On the Road in Southern and Eastern Africa, or, Forewarned is Forearmed – Southern and Eastern Africa

On the Road in Southern and Eastern Africa, or, Forewarned is Forearmed
Southern and Eastern Africa

From southwestern to central eastern Africa, over 7 months of overland travel, transport has gone from the (unrecognised – really, we didn’t know how good we had it!) sublime to really and truly the most ridiculous. Whilst my husband Ian and myself haven’t (yet) come as close to death as we did in on a chicken bus in Laos, it’s been a laugh to see the changes from southern to eastern Africa.

From Cape Town, South Africa to Windhoek, Namibia we caught a bus. 25 hours. Okay, it was long, the bus broke down, we spent an hour in the desert gazing at the stars, we changed to another bus around midnight, but we got there on time and we were served tea and coffee. And we had tar. Then we got an overland truck for our two-week Nomad Swakopmund to Vic Falls tour. Not much can beat that – huge viewing windows, lots of tyres, lots of spares, can go anywhere, do anything.

Zimbabwe transport has a few fuel problems. When we were there there were taxis lined up outside the petrol stations, and the signboard that normally advertises fuel prices looked like this:

Diesel – NO
Petrol – NO
Gas – NO

We were only in Zim for two days and then walked across to Zambia, so that wasn’t such an issue for us. Zambia was okay – big buses, but a few with pretty bad safety records, the minibuses we especially avoided at night. Hitch-hiking on the backs of tobacco trucks and pick-ups on “roads” (a euphemism for “string of potholes held together through sheer willpower”) was slow but not too bad. From here on in tarmac becomes a thing of the golden past.

I think Malawi got worse from west to east. The minibuses (imagine a Toyota Hiace with actual seats for about 12 people, 15 at a stretch) normally carries around 24-28 people, all seated. Squishy. And now these machines wear alarming names, such as “The Undertaker”, and “Die Another Day”, and really scary “God Willing”. Then the new mode of public transport – the pick-up/ute/bakkie (aka matola). Little old ladies, babies, men, women, chicken, grain sacks and bicycles – all go on there. For 50km or for 350km. Generally they squeeze about 20 people and their baggage onto these things (I say ‘on’ and not ‘in’ because the people are generally perched on top of things or on the sides of the tray). The most we had the misfortune to experience was, I kid you not, 37 people (in the west)!!! More on that later.

In Mozambique it’s more of the same, and here we saw one of the more spectacular breakdowns of our journey. We were on a minibus that, unlike any we’d ever been on before, actually went to a ‘service centre’ before leaving. It went over the pits with all 25 of us still in the vehicle and some guy banging away under it. Then off we went. I could hear a rather strange clunking sound, and the driver occasionally stuck his head out the window to assess the situation, deemed it okay, and kept going. I was just dozing off nicely, about 20km into our journey, when the right rear end of the vehicle hit the road and smoke came pouring into the windows. It was the most acrid, foul smoke I’ve ever had the bad luck to smell. So, we all rushed out and went round to see basically a gaping hole in the side of the van. It’s oozing sizzling oil and spewing smoke. The whole axle had snapped in half and rolled off, of course taking the wheel with it. Now, I’ve seen some pretty handy roadside mechanics in 7 months in Africa, but no-one was fixing that thing! So, we got another new mode of public transport – basically cattle trucks (aka camioes) that fit 40-50 people. Very comfy as you can imagine!

Finally, Tanzania. So, more very worryingly-named minibuses (aka dalla dallas), and now there is also standing-room. That means 25 seated persons and about 10 others standing, bent into uncanny shapes to get their heads to fit under the low roofs. That made my day, getting on one of those for the first time. So, of course, if there’s standing room on the minibuses, there’s standing room on all the buses, and what could be comfortable coaches are packed to the hilt with people and their belongings, all sweating and breathing stifling air. On one occasion, on a windy mountain road, a kind man passed out plastic bags for those who also felt the need to vomit.

Some of the “best” (read: most ghastly) road journeys have been border crossings. My absolute favourite (no irony here) was crossing the bridge between Zimbabwe and Zambia – basically crossing the gorge between Victoria Falls in either country, where people bungee at the actual borderline. We just walked from one country to the other, with one of the most spectacular border views I can imagine. Aside from the fact that I appeared to be developing a mild form of elephantitis, where my limbs swelled one by one beginning with my big toe, moving in turn to my ankle, knee, elbow, wrist and knuckles and fingers, it was the most peaceful, beautiful crossing we’ve made in Africa. And we got our Zambian visa fee waived, which made it even more pleasant. The worst…well, it’s a toss-up between the Malawi to Mozambique or the Mozambique to Tanzania crossings.

Malawi to Mozambique. Day 1: Well, first I got the runs, which earned me the compassionate nickname “Squirt” (thanks, Ian). Then, of course, things got worse. We needed to get from Monkey Bay, Malawi to Nampula, Mozambique, as there’s pretty much nothing very interesting in between the two on the route we decided to take. From Monkey Bay we got a lift, with a few toilet stops on the way, to a town called Mangochi. From Mangochi to the border town of Chiponde is about 50km. Do you have any idea how long it can take to travel 50km? One day it took 12 hours to travel 60km, but that was on Lake Malawi on a boat, and was actually quite pleasant. This day, I said to Ian “let’s at least get a minibus instead of a pick-up, so I can sit and…well, squeeze my cheeks together.” Sorry to be graphic, but this was a bad journey. Anyway, no minibuses go to the border, so we get on a full pick-up (having climbed over a few people and their chickens), and watch disconcertedly as they squeezed more and more people on. Yes, this was the 37-person epic matola adventure. Maybe 5 were children, that’s still 32 grown humans. Plus the chickens. Plus 5 grain bags, our two backpacks, buckets, baskets and bags of various description, and three bicycles.

So, off we go. Hang on, they have to push-start the vehicle. We hit a speed bump and the bumper bar scrapes on the road. We hit a small stone and the bumper bar scrapes on the road. There’s something seriously wrong with the matola (apart from the number of people on it), and it breaks down every now and then. When it does, the driver has to pump the brakes furiously to get the car that doesn’t start by itself to now stop. Some poor man has to siphon all sorts of toxic goop from one place to another before push-starting us again. Then there’s a squeak and a pop. The bald retreads have sheared off. By now we’re going uphill, there’s a long drop on one side of the road, and the only good thing about the whole situation is that this vehicle can’t go screeching around corners. Others can, and we almost get wiped out waiting for the tyre to be changed. From here on in, for the next interminable 20km we’re okay and finally we get to Chiponde, and I get to a toilet (5 hours since I last saw one – I have incredible willpower when I need it!). We stay in a local guesthouse, which has a steaming hole for a toilet, well water and a bucket for showering (I can live with that under normal circumstances, but wasn’t feeling very normal at the time), but it’s clean inside and has a bed. It’s Ian’s and my 6 month wedding anniversary. Romantic: “Goodnight, Squirt!”

Day 2: We get up very early the next morning, and there are two bicycle taxis waiting for us, as arranged the previous evening. We’ve agreed on a price of 100 Malawi kwacha, which is about $1 to get us across the border. We feel sorry for the guys and end up walking uphill for part of the way. It’s fabulous, an early morning ride through villages just waking up, in peaceful borderland rural Malawi. We somehow miss the Malawian border post (so haven’t technically left!), but get through the Mozambican one, having to pay an ‘entry tax’ on top of our $40USD visa. Then we get to Mandimba, on the Mozambican side, and the bicycle taxi riders decide they’re going to see what they can get out of us, declaring their fee is actually 1,000,000 Mozambican meticais: $40USD. Needless to say they didn’t get away with it, and had all the other villagers laughing at their failed attempt. Then we got on the famed minibus of the spectacular breakdown, followed by the human-cattle truck, and get into a town called Cuamba by about 5 p.m. We spend all evening trying to change money, get a pretty bad deal, buy a train ticket for the next day, sleep for a few hours, get up at 4 a.m. to catch said train…

Day 3: We get up at 4 a.m. to catch a train. It’s actually a beautiful trip, though long (10 hours), through village after village. We get into Nampula, find the cheapest place we can, go there, and I proceed to sleep for the next 15 hours, pretty much straight, though I do remember waking up, being spoon-fed some yoghurt, hearing Ian mumbling something about fleas, and going back to sleep.

The other border crossing, Moz to Tanz, was similarly bad, but shorter by a day, and involved an early morning rise to catch a bus from Pemba to the phenomenally ghastly little town of Mocimboa de Praia, where we had to find somewhere to stay – the options being a campsite way out of town, or a lodge we’d been told, unconditionally, to avoid. Yes, we chose the lodge, as we had no way of getting into town for our early 4 a.m. start the next day. The lodge was nasty and annoying and involved people waking us up every hour on the hour from midnight, in our – get this!! – bat-infested room (not rats, but bats in the ceiling), trying to get us to go to the border with their friend who has been beeping their horn continuously for hours, and will continue to drive around beeping at people until they give in, decide maybe they did want to cross the border after all (considering they can’t sleep and are out of their minds with lack of sleep from all the f#&*$ing beeping). Eventually we cave, and get up at 2 a.m., and against all instincts, get into a ute full of strange men and drive off into the bush in complete darkness. The sky was stunning that night, and we saw at least 8 shooting stars. It took our minds off the last thing that was loaded into the tray – a big tarpaulin and some rope…Ian and I discovered later that we both had the same idea…things to bury our dead bodies in…yes, the imagination does run away with one at times! So, we bumped along, cold and uncomfortable – but alive – until daybreak, when we got to the border, had to catch a ferry across a river, and then another dodgy vehicle into the lovely little town of Mtwara.

Well, they say it’s all part of the experience of travelling Africa…

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