Against all the advice from our tour guides and our backpacker comrades we decided to hitch hike from Victoria (Vic) falls, a town in central Zimbabwe(Zim) to Mlibizi on the southern most tip of Lake Kariba where the iconic ferry departs on its 24 hour voyage of the entire length of the worlds largest artificial water store.
We had lived and worked in South Africa for a year and decided to end the experience with an Intrepid truck trip. It had been 4 weeks of life on the road with 25 others from Cape Town, through Namibia to Botswana finishing up in Vic falls. We had visited many game reserves including Etosha Pan, slept out under the stars at Spizkoppe, Namibia’s answer to Uluru deep
in the Namib desert. Braving clouds of mosquitos we canoed the Okavango Delta trusting our guides to keep us safe from territorial hippos. It was when a herd of wild elephants wandered through our campsite at Vic Falls and we just stood there as if a couple of feral cats had come in from the bush that maybe the signs were there of a desensitisation to the African wildlife and an alteration in our normally focused and sensible decision making processes. By the time we arrived in Vic falls, a tourist hot spot for adrenalin fuelled thrill seeking, our truck and its 25 occupants were a bit shabby around the edges. The final two days of the trip in Vic falls were filled with white water rafting ( ncluding 10 grade 5 rapids with names such as Terminator and Gnashing white jaws of hell), micro-lighting and bungie jumping. It felt like a rite of passage so much so that we were able to notch up the scale of our intrepidness to its highest setting.
The truck had left for its trip back to Capetown, most of our fellow travellers had gone onward or back to where they had come from. Me and my partner Rich (later to become my husband) had two weeks to kill before a flight booked from Johannesburg in South Africa left for New Zealand to begin a new life in the South Pacific.
Now it was just us in Africa. No guides and no travel hardy comrades. No map and it was pre mobile phone era, circa 1997. The ferry had been booked before we set off weeks ago but now there seemed there was no way to get to Mlibizi 3 hours away by dirt road. There was no-one heading our way, no taxis or buses and flying would cost the same as the whole 4 weeks trekking adventure.
So on the morning of the day before the ferry departure we walked out of Vic Falls township and stuck out our thumbs. Two shabby mzungus cast adrift with a backpack each and a couple of ebony carved snake sticks bought from a trader on the bungy-jump bridge between Zambia and Zim.
A few dusty cars rattled past as the sun rose higher. We had grown accustomed to the dust and the heat but I don’t know what we were expecting. Certainly not to be still waiting in the midday sun. Then a big quarry stone loader truck pulled over. An austere African driver jumped out and asked us our destination. He nodded and we went to get in the cab but he gestured to the back of the truck. There was a moment when Rich and I locked eyes. We were out of time and options. We both shrugged and threw our packs in, climbed up into the rusty, dusty empty bin. The door slammed closed. No comfy upholstery and only bright blue African sky views as the high sided bin obscured everything else. Not even cloud forms to ponder. Rich said he ought to practice some Marshall arts moves in case our driver was a serial killer. Then our imagination ran riot for a bit. There was no way of standing steadily as the truck was thrown around bend after bend and hit pot-holes in the road at break neck speed. So we lay down resting our heads on the ruck sack clinging tightly to our sticks. The exhaust poked up above the back of the cab and belched diesel fumes down into our holding pen, shrouding us in a toxic mist.
After a couple of hours the engine changed tune, we felt the truck decelerate, then stop and the door ground open. We held our breath. I was immediately relieved it wasn’t a scene from Apocalypse Now. The driver nodded for us to get out. He indicated he was veering away from our destination so he was dropping us off here to get a bus the rest of the way.
It was a cross roads encased in scruffy low bush. No buildings. The only indication that it was a bus stop was a motley collection of locals lounging on the mounds off road. Some lay languishing, some sat, some sang and danced to their own tunes, some were very pissed, the whites of their eyes turned red. Crates of produce and bound baggages littered the ground. Brightly coloured wrapped head cloths and tunics in gaudy saturated colours lit up the brown. We asked around but no-one really spoke English so we gestured and gesticulated about catching the ferry at Mlibizi and mostly they ignored us or shrugged. We all waited….and waited. A very drunk man approached us and in broken pidgin explained that there was a national bus drivers strike but it was due to end sometime soon. As the light of day started to mute a dusty single decker arrived out of no-where and we all crammed on. Crates and rucksacks on laps.
Then the party began. People from the back to the front of the bus, all around us uncovered jars and bottles of grog from their bags and bundles…and passed them around. We politely abstained swigging unknown liquor from brown lableless bottles but sheepishly produced a bottle of warm Rose du Anjou wine from the rucksack, the last of our stash which was passed into the mix but seemed to make its way directly to the very drunk man who had talked to us at the bus stop. There was singing in deep guttural tones and attempts at Dancing. A couple of pushy shovey arguments broke out but the drunk man who seemed to hold authority, Rose du Anjou bottle in one hand, just lifted his other and shouted. Any potential escalation stopped immediately and everyone settled down.
The light had gone into a black hole outside the bus as it slowed to a stop and the driver announced it was too late to get to Mlibizi so he was going home straight to Binga. A small town quarter of the way up the Lake (we later discovered). It was a disaster. The Ferry left at 6am and there would be no way to get from Binga back to Mlibizi in time. The door swung open and no-one moved. Our only option was to walk. So we got up, wrestled our back packs on and headed for the door. By this time the whole bus knew we were trying to catch the ferry. We peered out into the blackest black I have ever encountered. We had one small torch, battery life left, unknown. We had established it was a 3 hour walk. We were fit, intrepid and ready. But the bus passengers thought differently. As we approached the door the general hum of conversations grew louder and louder. We couldn’t understand the native tongue but the tone was one of agitation reaching up to a crescendo. The very drunk man approached down the aisle bouncing off the seats. He announced that if we tried to walk to Mlibizi at night in the dark we would be killed by wild animals or bandits. That we must stay on the bus and that he was Chief of Police in Binga. The whole of the bus fell silent, watching and waiting. It was like being on stage before curtain up. It seemed our gun hoe attitude was misplaced. So not believing for 1 minute the bedraggled swaying red eyed, almost dribbling man in front us we could feel the weight of the concern of our fellow bus passengers and could see the sense of not walking in the dark down a dirt track for 3 hours in the African country side.
So we went to Binga, and as it turned out the bus took us and our escort directly to the Police Station. It was about 9pm and we walked behind the staggering man into the station where the duty police stood to attention and he began barking orders. The Chief of Police asked for our passports, told us to sit down in the holding area and picked up the 1960’s phone on his desk and made a call. We thought that was it. That they would take our stuff, hold us for ransom and we would be turfed out with nothing but the smelly clothes on our backs, our snake sticks. Lost in Zimbabwe.
We waited in the holding area that smelt of booze, vomit and disinfectant. I could see where they missed a bit in cleaning it up. We were thinking we were at least going to be able to sleep here. We waited some more. The chief of Police had opened another brown lableless bottle and took a swig eying us from behind his desk.
Then in walked a tall white man in a clean white shirt, donning a sweat stained trilby hat. He shook the hand of the chief of police and they exchanged a brief conversation in the local dialect.
He then walked over to us.
‘My name is Hans, I own a lodge up on the hill. You are to come with me.’ he said with a stiff German accent. ‘You are two lucky idiots.’
He turned, strode out and we picked up our rucksacks and walking sticks in so much of a fluster we forgot to say good bye and thank you to the Chief of Police.
There was no more exchange with Hans until he showed us to a comfortable bar smelling of old smoke and whiskey, empty of patrons this time of night. The bar was back-dropped by a red velvet curtain and the seating areas of dark chunky wooden tables and chairs were scattered with candles in wine bottles, the wax of years spilling down the sides, in an attempt to add atmosphere. Hans gave us a bratwurst sausage and lump of bread each and showed us to our clean minimalist room that overlooked the lake shimmering in the moon light. There was a natural hot mineral pool bubbling away embedded in the patio out through the French doors of our room.
As Hans turned to leave he said ‘We might be able to get you on the ferry tomorrow with the post boat. Never been done before but the post officer is willing to give it a go. Be up and ready by 9.’ We smiled saying thank you in an over-gushing way. We had no idea what Hans was talking about be he seemed capable and wise. We submerged into the mineral pool for 20 minutes then showered up. It had been a long and roller coaster of a day. From thinking the worst we had been subject to humanity's strength as rescuer angels to their fellows in need, in the most unlikely of forms. We slid between crisp white sheets falling into deep slumber without even speaking to each other but knowing someone significant was looking down on us. That’s for sure.
The next day after a breakfast of bratwurst and bread Hans took us down to the Binga wharf in his ancient Landrover. Hans explained that The Post Boat, twice a week, would scuttle out of the harbour and head directly into the lake to intercept the Ferry and exchange bags of post and parcels by throwing them between the craft. The ferry slowed down but didn’t stop. We were to join the parcels. How, I could not imagine. The post boat was little more than a tin fishing boat barely able to take us and our rucksacks and the parcels and the ferry was quite a big vessel that carried not just people but cars and cattle.
It seemed mission impossible. We spotted the ferry powering up the lake, growing in size every second as we approached an anticipated spot at a right angle trajectory to the course of the ferry. It started to slow and the boat nudged up closer and closer to its vast hull. Both in a dance amongst froth spray and diesel fumes. It still seemed both were travelling quite fast. The Ferry couldn’t stop.
A hatch opened half way up the the back of the hull to reveal a platform and a couple of smiling deck hands. The bags, including our rucksacks and sticks, were thrown deftly across the gap and then it was our turn. We had to wait for the swell to level up the boats as close to each other as possible. Sometimes the gap was meters sometimes it was a couple of feet. Rich jumped first and got caught by the deck hands. He turned around and beckoned. I looked down at the coursing blue water and foam in the gap. Rich shouted ‘Don’t look down!.’ We waited. I was slightly transfixed, unable to commit. Unable to make a decision. I went to leap but then the tin boat dipped low in the water as the ferry hull lifted up on a bow wave that passed underneath us. Rich and the deck hands looking down from high above me. We waited. Passengers on the ferry started to cluster, looking down over the rails. I felt performance anxiety. The deck hands stopped smiling. Time was running out. Rich shouted ‘Wait,… Wait, …..Waaaiitt. …..NOW, JUMP!’ I did, with my eyes closed just like I did when I fell from the sky in a tandem parachute jump. I felt several pairs of hands grab me and guide me away from the edge. I opened my eyes to see everyone around me was smiling. We turned and waved at the post boat guy and then picked up our ruck sacks and wandered into the cabin of starring silent fellow passengers as if nothing had happened. Settling back into the padded comfy ferry seats we finally sighed, a deep sigh of survival. We’d taken a slight detour but now with a little help from our briefly encountered friends we were back on track at least for the next 24 hours. We had Lake Kariba views and passing African wildlife again but we mostly slept…. because we could relax in the knowledge that the fates had smiled on us..
Thank you Chief of Police. You saved our lives and we hope you enjoyed the Rose du Anjou.