If “life is a journey and not a destination”, as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously declared, then traveling is one of the very best examples of this maxim. You can also take Emerson’s words literally, and examine how your travel experiences are informed not just by the places you consciously visit, but the mode of transport you use to get to them. Two of my minibus trips in Zambia, accompanied by a Zambian friend, particularly stand out as perfect examples of memorable ‘journeys’…
The first journey I took was from Lusaka to Chirundu, to see its ‘fossil forest’, which turned out to be something of a let-down. But something remarkably unnerving happened when our jam-packed minibus stopped in a town called Kafue enroute.
Lusaka – Most Zambian roads look nothing like this!
Parked in the middle of a bustling high street, our bus was approached by a man begging for kwacha (the local currency). From out of nowhere, an angry woman stormed over, yelling at him, and started to slap him around the head. Soon, several more people joined in, and he was temporarily floored before the woman, still giving him an earful, forcefully and purposefully shoved him toward her house.
My friend translated that she was accusing him of stealing money from her bedroom. He and everyone else grinned and chuckled about it. Me? I was a minute away from brown trousers time. But my 6ft, 200lbs+ ex-Rugby player friend was a reassuring presence indeed. It’s what validated my decision to travel this way, and also to hitch a ride with a friendly Zimbabwean lorry driver on the way back (do NOT try that on your solo travels, kids).
Another thing we saw on the way back from Chirundu – apparently, there were no casualties!
The second trip from Lusaka to Victoria Falls was even more incident-packed. It was reasonably uneventful driving to a place called Mazabuka, although once there we were obliged to wait at least half an hour, mostly because the drivers kept changing their minds over where each of them were going. Eventually, at 5pm, we left the station. Within a few minutes we pulled in to a gas station to fill up on petrol. This is normal enough.
What isn’t normal is for your bus driver to try and squeeze through a teeny tiny gap between the pumps and another bus that is facing you. As we were moving so slowly no serious damage was done, but the collision did shatter the other vehicle’s headlight. The other driver was understandably pissed off, and refused to let us go, even going so far as to blocking us (and the row of vehicles behind waiting for the pumps) in so we couldn’t leave. Once again, my trousers were perhaps not the same colour they’d been beforehand.
After about 20 minutes of to and fro, common sense eventually prevailed and they swapped phone numbers, allowing our driver to take us to another bus owned by the same company to drive us onward. The driver of this next bus wasn’t about to drive us for free, yet we’d all already paid. So he negotiated his share of the pie with the previous driver, and this took about 20 shouty, argumentative minutes to sort out, which is a lot of hassle when you’re crammed, sardine-like, in to a tight space with about 20 other people. 20 is my lucky number, huh?
When we finally left Mazabuka, it was getting dark. And then, about, oooh, 20 minutes on the road south, our bus broke down.
My friend suggested we hitch (again) and, somehow, he succeeded in flagging a 4WD car down in a matter of minutes. We were driven with speed to Monze, arriving at about 7pm. We’d taken 6 hours to cover a third of the distance we needed to travel. But don’t worry: from Monze it was a simple case of waiting for, er, one and a half hours for the Victoria Falls coach to arrive. When it did, I wanted to kiss the ground, and it was straightforward enough from there. So what was supposed to be a 6 hour journey transformed in to a 13 hour odyssey that even my classically laconic Zambian pal finally admitted to being ‘a little bit stressed’ about.
What did I learn from these experiences? Well, that I had reserves of patience, resilience and humour-in-adversity I never knew I had, for starters. But it also helped me appreciate that Zambia’s landscapes, alternating between arid and fertile, are places of desolate beauty, and that its bustling towns are colourful marketplaces of its cultural soul. Journeys are not just about killing time on the way to your chosen destination. They’re also about immersing yourself in an on-the-road vibe. And you don’t have to get as close-to-the knuckle as I did here to do so either!