Travel Tales: No Trains Today, the Driver is on Holiday

martin train

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.

martin train2

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.

martin train 3

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.

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