Crossing the Zambezi

Our guide had warned us that it might be a few hours wait before we could cross the Zambezi River from Botswana into Zambia. I feared the worst as we passed more than fifty large truck and trailer rigs parked on the side of the road. A few drivers languished near the rigs, but many trucks were unattended.

We were sixteen international travelers plus our guide and driver on a budget safari. Our van pulled a trailer loaded with tents, kitchen equipment and our luggage, making the vehicle rather long.

Zambezi Ferry

The ferry landing came into sight. A loaded ferry was just pulling back from the near shore. Loading ramps hung off both ends, suspended only high enough to avoid the splashing current. There were no buildings, not even a ticket booth. The muddy road dropped to the water level and terminated in the sloshing river. Several large trees provided ample shade for the people waiting.

The departing ferry carried a truck and trailer rig on one side and a line of smaller vehicles in the other lane. The weight of the commercial rig caused the ferry to list badly. A smattering of people, bundles and boxes filled in the gaps. After a black cloud of diesel smoke spewed from the engines on either side, the ferry picked up speed to a crawl, fighting the massive current. The captain pointed the vessel upstream at an angle to crab across to the Zambia shore.

The waiting trucks were held back from the landing so the ferries could load and unload without hindrance. Our van and trailer parked just short of a large muddy puddle. Two or three small vans and trucks pulled in behind it, also in line for the ferry.

My tour group of mostly young people jumped out of the van to wait in the shade.

Some well dressed Africans emerged from an SUV parked under the massive trees and shook out travel-weary limbs. One of them looked up, scanned for the bird that chirped persistently in the warm, humid air. Twenty or thirty Africans in small groups chatted in other spots of available shade. Most could have boarded the outbound ferry, but didn’t. That seemed odd. A second ferry idled offshore, waiting its turn to unload.

A cab sped down the hill, stopped in front of us and disgorged a woman and a colorful heap of fleece blankets. The “Mink Blankets”, according to the label, were all folded into sturdy plastic covers. When the trunk (“boot” in this British influenced country) was empty, the taxi sped away, leaving the woman to guard her pile.

I watched her with interest. One woman, with about ten large blankets and four boxes containing televisions sets. How on earth was she going to get all that onto the ferry? And then off again on the other side? And why would anyone want those blankets in this hot climate? Who could use ten of them? All at once? She had to be a merchant.

Supurb Starling

We studied the large mud puddle between our van and the shore. An earthen mound at the water’s edge separated the puddle from the river which was very high due to the abundant rainfall. Why hadn’t anyone cut a little drainage ditch from that puddle? I scanned the people for a ferry official, but no one looked the part. What was in that murky water? More importantly, could it be deep enough to drown an engine? Most vans and trucks had snorkels for such situations, but ours did not. The snorkels were extensions of the air intake that raised the opening level with the roof. All the vehicles had to pass through the puddle, so it couldn’t be too deep.

No one else seemed aware of this peril to our forward movement.

A wide expanse of cement sparkled in the sun on the far side of the approach road. An incomplete landing, it looked like it needed another layer to bring the surface level up two inches to meet the lip of a ramp next to the water, also not finished. Our guide told us that this all had been built in preparation for the new ferry which had a short working life on the river but broke down after four months. He pointed up stream to the now useless ferry. Stationery in a mass of reeds, rusty dribble already stained its hull.

Too bad the ramp wasn’t completed before the ferry went out of service.

From past experience, I’m guessing the ferry was a gift, probably from an international donor, and that it was waiting for a part. However, money for maintenance and parts is seldom included in international grants, nor money for properly trained mechanics.

My cynical mind rambled on. Bricks and mortar, or in this case machines, hard stuff that can be imported from the grantor’s home-country, and on which someone can make a profit. Who can make money off of maintenance?

Africa. Nothing changes.

When I taught in Tanzania more than forty years ago, we heard stories of rusting tractors, gifts from the United States, mired permanently in hand-tilled fields. They stood where they broke down possibly due to lack of engine oil, resulting in injuries to the engine past what simple tinkering could fix. Even though some Africans were clever mechanics, you can’t make a part for a sophisticated machine out of nothing.

International funders and corporations were not the only roadblocks to a smooth flow of traffic between the two countries. Later, I learned that a bridge had been planned for this crossing, but politics and corruption interfered. Perhaps all that did explain the current fragile condition of the ferries since they would not be needed after a bridge was completed.

Our guide let us know that we would probably get onto the next ferry. This was in spite of the line of trucks we had passed on the road. Only one of the heavy rigs can be transported on the small ferries so the drivers wait days, sometimes weeks, to cross.

Flame Tree Flowers

A tiny tongue of damp earth to the side of the ramp under construction promised to provide us the best access to the next ferry. Eyeing the opaque puddle, we decided to cross inland on dry ground, climb the short bank, walk down the concrete expanse and wait under a tree with the Africans.

A boxy, white truck parked on the still-unpaved portion of the bank. It did not appear to be in line for the ferry. It had been backed into place, and the sliding door at the rear was wide open to the narrow patch of solid earth the departing ferry had just left. I didn’t think much about it, but the idea that this might be a little store for waiting ferry passengers flitted through my mind. I noted the plastic-wrapped six-packs of beer stacked inside the truck; a little bar for waiting passengers, maybe, but no one was buying the warm bottles.

On the other side of the puddle stood another small truck with a cargo of white boxes. Knowing nothing, I assumed this was a normal occurrence, whatever the purpose.

It turns out, it wasn’t.

While waiting, our guide mentioned that it was unusual for two ferries to be running.  We were lucky. Breakdowns were the norm.

When the departing ferry got under way, the second one fired up and motored in to shore. The metal ramp hung on cables suspended from a tower, part of the captain’s bridge. As soon as the ramp was lowered the last few feet and the nose dug into the wet earth, crowd of young men who had been milling around on shore grabbed the plastic-wrapped six-packs of beer from the truck and frantically carried them onboard, two, three or four packs at a time, running, jumping as needed. They slowed only briefly when the truck-trailer revved its engine.

What on earth, I thought. I was used to the orderly unloading and loading of ferries in the US and Canada. Strict safely rules prevented the possibility of pedestrians being crushed as the vehicles disembarked.

Not here. The off-loading passengers had to push their way against the tide of beer and cases of Smirnoff vodka from the truck on the far side. The stacks on the deck grew. The men running the liquor on board took incredible risks as the vehicles rolled down the metal ramp and into the mud puddle which proved to be manageable by all. The drivers seemed to know that if they moved very slowly, the fleshy mass would part for them.

When all vehicles had disappeared up the hill, the one lucky departing truck and trailer rig rolled down to the shore and crept its way onto the deck. The beer loaders never paused, squeezing between the truck and its trailer, and then, impatient with the pace, dashing off to the edge of the ramp to deliver their load.

Madness. But it was only beginning.

Our van made it aboard, and I picked my way daintily down the little ramp of firm, damp earth and took one giant step to the corner of the metal ramp, my feet dry. Many of the other passengers wore plastic shoes or flip-flops and sloshed their way onboard.

Ferry Under Way

Even as we loaded, the cases were still coming, pushing us to move forward, further forward because the stacks were taking up so much space at the stern. I heard a loud clunk. One of the white boxes of Smirnoff’s lay on the ramp, spilling out the bottles of clear liquid that rocked with the movement of the ferry. The people nearby looked around as one of the loaders recovered the box. One bottle had escaped and rolled up and down the ramp with its motion. A teenaged boy stooped and quickly snatched it and stuffed it in his bag with a surprised smile. No one stopped him.

I found a safe spot at the tongue of our trailer, and turned to see all the blankets and TVs piled amidships, on the rail.

Well, that was interesting. I hadn’t even noticed.

We mingled with the rest of the passengers, all Africans, with varying loads from men in rough clothing to the woman and her blankets to moms and toddlers. A few looked like government officials, wearing suits in the heat and probably being picked up on the far side. We all tried to distance ourselves from the stinking, pounding engines, caged for safety, without much luck. Mothers and babies claimed the few benches. A sweat-soaked young man, one who had hustled the beer aboard, passed by exuding a pungent cloud. The trip was only one kilometer across the river and the breeze was refreshing as we moved away from shore.

For a moment, I enjoyed the crossing. The high water jumped and splashed with the energy of a spring flood. Botswana receded and I peered eagerly toward the Zambia side. Half way across, a commotion on deck drew the passengers to find the source. A man in the bow yelled out and waved to something upstream. I squeezed through the straining bodies to the rail.

From the far side, several mokoros were approaching upstream from our vessel. The little dugouts have very little clearance and the boatmen usually pole them through calm, shallow water standing in the stern. In this situation, the men and women used paddles with long handles, but were still standing. All the paddlers looked in our direction and turned as soon as the man gave them the signal to approach.

Mokoro as a Fishing Boat

“Oh, oh,” one of our group said. “Somali pirates.” It was a joke, but I looked around to see if anyone had the fine features of a Somali. No one appeared to hear him.

As the mokoros drew closer on both sides of the ferry, I noticed some were completely empty while a few had brush in the bottom. What would that be for?

Within minutes, the lead boats were tied against the side. Men and boys passed beer into them as fast as they could. A few unlucky boats waited for the others to move off. I couldn’t see everything, since everyone else was intensely interested in the activity, but it appeared that the goods were going to make their way into the country by an alternate route. What other reason could there be?

The ferry had slowed, but kept chugging its way toward the Zambian landing, turning to present the end that would place the vehicles facing the shore for offloading.

As the ramp shoved into the mud, passengers with their bags, babies and parcels surged toward land. I joined the crowd. Young men carrying the six-packs hid in the clumps of passengers. Standing on the ramp, Zambian police with rifles intercepted these opportunistic importers with measured success. I couldn’t tell if the beer was destined for customs or was a bribe to the police. When they snatched the beer from the young man closest to me, he resisted releasing his last six-pack. The police handled him roughly so it seemed a legitimate capture. When he surrendered his prize, he laughed like a kid who got caught pulling some innocent prank. I wondered if he had just grabbed the beer that was not put in the mokoros. He was not alone. Lots of beer walked off in the hands of giddy young men.

Once ashore, I glanced behind the ferry and caught sight of the last few of the mokoros slipping silently into the reeds. One was filled with some of the “mink” blankets and one TV. Another carried the Smirnoff’s and no beer at all so I knew there was some plan to the chaos. A few mokoros had nothing in them and the paddlers looked crestfallen, wistfully following the others into the reeds. Someone was orchestrating the illegal activities and I wondered how anyone could make a profit when so much of the merchandise left the control of this mysterious person.

After obtaining our entry stamps, we waited for the van to be cleared. A few of the blankets and two televisions waited near the customs building, and a disgruntled woman claimed the goods and saw that they left with her. I wondered if she controlled the liquor as well.

Later, someone who had been in the rear of the ferry said that a power boat with police in it ran the mokoros off before all the goods were fully unloaded. He said woman in charge was livid at her disrupted plan. After the mokoros all left, there was still a lot of beer remaining on the boat. Some of the men lifted the deck plates and shoved the six-packs down into the bowels of the ship. At first I assumed they would recover them on another passage. But it is also possible that they might be for the captain and crew, who certainly were a part of the caper.

Approaching the Zambian Shore

We speculated for the next couple of days while enjoying Victoria Falls and the surrounding activities created to keep tourists longer, bungee jumping, jaunts into Zimbabwe, a visit to a lion rehab center.

Two days later, we retraced the drive back to the Zambezi and I wondered what awaited us that day since we had been relatively lucky on the first crossing, both with the short wait and the entertainment. After getting our passports stamped again, we strolled past the thirty or so trucks that filled the small yard onshore. These had crossed the river but could not enter Zambia; problems with their documents. They remained in limbo since communications with “the head office” were too primitive for quick action.

There was no shade on that side of the river and I hoped for an early departure. Our van pulled up toward the landing, but it was difficult to discern just where it should park since one of the ferries was nose-in to the shore near the landing spot. It wasn’t loading. A single pick-up truck on board faced out toward the river but the ramps were raised. A man tinkered with one of the engines while six others watched or coached. It was too far for me to tell their function.

The only ferry in service was just leaving the far shore.  As it crossed, the nearest ferry backed away from the shore and I thought the engine must be fixed. But out a way, the ferry spun around and returned to where it had been, with only one engine roaring. Of course, if only one engine was working, spinning was about all it could do. The other engine was not yet repaired. The men returned to stare and frown at the recalcitrant chunk of metal.

The other ferry approached, but stopped offshore. Not enough clearance. So the crippled ferry pulled out again, limped its way upstream and nosed into the reeds lining the shore. The torque on the rudder with only one engine must have been incredible, but somehow the captain managed the maneuver.

When the approaching ferry landed, there was no chaos. People and vehicles off loaded in an orderly fashion and with safety. No obvious liquor came ashore. The one truck-trailer rig from our side drove on, two SUVs pulled around our van-trailer and we thought we were in for another wait. At the last minute, the man controlling the loading signaled our driver and he squeezed into the last space available. We all trooped on for a scenic and uneventful crossing. It was almost boring, except for an echo in my head, “the Zambezi River. Wow!”