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Bridging the Zambezi

Bridging the Zambezi

Bridging the Zambezi
GIGI GIUMBEAU

Livingstone foresaw the Zambezi as an economic gateway for Africa. How wrong he was!

When Victorian explorer Dr David Livingstone built a paddle steamer and started his exploratory journey from the Zambezi Delta, his goal was to open the interior of the continent to commercial development. From the time that his expedition floundered disappointingly at the Cahora Bassa rapids, politicians, economists and engineers in numbers have regarded the Zambezi as a colossal obstruction to regional trade and communication.

Unlike most watercourses of the region, at no time of the year is this great river fordable by vehicles at any point in its length of over 2,500km. Ferries were drafted into early use but they proved inefficient and unreliable when pitted against the might of the Zambezi in full flow. Inevitably, bridges started to span this natural obstacle, at first slowly and now, as Africa shakes off her economic doldrums, with a greater intensity.

The first bridge to be completed was the famed one that overlooks the Victoria Falls, which was finished in 1905. Since then a bridge and a dam have been completed in Mozambique and a further one is under construction, two more bridges and a dam link Zambia to Zimbabwe, a road bridge connects Namibia to Zambia, one foot bridge swings precariously over the Zambezi in northern Zambia, and a new bridge is due to start construction next year which will link Botswana to Zambia. The cast of characters which played defining roles in the construction of these dams and bridges included some of the wealthiest and most powerful men on the continent in their time – Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate after whom the Rhodesias were named, and Sir Otto Beit – a contemporary of Rhodes who was responsible for sponsoring four major bridges in the region.

A devout Capuchin brother, virtually single-handedly, designed and threw a pedestrian bridge across the Zambezi with no engineering background and no skilled staff. A host of others went on to become famous – including the Frenchman, Andre Coyne, who counted the Kariba Dam wall among the 70 bridges that he designed.

The integrity of the Zambezi has so far been breached eight times with the ninth crossing nearing completion and the tenth bridge in the pipeline. The Zambezi no longer holds trade between African countries to ransom, with the result that commerce is starting to truly flourish, advancing the prediction that Africa is to become the next great economic star.

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)

Read more on Bridging the Zambezi:
Bridging the Zambezi
Bridge in the mist
The banana bridge
The dam that became a bridge
A tale of two bridges
The arteries of Tete
The bridge of high treason
Swinging high