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Known to the local inhabitants of the region for centuries, the majestic natural wonder of the Victoria Falls was first brought to the attention of explorer Dr David Livingstone in 1855. In 1851 Livingstone and his travelling companion William Oswell were exploring north into the unmapped interior, eventually reaching a large river which the inhabitants living along its wide reaches called the Liambai and which Livingstone correctly identified as the Zambezi.

Befriending the Makalolo chief Sebetwane, who held power in the region, they were told of a great waterfall some distance downstream, although they did not travel to visit them on this occasion. Livingstone later recorded:

“Of these we had often heard since we came into the country; indeed, one of the questions asked by Sebituane [in 1851] was, ‘Have you smoke that sounds in your country?’ They [the Makalolo] did not go near enough to examine them, but, viewing them with awe at a distance, said, in reference to the vapour and noise, ‘Mosi oa tunya’ (smoke does sound there). It was previously called Shongwe, the meaning of which I could not ascertain. The word for a 'pot' resembles this, and it may mean a seething caldron, but I am not certain of it.” (Livingstone, 1857)

It was not until 1855, after first exploring upstream and a route across to the west coast, that Livingstone returned to the Zambezi and finally journeyed downstream, escorted by Sebetwane’s successor, Chief Sekeletu. Travelling by canoe and then walking along the north bank to avoid the Katambora Rapids, Sekeletu arranged a canoe and local boatman to take Livingstone the final distance downstream to the waterfall.

On 16th November 1855 David Livingstone was being escorted down the Zambezi River by Chief Sekeletu, accompanied by some 200 Makalolo assistants, on his way to the east coast of Africa and the completion of his epic transverse of the continent from west to east coast. Travelling downstream, Livingstone was told of local belief in a river spirit-serpent (widespread across central Africa):

"The Barotse believe that at a certain part of the river a tremendous monster lies hid, that will catch a canoe and hold it motionless in spite of the efforts of the paddlers. They believe that some of them possess the knowledge of the proper prayer to lay the monster.” (Livingstone, 1857, p.517)

Livingstone described the journey in detail, made both by boat and also walking along the north bank in sections to avoid the rapids, downstream to Kalai Island, about 10 kilometres above the Falls.

"Having descended about ten miles, we came to the island of Nampene, at the beginning of the rapids, where we were obliged to leave the canoes and proceed along the banks on foot. The next evening we slept opposite the island of Chondo, and, then crossing the Lekone or Lekwine, early the following morning were at the island of Sekote, called Kalai. "It is large enough to contain a considerable town. On the northern side I found the kotla [fortress/palace] of the elder Sekote, garnished with numbers of human skulls mounted on poles: a large heap of the crania of hippopotami, the tusks untouched except by time, stood on one side. At a short distance, under some trees, we saw the grave of Sekote, ornamented with seventy large elephants' tusks planted round it with the points turned inward, and there were thirty more placed over the resting-places of his relatives." (Livingstone, 1857, p.517-8)

Sekeletu arranged a canoe and local boatman to take Livingstone the final distance downstream to the waterfall. A diary entry, in one of the rough notebooks which he wrote up once or twice a week, reads matter-of-factly:

"Musioatunya bears SSE from Sekota islet after 20 minutes sail thence on 16th November, 1855, saw three or five large columns of vapour rising 100 or more feet" Livingstone later wrote up more detailed notes in his journal, edited and published as 'Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa' in 1857:

"After twenty minutes' sail from Kalai we came in sight, for the first time, of the columns of vapour appropriately called 'smoke,' rising at a distance of five or six miles, exactly as when large tracts of grass are burned in Africa. Five columns now arose, and, bending in the direction of the wind, they seemed placed against a low 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." (Livingstone, 1857, p.519)

The Victoria Falls of the Zambesi River (from Livingstone's Missionary Travels 1857) This etching was commissioned by the publisher from an artist in London, who having never seen the Falls relied on Livingstone's written descriptions to detail the scene. Livingstone noted in the text that "The artist has a good idea of the scene, but, by way of explanation, he has shown more of the depth of the fissure than is visible, except by going close to the edge"

Livingstone was enchanted by the beauty of the island studded river, its forested fringes and exotic wildlife, recording emotively:

"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 form. At the period of our visit several trees were spangled over with blossoms. There, towering over all, stands the great burly baobab, each of whose arms would form the trunk of a large tree, besides groups of graceful palms, which with their feathery-shaped leaves depicted on the sky, lean their beauty to the scene. Some trees resemble the great spreading oak, others assume the character of our own elms and chestnuts; but 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." (Livingstone, 1857, p.519)

This last passage has often been misquoted in reference to the Falls themselves, but it was the stretches of the river upstream of the Falls which first fired Livingstone’s imagination. Of the Falls themselves he would later write it “is a rather hopeless task to endeavour to convey an idea of it in words” (Livingstone and Livingstone, 1865).

On 16th November 1855 Livingstone was guided to a small island on the very lip of the Falls."When about half a mile from the falls, I left the canoe by which we had come down thus far, and embarked in a lighter one, with men well acquainted with the rapids, who, by passing down the centre of the stream in the eddies and still places caused by many jutting rocks, brought me to an island situated in the middle of the river, and on the edge of the lip over which the water rolls. In coming hither there was danger of being swept down by the streams which rushed along on each side of the island; but the river was now low, and we sailed where it is totally impossible to go when the water is high. But, though we had reached the island, and were within a few yards of the spot, a view from which would solve the whole problem, I believe that no one could perceive where the vast body of water went; it seemed to lose itself in the earth, the opposite lip of the fissure into which it disappeared being only 80 feet distant." (Livingstone, 1857)

Scrambling through vegetation to "the very edge of the lip over which the water rolls," Livingstone struggled to understand the scale of what lay before him:

“At least I did not comprehend it until, creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambesi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet [30.5 m] and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen or twenty yards... the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa.” (Livingstone, 1857, p.520)

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