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Zanzibar and Zany Train Travel

The island of Zanzibar has a rich history spanning centuries and a mishmash of cultures from the days when it was a major trading power in wood, ivory, spices and slaves — but most of it was lost on us. Tired after our safari, we flew there and decamped to a pretty hotel on the eastern shore with few ambitions other than to catch up on sleep and school work, and maybe bank a little extra rest for the crazy travel leg ahead. Sure, we rambled up and down the beach a few times (where middens of plastic trash reminded me that my unbelievably dazzling palm fringed white sand paradise was the nearby fishing village’s dump.) We spent one morning very happily traveling by traditional dhow out to a good snorkeling spot and had lunch at the iconic Rock restaurant.  Otherwise we were fairly useless, splashing in the pool and lounging in our shady sitting area so it’s kind of pathetic to report our plan for resting up backfired a bit.

It wasn’t our pretty hotel’s fault. Usually I sleep like a champ everywhere, but since we arrived in Africa I’ve been struggling with waking up multiple times every night and I am not a person who functions well on little sleep. At first I thought it was unusually bad jet lag, but eventually switched to blaming the cheap anti-malaria pills we’re on. One week into our safari when I was having to give myself a pep talk to get out of bed (“All you have to do is sit in the jeep and look at the animals, Jen, you can do that”) I decided to skip the pills and take my chances with malaria. On Zanzibar, however, the swarms of vicious mosquitos that descended every evening forced me to reconsider the wisdom of going without. Between the sleep disturbance from the meds and swatting at the occasional mosquito that made it through our netting, I lost more ground every night. By the time I left all I wanted to do was crawl into a cool, dark, mosquito free room and sleep for a week.

We took the ferry back to Dar, which felt all familiar after our few days there three weeks ago, had one night (cool, dark room, awake from 1:30-4:00) before embarking on our craziest travel leg yet.

It goes without saying if you’re going to travel for ten months you have to budget wisely and make some choices, right? That’s why we did so much of our own cooking in Europe, camped in New Zealand and are taking the cheap Ford Escort of malaria pills (not the kids, they’re on the Cadillac version and sleep just fine.) As we were in planning mode months ago I realized that the flight from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania to Victoria Falls was terribly expensive- $600 apiece! Ten percent of our entire flight budget for that one segment! Somehow that bugged me. Couldn’t there be another way?

I found it thanks to The Man in Seat 61, a web site built by a guy who has taken his passion for train travel and turned it into a resource for anyone planning a journey by rail anywhere on the planet. Not just time tables and fares but less obvious information about where to buy tickets in crazy stations, photos and trip reports. As it turns out there is a train that travels between Dar and Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia twice a week traveling through the Selous Reserve and other pretty scenery. From Kapiri Mposhi to Lusaka it’s 2 1/2 hours by bus, from Lusaka to Livingstone it’s 7 hours, and then it’s just a hop to Victoria Falls. I love a train and Vance didn’t need any convincing. The price for four first class bunks? $170. And we wouldn’t have to pay for a hotel for two nights! The catch? The trip is supposed to take just under 48 hours, but with mechanical issues and other vague delays, it can take longer. Much longer. The kids were dubious about this plan, but resigned.

Wanting to be prepared for anything, we arrived at the train station weighed down with tp, snacks, water and fully charged electronics. We settled into our compartment, a bit grungy but all ours, and were encouraged when the train left on time to the minute. We watched the scenery change as we left Dar behind- hills, maize fields- and change again. We had one hour of magic afternoon light while we were going through Selous Reserve and had a mini-safari, seeing giraffes running in their funny slow motion way, baboons, wildebeest, and hippo. Dinner was delivered right to us, hot and tasty, and the kids allowed the train wasn’t so bad after all. It took a long time to fall asleep- thanks to the peculiar resonance of our carriage it got very bouncy at certain speeds- but eventually we all slept. The next morning dawned clear and I was more than content to drink my coffee and watch the sere landscape studded with leafless baobabs, each one fatter and gnarlier than than the last, go by. It wasn’t until we were visited by the nice Zambian lady two compartments down that we got a whiff of trouble.

“The track is blocked in Zambia due to a derailment,” she said. “I hear we’re stopping in Mbeya and taking the bus to the border and then to Lusaka. Didn’t they tell you?” Nope. We inquired of the nice steward who brought us our lunch and he said he heard a train might be coming from Zambia to meet us. He wasn’t sure but all would become clear in Mbeya. What became clear in Mbeya was that everyone piled off the train and joined a line for mini buses for the two hour trip to the border, followed by the 15 hour ride to Lusaka. We were befuddled. Laden with all the snacks and liters of water we hadn’t had time to consume, we made a hasty plan to spend the night in Mbeya and start fresh in the morning, then scrambled for a room and bus tickets amid a sense of frustration and disappointment. If I could have gone back and bought plane tickets at that moment, I would have considered them a bargain at double the price. Now that we were in Mbeya there was nothing to do but go forward.

The next morning we caught a minibus for two uncomfortable hours to the border, walked across to Zambia, then spent three hours waiting for our big bus to leave, since in this part of the world buses don’t just leave because the time table says so if seats are empty. Once we got underway we bemoaned the lost comfort of the train- even if our compartment was grimy we were comfortable lounging on our bunks, reading, playing games, watching the scenery unspool, discussing the kids’ reading assignment on Jane Goodall. On the rocketing, swaying bus there wasn’t much to do except try to get comfortable in our seats that permanently reclined at an odd angle and pop motion sickness pills.* Della and I had a window that was partially painted over with the bus company’s emblem so we couldn’t even look out the window to see what Zambia was all about. Sometimes, when travel is uncomfortable or difficult I find myself buoyed and carried along by the elation of being in a new and exotic place, but that did not apply here. It just stunk.

I was happy to see the Lusaka bus station at 3:30 am, not an ideal time to arrive in a bus station in a town with a reputation for dubiousness. We had the number of a driver, though, so sidestepped the touts, and soon enough were eating the sandwiches the kind guesthouse owner had left out for us and tucking ourselves into beds, exhaustion curing my sleep issues. Today we rest, tomorrow we continue onto Livingstone and Victoria Falls, where we’ll start another and LAST phase of this crazy journey.

*a note on motion sickness pills- We love Gravol, which is sold in Canada in both kid and adult formulations, but not the US. I don’t know or care why it isn’t approved in the US, the stuff is downright magic. Luckily, when we ran out of our enormous stash, we were able to find the active ingredient, Dimenhydrinate, in generic form in pharmacies in Laos and Vietnam. Vance paid $3 for 30 doses, but they are worth their weight in gold.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Big Della #

    Just read your latest report . It sounds like how to have fun without laughing. Please tell Miles that grandma would get a very low grade in I padding. Today ,apparently, I am tweeting .This has given me a raging headache . So I am sending now

    June 8, 2015

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