Tuesday, 25 February 2014

A Southern African Safari (a travel memoir) #6

Good Morning!  Please enjoy Part 6 of A Southern Afrcan Safari, which will be coming to an end tomorrow. 
A Southern African Safari  Travel Memoir  
South Africa - Botswana - Zambia - Zimbabwe - Botswana – South Africa  
17 December 2011 - 24 December 2011 

6. Not so merry Ferry

It is 13h30 and we decide to brace ourselves for another border crossing. We are eager to arrive in Livingstone, a mere 100 km from the border. We queue in the line and stamp our passports chop-chop while the rain pours. We return to the car, which is part of a vehicular queue, to realise that we have reunited with Kobus who has joined the queue behind us. We wait 1 hour, then 2 and start to wonder once again, how much longer.  Arshad asks a young policeman what the progress is and what the delay is about. The policeman replies that we might cross tomorrow morning. He spoke smugly, I distrusted his information, and we are at the front of the line. 

The sun emerges in restored potency, beating down on the dry landscape.While we wait, truck-drivers are waging battles among each other. Revving with intimidation, they cut each other off, squeeze into small spaces and dispute over crossing the line. We are amused and fascinated while Arshad video-documents their behaviour conspicuously, we are unaware that we would be competing for a spot on the ferry with trucks, towed trucks, and other heavy-duty vehicles. 

It is 15h30 and we enter no-man’s-land to join another 1 of 3 queues before the ferry with 15 cars in front of ours, just in our line. Illegal agents posing as alleged truck drivers and vehicle passengers drift as pedestrians, encouraging travellers and reassuring our hope that we would cross the border on the day. A smooth agent, later named “Vulture”, guided Suhale into speeding up the process of crossing the border by traveling as a pedestrian on the ferry, registering the vehicle and stamping his passport before crossing with the car itself. 

Hoping to be savvy about the process, I decide to accompany Suhale with the documentation and money. The river edge was rife with people adorned in dirty African printed textile wraps. They carried cargo on their bodies, as beasts of burden, waiting to leap through the mud and onto the ferry. 

We realise that only 1 out of the usual 4 ferries is working and is transporting both trucks and cars, the ferry can accommodate 16 cars at a time.Zarina sees us off and waves goodbye as I am wrenched out of my comfort zone. I hold Suhale tightly and fearfully, walking and wondering whether I would be trampled or knocked into the Chobe River by an oblivious Zambian’s wrapped cargo. Cars and
trucks compete to get ahead, cutting each other off, using their own sense of judgement as to who goes on next. 

The police overlooking the passage of vehicles are redundant. There is an underlying sense of action here, it is not controlled, regulated or fair. It is spontaneous and happens in the favour of the stronger-willed driver. He who hesitates is lost.

I only realise that we are on the ferry once it starts moving. I assumed we were walking onto what was a platform or jetty, a precursor to the ferry and was expecting a boat of sorts. Robbed of a momentous sense of arrival, I feel us move while the locals are calm, dark-skinned and odorous, I relax. Near me is a woman in printed cotton sheets with a baby wrapped across her back, his head protruding as a lump, exposed to the insensitive shoving and bumps of passengers who pass by with boxes, and luggage. I looked into the baby’s eyes. He was expressionless, comfortable, accustomed to what I felt was abuse. No amount or intensity of knocks disturbed him. He shed no tears, made no sound. He was there and he accepted it with silent dignity. 

8 minutes later, the ferry docks into a muddy bank absent of boating infrastructure apart from make-shift ramps. We disembark shoulder to shoulder with the locals and discover that “Vulture” had been on the ferry with us. He directs Suhale to immigration counter, where he stamps his passport and then to the vehicle registration office. The spaces and buildings are blue, dispersed and difficult to navigate. We cross from one building to the next through inner courtyard spaces. Perhaps it was the speed at which we moved that confused me but I was disorientated and anxious.The vehicle licensing officer did his job and he did it well. As he had informed the person before us, he would not register the vehicle paper work until the vehicle has crossed the border and he could see it with his own eyes. It was 16h00 and he had his doubts as to whether the vehicle would cross by the closing time of 18h00. He was safe-guarding his work as well as our interest by preventing unnecessary expense and not denying us the opportunity to cross the Zimbabwe border instead. Paper work for the car in Zambia would prevent crossing through Zimbabwe.

His doubt convinced both Suhale and me that we would not cross on that day. The odds were against us. We informed the concerned Vulture as to what had occurred and just like that, he disappeared. Suhale and I wait at the bank for the ferry ride back to the car. We discuss the implausibility of crossing on the day and consider going through Zimbabwe, which had border posts closing at 22h00 and 24h00, leaving us reasonable time for travel and passage. I realise with twisted stomach knots that Suhale had stamped his passport at immigration under advisement of the Vulture and that he might have to stamp it again to signify departure from Zambia to avoid legal problems when entering Zimbabwe. We cross with the locals on the ferry, anyway, ignoring the potential problem we had created for ourselves.

When we reach the bank, we see that Arshad and Zarina were optimistic and had moved in the queue, but we were not convinced that this was substantial enough. We update them on our failed attempts at saving time and our suggestion of going through Zimbabwe. Kobus and his wife join us at our 4x4 wondering what we had experienced as they had their own doubts in spite of encouragement from the agents of no-man’s-land. We express our interest in travelling through Zimbabwe in convoy with Kobus (who had no map) and communicate Suhale’s passport stamp issue to everyone. Kobus’s wife, with highlighted blond high ponytail and equally high pitched voice expressed her irrational fear of travelling through “a country like Zimbabwe” and that she was afraid of Suhale’s passport stamping “happening to her”. Her paranoia and stress was contagious and nauseating, but fuelled by prejudice.  

It made Zarina sick and stressed her out too. We understood why Kobus cursed; it was a coping strategy to manage stress generated by Mev Kobus, who didn’t seem to want to travel in Africa in the first place. Suhale decides to cross with the ferry as a passenger one more time in order to stamp his passport. It is 17h00 and my anxiety overwhelms me to the extent that my stomach churns burns and tumbles. I need the bath room but this is the least of my concern. I hope and pray that my husband makes it back with the ferry in time and stamps his passport. There is no way of contacting him from across the border should he be stranded. I liberally communicate all my emotional and physical reactions to Arshad and Zarina who listen, comfort me and joke that Suhale can swim across the Chobe River. I knew my husband well enough to recognize that he would attempt this if push came to shove, crocodiles, hippos and all. He was a survivor.  

Those 20 minutes were the most uneasy and uncomfortable minutes of my African experience. The Vulture made a shy reappearance, walking past us evasively, as I directed all my anger towards him. He was the reason for Suhale running around like a blue-ass-fly (an expression adopted from my father for hopeless situations resulting from incompetence and stupidity). We watch the ferry approaching as I hope with all my heart that Suhale is on it for we estimate that this would be the last ferry returning. Suhale leaps towards us, a smile on his face: the poster-child of reassurance.  Everything is going to be ok. My bowels stabalise. I did not care if I had to poop in the bush or sleep in the car, as long as Suhale is with me. 

It is 17h30 and we decide with Kobus to wait in the ferry queue for just 30 minutes more because you never know. Trucks bully cars, tensions soar and brakes screech. This final ferry before 18h00 takes 2 trucks and 4 cars. We are left in the lurch, not astonished, time wasted and yet hope still lingers and the policemen walk through the queue counting cars. Could this mean that the ferry will return? Our faith in the police had wavered; they had not exhibited any control or even self-confidence, for that matter. We decide to wait anyway, because another half an hour in the context of 5 hours is insignificant.

Indeed, miraculously, the ferry returns beyond its 18h00 cut-off time, as an act of good faith to collect as many cars as possible and offer safe transit into Zambia to those who waited all day. In the words of a policewoman at the border post earlier that day, “patience pays,” and in this case it did. Arshad drives the 4x4 onto the ferry as the 3 of us cheer the car along with every last breath in our bodies, emotions running high through incredulous laughter as the Ford Ranger ascends. Kobus makes it too, along with the other 8 cars around us. We triumph.

Africa = Adventure.   If you have enjoyed the story and would love to read more about our Southern African adventures, please comment... 
I'd love to hear from you, please leave a comment.


  1. Hey Zak

    I just read through parts 1 -6 of 'A Southern African Safari'! It's so cool. Really interesting and funny. You have stuff that I completely forgot, like Kobus. I can't wait for part 6.... The plot thickens.


  2. Hey Zar, it's our story - I regret not writing about the entire trip immediately - there seems too be so much detail I've also forgotten! :)


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