We left Malawi on a Sunday, and were wondering if this would impact on our ability to cross the border in any way. We’d had one official at the Kenyan–Tanzanian border tell us that because it was a Sunday when we did that crossing we would have to pay overtime. I was very skeptical indeed about this, suspecting him of issuing a thinly veiled request for extra income; but after asking around a bit we figured it was probably genuine, so handed over the cash. Not so at the Zambian border. No. Here it was open corruption with a capital ‘C’. They have a very weird system here, which stems I gather from the country only being open to tourists for 13 years or so.
Anyone entering Zambia on passports other than those from SADC (the surrounding southern African countries) is required either to pay for a visa or, if they have organised accommodation in the country, they can obtain what is known as a visa waiver. This is basically an application by the establishment at which you are staying to the relevant border which states that you have booked to stay with them and are therefore entitled not to have to pay the visa costs. Why they have this system, I don’t know; but for those of us who don’t know exactly when we’re entering a country, and can’t organise anywhere to apply for such a waiver in time, it leaves the door well and truly open to exploitation.
This is how it happened: I explained to the official that we didn’t have a waiver, and half-heartedly tried to get her to recognise our SA passports, though I didn’t think this would work. It didn’t. She said we would need to pay the full US$60 per person. As we only had hundred dollar bills on us, I asked (as we are now in the habit of doing) if she had change. A very odd look crossed her face. She said no, that was a problem, and what did I have on me. I said I’d be paying with dollar bills, and showed her the two that I had. The next thing I knew, she’d whipped one of them away from me, slipped it in her back pocket, and said ‘Ok, here we go. I’ve stamped your passport with a visa waiver for 14 days. That’s enough, hey?’ What could I do? In hindsight I’ve thought I should have asked for a receipt, although I am guessing that she could have produced one, having demanded the extra 20 dollars, and even then I’m not convinced that the money would have made it into government coffers. What made me laugh was that there was a bumper sticker on her cubicle window which proclaimed zero tolerance of corruption. The word corruption had actually been ripped off the sticker. Such must have been the discomfort of her position. A few miles down the road we came across a billboard declaring similar commitment to stamping out corruption. Such is the gaping chasm between ideals and reality!
Speaking of chasms, we visited Victoria Falls yesterday. What an amazing experience! We decided, on the recommendation of our good friend Sam from Lalibela, to take a microlight flight over the falls. He’d said it was definitely worth doing, and as most of his other recommendations have turned out to be fabulous, we decided to treat ourselves to early birthday and Christmas presents. I was very much looking forward to visiting the falls, as this is where my parents got engaged. Their association with intrepid explorers into the African hinterland has also meant that they have always held something of a fascination for me. So it was just awe-inspiring to finally see them in all their splendour, from the air. As we took off from the airfield one could see the white ‘smoke’ that gives the place its native name, Mosi-o-Tunya, which literally means ‘the smoke that thunders.’ Gaining height, with the land falling away below you, the scale of the Zambezi River and its carving away of the landscape become clear. Beyond the current falls are seven zigzags of gorges, each of which were once where the falls were located. I hadn’t appreciated just how clearly visible this would be from the sky – you certainly don’t pick them up from any of the many pictures taken of the falls, which all focus on the wall of water and its associated mist and rainbows. Today we revisited the falls, but this time on foot. It’s been incredibly wet here, so we tried to go when it wasn’t pouring with rain, which it is again now (and so our bikes, including Glyn’s manky sheepskin, are getting completely soaked!). It was lovely to see them from the ground too – a different and unique experience. And one I’ll never forget.