Standing in No Man’s Land: The Border Crossings of Tour d’Afrique
Border crossings suck – there’s no debating that. But at least in Africa you get some pretty interesting ones. Today, for example, several of our Tour d’Afrique cyclists jumped off a 128m bridge (relax, it was a bungee jump… the Tour d’Afrique isn’t THAT challenging) in no man’s land between Zambia and Zimbabwe – technically they were in neither country.
The Zambia-Zimbabwe border has been one of the more interesting ones so far, purely because of the amount of foot traffic between the two countries every day as tourists want to experience Victoria Falls from both sides.
However, some of the less touristy spots we have passed through have been pretty memorable too – crossing into Sudan from Egypt via Abu Simbel requires a car ferry across the Nile, and a few more kilometres of barren nothingness before reaching a huge fenced-off premises larger than most of the villages we’d been cycling through for the last few weeks up to that point.
Rwanda into Tanzania was another interesting one, as the two lanes of the road separate, then criss-cross over each other to swap from driving on the right-hand side of the road in Rwanda (colonised by the French) to the left-hand side of the road in Tanzania (colonised by Britain).
It also entails taking Rusumo Bridge over the picturesque Kagera River, which has a tragic history – on April 28, 1994, over 200,000 refugees crossed Rusumo Bridge into Tanzania in a 24-hour period (this is widely considered both the largest and fastest refugee exodus in modern times) while thousands of dead bodies flowed along the river underneath the bridge, as all the bodies discarded into rivers throughout Rwanda during the genocide eventually washed through here.
On a lighter note, tomorrow we cross another interesting border – a point where Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe all meet. This is the first time on the tour we cross a border that is dealing with more than two countries, and is in fact one of very few border crossings in the world that deals with four countries simultaneously. Not only that, but because the four points meet on the Zambezi River it has the added complication of being a ferry crossing.
There’s another interesting aspect to crossing borders too, perhaps not exclusive to Africa. Despite just being invisible lines sliced through the land, borders created decades and sometimes centuries ago cause cultures to evolve separately from their neighbours and as a result, as soon as you cross a border on tour you can’t help but keep an eye out for immediate differences between the nation you just left and the nation you have just arrived in – especially when you’re travelling by bicycle.
A lot of this is only opinion, and some people on tour might have interpreted things differently but Tanzania to Malawi (and then Malawi to Zambia) was a noticeable difference as soon as you crossed, perhaps partly because of a struggling economy in Malawi.
For other countries, it felt like more of a geographical difference – the landscape of Uganda and Rwanda was much more of that lush green, dense jungle vibe with lots of hills compared to Kenya, and the landscape seemed to change within 10km of passing through the Busia border.
Going back to the early stages of the trip, crossing into Sudan had noticeable culture differences too, even though both are Arabic countries. The chai tea was still there, the attire was pretty much the same, but there was a lot less infrastructure in place and tourists were quite clearly not as common as in Egypt – you only needed to see the shock on locals’ faces as you cycled past to figure that one out!
While it’s best to treat Africa as a whole, given that it’s so different to any other continent on the planet, the border crossings give another interesting dynamic to the trip that adds to the overall experience.