Crossing the Zambezi: Another ferry bites the dust

Text and photographs: Frikkie Kraamwinkel.

The great Zambezi River dissects the main road from Maputo to northern Mozambique and Tanzania at a remote town called Caia. There are no shady trees. By day one is stung by the merciless sun and swarms of tsetse flies.

At night the mosquitoes take over. For more fun, there are hippos and crocodiles.

In the past an aging ferry has run the gauntlet of the river, but now an $80 million bridge has been built. It is 2376m long and 16m wide, with four traffic lanes. Construction first started during Portuguese rule in the 1970s, but the civil war put a halt to any idea of completion.

When we arrived at Caia a few years ago, on a beautiful sunny day, the ferry was still the only option of crossing the river. Once upon a time the ferry had four engines, but now two were missing, and one of the remaining two were on their last legs.

Vehicles had already been queuing for three days, with the ferry still at the opposite riverbank. Asked about the cause of the delay, a truck driver nonchalantly replied, “Este normal. Manjana. Comprehendo?”

Through our binoculars we could see water being bailed out of one of the engine compartments. With nothing better to do we retreated to one of the riverbank cantinas where solar-powered fridges were stocked with cold 2M beers.

Some truck drivers amused themselves by telling stories of their transport woes, while others busied themselves by making emergency repairs to their old but faithful steeds. So the day leisurely passed by.

The African sun was already lying low over the river when at last the ferry pitched up on our side of the water. Our expectant glances for a quick trip across the river were met with “Six o’ clock tomorrow morning”.

At six o’clock on the dot the captain and his men showed up with a zest for work. The one engine compartment was completely flooded, and bailing commenced.

Meanwhile the captain was busy tearing one of his men’s oldest shirts into strips. These were heavily greased and, when the engine compartment again became accessible, pushed with a screwdriver into the place that should have been occupied by a propeller shaft bearing.

Once this emergency seal was in place, nuts and bolts had to be fastened. Holding a large spanner in one hand, a man dived overboard to fasten bolts under water. With no thought of crocodiles, man after man shot into the water to tighten the propeller shaft into place. One could see they were well practised from previous experience!

Now a man emerged from the bush with a jerrycan of diesel. Just as we thought the moment had arrived to board the ferry, the mechanics began negotiating with the truck drivers for a battery to start the ferry motors. These had to be running to push the ferry to shore while vehicles were loaded.

To ease the off-loading on the other side of the river, vehicles had to be loaded in reverse on this side. A small truck with no brakes came down the ramp with speed, but the crew was prepared with two sizeable rocks at the ready. Innovation thrives in Africa.

While this episode was playing itself out, the ferry slightly drifted away from the bank. An impatient truck driver had hooked his trailer to the front of his truck and was blindly pushing it towards the ferry, not waiting for directions from the crew. By the time he got his trailer to the ferry, it had moved, and straight into the river the trailer went.

An hour passed with no change to the picture. We courteously asked the captain whether he would perhaps consider taking the vehicles already on the ferry across and bring back another load by which time the trailer might have been rescued from the river.

The captain considered that it was only economical for him to cross the river with a full load and said we would have to wait for the trailer to be retrieved.

Eventually an armada of trucks pulling together got the trailer onto dry land and, with its truck, loaded onto the ferry. By this time the ferry’s fuel tanks had to be topped up again from a second jerrycan diesel that appeared out of the bush, and the improvised propeller shaft seal was leaking again. A man was assigned to bail out water.

Once the ferry was underway, the captain steered upstream in the still water until he judged the right point on the opposite side could be safely reached despite the strongly flowing river. Asked what the chances to reach land were if the crippled engine packed up, the captain assured us that there were a hundred or more kilometres between Caia and the sea, and that he considered that enough safeguard to be able to make some plan.

By the time we were off the ferry, and setting up camp high above the river on the bridgehead, the sun was already low in the west. We were just beginning to admire our view up and down the river when along came a policeman, and a soldier armed with an AK47.

Between the two of them, in a mixture of Portuguese and a few English words, they managed to politely convey to us that it was not permitted for us to camp on the bridgehead. For our convenience this information was repeated a few times.

We had no intention of moving anywhere else, so we invited them to join us for sundowners. Ice-cold 2M beers did the trick, and the men gave us their blessings to stay right where we were for the night. The next morning we would witness a most spectacular river sunrise.

The new bridge has been completed, and it now takes just a moment for vehicles to whisk across the mighty Zambezi. Now that there is no more ferry, these wonderful ferry stories have dried up forever, and the ferry mill will never mill stories again.