A Travellerspoint blog

A Slow Zambian Get-Away

View The African journey on Ofelia's travel map.

The day of leaving Lusaka for good finally came, and oddly enough, it didn't feel like much; it didn't feel real, leaving my lovely family, and especially the kids.
Rich and I took a bus to Kapiri Mposhi, a nowhere town on the copperbelt fringe, where we met Beata and Anya, and started our 50-hour train journey to Dar es Salaam.

After being picked up and fed by an overly-excited nun in a preschool (don't ask), we arrived to the sterile-looking, utterly un-African Tazara station, in the middle of a field and at the end of a bumpy dirt road (and this is the most important railway in Zambia). We wait. I hand over our tickets (I'm forever in charge of tickets, hostels, taxis and haggling, but I kind of like it); they are handed back, and taken again. We are at the platform ten minutes before departure time, expecting hours of delay- really, we are lucky if the train leaves within the first eight hours. Three minutes past four, the train nudges and we all nod cynically; yes, it's just pulling up to the top of the station.
We are all incredulous when it actually starts on full speed- it's unheard of- the Tazara has left on time.

Rich and I hadn't, oddly enough, found a single vendor by the station, and so we are a bit concerned starting a long journey with no water, until Beata pulls up two twelve-packs of water, donated by the happy nun. The conductor brings in more, and suddenly the compartment is half full of backpackers, half full bottled water; we have thirty bottles, and so we do the only thing possible, and head for the restaurant for beer to balance things out.

The Tanzanian side looks immediately more lush; the grass is taller, leaves on trees bigger, the bush more dense. I stare through the dirty window and watch villages, elephants, sunsets pass. I shower in the tiny cubicle out of a bucket while the train jumps, like a rollercoaster.

We sit in the cramped compartment, sheets wound around ankles, watching trees and foliage pass, playing inane games and eating scarps of leftover, tossing and turning.
We sit in the unflattering, artificial yellow light of the lounge cart, eating cold fish, cold chicken from plastic plates. The miles tick past in the slow clanking of the train, and the scene is like an American small town roadside diner. The mood is somber, and we stare out of the window into the darkness seeing nothing but our tired reflections.

Food stop. Everyone becomes more alive; the train is running late, and the restaurant is almost out of food. At the station, the frantic scramble for food begins even before the train has come to a full stop. The train screeches, and the vendors, mainly small boys and women clad in bright, happy chitenges of pink, green and turquoise crowd both sides of the train. Everyone carries a bucket of something on their head; fried chicken, frittas, coconuts, bananas. Furious exchanges take place. Anya is practically hanging off the train, shouting, waving, her whole upper body beckoning a man with chapattis wrapped in newspaper to come closer. How much, she shouts. Two hundred. Too much, she says, I want five for five hundred, she says, displays five fingers, and the man nods, wraps the chapatti, and takes the dirty note from Anya. I push away from our first-class carriage, quickly, there's no time, into the third class where the majority of the vendors prop their baskets up to the windows. A woman demands 1500 shillings for a chicken drumstick; the train nudges, starts heavily, and the price suddenly drops to one thousand. Last newspaper parcels are passed, and we return to our little cocoon compartment to examine all this strange, new food.

The train pulls to Dar only a few hours late. It's hot, sticky, dusk- Dar is full of people, bicycles, women in hijabs and mullahs calling their flock to the evening prayers. The hotel smells like spices, the breeze comes in from the sea, and I think I'm in love with Dar.

We spend the day wandering around the city, looking at the organised chaos of it all, the colourful colonial buildings with peeling orange paint and lime green shutters, all with lacy balconies; the fragrant Indian food, the colourful African fabrics, the cacophony of cultures.I eat ice-cream in a Disney wonderland, and spend an hour trying to finally send my parcel to Finland, wrapping and re-wrapping it till it meets the approval of the lady in the blue sari, manning the counter.

The next day we follow the girls to Zanzibar. I haggle with the gag of ticket sellers, sometimes shouting, sometimes laughing. I buy the cheapest ones, and we go on a slow, uncomfortable cargo boat. I watch the men load the ferry; maize, chicken feed, unidentified canisters. We get on. Rich and I are the only white people on board.

Zanzibar. My camera finger itches whenever I hear the word. I'm expecting a fairytale land, something out of my childhood leather-bound story books. I have no idea what it will be like, but as the ferry pulls up and the buildings come into focus, I'm pretty sure that's what it will be. I'll tell you all about it later.


Posted by Ofelia 02:19 Archived in Zambia Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

The Ku'omboka

View The African journey on Ofelia's travel map.

Kuomboka is one of the many traditional ceremonies of the 73 tribes of Zambia, and quite possibly the biggest- certainly the best-known. As the plains around Mongu flood, the Lozi king is moved in a large barge and in an elaborate ceremony from his palace in Lealui to Limulunga, together with the royal family, their staff and belongings. The ceremony is incredibly important to not only the tribe, but also to Zambian tourism. Almost half the people in Lealui were white tourists.

The fantastic thing is that in a true Zambian style, it was incredibly difficult to get any information of the event. No one know when it was; how close to Mongu it all took place; what was the best way of getting around. I'd stumbled upon the original date by accident, and once the ceremony was moved (but no one informed) it didn't surprise me in the slightest. Also, the king had actually already moved palaces the month before because of the extent of the floods- it's just that it was suitable to have the ceremony collide with the easter weekend. But of course.

We got to Mongu two days early- I'd recruited Rich early on in Namibia to attend with me, and neither of us had much of an idea where we'd be arriving to, going to, or doing, really. Mongu seemed dead at first glance, at the brink of its biggest annual event. We'd pre-booked a hotel, not realising we could've easily camped, and paid an extortionate amount for a room.

On Friday, we got picked up randomly by a hung-over policeman, who gave us a tour of the still-deserted Limulunga palace, and, oddly enough, the local abattoir. Hmm. Call me paranoid, but I always get a bit suspicious when a stranger takes me to a slaughterhouse. Later on, I strolled to the harbour, full of excited Zambians wearing all sorts of Kuomboka paraphernalia. The crowd was certainly getting into the whole thing, and even I gave in and bought a special chitenge.

On the main day, we got to the harbour early, with a bunch of American whipper-snappers, and hired a boat to the island of Lealui- the slowest thing ever. I was worried we'd miss the whole thing, but I don't think I've still quite grasped how late everything starts. We saw the massive barges, complete with the elephant on the top for the king's barge, and a bird for the queen's one. ( I was sadly disappointed that the catering barge did not have a massive knife and fork on top) The king arrived, and everyone went mad- people rushed to follow him through the island to his barge, and it was hilarious- the walkway is reserved for the king only, and as the island is flooded, people were stuck in mud, negotiating reeds and looking filthy. We saw the barge off, and went to find that our boat had gone- the guy probably got a better price from someone else. We stood there for a bit, feeling lost and sunburnt, until we eventually hitched a ride from another boat- we left some of the others behind, but on that island, it was every man for himself.

The barge arrived to Limulonga in an insane hassle- it felt more like a football match or a rock concert- although the atmosphere was jubilant, it all felt just a bit too commercial, with sponsorship flags flying around, radio stations having their own little platforms and shows going on.....and the entrance fee. Yes, an entrance fee to view a traditional ceremony. Bollocks.

Tens of thousands of people pushed to get as close to the water as possible, and as we were in Zambia, a lovely bunch of strangers pushed me in the front, as “this is the only Kuomboka you'll see, madam”, which I though was sweet. The barge went up and down, the dozens of leopard-clad paddlers showing their skills, and everyone cheered; I was going deaf from all the noise. The king disembarked in a cloud of dust, walked up to Limulonga palace, with the crowd pushing and cheering, and then it was all over. I bought a few baskets, again for the house I don't have, and tried to push in to see the palace. No such luck. Oh well.

A restless night later in a room with no running water, and after I refused to pay the full amount, we were in a coffee shop by the bus station waiting to go back to Lusaka once again, on another 8-hour journey (although no punctures this time). I flicked through my photos, and thought about all the things I will do differently in the next Kuomboka. It is, despite the heat, frustration and the cost, still something I'd do again- it is still an amazing experience, and if given the chance, go.


Posted by Ofelia 02:18 Archived in Zambia Tagged events Comments (0)

Welcome to the Next Tick-Box, Honey

View The African journey on Ofelia's travel map.

I left Namibia on a hot, packed bus, clutching a box of cheesecake and feeling slightly sunburnt, heading back to Livingstone, and my African motherland, Zambia.

Now, I wasn't hugely excited to come back to Zambia, but I did have a nice few weeks planned- it didn't include any working, eating nshima or fighting with men who wanted to pinch my bum. In fact, I was going to chill out in Livingstone a few days, see the falls again, and go to Mongu in the Western Province to see the famous Kuomboka ceremony. All planned, scheduled- well, scheduled a bit too much for my liking, but I am quickly running out of time-, and, hopefully, executed. Two weeks in Zambia, bye bye, off to Tanzania. Great, sorted. I think.

I keep going back to Vic Falls, because I'm a sucker for a bargain. Normally the falls cost 10 USD to view, but because I am a Zambian, I only pay about thirty cents, so really, there's no reason not to go. It was, however, Rich's and Fred's first time there. Unfortunately, we couldn't see anything. Nothing. We were faced with an impenetrable white wall of mist, through which you couldn't see anything. We crossed the rickety bridge linking the two sides of the falls, and, interestingly, I nearly drowned crossing the bridge, although it is about hundred metres above the actual river. Hmm.

Just as we were about to head for the Kuomboka ceremony, we met Liam and Gavin, few guys we'd run into in Tsumeb, who kindly informed us that the most important traditional ceremony had been moved because the original date did not suit the president's schedule.... Welcome to Zambia, I thought, and we quickly made plans to kill the week in between. We headed to Lusaka first, after I'd given Rich a long lecture about the reliability of Zambian buses, and how they never break down.
An hour after we left Livingstone, we had a puncture. Hmm. Seems Hanna's notoriously bad luck from Namibia was transferred to Rich.

Lusaka, Lusaka. The kids almost broke our backs when we got back to Chawama, jumping all over Rich and I, going through my bags looking for presents and generally screeching, dancing, and showing off all their new tricks; I loved it. It was at least good to be back in Chawama, seeing the family, and the new baby, Gracious, who was born while I was in Namibia.

To make matters more complicated (because, of course, travel in Africa can never be straightforward) it was my 30th birthday the following week, and I did not want to spend it in the dusty, hot Lusaka. So off to Siavonga we went, and two more punctured tyres later there we were, by the beautiful, lush Lake Kariba. I really just wanted a quiet room where I could spend a few days crying, feeling old, and feeling sorry for myself, mourning for my lost youth and lost opportunities. But it is hard to feel sorry for yourself in such a stunning setting, eating yourself silly and going on sunset boat rides. And in a way it doesn't change anything.
It will still get to you, even if you swear, kick and scream.
I am lying about my age from now on.
So I spent the 5th April making deals with the devil, cursing, crying and raging.
But the old age and the 6th came anyway.
Welcome to the next tick-box, honey.

And as far as 30th birthdays go, I had a great one. I sat by the pool by the palm trees, ate, swam and did nothing, and went on a sundowner boat ride with a bottle of sparkling wine.

And then it all ended, but surprisingly enough my life didn't, and in the hands of a mad minibus driver, we got back to Lusaka, and bought tickets to Mongu, killing a few days eating exotic food (read: no nshima) and spending time with my family. It's all coming to an end, but quite nicely so.


Posted by Ofelia 02:17 Archived in Zambia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

What Was Lost in the Desert

(and what was gained)

What happens when you combine three blond Finnish girls, a strange welsh man, a temperamental 4x4 called Imogen, and a gay Zambian alcoholic albino giraffe (inflatable)? A four-and -a-half week road trip across Namibia, of course. Duh.

I hitchhiked to Windhoek from Livingstone with a broken finger, Fred, and two apples for lunch. Nineteen hours,1500 kilometres and two drunk Zambian truck drivers later, I got to see the first city lights in over six months. It was worth it.

After celebrating Rich's 30th in a Cuban bar and generally being drunk for a few days, we walked across every suburb in Windhoek looking for the rental company where we would pick up our first car, little blue Edith, who would be our mobile home for the next two weeks. Oh the excitement- suddenly, I was not confined to the motorways and bus schedules, but we were free to go anywhere- anywhere!
We ended up driving back and forth to the airport nine times over the next few weeks. Oh, joy of freedom.

Hanna had sprained her ankle, and as she was arriving a few days late, Rich and I needed something to keep us busy for the initial days without taking us too far from the delights of Windhoek airport. So we drove to Usakos, where Nick lives, a Peace Corps guy we met in Windhoek, and who promised to lend us his tent, and he kindly let us camp on his backyard for our first and last night of the trip. Nick, in turn, set us up with his volunteer friend Eric in Marienthal, and Eric then set us up with Paddy and Jacob in Luderitz- so it went, and I slept on more Peace Corps sofas than I'd set out to. Fantastic.

Rich and I drove to Harnas animal sanctuary, east of Windhoek, truly off the backpacker track, and it is (seriously) one of my highlights ever. I got to cuddle one-month old baby lion cubs and play with their slightly older mates. I needed to be dragged out kicking and screaming. At each animal-related stop Rich checked to see how many baby animals I'd stowed in the boot. He still hasn't found the baby cheetah in my bag.

Hanna arrived, sans bags, so we drove back to the airport again to pick up her stuff the next day. By then, I was well and truly ready to leave Windhoek as far behind as possible, and so we headed south, with no particular plan, intending to stop before the South African border. Or maybe not.

Too many wonderful and fabulous things have happened to actually list them all, but the highlights (and lowlights) have been plenty. A lot of sitting in a hot car, listening to random German-sounding radio stations, writing journals with wobbly handwriting, resting our eyes and playing car-related games, staring blankly ahead, lost in thoughts, making mustard sandwiches on bumpy roads that are not even listed on maps, getting stuck in mud, getting lost, getting stuck in sand, getting stuck in small towns called Solitaire or Hardap (which, by the way, means nipple in Nama language) and meeting new friends, all of whom have been photographed with our inflatable giraffe, Fred.

Susanne arrived two weeks into the trip, and we returned Edith and picked up the four-wheel, Imogen, and headed west and then north. We camped at Sossusvlei, and I got to photograph my heart out in Dead Vlei, a strange pan in the middle of the desert with dead tree trunks and lots of orange sand and blue sky. We did extreme sports in Swakopmund, camped in the middle of nowhere in a place with no name (simply mapped out as “Mile 108”) on a windy beach, drove through the remote skeleton coast with nothing but shipwrecks and seals. We saw ancient cave paintings in Twyfelfontein, and crossed the border into Angola illegally (OK, only for a few minutes or so...) after watching the huge, impressive Ruacana falls right by the edge, with no one else around. We introduced the inflatable giraffe to live ones in Etosha National Park and watched a lion pass our car by, non-plussed and magnificent.

The moment I nearly ripped my lonely planet into tiny pieces- when we drove an entire day to the middle of nowhere to look at “famous hot springs”, the Ai-Ai's- It was the size of a child's paddling pool with a squirt of hot water. Letdown of the year.
The moment when I felt a bit breathless- when we drove from Aus to Luderitz, on an empty road through the desert, with purple mountains in the hazy horizon and wild horses grazing along the side of the road, in a fairytale setting.
The moment when I actually was breathless- when Susanne and I jumped out of an airplane in Swakopmund, into the vast desert, aiming for the circular rainbow below us.
The moment when I couldn't stop laughing- when we stayed at Quiver Tree forest in Keetmanshop, and I rode Fred on a trampoline, in a slightly timburton-ish strange spiky forest, watching a sunset so orange no photo-shopped picture could ever match it.
The oddest thing- watching sunset over the huge Fish River Canyon, drinking a glass of red wine with Hanna, and getting strangely tipsy so that we giggled the whole way to the campsite, and Rich threatened to leave us in the desert for the hyenas.
The scariest moment in Namibia- when we went to the bottle shop in Windhoek on Saturday afternoon and were told we couldn't buy beer until Monday- sales for alcohol closed at 1pm.

The last few nights have been spent in Tsumeb, eating pizza and not doing much else, and back in Usakos, where we returned the tent to Nick. Back here in Windhoek, it feels like the end of something, and a bit sad, although we are all needing our own space now, and heading to different directions- Susanne back home to Finland, Hanna to Mozambique, Rich and I to watch the Kuomboka ceremony in Zambia. But there's still time to get the inflatable giraffe drunk, one more time. There is always time to get an inflatable gay Zambian albino giraffe drunk.

Oh, and what was lost in the desert? Any desire, intention or need to go back to Europe for another 9-5 recruitment job, for over-priced flats, wineglass coasters, dinner parties, queuing, late-train announcements, high heels or office Christmas parties. And so I'm not really coming back, not really, not for longer than I have to- I want to be back in Africa by September/October, and then go somewhere else, anywhere else. It's amazing what a good sunset can do to you


Posted by Ofelia 02:15 Archived in Namibia Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Solace of the Familiar

The day of leaving Lusaka finally came; the last party at the school- I rode to work in a rickety minibus, wearing a brand new red chitenge dress my tailor had made specifically for the occasion, and holding a huge pot of cake dough- I'd been planning on making cup cakes for my students, but even on my last days, Zambia didn't let me down; the oven broke just as I finished mixing the ingredients the night before. The catering students fussed over me and made the cakes, whilst ushering me out of the kitchen. Christine, our star student, orchestrated everything, and came up to me, hugged me, and said, "Maaret, me, I like you." (this is how Zambians speak- "Me, I'm tired. Me, I'm hungry. I hate it, but have noticed that me, I do the same thing now).

I was presented with a present, a huge oil colour, and the students put on some music and danced. They shrieked when I pulled Dennis, our mechanics teacher to dance along- there's a strict hierarchy in Zambia and teachers are to be respected- they can't possibly have fun! They were delighted to see their computer and mechanics teachers dancing like paralysed frogs. I gave a small thank-you speech, and much to my surprise, felt my throat go a bit tight; I think I've focused so hard on making travel plans that I never thought it might be hard to leave. Some of the students came over to be photographed with me, and as they thanked me for all their teaching, I thought, yeah, maybe they have learnt something. I always thought I was a crap teacher, impatient and demanding, but I do have a large set of students who five months ago hadn't ever seen a computer, and were now doing Absolute Cell References on Excel. So maybe it wasn't all wasted time after all.


Sunday my Zambian family and I organised a small goodbye dinner. It's not final goodbyes yet, as I will be going back briefly in April, but all the same, it felt sad to pack up my little concrete room and donate my gumboots to Purity. The kids, Prince, Maleleko, Claire and Thabo put on a dance performance for me, and we took a great video of everyone dancing. They all want to come to England with me, and I have to fight the urge to take them, which is odd, as I've never been particularly fond of children. I'm so excited about travelling, but having had a home of some sort in Lusaka, it is strange and sad to leave it all, again. Routines are scary- you hate them, but miss them when they're gone. They have a certain comfort in them.


But Monday I felt different. It was a bright, sunny day, and I nearly cried with happiness when the bus started to head out of Lusaka. Sari, Kirsi and Esther came along to Livingstone, and we spent a few happy days lounging by the pool (a holiday! I'd forgotten how great it is!) and doing various activities- I went on a microlight flight over the Victoria Falls, which was indescribable- one of the most amazing natural sights in the world, and I'm flying over them close enough to feel the spray from the falls, watching hippos and elephants grazing along the banks. We all went bungy jumping, as we are all turning thirty in the next few months, and really, what to do if you're 30, single and unemployed? Throw yourself off a bridge, of course. I added a gorge swing to it, and after checking my bank balance, decided against the abseiling. (but if anyone out there wants to give me a 30th birthday present, I'll email you my account number).

Livingstone was pure escapism. I had to do no actual travelling apart from taking a bus from Lusaka, and I ate nothing that was prepared from maize- I talked to other backpackers, and no one asked me how many children I have. Life was good, easy and fun for three days.
Then the girls left for Lusaka, I nearly broke another finger, and Namibia happened. But that's a story that needs a whole another day to be written.


Gorge swing and the microlight flight in vic falls. Unfortunately, I have no idea where the bungy photos are...

Posted by Ofelia 02:14 Archived in Zambia Tagged volunteer Comments (0)

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