of Livingstone Island down to the bottom of the gorge at 310 feet deep. He then calculated that the width of Victoria Falls was 1,860 yards. He paced the distance between the first and the second gorge at 400 paces on the left side at 150 paces on the right. The accuracy of these initial measurements have been confirmed by later scientific measurements.

The Largest Waterfall in the World

Victoria Falls is classified as the largest waterfall in the world, with a combined width of 1,708 metres (5,604 feet) and a height of 108 meters (354 feet) on average. It results in the world’s largest sheet of falling water. Victoria Falls is roughly twice the height of North America’s Niagara Falls and over twice the width of Horse Shoe Falls. It is bigger than Argentina and Brazil’s Iguazu Falls. Victoria Falls has recorded up to 12,800 tonnes of water per second passing over the edge. Victoria Falls has been identified as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

A Major Tourist Destination

Dr Livingstone named it after his Queen, Queen Victoria, and it has been a major tourist destination ever since.

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