Day 286: Zam, But No Beer


Jason was a Peace Corps volunteer for a couple of years in Malawi (luck of the draw I guess) and decided to stay on and set up a business here, and why the hell not, eh? Malawi is a remarkably great place, landlocked, sure, but at least it has roads (wouldn’t that be a fine thing, Guinea?) and electricity (oh Nigeria, you tickle me you really do). We chewed the fat for a couple of hours in the morning over (rather excellent) coffee. After getting him out of bed at some ridiculous hour last night, it would have been infradig not to.

The question was how on Earth I planned to get over the border to Zambia and then catch the overnighter to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. It all seemed so simple… there was a bus later that night that left at 7pm. It went through a place called Jenda, which was just a stone’s throw from the border with Zambia. If I high-tailed it up to that town during the day, I could have a cup of tea in Zambia, return to Jenda and sit there supping an ice-cold beer and await the bus from Lilongwe to catch up with me.

I had my plan. All that was left was a) the execution and b) Africa. Well you didn’t expect it to be easy did you? Young fool, have my teachings been for nought? I bought my ticket on the Tarqa bus for Dar es Salaam (a 26-hour journey no less), got to the minibus park and hopped on the bus for Jenda. They told me it would take two hours. It was 11am.

By 12:45pm, the minibus driver just about decided that it was time to go. And off it went – so slowly I reckon I could have cycled quicker. I had inadvertently crawled aboard the slowest bus in the world. By 4pm, when we were still nowhere near Jenda, the driver decided it might be a good idea to stop and tell everyone to get off. So you’re not going to Jenda then?


Why did you tell me you were?

Cos I’m a Vogon Graham, get with the programme.

Oh for crying out loud…

So then I got another bus, which, blimey, was even slower than the first! It was like they were driving backwards. Ack, they might as well have been. It was SIX o’clock before I reached Jenda, what I thought was a bordertown (it certainly looked that way on the map). I had all but given up hope of crossing the border tonight – the borders usually close at six. There were (surprisingly) no taxis waiting to whisk any given intrepid adventurers (such as I) off to Zambia, so I ended up walking half a kilometre to the edge of town. There I found a bunch of battered old pick-ups that presumably did the border run each day. The guys wanted a whopping $40 to go to the border.

I was outraged! $40?! How far is it? 30km. I looked again at the map. Something wasn’t right here. But what could I do? If I didn’t go now, I would have to go tomorrow and that would mean missing the bus to Dar es Salaam tonight – but they don’t run every day and that ticket wasn’t cheap either. My major concern was that I didn’t have enough local money to pay the guy: I only had a $100 bill, which would be difficult, if not impossible to change into Malawian Wibbledeewee. Oh well, in for a penny. What time does the border close?


I looked at my watch. It was 6.15pm. Have we got time?

Yeah. Yeah, bags of time.

Ha! Yeah.

I arrived at the border at half eight. My driver, Terry, had in his infinitive wisdom failed to mention that he only had half a headlight (which would vary in brightness every time he pressed down on the peddle) and so his mate, standing in the open back of the pickup, had to shine a torch – yes a torch – at the road ahead so we could pick our way along the track. Needless to say, progress was slow along the undulating dirt strip (is it a rule that all international roads in Africa must be constructed in such a way that puts off all but the most desperate of commuters?) that I later found out formed the border with Zambia.

Yep, we struggled for 30km along the road of doom when all I needed to do was get out, walk a few metres into the field on the left hand side of the road and I’d be in Zambia. But, sod it, I wanted a sign that said ‘Zambia’, which eventually is what we found. Luckily for me, the border was not one of those affairs with a big wire fence around it (like Zimbabwe was I might add) and so getting ‘in’ was no sweat. I had a chat with a Zambia customs guy (who suggested that I could actually, you know, get a visa now if I really wanted one) but assured him that I’d be back in the morning (oh Graham, you silver-tongued fox, you) and I was just checking out the protocols. In any case, I had to get back to Jenda. My bus was due at 9pm.

Short of a Harrier Jump Jet turning up and offering me a lift, there was no way we’d make it back to Jenda before nine. I had no choice but to hope against hope that the bus would be late. How late it would be would involve many more variables than I could possibly contemplate, much less control.

I harranged Terry to drive as fast as his clapped out pre-war pick-up could. Given the fact we couldn’t see the road, we made better time on the way back than we did on the way there. It was ten minutes to ten when we got back to Jenda. It was then that I dropped the bombshell that I had no way of paying him unless he knew a nice money-changing dude (there were none at the border post). Luckily for both of us, he did, and within five minutes, I had a HUGE stack of Malawi Blurghelflorgs in my claws (the biggest note here is worth about $3). A bit frustrating considering that I was leaving Malawi in the morning. I paid Terry his due and then headed up to the police checkpoint for my arranged rendezvous with the bus to Tanzania.

It was now 10pm. Worried that the bus had been and gone, I asked the guy at the post. No, it hasn’t been through yet…oh look – here it is!

The bus hung around at the checkpoint for all of 30 seconds. Enough time for me to take my seat in the middle at the back. Graham 1, Africa 0. Thank you and goodnight.

Day 1,421: Wham Bam Thank You Zam

Wed 21.11.12:

So then, Zambia, my third country in three days. Zambia has always been Zimbabwe’s poorer neighbour, even back in the day when it was Northern Rhodesia, it was always neglected by its (actually not very) benevolent overlords. The general indifference towards Zambia continued into independence, but in the past few years, things have started to pick up. After being freed from the burden of billions of dollars of debt in 2005 as a result of the successful ‘Drop The Debt’ campaign, Zambia has been finding its feet. Transport infrastructure has improved, as have literacy levels and a lot of work has been done on AIDS awareness. It never suffered the rollercoaster riches and rags story of Zimbabwe, so in the long-run, it seems as though the tortoise might just beat the hare. But there’s still a long way to go.

As we approached the border we passed maybe 100 container trucks all lined up waiting to get into Zambia. If that sounds like a lot, it isn’t. This is the problem with being a landlocked country. You can shift 100 containers on a small cargo ship. The Maersk Seberok could shift 6,500 containers all in one go. Zambia has a rail line linking it with the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, but trains run nowhere near as often as they should. I believe the Zambian president has just nationalised the railway in response to widespread corruption with the service. But this is the problem, isn’t it? Landlocked countries are completely at the mercy of their neighbours. If Zimbabwe is being run by a madman and Mozambique is at war, how the hell are you supposed to grow your economy when you can only get 1% of the goods in and out compared to your wealthier (and less coastally-challenged) neighbours?

Pretty much all of African’s landlocked countries – Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali – suffer from this dilemma. It’s quite telling that in the whole of the Americas there are just two landlocked countries (and Bolivia only lost its access to the sea after a disastrous war against Peru). It’s almost as if, given the choice, countries wouldn’t opt to be landlocked. But then when your borders are being drawn up over a European conference table in 1885, I guess you don’t get much choice in the matter.

We were supposed to reach Lusaka at 1200, but because of the breakdown north of Johannesburg yesterday we didn’t get in until 1400. This was most disappointing since it meant that my high hopes of reaching Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at some reasonable time would not come true. The direct buses all left at 1300. So I waved goodbye to bus buddies Abu, Mustapha and Thomas the German Guy and set off to find something with wheels that could at least take me to the northern border.

It wasn’t long before I was shepherded over to the ZAMBIA-TANZANIA BUS. Sadly, it was full, but it seemed that there were enough people to justify putting on another bus. Well, a minibus. Crammed in LIKE YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE, we set off north towards the border town of Tunduma, a good 17 hours away. And OH YES IT BROKE DOWN! Three out of three! Overheated, steam everywhere (and that bizarre fishy smell you get from hot bicycle pumps – you know the one I mean). Maybe, and I’m just putting this out there, they should – I dunno – turn the engine OFF when they’re waiting two hours for passengers, waiting in a traffic jam, filling the minibus with petrol…

The guy in front of me, a South African called Peter, was hilarious, cursing the bus driver and conductor for all sorts “where do you think you’re putting that tyre? Are you crazy?” He kept the journey fun. Sitting next to me was a sweet Zambian kid called William. We chatted about (what else) African politics and came to the conclusion that *it’s all the UN’s fault*. Because it is.

Days 1,422-3: This Is Africa

Thu 22 – Fri 23 Nov 12:

I didn’t want to use this as a title, said while pointing to at the red earth, imitating Leonardo DiCaprio ’s Rhodesian mercenary Danny Archer, but bear with me on this one. We were supposed to arrive over the border into Tanzania at dawn, but as we ran out of petrol last night and the engine overheated (hey Africa! Try turning it your engines off when you’re not going anywhere OR REFUELLING!!), I didn’t get stamped in until just after midday. Incidentally, Tanzania is a portmanteau word which combines ‘Tanganyika’ and ‘Zanzibar’ into one. This is novel but not unique in the world. The letters PAKSTAN of ‘Pakistan’ stand for Punjab, Afghan Province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baluchistan and the first six letters of The United Nations stands for Useless, Nefarious, Idiotic, Tyranny-Endorsing Dickwits. (One can only presume.)

At the frontier I swapped my Zambian Kwacha for Tanzanian Shillings, bought a SIM card and took a minibus over to the transport hub that is Mbeya. From there it was crammed into another minibus for what should have been a 12 hour journey to Dar es Salaam, the largest city (but not the capital, fact fans, that’s called Dodoma, same as the beardy general what tells Luke how to blow up the Death Star). The words ‘we were supposed to reach…’ have come up a lot over the past four years, haven’t they? Today would be no exception.

We were actually making good time for the first couple of hours, but then we had an incident at the rest stop. A girl had her handbag stolen from the bus. One of the passengers saw it happen, gave a description to the people who ran the rest stop eatery and they knew exactly who it was. A group of passenger stormed over to the luckless teenager’s home, caught him red-handed rifling through the bag, and proceeded to dole out what can only be described as African justice: they beat the crap out of him. Thankfully I wasn’t there to see this, I was waiting on the bus, not really knowing what on Earth was going on until it was explained to me later. We then took the offending party to the local police station and the passengers filed a statement. This whole episode cost us two hours.

But there was more.

Africans, and Tanzanians in particular, don’t like to do things by halves. If they have 50km of road to repair, they don’t do it in short sections, they dig up ALL 50KM OF ROAD at once. And then operate the biggest contra-flow system this side of Alpha-Centauri. And so we waited. Then drove for a bit along a dirt track at the end of the road. Then we waited some more. And drove a little bit more. This went on for a loooong time. And then, just as we were getting to the end of this madness, we were the first on the scene to an accident. A truck had plowed into the back of another truck. Our passengers, possibly feeling ultra-public spirited after the episode with the bag thief, took the injured driver from his cab and placed him, broken and bleeding, on the floor of our bus. His face had been lacerated by broken glass and his left leg had been snapped in two at the ankle. I hate it in situations like this where you feel completely useless. I wished I still had that kick-ass painkiller that the doctor who I was drinking with in Lesotho in October 2009 gave me. The minibus drove the poor kid to the hospital where he was stretchered off. By now it was 4am. I knew that the buses for Kampala (my last stop on this mad dash before I hit South Sudan) left between 6 and 7am. There wasn’t any time to lose!

But that’s when we got stopped by the police. Because of the terrifying high incidents of accidents on Tanzanian roads, buses aren’t allowed to drive overnight. They have the same rule in Mozambique and Ethiopia and to be honest, it’s fair enough. Travelling through Africa on public buses is a hair-raising experience at the best of times, and I was thankful that every bus I’d been on had safety belts. I was the only passenger to use them, but then I’m probably the only passenger who doesn’t believe in an all-powerful ever-loving God. But still, it threw a spanner in the works. There’s no way I’d hit Juba by Sunday as I had originally intended.

We arrived in Dar es Salaam at 10am, ten hours later than promised. As it turned out, it was possibly a blessing in disguise as Casey and I had work to do: the press release for my final frontier. As many of my long-term subscribers have often noted, I don’t get anywhere near the recognition for doing this that I’d have hoped for. I get, on average, 300 visitors a day to this site and the [mmmmm] STILL haven’t given me the go-ahead to put my post-Jan 2010 tapes on YouTube. This has been a source of constant irritation for me – it’s not because I want or need the money, it’s more to do with the fact I haven’t raised anywhere near the amount I would have liked to for WaterAid.

So I spent the day in Subway abusing their free wi-fi as Case and I threw the press release back and forth, getting it *just right* (you’ll be glad to hear she’s just as anal as me about fonts etc.) and put together a spreadsheet of all the media contacts I’ve made over the last four years, from Antigua to Fiji and everywhere in between. In the evening, I trudged over to the nearest thing to a backpackers in town, the Juba Inn. As I was going to finish my journey in Juba, it seemed frightfully appropriate.

Happily, they had free wi-fi as well. And so I tidied up the website ready for the big day and cut together a series of visual clips to put on YouTube for the meedja to use as necessary. By 5am I realised I should have possibly got some sleep. The taxi was outside ready to take me to the bus station.