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Crossing the Zambezi

Crossing the Zambezi

Jul 2013

By Amos van der Merwe

I don’t like border crossings, and I hate ferries.

Other travelling problems pale into insignificance compared with ferry crossings. For instance, there was the time I didn’t realise my vehicle’s licence had expired, but that was a relatively minor difficulty that involved no more than a forced three-day stay in the no-man’s land between Namibia and Botswana. If you haven’t done this, you haven’t experienced the joys of overland travel in Africa.

But ferries? For me, they represent a far more terrifying situation. At Kazungula, terror meets horror when you have to cross the border via the ancient ferry. This ramshackle contraption dates from Noah’s Great Flood. It is held together with duct tape and rusted bolts. Crossing the Zambezi on this must represent the ultimate experience of naked fear.

Now, don’t think of fear as the sudden feeling of iced water running down your spine. That’s called panic. What I’m talking about is the prolonged paralysis bordering on insanity, caused by the helpless feeling that you are nearing death.

First of all, there’s The Wait. That’s when you reach the edge of the river, only to find the rest of Africa lined up in a patient queue where time is of no consequence. The meat vendors, foreign exchange swindlers, ladies of probable ill-repute and holy-faced evangelists will take turns to make you an offer you can’t refuse.

Clever young men with brilliantly white smiles will offer you – at a price – a chance to jump the queue, take your money and promise to be back shortly. Good luck. And then, horror of horrors, a fugitive family (of at least eight) will beg for a lift to the nearest town on the other side of the river.

Step two involves getting your vehicle down the sandy slope, grating over the rusted onramp with just enough momentum to avoid getting stuck (the shame!) and not crashing into the grader parked on board, leaving you two millimetres to spare on all sides. This is accomplished with loud shouts of encouragement on your way to the onramp (Go, go, mhlungu!) and cries of dismay while you barrel towards the grader (Stop, stop, you stupid man!). The voices reach a crescendo when your vehicle’s winch slams into the grader with a horrible noise.

The third step is the painful one: dislodging your winch from the tail-end of the said grader (Pull harder at the back, you men!). This involves a certain amount of swearing – and liberal tips afterwards. Forget carbon tax – that’s nothing compared to the demand of half the population in Botswana lining up for a just reward after helping you so much.

Crossing the river on the rickety barge is the fastest way to convert to true faith. With the two huge diesel engines spewing out enough smoke and soot to make Eskom look like a branch of Greenpeace, it is best to keep one’s eyes closed while you kneel under any available cover. The problem is that in that position, the ominous rattling, shuddering and shaking of the deck plates cannot be ignored any longer. I’m sure they take bets every time the ferry leaves the loading point. (Five to one she doesn’t make it this time... Come on, you can’t lose!)

While crossing the river, I couldn’t stop looking at the swirling waters, wondering how many crocodiles were waiting patiently for the meal that must, surely, be delivered one of these fine days. They must think it’s like a KFC drive-through in reverse. In this situation, it’s the vehicle that carries the meal.

On the up side – if you are brave enough – you can stock up on bananas, dagga or booze while in transit. Hopeful vendors sell their wares at inflated prices, counting on you being so terrified that you won’t notice the intellectual gymnastics they use to calculate the exchange rate. Between the high-pitched whining of the turbines that drive the craft, the hopeful banging of the chief engineer hammering away at the failing engines with an oversized crowbar, and the shouts of dismay every time the barge lists this way or that, it slews its way across the stretch of water with the certainty and grace of a drunken hippo.

The last phase – before trying to figure out where to get your passport stamped/pay carbon tax/get the third party papers/ pay the local environmental fees/ clear customs – is getting your vehicle off the ferry.

Theoretically, this should be easy. The off-ramp is straight ahead, so one should simply be able to drive off this behemoth of ancient marine technology, on to dry land.

Think again, McCain. The Coke lorry, 17 taxis and the grader are going ahead of you. Work it out: several hundred tons are leaving the ferry, making the barge considerably lighter – and thus riding higher and higher in the water. Add to that the fact that every vehicle contributes to the deep ruts in the soft and slippery mud leading up the river bank, and you get the picture.

I’ve always admired the skill of horsemen guiding their steeds over various obstacles in eventing championships, but they have the advantage of a thinking being that helps them to conquer the course. To take a vehicle (that must still take you thousands of kilometres into the bundu) down that ramp requires an unshakeable belief that it can fly. But the bone-jarring thump between leaving the ramp and landing in the mud of the river bank will convince you that Newton was right, after all.

I suppose skidding to a halt on terra firma, all in one piece, must count among the most relieved moments of my life. I didn’t mind the knowing smiles of the other drivers and pedestrians while I was inspecting the dent in my petrol tank, nor the disapproving looks of the unsuccessful vendors. I had made it safely, and that’s the only thing that counted. That’s when I reached over to the back seat to get a cold Castle. I wanted to sit there for a while to enjoy the terror of the guys waiting to get their 4x4s on board to cross to the other side. I, on the other hand, had no worries. Ahead was the border post and after that, miles and miles of nice solid road. What a relief!

“You cannot drink here!” The commanding voice was edged with anger.

“I beg your pardon?” I tried to look innocent as the uniformed soldier unslung his AK 47.

“This is a border post. No drinking.” He called over a comrade. “Let’s see what this man is smuggling into the country.”

My heart sank. I had two weeks worth of booze, plenty of red meat and three cartons of cigarettes – and I knew that was way over the permissible quotas.

“Please...” I didn’t know what to say. “I haven’t been to customs yet...” It sounded lame, but it was all I had. “Technically I’m not in the country yet.” The soldier thought about that. “If you’re not here, then you should leave.”

African logic at its best. I pleaded. Used my best negotiating skills. Promised the world. It was no use. Either I got searched and had my excess supplies confiscated, or returned to wherever I came from. And I’ll have you know, all because of taking a sip of Mr Glass’s best brew.

So, four hours later I was back on the ferry, watching the swirling waters passing by and wondering about the crocs waiting in the depths below.

My psychiatrist tells me fear is irrational. He says one must analyse the origins of fear, deal with it, and move on. He’s put me on medication, but it isn’t helping at all. The only thing that will sort out my fear of ferries is a bridge over the Zambezi – and I hear there’s one coming within the next few years.

Then, at last, I’ll be able to cross Zambia off my bucket list.

If I get through the border post, that is.


Source: Leisure wheels

Leisure wheels