Zambia: By train from Kasama to Lusaka

5th April - 24th April 2002


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The next leg of my journey would take me to the capital of Zambia, Lusaka. When I had originally planned this section of my trip from Dar es Salaam to Lusaka I had decided to travel by road from Mpulungu, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika to Kasama where I would catch a train along the TAZARA (Tanzania and Zambia Rail Authority) railway to the western terminus at Kapiri Moshi, about 200km north of Lusaka. I had enjoyed my couple of days staying at the Grasshopper Inn in Mbala and had quickly got to know the town and it's people. I left after breakfast and walked back to the main street where I didn't have to wait long for a minibus to come past on it's way to Kasama about 200km to the south. The minibus smelt of fish, I still had not managed to escape this persistent smell from Lake Tanganyika. About half way to Kasama one of the front tyres burst, luckily we had just stopped to pick up a couple of passengers and were not travelling too fast. Since the start of my trip in Kampala, back in January, this was the first puncture I had suffered. It didn't take long for the driver and his mate to put the spare tyre on, which was completely bald. We arrived in Kasama without any further dramas, just after a heavy rain shower, which left the warm air moist and humid. I took a local minibus the 5km from the centre of town to the TAZARA station, where there were also a handful of guesthouses alongside the road.

I didn't know when the next train was due; all I knew was that there was at least a train going through every day or two. I walked up to the station to see if I could get any information, the place was deserted. A notice board had a train timetable and fare sheet pinned to it, but I couldn't make any sense of it. The timetable was all abbreviated and failed to show which days of the week the trains ran on. I sat around for a while until someone else entered the cavernous waiting hall of the station. He told me that the next train was due tomorrow evening. With that information I walked back down the road to the Port Elizabeth Guesthouse, which was recommended in my guidebook as a friendly place to stay while waiting for a train. If I wrote a guidebook I would describe it as a noisy, impersonal place to stay. I took a single room that was near the bar at the back of the building; the music from the stereo, the speakers being rigged up out in the garden, was deafening. The door and window of my room constantly vibrated to the baseline of the music. After an hour I could take no more, the final straw being a dire Spice Girls song blasted through my door; I had to find another room. I was moved to the more expensive Green House that was self contained and almost double the price of my previous room. It was money well spent as I found out that the music at the bar is played from 08.00 to 22.00 at night, which would of surely driven me mad.

Most of the time the bar and garden was empty, but the music continued relentlessly. I think the fact that they had run out of beer was one of the factors explaining the lack of customers. Even in my new, quiet room, I could still hear the distant reverberation of the base from the stereo. It was a relief at 22.00 when finally silence descended on the guesthouse. Upgrading to my new room also included breakfast, I enquired at the reception where I was told that yes, a free continental breakfast was included with my room. I was shown to the small dining room, tucked out of the way and was presented with a flask of tea and one slice of dry bread. I couldn't help laughing, since when has a slice of bread been a continental breakfast? After my extraordinary breakfast, or rather lack of it, I walked the short way back to the station. The ticket office was still closed but there were a couple of women laboriously sweeping the large hall of the detritus left by the passengers who took the early morning train to Nakonde. Once again I sat and waited until someone arrived who knew when the train would depart. A helpful man told me that the train was due to leave at 22.00 tonight and that the ticket office would open at 19.00.

I walked back to the guesthouse and sat at the reception for most of the day trying to pass the hours. I started the day by reading, which soon sent me to sleep. When I awoke I listened to my radio. It was the Queen Mothers funeral in London today and the BBC World Service carried a live broadcast from Westminster abbey of the proceedings. Once the service concluded I walked next door to the Kapongolo Rest house for lunch, I was now over halfway through my day of waiting. I took a minibus into town to see if there was anything interesting to do for the afternoon; there wasn't, so I just bought some supplies for my journey tonight at a local shop and returned to the guesthouse. Finally the sun began to set, it was 18.00 and I walked for the last time to the station where I planned to wait out the remaining hours.

The hall was already packed with passengers and luggage, corners of the giant hall looked like a refugee camp as the locals made themselves at home, stretched out on the floor sleeping or gathered in noisy groups eating and drinking. I sat on my pack next to the ticket office window, which did open as I was told at just past 19.00. As soon as I saw the ticket office open, I rushed to the window and found myself about tenth in line, not bad I thought considering there must have been over three hundred people waiting to buy tickets. Soon my turn came and I asked for a first-class sleeping berth. The clerk asked me if I had made a reservation. How could I have made a reservation when the ticket office had been closed all day? I was promptly told that there was no first-class and also no second-class, so I finally settled for a third-class ticket; it was only an overnight journey and I was sure it couldn't be that bad.

Just as I was making myself at home again near the entrance to the platform in the ticket hall, a man came running up to me telling me that the ticket clerk wanted me. It was the man who had stood behind me in the queue for the tickets. I guessed I must have done something stupid like leaving something on the counter but when I got back to the ticket office the clerk presented me with a first-class ticket. It was all very strange and I can only think that the clerk was originally after a bribe when he told me that there were no tickets. I handed over the balance to make up the first-class fare and returned to my spot in the ticket hall. Just as I was about to sit down someone else approached me and asked me if I was travelling first-class. By now I was getting a bit fed up and just said yes in an exasperated tone. I was glad I wasn't too rude or curt with him as he quickly led me away to the first-class lounge along the platform. This was more like it, a little bar, with comfy armchairs and a television showing a European Cup football match. I sat back and relaxed watching the football and drinking a couple of cold beers until the train pulled in at just past 22.00.

As the train slowly rattled and screeched to a halt, chaos ensued. There was not much lighting along the platform and the lights on the twelve-coach train were not working either. I wandered the wrong way through the seething mass of people as I searched for the first-class coaches; luggage was being passed in and out of the windows and people were fighting to climb through the doors as passengers were still disembarking. I soon found myself at the wrong end of the train. Now with a sense of urgency I fought my way back along the platform, bumping into people and barging my way through the solid mass of humanity. Eventually I found my carriage and I climbed up and walked along the dark corridor until I found my compartment. It was empty; I double-checked and shone my torch around the compartment before taking one of the lower bunks out of the four berths.

During the next ten minutes three other men arrived in the dark and we all settled in for the night's journey. I fell asleep, I had had a long boring day waiting for this train and the couple of beers I had at the station were enough to send me to sleep quickly. The train was not as comfortable as the Central Line train I had taken across Tanzania; this was an ordinary train rather than an express train, but it was still good, although the carriages had that slightly dilapidated feel about them. The carriages were all second hand Chinese rolling stock, some windows were missing, most of the fixtures were either broken or just not there and the toilets quickly made you constipated. The TAZARA line is a fairly new railway in Africa. It was completed in 1975 with financing from the Chinese government and provided a rail link from Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. The help provided by the Chinese government is quite apparent in the architecture of the station buildings. The stations, especially the large ones like Kasama and Kapiri Moshi looked very much like former Soviet Union socialist buildings. I don't think they would have looked out of place strung along the trans-Siberian railway across Russia. The track was fairly new by African standards, it was a very smooth ride and I soon awoke as the sun rose as we continued to roll fairly smoothly across the endless plains, stopping at every small station along the way.

By midday, fourteen hours after departing Kasama and 632km down the line, we arrived at the huge western terminus of the TAZARA railway at Kapiri Moshi. Why they decided to terminate the line here, about 200km north of Lusaka, remains a mystery to me, maybe the money ran out. There is a Zambian Railway line that runs from the border with Zimbabwe through Livingstone, Lusaka, Kapiri Moshi and on to Kitwe. I thought that maybe the two lines connected here, but they didn't, the two stations are two kilometres apart. Once the train came to a stop in a screech of brakes the platform turned into a sea of people as everyone disembarked, luggage being unloaded through the windows. The police forced us to line up in queues on the platform and everyone had to have their identification papers or passports checked. I heard that this was a normal procedure for the express train from Dar es Salaam but we had only travelled on the ordinary train that started at the border town of Nakonde. I suppose it gave all the police something to do, as we were the first train to arrive in nearly two days.

Outside the impressively large station building waited all the buses and minibuses to ferry everyone the remainder of the journey to Lusaka. The trains on the Zambian Railway don't connect with the TAZARA trains and waiting for a connection is not really an option when Lusaka is only a few hours bus ride away. I climbed aboard a large local bus destined for Lusaka. I thought it would be quicker and safer than the minibuses. I was wrong and was only destined to have an afternoons frustrating journey that never reached Lusaka. The men running the bus were really a bunch of idiots. I can understand stopping, waiting for passengers and not leaving until the bus is full as this is the way in Africa. But they took this practice to a whole new extreme that just made everyone angry and annoyed, even the locals were shouting at the driver and conductor and all their friends who were messing around in the front of the cab. We were the last bus to leave the station and managed to stop every fifty meters or so through Kapiri Moshi just so that the driver and conductor could stop and chat with their friends.

The bus was a wreck too and it was not a surprise when about halfway through our journey we stopped, yet again, and steam began to appear from the vents in the front of the bus. It was not a good sign but we continued, slowly, the only speed the bus could go, along the road until we stopped again for no apparent reason. We all sat on the bus getting increasingly frustrated when the driver reappeared with a large container of water to top up the radiator. You can guess what happened next; he lifted the cover off the engine next to the driver and unscrewed the cap on the radiator. The water exploded out of the radiator sending a fountain of hot water splashing against the roof of the bus and a cloud of steam rolling down the bus. The locals screamed and panicked. It looked like the end of our journey on this bus as I couldn't see us going any further for a few hours. Time was slipping away, the sun was getting lower on the horizon and storm clouds were gathering, lightening flashing in the distance. Most of the passengers on the bus wandered up and down the road while the driver and conductor lay under the bus cursing and fiddling with spanners. I just wanted this journey to end and to be back in civilisation, after all I had been travelling since late last night and all I wanted was some decent food, a cold beer and a comfortable bed to sleep on. I decided to abandon the bus and flagged down the next passing minibus. They were going to Lusaka. I ran back to the bus to grab my luggage. Some of the other passengers asked me if I was leaving and then joined me on the minibus. I was happy at last to be moving again with the prospect of getting to Lusaka by nightfall.

Within an hour we climbed up a hill, then suddenly in front of us was Lusaka, the few tall buildings making the city look like a busy metropolis after the last few days spent in small towns in the Northern Province. By dusk the minibus dropped me off on Lumumba Road in downtown Lusaka. I quickly took a taxi to Chachacha Backpackers on Mulombwa Close and at last my journey from Kasama was over. I checked into a dorm room and met Paul, who I had travelled with down Lake Tanganyika on the MV Liemba, who had only arrived a few hours earlier. He told me about his horror story travelling on the local bus from Mpulungu to Serenje. The journey ended up taking thirty-one hours, the bus breaking down twice, rather than the approximate ten hours it should have taken. My journey down from Kasama suddenly didn't seem quiet so bad in comparison.

I spent a few days in Lusaka rejoicing at being back in civilisation and in a city with amenities. The novelty soon wore off though. I found Lusaka to be a fairly dull and unexciting city that would never win any prizes for cultural heritage. There is really only one commercial street in the city, Cairo Road where all the banks, airline offices and major shops are located. There are about a dozen tall buildings in the city, all located on Cairo Road between the North and South End roundabouts. The architecture is functional but unattractive, just bland concrete monoliths that reminded me of 1950's and 60's architecture in Britain, though this was a lot newer. To the south of Cairo Road was a wasteland, it seemed odd how the downtown area just ended abruptly at the South End Roundabout; to the east is the railway station and sidings; to the west a couple of blocks of local shops, markets and bus parks; the north seemed to have nothing of much interest either. The city was not badly polluted and the air felt clean. For a capital city there really was not that much traffic and the streets were generally clean and tidy and swept clean of litter.

I decided to take the overnight train to Livingstone in the far south of the country to visit Victoria Falls. The ticket office opened in the afternoon and I booked myself a sleeping berth for the train that evening and was told to report back at the station at 18.00 for a 19.00 departure. I had an early dinner at Chachacha and left for the station; as always there is never a taxi waiting on the street corner when you need one, so I walked instead, which took about twenty minutes. When I arrived the train was waiting at the platform and the platform was busy with passengers and hawkers. I settled into my compartment, which was very roomy, with just two sleeping berths and chatted with some other passengers as we waited to depart. We never did depart and after an hour or so an announcement was made informing us that the train had been cancelled and all services suspended indefinitely because a goods train had derailed south of Lusaka. It was a mad rush back to the one ticket office window that was open to get my ticket refunded. Luckily Africans aren't the quickest people around in these situations and I managed to get to about position number forty in the queue. It took about half an hour to get my ticket refunded and then I walked back to Chachacha to spend an unexpected night before taking an early morning bus the next day to Livingstone.

Continue reading this journey: Livingstone & Victoria Falls