A Travellerspoint blog

April 2009

The wonders of Zambian transport


View Tazara on Gelli's travel map.

When I look back at Zambia in weeks or years time and i'm asked (or, more likely, i get very drunk and decide to share my “wisdom” with the world) what i remember most about Zambian public transport, I'm not sure what my response will be. Perhaps the glorious redemption of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, being imparted to you at great volume and with great passion by well-wishers who get on buses to preach before the start of virtually every journey, and by people who if only they would finish quickly and get off the s0dding bus would possibly enable it to leave only 30minutes late. It might be the wonderfully rickety railway service which sometimes works on a couple of routes, but can take you a week to travel 50km, more or which follows in a few episodes time.

Perhaps it will be the Zambian populations general time-keeping principles which means that an 8am bus might leave at 8.45am (unlikely), 10.20am, 11.57am, Thursday or not at all, depending on vague circumstances which will never be mentioned let alone understood. “Now” means at some point today. “Now Now” means maybe in the next hour if you are lucky. “Now, Now, Now”, shouted to a driver and with a knife to the guys throat whilst waving a 100usd bill, might mean you will leave in the next 20minutes but I wouldn't bet on it. For somebody like me who is used to delays of days and weeks (heck, i grew up on used to BRST – British Rail Sub-Standard Time) and is also not on any kind of schedule, it can be mildly frustrating and very hot, but no big deal. To Zambia's foreign residents and many other visitors it is an invitation to commit mass murder, or at least sob quietly or seethe publicly.

Potentially, it is the customer service. Asking the time of departure generally gives you the time they think you want to hear, and changes repeatedly depending on who you ask and why: The sheer uselessness, unhelpfulness (Which I doubt is a real word) and brilliant ineptitude of the average Zambian bus company employee is almost awe inspiring. All fares are negotiable, even those which really, really aren't. And for those uninitiated in similar places, arriving on foot (in particular) or by bus to somewhere like Lusaka's central bus station for the first time there is potential to have a coronary on the spot. By the time you have to walk there for the 3rd or 4th time, you almost seriously start considering whether to hire a private helicopter instead of using a humble coach.

Maybe I will remember fondly that minibuses are pleasantly full, but not stupidly so (A Toyota Hiace, the standard minibus of Zambia, would seat 10passengers in Europe and 15 - plus kids who don't count – in Zambia, but at least 20 in many other African and Asian countries and probably 35 in Cambodia excluding the dozen on the roof....) and leave when full. Which is no great problem on short and popular/city routes, but can easily be 3 or 4 hours+ to smaller outlying towns and areas.

Having said all that, I have a feeling that what I will remember most is the scenery, which is almost uniformly pleasant, with a few dodgy spots and highlights thrown in along the way. Zambia, at least at this time of the year is a lovely green country and at least on many routes, the roads are good enough that you can actually enjoy it. The only problem is that you routinely end up sometimes seeing too much of the more boring bits of th countryside up close and for longer periods than expected...

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3 punctures – plus a punctured spare, and passing at least a half dozen puncture, crashed or overturned buses and trucks - on our first 2 bus journeys is all part of the experience. And after somehow surviving Namibia without a single puncture (which I am still stunned by), we were long overdue

Posted by Gelli 09:28 Archived in Zambia Tagged bus Comments (0)

I've always wanted a power shower but...

And then there was 3, and I was down to but a single Finnish girl. A very cute Finnish girl, granted, but still just a single Finnish girl. Which after having 3 for so long, comes both a a relief and a sad disappointment. At least I don't have to listen to all that strange foreign warbling anymore.

Just different foreign warbling.

Dr. Livingstone famously noted* on discovering Victoria Falls that it was the grandest and most glorious sight that he had seen, far surpassing any sight that any European had ever set eyes on. I think I can safely say that Dr. Livingstone did not reach Victoria Falls just after a bad rainy season. I saw virtually nothing. But it was still great.

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A doubtless very cheesy (and very wet) family picture

On the Zambian side of the falls (where we were), you are so close to the falls that during and after bad rainy seasons, the Zambezi is so over-laden and has so much water, that you can't actually see the falls. All you see are occasional glimpses of the falls amongst the vast torrents of water that gush over them barely 50m away, and perhaps more relevantly from a personal point of view, you.

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After Angola, Zimbabwe became the second country this month that i've seen but not been able to visit. This is the bridge across the Zambezi linking Zambia (left) and Zimbabwe (right) with idiots (centre) constantly bungeeing off it as well.

No guidebook or information in Livingstone really prepares you for just how wet you are going to get. Even in the park itself, there is a solitary man renting waterproofs and umbrellas (! - what use is an umbrella when water comes at you from every conceivable angle, and several unconceivable ones), but still no warning. Maaret had been here on her way to Namibia (and look how well that had turned out) and so had warned me. Nothing was taken that was not waterproof, or well wrapped in several plastic bags, or called Fred.

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Top, this is pretty much the best view of the falls i got due to the spray, whilst (centre) the photo is not corrupted just spray covered and (bottom) Fred and I crossing the small bridge over the falls, which is an exercise in attempting not to drown from the mass of spray

Despite the perhaps slight disappointment at not seeing the full glorious vista (no, no XP jokes here), it was great, for it is probably only at this time of year that you really get it appreciate the sheer volume of water and awesome power it contains. And besides, it just gives me an excuse to return in dry season to see it properly...

And what, i don't hear you ask, of Fred? He kept making friends, of course:

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  • He didn't, really. But he did allegedly say something almost along the same lines, and as i'm too lazy to find a real quote that's good enough for me.

Posted by Gelli 09:24 Archived in Zambia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Not the ideal ending

You always look back and think “what if”. You replay incidents over and over in your head. It is a natural human reaction, and I am especially prone to it. What if... If only... Why didn't I... But for me, the worst part is always that momentary instant (are all instants momentary? answers on a postcard, please) where you realise that there is nothing more you can do. That moment of resignation, failure and utter helplessness is always, for me, worse than the anger.

Most cities have their good and bad parts. Most places have their more dangerous spots. Many places all over the world should be avoided or at least taken in great care after dark. However for a group of 4 to be robbed at knife, and then gun-point (its amazing how a small gun suddenly raised and pointing at your chest pretty much ends your resistance), 400m from the hostel at 5.45pm in broad daylight on a busy city road in the middle of rush-hour Windhoek and with literally hundreds of witnesses not one of whom stopped to help, just isn't good. If it had been Detroit or Nairobi or Johannesburg, or in a dodgy part of town it might be a bit different, but a major thoroughfare in one of Africa's safest countries and cities? It really sours the whole experience.

Happily and luckily, all 4 of us are and were physically fine. The thieves 'booty' of one bag, one wallet, one passport, 2 cameras and 3mobile phones could also easily have been much worse as well. The passport was replaced at great expense but relative easy and Susse could fly home as scheduled. Credit cards and mobile phones were canceled without huge problem either. The police were also surprisingly efficient at taking the statements, and peoples insurance are now dealing with the rest of the problems. But the most annoying thing is the photos. It always is. Sh1t happens. I know that. The girls know (or, at least, have suddenly now realised) that. But just because you know it happens and the law of averages says that it will eventually happen to you as well really isn't of much comfort. Although I personally lost nothing it is of no real consolation. It was just a very sad way to end what had been a great time in Namibia.

Goodbye Namibia

Posted by Gelli 05:40 Archived in Namibia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The Strange beauty of Imogen

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The strange beauty of Imogen.

Imogen, named as by now you will have realised for reasons which have been long since forgotten by everybody, was pretty much a tank. But for a confused Welshman and 3 Finnish women who were excited and constantly yabbering*, a tank was probably required.

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L-R, myself, Susse, Hanna and Maaret, the motley group that Imogen and Fred had to put up with. Fred is missing as he was a dirty stop-out giraffe and was passed out unconscious in the back, having found – and emptied – a full box of wine

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It didn't stop him continuing that evening though

Imogen was our car, our trusty companion our vehicle, our hero, our friend, our carrier and our saviour. Or something like that. Together, the 6 of us (a Nissan tank, an inflatable giraffe, 3 Finnish girls and a Welsh chauffeur) roamed Namibia like no one has ever roamed Namibia before. Or some such. I would love to regale you with long tales of our glorious exploits, the tragedies and the horrors, the glories and the triumphs, but to be honest it all happened a month ago and i've pretty much forgotten the exact details. So short notes it is.

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When the going gets wet (and after you have just sat for 30ins waiting for the engine to dry out after a previous deeper section), it helps to have willing passengers go and check out the lie of the land...

Yes, I know they won't be so short. And yes, I know that it will be boring, and in no way amusing. And i might be padding the lack of anything of even vague information with lots of pictures. But so what? Live with it, ok?!

Imogen was out trusty friend, but one who was slightly temperamental. She broke down twice in the middle of nowhere (once requiring a little towed help) and had a couple of other fairly unhappy spells. The windscreen washers were at best intermittent, which led to several fun incidents of semi-blind driving due to smeared mud and setting sun. And she didn't always like turning right, which for a car is not always ideal. But we bonded and managed and all became stronger-ish for the shared experiences.

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Not my fault. It really wasn't my fault. And the strange angle was a result of the slide into the mud after the engine had died in mid passing

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Assorted pics from Dune 45 (above) and Deadvlei

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Sossusvlei

We took in the majority of Namibia's highlights: Sun rise over Dune 45, Sossusvlei (the journey was great, but i actually found Sossusvlei itself slightly underwhelming) and the wonderful Deadvlei. We stopped in Namibia's smallest town, the excellently named Solitaire, and spent a few days relaxing and doing activities in Swakopmund (there was jumping out of airplanes for some of the richer, more enthusiastic and those that actually bother to get on airplanes in the first place) which included the brilliance of sand-boarding. Now I can only speak for myself, but if you ever go to Swakopmund, you have to try sandboarding, and I would personally advise you go for the lying down version and not the stand up one: hi tech it's not, even by luge standards (basically, you wax the smooth side of a thin piece of plywood) but finding a stupidly steep sand dune – or a double or triple dropper - and sliding down nose first at 80km/h+ is fantastic fun**.

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One of our guides demonstrating how not to jump on a sandboard...

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Man and giraffe on a biiiiig slope and with a flimsy piece of wood. What could be better?

We headed slowly North along the wonderfully bleak, foggy and windswept roads of the Skeleton Coast, including a fantastic night at the eerie and tersely named (and located) Mile 108 where we huddled 4 to a tent behind the toilet block and wearing as many woolly hats as we could muster from the back of a 4x4 in the desert - and where I screwed my back again – the huge Cape Cross seal colony, and the remains of several ships and an oil rig. Terrance Bay, the only 'town' marked on the map was inhabited by some dead seals, large seagull type birds and 2guys in a caravan doing road repairs to a road than might get 3vehicles a day on a busy day.

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Altogether now, Awww....

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You let one of the girls drive for 5minutes, and.... There are always tourists*** who disregard the local advice and think they know better. This had occurred the day before i collected Imogen (from the same company) and had made the front page of the newspaper, and caused much hilarity to the rental company as well a doubtless a little bit of hassle!

There were wall paintings at Twylfontein, some very scared trees at the Petrified Forest and I almost got lucky and managed to sell two of the girls to attendants at a petrol stop, though failed over a disagreement as to how many cows they were worth. At the Angolan border we found a hole in the fence and snuck through for a few minutes, but more relevantly camped at Hippo Pools and gazed at the wonderful Ruacana waterfall, greatly enhanced by the bad rains of the wettest wet season in many years, and being the only tourists or people around. It was great.

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Top, Twylfontein rock-carvings, and (below) Ruacana falls which I loved

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The sort of border post I like – open gate, nobody caring and freedom of movement! Sadly though, freedom of movement doesn't apply to me: In a private, holidaying capacity the Angolans don't want to let me in easily :(

From there it was Etosha, and my first experience of an African game park. We saw lots and lots of game. Big game, medium sized game and small game. Even baby game. Mmmmmm. Game. And lots of giraffes (now known a gee-raff-eee's for obscure and long since forgotten reasons). It's possible that giraffe's can count as game as well, but to be honest I haven't the foggiest. Slightly sadly, due to it being the height of the end of the wet season (i know that makes no sense) there was so much water on the Etosha pan – large enough to be visible from space – that there wasn't much activity at the waterholes and despite rumours, later confirmed by people of infinitely more luck than ourselves, our luck didn't hold enough to see elephants or rhino's. But as well as the game and giraffe's, herds of wildebeest around Torbay, birds of great colour, a strange and pesky but fantastic looking thing called a honey-badger, and assorted smaller animals, we did get lucky on one occasion: Driving randomly down a road one morning not long after the gates open, we came across two large male lions, just wandering – if it hadn't been for the blood over one eye of the lead lion, you might even say sauntering – down the road which was pretty cool.

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Quick. Pretend to be a tree. they might not see us!

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i'm not sure if Fred or the other giraffe was more confused by the meeting

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A random selection of animals from Etosha. yes i know there are lots of Giraffe pics, but danged it, i like Giraffe's!

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Not a view i tend to get in my wing mirror on an average trip to Hässleholm

And after Etosha, there was just time for a quick stop off in Tsumeb, a pretty former colonial and mining stronghold and home to several extremely rare metals, a visit to the worlds largest meteorite (yes, it's a large rock in the ground) which are guarded by evil killer ants, the CCF – Cheetah Conservation Fund – home to 50 cheetahs, the Okahandja craft markets and to return the stolen and now mostly broken tent to the first of many Peace-Corp guys.

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Harry (as in Potter) awaiting feeding at CCF, and below, the worlds largest meteorite

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But perhaps most memorably (and, of course, importantly), I had the company of 3 beautiful young Finnish girls and an inflatable giraffe, and saw/passed through lots and lots of wonderful and surprisingly varied scenery along the way. To be honest, even if I hadn't seen any of the 'attractions' or tourist sights of Namibia, It would have been worth the time and effort for the scenery alone.

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No, i don't now why I am kung-fu fighting a squirrel either

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And no, it wasn't this squirrel

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And as for this dog...

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We seemed to like profile pictures

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Fred continued to make friends

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Sadly, we never tried it, due to the 24hour brewing time required and our lack of suitable facilities to brew. But i will be returning to Namibia solely to attempt it

Apart from the sad parting of the group, there should be little more to tell. Sadly there is. But that's for the next exciting**** installment***** of Gelli goes south-ish. And yes, I know i'm now going North-ish

  • Yabbering may be not be the best word for it, and i'm sure it will get me into even more trouble (I might even be yabbered at) but to somebody who speaks roughly 3 words of Finnish (though it is definitely a very pretty language), it sounds like yabbering!

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Want to know how 2weeks with 3 Finnish girls and Fred went? This pretty much sums it up

  • * It really is fantastic fun, but it is worth noting that you need to be fit: 10seconds of sliding fun equates to many minutes of hard slog to walk back up the sand dune afterward...
  • ** The technical term is idiots
  • *** Note: May not exciting
  • **** Note: May not even be an installment

Photos: many of the photos used here have been shamelessly stolen/borrowed/shared from the lovely Maaret (below) to whom due credit is given. Some of the pics are actually mine, but I really couldn't tell you which ones. Probably only the very bad ones

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Posted by Gelli 05:25 Archived in Namibia Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

The trials and tribulations of Håkan-Sven

This is Håkan-Sven. Why he was named Håkan-Sven is now lost in the midst of time and was never very interesting anyway. Actually, there is no picture of Håkan-Sven here as we do not deem him worthy enough of a photograph on such an esteemed website. Basically he is evil. Pure evil. So really there is no point in mentioning him in the slightest. Which makes me wonder why i'm bothering at all. Really, I mean really, why? By now, I'm sure you are all about as lost as we were, and so i will pause reflectively, and erm, reflect on the rubbish I have just written in the first paragraph and then start again.

For reasons unknown, Håkan-Sven was so christened. He was picked up at short notice for slightly complicated logistical reasons that made perfect sense at the time, but... Håkan-Sven had the dubious distinction of being the roomiest and most comfortable of all our trusty steed and steed-esses for all passengers, yet by far the least comfortable for the idiot chauffeur, also known as me.

We had him for less than 24hours and I honestly have no reason to write any kind of entry or note about him, except for the fact that Hanna, weeks later (which tells you how up to date and cutting edge these warblings really are) happened to mention “but nobody remembers poor Håkan-Sven”.

Hanna, I hope you find this is a suitable tribute to the most uncomfortable vehicle I have ever driven. Good riddance, I say.

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Pretty much all we did of any note was to drive at random around Katatura, Windhoek and Namibia's worst and most notorious slum (Welcome to Namibia, Africa and your holiday, Susse), though by standards of many African, Asian and Latin American cities it is calm, orderly and rich. This sign, however, did tickle me a little

Oh, yes, and we used Håkan-Sven to pick up Susse. I am now at my full quotent of Finnish women for the week.

((((with apologies yet again for the lack of updates and now, photos. The next 3 entire are ready, but the photos have all got lost. Not permanently, but for today. i'll try and get them up in a week)))

Posted by Gelli 05:23 Archived in Namibia Tagged automotive Comments (0)

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