The History of Zambia’s Tourist Capital: Livingstone Town

Sara Drawwater
28 August 2013
Livingstone began as a small European settlement at Old Drift, a site on the north bank of the Zambezi River about ten kilometres upriver of the Victoria Falls (now within Mosi-Oa-Tunya National…

With Zambia’s just ended co-hosting of the world’s biggest tourism assembly, the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO), in Livingstone, we couldn’t have picked a better time to share some fun facts about one of the host towns — Livingstone. Dubbed as the tourism capital of Zambia and home to one of the world’s heritage sites –Victoria Falls — Livingstone offers a mix of culture, adventure and history that is not easily ignored.

The beginningLivingstone began as a small European settlement at Old Drift, a site on the north bank of the Zambezi River about ten kilometres upriver of the Victoria Falls (now within Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park). The Drift was a crossing place on the Zambezi at its narrowest point, facilitating trade between Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

For centuries, the falls region has been inhabited by the Leya people. Today it is under two traditional rulerships, Chief Mukuni on the eastern side and Chief Sekute on the western side.

Livingstone owes its existence primarily to the Victoria Falls. The town was fittingly named after the first European to visit, name and publicise the Victoria Falls, Dr. David Livingstone. The Scottish missionary and explorer’s journey opened up central Africa to missionaries, hunters, traders and prospectors.

A ferry crossing started business at the Old Drift, nine kilometres above the Victoria Falls. This was soon followed by a fast growing settlement also known as Old Drift. The settlement was badly sited in a low lying and marshy land. Malaria took a heavy toll on the inhabitants.

The discovery of coal deposits at Wankie in Southern Rhodesia and copper deposits in the Zambezi/Congo watershed necessitated the building of a railway and prompted the authorities to find a better site for town.

The new townIn 1904, the railway from Bulawayo reached the Victoria Falls and in 1905 the bridge across Batoka Gorge joining Northern and Southern Rhodesia. The completion of the bridge was celebrated with a lot of tourism activity which included the first international regatta.

The Old Drift was unhealthy and far from the railway. This led the colonial administration choosing to move to the eastern slope of the sandy ridge, ten kilometres north of the falls, creating a new town. This site, being high and away from the river, was considered healthier. Major Robert Coryndon was the Administrator for North Western Rhodesia at the time, with his capital at Kalomo.

By 1904, Old Drift settlement changed its name to Livingstone after David Livingstone. And this was the name chosen for the new town. All that is left of Old drift is the cemetery and a few exotic tress. Livingstone, as we know it, was born.

Livingstone milestonesIn 1907 Livingstone became the capital of what was then known as the North Western Rhodesia. By that time the town had grown to include two hotels, a restaurant, two mineral water factories, two butcheries, a barbershop, a chemist and four building contractors.

In 1911 Livingstone became the capital of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). But in 1935, the capital was moved to Lusaka. Livingstone retained its tourist capital status though, largely because of its proximity to the Victoria Falls. And it’s because of the falls that Livingstone is now the adventure capital not only of Zambia but of Southern Africa.

It was from Livingstone that Sobek initiated the first ever rafting expedition down the Batoka gorge. Small beginnings for what is becoming one of the world’s biggest white — water attractions. It was from Livingstone that Kiwi Extreme initiated one of the world’s highest commercial bungee jumps off Victoria Falls Bridge.

With canoeing, horse riding, game viewing, cultural dancing, Livingstone Island luncheons, and microlight flights over the falls, the adventure capital crown is well-deserved.

Historical gemsHistory lovers will find Livingstone historically alive. Many buildings from the first decade of the century are still in use such as the North Western Hotel initially erected in 1907, and upgraded and expanded in 1909. Nanoos, now a supermarket, was built by one of the first settlers at Old Drift, Mopani Clark. Originally the bar was both a bar and a store. St. Andrews church was dedicated in 1911.

The Livingstone museum houses a substantial collection of Doctor Livingstone’s personal effects as well as substantial displays of Zambia’s ethnological and ethnographic heritage. Stone age men frequented the Livingstone area and some of their artefacts are stored in the museum.

The railway museum, housed in the old saw mill side buildings, always proves attractive to Steam Train buffs and casual visitors alike.

With all the tourism activities outlined, the town was declared the tourism capital of Northern Rhodesia in 1936 and it remains so to this day.

This article, originally entitled “History of Livingstone”, is reprinted from a leaflet produced by the Zambia Tourism Board on the recent 20th session of the UNWTO General Assembly held in Livingstone, Zambia, and Victoria Falls town, Zimbabwe.