David Livingstone is generally given credit to be the first European to discover and view the falls in 1855, although there are other candidates! He had returned to the Zambezi in May 1853 and was determined to explore the possibility of opening up routes from either the east or west coasts of Africa to open up the interior to Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation.
Whilst on this mssion, he heard tales of a great waterfall, and in November 1855 he set out to visit it. Accompanied by a sympathetic Chief, Sekeletu, and by some 200 Africans, he left Linyanti for Old Sesheke, and then followed the river downstream.
The rains had already broken and the party had an uncomfortable passage downstream to the Katombora Rapids. At the rapids the party was forced to leave their canoes and proceed along the riverbank. Two days after leaving Old Sesheke, Livingstone reached Kalai Island on which he saw the graves of Sekute Leya Chiefs, surrounded with a fence of seventy large elephant tusks.
It is interesting to note that 150 years later, the grave is still visible, marked with heavily weathered teak railway sleepers buried upright in the ground, with which the descendants of Chief Sekute replaced the ivory-tusk fence when it had weathered away.
After a night on the island, Livingstone set out to the Falls. Sekeletu had intended to accompany him, but as only one canoe could be found, he had to stay behind.
A diary entry, in one of the rough notebooks in which Livingstone used to make day-to-day notes, reads;
"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 expanded in his journal notes, published in 1857, which he wrote up once or twice a week, writing:
"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."
He was struck by the beauty of the river and its banks, recording emotively in his diary:
"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."
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 had already enchanted Livingstone, who felt the landscape only missing a backdrop:
"The only want felt is that of mountains in the background. The falls are bounded on three sides by ridges 300 or 400 feet in height, which are covered with forest, with the red soil appearing among the trees."
About one kilometre upstream of the falls Livingstone transferred to a smaller, lighter canoe and proceeded in this to the island between Main and Rainbow Falls which is today known as Livingstone Island. Landing on the island, he obtained his first view of the falls, which he named after Queen Victoria, from what must be one of the most impressive viewpoints.
The following passage describes his journey to the edge 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. 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 Zambezi, and saw that a stream of a thousand yards broad leaped down a hundred feet, and then became suddenly compressed into a space of fifteen or twenty yards... the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa."
Livingstone's estimates of the length and width of the gorge are gross under-estimates - he wrote in 1857
"Whoever may come after me will not, I trust, have reason to say I have indulged in exaggeration."
Livingstone incorrectly concluded that the Falls were the result of a fault line in the rock being pulled apart to create a fissure into which the river fell, and he assumed the gorges below to be a series of hills through which the river then flowed:
"In looking down into the fissure on the right of the island, one sees nothing but a dense white cloud, which, at the time we visited the spot, had two bright rainbows on it. From this cloud rushed up a great jet of vapour exactly like steam, and it mounted 200 or 300 feet high; there condensing, it changed its hue to that of dark smoke, and came back in a constant shower, which soon wetted us to the skin...
"On the left of the island we see the water at the bottom, a white rolling mass moving away to the prolongation of the fissure, which branches off near the left bank of the river... On the left side of the island we have a good view of the mass of water which causes one of the columns of vapour to ascend, as it leaps quite clear of the rock, and forms a thick unbroken fleece all the way to the bottom. Its whiteness gave the idea of snow, a sight I had not seen for many a day. As it broke into (if I may use the term) pieces of water, all rushing on in the same direction, each gave off several rays of foam, exactly as bits of steel, when burned in oxygen gas, give off rays of sparks. The snow-white sheet seemed like myriads of small comets rushing on in one direction, each of which left behind its nucleus rays of foam."
Livingstone returned to the island the following day, in the company of Sekeletu, who had not seen the Falls before. On the island Livingstone planted a number of peach and apricot stones and some coffee seeds. He arranged for one of the Makololo to return and make a hedge around the garden to protect it from hippopotami. When the garden was prepared, Livingstone cut his initials and the date 1855 on a tree on the island, which he called Garden Island. Baldwin, the second European to visit the Falls and who was still there when Livingstone returned for his second visit, recorded "the Doctor tells me that it is the only place, from the West Coast to the East, where he had the vanity to cut his initials."
Today there is no sign of the garden and the tree bearing indecipherable marks commonly thought to be the initials carved by the missionary cannot be the original. Indeed Thomas Baines, who visited the Falls in 1862, only seven years after Livingstone, records that he visited Livingstone Island and found that the garden planted by Livingstone had planted there had been trampled by hippopotami and was completely overgrown. Elephant and hippopotami were until recently the only regular visitors to the island, and today's visitors are rewarded with the magnificent view, virtually unchanged since Livingstone's first sight of the Falls.
Leaving the Falls, Livingstone headed north-eastwards to the Kafue following it downstream to its confluence with the Zambezi, which he then followed, with only a detour near the Cabora Bassa rapids, to reach the Indian Ocean at Quelimane in May 1856, from where he returned to England.
He later received a gold medal from the London Royal Geographical Society as the first explorer to cross the African continent from west to east.