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.

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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.