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River Crossings: Crossing Over


Words and image by Gordon Stewart

My wife, who plans all our routes, has a principle: if you’re going from A to B and it’s a tarred road, rather go via C on a gravel road, even if it is twice as long and takes a lot longer. She reckons that you get to see more of the countryside this way, because the back roads are usually in worse condition than the main roads, so you have to drive more slowly. That, in turn, gives you more time to take in your surroundings.

The second reason is that, on all these back roads, you will often come across a variety of rivers where the cost of erecting a bridge could not be justified − so that the obvious means of crossing the river is via either a pont or a ferry. At all these crossings, the ferries or ponts make use of pontoons or floats for buoyancy. Ferries, correctly called pontoon ferries, are self-powered like a ship, while a pont is generally worked by manual power and is attached to cables or ropes. However, we have also been on a cross between the two, where there was an engine to power forward movement, but a cable or rope attached to counter the effect of the current.


For those who have done a bit of overlanding, the best-known ferry is probably the one at Kazungula, which crosses the Zambezi between Botswana and Zambia. Although we have passed through Kazungula at least a dozen times, we have never crossed the Zambezi on this ferry. We love Vic Falls so much that we always go via there, and spend at least a few days on both legs of our journey. On a couple of occasions, we have left our vehicle in the Botswana border-post parking lot and walked to the ferry crossing, to watch it being loaded and then travelling back and forth. A new bridge is supposed to be in the process of being built there at a cost of some $260m, but this is due for completion only in 2018; so, for now, the ferries continue to ply their trade.


At Sitoti in Zambia, about halfway between Mongu and Sesheke, and near Katimo Mulilo, there is another ferry. If you are heading south from Mongu towards Sesheke, you take the road on the eastern side of the Zambezi River from Mongu to Sitoti – which was a shocker when we covered it in 2012. Across the river, they are working on the road from Sitoti to Sesheke on the western side of the Zambezi and it will soon be surfaced.

When we arrived at the river crossing, the ferry was on the other side; we had a wait of about 45 mins until they had a local taxi on board and made the crossing. (This particular ferry had two engines, one on each side, and both really looked as if they had seen better days.) We watched as the taxi reversed onto the ferry on the opposite bank, and then made a 180° turn in midstream so that the taxi drove off forwards. I drove onto the ferry forwards − and the ferry again made a 180° turn in midstream so that I had to drive off in reverse. It didn’t seem to make sense!