Articles tagged with "zambia"

Unexpected visit to Tanzania

In the morning a boat passed by, and I negotiated a fare back to Mpulungu. No disasters this time and I arrived without incident two hours later. From here I needed urgently to get to the border with Malawi, because I’d recently noticed that when I’d entered Zambia, I’d stated that I would be in the country for ‘about three weeks’, but my visa had been stamped valid for exactly three weeks. I needed to get out of Zambia by sunset if I didn’t want to outstay my visa. I wasn’t to make it, though – all the buses to the border leave early in the morning, and it was already 10am by the time I reached Mpulungu. Disconsolately I got a bus to Mbala, just to feel that I’d at least made an effort. There was not much happening in Mbala, but I was most impressed to find that the New Grasshopper Inn had a huge bathtub and plenty of hot water. A long, long bath and a good night’s sleep left me prepared to face the border guards with an expired visa stamp the next day.

The first thing to do was work out which border I actually needed to go to. I wanted to be heading for Chitipa, on the border with Malawi, but the word was the road was completely impassable, and people recommended that I head for Nakonde, on the border with Tanzania. Like many Zambian towns, Mbala is a few miles from the main road and most buses don’t bother to actually come into town, so I got a lift out to the junction with a Zimbabwean construction worker who was upgrading gravel roads in the area. From there a bus took me to Nakonde.

After waving aside the scrum of people who tried to carry, cycle or otherwise transport my luggage to the border, I asked around about getting to Chitipa. No joy to be had was the unanimous verdict, so after much consideration and trepidation I decided I’d have to go through Tanzania to get to Malawi, despite having no guidebook, map, or knowledge of Swahili. But to get to Tanzania I’d first have to get out of Zambia.

At the time it didn’t seem too traumatic. I’d just read ‘North of South’ by Shiva Naipaul, in which he finds himself in exactly the same situation. He’d ended up bribing the border guard to get his exit stamp. So when I was threatened with a massive fine, I pleaded my innocence. I’d certainly not intended to stay beyond my stamp. Then they threatened me with prison. I was pretty sure a bribe would sort it out but I wanted to wait until that was made totally clear. In the meantime I had to let the guard enjoy his power trip. After a few minutes they told me to go and speak to the head immigration officer. He lectured me for a while about not outstaying welcomes and being a good traveller, and I nodded and agreed contritely. And then he said that in the interests of good relations between Zambia and Britain, he wouldn’t take any action. Very grateful, I picked up my bags and wandered over to Tanzania. It was only much later that I noticed my spare camera was no longer in my pack.

Tanzania! A country I’d dreamed of. Kilimanjaro, the Crater Highlands, Zanzibar. And now I was here, feeling disorientated and clueless. The flat Zambian plateau which had made me thirst for the sight of a hill these last three weeks gave way at the border to stunning rolling hills and mountains, lush and green in amazing contrast to the dusty red soil of Zambia. The change was so sudden it almost looked fake. There can’t be many countries in the world with such a striking change of geography between them.

I wandered up the hill, not really knowing where I was heading. I knew there was a town called Mbeya not far from here, from where I thought I could get a bus to the Malawian border. I soon found a minibus to Mbeya, and squashed myself in. Tanzanian buses were somehow even more packed than Zambian ones, but I could see out the window at least, and appreciate the dramatic scenery. Perhaps it was just because I’d only seen about three hills in the whole of Zambia, but the undulating landscape here seemed quite breathtaking.

After a little while I arrived in Mbeya, still a little bit startled to find myself in a country I’d had no intention of visiting just yet. It was a nightmarish scrum at the bus station, but fortunately I met a very friendly guy called Frederick, who showed me where the bus to Tukuyu was leaving from. He said it was too late to be going to the border, but that Tukuyu was well on the way and it would be easy to get from there to Malawi the next day. So off we went to Tukuyu and on the way I learnt a few useful words in Swahili.

I found my way to the Langiboss Motel in Tukuyu, where I found hot showers and cold cokes, and also an Englishman called Tom. We chatted for a while, and it turned out that he was driving from Arusha down to Malawi, and would be crossing the border the next day. He offered me a lift, on the condition that I helped him change a wheel on his Land Rover the following morning.

Bringing in the catch

Bringing in the catch

In the evening I sat on a rock at the edge of the bay and watched the village fishermen bringing in the day’s catch as the sun set. It was a timeless scene, with an amazing amount of activity and commotion considering the tranquillity of the day. As I sat on the rocks, locals who weren’t occupied with the fishing came over and chatted, wondering what I was doing in their part of the world. After the catch had been brought in and night had fallen I went and ate dinner with the builders. They insisted that I share their food, and so I had a good meal of nshima with tiny little fresh fish called capenta and some dried fish with an extremely strong flavour called bamba. We talked for a while before I turned in.

Up the Rift Valley escarpment

Up the Rift Valley escarpment

The next morning I had a fantastic awakening to the sounds of the lake lapping on the beach, and emerged from my tent to find the beautiful lake stretching away in to the hazy distance across to the mountainous shore on the Congo side. I thought my clock was wrong as it said it was 5.30am, and I’d been used to it getting light much later, but I eventually realised that all of Zambia runs on the same time but from east to west it’s about a time zone and a half wide. I’d covered a lot of ground over the past few days.

Today I planned to go to the Kalambo Falls, the second highest in Africa. Thomas, one of the builders, arranged for a couple of local children to show me the way and at 7.30am we set off. For the first half an hour it was very hard going as we climbed up the Rift Valley escarpment. Once we were at the top the way on was pretty flat, and the view over the lake was stunning. The walk took us through some beautiful scenery, with lots of baboons and colourful birds around, and after an hour and a half we heard the falls. Coming from my direction it seemed the falls were in the middle of nowhere, but there is a very rough road to them from Mbala, and a little entry hut at which foreigners have to pay about £3 to see the falls. I happily did so and walked down a small hill to the falls.

The Kalambo River is only a few metres wide. I stood on the Zambian bank, almost able to reach across and touch the trees on the Tanzanian side. But for such a small river there’s a lot of water in it, and a great white streak of water drops 200m into the valley below. Victoria Falls had been half as high, and Kalambo was so tall it was difficult to appreciate what a massive drop there was. I climbed over the rocks to the very edge of the cliff, and looked down into the terrifying depths.

A short while later another tourist arrived – it was Ralf, a German traveller who had been in Western Zambia for the eclipse. He’d got on the bus at about 2am, arrived with us in Zambezi at 4am and left for Chavuma at about 8am, and was therefore, we had decided, quite crazy. We swapped details of our travels so far and wished each other luck. After a little while longer at the falls, I reluctantly headed back up to the entry hut. Here I sat for quite a while chatting to the three guys who were there, about our countries and culture. We talked about the weather, and they were shocked that I was hot. For them it was a cool mid-winter’s day. They also asked whether we had the rainy season and dry season in England and seemed sympathetic when I told them it rains all the time there. I signed the guestbook, noted that I was the first Englishman to visit the falls for a month, and headed back to Mishembe.

Down in the Rift Valley

Down in the Rift Valley

I got out of the Despot B&B as quickly as I could the next morning and headed north. After their four day weekend it seemed that everyone was easing back into things gently, and though I got on a bus to Mpulungu straight away, the Zambian hour and a half lasted three hours and included a trip to the shops. But wow, what a journey once we were underway. It was a fairly nondescript run to Mbala, with the usual Zambian scenery, but after Mbala we left the high plateau which makes up almost all of Zambia and dropped down into the East African Rift Valley to Mpulungu. Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second biggest lake, was glittering beneath us in the hot sun, and it was extremely beautiful. And it was hot down there, steamy and sweaty. Up on the plateau it had been very chilly at night and in the mornings, and got to the high twenties at best by the mid afternoon, but down here in the valley it must have been well into the thirties. I wandered around trying to find where I could get a boat out onto the lake from, and a very friendly guy wandered around with me and helped me to find the next boat leaving. He dropped me off at the beach where it was going from and left me with a friendly wave and a warning that all those around me were criminals.

And so I set about negotiating a fare. I wanted to go to a place called Mishembe Bay, right next to the border with Tanzania, and after a few attempts to get me to pay hundreds of pounds for a three hour boat journey, I settled on an agreeable fare with the owner of a boat. We left within half an hour of when he’d said we would, and it was a fantastic journey across the lake in the late evening sun. I was trying to believe that this lake is the longest in the world, stretching from down here in the south all the way up to Burundi at the northern end, squeezed between Tanzania and the Congo on its way. It’s also one of the deepest lakes in the world, and the majority of the fish living in it are of species found nowhere else.

The journey continued as the sun set. As we stopped at successive villages along the shore the boat gradually emptied, until by the time we got about three-quarters of the way to Mishembe Bay, I was one of only two passengers left on the boat. The boat’s owner had got out a little while before, leaving his brother to drive on, but his brother at this point told us he’d run out of fuel and couldn’t go on. A long and detailed argument followed, and he told me that he’d known from the start he didn’t have enough fuel to go all the way along to Mishembe, but hadn’t told me because I was dealing with his brother. After about half an hour he decided the solution was to get some guys from the village to get me to Mishembe in a canoe. It was a wildly unstable craft, and it was now night, but thankfully there was a full moon so we could see where we were going.

After half an hour or so, we got to the village just before Mishembe Bay, and they told me it was just a short walk on to there. Luckily the other remaining passenger said he’d show me the way – it turned out to be nearly half an hour’s walk. And now I discovered that where my guidebook had said there was accommodation here, what it meant to say was that accommodation was being built here. It wasn’t finished, but I had my tent and the builders who were living there were very friendly and sorted me out with some hot coals and water to cook with. They helped me to set up my tent and then I sat with them on the beach talking and eating dinner until it got late.

Oop north

It was now time to complete our loop around western Zambia by returning to Lusaka. We had hoped to get the train, but it had a reputation for woeful reliability which it certainly deserved. It turned out to have an unspecified mechanical problem and would not be leaving until the next day. So we went to the bus station and found a ‘Super Luxury’ bus leaving for Lusaka at 1pm. We had about an hour so we did a rapid shop before grabbing our stuff and rushing back to the bus station for quarter to, only to find that the Super Luxury bus was full. We watched helplessly as luxury rolled off into the distance, and with great regret spoke to the grinning minibus tout who we’d earlier spurned. We waited on board the minibus for an hour and a half before we set off for Lusaka.

It was a long slow journey, frequently interrupted by diversions for roadworks, and we closed our loop and arrived in Lusaka at 11.30pm. We got a taxi to the backpackers hostel and set up camp. We were going to leave very early the next morning, and for the sake of three hours sleep I couldn’t be bothered to get my sleeping bag out. It was a very chilly night and I regretted this by the morning.

Fearsomely early the next morning we were up and away. I was heading north for Mpulungu while John was heading east for Chipata, so we parted ways in the dark at one of Lusaka’s many bus stations. We were to meet again in Malawi in three weeks time.

I found out that the 6.30am bus I had been hoping to get no longer ran on Mondays, and I would have to get another bus to Kapiri Mposhi at 7.30am. No worries, I thought, we’ll be on the way by 9am. But sadly the Zambian hour and a half was to be painfully protracted this time – I’d not realised it was Heroes Day, a national holiday, until someone told me, and my heart sank when I saw a sign at the bus station, reading ‘To our esteemed customers, please note that Sundays and public holidays being slow days, We Do Not Observe Time’.

The next four hours passed very slowly but I could at least catch up on some sleep before the bus finally left just after 11am. It was a very comfortable bus, and we arrived at Kapiri at 1pm. Here I found my way onto a minibus going to Serenje, about half as far from Lusaka as I’d hoped to get, but as far as I could possibly get that day. I arrived at Serenje at 5.30pm, and walked to the Mapontela guest house to check in. It was colossally expensive by my standards, but I was knackered and I just wanted to lie down. When I got there I did just that, closed my eyes for a second and woke up the next morning.

Half way. 19 days done, 19 days still to go. I hoped I would get to Mpulungu by the end of the day. I left Serenje at 7.30am and walked two miles to the main road, from where northbound buses leave. All was quiet, and I waited on my own for a while, before a Zambian guy called Kevin joined me. A little while later, a Peace Corps volunteer called Bridget also joined us, and the three of us waited for a northbound lift. Kevin was heading for Mansa and soon got a lift, but sadly for me and Bridget there was nothing heading for Mpulungu (she was going to Kasama, which is on the way). Usually, apparently, there would be loads of stuff going, but this was Unity Day, another public holiday. If yesterday had been slow, it was bustling compared to the fourth day of a four day weekend.

So we sat by the roadside, eating chicken and sugar cane, and I managed to stab myself quite horribly in the hand cutting the cane. After three hours, we were really on the point of giving up totally and staying in Serenje again when a truck turned up that was going to Kasama. It was a good road for much of the way north from Kasama and we covered the ground quickly. We stopped briefly in Mpika on the way, before heading on towards Kasama as night fell. By great good fortune as I was telling Bridget about what I do as an astronomer, the International Space Station sailed overhead.

We arrived in Kasama at about 8pm, and I discovered that there was no budget accommodation there. The choice was between a couple of really nice but expensive places, or a couple of shockingly grotty and depressing dives, cheap but very bad value indeed. After a quick taxi tour around the options with a taxi driver who had darkened windows and a nodding dog on the dashboard, I opted for the oddly named ‘Despot B&B’. It was a worrying place – I was showed to a room which had no lock on the door. If it had had a lock, the big hole in the door raised further questions about security. I pointed this out to the owner. ‘Don’t worry!’, he said, ‘I’m the security guard as well!’, but I wasn’t altogether reassured. But jamming some pieces of sugar cane in the hole and moving the bed up against the door I managed to convince myself it was an alright place to stay.