Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Viven : How we crossed from Zambia to Zimbabwe

Dear Viven,

This is the only border crossing we’ve done – perhaps the only one we’ll ever do – which included a bungee jump in no man’s land. The world-renowned (for good reasons as well as bad) fall from the Victoria Falls Bridge starts 111m above the Zambezi River, just downstream from Victoria Falls. The crossing itself was easy and well-trod, as many visitors pass to see the other side of the Falls. Some acquire a free temporary pass to see the bridge to eat at the café and go for a bungee jump (or swing or slide, or all three). Ours wasn’t free, because after I jumped, we continued to the other side.

We are one British and one Canadian. This letter is accurate as of the day we crossed on Tuesday 12 November 2013. We are currently traveling in a wide southern African circle from Dar es Salaam through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, to return to northern Tanzania.

Visas are required to enter Zimbabwe, and were available for purchase at the crossing point.  The Canadian visa cost US$75, and the British US$55, for a total of US$130.  Both were single-entry, valid for 30 days.

Like Zambia, English in Zimbabwe is widely spoken and understood.  The vast majority of Zimbabweans, however, don’t consider it to be their native tongue: about 70% speak Shona as their first language, and another 20% Sindebele, while a host of other languages share the remaining 10%.  Often you’ll hear Shona punctured and even hybridised by English numbers and phrases, especially in the larger cities.

Since the inflationary crisis in Zimbabwe, the country no longer issues its own currency and instead uses the American dollar, unofficially supplemented by the South African rand (ZAR, currently US$1 = ZAR 10), which is used for small change (I have seen no US cents in Zimbabwe).  ATMs disburse US dollars and are widespread, and are accessible by Visa and Mastercard.

Money changers can be easily found at both sides of the border just before the immigration and customs buildings.  As well, on the Zambian side, there is a bureau de change.  We were able to exchange our remaining Zambian kwacha for US dollars at a rate of ZMK 560 = US$100.

As an aside, many Zimbabweans sell their now-worthless former currency bills as souvenirs.  Expect to pay a dollar or so for 20,000,000,000,000 Zimbabwean kwacha.

The Route
Across the Victoria Falls Bridge.

Our Means of Travel

The Border

We arrived to the Victoria Falls park entrance via a free shuttle bus from Livingstone Backpackers, and walked the couple minutes from there to the customs and immigration buildings just before the bridge.  We got our passports stamped for exit with no wait at all, and crossed the road for the bungee jump office.  We booked the jump in five minutes, jumped about ten minutes later, and were finished and watching the video and photo slideshow back at the office and bridge café about half an hour after we first arrived.  We decided to walk across the bridge and into Zimbabwe instead of grabbing a taxi or cart pulled by a bicycle, and this took about 20 minutes because the Zimbabwe offices are a fair distance from the bridge.  At the immigration office we were asked to fill a simple form each and pay the required fee.  Our passports were stamped for entry and, after less than ten minutes in the building, we were in Zimbabwe.

Because of the bungee jump and the walk across no man’s land, the whole process for us took about 90 minutes.  But if you avoid the frills and get a ride, you could easily get from one country to the other in 15 minutes.

Bungee Jumping
On New Years Eve, 2011, an Australian woman did this very same Victoria Falls bungee jump, and her cord snapped.  She survived the fall into the rushing water below, avoided the crocodiles (which we saw resting on the rocks while whitewater rafting the day before our crossing) and swam to safety despite a fractured collarbone.  Days later, perhaps a little premature, Zambia’s tourism minister, Given Lubinda, did the jump.  His cord didn’t snap.  Good enough for me.

I’ll skip all the talk about the thrill and rush of jumping off a very tall bridge, except to say that I didn’t really know what I was getting into until about 1.5 seconds after I jumped from the steel ledge.  I was fine as they strapped me in, fine as they wrapped towels around my legs, fine as they told me about the safety features.  And then, mid-air, I felt nothing hold me back from the bottom – I was in free-fall, and accelerating, and I really couldn’t stop my mouth from forming the words, “oh shit…” 

The bungee jump operation at Victoria Falls Bridge is exceedingly professional, efficient and straightforward.  Once you go across the border on either side (using a free return pass or with the intention of going to the other side as we did), just show up at the office in the same building as the café, on the Zambian side of the bridge, and buy the ticket.  Leave your bags there if you like, go to the hut in the middle of the bridge on the downstream side, get strapped in, wait to be called, spread your arms wide, and jump.  Almost immediately after you’ve leapt, a guy will descend from the bridge and wait for you to slow down.  He’ll buckle up to you, turn you upright and carry you up to the bridge’s lower level.  From there you walk around and up the bridge, get unstrapped at the hut, and can return to the café and office to watch a photo slideshow and video of your jump, already prepared.  We didn’t stay to get the quote, but understand the photos and video together costs about US$50.

What We Needed

At the border
  • US$130 for visa fees ($75 Canadian, $55 British)
  • About five minutes on each end, and 20 minutes to walk in between
For the bungee jump
  • US$130
  • 30 minutes (the actual jump, including the return back up, takes about five)

After the rush of falling and the bobbing up and down had ceased, and I was just hanging there, the bungee jump assistant descended to me.  He strapped me to him and turned me upright, and brought me up to the bridge.  He didn’t say a word; not “how’d it go” or “alright?”, but just did his job for yet another thrill-seeking tourist.  It was boring and anticlimactic, and when he let me loose on the bridge’s lower level, I had a strange and dangerous feeling.  Have you ever been tempted to throw your wallet off the side of a bridge?  Just because it would be so stupid, so wrong, so not what you’re supposed to do.  I felt a twinge of the same thing, but for my body.  Maybe my cells had been made to feel invincible, my brain rewired for harmless flight.  I shook my head and walked down the hard, quiet, stable metal bridge.  Far more dangerous than the jump itself, in that moment, was how the jump could change me.  How’s that for a border crossing?

Happy trails,


Victoria Falls Bridge: Zambia to the left, Zimbabwe to the right
Spot the lines?
Bungee jumping
Jumper on the right, retriever on the left
A jumper being retrieved
Towards Zimbabwe
View from the Bridge Cafe
A jumper being brought back
Looking over the edge
Welcome to Zimbabwe