The Birchenough Bridge

The Birchenough Bridge

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Birchenough Bridge is 118km from Mutare and 181km from Masvingo on the A9 which connects Masvingo to Mutare.

By crossing the Save River, the Bridge gave people living in the eastern districts access to the central districts of Zimbabwe. Birchenough Bridge crosses the Save River with a single arch which rises to 85.344 metres (280 feet) above the river, and is 329 metres (1,080 feet) in length, the third longest span in the World in 1936 after the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Bayonne Bridge at New York. 


1935: An Iconic Bridge Opens in Southern Africa

December 20, 1935

Birchenough Bridge made its debut in what was then the British Crown Colony of Southern Rhodesia (now the independent Republic of Zimbabwe). Sir Herbert Stanley, governor of Southern Rhodesia, officially opened the bridge, which was constructed across the Save River (also known as the Sabi River) to serve as a major link along the route between the town of Chipinge and the village of Buhera in the eastern part of the colony. The London-based Guardian Newspaper reported that the bridge was built to provide the region with access “to the important markets of Salisbury (now Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare), (the City of Bulawayo), and the Union of South Africa (the present-day Republic of South Africa).”

At the time of its opening, Birchenough Bridge with a length of 329 metres (1,080 feet) was surpassed only by the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia and the Bayonne Bridge in the United States as the world’s longest single-arch suspension bridge. Consequently the two bridges bear a close resemblance, although Birchenough is only two-thirds as long as the Australian bridge.

Birchenough Bridge was designed by engineer Ralph Freeman, who had also designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he is now best known for his work on both of those structures. In the 1970s a 40-tonne load limit was imposed on the bridge but in 1984 the bridge was widened (roadway from 7.2 m to 10 m wide) and strengthened as part of the World Bank’s Highway Project One, but in 2000 its load capacity was reduced and only vehicles weighing less than 25 tonnes are allowed to cross. The bridge was funded at a cost of £145 000.00.

Birchenough Bridge was named in honour of businessman Sir John Henry Birchenough, who served as chairman of the Beit Trust. The foundation had been set up by gold and diamond magnate Alfred Beit to help finance infrastructure development in Southern Rhodesia as well as the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now the independent Republic of Zambia). The Beit Trust provided the funding for the construction of Birchenough Bridge. Birchenough died about a year and a half after the bridge bearing his name was opened, and him and his wife’s ashes are contained in one of the structures.


Birchenough Bridge has become one of Zimbabwe’s most cherished engineering landmarks. An image of the bridge even appeared on the country’s 20-cent coin. Birchenough Bridge is also the name for a village that was established near the structure.

The bridge was erected using the same process as that used for the Victoria Falls Arch and subsequently for the Sydney Arch, by building out the arch in two halves as cantilevers, anchored back to the rock shores by wire ropes. The anchorage ropes used were the actual ropes used for the Sydney Harbour Bridge and are now incorporated in the Birchenough Bridge as the suspenders of the roadway.

Material was delivered to the west bank of the river by road and the rapid and completely successful transport of the heavy and cumbrous pieces of material under conditions of exceptional difficulty, was an achievement for which great credit is due to the Rhodesia Railways Road Transport organisation and to the Roads Department of the Govern­ment of Southern Rhodesia. The steelwork for the east side was carried across the river by a cableway.

Foundations were commenced in April 1934 and were ready for steelwork in November. The arch span was completed on June 17th, 1935, and the concrete roadway was practically complete at the end of September, 1935.

The only work then remaining was unimportant auxiliary construction and painting. The whole of the works were finished so as to enable the bridge to be opened to traffic on December 20th, 1935, the time occupied by the entire construction being 20 months.

The contractors for the supply of steel, manufacture of steelwork, and erection, were Dorman Long & Company Ltd, of Middlesbrough, England, whose previous experience as the builders of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Arch Bridge with 530 feet span over the Tyne, Newcastle, was of great value.

Credits: Zimfieldguide, Wikipedia, Transportation

Photo Credits: Zimfieldguide, Darrel Plowes, Wikipedia.

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