Zambian bus odyssey

Monday, June 18th 2001

The semi-mythical bus from here to Zambezi turned out to be a real thing, which left at 9am on Monday morning, so we spent the weekend in Solwezi. On Friday night we went into town, and discovered nshima, the staple food of Southern Africa. It’s a kind of maize porridge, served with either meat, chicken or fish, and you eat it with your fingers. We also discovered how overwhelmingly friendly Zambians are, and being typically restrained Englishmen, I think we came across as slightly unfriendly. ‘Are you scared of me?’ asked one very drunk guy in the bar.

During the weekend we met many local people. Joe and Chris, who owned the motel we were staying in, turned out to be grandsons of the local chief. We met many members of their family, and we were invited to go to visit the chief with them. But sadly their Saturday evening lasted most of Sunday as well, and they were in no fit state to visit royalty, so we had to give it a miss. We also met Daniel and Clifford, two eccentric characters with a hand puppet, who demanded that we take photographs of them, before accompanying us into town for a drink or two. And we met Martin, an interesting guy who had worked all over southern Africa, and casually mentioned that he’d once spent a year in prison in Angola. Somehow, (it’s still not quite clear how we managed it) we ended up agreeing to pay him to come with us to Zambezi.

When Monday morning came we had to make a quick trip to the bank when it opened to get ourselves a couple of million Kwacha, forced to get huge wads of money by the outrageous minimum commission on traveller’s cheques. And then we went to the bus station and boarded the bus to Zambezi. It was supposed to leave at 9am, and arrive at 6pm, but like all Zambian buses it left the regulation hour and a half late. It was crammed full of people and luggage, with a vast array of possessions piled high on the roof as well. The chaotic process of loading up the bus seemed to have exhausted everyone, for within half an hour as we rolled west, everyone on the bus was asleep, and a peaceful atmosphere prevailed.

For the first couple of hours, the road was smooth tar, but not long after midday the good surface ran out, and we were onto gravel. The bus had no suspension to speak of, and the seats had no padding to speak of either, so very quickly the journey became uncomfortable. We bounced along for a couple of hours before suddenly stopping in the middle of nowhere. Everyone got off the bus to stretch legs and massage weary buttocks, while some urgent bush mechanics got underway. Fortunately the engine was going again within half an hour and we were back on the way.

The mesmerising monotony of the Zambian landscape was beginning to rob me of my sense of time, but I snapped out of it and stopped dribbling as the sun set magnificently, and for a couple of hours I stared delightedly out the window as the twilight colours gave way to inky black darkness, splattered with the breathtakingly bright Milky Way, and interrupted occasionally by the light of fires in and around the villages. Around 8pm I foolishly began to think ‘Well, we must almost be there by now...’

But we rumbled on, slowly and increasingly painfully. Every couple of hours we would stop, and everyone would fall over everyone else as they all tried to get off the bus at the same time. Then the last people off would fall over the first people off as they got back on again. Then as the bus driver revved up, everyone still outside would fall over themselves in their haste to get back on board. I joined in the whole process each time, just for a chance to restore circulation to my legs and get a glimpse of the starry, starry sky.

By two in the morning I was beginning to wonder if the journey would ever end. By wrapping my head in several jumpers and resting it on the back of the seat in front of me, I could attempt to sleep without risk of brain damage, but this was a tougher journey than I had ever anticipated. It doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that Western Zambia is way off the beaten tracks.

I was really expecting to watch the sun rise from the bus, but at four in the morning, battered and bruised, we finally arrived. The bus stopped by the government resthouse, but that turned out to be full. Luckily there were some people from the Zambezi Motel looking for customers off the bus, so we followed them. It was quite a walk from the bus stop, especially after 20 hours of getting smacked about on bumpy roads, and as we staggered along one of them warned me not to expect too much from the Motel. ‘You know the saying, when in Rome do as the Romans do?’, she asked. ‘Well, just remember you’re in Zambezi...this is the bush!’.

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