So, in accordance with the standard Zambian procedure for buying train tickets, I obtained the train drivers mobile number and gave him a quick call to book a bed in the sleeper compartment of the TAZARA 36 hour journey from Lusaka to Dar Es Salam. He replied, “Excellent Mr Martini and be there for 2pm, we leave on time”. I thought, really? I’ve never heard, nor experienced, such a thing in Africa. Anyway, I thought I’d be all “muzungu” and get to the train station at around 1pm.
Whilst asking for directions on the way to the station, I found out that Lusaka train station is actually 2 hours away from Lusaka. Oh perfect! So, in reaction, I ran to the bus station to get the next bus heading to the train station. On my way, I gave Punctual Paul a call to let him know I may be more on African time as opposed to Muzungu time. He laughed, “No problem Mr Martini, we are running 1 hour late anyway”. The somewhat questionably named “Deluxe Bus” was making steady progress until 30 minutes into the journey, we broke down. I alighted and asked the conductor for some money back as I looked for other transport means; “The replacement will be 45 minutes, no refund”. So, I reverted to standing by the roadside for 10 minutes to hitchhike. I ended up hitchhiking with a Zambian Basketball Team on their way to a tournament nearby the train station. The journey was jovial; we sang many a song with the group and even made use of the drum I was carrying. I got a call from Punctual Paul, “Where are you? I can only delay the train for another 15 minutes, I have delayed it for 2 hours so far, people are questioning my capabilities. I will leave one of my conductors, Fortune, at the train station, then when you get there you can chase us”. What a guy!
I arrived at the train station 2 hours and 45 minutes late for the train. Good job he didn’t wait. So, there was Fortune, a smiling, round-faced character, dressed to impress. “Come Mr Martini, we must chase the train”. We set off at bullet speed with grit and determination, only the James Bond theme tune (or more like Wacky-Races) was missing for the white-knuckle ride down the dusty dirt track parallel to the train track. Fortune and I engage in deep conversation, that, much to my displeasure, takes his eyes from the road frequently. One word answers, Martin. No more questions Fortune. I thought. My partner in crime asks me to give Punctual Paul a call to ask for his coordinates. He answers, “We are at the big tree!” Beeeeep… He hung up. Fortune nodded. I sat bewildered and just accepted my fate. 75 km later in the middle of the orange, sun setting African plain stood an out of place, solitary, huge 50 metre tree, and yes with an old, colonial train by its side. No train station, no signs, no platforms, nothing. I overly-thanked all involved in the making of this episode of Wacky-Races, threw my bag up onto the train and followed it by climbing onboard. I found my compartment also occupied by a New Zealander, Russian and a Zambian armed with his trusty AK-47. Dice was played, cards were played, guitar was played, copious sachets of local lethal gin was also consumed; and as the night drew to a close, whilst gazing out over the African plains, travelling slowly through National Parks, watching zebras, giraffes and the sun set, the silent Zambian assassin aptly softly added, “Africa is the beautiful Motherland”. Wise words from the gunman. He was far from wrong.
The TAZARA train lacks working windows, doors, carriage links, plus many more features that a fully functioning train should encompass, so a trip to the toilet is like a bonus round of Takeshi’s Castle. All fun. However, one thing that would have made my nights sleep much more enjoyable would have been side rails on my bunk bed; the trains clutch wasn’t spot on, the drivers clutch control was questionable, the breaks were unpredictable and we stopped randomly throughout the night every 15 minutes; therefore I spent 80% of my night on the floor. 26 hours later we arrived at Mbeya, where I alighted.
To get to Uganda, I needed to leave the train and the group earlier than the final destination and head north via another train. So after saying my goodbyes, I headed to the ticket office. I was met by a sturdy woman and a solid message of, “No trains today, the driver is on holiday”. TIA. At the same time as me embarking on this journey, I was also taking part in a fundraiser with Sam, who was still in Zambia, that consisted of ’50 Challenges in 50 Days’. That morning I was notified that todays challenge was to sing Bob Marleys famous “No Woman, No Cry” with 50 different people. Not many tourists visit this part of the country and prior to me starting this challenge I was being stared at a lot already, but after I chatted with a group of interested locals, I popped the question… “Would you sing No Woman, No Cry with me?”. It was like a choir; we had 25 people all singing at once. After an hour or so of chit-chat, one of the energetic young guys asked me where I was staying and before I could reply, he demanded “You stay with me!”. After meeting his whole family, all 14 of them, we listened to a disturbingly playlist featuring Westlife, Blue and fittingly Bob Marley, before we hit the hay; top ‘n’ tail. The morning Muslim mosque calling started at sunrise and provided a nice background noise to my 5am bucket shower. For some reason, I always try and copy, almost sing along to the “Hmmmm… Deeee… Ahhhh… Comeeee Hereaaaaa” that’s what it sounds to me. The calling paused. He clicked play. “Because I’m happy clap along and if you feel like a room without a roof….” Yes, Happy by Pharrell Williams mixed into the Muslim callings. Then dead pan, back comes the caller, “Hmmmm… Deeee… Ahhhh… Comeeee Hereaaaaa”.
I arrived at the train station to be met with the message that the train driver decided to take another holiday, so I was left no option but to get a bus, departing a respectable 2 hours later than expected, heading to Mwanza, a port town beside the stunning Lake Victoria that separates Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. The bus was just like any other African bus with loud blaring cheesy 90’s tunes, more people than occupancy suggests and the odd chicken roaming the floors pecking whatever it likes. I arrived in Mwanza with 8 hours to spare before the next venture on the ferry over to Bukoba. I was getting withdrawal symptoms from exercise and fancied a fix. Seeking an open field, space and grass; I hit the jackpot as I walked past the Mwanza Football Stadium. I ticked the boxes in my head; changing rooms, toilets and shower facilities. Check, check and check.
I found the groundsman, aptly lying on the floor sleeping under the tree. My shadow woke him. I asked would it be possible to use the pitch for an hour or two. I felt he agreed out of bewilderment and interest. The stand wasn’t to full capacity and therefore I only had 3 homeless guys sleeping around the pitch focusing on my every lunge. After I’d finished, I paid the groundsman in spare fruit and nuts I had in my bag. At the port, the passengers stood gazing at the mini- Victorian Titanic’s beauty and also impatiently waiting for the tones of bananas to be quickly loaded in the cargo. My Second –Class compartment had me on the top bunk of 3, kissing the cold ceiling pipes. During the night, any rock of the boat would wake me as I was slapped by the cold pipes; or if not, Silent Simon below me would sporadically ask me “what do your parents do?”, “do you drive a car?” and “do you grow matooke in Manchester?”.
To disembark the boat it was a compulsory 5 foot moving jump, with subsequent barrel roll for effect. I walked with the masses over the Ugandan border and demolished an eagerly awaited mouthwatering ‘Rolex’ – derived from rolled eggs, which is an omlette wrapped with an Indian style Chapati. I stood tactically waiting by the roadside, heading West towards the Congolese border and my final destination, Kanungu. The Ugandan hospitality never fails and I only had to wait for 3 minutes before a smiling fella pulled up beside me shouting, “Where you go?”. Grippingly it was the compartment of a cargo lorry heading for the DRC that I found myself riding in. He was a cheeky-chappy and laughed after every sentence he delivered; even when he revealed that he stores 5 lots of $100’s plus a gun and machete for every journey to the war-torn country because alarmingly he has never once in his 5 years of driving been hijack-free. “Webare, thanks, Geoffrey, I’ll jump out here, you’ll have to go that one alone. Sorry.” I was only out of the compartment of doom for a moment, when a young guy balancing a double bed on his head stopped in my path. I peered under. “Arthur Bobbinson!” I exclaimed. “Teacher Martini!” He replied, “Are you back to come visit my family and eat food as I promised?”. Yes, yes I am Arthur, this 4 day journey has been to devour the white mountain of posho you are about to cook up.
Arthur didn’t catch my sarcasm, so I filled up on carbs and headed to my accommodation which was camping on the school land where The Zuri Project Uganda supports projects. I pitched my tent on lush green grass and soon after a serious looking gentleman approached me with a bow and arrow; “I protect you!”, he demanded. I was camping in one of the most rural, safest villages you could get, the only sounds you hear at night are from grasshoppers. I replied, “Thank you, but I am okay, you can go to sleep. I will be fine on my own.” He didn’t quite understand and sat on the log under the mango tree ready to warn off any vigorous cannibals. I involuntarily accepted the gentleman’s generosity and fell to sleep; only to be woken an hour later by Tarzans unbelievably thunderous snoring. I slept for a total for 3 hours. At sunrise he knocked on my tent and surprisingly shouted, “You are alive. You are welcome!”, “Yes, thank you very much!”. Africa throws up an adventure every minute.
“There is nothing to do here but get drunk. You should have stayed in Livingstone”, was not the first thing we wanted to hear as we embarked on our long weekend adventure. Living in the tourist hub of Livingstone, Zambia it was quite easy to get dragged into the multitude of activities available based around the Zambezi. The only problem is you’ll find yourself in this amazing African setting surrounded by tourists each forking out big dollars for their slice of controlled adventure. Travelling with fellow adventure traveler Martin, we wanted to break the shackles and coming back with something unique, something new, and something that perhaps only the true Zambians would understand.
Our destination for this epic 3 day journey was Sesheke, a small border town linking Zambia with Namibia. Border towns aren’t always the best place for an African adventure. They can often be a collective of opportunist Nomads looking for their next opportunity. But for us Sesheke was accessible, recommended by other Zambians, on the Zambezi, and maybe gave us a chance to cross into Namibia illegally.
After a bumpy 3 hour local mini bus ride filled with roadside sausage, crying babies, and catching people’s heads as they drifted into a deep sleep, we finally found our accommodation at Brenda’s Baobab. Excited for what laid ahead the guards welcoming words of wisdom immediately deflated our spirits. He showed us to our campground and we pitched our 2 man tent only to realise it was perhaps appropriate for 2 children with our knees by our ears while trying to sleep. Surely a walk around town would reenergise us only to realise this African border town was exactly that – a dusty African border town with lots of men walking around looking disheveled.
After a sleep filled with leg cramps and the tent eventually braking, we unzipped to see this beautiful paradise at our feet. Green grass, fruit trees, and a steady Zambezi stream was unobstructed from our view as we felt as if we’d been picked up and transported somewhere else overnight. We were the only guests at the campsite as we were greeted by the owners. Brenda was a welcoming Zambian woman partnered by her Dutch husband who resembled Doc Brown from Back to the Future. They gave us advice on where to go and what to see around town while also offering us free use of their kayaks at our leisure.
The town itself didn’t hold much charm. It served its purpose but had little to offer in the way of adventure in the town itself. A club a few doors down from Brenda’s was welcoming with Chicken and beer but apart from that Sesheke was a quiet place. The nights were peaceful with low lighting, a sky full of stars, and the sound of the flowing Zambezi in the background. We cooked our own food, played some cars, had some beers, and tried to avoid going back to the tent at all costs. We toyed with the idea of upgrading to a room but being the stout independent travelers we are we toughed it out.
The next day we set ourselves for a day on the water and our attempt to enter Namibia illegally. We had already raided the markets for food and loaded the kayaks as we awkwardly pushed off from the banks of the Zambezi. Rowing along with not another soul in sight, the mighty river was dotted with Islands. Doc Brown had told us about this amazing sand island providing the perfect spot for relaxing. We passed an island covered in small bushes that after a lengthy discussion we decided to bypass and explore on the journey home. The sandy paradise was our first goal.
Golden sands appeared in the distance as the rowing became more laborious. We had finally made it and celebrated with boiled eggs and oranges as we laid back welcoming the sun. Curious kids crept towards us as fisherman tried to sell us their fresh catches. This was more of the Africa we had missed. Livingstone is a travel Mecca but living in such a hustle-bustle transient town can be tiring. This was the break we both needed.
After a few hours of building sand turtles and pushing kids into the water, it was time to push on. Our next goal wasn’t hard to achieve. Basically all that separated Zambia and Namibia was the Zambezi. All we had to do was row to the other side and have a little walk around. Having said that we can now say we have entered Namibia illegally but that isn’t the story at hand. As we approached the first bushy island Martin turned to me and said, “Do you remember those rocks being there”. These big boulders stood out making us both even more curious to what this island held. Martin lead on towards the island before all of a sudden he stopped rowing. “Shit, they aren’t rocks. They’re Hippos”, he yelled. As soon as he dipped his oar back into the water to backtrack the hippos rose as one and took off to the other side of the island. We heard the loud splash as they entered the Zambezi.
Two stranded kayakers in the middle of the Zambezi with a group of Hippos in the vicinity but not within eyesight. The island was blocking our view of the Hippos with home on the other side of the Hippos. We saw that they had a calf with them meaning they were bound to be protective. A choice awaited us – not knowing where the Hippos were we could either go left or right of the island. Saying somewhat of a goodbye to one another we chose right for the sole reason that it was the Zambian side. Rowing furiously while trying not to dip our oars too deep into the water we kept a firm focus trying to shield the butterflies in our stomachs. A loud splash came on the left side of the island as the Hippos reared the heads only to duck back under and start making their way towards us. We now dug deeper only looking back on occasion to see the Hippos keeping the same 50 metre distance the whole way.
Arriving to our launch point I quickly docked and got onto land while Martin’s attempt to dock saw him land straight back into the Hippo infested Zambezi River. He quickly crawled his way onto the banks as we looked out to see the Hippos staring straight back at us loudly growling as if we had interrupted their day out. Even when we returned to the safety of our tent the growls continued to sound out.
This was our near death experience with Africa’s most dangerous animal. What looked like a letdown of a weekend turned out to be an African adventure and I haven’t even mentioned the listening to James Blunt – Goodbye My Lover on repeat for 50 minutes in our tent or the abusive drunk who continued to steal our books while slugging Rose from the bottle on our 3 hour journey, that turned into a 7 hour journey home.
LOCATION: Almost Everywhere!
COST: Great Value
RECOMMENDATION: Highly Recommended
Volunteer travel is not exactly a new craze but is continuing to go from strength to strength all over the continent. One of the leading organisations is African Impact. Since 2004 African Impact has been providing a range of volunteering options throughout Southern Africa to cater for travelers of all backgrounds.
African Impact offers a variety of projects with great flexibility in lengths. You have the option of a half day community volunteering session through to a 6 month Internship. Depending on your time, budget, and interest, there is an option to suit you.
Popular projects include Community Development in Moshi or Zanzibar (Tanzania), Education in Cape Town (South Africa), or Lion Research in Livingstone (Zambia).
Questions are commonly raised around why it is necessary to pay for volunteering and African Impact is quite open in where their money goes:
Volunteering provides the unique opportunity to experience genuine local living, mix with like-minded travelers, and have a sense of achievement at the end of your experience. African Impact also operates in amazing locations where you will have the chance to experience once in a lifetime adventures – bungy jumping, safari, diving…..
If you want to travel and make an impact be sure to visit the African Impact website and chat to the team about a volunteer experience to suit you.
With yours bags all packed and a myriad of Southern African shoestring adventures ahead of you, it’s important to make sure you fit in with the backpacking scene. You’ll feel right at home by sticking to the below commandments of backpacking:
One of the most iconic images of Southern Africa, the African Elephant is one of the major drawcards to the region. Nothing can quite prepare you for your first encounter as a herd meanders across your path. As you traverse the continent you’ll have no shortage of options ahead of you for spotting Elephants but the vast difference in size and behaviour will keep you encapsulated wherever your journey takes you.
Etosha National Park – Namibia
Etosha rates highly for all game viewing due to it’s dry desert like environment. With the highest congregation of Elephants in Namibia, the Elephants are known as the Great White Ghosts due to their pale appearance generated from the white clay.
Chobe National Park – Botswana
With one of the largest congregations of Elephants in Africa, Chobe is prime viewing. Herds migrate from the Okavango Delta to the Chobe River providing opportunities to witness herds make the river crossing. Chobe’s Elephants are also said to be the largest in body size.
Addo Elephant Park – South Africa
Crammed into a small park accessible from Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, Addo Elephant Park provides prime opportunity to view Elephants in a short trip. Partner this Park with the Garden Route.
South Luangwa National Park – Zambia
Zambia’s premier National Park is home to over 10,000 Elephants but the main point of difference is the size of it’s herds. With numbers up to 70 strolling through, walking safaris and treetop stays offer an up close and personal experience with the giants of Africa.
Kruger National Park – South Africa
The most visited of all the National Parks has no shortage of elephants with numbers over 15,000. Not promoting this as a positive, Elephants are quite accustomed to tourist interactions allowing for great photo opportunities and a closer approach.
Mozambique is a journey within itself. Beautiful beaches, colonial towns, wildlife, lakes, and a strong Portuguese heritage. Your biggest struggle will be trying to fit everything in. Our advice is to give Mozambique plenty of time, allow a slow journey, and don’t leave until you’ve at least visited the following 5 places!
Sometimes spelled Vilanculos, the seaside town is essential for all those who love diving. Pushing North of Maputo and Tofo, Vilankulos is nicely laid-back with bamboo huts and cruisey bars. The town is also the gateway to the Bazaruto Archipelago.
Once the epicenter of all Portuguese East African activity, this tiny island is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. With warm Indian Ocean waters providing the back drop to colonial churches, take the time to explore and dream of days gone by.
Ever popular with the Backpacker scene, Tofo is calm by day and lively by night. Catch waves and cool off in the waters while you inspect the fisherman’s catch of the day on the sandy beaches. A must-see for those looking for the party scene and to connect with travelers.
Quirimbas National Park
Dugongs one side and Leopards the other. Where else in the world but the Quirimbas National Park will you have the opportunity to mix tranquil waters with land safaris? Explore inland by day then cool off as the sun drops.
Narrow Islands dotted throughout the Indian Ocean providing the perfect destination to relax with a rum in hand after a long journey through Mozambique. Take your pick of secluded Islands and choose between luxury or budget relaxation.
As soon as you set foot on the continent, the drumbeats will fill the air, and an urgency to dance will come over you. To make sure you know exactly what to have in your playlist for the plane trip to Jo’burg or those long bus rides, here is a must-listen to artist in each country.
George Swabi (Botswana)
George Swabi is the artist behind the song Bagammangato which is appreciated by young and old country wide. Utilising traditional folk sounds, Swabi is yet to release an album but his sound is well known.
The Black Missionaries (Malawi)
Reggae is king in Malawi and the Black Missionaries are heroes throughout the lakeside country. In a country that sticks to its roots music, you’ll be sure to win plenty of fans talking about the much acclaimed band.
Fany Pfuno (Mozambique)
Marrabenta is the best known form of Mozambican music drawing influence from European sounds with a distinct dance beat. Fany Pfuno was the early influence behind this sound inspiring artists all over the country.
Jackson Kaujeua (Namibia)
Bringing traditional Namibian folk and blending it with reggae, soul, jazz, and many other genres, Jackson Kaujeua mixes a range of languages to bring out an unmistakable sound from the largely unknown Namibian music scene.
Miriam Makeba (South Africa)
Mama Africa, as she is affectionately known, is recognised beyond her homeland as a renowned and inspiring artist. Born in the times of Economic Depression, Makeba was the driving force behind African Jazz and was a strong opponent of Apartheid.
Macky 2 (Zambia)
Moving away from tradition, Zambia has a tendency for popular music including rap and hip hop. Macky 2 is one of the leading proponents of this even going on to appear in Big Brother Africa.
Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi (Zimbabwe)
Essential listening for any trip through Africa, Tuku is internationally renowned and has been providing the music of the people for decades. Neria is a hit while the lesser known Ghetto Boy will be stuck in your head for a lifetime.