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Victoria Falls

Railway bridge over the Victoria Falls
Road and rail bridge over the Victoria Falls
Image © John Mullen

The only rail connection between Zambia and Zimbabwe is the spectacular steel arch combined road and rail bridge over the Zambesi gorge a short distance downstream from the magnificent spectacle of the Victoria Falls.

The first European to see the falls was David Livingstone, on 17 November, 1855, during his journey from the upper reaches of the Zambezi to its mouth. Livingstone reached the Falls from upriver and rowed across to a small island that now bears the name Livingstone Island. Livingstone named the falls after Queen Victoria. He wrote of them: “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”

The Falls are extremely broad, being over 1 mile (1.7km) in width. Its maximum height, in the middle of the stream, is 354 feet (108m) - twice the height of Niagara Falls. It tumbles into a narrow chasm, just 400 feet (120m) wide, allowing superb views from the clifftops opposite. The maximum flow rate in the rainy season is 9100 cubic metres (2 million Imperial or 2.4 million US gallons) every second.

The bridge was inspired by the dream of Cecil Rhodes for a railway running all the way from the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. He himself chose the location for the bridge, partly at least to ensure travellers a good view of the Falls, though he never actually visited the location. The bridge itself was designed by the engineer Ralph Freeman. He later went on to design Sydney Harbour Bridge and was subsequently knighted for his works.

The steel arch bridge has a overall length of 820 feet (250m), with a main span of 514 feet (156.6m), standing 420 feet (128m) above the valley floor. Construction started 1904 and it was completed just 14 months later, opening on 12 September, 1905, as a double track rail bridge. One of the tracks was removed in 1930 and replaced by a roadway, thus giving the bridge its present dual role.

Victoria Falls Safari Express Image © Victoria Falls Safari Express

The railway link is used by a few freight trains but there are no regular rail passenger services over the bridge today. In the early years of the 21st century, several luxury cruise trains make the journey from South Africa, crossing the bridge as part of their journey, but ongoing political difficulties in Zimbabwe mean that these no longer operate. Until recently, the Victoria Falls Safari Express offered daily steam hauled excursions in a historic dining saloon between Victoria Falls station (Zimbabwe) and Livingstone (Zambia), but it is unclear whether these are still operating at the time of writing.

Victoria Falls from the air
Victoria Falls from the air
Image from Wikipedia
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Flag images from CIA World Factbook