Johannesburg to Harare to Lusaka
30.11.2006 - 30.11.2006
29th - 30th November 2006
Airport – OR Tambo (formerly known as Johannesburg International)
My backpack was tampered with, the plastic covering was ripped to shreds and it had clearly been ‘gone through’. Anyway, I didn’t see anything missing, and it wasn’t one of my hiding places for money, so everything was fine, that is until I couldn’t find my hat. I told the staff that I left my black Nike cap on seat 14B and I would like someone to fetch it for me.
“It’s not Mango’s problem” said the irate representative.
I freaked out when she told me that the cleaners would have picked it up and taken it by now (it hadn’t been five minutes since I climbed off the plane). I had my backpack on and wasn’t going to take her shit, so I pulled the “I’m a journalist” routine and a dude ran to the plane and brought my hat back before I could say mango juice.
I was supposed to get a lift to Kempton Park from Aaron (an Exclusive Books employee at the airport) in his dodgy car, but when push came to shove, he escorted me to the taxi rank and told me which one to jump in. It was R4 each (my backpack counted as another passenger as it took up another two seats). Everyone in the taxi bent over backwards to accommodate me and shifted seats from front to back and left to right until I could get in. I collected all the cash from the passengers and gave them their respective change.
I chose to get from Kempton Park to Pretoria by train. There were two classes, either R7 or R12, and the guy at the ticket office couldn’t really tell me the difference between the two seats – so I chose the R12 seat hoping it would be more comfortable.
I waited for the train for over an hour until my patience (and options) ran out. I met a young Zambian on the platform, who also wanted to get to Pretoria and had also been waiting for an hour. We ran across the road together to get a taxi, something I should have opted for instead of the train, but I was told the rush hour traffic would be hectic. It couldn’t have been more hectic than an absent train. The taxi took 40 minutes and cost R12 each (my backpack).
I arrived at the Tshwane (formerly known as Pretoria) bus station at 10:55. There was no bus. I stressed that I might have missed it, and the fat greasy 18 year old trainee behind the counter confirmed this. He promised me it had left at 10:00. I shook my head at him and reminded him that the bus was only supposed to leave at 11:00. He promised to double check “just after I help the next customer”. I had jumped the 30 minute queue and wasn’t prepared to get in line. I sat there patiently for 5 minutes watching him issue this woman with a ticket for her daughter. Either he was thoroughly dotting his I’s and crossing his t’s, or he was purposely taking his time to piss me off.
After that, I stepped in again – and he simply said “it’s gone, next customer please”.
I went to the next teller and the kind lady told me “it’s on its way; it should arrive in the next 15 minutes.”
It arrived half an hour later.
There was no place for luggage, let alone me. I learnt my lesson, and vowed in future to always get on a bus at its origin. I complained to the driver because my ticket stated a maximum of 50kg per person and there was clearly tons of baggage being transported. I asked the driver “Is all this luggage being paid for and does it all actually belong to the passengers?”
“It always happens like this – I cannot do anything – they are paying extra”.
I thought they were moving house! I’m sure they thought the same about me!
So I broke my hips hauling my pack upstairs and heaving it over the heads of 50 Zambians whose eyes were wide open in disbelief. I sat next to two excited Zambian girls and immediately helped them mathematically. They needed to calculate how much Kwacha they’d spent on clothes for the family.
The back row of seats were reserved for the drivers’ beauty rest, so I stretched out on them while nobody was looking. I had to take advantage as I was sure it was going to be my only chance for the next 24 hours. I only managed 30 minutes of sleep and then decided to chat to all the Zambians.
I was the only white man and kind of enjoyed the exclusivity of it.
We drove through Polokwane (formerly known as Pietersburg) and then onto Messina. The driver dropped us off shouting “short break” and then I followed the other sheep off the bus. It took half an hour for the bus to disappear around the corner and fill up, while we spent our last Rands and made our last phone calls.
I changed my voicemail message to:
“Hi, you’ve reached David. I am currently traveling around Africa until February. You can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or visit my blog at www.travelpod.com/members/dcm where I will leave my latest cell number.
Please don’t leave a message, as I won’t be checking them anyway and my mailbox will just fill up. Now would be the time to put the phone down before the beep…”
We left the country at 18:30 – or so I thought. Three hours later and we were finally through the Beitbridge border into Zimbabwe. We picked up two passengers just after the border. They paid cash. I was told the bus had no license to pick up or drop off passengers in Zimbabwe. My initial plan was to hop off in Harare and continue to Blantyre in Malawi.
On the border I found out about ‘Push Money’. I had heard about it happening on the Tanzania-Kenya border between Tanga and Mombassa, where the bus companies pay off the officials, directly into their accounts sometimes, to just wave the busses through. City to City was obviously paying something because nobody touched our bags. I don’t think they were paying enough however, as it still took as over an hour on the Zimbabwean side. Apparently it was the South African side that was more corrupt. This was according to the two Zimbabweans I spoke to. They had been waiting in their car for over eight hours because they refused to pay the Push Money.
I slept uncomfortably for two hours until 12:30 and awoke when the drivers stopped for their regular dinner. It seemed that the drivers of three other busses going in different directions always met up at this spot. For the third time I climbed off the bus and looked for something to eat or drink, and for the third time I returned with nothing. I had brought enough of everything with me: three litres of water, a loaf of bread, four boiled eggs, fresh biltong, smarties, an energy bar, raisins and crisps.
We arrived in Harare just before light at 04:30. I opted to stay inside the bus this time when the lanky driver with the scruffy white t-shirt screamed “break time”. I didn’t particularly want to put my shoes on and wait another half hour outside a 24 hour fast food building. It was cold and I wasn’t hungry, so I pretended to sleep.
The bus drove into a nearby scrap yard, apparently for petrol, but I suspected something fishy was up. It was. Minibus taxis, bakkies, jalopies and old woman were eagerly waiting to tear apart the precious cargo which we were transporting. The bus drivers were co-coordinating this precise operation with plenty of experience. The few sleeping passengers still aboard were nonplussed about the on goings outside. I wasn’t worried about my luggage going missing because it was all next to me on the seat. We were clearly not filling up with petrol, as we had filled up 20 minutes before, a process which took five minutes to fill up with 189 litres of diesel.
I tried to get out of the bus, but the driver had locked the door and refused to open it. Through the window he said I was not allowed out and should have embarked with the others if I wanted to. I leaned out the window and took some pictures of the cargo being ripped apart and packed into smaller bags and boxes. It was then loaded into various vehicles and the helpers rewarded for their labor with some bright orange caps. The caps were part of a Chinese consignment of cheap counterfeit goods which I overheard had traveled all the way from Cape Town. I recorded the number plates, got blurred undercover pictures of the event, and then excitedly wrote about it in my journal. This was possibly one of my first ‘undercover investigative report’ about African Corruption. I sat thinking about the pros and cons of exposing this racket while listening to Bob Marley and the Wailers singing: “So(ooo) much trou(uuu)ble in the wo(or)rld” and “Oh what a rat race”.
Then the penny dropped and it all made a bit more sense to me. The bus drivers made some money, the border officials got their bribes, the country got no duties, the Zimbabweans could just eke out a living, the Chinese got to sell their goods to more people living in poverty, and everyone else turned a blind eye. I was sure this would be the first of many similar operations. We continued towards Chirundu, the Zambian frontier town.
We arrived at 09:00 and coasted past two kilometers of trucks on both sides of the road, waiting in what seemed to be a never ending queue. I got excited as it looked like the process for us was going to be a quick one.
We snaked in and out of the huge clinical building to get our passports stamped, many of us opting to brush our teeth and wash our faces on the way out. It took all of 15 minutes and I realized the Zimbabweans clearly didn’t care what was leaving their country. I suppose there’s nothing worth taking out. There was a tiny portrait of Mugabe, taken at least 25 years before, in the middle of a 20 metre high white wall. The rest of the building was barren. On the exit card and customs declaration, was a column asking how many Zimbabwean dollars I had spent in the country and how many nights accommodation I had paid for. I was very proud to enter a big fat zero.
Nothing prepared me for the Chirundu entrance into Zambia. It took over an hour to get my passport stamped, then we had to take EVERY item off and out of the bus, so the customs officers could pick through them with a fine tooth comb. Upon further investigation I was told it would take us at least four hours to get through. I removed my backpack from seat 35 and headed for the border. This time I forgot my shoes and mentally told myself to stop doing this! I walked through the big black metal gates and started searching for a ride to Lusaka.
The pack of money changing vultures were the only ones interested in taking me for a ride.
I found a large yellow luxury bus with aircon, reclining seats and Nigerian Movies. They felt sorry for the pink-faced Mzungu (white person) and let me on board for K20,000 (around R40). I fell asleep on the cool bus, my iPod drowning out the noise of the drunkards drinking Mosi beers and playing “your phone is ringing, pick up your fucking phone” and other irritating ring tones. I sat next to a big Zambian Mama who was more inquisitive than I was. 20 questions became 50, including how religious I was and if I would be interested in black woman. After an hour I shut her up by telling her I was born Jewish, currently an Atheist not practicing any type of prayers, and that I had been married and divorced twice and lost three children. She didn’t speak to me for the rest of the trip.
Two hours later and after a much needed deep sleep, I woke up to find that we were stuck at the bottom of a hill. A massive oversize loaded truck was blocking the road ahead. There were kilometers of trucks behind us, and we had already been sitting there for almost an hour, the aircon trying its best to keep us cool, but the Marcopolo bus was overheating as a result.
Finally a digger-loader (thank you CATerpillar) nudged the monstrosity up the hill and we were off again.
I arrived in Lusaka at 16:00 after 29 hours of travel, nine of which were spent at border posts! Leaving the bus in a hurry to get my backpack from the hold, I forgot both my hat and boots inside the bus this time. I only remembered them because three touts ordered me to give them the sandals I was wearing and I noticed that I was wearing sweaty socks underneath them.
I walked the kilometer to the TAZARA (Tanzanian Zambian Railway Authority) office, with gazes of amazement, refusing all offers of lifts, accommodation, moneychangers and ‘give me your hat/shoes/money/life’ orders.
The TAZARA office was closed, but I saw three Mzungus outside – the first white people I’d seen since Pretoria, 30 hours before. I ran to the door and pleaded with the man inside, trying to explain to him that my bus was five hours late, that I’d traveled all the way from Cape Town, non-stop, without much sleep, and that I had tried in vain to book a seat via e-mail three weeks before. I’m not sure he understood all of that, but he did give it some serious thought.
He gave me a look, let me in, took my money (75,000 Kwacha) and gave me a ticket: Coach # 6, Compartment #4, B21. I was going to share my cabin with six people: two locals and three foreigners. He almost bit my head off when I asked him about the overnight train to Kapiri Mposhi, the one-horse town from where the Tazara train departed. It was leaving at 21:00 and headed slowly but surely northwards to the Copper belt. I thought I would get a nice free sleep and arrive in Kapiri in the morning, to wake up ready for the three day journey to Dar es Salaam. He wasn’t having any of it and told me that the train mainly carried freight, it regularly broke down, they didn’t care about Mzungus and could sometimes be delayed by 10 hours. He laughed when I told him that was pretty much what the travel guides said about the train I had just purchased a ticket to Tanzania on! Anyway, I followed the old man’s advice and decided to stay the night. While trudging along to ChaChaCha backpackers, I saw my original City to City bus arriving, only 30 minutes after I had. The bus drivers and passengers waved encouragingly. I felt they were laughing at but perhaps they were happy to know that I had arrived in one piece.
I couldn’t physically make the last 2 km walk to the backpackers, and conveniently stopped at a shoe repair guy named Chombe. He had been operating under that exact tree for the previous nine years. He fixed my sandals for 1,000 Kwacha – about two Rand! I promised to return six weeks later, to fix my shoes again and show him the pictures. On arriving at ChaChaCha, I setup my tent, got naked, and jumped into the swimming pool, floating in it for more than an hour, speaking to the other tired intrepid travelers. I scrubbed my body clean and headed out for some local food. I ate Nshima (a smooth maize staple in Zambia) and vegetables (delicious spinach and beans), with my right hand – the same hand I use while excreting – but he made sure I washed my hands in the green plastic bucket he brought to the table, while pouring water over my hands! The food was cheap and tasty and the atmosphere priceless.
I bought some eat-sum-more biscuits for David, the security guard at ‘THE POST’ newspaper house. He gave me the days paper, ‘the paper that digs deeper’, and promised to deliver the next day’s to me at 05:30. He did!
I spent the evening typing out my notes, eventually retiring to my tent at 01:00. What kept me up was Louis Berger, a 50 year old, extremely well traveled Dutchman, who had some advice for me. He insisted I get rid of half of my belongings. “give them away, it’s not worth your back, you don’t need hiking boots, in Africa sandals are fine. You don’t need a sleeping bag, a space blanket is enough. You must replace your towel should with a small chamois…”.
He was carrying a tiny 5kg day pack, his sheet being the heaviest item in it. He was a keen photographer in his day, but had subsequently got lazy. I showed him all my equipment and he was particularly impressed with my film storage pipes.