Located at the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe lays the incredible Victoria Falls, the world’s largest falls in its kind. While during the day it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors on a yearly basis, there is one group that only arrives at night: illegal African immigrants. With the help of smugglers, each night they manage to illegally cross into Zimbabwe. Last summer I met a few of those smugglers. You can never guess what happened next…
Me and two Swedish friends were on an epic trip last summer travelling by public transport and hitchhiking across southern Africa. When in July we ended up in the village Victoria Falls, in the north of Zimbabwe, we decided we should head out to the falls. After hearing stories though that it would be an expensive endeavour to visit them from both sides, we figured we would just hang out in between the borders for a day and see what the situation was like before we started buying extra visas or entrance tickets.
Getting to the falls from the Zambian side meant we would have to officially exit Zimbabwe. Since we would then also loose our visas and had to reapply and pay for it again as we went back, we learned a trick: as you’re heading out, tell the border officials in Zimbabwe that you are only going to see the bungee jump. This way, they let you cross the border without you receiving an exit stamp. You only receive a small piece of paper that you need to show again as you return to your accommodation. And so we did.
The distance between the two borders is a couple of hundred meters, a good walk that takes you over the famous Victoria Falls bridge. We spent almost all morning watching people doing the bungee, and figuring out how to get closer to the falls without doing it the easy way. We were in no man’s land. We were neither in Zimbabwe, nor were we in Zambia.
Around 14:oo we met two Zambians, hanging out between the parked trucks waiting to cross into Zambia. We started randomly talking with them, after which they explained us how during the day they earned money by selling copper arm bracelets to tourists. However, when the Victoria Falls park closes at 18:30, they turned to a whole other much more lucrative business: people smuggling.
As we stood nearby the fence that marks the border with the Zambian side of the Victoria Falls park, we learned more about them. Both guys (28 and 35 years old) have been involved in people smuggling since 1993. They explained us how most immigrants are coming from Somalia and Congo. These people are on their way to buy a South African passport, a passport that is considered to be the most valuable of all in Africa. Through a network of illegal dealers in Johannesburg, once they obtain one they are then quick to head home again or find work to provide for the families they left behind.
“In South Africa they don’t want these Somalians or Congolese guys because they are seen as armed robbers. That’s why most just get the new passport and go home with lots of money”, one smuggler explains. He receives about 100 dollars each night himself as he ‘helps‘ groups of immigrants into Zimbabwe. In the end, 40 dollars are spent bribing the police and 60 dollars go into his own pockets. They mostly use the Victoria Falls park to smuggle people across the border but they occasionally also use the railway track.
The man tells us this business is not without any risk. He got caught once and spent two years in prison. Nevertheless, both guys seemed perfectly comfortable revealing this darker side of the Victoria Falls to us. “Okay, let’s keep on moving a little bit”, one then interrupts. I realised that these guys knew what they’re doing…
Hole in the fence
Burning with curiosity, I asked the guys how they actually manage to get the immigrants across the border. So, they took us along the fence that we had been standing at already for some minutes. During the short walk, one guy disappears between the trucks as he sets out to check if there is no police nearby. We then stopped at a small hole in the fence, only about 100 meters away from the Zambian border post.
“This is where it happens”, the smuggler told us.
Last year a new fence was erected following the UNWTO General assembly that was hosted in Victoria Falls in 2013. It made the job a lot harder, the smugglers explain. Until recently they would just cut a whole in the fence, but now there is a much stronger one. Nevertheless, they managed to make a new but tiny ‘whole’ in it, hidden strategically behind a tree. I noticed traces in the sand around it, proving that it had been used before.
Then the smuggler told us it would be possible to go and see the falls from close by if we would crawl underneath the fence. Me and my Swedish friends looked at each other and quickly concluded we should try it. We would be at great risk though, since after seeing the falls we would need to go out at the regular exit which lays in Zambia. After that, we would need to convince the Zambian border officers that we were staying in Zambia without having to show our visa because we never got one. The smuggler explained us that we just needed to do the same trick as we did on the Zimbabwean side, which is to tell the officer once again we were only on our way to see the bungee jump.
We waited for his signal, and then as quickly as we could we squeezed ourselves through the hole. My heart was pounding but there was no way back. The smuggler followed us, and as soon as we reached the footpath running through the park, we were assumed to be safe and so the guy disappeared again. We realised we were now on our own, so we needed to blend in with all the other legitimate visitors.
We spent about one hour to enjoy the beauty and massive power of the Victoria falls, after which we left through the official exit. Out in the public I couldn’t help but feeling anxious, so we headed back straight to the Zambian border post. There we almost got caught as I could not tell the officer in which hostel we were staying in Zambia. I asked him for a minute, pulled out my iPad and quickly found a name in a digital but very outdated Lonely Planet guide that I happened to have. “Jolly Boys Backpackers”, I lied. After a short hesitation we were let through, and with my heart still up at my throat we later crossed back safely into Zimbabwe.
Thinking back I must say what a hell of an adventure that was… Also, that feeling of being a country when you are at risk of getting caught was quite an eye-opener for me. Would I take that same risk again? Definitely not!
Read more about my adventures in southern Africa: Travelling Mozambique’s Deadliest Road Under Military Escort