Last week as the first trucks crossed the newly commissioned 903-metre Kazungula Bridge across the Zambezi River, this also marked the end of one of the world’s most unique and dangerous border crossings, writes Staff Writer THALEFANG CHARLES
The adventure is all but gone. The border crossing at the world’s unique “double tripoint,” has been totally transformed. On May 10, five Heads of State from Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and DRC together with Vice President from Namibia met on the new Kazungula Bridge to cut the ribbons, unveil placards and release balloons marking the commissioning of the Bridge. It was a symbolic event to celebrate the success of a 10-year project aimed at smoothening the movement of goods in the Southern Africa’s unique border crossing.
Throughout the years a pontoon ferry was used to cross the 400-metre wide Zambezi River at Kazungula between Botswana and Zambia. There were two ferries, one each from the two countries, which operated between the Kazungula border posts.
The two motorised pontoons were some of the largest ferries in south-central Africa, with a capacity of over 70 tonnes. The Kazungula ferry has had a troubled past. In the 1970s when the South African apartheid regime was bullying Southern Africa, after their occupation of Namibia, the regime informed Botswana that there was no common border between Botswana and Zambia. The regime claimed that all four countries came together in a quadripoint and questioned whether Zambia had the right to operate a ferry between Botswana and Zambia.
Botswana defiantly rejected the claims and it is reported that there was an impasse that nearly turned violent as gunshots were fired at the ferry. Another white regime in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) would later attack and sink the ferry, arguing that it was serving military purposes. The deadliest ferry incident was the 2003 disaster when 18 people lost their lives after another capsizing.
A South African truck travelling from Zambia heading to South Africa via Botswana overloaded with cobalt reportedly slid off the pontoon and all the people on board the ferry were thrown into the crocodile-infested Zambezi River. Only six people survived.
And throughout the years the ferry had brought about a number of other challenges.
Last week, following the official opening of the Kazungula Bridge, general manager of the Central Transport Organisation (CTO), Lawrence Thebe looked back to the years of the precarious crossing with both nostalgia and relief that it is all in the past.
“The people of Chobe will miss the ferry because there was an attachment to it. It was the biggest vessel that you would see plying water in this area,” he recalled.
Thebe also spoke of the many challenges that they faced in operating the ferry. “If challenges are anything to miss, we will miss a lot of challenges that were brought about by the ferry,” he said.
The complexity of the “double tripoint” at Kazungula meant that it was easy to stray into either Namibia or Zimbabwe when trying to cross from between Botswana and Zambia with the ferry.
“We had to have a way of driving the ferry against the current – which wanted to push it onto Zimbabwean territory - to avoid intruding into Zimbabwean territory.”
The CTO boss added that after the government bought a locally manufactured ferry from Aliboats in 2009, the drivers had to perfect the skills of loading heavy laden trucks and navigating the Zambezi.
There were many incidents where trucks fell into the water during the attempted loading. There were also dark days when the ferry broke down and caused traffic nightmares at Kazungula.
Thebe recalled that at some point there were trucks queuing for up to over two kilometres and waiting for days at Kazungula for a chance to make the crossing. The traffic was believed to be the catalyst of the booming prostitution at Kazungula as the ladies of the night traded with the long distance truck drivers stuck in the pontoon queue.
Now that the Bridge is done and the crossing has been smoothened, Thebe revealed that the Ferry will be transferred to the Botswana Tourism Organisation (BTO) to be used for tourism purposes. However, he said because the Kazungula ferry was designed for a particular place, it could not be easily moved elsewhere.
Thebe further said the experienced drivers of the ferry, who are CTO staff members, will also be deployed elsewhere.
Acting BTO chief executive officer, Tafa Tafa confirmed that there are ongoing discussions between CTO and the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resource Conservation and Tourism through the BTO to explore tourism opportunities post decommissioning of the Kazungula Ferry.
“We believe that the ferry, with its historical significance strategic location within the Kasane-Kazungula redevelopment project scope, and indeed its proximity to the newly launched Kazungula Bridge, holds enormous tourism potential,” Tafa said.
“The BTO is committed to realising the potential of the ferries and therefore concrete plans based on feasibility assessment will be finalised after handover from the current owner.”
The ferry has been a subject for travel bloggers for years as they voyaged between Victoria Falls and Chobe National Park. It will therefore be interesting to find out how the BTO would choose to use the old vessel.
Meanwhile, last year the Zambian Minister of Housing and Infrastructure Development, Vincent Mwale reportedly said they plan to move their ferry to other areas of their country.