Mpulungu to Chitipa
20.01.2007 - 20.01.2007
We arrived, amazingly on time, at Zambia’s only port, Mpulungu. I was greeted by the editor of The Post ‘the paper that digs deeper’. We swapped contact details as he was very interested in my story. This was even after I told him that the English grammar and spelling in his paper was atrocious, and that I would be happy to offer them my services. I had already been to their offices in Lusaka and met David, their security guard. He was impressed and promised to follow my blog. He couldn’t believe that I was about to negotiate my way directly to Malawi, on public transport, without first returning to Lusaka. I only understood why 20 hours later, which is how long my journey took.
I got searched (everywhere except my cavities) and interrogated, and was to display and justify every single item in my possession including the plethora of pills and other medication.
My hairstyle didn’t help the situation much, but tipping them off on the ‘refugees’ on the ship did.
I walked the 2km to the town centre and got a minibus to Mbale, discussing the ‘grass is always greener’ concept with the taxi driver. He was moaning about poverty and the rural subsistence farmers desire to move to the city.
In Mbale I jumped off one taxi and straight onto another one (they crammed me in, re-arranging all the occupants to make space for the Mzungu). I was really grateful because it was the last transport to Kasama, where I had to hook up with the Tazara train that only came past every four days.
I endured the normal delays: giving other vehicles a few litres of petrol, picking up extra passengers in the middle of nowhere when we were already filled to the gills, and the ubiquitous flat tire.
It was dark when arrived in Kasama and a difficult woman refused to move her car from the entrance to the butchery. One of our passengers had to get a ‘parcel’ of fish (Kapenta from Lake Tanganyika) off the roof and into the butchery fridge. It weighed in the region of 100kg and four of us battled to move it, especially since we had to negotiate our way around the said bitch’s car! Very grateful for my help, the driver dropped me at the Tazara train station a few kilometers away. The cavernous Chinese station was crowded, every seat taken and most of the floor space too. I was starving and there weren’t any places open. I pleaded with the (closed) restaurant chef to make me some Nshima. She said there was none left, but when she saw my dejected face, she invited me to share her meal which was intended to feed three people. I felt both privileged and embarrassed at the same time. It was a hearty meal with spinach, meat bone sauce and Nshima. They ate little and forced me to (reluctantly) gobble it all up.
Saturday 20th I spread out my kikoi on the floor, my backpack and drum locked to a bench and the straps of the bags tied around me. Four hours later, at 03:00, and with lame limbs, I woke up surrounded by water. Heavy rains had flooded the station with an inch of water. I attached my entire pack/drum/tent package to my back and chain smoked four cigarettes in the drizzling rain while waiting for the train to arrive. It was only 90 minutes late, quite impressive considering its history.
I jumped on the train, all 140kg of me, and made it through the doors without getting stuck. I don’t know how I did it!
I chose to sit in 2nd class because my journey would only last six hours, so it wasn’t worth forking out the extra cash. Most of the staff remembered me from the trip six weeks before, when I had befriended most of them asking them all 20 questions and receiving favors like condiments, cutlery and charging facilities for my camera and iPod. The Zambian border officials jumped on the train an hour before the Tanzanian border. While dealing with the formalities, they informed me that I didn’t need to re-enter Tanzania. I had already entered and departed Tanzania three times, and was glad I didn’t have to do it a fourth. This time I was sure there would be no way to avoid paying the $50 for another visa. All the train staff as well as a few locals said it was very difficult and sometimes impossible to make it to Malawi from Nakonde, the last Zambian frontier town. The border officials told me “there is transport to Malawi; the roads are good”.
At 09:30 I jumped off the train in Nakonde, the border town between Zambia and Tanzania. They recommended I jump out at Nakonde and guaranteed me I could get to Chitipa, the Malawian border town 92km away. They didn’t tell me I had to get an exit stamp at Nakonde. I had no idea there wouldn’t be a Zambian exit border before Chitipa and this caused major problems later in the evening. I waited for three hours aboard the ‘Coaster’ (a big minibus seating 25, but actually cramming in 40) and then drove for two hours before the engine seized! I then waited five hours for backup transport which took another two hours to get to Chitipa. A grand total of 12 hours for a 92 km journey. That’s less than 8km per hour!
During the wait in the middle of nowhere, I had to watch our bus driver get horribly drunk and lower his vocabulary to the single word ‘focker’. He used the word continuously while pointing to everything and anything around him, including the engine, ground, sky, clouds, himself, god, etc, inferring that they were all ‘fockers’.
So I had to endure three grueling trips on bad roads with suicidal drivers and overloaded vehicles which inevitably broke down nowhere near any help. I suppose it was par for the course for African public transport.
At our breakdown spot, I was the only Mzungu in sight and probably one of a handful, if any, to ever spend some time in the area, I wondered why I kept purposely putting myself in these positions. An hour later I realized why. I met local village folk; saw their homes, experiences their cultures and way of life; and even scaled their mango trees in search of sustenance. This was all part of the African experience and I was happy I had chosen to do it that way. It was dark before the 28 occupants of our coaster bus were ‘rescued’.
Three passengers were picked up by a passing luxury 4x4. The fat man driving the car offered me a ride, as if it were the normal thing to do; after all, I was a stranded white man sitting on the side of the road in midday African heat. I politely declined, showing the man how much luggage I was carrying. Instead, he took two fat mamas and their cargo (they were his booze suppliers).
We were rescued by a massive truck that was delivering goods to all the villages on the way. It was pretty hairy driving in the dark (the truck didn’t have lights and was only using emergency hazard indicators as night vision). On several occasions the maniac driver didn’t see the bumps in the road and we were all airborne, almost losing a few passengers in the process. I was sitting on the roof of the cab. The driver wasn’t happy and I didn’t care. I ignored his moaning and played my drum to the passengers that were lying all over each other.
Because the truck wasn’t only on a rescue mission to take us safely to Chitipa, we all had to get on and off every 20 minutes to offload giant bags of cement and building materials!
We eventually arrived at the Malawian border town of Chitipa at 21:30, way after the border post had closed. It wasn’t a problem however, as they were accustomed to late transport due to the horrendous roads and unreliable vehicles.
The border officials soon arrived and promptly refused to let me enter Malawi, (I was already 50km inside the country) because I had failed to get an exit stamp 110km earlier in Nakonde. I took out my map and Lonely Planet, showing him that they didn’t show a border flag and that there was no way I was supposed to know that there was 50km of no-mans-land between Zambia and Malawi. He refused to budge on the issue, even after I showed him my passport and how often I had passed through borders and how far I had traveled. He said “you have no excuses, you go Zambia and get stamp”. I played along and told him I would setup my tent outside and catch the next ‘transport’ back. He wasn’t happy with this, and insisted it was illegal for me to spend the night in Malawi without an exit stamp from the country I had come from. He sent me out and told me to go back to Zambia on the truck I had come with. I politely informed him of all the truck’s mechanical problems. It had no lights; a dead battery; no 2nd gear; it was out of fuel; and had to be push started.
He didn’t care! I wasn’t that phased, and there was nothing much I could do to change the situation, so I went out for a few cigarettes and sat patiently, looking calm and placid.
I was thinking of possibly putting some dollar bills in my passport, hinting that he may overlook my stupidity for a small fee. I couldn’t do it because I had the feeling that this guy was a stickler for the rules and was incorruptible.
He eventually gave in and stamped my passport.
That night I shared a room in a dodgy hostel with a young Malawian girl I met on the bus.
Once again I woke up not remembering going to bed. I was that exhausted.