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.
During the dry months (between May and mid-November), you can also opt for a thrilling, photo-worthy excursion: a dip in the Devil’s Pool, which sits at the top of Victoria Falls. A guide swims with you to a natural rock formation at the very edge of the falls, where it looks as if you are about to go over the edge. Luckily, the natural rock wall just below the water’s surface stops you from being washed over despite the current.
About 247km north of Victoria Falls is the town of Chitambo. And about 30km further lies a small village called Chirundu, where Livingstone died in May 1873 of malaria during his exploration of the rivers north of Lake Bangeweulu. At first, Livingstone’s superstitious servants refused to move his body, but relented after they buried his heart under a mvule tree near the spot where he died, saying that the explorer’s heart belonged in Africa. The date of his death and the names of his three servants were carved into the tree, and today a large cairn marks the spot where the tree used to stand. His embalmed body was eventually wrapped in bark and sailcloth, and his servants carried it to Zanzibar to be sent back to England.
Lower Zambezi National Park
About 45km east of Zambia’s capital Lusaka and 373km northeast from Livingstone, the Lower Zambezi National Park offers an opportunity to explore the Zambezi river, just like Livingstone did in his heyday. In 1842, he began a four-year expedition to find a route from the upper Zambezi to the eastern coast near Mozambique.
As one of the first medical missionaries to enter southern Africa and the first European to explore the region, Livingstone’s observations filled huge gaps in western knowledge of central and southern Africa. And while his initial goal was to spread Christianity and bring trade to these regions, later missions were focused on ending the slave trade in Africa, exploring the Zambezi and its tributaries, and later, finding the source of the Nile.
Today, game such as packs of elephants, water buffalo and water buck wander in and out of the Zambezi channels, while lions and leopards can be spotted within the park grounds. Several local tour operators such as Wilderness Travel offer canoe trips along the Chongwe River, which makes up the western boundary of the park.
Tour operators Robin Pope Safaris and Club Travel are celebrating Livingstone’s achievements in 2013 by offering packages that retrace his journey, allowing adventurous travellers to do all the things that Livingstone did centuries before, such as game viewing, boating, hiking, rhino tracking, cultural tours and sailing.