A little while ago a university mate sent me an invitation to his 50th birthday party. The slight catch was that the venue was neither Zastron, Zeerust, Zuurfontein or even Zinkwazi. No, I needed to trek 1600km north of Johannesburg to the banks of the mighty Zambezi River in Zambia.
But why miss out on a special opportunity to relive some of those “wild and wonderful” student days?
To justify spending two days getting there, two days partying and then two days driving back, I devised an “overland expedition” that involved four border crossings, two friends who could keep me company on the road and one Renault Duster. Oh, and a bag of oranges.
Eventually, about 40 of us flew, drove and boated in from places as far away as Australia, England and the Western Cape. All of us zoned in on a usually peaceful little eco-lodge near Chirundu called Wild Tracks Zambia. It was going to be an event to remember!
Have you heard of the Chirundu border post? It seems there is quite a lot of fuss on the internet about it. This quote is from the Overland Google Group’s Oom Hennie:
“It is the worst border post I have ever had the displeasure of passing through. The long queues of trucks often jam the bridge. The officials (on the ZAM side) had a serious case of wrong attitude. Perhaps it has changed in the last 10 years, but I doubt it.
Kariba is a much better and more scenic option.” What is Chirundu like now? Firstly, likeBeit Bridge, it has a narrow bridge on the only north-south arterial road route through Africa. This can lead to truck, taxi and bus logjams of huge proportions. Secondly, it is the one post where drivers are always asked for a prized piece of paper known as a “Vehicle Police Clearance Certificate”, but sometimes also referred to as a “Not Stolen Check” or even an “Engine change document”. As I found out, though, none of these terms is technically correct.
Should you be considering taking your vehicle north of the Zambezi and you live in the Johannesburg area, get yourself to the Langlaagte testing station, taking along your registration document, ID book and passport, and ask for a “Police clearance for travel”. After a brief check of your vehicle, the officials will give you a form called a “Checking Slip Stolen Status”.
As I do not ever pay bribes, I might still have been at Chirundu raising chickens and stamping mealies had I not been in possession of this simple slip of paper.
Anyway, with this very necessary document in my pocket and a bag of oranges in full view (to distract official eyes from the box of wine hidden inside the rim of the spare wheel), I had loaded the Duster the previous evening. The plucky Duster looked like a tethered stallion, straining against the reins (OK, more like a bulldog, perhaps).
Last-minute work commitments meant we set off only at 16h00, moving straight into the motoring mayhem on the N1 towards Pretoria.
Beit bridge beckons
Then, partly because I missed the Polokwane bypass but mostly because of my captivating crew, we took an unplanned detour through Seshego township near Polokwane. To ask for directions, I stopped at a house where some sort of function was going on, and was told that this was Mama Malema’s place – I kid you not!
The Duster was an instant hit on the trip. Three adults cruised along in comfort, catching up on decades of war stories, torrid tales and family feuds in a vehicle that – when we filled up with 50ppm at Sasol south of Musina – showed fantastic fuel consumption of 5,4 litres per 100km.
Pretty soon the notorious Beit Bridge border post loomed large, but I had already been in touch with an enterprising Zimbabwean, Solomon Mhlanga, who has been running a handy little business called “Crossing Beit Bridge” for ten years. He operates on the Zimbabwe side, and we had exchanged a few e-mails in the days leading up to the trip.
Solomon kept us updated on traffic and queueing conditions, which seem to change by the hour.
Strangely, on the SA side, we did not have to fill in any customs form for the vehicle, but the police carefully checked the VIN number and the permission letter from Renault SA (the vehicle was in the company’s name). I was told that as the permission letter was a printed copy and not an original, Zambian officials at Chirundu would not accept it. This warning had me worried, but what could we do? What would happen when we reached Chirundu?
Solomon liked to meet clients at the front of the Temporary Import Permit queue, as this is where the longest delays usually happen. However, because there was the “traffic jam of doom” blocking access to the immigration building, he found us outside and showed us where to park.
The customs fellow took 30 minutes to process our permit and slap a second stamp on our gate pass. I had already obtained third party insurance for Zimbabwe, so all we needed now was a police stamp, but this had to be done in a separate building.
Then we had to find an immigration official (they wear marked jackets) to check the contents of the Duster. By now the haphazard queue of cars, bakkies and minibuses ahead resembled a motor scrap yard.
When all documentation was in order, we edged the Duster through a gap, handed in our gate pass at the exit boom and motored triumphantly northwards towards the comfort and familiarity of that old overland stalwart, the Lion and Elephant Motel. We got there very late, at around 01h00, but two security guards greeted us and showed us to our beds.
As always, the stay was pleasant. This is a charming place worthy of a few days’ break on your way to and from Zimbabwe.
The following morning, we hit the road to Harare. The surface is beginning to disintegrate badly and is dotted with roadblocks, speed traps and toll gates, so avoid this route if you can.
At Mvuma we turned west towards Gweru, but not before filling up with 50ppm at the Engen depot in Masvingo, and buying a fire extinguisher. (Mine had got us a $20 fine because it had expired.)
Between Gweru and Chinhoyi, the road criss-crosses one of the most remarkable rock formations in the world. It is called the Great Dyke, and actually stretches more than 550km, north-east to south-west across the centre of Zimbabwe, varying in width from 3km to 12km.
It is a very scenic drive and the condition of the road is surprisingly good.
We topped up with diesel and tasty garage pies in Chinhoyi, negotiated the hairpins, potholes and trucks on the notorious (but very picturesque) Zambezi escarpment road down to Chirundu in the dark, crossed the bridge, and suddenly we were on the Zambian border
We were at the dreaded Chirundu border post. As the Duster was the only vehicle in the parking lot, I assumed we would be there for just a short time.
The “Zimbabwe side” of the large hall was indeed negotiated quickly, but then we were referred to police officials who had to check whether the Duster was legally in our hands, or not. So the Zimbabwean and Zambian police stepped outside and asked to be shown the VIN number of the car, which they meticulously checked against all of our documents and letters.
What followed has become a blurred and bizarre memory of paperwork, US dollars, Zambian kwacha, SA rands and half-a-dozen smiling but very slow officials who sent me back and forth between offices, accompanied by a very drunk self-proclaimed “fixer” who passed out halfway through the whole show.
Two hours later, with a wad of about seven freshly stamped and verified documents pinned to my clipboard, we were advised we could now drive to the gate. But instead of lifting the boom and waving us into Zambia, the soldiers on duty motioned me to park and took my precious pack of paperwork back to the window of an office that I had already visited many times. But thankfully all seemed to be in order, and an official handed back the file, lifted the boom and with a winning smile said: “Welcome to Zambia”.
The birthday celebrations were only due to begin the following day, so we took a rough track parallel to the gleaming and massive Zambezi River and pitched camp at Kiambi Lodge.
Chirundu had drained my reserves, so I slept like a puppy and when I stuck my head out of the tent at dawn I found my friends already up and enjoying a Zambezi sunrise.
What a river! It always takes my breath away – elephants coming down to drink on the south bank, fish eagles soaring, fishermen in dugouts singing as they spin out their nets, and hippos chuckling deeply to each other. We took advantage of the solitude and stunning scenery by spending most of the morning just enjoying the African bush. Before long, though, we were on our way to Wild Tracks Lodge.
We bumped into some friends who were also on their way to the lodge, as well as my brother Bill, who had travelled by mountain bike on a back road from Lusaka. They were as surprised as we were at this encounter on a random road so far from home.
Other people arrived via the Kafue River in a boat, and by mid-afternoon the beers, G&Ts and banter were flowing faster than the river.
Sven and Paula, the couple who own and run Wild Tracks, were more accustomed to offering outdoor education courses for schools and hosting fishermen than managing a crowd of loud, opinionated and thirsty friends! Fortunately we had booked out the entire lodge and brought in plenty of food and beverages (Wild Tracks is self-catering.)
Two solid days of reminiscing and partying went swiftly by, and all too soon it was time to head home.
Fun at the falls
But I had a little surprise in store for our trip back, and got Tania and Paul up and the Duster packed by 06h00.
We headed west via Mazabuka and Choma on excellent roads towards the town of Livingstone. As I turned onto Mosi-Oa-Tunya Road (the main road in Livingstone), we could see the “thundering smoke” rising up above the msasa trees (Brachystegia spiciformis) in the distance.
We still had to get to the Zambezi ferry at Kazungula before nightfall, but it was just 12km from Livingstone to the Victoria Falls and, with the level of the river just right to enjoy the falls at their best, the $20 entrance fee was probably the best R240 we had ever spent!
Kazungula also has more bad press on the internet than it deserves, and yes, while the queue of trucks can be daunting to the uninitiated, I ignored them and drove right up to the gate as if we had a blue light brigade escorting us. (The British colonialists knew the secret to success in Africa – overconfidence!) So just 20 minutes later I drove the Duster onto the ferry. Across the water reflecting a setting sun, beautiful Botswana beckoned.
Pandamatenga! The word sounds like an exclamation you’d make when hitting your hand with a hammer, but it means “to invite people to trade”. While refuelling the Duster, we were confronted by a frantic fellow who explained that he had been forced to leave a friend along the road towards Nata when their Iveco camper ran out of diesel. We filled one of our jerry cans, found the stranded truck with the owner sipping wine, and emptied the can into its tank.
With this good deed done, we headed on. The wide tarmac road was lined with elephants, so driving at night may not be advisable, but I was determined to get to a place called Elephant Sands. This lived up to its name, and the waterhole just a few metres from the restaurant was busy with the sounds and silhouettes of dozens of elephants. A recent drought had caused some elephants to rip the plumbing from the back of the campsite ablutions in their search for water, and there were now rows of concrete spikes protecting the pipes.
I had forgotten how cold it can get at night during winter, so my basic sleeping bag struggled to keep the chill at bay. Surprisingly, the solar showers were still piping hot the following morning and this delayed our departure for a while. Nothing beats a hot shower after a cold night! Independent of one other, Paul and I had come to the conclusion that the best route home would be via the Parr’s Halt/Stockpoort border. This proved to be the case and, as we literally had a plane to catch (Tania was booked on a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town), the Duster’s mission now was simply to get us to OR Tambo on time. We made it with 30 minutes to spare!
It had been a brief but very enjoyable overland adventure