Onwards… to Livingstone!

A week in Lusaka later, the time had come to board our next train… yes train… the Zambezi Express – onwards, to Livingstone.

The new “Jubliee Express” train only began running last year, and we were promised a short and snappy trip in a luxury first class cabin with showers, air conditioning, a great restaurant car… We rolled our eyes at the lot of it, expecting the worst.

When we arrived at the station to board, we were met by the train “captain” himself, who shook our hand and cleared off a bench of waiting people to make way for us, apparently the first white tourists to ever take the train judging by his behaviour. And promising great things, and that we were leaving in just five minutes time, off he bustled.

Unfortunately, “five” minutes wasn’t quite right, but when we eventually did board the train our jaws dropped. Not only was there a team of cleaners scrubbing away with industrial cleaning equipment, our cabin had actual bed mattresses, and really did feature an air conditioner. Our carriage really did have a flushing toilet, and actual shower rooms. Astonishing.

Before long, a lady came on the intercon to welcome her esteemed guests, and invite us to place our orders at the a la carte restaurant, and wished us a pleasant journey. WHAT PARALLEL UNIVERSE WAS THIS??

Sadly it was dark by the time we left, so there wasn’t much to look at, but we ventured forth to the stuff of legends, the restaurant car, to see what was what.

Sure enough, there was a restaurant equipped with chefs, waitresses, and plenty of food and drink.

Tom went off to find a smoking corner, leaving me with my book and beer.  Over rushed the conductor, and wringing my hand he apologised for not coming to greet me sooner.

“Now, where are you from?” he demanded seriously.

“I’m from London.”

“AH HA! Yes! London,” he was beaming. “Of ALL the countries in Europe, London is my very favourite!”

Brilliant, I was very happy to hear it, I told him.

“Do you know why?” he asked.  I told him I’d love to hear.

“You know, us we used to be a colony of London! London people came here to live with us and we were its colony, and it was very good. London people are very peaceful, Zambian people we’re very peaceful, we did a lot of work together, everything was very good,” he announced, to my utter disbelief.  Now here, was a version of colonialism I’d never encountered before.

Not really sure I wasn’t being taken the piss out of, I ventured: “Really? Are you sure?”

“Of course, London colony was the best!” He announced. Well, if he says so.

“Well, I’m glad you feel that way,” I told him, “I very much like Zambia too.”

“Do you love Zambia? Is it your favourite?” he asked, serious again. Yes, yes, I assured him, definitely my favourite.

Right, that sorted out sufficiently, there were pressing train matters to attend to, so off he rushed with a “my friend, I will be back”… leaving me utterly bewildered.

Soon it was time to place our a la carte orders, and feeling in the swing of things, I went for the basic Zambian nshima (maize meal), with vegetables – to be eaten by hand.

Little did I know what a stir it would cause. Tucking in to my meal, along ran the captain and conductor positively in raptures.

“YOU LIKE NSHIMA??? YOU CAN EAT NSHIMA???” they asked, disbelief etched all over them. Yes, I like it a lot, I said.

“YOU LIKE ZAMBIAN FOOD???” they pressed. Yes, I told them, very nice.

Slapping each other, me, and everyone else on the back off they toddled in peals of merry laughter, spreading the news: those white people like our food!

After dinner we watched the on-board movie (yes, there was even one of those), before heading back to our cabin for a comfy night’s sleep.

In the morning, we awoke with a start: the train wasn’t moving, had we arrived already?

We had overslept, and should have arrived two hours before. Tom ran off down the train to investigate.

Soon he came back with the news, we were stuck in the bush, we ran out of fuel and our engine was broken due to the fact it wasn’t powerful enough to carry the amount of carriages attached. What a double whammy of mis-planning.

We went along to sit in the restaurant car, and patiently drank cups of coffee, read our books, and fielded the tag-teamed apologies of the captain, conductor, and every member of staff. We were quite comfortable, so really didn’t mind.

Eventually a replacement engine arrived to pull us to the next station, where, with much embarrassment the captain informed us a bus would take us the rest of the way. So long, fair train – we were lumped onto a real African bus, overflowing with people, our luggage under our legs and ontop of our knees, – fellow passengers including the train’s waitresses, old Indian lady in sari munching on barbecued corn on the cob, boy with pet chicken in plastic bag on lap…

Three hours, a lot of sweat, and two numb legs (each) later, we arrived in Livingstone where we were unceremoniously dumped at the train station.

Suddenly, all the noise and bustle of a long journey were gone, and we found ourselves alone, lugging our cases along a dust path in the 40C afternoon.

We had made it all the way to Livingstone…overland.

A wonderful surprise: Lake Kariba

Following the Tazara debacle, we sat recouping – and madly working – in Lusaka for days.  I received an email from the editor of a travel magazine I write for, asking if I’d ever been to a Lake Kariba, because they’d be interested in a feature about it. Not only had I never been to Lake Kariba, I didn’t even know where it is.  A quick Google search later, it turned out we were three hours away from the world’s biggest man-made lake… and that it’s extraordinarily beautiful, at that.

Naturally, we had to visit, and at midnight on Friday we were haggling with local car-owners to find someone who would get us to Kariba the next morning. (No public transport).

We set off on Saturday morning, and soon found out that the further you drive into the interior of Zambia, the more stiflingly, scorchingly hot it gets. The road to Kariba is long, mountainous, winding, and at this time of year completely charred to the ground, with sad stick-ish trees littering the mountainsides.

As an aside, the driver we had found to take us had brought a friend along, and much to our amusement, the pair of them seemed far more excited about the little jaunt than we were.  Radio turned up to max, they kept on bursting into song – whether rap, pop, or hiphop – and filmed most of the 3 hour journey on their mobile phones.

After 3 hours of sweating in a car which was equally hot regardless of whether the windows were open or closed, we arrived at a lake which, to be honest, taught us exactly what it feels like to come across an oasis in the desert. Water shimmering as far as the eye can see.

Our driver mates ran off to photoshoot the shores of the lake, and happily went paddling, we checked into our waterfront room, and sought out the lakeside shack which was the bar, to snack on whitebait and an ice-cold beer.

After the journey we’d had, the afternoon was for wallowing in the pool, the evening for watching the sun go down, and sitting in the absolute pitch blackness that only occurs when the power goes out in the African wilderness.  Under the sky, a million miles away from everything.

In the morning we got up to a mere 38C, and set off on our trip to the Kariba dam. Built in the 1950s by the British, the dam stretches between the Kariba gorge on the border on Zambia and Zimbabwe, and has created the largest man-made lake in the world.

With a special pass from the border station, we were allowed to walk the stretch of the dam, together with our local guide, Michael, whose grandfather had been a worker building the dam.  An astonishing sight due to its magnitude, and the water and mountains it straddles, the dam is also home to power stations on either side of the border – creating hydro-electric power for the Zambian and Zimbabwean grids.

According to Michael, the power produced is a major source of pain for the local populations who were displaced to make way for the building of the lake – contrary to promises made, the majority of power is exported and local inhabitants around Kariba are left with no, or very little, power, and at an insane cost. We were to experience this first hand, with power outages spanning hours occurring multiple times a day.

We weren’t able to stay on the dam for much longer than half an hour, due to the 45C heat – and our skin visibly burning under the sun. Ever helpful Michael tried to understand our problem, and a short visit to the local town ensued in search of suncream, which he assured us we would find in the “many lovely shops” (read: tiny shacks selling about 10 products each).

Directed to the best of these shops, we were greeted by a very friendly “pharmacy” keeper, dressed in full black tie attire. My request for suncream did not deter him, but he decided to phone a friend just to be sure.

“We have an esteemed customer here, who needs sunnycream…. I said sunnycream… SUNNYCREAM.” Obviously this wasn’t getting through.

“OK… our esteemed customer is a white lady.” (Very pink, would have been more accurate).

Much rummaging later, I was presented with a tiny vial of cream – perfect for skin bleaching, and getting rid of dark spots.

Thanking him kindly, I told him, alas, this was not quite the cream I was looking for, as I unfortunately would still burn to cinder on applying it. He understood, apologising that this quite simply is not a request that comes up every day.

Michael helpfully informed me he was sorry, but there’s not many places “selling these necessary ladies’ lotions”.

We retreated back to the pool at the lodge, and stayed there all afternoon.

In the evening the power was out, so the few lodge guests congregated by solar lamps at the bar, and we sat eating our valiantly served up burgers in the darkness, accompanied by a beautiful snow white owl swooping around in the palm trees.

On the way back to our room, we became aware that the sound of the frog choir was getting ever louder, despite the fact we were walking away from the lake. We followed the sound… all the way to our beloved pool. To find hundreds of frogs swimming in it, sitting around in, having an absolute ball.  Much to our amusement, the second we rounded the corner the choir stopped and froze stock still.  We left them be, and the choir piped up again enjoying their night at the pool.

Our last day at the lake, we worked all morning, and on the afternoon we decided to take a sunset cruise around the lake. As our boat edged up towards the dam, I couldn’t help but think of the huge drop on the other side, and the rumours of the cracks already emerging in the dam wall… I didn’t mind one bit as our boat slid back out into the middle of the lake, where we watched the fishermen setting out for their nighttime catches, and the sizzling red sun descend into darkness.

Lake Kariba, what a place.

The TAZARA… oh, the Tazara

So, taking the Tanzania-Zambia Railway – or TAZARA – has been a longstanding dream of mine. As most of my friends will know, I have an unladylike love of trains, long train journeys in particular.  Well, last week my dream came true, and I took the TAZARA from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, arriving 1,860kms and 52 hours later in Kapiri Mposhi in central Zambia. And the truth? I’m not convinced this isn’t a bit too soon to relive the trauma.

Boarding the train in Dar es Salaam was surprisingly easy. A couple of porters whipped up our 30kg suitcases onto their heads (I still don’t believe this method of luggage carrying doesn’t cause spinal compression – Africans find my worry hilarious), passed them through the window of our sleeper compartment, and before we knew it, the train was leaving ON TIME TO THE MINUTE. Too good to be true?

Settling in, our compartment was musty, dirty, the windows propped open with a stick, and cohabited by a friendly bunch of cockroaches. Not perturbed yet – I was, after all, taking an ancient train in Africa – I felt a lot better by the beaming attendants who seemed to have made it their personal mission to make the odd Swahili talking mzungu  WOMAN (!!!) feel as comfy as possible.

We set off to the “bar” (a big box filled with ice and beers), where I came across some of our fellow passengers. Some very lecherous African men, half drunk, leering at my legs and winking “invitingly”. Suffice to say, this was my first and last appearance in the restaurant car, having quickly conceded that this train was a lot wilder – for a white woman – than may have been ideal.

The train chugged away, innocently enough, and we watched Tanzania go by, in all its thorny, dusty glory – a train across the real bush lands of East Africa, and a unique peek into the village life deep in the rural areas. I found out, for example, that polygamy is very much alive and well thanks to the tell-tale clusters of thatched huts: the man’s larger hut in the middle, surrounded by a circle of huts – one for each wife.

But then disaster struck. I needed to pee. And peeing on the Tazara, it turned out, was to take the form of a tiny cabin, swimming in 6 inches of pee and faeces, with a hole in the floor. This was it. For at least 2 days.

Naturally, there was no water, so we devised a method of cleansing – hands and feet held out the window, with Tom pouring bottled water over them. Thank God I took that bar of soap with me. And the sanitiser. Oh thank God for the sanitiser.

By 6.30 the sun had set in a way only those who have been in the African bush can understand – every indescribable colour of orange and red playing its part, and giving way to pitch black.

At this point in burst Ali, the kitchen attendant, offering us dinner. Chicken and chips. Great, thanks, we said. Soon he was bustling in with plates of the driest, sorriest little chicken wing you have ever seen, surrounded by chips. This was to be lunch and dinner every day for the whole journey.

Never mind that, soon we were drinking our wine stash (Tom graciously conceded I was right about bringing 4 bottles of wine), and playing cards late into the night, by the light of my trusty headlamp.

Suddenly in popped our attendant. “Hide your things, close your windows, switch off your light!” he commanded in Swahili (which I luckily grasped). “There are thieves climbing in the windows and stealing things, especially from mzungus!” He warned. Shaky on the word for “thief”, I double-checked: “Bad men are coming in the windows?” “Exactly!” he positively beamed. And off he ran, leaving us quaking in the dark.

We woke up the next morning still in Tanzania, having made around 500kms progress in the 7 hours we were asleep. No “bad men” had visited. The day passed without any excitement, reading, watching the world go by.

At Mbeya in southern Tanzania, the train stopped for 2 hours for planned maintenance and repairs – better safe than sorry, they explained – and we took a stroll around the station. Not for too long, though, as it seems not too many white people visit Mbeya. Our presence was, quite simply, met with unabashed staring, pointing, and open laughter. Especially at my legs. Should’nt’ve worn shorts. We got back on the train.

We got back on the “road” and by evening we made it to the Zambian border, paid for our visas, and then made no discernible progress for 4 hours before we had run out of wine and went to bed.

In the morning we were woken by the shrieks and bustle of a market. We were at a major stop – choirs were singing, ladies with baskets of food and drinks were hawking their products through the windows, passengers were lugging cases on and off the train. Out the window we could see, at last, green, vivacious Zambia.

We were on the home stretch, although we still had 800 kms to travel after already having spent 42 hours on the train.

“We’ll be there by 11pm,” Ali told us. “No, in the middle of the night, 3am,” another attendant countered. We were supposed to have arrived 6 hours ago, by that point. We were disheartened, to say the least.

“Don’t worry, the Zambian bit is fast. Straight, no hills, no bends, very fast,” a friendly passenger encouraged us. We retreated back to our cabin in hope.

We watched Zambia whizz by, much quicker than Tanzania had, in a streak of fertility and greenness. The land had changed completely, Zambia is a luscious, beautiful country.

And then, only 200kms from our destination, the train stopped. Stopped very definitely, very finally. There were no words.

Peering out the windows, we saw men purposefully marching up and down, inspecting the train, fighting with each other about the best course of action, and generally pulling and hammering bits of the train. I don’t think we could have felt lower, we knew from bitter experience just how long African trains can stop for.

A man with a flag walked past, and I seized the chance.

“Excuse me sir?” “Hi madam, how are you??” “I’m very well, how are you?” “I’m very very fine.”

Brilliant, I smiled, but does he by any chance know what is happening? “Yes, I do.”

Excellent, would he be able to tell me? “Yes, I can.”

OK, so is the train broken, I asked, changing tactic. “No the train is fine.”

Right, so why are we stopped, then? “There is a ghost train,” he informed me seriously.

What, exactly, is a ghost train, I asked? “A train with no driver.”

And is it on the track  in front of us? I was starting to get the drift. “Yes madam!!!” he beamed.

Thanking him kindly, he was marching off to do… I don’t exactly know what. There was little else to do but go back to the “bar box”, and procure some now hot beers.

Much to our surprise, the ghost train was moved only 2 hours later, and the train driver made it his personal mission to get us to our destination in double-time. In fact, we pulled into Kapiri Mposhi at 5pm on the third day, sooner than expected, taken entirely by surprise. Ali and the attendants rushed in to shake our hands goodbye, and we were the slowest to get off the train – by which time the platform was empty, and we were left, in a state of shock, having survived the Tazara.