|(Photo source: VictoriaFalls24.com)|
The taxi dropped me and my sister, Ro, at the unimpressive border control port of Kazungula. We stood for a moment watching our only link with civilization disappear down the road back towards Kasane before attending to formalities. The border officials from both countries stamped our passports with the same indifference we had come to expect, and we were suddenly in Zimbabwe, without a vehicle, and with no idea how we going to get to the town of Victoria Falls, 70 kilometres away.
The locals, on the other hand, had obviously encountered tourists like us before, and a thin, black man with stained, jagged teeth approached us immediately. “You need a lift to Victoria Falls?”
We did, of course, but were reluctant to appear desperate, as if we had just popped over the border for a look at the other side of the fence, and intended to head back to Botswana sometime soon.
“Mmm,” mumbled Ro noncommittally.
The man pointed to a brown and rusty - or perhaps it was brown because it was rusty - utility parked behind the ‘Welcome to Zimbabwe’ sign. “Ten dollars each,” said the man.
Ro and I walked onto the road for a better view of the vehicle, and noticed two men in the cab and two more in the back.
“Do we seriously want to get in the back of a ute full of four – “ she glanced at the thin man hovering behind us, “- or five Zimbabwean men?”
I peered up the road. At least it was bitumen. “It’s either that or hang around here waiting for a better offer.”
The man touched me gently on the elbow. “Is okay,” he said softly. “We take you to Victoria Falls.”
Ro and I threw each other resigned looks and followed the man to the vehicle. “I’ll be amazed if this thing even makes it that far,” I muttered as I hauled my pack into the back, clambered aboard, and sat with my pack on my lap while Ro squeezed next to me and did the same. The two men already sprawled in the tray nodded and smiled as they shuffled to make room for us.
The brown-toothed man squeezed into the cab beside the other men. The car rattled and roared as the driver started the engine and shifted up the gears.
“Where you from?” said the man next to me. His eyes looked soft and young, but the lines on his forehead suggested a life of hardship.
“Ah,” he said knowingly and smiled. “Africa just like Australia, no?”
I looked at the shrubby greenery of the surroundings and the dead grass that lined the road, and thought of the roads through the Northern Territory. “Yeah, pretty much. But the Australian elephant is pretty rare nowadays.” He laughed at my pathetic attempt to keep the situation light, and I was impressed that his English was polished enough to recognize I had made a joke. “So you’re a local, I take it?”
“Yes, I go across the border and bring things back into Zimbabwe.”
“What sort of things?”
The man explained that he and the other men brought in whatever they could lay their hands on. “Our petrol stations are closed. We must smuggle fuel across the border. And food is veddy expensive. Many people trade in the black market.”
I tried to imagine what life what be like if I had to travel miles to get fuel and was then forced to smuggle it back into my own country. I couldn’t imagine it at all.
“It has gotten veddy bad,” he said. “There are no jobs. There is no money.”
I am not a political person, but I wanted to know. “Is it because of Mugabe?”
The man’s mouth formed an ‘o’ and he shook his head. “He is a veddy bad man.”
I wanted to ask him a flood of questions, about his family, about his life, but the man sitting next to him began talking in rapid-fire Shona, and I hugged my backpack and sank into silence.
The ute dropped us on the outskirts of Victoria Falls but within walking distance of the town. Appreciating that people who had to smuggle fuel into their own country were not about to drop us at the doorstep of anywhere useful, I handed over my cash and the car piled up with people, none of them white tourists like us, and roared off back towards the border.