Born in Scotland, David Livingstone arrived in Africa in 1840 at the age of 27 as a missionary and physician. He spent most of the remainder of his life on the continent, his exploits making him the most famous explorer of the century. An encounter with a lion in 1843 cost Livingstone the use of his left arm. Undeterred, Livingstone continued his exploration of the African interior, particularly the Zambezi River area in 1852-1856. It was during this expedition that he became the first European to witness the magnificence o f Victoria Falls.
In early November 1855, Livingstone travelled down the Zambezi River to see for himself the area the natives called “smoke that thunders.” Approaching the spot in canoes, the party could see the columns of spray and hear the thunderous roar of water miles away from the falls:
“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.
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 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. 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.
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.”