Chasing Sunrise: Crossing the Zambezi and admiring its power at Victoria Falls

The Zambezi is Africa’s 4th longest river. Almost 2,700km long it flows through 6 countries; Zambia, Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

It spends the most amount of time in Zambia and forms the country’s border with Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Our route was taking us from Botswana to Zambia which meant we’d be crossing the Zambezi. This was exciting, it feels like we really are in Africa!

The border crossing is known for being chaotic, for touting ‘fixers’, harassment and being complicated to get the vehicle in. We’d researched as much as we could the day before with the aim of roughly knowing what the process was and the costs and currency required. Then hopefully we’d be able to look confident and better be able to figure our way through it without paying a fixer Or getting ripped off. It sounds simple but with few sources and conflicting information it wasn’t at all easy to try and research in advance.

We left camp early. Trucks line the roads into Kasane for kilometres to queue for the border crossings. It can take them a week or sometimes more to cross the Botswana/Zambia border because the two ferries that cross the river can only take 1 or 2 trucks at a time. The cargo is mixed but we saw plenty of raw copper and other natural resources that have been mined. A whole mini-city exists on the sides of the road. We topped up our fuel tank before heading to the border post. Behind the counter the shelves were packed full of cigarettes and condoms and out on the floor was an entire shelf of large pots of Vaseline. We figured that answered the question of how the truckies passed the time.

There was hardly anyone at the Botswana border post, but there were still a couple of touts offering black market currency exchange, to be fixers on the Zambezi side and offering Zambian insurance. Immigration was a swift stamp in the passport, but the form to get the vehicle out of Botswana was longer and more complicated than expected. Emma dealt to that while Marie batted away the touts. We did need Zambian currency to pay some of the fees so after fobbing them off Marie casually asked one the going rate for US$. They were offering a more than fair market rate. She played it disinterested until after we’d passed through the border post and were driving to the ferry. The touts run down the side of the road to go with you and on the way we changed US$50 to pay the fees we needed to in local currency. It was a swift straightforward trade, the guy we’d picked was honest.

The ferry dock was chaotic. The fixers are helpful to try and win your trust and will direct you where to go. The official guys whose job it is to do that let them, which is frustrating because they contribute to the chaos and confusion. We knew to ignore the truck queue again and to drive down to the front and to wait until a ferry guy signals as they clock you and can fit light vehicles on easily. We’d just pulled up and a ferry guy signalled for us to drive straight on. We were the last on so the moment we’d stopped the ferry was off. Emma jumped out to find the guy to pay. Each country has a ferry and the price is slightly cheaper for the Zambia ferry which it turned out we were on. Only we’d set Botswana Pula aside to pay for the ferry so Emma had some sweet talking to do. Of course they took it. Marie chatted to the touts. They were bored as much as anything.

The ferries are pontoons and the Zambezi is 400m wide at the crossing so by the time Emma had paid we were across and driving off into the much greater chaos of the Zambia side. Touts again did their “helpful” directing. Marie resolutely ignored them and looked at the official guy until he told her to park in the same place. We’d read it was safer to leave someone with the vehicle so Emma did her immigration and then Marie.

It was the easiest border entry ever. It was literally a case of handing over your passport and US$50 and saying please can I have a Kaza visa (which covers both Zambia and Zimbabwe for multiple entries within 30 days). A visa sticker was stuck in and wrote on it, then it was stamped and handed back. The whole thing took literally a minute.

Next came the vehicle. The process was a little different than we were expecting but all costs we had found online (after much cross checking because of the volume of conflicting info) were the same and once you went to the right place they were really helpful for that stage in the process. Basically it went like this:

  • Go to customs, log the vehicle details in a book (this always includes chassis number and engine serial number). They took Emma outside to a guy in jeans and T-shirt who would inspect the vehicle. This caused a bit of confusion as we knew the police were the ones who inspect the vehicle and had read you needed a completed form first. Turns out he was a plain clothes policeman. Zambia has some requirements i.e you must carry 2 metal backed warning triangles, have reflective stickers on the bumpers etc. But he only checked the chassis number was correct. Then you return to the counter and complete a Customs Import Permit form (CIP). The policeman confirms you are all good and others stamped. The CIP is the only thing that is free.
  • Go to a different building, fill in a form using some details on the CIP and pay the carbon emission tax in local Zambian Kwacha.
  • Go to the council office, fill in a form using some details on the CIP and pay a vehicle levy in Zambian Kwacha.
  • Go to the Road Transport building. Complete a form and a log book and pay a road levy in US$. In return they print and give you a fancy certificate (which turned out to cover us for road tolls, so each toll gate we gave the certificate and they just stamped it and gave it back).
  • Walk through out of the border and go to one of the insurance sellers in the container shops just beyond the gate to buy mandatory Zambian insurance. We used our very patient tout that came with us from Botswana. He was honest and gave us a fair price.
  • Finally present your paperwork to the guy on the gate and then the council levy receipt at a further checkpoint. Then you are free.

We were prepared for it to take a very long time but from the whole thing from one side to the other only took us 2 hours. Harassment and chaos was minimal, nothing like we were braced for. In hindsight that we crossed early on a Sunday morning might have helped.

By mid-morning we were on our way to Livingstone, the Zambian town for Victoria Falls. A long straight paved road it only took us an hour. We found the shops; hit the ATM, got a SIM card and did a supermarket shop at their nice big supermarket. Then we headed to Victoria Falls.

Victoria Falls is often considered the Seventh Natural Wonder of the World. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is 1 of the 3 largest waterfalls in the world; Niagara Falls has the greatest average volume, the Iguazu Falls the greatest width (2,700m) and Victoria Falls the greatest height (107m). The Zambezi’s source is in Northern Zambia (close to the Angola and DR Congo borders) more than 1,000km away from Victoria Falls.

The entry fee is hefty and it being the dry season there was nothing more than a dribble to see on the Zambian side. But the sheer cliffs were impressive in themselves. There were also great views of Livingstone bridge spanning the Zambia/Zimbabwe border.

It was still only early afternoon. We decided to see if we had time to visit the Zimbabwe side. We left the 4X4 in the car park. It closed at 6pm so that was our drop dead cut off, checked at the ticket office they thought we had time (they confirmed that but also warned us it was a long walk). The Zambian border post was literally a couple of hundred metres down the road and it was as fast as before. No queue so straight up to the counter, stamp and handed back (Zambia is clearly not interested in the movement of people, just goods).

Then we set off to walk to Zimbabwe. It was stinking hot, into the 30’s C. There were plenty of touts for carved trinkets and bicycle rickshaws, also for old Zimbabwe money as souvenirs. Few counties in the world have printed currency with the word ‘billion’ on it. Our favourite border crossings are those done on foot. There is something exciting about walking across border lines and through no mans land. But did we mention it was hot?

Walking across Livingstone bridge was fantastic, the walk up the slight incline to the Zimbabwe border post was less so. We sort of knew there was 2kms between the border posts but also chose to ignore that.

Unlike Zambia it was more chaotic and there was a queue out the door for immigration as a tour company was crossing. Noticing they all had forms in their hand we realised they all needed to get visas. We weren’t waiting for that. We barged our way to the front of the queue like we were entitled to do so, handed over our passports, they were stamped and handed back and we were on our way.

The Zimbabwe entrance to Victoria Falls is a short way beyond. Much more organised with information displays and effort put into proper number viewpoints etc it was far more worth their hefty entrance fee. It was awesome, just like we expected. The roaring falls, rainbows and so much water being kicked into the air at the closest point it rains on you. Having previously visited Iguazu Falls (they form part of the border between Argentina and Brazil, from memory it was a 17 hour overnight bus journey from Buenos Aires to reach them but they are incredible and very worth it) this was what we had been expecting. We loved it.

Then in the cooler early evening we walked back to Zambia… It was really enjoyable.

Our usual rule is we only count a country as visited if we’ve overnighted there. But we make the rules so we can change them. We walked that border crossing in the stinking heat so we earned counting Zimbabwe in our country tally.

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