The TAZARA rail line runs twice a week from Dar es Salaam, across the vast expanse of Tanzania, down through Zambia and drops you off in the small village of Kapiri Mposhi. The ride takes 42 hours in theory although in practice it's an unknown quantity.
Our morning was spent filling hours until 1pm came and we could head for the station. The Dar traffic was it's usual four lines of stationary traffic, so Simon used this time to haggle hard for a bag of cashew nuts. I used the time to eat them. When we finally arrived a chap approached the taxi driver and said the train was cancelled and we wouldn't be leaving today. Heard that one before!! We drove on through and in fact the station was spookily quiet. I left Simon chewing nuts whilst I asked at the ticket office. She said, with a bored expression and a patronising tilt to the head, that the train wasn't even here yet and it would leave in 24 hours time! Should I ever be heard complaining about trains in the UK again please stand on my toes! 24 hour delay has got to be the record.
Fortunately Simon found it amusing and so we bundled back in the car and on to a different hotel. Neither of us could face another evening of watching women selling themselves short. Our hotel was amazingly cheap and very comfortable. It even had movie channels on the TV! We weren't moving. 24 hours just where we had dropped our bags!
Next day we were off. Although not after a further 4 hour delay. TIA.
We had booked an entire compartment to ourselves as rules said compartments could not have mixed sexes. As we found our little pigeon hole we were followed behind by a South African chap and an American who had exactly the same tickets as us! The small area would struggle to hold 4 people over 6 foot, four giant bags and all the food supplies we had brought. Besides that, I was not sure how I would manage having wet wipe washes and getting into my pj's without threatening my dignity.
Fortunately we found a guard who managed to sort out the kerfuffle and we were finally left alone in our small shed like room. A first class carriage did not indicate luxury, cleanliness or working windows but referred more to the amount of privacy you had. Our sheets for sleeping had blood stains, the blankets were unidentifiably crusty in places. The floor had visible grime, the walls had inexplicable smears. Home for three days and two nights.
The romance of travelling in a train with your loved one is a little overinflated. This statement tallies with not only the train as a setting, but occasionally the views, the functional practicalities of life in a cupboard, the emotional stress of being in the same persons company for 99.99% of the time and of course the constant battle with boredom.
Evidence to support this statement (that trains are far from romantic) can not be so finely illustrated than with the 'wash'. With lack of water supply and no place to actually have a wash that was not hazardous to health other than your compartment it meant that a daily routine of wet wipe washes was the only option. If you can imagine (or in fact do not for your own well being) a long limbed individual standing in front of another large individual with minimal air space afforded due to the cupboards size. With wet wipe in one hand and body part in the other the focus was having a root and scrub. There is no room, quite literally, for modesty, decency or in fact pride. Whilst having to bear witness to my better half, nude and indecently positioned for action I thought to myself 'this is truly a test of love.'
Meals were served by a rather skittish and peculiar fellow who would either sit himself down and hang out Ike we were part of his gang or would look at us with clear disdain. Either way our rather dry and uninspiring dish was always served piping cold over cooked and often unpalatable. At least there was one consistency.
The scenery was a mixture of vast sameness for hour upon hour with surprises to keep you entertained. A ravine, a remote village with all it's forms of life and living performed in front of you. A train station was a highlight. Sellers would pile baskets of peanuts on their heads or ladies would shriek to the passengers offering tea. Children would come to wave. Other children would throw a rat on a string through your carriage window. The poor dead rodent would be used as a threat for coins and if any passenger refused or ignored they were met with carcass. Not wanting to lose their bargaining tool, they would rescue the rat by tugging the string. If this was unsuccessful the last resort was plain old rocks. We bought peanuts and closed the windows.
We tried meditation, we did an ab' workout. We read, played cards, wrote blogs, snoozed. On one afternoon I poked my head out of a window and saw a camera crew on the station. Simon was off to see the latest entertainment and came back with a smile and a story. It was none other than Griff Rhys Jones!! Simon had heard the unmistakable voice and had started a conversation. It was all for the search of honey badgers apparently. Griff popped by for a little chat later on too. Too much excitement for one day!
During the trip we has passed over the border into Zambia. When it was finally at its destination, Kapiri Mposhi, it was dark and our legs had almost forgotten how to work. There were a few of us dazed and confused passengers that were wandering without aim in the station which was in the middle of nowhere. We all needed to get to Lusaka, our only option being taxi. We were quoted extortionate rates due to the fact we were quite literally stranded, however a man with a van was no match for Haggler Harris. We had between us rounded up a good crew to fill the 12 seater van and with some saying they were happy to pay $80 each (what?!??) Simon assumed control. Despite a few sneaky tactics and the odd fib, Simon managed to cut through the futile hard bargaining and landed us a bargain 3 hour taxi at just $8 a head! People were shaking him by the hand!
The van was as full as egg with all the bags and so when we all finally tumbled out we tumbled into the nearest hostel and into bed.
Having travelled for so many days solid we decided to not rush off. Let's see what Lusaka had to offer.
Our ram shackled hostel didn't have much to offer in the way of...well anything much except a good dose of attitude and grumpiness by reception. With a little help from google we found a game reserve that had lions you could stroke! Lions who were due for extermination in South Africa had been bought and transported by a welcoming chap called Willem who now had several lions on his land. One phone call and Willem had picked us up, stopped off for us to pick up a pizza and taken to his reserve. After dipping our feet in his pool, mooching around the lake and eating our pizza in the shady garden he took us for a tour of the land; reclaimed for agriculture he now had herds of antelope, buffalo and zebra. The final destination was, of course, the lions. Leo (predictable) was a boss eyed kitten in dress up. Not only was he fine about humans getting near, you could see he enjoyed it! He clearly wasn't the sharpest tool in the box but none the less we got our stroke and chin tickle. Simon was in his element! As well as Leo, there were two white lions and three teenagers that were also open to a bit of attention and although a thick mesh of wires stood between them and us it was clear that as lions go they were pretty friendly.
Whilst we were there we were accompanied by Kim, an NGO from the states, and Mohammed, an electrical engineer from Egypt who were both Lusaka residents and had come for a lion cuddle. After an added extra tour of the other lions Willem kept away from visitors because they weren't so amenable we all headed for the bar. The other lions were not in large enough enclosures for our liking although plans are afoot to build them one. The lions here didn't look at us for cuddles but more as lunch! It was as close as you could get to the 'wild and the hungry' as you would ever dare. Simon fluttered his persuasive eyelashes and so Kim agreed to take us back to central Lusaka but not before we all spent a couple of hours with Willem, shooting the breeze and supping on beers.
On our return to Lusaka Kim showed us where to get a good smoothie from a very plush shopping mall and invited us to join her there later for a curry and cinema. It has never ceased to amaze us both at the great people we have met, the kindness of strangers and how open and generous human kind can be. We did indeed meet Kim later on and her story is one to inspire. Her work has taken her across many oceans with all different causes and she has shown courage, intellect and passion with it all. She is the person I had always aspired to be and I hope our paths cross again.
The next day we headed for the bus station early with the hope of getting a) a bus with a toilet (reasons need not be divulged), b) a bus that left at 9.30 latest in order to reach Livingstone in time for Simon to catch the final round of The Open Championship.
We found a bus that left at 9.30, that had showed us our seats prior to purchase, had assured us of leaving on time, had shown us the loo, had assured us once again it would most certainly leave on time. At 11am Simon had lost his cool. Whilst a little light deception and a little tardiness is part and parcel of African life, Simon has invested effort in making sure that for once we got what we had paid for. After slowly turning a slight shade of puce over each delayed minute he hit the wall of frustration and in a flurry of hand gestures, spitting and mumbled expletives, he disembarked. After 20minutes of no return I was starting to think he had decided to walk to Livingstone and so alighted to do a little sweep of the bus station. I found Simon, a brighter shade of puce, surrounded by a crowd of young conductors all a foot shorter than him and mostly smiling. He was ranting, shouting, explaining his point to pretty much anyone who would listen. Not knowing who was actually the driver or conductor meant everyone got a telling off. In fact I don't think it really mattered. More a case of needing to let off steam. I interrupted the little rant-a-thon and managed to get him seated whereby Bruno, the manager found us to find out the issue. It was unfortunate that Bruno chose this moment to explain that the toilet was also un-useable.
At 11.30 we set off. By 12.30 we were out of the bus station. Cross armed and silent, for Simon it was a long journey. By evening we were there; Livingstone, home of the Victoria Falls and the convergence of 4 countries. Our budget hotel was empty but fabulous and with a Motel down the road with a sports bar, Simon's clouds began to dissipate and I got a bit tiddly.
It was straight up and out to the falls the next morning. We found the local bus and squeezed ourselves into the minibus with 16 people and 20 crates of beer. The falls are vast. The small portion you actually see is impressive enough but when we saw how small a section we had walked, it astounded us.
We had been forewarned to go prepared for getting wet, so with our waterproof jackets adorned, we looked smugly at the drenched bodies passing us. We didn't know then that it doesn't matter how waterproof your waterproof jacket is, unless it is a vacuum packed sack that you're in, you're in for a saturation. With my jeans feeling as heavy as lead and Simon's pants filled with puddles we meandered around the footpaths at the drop off where a flat, glassy river peppered with small islands suddenly disappears into the abyss. We saw every angle and yet still there was more than half on the Zimbabwe side that the fine mist wouldn't let us see. Simon spotted double rainbows whilst I rung out my hair. A very funny, soggy day indeed.
On our beer filled bus that morning we had the good fortune to meet Giant Simon. Quite literally the tallest man we had ever seen. My Simon had started the conversation regarding his height. Having been a victim for many years of basketball player quips, "what's the weather like up there" and people measuring themselves against me I was going to ignore his stature but Simon's chatter soon turned into a conversation and Giant Simon invited us to see his village.
The next morning we decided to take him up on his offer and both he and his friend Steven showed us their home. The village was a congregation of huts made from mud and straw, each one circled by a tall straw fence. The homes were small, dark and basic, the gardens swept with each nook having a designated role. The first stop was to the beer lady. Beer was the traditional breakfast and as such she was an important figure. Simon crushed the corn needed to make the brew whist I watched the enormous steel can of home brew bubble. It smelt like the floor of a Weatherspoons and had the consistency of rotten milk. I'll stick to granola thanks!
The village had a fabulous chief who had actively encouraged people to approach tourists and invite them for a tour, any donations were to go into a communal pot for the entire village to benefit from. Children came to wave, Giant Simon introduced his wife and children. A warm welcome indeed. The only marring of a perfect day and which further fulled the fire of a still slightly exasperated Simon was a few well-breakfasted individuals who showed us their wares for well over 10 times the price!
We were unsure as to what to do with our final day in Livingstone. We had hoped to cross the border to Zimbabwe to see the falls from the other side but visa, entrance and transport made it a costly experience. A seed had been planted though and, only if we could get a bargain price, we were desperate to see the falls from above! We marched to the booking agency and Simon turned on the charm offensive. A whisper here, a few phone calls and he had done it! We got our two seats in a helicopter.
We were picked up early the next morning and were taken to the helipad where we saw our shining ride to the sky. It's hard to accurately put into words the view that greets you. A vast flat land with a wide, glass river meandering through it. Gallon after millions of gallons tumbles into the precipice, a crack in the earths crust like a giant cleaver had struck the Zambezi. It was hard to fathom the enormity of what we were seeing. Rainbows decorated the edge, elephants the size of pin heads ploughed through the calm river above whilst people, like a sprinkling of pepper, battled through the midst. Simon beamed, and I felt almost tearful. An incredible experience. Awesome in every sense of the word.
From journeys in the sky to journeys overland. That night we faced a 18 hour journey through Zimbabwe, across the border, into South Africa and back to Johannesburg. Two border crossings, one at 2am and at freezing temperatures. Lined up like in a concentration camp, we were searched, questioned and even attempts at extortion were made. It was a relief to arrive. Although Johannesburg was our destination, the travelling wasn't to stop there. A taxi, a flight, a train and a taxi awaited. Time to surprise a few people. Time to pay home a little visit.