Sunday, 19 February 2012

Zambesi Queen

Friday, 17th February 2012

The alarm either didn't go off or failed to wake me. I finally awoke at the Royal Livingstone Hotel at about a quarter to seven and rustled round getting dressed and finishing packing. After my customary breakfast on the terrace of the restaurant, I set off on my last 'jaunt' before leaving.

I knew that if I followed the river bank towards the falls, I should come to the hotel's 'Falls Gate'. Here, I was able to sign the register and pass into the nature reserve overlooking the Falls I'd visited the previous afternoon. I had a quick second-look at the Eastern Cataract and then moved to the path which led to the 'Boiling Pot' we'd not taken during my visit the day before. The length of this path was just under 700 yards, according to a marker stone, but I knew the path would also have to descend more than 300 feet to get to the water level in the 'Boiling Pot' so I wasn't expecting an easy walk. I was right. The path was made from sharp-edged rocks laid in concrete forming rough steps of varied depth and, like everything near the falls, permanently wet and slippery. I realised I'd have to be very careful to avoid a nasty tumble so I was almost relieved when a Zambian man appeared and appointed himself my guide. He looked about 16 years old to me but I discovered he had two children, one seven, one three, so he must have been much older than that. He was carrying a catapult and insisted that the path was infested with baboons. I'd seen catapults in use at the hotel to discourage the thieving vervet monkeys. We didn't see any baboons on the way to the Boiling Pot but my 'guide' let off a few small stones to show willing.

Eventually, I reached a large rock just a few inches above the water which I gathered was the loading point for the White Water Rafting Experience. The rafting is stopped with the seasonal increase of water flow and had already stopped by the time of my visit.

View from the shore of the Boiling Pot looking into the Second Gorge, showing the Victoria Falls Bridge.

I then had the unwelcome challenge of climbing back up again. Reaching the top reasonably unscathed, I paid off my 'guide' and made my way back to the Royal Livingstone where there was just time for a shower before checking out and meeting Jeff, my Wilderness Safaris guide from the previous day who was to take me to the border with Botswana, a road journey which would take about an hour.

We took the familiar road north to Livingstone town, where we made a left turn at the Catholic Church to follow a long, straight road which would take us west to the border, travelling parallel to but out of sight of the Zambesi River. Leaving town we passed various educational establishments including schools, the technology college, an orphanage and a smart-looking Seventh Day Adventist church. Jeff told me that about 90% of the population are Christian although there is still some belief in the old, local gods.

Leaving Livingstone, we passed a large group of schoolchildren.

We passed through a game reserve where we saw a number of giraffes happily grazing from the leaves at the top of the trees. We passed various small villages, some apparently without electricity but after passing a tall radio tower, there was an overhead supply, presumably to power the tower and any villages passed through. Two high voltage overhead power lines appeared on our right, fed from the hydro-electric power station at Victoria Falls, one apparently to provide power to the Kasengula area of Zambia, one to export power to Botswana and Namibia. After passing a high voltage substation on the outskirts of Kasengula, we turned left and followed the road to the border with Botswana.

We came to a long line of parked lorries facing the border, all articulated, some quite huge. Jeff explained that the Zambesi River forms the border between Zambia and Botswana and the lorries were waiting their turn on the vehicle ferry which crosses the river. Lorry drivers may have to wait seven days for their turn to cross. The road had deteriorated to a sandy track and, with the recent heavy rain, there were large pools of mud. At the gates to the ferry terminal we had to wait for a large lorry coming off the ferry to clear then we slowly drove ahead, past crowds of people milling around, and parked near the Immigration Office. Here I completed a Zambian Departure Form and submitted it with my passport for stamping.

The chaos approaching the Ferry at Kasangula.

I could see two old vehicle ferries of similar design - a flat pontoon to carry the load, hinging ramp at each end which could be lowered to let vehicles on and off and a small wheelhouse mounted on a steel bridge structure. Either side of the pontoon, there was a deck extension large enough to carry a packaged diesel engine driving a propellor via a Z-drive. The propulsion system was similar to that in use on the pontoons I'd seen in St. Helena. There was another, newer vehicle ferry with 'Hydromaster' power plant and a hydraulic ram to pivot the arm of the Z-drive (presumably for easy attention to the propellor). In this case, the tiny wheelhouse was suspended aloft on a single, massive inclined steel tube, giving the vessel an even odder look. The wheelhouse was labelled 'ZAMBESI CRUISER ZL17'.

Jeff directed me to a small aluminium passenger ferry boat with an outboard. This had just arrived from the Botswana side by the simple expedient of driving into the mud at the shore line. A number of European tourists were disembarking and their luggage was lifted off by various willing hands after which my baggage was put on board and I clambered aboard. The friendly boat driver took me across the Zambesi to the Botswana shore, pointing out that, to our right, the Zambesi divided into the Chobe River, flowing in from the west and the Zambesi itself flowing in from the north west. Later, I discovered that the land between the Chobe and the Zambezi is part of Namibia and that the land on the southern bank of the Zambezi to the east of this important ferry crossing is part of Zimbabwe so four counties meet at this point. As we crossed the Zambezi, we passed yet another vehicle ferry carrying two lorries from Botswana to Zambia. The wheelhouse of this ferry was mounted at the side of the vehicle deck, giving the craft a fairly conventional appearance. On our left, on each bank, there were two tall transmission towers carrying the electric power from Victoria Falls to Botswana. The approach to the ferry on the Zambian side appeared to be just a sandy track leading down into the water but the Botswana side boasted a wide concrete ramp with lots of lorries lined up waiting their turn.

My ferry approached a dilapidated landing stage to one side of the concrete ramp where I was met by another driver with another Mercedes people carrier. We drove a few yards to Botswana Immigration and, whilst I completed the formalities for entering Botswana, the driver took the vehicle through a shallow 'sheep dip' forming part of the precautions Botswana takes against Foot and Mouth disease.

We headed west past along a reasonable road past a long line of big lorries waiting to cross from Botswana to Zambia. We then came to a length of road which was closed for road works so traffic just veered onto the sandy verge to bypass the proper road. I was intrigued that the closed section of road had been provided with a row of large stones spaced across the carriageway every so often. I'm not sure whether this was to discourage motorists from driving down the closed section or to sectionalise the road works. We soon came to the important town of Kasane which looked fairly prosperous compared with Zambia. I noticed a modern hospital and a modern police headquarters before we suddenly turned right into the compound of the Botswana Immigration Service on the bank of the Chobe River. My first visit to Botswana was to finish after only twenty minutes! Within a few minutes, I'd received the 'Exit' stamp in my passport and I waited with a some other tourists who were also destined for the 'Zambezi Queen' Houseboat. After a brief wait, we boarded a very smart aluminium ferry boat powered by an outboard with a capacity for about 13 passengers. We set off along the Chobe River and the various twists and turns left me completely disorientated. An opening in the undergrowth along the shoreline revealed a steep bank of loose sand and we 'parked' by driving the boat straight at the shore. We all disembarked and struggled up the bank to a flat, sandy area with offices at the far end. This, we realised, was Namibian Immigration for Kasika Conservancy. We had another wait under the shade of a large tree until somebody arrived to unlock the building and a little later the Immigration Officer himself arrived. Only a few people at a time could fit inside the immigration office so a line of people were left outside in the hot sun.

Waiting for the Immigration Officer on our entry to Namibia.

Eventually, everybody had been processed and our boat continued along the river to the 'Zambezi Queen' Houseboat. 'Houseboat' was the best description of our home for the next three days. With three decks above the waterline she had a rather ungainly appearance and I understood that she handles badly in winds with her flat bottom. We were welcomed aboard and taken up to the top deck for a Welcome Drink followed by lunch. A Preying Mantis appeared as part of the welcoming committee - appropriate since the boat is operated by the Mantis Group. What the 'Zambezi Queen' lacks in external elegance, she makes up for in passenger comfort.

The 'Zambezi Queen' Houseboat.

After lunch, the boat started to cruise along the Chobe River. Near the Immigration Post we passed a number of holiday villas then we swung right into another channel with our direction reversed. On our left was the shore of the famous Chobe Game Park (in Botswana) and on our right an island, the ownership of which was originally disputed but now also part of Botswana. We had good sightings of hippo and various birds before another aluminium ferry boat roared towards us with the balance of our passengers who had, apparently, been delayed by Immigration at Livingstone airport.

The two aluminium boats were now tied alongside amidships - one on the port side, the other on the starboard side. At about four o'clock, all the guests clambered into the two boats for a Sunset Cruise game and bird spotting. Late afternoon is a popular time for game and bird sighting and we passed various other craft engaged in a similar pursuit.

At around seven o'clock, we assembled on the Upper Deck for drinks followed by an excellent dinner and an opportunity to talk to fellow guests. By ten o'clock I was more than ready to go to my spacious cabin, have a shower and prepare for bed.

More pictures:

Leaving Zambia.
Botswana Briefly.
Kasika Conservancy, Namibia.
'Zambezi Queen' Houseboat.
Cruising on the Chobe River.