Road Travel in Rhodesia

Before European settlement there were no roads, bridges, railways or any other aid to getting about what was to become Rhodesia. There were merely tracks made by wild animals and natives on foot, of whom just a few hundred thousand of the latter were scattered about the country in small communities. Before the arrival of the white man they had not yet discovered or made use of the wheel. In the early days of settlement travelling to Rhodesia and within the country was painfully slow. For an account of travel in the pioneer days of the 1890s use the link.

Until Rhodesia introduced its innovative strip road system in the 1930s, all roads outside the towns throughout Africa were no more than dirt or, at best, gravel surfaced. This meant that speeds were necessarily slow and during the rains even slower! But, more than anything, the real handicap to road travel in the early part of the 20th century was the lack of bridges. All rivers had to be forded across what were, and still are, known as drifts. However during the rainy season, which typically lasts from about November to March, these could become impassable in the space of a few hours and could remain blocked for many days.

Here is an example of what the traveller had to live with in the days before bridges.

Hunyani Drift at Sinioa in the dry season c 1925

This shows the Hunyani Drift at Sinioa in the dry season c 1925. A car can be seen carefully making its way across.


Hunyani Drift at Sinioa in the rainy season c 1925

This photo shows exactly the same view in the rainy season.

The problem is clear!


The Victoria Falls Bridge over the Zambezi was the first major bridge to be built and was completed in 1905 as part of Cecil Rhodes' Cape to Cairo railway project. To begin with it carried only railway traffic but, as road traffic increased, it was altered to allow motor traffic to cross from 1930.

Apart from the above which, as said, was rail only until 1930, no road bridges were built before the Great War.

It was only after the grant of self-government in 1923 that matters really moved forward. The new government of Sir Charles Coghlan started a programme of bridge building which, to begin with, consisted of low level bridges. Although still subject to flooding after heavy rains, budget constraints prevented the government from being able to build high level bridges.

The Lundi River low level bridge photographed in the 1950s

The Lundi River low level bridge photographed in the 1950s


But, as this photo from 1928 shows, it was still at risk of becoming impassible after heavy rain.

The Lundi River bridge in 1928 on the main road to S. Africa,

(photo by S. Rogers)


However, by 1939 three more major high level bridges were completed which enabled traffic to pass some of the main obstacles unhindered even by the most severe floods. All three were paid for by the Beit Trust from funds left by Alfred Beit for infrastructure development in Rhodesia.

These were the Alfred Beit Bridge over the Limpopo, Birchenough Bridge over the Sabi and the Otto Beit Bridge over the Zambezi at Chirundu.

Beit was a wealthy business compatriot of Cecil Rhodes and Beit Bridge, as it is generally known, was opened in 1929 and named after him.

In 1935 the Sabi River was crossed by a bridge named after Sir Henry Birchenough who became chairman of the trust in 1930.

The Otto Beit Bridge, opened in 1939, is named after a younger brother who had taken over administration of the trust upon the death of Alfred Beit in 1906.

Apart from bridges, the other major and quite innovative achievement was the construction of a network of "strip roads". Up until then, outside the towns even in South Africa, all roads were gravel, if you were lucky, or else graded dirt. After rain these roads were often quite a challenge and even in the dry winter season the gravel would frequently become corrugated. Rather counter-intuitively, even today on gravel roads, such corrugations run across the road rather that forming wheel grooved ruts along the road as might be imagined.

Before the Second World War the economically active white population was still relatively small and accordingly tax opportunities rather limited. Mindful of the ongoing financial constraints, strip roads consisted of two parallel strips of tar, one for each wheel of a car. These were much cheaper to build than having tar across the whole width and at that time modern double lane highways which allow cars to drive on tar in both directions were simply not required.  Given the very light traffic, strip roads were a really clever solution and on occasionally meeting an on-coming vehicle each car would simply give up one track by moving to the left and running the nearside wheels on the gravel.

In those days Rhodesia had the best roads in Africa!


A Rhodesian strip road south of Fort Victoria

A Rhodesian strip road south of Fort Victoria.  This was the main road to South Africa via Beitbridge until it was superceded by a full width double highway in the post independence era many years later.


AA Road Map of Rhodesia 1939

1939 AA Road Map showing extent of strip roads.

(Railways are not shown)


Lundi River High Level Bridge 1974

Problem Solved! - The Lundi River High Level Bridge