This weekend I’d arranged to go and stay with a friend who’s based in Chongwe, a village on the outskirts of Lusaka, as it’s pretty quiet there and I think she was getting a bit bored. However, as she pointed out, it’s pretty quiet there and …anyway we decided to get away completely. As we have no transport of our own, I found a lodge that would pick us up from their nearest bus station. So, off to Chirundu, on the border with Zimbabwe. The first decision is ‘big bus’ or ‘little bus’. The latter are blue and white mini buses that most Zambians use to travel anywhere and everywhere. They’re usually in pretty ropey condition, they’re driven according to completely different road rules, and you often see them broken down at the side of the road. They’re always full, as they won’t go anywhere unless they’re packed to capacity. You just get on one that’s going roughly in your direction and wait until it’s full up. So the pro was that they’re cheap, and the con was, well, everything you’ve just read. A ‘big bus’ is anything that’s not a ‘little bus’. The main pro as far as I was concerned was that they’d most likely have air con and therefore I wouldn’t be found dead in a pool of my own sweat in Zimbabwe or Cape Town, the con was that they go less often and cost more. We decided to try for a big one, so the first leg of the journey was a taxi to the Inter City bus depot. We travelled there together as it’s no place to be a lone white woman, and asked Stanley our taxi driver to help us get on the right bus. As soon as we arrived – and I mean with the taxi still moving – there were faces at every window calling ‘Harare?’, ‘South Africa?’, ‘Zimbabwe?’. Chirundu is actually on the way to all those places, but we had no idea which would be the best bus to catch. Stanley parked up and as soon as we were out of the vehicle we had a self-appointed travel advisor. He tried to take my luggage from me, ignoring my protestations that I could manage fine thank you, until in the end Stanley took it instead. The depot also contains a covered market, which is surrounded by buses and coaches of all shapes and sizes, with no indication whatsoever of their destination. There’s no ticket office, and no timetables, and in the meantime we’re still being approached by dozens of young men trying to steer us towards their own bus. It’s bedlam. I noticed that we’d walked full circle around the depot and realised our ‘guide’ had no more idea than we did. He’d also tried to charge us a ridiculous price for our tickets, so we decided to head back to the taxi and ditch him, at which point he climbed in the back next to me, which involved another tussle with my luggage. Having physically ejected him we escaped the depot to look at the slightly calmer area outside, where there were also numerous coaches, although with just as little information. We finally picked a coach with a handwritten piece of paper in the window listing Chirundu as a stop, and asked the ticket price. We were told 40 pin (40,000 kwacha) which sounded fine but having queued on the bus were told it was 50 pin. I tried to say no, that guy over there… but he was long gone. We were allocated seats and then waited while other passengers passed several tons of luggage over our heads, and hawkers got on selling everything from frozen water to baseball caps. Then, the driver stood up and told everyone to get off. Apparently he had to take the bus into the depot but wouldn’t be allowed to if it was full. We told him that we felt that if we got off now we’d never find him again, at which point he seemed to sympathise, and said we could stay on the us but had to ‘go to bed’ – he needed us to lie down so that the bus looked empty! Lying on my side, I felt I was either having a surreal dream or was part of an elaborate abduction scam. However, a few minutes later we were back inside bedlam, and all the passengers climbed back on board. They were almost all Zimbabweans who’d come to Lusaka to buy goods as the shops in Zimbabwe are empty. I saw shopping lists for 12 pairs of shoes, 20 pairs of trousers (mens), 12 shirts… The goods were then evenly distributed amongst the passengers, so that nobody had to declare anything at the border. One man looked particularly crestfallen when we explained that we couldn’t help, sorry, as we weren’t even going to Zimbabwe (if we could help it).
Anyway, the bus journey was hot (no air con after all, just an open window) but scenery along the way stunning; heading south we slowly climbed the Zambezi Escarpment and then dropped away from the hills towards the border, which is formed by the Zambezi river itself. The very last leg of the journey made up for everything twice over: standing outside a run-down petrol station in indescribable heat, clutching our luggage, we were greeted by a friendly guide from the lodge with the words ‘hello ladies, the boat is down here…’. To our delight – especially my friend’s as she’s a sailor – we made the final few kms by boat, sailing east, downstream, with the sun behind us and a very welcome stiff river breeze in our faces.