Zimbabwe, Zambia

Kariba & Middle Zambezi

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A tale of two bridges

A tale of two bridges

Chirundu Bridge
Chirundu Bridge
Gigi Guimbeau

If at first you don’t succeed, then try again. That at least seems to be the motto of the bridge planners at Chirundu.

The Zambezi has played havoc with the development of trade in southern Africa. Less than seventy-five years ago, if you wanted to travel between the cities of Harare and Lusaka, a distance of 470km, you would have needed to set off in the wrong direction for a day or so to arrive in Bulawayo and then head north for a couple more days.

By the time that you reached Lusaka you would have travelled approximately three times as far as you would have if you could have gone directly. With the sponsorship of The Beit Trust, established by mining magnate Sir Alfred Beit, it was decided to build a bridge over the Zambezi at a small town called Chirundu. Here the river is 400m wide and before Kariba Dam was built it experienced huge floods on a monotonously regular basis. The challenge was to design a bridge that did not have any legs in the water which could be washed away.

The solution adopted was a single-span suspension bridge that was finished in 1939 and named after Alfred’s younger brother, Otto Beit, though he died before it was completed.

Up until the boom years following majority rule in Zimbabwe in 1980, the single-lane bridge was a boon to the relative handful of road travellers who used it. Increasingly from that time the Otto Beit Bridge, with traffic having to wait for oncoming vehicles, led to long queues of backed-up traffic. Adding to the problems of this aging bridge was the fact that it was not designed to carry modern trucks, and a steel bridge of this nature requires heavy maintenance, especially when replacing corroded supporting cables. A second bridge was needed.

The Chirundu Bridge which was completed in 2002 was funded by the Japanese who took the unusual step of obliging both Zambia and Zimbabwe to sign an international agreement to the effect that the bridge would be properly utilised and maintained. It is a three-span, continuous, pre-stressed, concrete box girder bridge and looks rather like it sounds. What it lacks in charm it makes up for in functionality with its two lanes.

In fact, it proved functional enough to have caused the closure of the old bridge from 2005, but this bridge, after inspection and renovation, was reopened to pedestrians, cars and buses to alleviate the ever increasing congestion on the new bridge. This, of course, begs the question of whether a third Chirundu Bridge is in the pipeline.

Fact File - The Otto Beit Bridge

Civil Engineer: Sir Gilbert Roberts who also worked on the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
Opened: 24 May 1939 by Lady Lillian Beit, widow of Otto Beit.
Location: 65km downstream from Kariba Dam at Chirundu, linking Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Length: Total span is 382m long with a main span 320m.
Fun Fact: This was the first modern suspension bridge with parallel wire cables to be constructed outside of the USA.

Fact File - The Chirundu Bridge

Built by: Kajima Corporation of Japan.
Opened: 12 December 2002.
Location: 90m upstream from the Otto Beit Bridge.
Length: 400m long and 10.3m wide.
Fun Fact: Built close enough to the old bridge so that the approaches and border control area could be shared.

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Kariba & Middle Zambezi

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)

Read more on Bridging the Zambezi:
Bridging the Zambezi
Bridge in the mist
The banana bridge
The dam that became a bridge
A tale of two bridges
The arteries of Tete
The bridge of high treason
Swinging high