For the last several months, I have been planning a trip to Victoria Falls for the first week of Christmas break. Friday, that adventure began. It didn’t happen quite like I had planned.
The plan was for myself and a friend to take the train from Dar es Salaam to the Zambia border, then to switch trains and continue to Livingstone. The train was scheduled to leave at 9 a.m. on Friday, December 12. We booked flights back to Dar es Salaam from Lusaka for Sunday, December 21. Last week, I got a phone call from FastJet explaining that my flight had been canceled and moved to the 19th, two days earlier. That cut the time we would be able to spend at the Falls, but was still manageable. Or so I thought. Then, just a few days before our scheduled departure, my friend had an emergency at work and they rescinded his leave request. Now I was traveling alone. I gathered the train ticket from him and managed to get a refund for his flight.
On Friday morning, my bajaji driver dropped me off at the train station at 7:30 a.m. Eventually, I found a few other English-speaking passengers, and when the time for our departure came and went with no sign of a train, wasn’t too worried. This is Africa. A slight delay was to be expected. Around 11:30, they announced that the train to Zambia was 22 hours behind schedule and that there would be no first class sleeper cars due to a technical problem. A quick calculation told me that a 22 hour delay would mean that, if all went as planned (which it clearly was not), I would arrive in Livingstone with less than a day and a half before needing to return to Lusaka for my flights back to Dar.
Hurriedly, I did a search for flights, got a refund on my train ticket, and took a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) to the airport. For 160,000 Tsh ($100), almost exactly double the price of my train ticket, I boarded a flight to Mbeya at 3:15 p.m.
After arriving in Mbeya, I found that I was just a few minutes too late to catch the last bus to the Zambian border so a taxi offered to take me for 140,000 Tsh. Being that it is over an hour drive, this seemed reasonable (plus, I didn’t have any other good options). He dropped me at the border, I got my Zambian visa, and began looking for the bus to Lusaka.
I discovered that I was a half hour late for the last bus to Lusaka, but several over-eager young men enthusiastically assured me that “IT” was cheaper and better anyway. Having never heard of “IT,” I was skeptical, but, again, didn’t really have any better options as the hotels on the border appeared shady at best. I exchanged some Tanzanian Shillings into Zambian Kwacha at what I’m sure was a ripped-off rate, and paid 50 Kwacha less than the bus rate to be an “IT” passenger. “IT,” I learned, are vehicles being transferred from the port in Dar es Salaam to Zimbabwe. Insurance allows one passenger in addition to the driver, so many “IT” drivers hire out their passenger seat to willing travelers such as myself. It’s not a bad deal, as the passenger seat of a private car is far more comfortable than any bus I’ve ever been in.
We drove all night, at one point passing the bus to Lusaka that I had missed. It was stopped on the side of the road and smoking, supposedly from the brake pads going out. Regardless, I was glad to be an “IT” passenger. Three stranded passengers loaded into the backseat of our car at the mercy of my driver. This meant, however, that at every police checkpoint that followed, we were stopped and required to explain why there were extra passengers in an “IT” vehicle, as that was quite illegal. Each time, the police eventually let us pass without a fine (or a bribe) and we arrived in Lusaka around 12 p.m.
I took a taxi to the bus station, and was in the process of buying a ticket for the 2:00 p.m. bus to Livingstone when the bus operator realized that I was traveling alone and asked me to please take the bus that was leaving right now. I had only one problem: I hadn’t gone to the bathroom since a random bush somewhere in Northern Zambia. So I rushed off to the toilet (which you have to pay to use in Zambia), bought a water, and was the last one to board the 12:00 bus to Livingstone. Traveling by bus between Lusaka and Livingstone is by no means a comfortable journey, as the seats are designed for maximum income, meaning that a person of even average height can barely squash his or her knees between rows. On the bus I was planning to ride, I had requested seat 3, which is opposite the driver and allows ample leg stretching. On this bus, I was the last passenger, and my seat was near the back of the bus, next to a Zambian mother and her small son. My Osprey backpack did not fit in the tiny overhead bin, and so I sat with my bag in the aisle, one leg hanging over it, and the other twisted awkwardly in front of me. Eventually, however, when we were about two hours from Livingstone, enough passengers had disembarked that I was able to slink forward into the coveted seat 3.
By time we arrived in Livingstone, it was approaching dusk, raining, and I was starving. Since the yogurt I ate at 5 a.m. Friday morning, I had only managed to eat a few handfuls of cashews and two Red Bulls. It was now 5 p.m. on Saturday. After purchasing my return ticket for Thursday, I started trekking through the mud in search of food and wifi. Originally, I had plans to stay at Adventure Lodge in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, but wasn’t expecting to arrive until Tuesday morning. While on the bus from Lusaka, I had used the last of my roaming data on my phone to send an email to my host explaining that I would be a few days early. I needed to find wifi to see if I had a place to stay for the night, or whether I needed to start lodge-hopping in search of vacancies. The first cafe I found had delicious coffee, but their wifi network was down (supposedly because it was cloudy), so they directed me to their sister shop down the road, where I was able to connect. I sent a few messages home to tell people I made it to Livingstone, checked my email and found confirmation that I could stay the extra nights, and searched TripAdvisor for nearby restaurants. I found an Indian restaurant with high reviews, hailed a taxi, stopped by an ATM, and went to the Golden Leaf for dinner, where I had the best chicken tikka curry and garlic naan ever. From the restaurant, I got another taxi and headed for Zimbabwe. At the border, I exited Zambia, walked across no-man’s land and the bridge over the Zambezi River in the dark, and requested the Zambia/Zimbabwe Kaza visa (allows multiple entries to both countries, but is not offered at all entrances to Zambia, as I had found out the previous evening). I received my visa, and got a taxi to take me to my lodge. Adventure Lodge is not fancy, but at $10 per night for a room with two twin beds, 24 hours of free wifi, and a hot shower, it isn’t bad at all.