Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 3: That Time We Crossed into Zimbabwe Illegally

By now you know that when we say things like, “Hey, we’re going to Victoria Falls!” what we really mean is, “Hey, we’re going to jump off a cliff!” or “Hey, we’re going on safari in Botswana!” So, I suppose it’s fair that you read the title of this post through skeptic’s eyes.

But, is it true? Did we actually enter Zimbabwe, home of Bobby Mugabe and 9 bizillion percent inflation, illegally?

Well, yes …

On Sunday morning, our fourth day in Zambia, we woke late, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, then left the hotel compound en route to the bridge that spans the Zambezi River below the falls – the bridge that spans the divide between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Our initial and, honestly, only goal was to view the falls from a different angle, from more of a distance, from a new perspective, from a place not so wet. We were rewarded.

Victoria Falls from the bridge on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border

Jenny, ever impatient with my photo taking, began to wander further across the bridge, and even managed to skip over its single lane and integrated railroad tracks to chat with the fellas at the bungee jump. You know the one …

Just beyond the tangle of (new, very new) ropes, we saw this:

You are now entering Zimbabwe

We paused. Ahead, just after the bridge ended and the rocky soil began, was an armed soldier standing outside an army green canvas tent.

Intimidating? Deterring? Not for this dynamic duo. We marched on.

Growing up in Illinois near the Mississippi River, I had crossed bridges into neighboring states millions of times. Crossing into Iowa meant dealing with Iowa drivers. Crossing into Missouri meant dealing with … well, Missouri. Could crossing into Zimbabwe be any worse?

Our confident steps disguised our cerebral concerns and before we knew it we were across the bridge, past the armed guard and into Zimbabwe. In a way, it was just like crossing from Fulton, IL to Clinton, IA – except this part of Zimbabwe smelled much better than Clinton.

The road carried on around a curve and up a small incline, where a short queue of tractor-trailers waited to cross the one-lane bridge into Zambia. For smaller cargo, the much more efficient mode of transport seemed to be the humble bicycle.

Bicycle couriers on the road between Zambia and Zimbabwe

Now that we were in Zimbabwe, we thought we would just keep walking to the very colonial Victoria Falls Hotel, which looked to be about another 2 km further along the same road.

… and, no.

As we rounded another gentle curve, we found that our courageous, clandestine crossing was none of the above. What we saw now, some 500 m up the hot, asphalt road, stopped us in our tracks. It was the official border post.

So, while we were technically on Zimbabwean soil, we were not officially in Zimbabwe. No passports had been stamped. No bribes had been taken.

Jenny thought we should create a diversion and run through the boom gate, past the armed guards (it worked at the bridge, right?). Or, maybe we could stow away under the nylon tarps covering cargo on this flatbed…

In the end, we decided against crashing the gates, against hitchhiking. After all, we couldn’t afford to be detained in a Zimbabwean prison all day, we had to get back to the Royal Livingstone for high tea.

As one does.

Fortunately, we had a guide to help us get back into Zambia:

Tiny monkey friend

High tea at the Royal Livingstone was everything you might expect. And, a whole lot less. While the whitewashed buildings and elaborate interior decorating placed you squarely in the charming(?) period of Colonial Africa, the whole experience seemed a bit too contrived (for us) and a bit too rote (for the staff). Awkward.

We didn’t spend much time loitering. We were on to the next event: massages on the banks of the Zambezi River. Nice.

Post-massage, we retired to the bar on the veranda on the river’s edge. After the stress of an unlawful border crossing, a massage and a cocktail seemed appropriate. Besides, what better way to watch the sunset over Victoria Falls?

Post-massage drinks at the Royal Livingstone

Sunset above Victoria Falls

And, there you have it. Our “trip to Victoria Falls” in a somewhat rambling, three-part nutshell. Of course, we omitted a few details, like how much time Jenny spent in the gift shops at the Zambezi Sun, the baby monkey that wanted Jenny as its mom, me getting completely soaked walking the knife bridge, and other stuff. Oh, and we didn’t tell you how much we enjoyed cruising the Zambezi River on the African Princess, but you can find proof of that enjoyment here and even more photos from our adventures here.

Up next: a visit from Jaimie & Zach!

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Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 2: Cruising the Chobe River with a Boy Named Diane

As if standing on a rock just above Victoria Falls watching the great Zambezi River rush past and disappear over the edge — or jumping backwards off a cliff into a gorge, 177 feet below — wasn’t enough excitement for one weekend, we decided to spend Day 3 in Zambia by going to … Botswana.

Although not part of the original plan, we learned of an opportunity to take a day trip to the famous Chobe National Park, just an hour or so from Victoria Falls. Operating on the We May Never Have This Chance Again principle, we signed up.

Departing at 7:30, our small bus reached the Kazungula border post at 8:30. Along the way, we passed through small settlements with a hodgepodge of buildings: some tin, some stone, some mud and thatch. Pantless children stood behind wooden fences; women washed clothes in colorful plastic buckets; chickens and goats roamed the roadsides.

The Kazungula border crossing is one of the more unique in the world. It’s the only place on the planet where four independent nations meet. Though there is some debate as to where the mid-river borders actually are, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia all come together in one quadripoint in Kazungula where the Zambezi River and Chobe River intersect.

Quadripoint at Kazungula between Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia

A reasonable person would expect to find a bridge spanning the river, allowing vehicular traffic (and cargo) to cross between countries efficiently. Unfortunately, Robert Mugabe is not a reasonable person. Zimbabwe still refuses to agree to any such construction, I suppose partially due to the fact that there is a bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia in nearby Victoria Falls. As a result, semis loaded with goods heading to or from the four states (or other places on the continent, like South Africa and the DRC), must wait their turn to be ferried across the river. One by one.

The queue of trucks on the Zambian side stretched for nearly a mile. Our guide said the drivers may be forced to wait for a week or more before their turn comes. Africa time.

We, however, jumped the queue.

With the blue ink of the EXIT stamps from Zambian immigration drying in our passports, we pushed through the crowd of people clustered inside the tall, metal gates and walked with blinders past the hawkers in their Chipolopolo jerseys. “Remember me. Peter! I am Peter! When you return, remember Peter. Copper bracelets. Big Five carvings. Peter!”

Mercifully, the drone of the speedboat we boarded at the river’s edge soon drowned out the hawkers’ cries, and within 60 seconds we were across to Botswana.

Standing on shore was our ranger and guide for the day, a fit, handsome man named Diane. Though pronounced more like de-YAN-ee, seeing the shiny, gold name badge with “Diane” on his greenish-khaki shirt was, at first, rather strange.

We rode in an open safari vehicle from the river to the border post, where we were quickly processed by Botswana immigration before stepping on a conspicuously dirty sponge mat ostensibly designed to clean our shoes of anything that could transmit foot-and-mouth disease. From the spongy block, we could see another queue of trucks waiting to cross the river.

After ten minutes by highway in the open vehicle, we reached Chobe Safari Lodge, our departure point for the first activity: a river safari.

It was truly amazing to see the animals from the water, and to see so many species of animals that live on or near the water. It’s a completely different feel from a traditional game drive.

Wire-tailed swallows enjoy a ride on our boat in Chobe National Park

We were pretty lucky that day. The sightings were nice, especially of hippos, crocs and birds.

Pod of hippos in Chobe National Park

Large crocodile and great white egret in Chobe National Park

African darter (with fish) in Chobe National Park

We also spent some quality time with an older bull elephant who had crossed the deep river channel in order to munch on the soft green grasses of Sedudu Island.

Bull elephant in Chobe National Park

If the day had ended here, we would have been extremely satisfied, but we were only halfway through. We still had a game drive after lunch!

After the buffet, a brief chat with a group of retirees from Iowa, and a bit of a torrential rainstorm, we donned ponchos and set out in the open vehicle to tour the land side of Chobe National Park. Within minutes, we saw a large troop of baboons, several hundred impala, some kudu and a marshland antelope called a puku.

Then, we saw the elephants.

Driving on a sandy dirt road parallel to the river, Diane spotted a small family of elephants ahead on the bank, drinking. He guided the truck onto a rutted path, angling towards the shoreline. He cut the engine and we coasted to a stop some 50 feet away from the herd. As soon as they spotted our vehicle, most of the elephants turned and waded into the water; one, a juvenile male, stayed behind and stared at us.

Elephants in Chobe National Park

Eventually, they all crossed over and focused on other things, but not before another of the big creatures trumpeted at us in warning.

We could have spent hours watching them, but it was getting late – time for us to get started on our return journey.

But, wait! What’s this? Another ranger driving an open vehicle flagged us down and told Diane that a leopard had been spotted nearby. Let’s go!

Diane whipped the truck into the bush, executed a killer three-point turn and gunned it in the opposite direction. Our placid game drive was now a Ferrari Safari.

As we raced down the road, the truck’s tires skidded in the soft dirt. We rounded a corner and started scanning the bush and trees for signs of the big cat. Up a small incline we spotted an unusual set of tire tracks. The other vehicle must have stopped here to watch the leopard.

Diane halted abruptly. “There!” Indeed, there it was. High in a tree, roughly 100 feet from the road, was a male leopard.

Male leopard in tree in Chobe National Park

Surveying the scene from high above, the leopard certainly had been watching the herd of impala grazing between the road and the river. They were gradually making their way inland, ever closer to the leopard’s perch. But, for now, he had his sights set squarely on us.

Male leopard watching us from tree in Chobe National Park

Quite an amazing ending to an incredible day – a day when we set foot in two countries, saw two more, and explored the Chobe River with a man named Diane.

Up next, Pt. 3: That time we crossed into Zimbabwe illegally

Weekend at Vickie’s Pt. 1: The Smoke that Thunders, the Tourist that Plummets

We could have died in any number of ways. We could have slipped into the river and plunged 108 metres to a watery grave. We could have lost control of the rope and plummeted 54 metres to the rocky bottom of the Batoka Gorge. We could have choked on a bream bone.

Honestly, the flight from South Africa to Zambia was probably the safest part of those first two days.

What were we doing, you ask? Visiting the wonder that is Victoria Falls.

Victoria Falls was named for Queen Victoria by the intrepid Scottish missionary, David Livingstone. But, as you might have guessed, the falls already had a name: Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke that Thunders.”

No wonder. The sound of the Zambezi River cascading over and down the sheer face of the falls, some 1,700 metres (5,600 ft) wide, was indeed thunderous. With the sliding glass door open, we could definitely hear it from our room at the Zambezi Sun, situated just outside the entrance to the falls on the Zambia side.

Our first order of business after checking in was to see the falls, which were literally a minute’s walk from our room. After a quick formality at the gate between the hotel and park, we continued on a paved path through some trees, turned a corner and saw this:

Rainbow over Victoria Falls

(OK, technically we didn’t see the rainbow on the first day, but why waste your time with non-rainbow pics?)

Here, both the thunder and the smoke become obvious. The mist, or spray, from the water crashing into the rocks below the falls rises high above the falls in the form of an ethereal, white cloud. Only, this smoke will drench you, soak you, flood you.

As the path descended further down and ever closer to the falls, the mist changed from a light spritzing to a torrential rain. We were fresh off the plane, unprepared, unprotected. Still, we stood and marveled. I tried to take pictures. The ones from a later visit turned out better:

Victoria Falls

DOUBLE RAINBOW across the sky over Victoria Falls

For those who have visited Niagara Falls, it may be apparent from these photos that the tourist experience at Victoria Falls is quite different. Absent are the seemingly incongruous things like giant slabs of concrete at viewing areas, glass and steel buildings in the background, laser light shows, etc. For the most part, the only real attraction at Victoria Falls is the falls itself. As it should be.

The other thing that is conspicuously absent, from the vantage point of visitors from an overly litigious country, is safety apparatus. Sure, there are a few wooden barriers at the main viewing area, and the railings on the Knife-Edge Bridge are high enough, but walk the path in the opposite direction, further up the river, and find yourself on a rock outcrop that juts into the raging rapids just a few metres from the lip of the falls. This is Africa. Proceed at your own risk.

There's nothing at the water's edge to stop you from chasing that rainbow...

A few steps further and the paved path gives way to dirt. Here, the river is a bit calmer, though still flowing at a steady clip, and more accessible. We stuck our toes in.

Getting our feet wet in the Zambezi River

It’s a good thing we didn’t slip and fall in. We wouldn’t have lived to experience our next death-defying adventure: abseiling!

Backwards into the Batoka

Abseiling, as you may know, is a fancy German word for rappelling. Rappelling is a fancy French word for jumping off a cliff backwards while holding a rope behind your butt.

Sounds like our kinda deal.

A stout, semi-bearded, fully friendly chap named Mathias fetched us from the hotel on our second morning in a white pickup truck that had been converted into an open game drive vehicle. Jenny and I climbed up onto the bench seats, still wet from the rains that had just subsided, and braced ourselves as Mathias drove us down 4 km of cratered, muddy, puddle-pocked roads, past a power plant and the workers in standard-issue blue jumpsuits who would surely be among the last to see us alive. We wondered, aloud, “Why do we always end up in choose to go to places like this?”

On arrival at “the place,” we jumped down from the truck and saw several men waiting for us, including one with a cheap video camera, which was recording us as we walked towards the large, stone-and-thatched-roof hut where we would be briefed about the safety measures entailed in our leap into the void. Apparently, our walk from truck to hut would be the opening scene on the film. You know, the film they will make for us – and sell to us on DVD – after we successfully fall to our non-deaths. No thanks.

After we signed our lives away (seriously, the form mandated that we would not hold these people liable for injury or death, even if they were proven to be negligent), we met two new guys: our instructor and belayer. Since we were both familiar with the gear from a short rock-climbing course we took in Chicago, our instruction session was brief.

Speaking of brief, we had forgotten how the climbing harness fits so snugly around certain pelvic areas, to the point where a high degree of male accentuation occurs. Once strapped in, I tried to avoid eye contact with the young Swedish couple that had signed up for abseiling through their tour operator, but decided at the last minute to forego the thrill. Don’t mind me…

Other than the potentially risqué attire, abseiling follows most normal rules of etiquette. As in, women and children first. Or, the one shooting video on his iPhone goes second.

Jenny was ready to go. She stood on the platform, 54 metres (177 ft) above the floor of this section of the Batoka Gorge, checked her ropes and carabiners, and began to lower herself, backwards, down to the rocky cliff face. With the instructor’s encouragement, she pushed off the wall and glided down the rope.

I was next. I clipped in. I leaned back. I started walking down the slatted metal ramp. I slipped, my shoes slick with mud. I tightened my grip, took a breath. I lowered myself until my feet were on the rock wall. I let go, just a little. I abseiled.

We could have died in any number of ways. And that’s what turned a trip to a waterfall into the adventure of a lifetime.

Up next, Part 2: Hunting for hippos on the Chobe River with a boy named Diane.