One of Africa’s greatest explorers is making a comeback.
In 1856, Scottish explorer Dr David Livingstone became one of the first westerners to journey across Africa on foot, traversing from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. His discoveries filled in large holes in the continent’s map, including the immense Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the explorer’s birth, and as such, David Livingstone Bicentennial celebrations are taking place in the Zambian city of Livingstone through November. Planned events include a champagne reception and fireworks on Livingston’s birthday, 19 March, a June cultural festival and carnival representing the African countries he explored, a September regatta on the Zambezi river and a 16 November memorial on Livingstone Island, where the explorer first spotted Victoria Falls.
But travellers can also toast to the explorer any day or year by following in his footsteps through Zambia, the country that lays claim to both his most famous find and his buried heart.
Before you even see the falls, you hear and feel them. As you walk along the trail to the entrance, the sound of rumbling water churns in the background and your face is hit with a breeze of humidity and mist. At 2km wide and 100m tall, Victoria Falls is the world’s largest curtain of falling water, and is twice the width and height of Niagara Falls, which straddles the border between Ontario and New York. Visitors can see the falls from many vantage points: above from a helicopter or microlight fixed wing plane, at eye level walking across the Knife Edge Bridge that spans the width of the falls on the Zambian side, or from below on a hike.
As you approach Victoria Falls from the nearby town of Livingstone, you first have to pass a larger-than-life statue of the explorer. “Livingstone was the first European to see Victoria Falls and then spread the word about them,” said Dr Lawrence Dritsas, a lecturer at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh who specialises in the history of science and exploration in Africa. “Part of the reason the news of great waterfalls in central Africa was so exciting in the middle of the 19th Century was that many people assumed that the centre of the continent was a desert.”
Livingstone wrote about the magical falls in his book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa: "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.”
Located about 20km from Victoria Falls in the town of Livingstone, the colonial-era Livingstone Museum (Mosi-o-Tunya Road; 260-21-332-3566) is Zambia’s largest and oldest. Established in 1930, the museum has four galleries focused on the country and culture of the local Bantu people, spanning archaeology, ethnography art and natural history. You will also see displays of Livingstone’s personal belongings, such as medical equipment and musical instruments that he carried on his explorations; extensive maps and journals where he described his routes; and a model of the mangled arm bone used to identify his body when it was returned to England after his death.
Livingstone first saw Victoria Falls from tiny Livingstone Island, which sits on the Zambezi river on the lip of the falls. In 1857 he wrote: “Creeping with awe to the verge, I peered down into a large rent which had been made from bank to bank of the broad Zambezi … the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa."
And while Livingstone reached the island via dugout canoe, safari lodge Tongabezi – which owns the island – runs five speedboat trips to it per day, departing from the Royal Livingstone Hotel. Once on the island, a guided tour details the area’s history and includes a leisurely alfresco breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea.