Victoria Falls Bridge and the Zambezi Regatta

Victoria Falls Bridge and the Zambezi Regatta

Some people bungee jump of the bridge, others surge down the Zambezi River far beneath the towering steel arches as they participate in adrenaline-pumping white-water rafting and still others prefer to sedately admire the bridge from afar, as they sip a cold drink on the veranda of the stately Victoria Falls Hotel and watch the spray from the Falls rising behind the bridge.

Everyone who encounters the bridge, whether from afar or up close, agrees it is a spectacular structure.  What most visitors don’t know though, is that the 198 m (650 ft.) long bridge took just over 14 months to build and was completed in 1905. The main arch of  bridge is a staggering 128 metres (420 ft) above the river.

Most of the bridge was prefabricated in England and shipped in parts to the port of Beira 1100 km away, in Mozambique, from where it was shipped to the Victoria Falls which 120 years ago was a wild and poorly developed region. More than 1 800 tonnes of steel were used in the construction of the bridge.

The bridge, carries both a railway line and road between Zimbabwe and Zambia, is a Zimbabwean National Monument and was declared an International Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1995.

Road traffic still uses the bridge although in recent years few trains have crossed.

The construction of the bridge was the dream of colonialist businessman Cecil John Rhodes who dreamed of linking Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt by rail, a grand scheme designed to access to large swathes of Africa.

Although an engineering marvel the bridge was not built at the best spot to cross the river, which was about 10 km (6  miles) upstream from the Falls and was instead constructed across the gorge at Rhodes’ request.

“The choice of its site was more for sentiment,” Frank Varian, an assistant engineer on the project, notes in his book “Some African Milestones” in which he describes the development of the rail network in Southern Africa. “It was Cecil john Rhode’s wish (he died in 1902, before the bridge was built) that when the bridge was crossed on the Cape-Cairo route, the passengers should be close enough to feel the spray from the Falls-and at certain times of the year this is possible, and his wish was fulfilled.”

There is a small museum explaining the construction of the bridge and historical walking tours of the Zimbabwean side can be arranged.

Did you know?

The World Professional Sculling Championships were held on a stretch of the Zambezi River just upstream of the Victoria Falls in 1910, in an effort to promote the area as a tourist attraction and to showcase the engineering achievements of the Victoria Falls Bridge completed five years previously.

The race was rowed over 2 000 metres and won by New Zealander Arnst who beat English champion, Ernest Barry. Hippos and crocodiles in the river provided unusual obstacles for the rowers more used to the quiet rivers of Europe.

A series of similar races, involving teams from South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and elsewhere took place in June 1905. They had been planned as part of the opening ceremony but due to construction delays missed the opening.

Teams representing the Lozi ethnic group (the Lozi are the dominant ethnic group of Western Zambia) chosen by the Lewanika, the Lozi King, also  participated, although they competed against each other because their traditional boats were different to the racing sculls.

The “Zambezi Regatta” was revived in 2004, the 100th anniversary of the first race, and has taken place several times since, with the most recent race held in 2023. Competitors have attended from the U.K. South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia and the 2023 race was won by a Zambian Police team.

(Sculling is a form of rowing race where solo rowers or teams of two, four or eight people compete in long narrow boats that have low water clearance. The rowers sit with their backs towards the direction of  movement.)

References and further reading:
Some African Milestones – H. F Varian, 1953. (George Ronald publishers)
Mike Cadman

Mike has worked as a journalist for a variety of international and local media organisations as well as environmental NGO’s for the past 38 years and is the author of five books. During his career, he has covered all major news developments in southern Africa and has travelled extensively throughout many parts of the continent. He spends as much time as possible in the bush and has extensive knowledge of broader environmental issues as well as the creatures that live there.