Jul 07, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
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.