I thought I had done everything right. I thought I was playing it safe.
I had never expected this to happen. Not to me at least.
The day before on a booze cruise on the Zambezi River near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe a Swedish guy asked me if I ever felt scared traveling solo. A question I have been asked many times.
I told him “No, not really. Not if you are smart about it.”
Maybe I jinxed myself?
I was more than halfway through a 24 day trip through Southern Africa visiting South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia. Working with a PR company hopping from one luxury lodge, to luxury hotel, to luxury houseboat and so on. This was technically my 6th border crossing of the trip and up until now everything had gone amazingly smooth.
A Namibia border point. One of the many border controls I encountered with out trouble on my trip.
I had transfers previously arranged through the properties to get me from point A to B. At each border crossing one driver would take me to the border, wait for me to get my stamps or VISAs and then literally hand me off to the next driver in the next country.
I was surprised at how seamless everything had gone.
And then it happened.
The day before I was to go from Zimbabwe to Zambia the hotel I was staying at kept asking me about my transfer the next day. I told them yes I was going to Zambia and yes they were to arrange the transfer. They even told me they would call the next property to confirm everything was in place for a smooth transition.
The morning I was set to leave they confirmed it with me again, and asked if I had called the next hotel. I was confused, as they had volunteered to do this for me themselves and of course at this exact moment I had to jump in my transfer to leave as we were already running late. I had no time to call and confirm. However everything had worked without a problem up until now so I figured it would be fine.
We drive the 10 or 15 minute drive to the Zambian border from my hotel. The driver comes with me to look for my next driver as I stand in line for my VISA. Once I’m finished he finds me again and tells me he sees no one there to pick me up.
I think that this is odd, but I note the time and see we were 20 minutes late. The driver doesn’t want to leave me there alone at the border but he can’t cross over to the other side either to help me look for my new driver. He waits for me while I walk to the Zambian side carrying my suitcase and dodging wild and fierce baboons in search of my next transfer.
There is no one waiting for me.
I start to get a little bit worried.
I ask my current driver if he could just call the property with his phone to see where they were. But of course his phone doesn’t have any credit. I quickly learn that it seems no one’s phone in either Zimbabwe or Zambia ever has credit…
My driver starts to get a bit antsy as he needs to leave to pick someone else up. I pay him a ridiculous amount of money for the short drive to the border and he leaves me in the hands of a border guard who attempts to help me.
I’m in border limbo, straddling the line between where Zimbabwe ends and Zambia begins.
After paying the guard $2US to put credit on her phone she calls the number that I have for the next hotel multiple times but it doesn’t work. I tell her and some other border guards the name of my next hotel and they have never heard of it. I don’t have a sim card for my phone and my KeepGo mifi can’t pick up a signal (if only I had brought the antennae for it with me). I am at a loss of what to do and I start freaking out a little bit. As a last resort I attempt to take my phone off of airplane mode to use my Canadian SIM to try to use the internet to find another number for the hotel.
NO SERVICE glares back at me from the top left hand corner of the screen.
At this point I have the female guard, a male guard with machine gun in hand and some kind of border manager guy trying to help me figure this out. They suggest I take a taxi to the post office in town to find the correct number and address for my hotel.
“Do the Taxis take $US?” I ask? Having just left Zimbabwe where that is the main currency, it is all I currently have on me. Of course in Zambia no they don’t take $US. They only take Kwacha and I quickly learn (after dragging my suitcase to the machine past the baboons and back) that the only debit machine at the border won’t work with my card.
I contemplate rolling up in a ball and crying as I gently rock myself back and forth.
I do realize this won’t help me get anywhere. Perhaps if I were traveling with someone else this wouldn’t be such a scary situation. We could work through the situation together, comfort each other, figure something out.
I thought I had done everything right. I had the name and phone number of the lodge, I was traveling during daytime, and there should have been someone here to pick me up. I thought I had had the address but my itinerary just says “Luskaka” which I later learned was more than 6 hours away from the border and not anywhere near my lodge.
I was stuck at the Zambian border with no cell service, with wild baboons running around me, not being allowed back into Zimbabwe, with no drive, carrying the wrong currency, being talked to by a guy with a machine gun, without the proper address of my lodge and not a single person I talked to had heard of my lodge before.
I guess you can only prepare for so much.
I was beyond lucky that this was happening to me in a country where english was spoken, so at the very least it was easy for me to communicate with others. I can’t even imagine what this might of been like otherwise.
The three people now with me at the border kept trying to think of solutions and were being so nice. Finally the two men suggest that they can drive me to another bank machine then put me in a cab to go to the post office in the city to find the correct information for my hotel. I reluctantly get into a car with them. At this point I don’t know what else to do. I couldn’t decide if the fact that one of them was carrying a machine gun was a good thing for my safety at this point or a bad thing.
We get to the bank and I hop out leaving my bags with them. I get some cash quick and notice my phone is picking up a wifi signal. I try to log onto it with no luck. They tell me I need to hurry as they need to get back to doing their jobs. I try another signal and still no connection. I give up.
They drop me off at a taxi stand and hand me over to a taxi driver that they seem to know and trust. I was waiting for them to put out their hands and ask for money or not let me take my bags. But none of that happened, they just really wanted to help. I was so thankful for them I wish I had gotten their names or at the very least a photo.
The Zambian Highway to my hotel from the border.
As I drove away in the taxi we began negotiating a price to the post office. He then asked me the name of my hotel and said he knew where it was! This made me feel a bit better better but it was still 60 or 70kms away from where we were. I asked how much it would be for him to take me there and we eventually agreed on a price that I knew might be too much but at this point if it got me there in one piece I didn’t care.
We stop for gas and he fills it up with less than 50 Kwacha, which is less than $10. Just like their cell phones having no credit they don’t seem to keep their cars full of gas either.
The Zambian Village of Siankaba
We start driving and I catch myself nodding off to sleep in the back seat. We drive for what seems like forever, through the city then down a two lane highway with check points along the way and people driving like crazy. We pass villages and signs for other lodges and hotels.
I wake up and we have turned onto a dirt road.
I missed seeing a sign and start praying that we were still headed to the right place. Ideas rushed through my head of what else could happen and none of them ended pretty. About 1km down the road I see a sign with the name of the property and breathe a big sigh of relief.
I finally arrive. Four hours after I should have arrived.
I’m not sure if I was more relieved to have finally gotten there or that they were more relieved to see me alive and in one piece. At the lodge I finally get wifi and my phone blows up with urgent text messages and emails from the lodge and PR company trying to find me.
The border I should have been at…
I later learn that the first hotel sent me to the wrong border and that the other lodge had been waiting for me that whole time freaking out at another border two hours away with no idea where I was.
I was almost just as happy that they didn’t contact my parents and tell them they can’t find me. That would not of been good.
This was by far one of my scariest moments when traveling solo. I had to make some choices that I told myself I would never do, like getting into a car with strangers… especially one with a machine gun. But I’m glad it worked out and I have survived to tell my tale.
Do you have any scary solo travel experiences? Share them in the comments below.
Nervous of traveling solo? Check out this great list of women only tours and travel groups!