The Victoria Falls Hotel owes its existence to the arrival of the railway line; when it reached Victoria Falls the development of tourism on the south bank of the Zambezi started in earnest.
Cecil Rhodes planned for a Cape to Cairo railway and although this was never achieved, the remarkable penetration of rail into the heart of Africa brought development to the region. Once the first steam train arrived in Victoria Falls, plans for the construction of the bridge turned into reality, all of which meant accommodation was needed.
The hotel opened its doors in June 1904 as a simple building of wood with a corrugated iron roof, well raised from the ground to afford ventilation and freedom from damp and pests. It consisted of 12 single rooms and four doubles, a dining room, a bar and offices. The manager was a colourful hotelier named Pierre Gavuzzi and the lowest tariff was 12/6d per day.
New brick building
By 1913, excursion trains from Cape Town to the Falls were operating at around five a year and with the increased volumes of tourists, a decision was taken to rebuild the hotel in brick. The new building consisted of 24 bedrooms, two suites and five public rooms, which were the lounge, the writing room, the drawing and music room, the smoking room and the dining room.
Office accommodation to the left and right of the main entrance was also included and there was a small private bar. The original hotel buildings were dismantled and re-assembled to the south of the hotel, approximately where the laundry is now.
After the First World War, tourism levels began to pick up again in the early 1920s - visitors then numbered around 3,000 per year. Many of the guests staying at the hotel were elderly and had found the walk to the Falls tiring in the heat; the rickshaw rides were not too comfortable either - so in 1920 a trolley service was introduced.
Staff pushed trolleys
A two-foot gauge track was laid, which ran from the hotel along the line of the original railway track, down to what was then the Southern Rhodesian end of the bridge, with a spur line continuing to a point near where the Livingstone statue stands today. Gravity propelled the trolleys downhill to the Falls, but for uphill sections the hotel employed staff to push them.
This service continued for the next 37 years and during that period it is estimated that over two million passengers travelled on these trolleys. One has been preserved and today stands in the courtyard of The Victoria Falls Hotel.
In 1926 ‘hammerhead’ shaped wings were added on to the north of the hotel and this gave an extra capacity of 50 rooms and four suites. Almost every room now had a private bathroom and those baths previously provided for communal use are remembered as being so large that no child was permitted to use them unaccompanied.
Saturday dinner dances
At this time, the only developments on the Southern Rhodesia side of the bridge were The Victoria Falls Hotel and the railway station with the post office and curio shops. The main development was in Livingstone in Northern Rhodesia. The bridge only had a rail track and no roadway, so the Railways started a service known as the ‘Weekender’ which ran from Livingstone to the Falls Hotel. Many people came over on a Saturday night to enjoy the dinner dances at The Victoria Falls Hotel and returned the next day.
In 1928 the swimming pool was added, and for privacy, walls were erected. For many years there was no mixed bathing, as it appears that a visiting Maharajah had made a request to the Administrator in Livingstone not to allow this. Apparently, this was upheld for some time.
The addition of the court wing followed in 1929. This runs from the main reception area, where some of the offices are now. Of special importance was the inclusion of the chapel in this extension. This was consecrated on 28 February, 1932, by the Bishop of Southern Rhodesia, the Rt Reverend E F Paget. The altar is made of Indian teak and the cross and candlesticks were specially designed in London, similar to those used in St-Martins-in-the-Field church in Trafalgar Square, London. The seating capacity is 40, and Anglican services are still held in the chapel at 7.30am every Sunday.
The Royal Visit
T. G. Colquhoun took over the management of the hotel in 1937 and he played host to many Allied soldiers travelling north, and to the many airmen receiving their basic training, during the Second World War, in the then Southern Rhodesia. Vincent Tones took over from Colquhoun after the war, and he remained until 1961.
Almost immediately on arrival, Tones was involved in preparations for the Royal Visit of his Majesty King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret. This took place in 1947 and the royal party took over the whole hotel. The Queen occupied the suite in the south hammerhead, which for many years was named the Queen’s Suite, but now is called the Livingstone Suite.
At around this time, the Solent flying boat service was started from London to South Africa. The flying boats landed on the Zambezi and passengers disembarked, to spend a night or two at The Victoria Falls Hotel before their onward journey either by road or air. Food rationing still existed in England after the war – and passengers were always impressed by the sumptuous catering on board, which was provided by the hotel.
Tourist levels continued to increase and by the end of 1947 more than 11,000 visitors had been accommodated by The Victoria Falls Hotel. Decisions were taken to increase the size of the hotel once more.
In 1950 the second floor was added to the court wing, which included a conference room – then called the Pullman Suite. Many conferences were held here for government, railways and private businesses. Southern Africa, including the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), was promoted heavily overseas, and tourism continued to flourish.
In 1961 a section of the lounge was modified to make a new cocktail bar. This was air-conditioned – the first in the country - and the bar was called the Rainbow Room. The 60s also saw the addition of a bank, a hairdressing salon and a curio shop in the foyer.
One of the most notable government conferences held in The Victoria Falls Hotel was the one convened to work out the break-up of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1963.
Flame Lily Holidays
Although the numbers of visitors had shown a slight decline in 1961, luxury liner and air travel soon reversed this. Groups of passengers from exotic cruise liners arriving in South Africa flew up to the Falls, and with the advent of the Flame Lily air holiday packages, linking Wankie (now Hwange), Kariba and the Falls, the number of arrivals increased to almost 22,000 visitors in the year ending June 1967.
1970 was an important year in the history of The Victoria Falls Hotel. For the second time only since 1904, the railways leased out the hotel - to Rhodesia Breweries. This provided capital for essential extensions and refurbishments to the hotel. Pounds, shillings and pence were replaced by dollars and cents and the Breweries provided funding in the sum of $580,000 for essential modernisation, such as air-conditioning in all rooms, with the exception of the Livingstone Room, and construction of the rooms above the lounge was completed.
Many smaller rooms were converted into bathrooms and at the end the hotel was awarded three stars. However, the closure of the border with Zambia and ensuing isolation of Rhodesia impacted greatly on tourism, while Victoria Falls was once again the scene of much military activity.
Tourism boom period
Every room in the hotel had a sign detailing the action to be taken in the event of an attack, but the grand old hotel survived unscathed; the only incident appears to have been a mistake when a mortar fired from the Zambian side of the river landed near the laundry.
With the emergence of Zimbabwe as a nation in April 1980, came Zimbabwe Sun Hotels – the successors to Southern Sun. Business levels remained low until the late 1980s, when Zimbabwe’s tourism boom period started, lasting right through to 1999.
On 15 January,1996, for the first time in the history of The Victoria Falls Hotel, it closed its doors, to allow for the largest yet refurbishment and expansion. During the ten weeks of closure, with staff working 18 hours a day, the hot and cold water pipes were replaced; the old coal-fired boilers removed and replaced with environmentally friendly electric geysers; the steam operated laundry was replaced with electric equipment and a new electricity sub-station was built, equipped and commissioned. The entire building was fitted with smoke detectors, fire alarms and a water sprinkler system.
At the same time, the front entrance of the hotel was demolished and rebuilt using original pictures and plans, to bring it back to its former grandeur. The same meticulous restoration work was done to the reception area, main lounge and the terrace.
The nightly barbecue which used to take place below the terrace was removed. The concrete paving was taken away and that area has now once more reverted to verdant lawns, adorned with flowers, shrubs and indigenous trees. Wooden benches are now in place under the trees for guests to relax and look out across the gardens to the bridge. The hotel introduced a new restaurant called Jungle Junction, named after the reach of water on the Zambezi where the flying boats were serviced in the old days. Luncheon and dinner are served there.
A new look out point below the terrace, facing directly on to the Victoria Falls Bridge and the Batoka Gorge, is another classic addition to the landscaped gardens and lower terrace. The famous Livingstone Room, re-decorated in 1994, now with gold walls replacing the previous sugar pink, had the welcome addition of air-conditioning during the 1996 closure, whilst still retaining the old-fashioned ceiling fans.
All public areas were tastefully refurbished in keeping with the Edwardian period. The lofty ceilings, with fans gently tempering the heat of summer days,encourage guests to walk around the wide corridors in comfort, each one an art gallery,showing in pictures the long history of the hotel.
The swimming pool has been enlarged, a fountain added and the Edwardian arches of yesteryear restored. All bedrooms now have multi-channel satellite television and access to broadband wifi connectivity– both essential services for modern travellers.
The Stables Wing was added in 1997 with 44 new rooms, comprising42 executive twin-rooms and two honeymoon suites. Built around a similar courtyard and joined to the existing hotel, this wing was constructed in the same Edwardian style.
The bathrooms in the Sables Wing have free-standing baths with ball and claw feet and walk-in showers; a bygone age re-captured. All existing bedrooms in the main hotel were totally refurbished during late 1997 and early 1998, returned in style to the Edwardian era, in keeping with the rest of the hotel.
Leading Hotels of the World
In mid 1998 another exciting development took place when Meikles Africa Hotels bought a 50%stake in The Victoria Falls Hotel, and since then the hotel has been jointly run by African Sun, formerly Zimbabwe Sun, and by Meikles.For some time Meikles Hotel in Harare had been a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, a prestigious groupingthat includes some of the best hotels on each continent. The Victoria Falls Hotel was approved amember of this exclusive group in 1999 and these two are still the only members in Zimbabwe of The Leading Hotels of the World.
The 2000s brought a decline in tourism. During the past decade, however, strenuous efforts by the Victoria Falls travel and tourism community brought about a campaign to restore the fortunes of the area, and this has been successful in reviving visitor levels considerably.
Major refurbishment of The Victoria Falls Hotel has taken place in recent years, ranging from substantial improvements to behind-the-scenes plant and equipment to the upgrading of public areas, bedrooms and suites. This is all necessary to prepare the hotel for the likely steady improvement in visitor numbers in coming years.