A Very Funky Ferry Ride across Four Countries in 500 Meters
Officially the pontoon ferry across the Zambezi River at Kazungula, about 75 km west of Victoria Falls, that the Tour d’Afrique takes each year, is the crossing between the Zambia and Botswana borders. In fact the midstream point of this sometimes treacherous ride marks the only spot in the world where 4 countries meet, namely Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In doing so a ferry passenger “visits” all 4 countries as the ferry struggles and smokes from one side to the other during the 10 minute crossing. At one point the boat does an upstream push towards an island that is in Namibia before drifting downstream to the other side. Moreover the landing on the Botswana side happens on a spur that is actually Zimbabwean soil – the Zimbabwe border fence just happens to have been moved very slightly east so that once off the boat traffic can proceed unhindered over the last 400 yards to Botswana border control.
This legacy from the colonial scramble for Africa has had a very colorful history. For the past 60 years the four countries have laboured to reach agreement over the construction of a bridge. Given the relatively limited width and depth of the river this would not require a particularly challenging engineering design. But they continue to fail, most recently because Zimbabwean President Mugabe insists on huge payments for use of “his water.”
During the Zimbabwean War of Independence, the “rebel” ZANU-PF fighters used the ferry to smuggle arms into then Southern Rhodesia. In response the Prime Minister of the pariah Rhodesian state, Ian Smith, had his air force bomb and sink one of the ferries in mid-stream, in order to discourage this practice. More recently, in 2006, a ferry flipped while carrying a brand new Volvo semi trailer cattle truck, which incidentally was built in South Africa by the father of TdA Tour Leader Sharita. 16 people died, trapped under the wreckage while other clung to the banisters on the top side and didn’t even get wet. Until recently one could still see the wreck of this boat and the truck on the Zambian shore.
There are up to 3 pontoon boats in operation today, one that carries passengers, cars, regional buses, as well as tourists on excursions from Vic Falls to Chobe National Park. For these customers the wait to cross is typically no more than an hour. The other somewhat larger pontoons, 1 of which is often out of service, slowly shuttle one of the literally hundreds of transport trucks lined up on either side across the Zambezi. Google “Kazungula ferry” and you’ll find that this crossing is now best known for being the major bottleneck in the southern African transport network. One of the reasons for this again involves the notorious Zimbabwean regime of Robert Mugabe. Many trucks travelling between South Africa and the copper mine belt of northern Zambia and the DRC’s Katanga province used to cross at two Zambia/Zimbabwe borders – the bridges at Vic Falls and Siavonga . But when Mugabe raised the tariffs on trucks transiting through Zimbabwe by astronomically, the trucking companies decided it was cheaper to pay their drivers to wait as long as several days at Kazungula and avoid Zimbabwe altogether. All we can say is wow … and good luck to all who clamber aboard. This is indeed a most fascinating and funky ferry.
— Written by Brian Hoeniger with Consultation from Tjisse Kamstra (Owner, Livingstone Safari Lodge)