We came in much higher than you would expect for an airplane about to land, but at what seemed like beyond the last possible second, the sturdy old Viscount dove sharply towards the tank-lined runway at Victoria Falls, its propellers chopping sloppily at the air. Such evasive maneuvers were commonplace in a country racked by war. It was 1977, and a commercial passenger plane had never before been shot down by terrorists. But such aircraft were obviously very attractive, symbolic targets in a campaign to overthrow the Rhodesian government, so Air Rhodesia was not taking any chances.
Soon after we landed safely, we collected our luggage and boarded a bus. Several vehicles had recently been ambushed or blown up by land mines on the roadway from the airport to Victoria Falls, so anti-guerrilla tactics were commonplace. But before leaving the airport, I turned back and took a photograph of our aircraft, an ancient Vickers 748D Viscount, sitting on the runway. Our bus pulled away and slipped in to line in a convoy of other vehicles, with armored vehicles leading the way as well as bringing up the rear. It was a tense drive, but before long, we arrived at the A’Zambezi River Lodge safe and sound without incident.
We were just a stone’s throw from the border with Zambia, on the front lines of the Rhodesian Bush War, a war that within two years would bring the then-ruling government of Rhodesia to its knees.
By the 1960s, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA) and the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) were engaged in a bitter guerrilla war against Rhodesia’s white minority rulers. Guerrillas were training in other countries as well as getting significant material assistance from overseas. We visited Rhodesia in 1977, late in the second phase of the Bush War. The war had escalated and spread throughout the entire country. International pressure was increasing for an immediate transition from minority to majority rule, and this was accompanied by a significant surge in guerrilla activity. The Rhodesian government, which had seemed so resilient in the face of opposition for so many years, was backed in to a corner, in a difficult position from which escape seemed unlikely.
Armed conflict continued, but in 1978 and 1979 the country made some tentative moves away from white minority rule. When Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister of the newly-renamed Zimbabwe in 1980, things looked bright for the country. But over the next 30 years, Mugabe ruled with an iron fist and gradually drove the country into the ground. While creating an environment of corruption and repression, perhaps the most vivid image of the downfall of Zimbabwe is the economic chaos created by runaway hyper-inflation. There’s nothing like seeing photographs of someone standing in line to buy a loaf of bread, clutching a wad of $100 billion bills in their hand, wondering if they could afford to eat that day.
War paints an intensely vibrant picture, but not all of my memories of Rhodesia have to do with the details of war. We went there, after all, to see the falls.
Victoria Falls has long been known by the indigenous name “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, which means “The Cloud that Thunders.” David Livingstone, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, was the first European to see the falls, naming this natural wonder in honor of Queen Victoria. With a width of more than a mile and a vertical drop of over 350 feet, it is recognized as the largest waterfall in the world.
It’s hard to image a waterfall more sublimely spectacular than Victoria Falls. In the midst of a large, flat plateau, the ground under your feet suddenly breaks in two, and all of the water from one of the world’s mightiest rivers pours in a gigantic sheet over the precipice. A thunderous sound shakes the ground, and a heavy, rain-like mist soaks everything within a half mile. The mist rises in a gigantic cloud reaching more than a thousand feet into the sky. The face of the falls is so wide, and the mist so heavy, that at times it is difficult to fully perceive the awesome majesty of Victoria Falls.
Besides the falls themselves, there were so many other interesting things to see in this remote corner of Rhodesia. Native dancers performed for us around an open fire, their massive masks making them look both fierce and otherworldly. A young Rhodesian woman walked down to the river to collect water, her beautiful young baby strapped to her back with a carefully folded blanket. Vervet monkeys chattered in the trees above our heads, begging for handouts as we walked the path down towards the falls. And there are so many other wonderful things I remember from my short visit to this magnificent country. But in 1977 Rhodesia was a country firmly in the grips of war, and despite the carefree performance put on for tourists, you could see the evidence everywhere.
Even though the two countries were technically at war, our tour guide pointed to the Victoria Falls Bridge spanning the Zambezi between Rhodesia and Zambia just below the falls and told us that under the darkness of night, trade was still taking place. The Rhodesians would quietly push a train car full of goods out to the middle of the bridge, and then unhook it. Shortly thereafter, the Zambians would stealthily come out and retrieve the train car. Later, the process would be repeated in reverse, as the Zambians filled the train car with different goods in Livingstone and returned it to the Rhodesians. Capitalism rules, even in the midst of a brutal war.
ZIPRA was the dominant guerrilla force in the vicinity of Victoria Falls, operating out of bases in nearby Botswana and Zambia. The Rhodesian Army countered the rebel assault with Operation Ranger, which covered the northwest corner of the country, including the area around Victoria Falls.
Sitting on the balcony of our hotel, we heard something coming through the trees. Could it be an elephant? Was it possibly a lion? Or maybe it was a Cape buffalo, or another of the large species of wildlife this part of Africa is known for? But it wasn’t a wild animal at all; it was two camouflaged Rhodesian Army soldiers on patrol.
We grabbed our cameras and followed them down to banks of the Zambezi River, where they were scanning the opposite shore for possible rebel incursions from Zambia. It felt very tense and awkward to be sneaking photos of these soldiers from behind a tree—they were armed and at war, and I was just some stupid teenage kid from America trying to get a cool photograph. Luckily they never turned around and saw me. Ironically, at least to me, was the fact that these two soldiers were black: in defending against the attacks on white minority rule, the majority of the Rhodesian Army consisted of black soldiers.
When it was time to take the romantic sunset cruise along the Zambezi River, which was a standard part of the typical Victoria Falls tourist experience, the captain of the boat was very careful to not stray across the border, the imaginary line between Rhodesia and Zambia, that paradox of geography that can mean so much, even the difference between life and death, to so many people, yet which was utterly and completely irrelevant to the landscape. Geography doesn’t care much for man-made borders.
As tourists in a war zone, we made the best of our bizarre situation, somehow able to enjoy ourselves while remaining somewhat detached from the realities of the brutal Bush War going on around us. It was impossible to ignore things like the freakish-looking Leopard armored personnel carrier parked in front of the A’Zambezi River Lodge. But in a way it seemed almost surreal, an odd curiosity, like that vehicle had been conveniently placed out front of our hotel so that tourists could pose for pictures with it. And pose with it we did.
I heard later that the A’Zambezi River Lodge had burned to the ground, another casualty of the Rhodesian Bush War.
The evasive tactics our airplane took while coming in to Victoria Falls Airport may have seemed like overkill at the time, but shortly after our trip to Victoria Falls, I heard that two such aircraft had been shot down by rebel fighters. This was huge news in southern Africa, and marked the crux of the Rhodesian Bush War, but the international community mostly seemed to pay little notice.
The downing of the first aircraft was a particularly graphic example of the atrocities of war. On September 3rd, 1978 an Air Rhodesia Viscount was shot down near Kariba with a Strela 2 shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile manufactured in the Soviet Union. Struggling to maintain control of the crippled aircraft, the pilot attempted an emergency landing but lost control when the plane scraped the tops of some trees and then flipped over into a ditch and burst in to flames. Of the 52 passengers and 4 crew members on board the flight, 18 survived the impact. The ZIPRA rebels responsible for the attack followed the smoke to the wreckage of the downed aircraft and stabbed and shot 10 of the survivors to death. In the end, only eight people of the 56 on board survived the vicious ordeal.
Five months later, another Air Rhodesia Viscount aircraft was attacked by the ZIPRA rebels. The aircraft, known as the “Umniati” and registered as VP-YND, left Kariba on February 12th, 1979 on a flight to the capital city of Salisbury (today known as Harare). A Strela2 missile struck the aircraft shortly after takeoff and it crashed violently into a ravine near Kariba Dam. All 54 passengers and 5 crew members perished in this tragic attack.
Following these two incidents, Air Rhodesia instituted a number of countermeasures in an attempt to thwart future attacks. Aircraft were repainted to be non-reflective, and special exhaust pipes were installed on the engines to reduce heat signatures and prevent missiles from locking on to their targets.
The downing of the two Air Rhodesia Viscounts in late 1978 and early 1979 marked the first time that a militant group had successfully carried out a campaign of terror by downing commercial passenger planes. Many feel that the profound silence from the international community in the aftermath of these attacks encouraged other militant groups to mount similar attacks on civilian aircraft in other areas of conflict around the world.
Many more people died in the Rhodesian Bush War and the wider conflict than did in these two plane crashes. But the downing of the two planes was a hugely symbolic milestone in the Bush War, and marked the beginning of the end for the white minority government and the country known as “Rhodesia”.
I looked back in my album at the photograph I took of our airplane sitting on the runway at Victoria Falls Airport in July 1977. The registration number on the tail of the plane was VP-YND. It was the same exact plane that had been shot down by ZIPRA rebels in February 1979, killing 59 people.