Shock, Horror – David Livingstone did not discover the Victoria Falls.
In breaking news it has been learned that famous explorer, the Scottish missionary David Livingstone did not in fact discover the famous waterfall on the Middle Zambezi River he named, in 1855, after British Queen Victoria
Reports have recently reached the foreign desk which suggest he might not have been even the first European to have seen them. The strongest of several claimants to the honour is the Portuguese ivory trader A da Silva Porto who had been travelling in the area since 1848. When in 1851/2 Livingstone came in sight of the Falls’ famous spray plume (mosi-o-tunya, the smoke that thunders), but for reasons unknown decided not to press on the extra few miles to the Falls themselves, da Silva Porto visited his camp and gave him a gift of preserved fruit, fresh bread and cabbages and two Dutch cheeses.
It might well have been this outward display of extravagance that offended the parsimonious Scotsman, who often denied his own expedition members such “luxuries” as tea, sugar, jam or spirits. And yet he refers to the (by all other accounts) friendly trader only as a Portuguese half-caste, and then only in passing. Luckily for Livingstone da Silva Porto’s documents were destroyed in a fire so they never could dispute the Scotsman’s claims.
Next is the Hungarian explorer Lázsló Magyar who waited around the Falls for a week hoping for the invitation to visit Livingstone’s upstream camp, but in vain. It hardly seems likely the Hungarian would walk halfway across Africa and, while in the area, not pop over to see the Falls the spray of which is visible for many miles. After that non-encounter Magyar kept on walking, across Angola, then the Congo and eventually to West Africa where he married a local woman. But unlike Livingstone he was no writer, or diarist, or public speaker, so we know few details of his exploits.
The family of hunter Henry Hartley claimed their man had seen the Falls back in ’48. This was deduced from a story told by one of his bearers, Cresjan, who recalled a cataract with rainbows and drenching spray. Who knows?
But what is so special about Europeans, we have to ask. The Batoka, or Tonga people, who have lived in the Zambezi valley for many centuries must surely have noticed a great chasm in the biggest river in their midsts, as well as the billowing plume of spray that made them often live within its mists.
David Livingstone was the most famous man in Britain in his day, and also the greatest PR man of his day. Not wanting to belittle his achievements, for he was a remarkable man, but was as much despised by his fellow European travellers as he was revered by the black Africans who had dealings with him, maybe it was just his Scottish background.
The only time he named anything on his explorer’s maps anything other than the local native name was when mosi-o-tunya became Victoria Falls. It is likely that when he finally peered down into that frightening chasm he saw greatness, maybe even a little “Sir” affixed to his name. Whatever or whoever he was, it is his name that we remember as the father other Falls.
But one does have to wonder what the angels in their flight who, apparently, look down on the scene, have to say about the ring of commercialisation that now squeezes the soul of this magnificent site.
When you look at the outbreak of hotels cluttering the sides of the river you have to sympathise with Colonel Frank Rhodes, brother of empire builder Cecil John. It was on the orders of the latter that the iron railway bridge was built across the second cataract of Batoka Gorge in 1905 so that the carriages would be bathed by the spray. “I have done all I can to prevent the bridge being built there,” reported Frank, “but there it is and nothing is now left for me to do but to pray for an earthquake.
Current darling among the hotels is the Royal Livingstone, by all accounts a fine inn on the Zambian side, and about as close to the cataract as you can get without going over the edge. It is an environmental travesty that should not have been allowed to be built where it is, in the heart of a World Heritage Site.
The stand-out on the Zimbabwean side for aesthetic abomination is Elephant Hills hotel. The developers and architects deserve to be lined up against one of Elephant Hills’ bare concrete walls and machine-gunned with hippo dung.
So thank heavens for Tongabezi, where we are staying; built with a sense of modesty and passion for the place, on the Zambian bank about 17 km upstream of Batoka Gorge in subtle safari-lodge style. It was the most characterful and environmentally appropriate place built in the region in its day, around two decades ago, and it remains – in our opinion – the very best address at The Falls.