Cape to Cairo railway and the Victoria Falls Bridge

Year:1889 and 1905

Duration:16+ years and 2 years

Cost:Unknown

Country: Africa

What did this project achieve?

Build a railway to connect Africa from south to north

The Cape to Cairo railway is an uncompleted railway crossing Africa from south to north.

First proposed by Daily Telegraph editor Edwin Arnold in 1874, the idea was taken up by British entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes.

Rhodes was a businessman, mining magnate and politician. He remains a controversial figure, criticised for his imperialist views and belief in white supremacism.

The rail link aimed to connect areas of Africa between Cape Town in South Africa and Cairo in Egypt that were controlled at the time by the British Empire.

The line was never completed – there is no section between Sudan and Uganda.

Work on the scheme was interrupted between 1899 and 1902 by the second Boer War – fought between Britain and the self-governing Afrikaner (Boer) colonies of the South African Republic. The conflict is also known as the Anglo-Boer War and the South African War.

After the war ended, work on the railway continued well into the 20th century. This phase of the scheme saw the construction of what’s considered the engineering highlight of the line – the Victoria Falls Bridge, crossing the Zambezi river.

The bridge is a steel parabolic arch. A parabolic arch is mirror-symmetrical and approximately U-shaped. The bridge is 128m above the water and has a span of 198m. When it opened in 1905, it was the highest bridge in the world.

Difference the project has made

Although original ideas for the railway were bound up in imperialist thinking – it was largely intended to transport minerals from mines worked by colonial powers – the line has formed the basis for much of the rail infrastructure along its route across Africa.

The Victoria Falls Bridge connects Zimbabwe and Zambia - the Zambezi river forms the border between the two countries.

The structure has become a popular tourist site, helping to boost the local economy.

How the work was done

The Victoria Falls Bridge crosses the Zambezi river just downstream of the Victoria Falls – the world’s largest waterfall.

Along with much of the material for the railway line, components for the bridge came from Britain. They were carried by ship to Mozambique and transported to the construction site by rail.

Engineers then had the major challenge of getting building materials to the other side of the Zambezi.

Project workers fired a rocket with a thin cable attached across the gorge. They used this thin cable to pull progressively thicker and stronger ropes across. The final cable was made up of 19 steel wires woven around a hemp core. With a circumference of 8.5 inches (21.6cm), it weighed five tonnes.

Engineers attached an electric conveyor to the cable – allowing materials to be carried across the river. The bridge was built out from both sides of the gorge, meeting in the middle.

The structure was designed so it had no parts that could trap water from the nearby waterfall. Engineers painted the bridge silver-grey to make rust easy to spot.

 

"​‌

My railway would be the backbone and spinal cord to direct, consolidate, and give life to the numerous systems of side railways which will connect the vast central road with the seas on either hand.

Cecil Rhodes

Imperialist, entrepreneur and politician on the Cape to Cairo railway.

Fascinating facts

Although it’s not the highest or the widest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls is classified as the largest. This is based on its combined width of 1,708m and height of 108m - creating the world's largest sheet of falling water.

Victoria Falls is about twice the height of the Niagara Falls, on the border between Canada and New York state in North America.

Victoria Falls is about twice the height of the Niagara Falls, on the border between Canada and New York state in North America.

People who made it happen

Cape to Cairo railway

  • Client: Cecil Rhodes
  • Chief engineer: Sir Charles Metcalfe
  • Consulting engineer: George Pauling

Victoria Falls Bridge

  • Designers: GS Hobson, Ralph Freeman
  • Consulting engineers: Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company

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