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The dullest town in the world

Sunday, June 24th 2001

Lukulu was pleasant enough at first, though still far enough off the beaten path that we attracted a lot of attention. Oliver, the hotel owner’s brother, spent most of his time in our room, asking us about our backgrounds and sharing his with us. But Lukulu is just a dusty town at the end of a dusty road and we were keen to get on the way. We had thought that there’d be less transport north of Lukulu than south of it, and we’d come from the north with no trouble at all, so we were keen to get on the way. Oliver seemed to think we’d be able to get a lift the next day, and said he’d come with us in search of vehicles.

So we went for a wander around town the next day. We lacked the sense of urgency that we were to acquire over the next couple of days, and so we walked through the grounds of the Sancta Maria mission, overlooking the river, much broader here than before. We stopped off at a bar for a coke, or at least tried to. Lukulu is at the end of a very, very bad road, and depends for many supplies on an infrequent truck from Lusaka. The truck normally comes every three weeks, but Lukulu was outside the eclipse path while Lusaka was inside, and the truck driver had decided to see the eclipse and leave Lukulu to survive without soft drinks for another week. There was no Coke to be had, and we drank the last two bottles of Fanta in town.

There looked to be no vehicles leaving. Our alternative plan, should things become desperate, was to get a boat 70 miles downstream to Mongu, but on investigation, it turned out this would involve three days in small rickety wooden canoes, and only just enough space for a boatman, a passenger and a backpack. Our desperation was not yet severe enough, but for some other travellers it was. Roger and Robert, who we’d met in Zambezi, had already been this way and had already got fed up of Lukulu. We met them here, trying to get out, and the last time we saw them they said they were going to get the boat. We have no idea if they’re still alive or not.

Our first day in Lukulu ended with the usual fabulous Zambezi sunset and a feeling of hope that we might be able to move on the next day. We hadn’t considered, though, that the next day was Sunday, and though we were up very early, it quickly became clear that nothing was going to take us anywhere before Monday. After several hours waiting by the roadside hoping in vain for a lift, we went for a long walk through the surrounding area. I was feeling trapped and claustrophobic and sceptical that Lukulu could be in any way interesting, but I was actually wrong. In one of the villages we walked through, we noticed a couple of tiny yellow birds in wooden cages, and once we’d got talking to one of the village men we asked about the birds. He told in fascinating detail how they catch the birds - the first with a trap involving rubber cut from trees, and subsequent ones using the first as a lure. Once they’ve been caught, apparently, they never fly away.

But then Lukulu closed in on me again. We wanted to get some food, and we wanted to eat somewhere other than where we were staying. The unshakeable Oliver decided he would come with us on our search, and after brief conversations in Lozi between Oliver and the proprietors, each place we visited would turn out either not to have any food, or to be unwilling or unable to prepare it. In the end, the only place that bring itself to cook us some food was (surprise!) Oliver’s brother’s place. We resigned ourselves to eating there again, and requested nshima with anything, anything except fish, of which I was extremely bored. Oliver said he’d see what he could do, and after a while returned with a couple of plates of nshima and two bowls containing…aargh.

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