Dar es Salaam to Cape Town

We had hoped to follow the coast down to Northern Mozambique and then cross to landlocked Malawi but, as so often happens, our plans changed at the last minute. We abandoned that adventurous but frustratingly slow journey in favour of a scenic train journey to Zambia and a good chance of making Cape Town for Christmas.

We left the coconut sellers and their over burdened bicycles on the busy streets of Dar and, after a 20 hour delay, boarded the two day train to Kapiri Mposhi, near Lusaka, Zambia. While we chatted with white tourists and expatriates on comfy seats in the upper class waiting lounge, hundreds of less wealthy travellers spilled from rows of plastic benches onto the cold station floor. From this point on, we experienced a true separation of rich and poor and, invariably, we found ourselves unwittingly funnelled into the rich white category – especially in transport, restaurants and hotels.

The train was charming. We were served unappetising meals in our four berth, sleeping compartment but it never occurred to us that we shouldn’t be utterly content. By the first evening, we had reached the sprawling Selous Game Reserve, one of Tanzania’s largest. We spotted a herd of elephants, many giraffes and gazelle grazing among the trees.

Unlike other cities we’ve visited, Lusaka lacked shiny glass towers. Instead, outdated, concrete blocks fringed the wide main thoroughfare. Well-dressed young men followed us on the streets with perfume or clothes, desperate for some money in this time of hardship and food shortages in Zambia. As usual, we were able to fly in the face of local problems… we shared the tastiest, most succulent T-bone steak in the world.

The comfortable bus to Livingstone sped through thinly wooded, unspectacular, flat landscape and we expected little after hearing that the Victoria Falls were dry at the time we visited but when we saw the falls, we were mesmerised by the deafening power of the crashing white water.

There are hundreds of adventure activities available at Livingstone and we availed of a few. A fifteen minute micro light flight over the falls gave us spectacular views of the zig zagging cracks which form the falls as well as elephants, crocodiles and hippos crossing the wide, shallow Zambezi above the falls. We confronted our fears with a paddle on the deadly white water rapids. And worst, or best, of all was the heart stopping Zambezi Swing, a crazy swing with a 3 second free fall. Terrifying and almost reckless.

While we were in Livingstone, we witnessed their World Aids Day community awareness activities. Local schools put on enjoyable comedy sketches and we met a friendly Irish nun working with one community group involved.

We managed to find a cheap lift from Zambia to Windhoek, the perfectly ordered, model like capital city of Namibia. On the first day we covered 1,200 Km during daylight hours. It was terrific. We have moved so slowly since Cairo and here we were on empty roads of unblemished bitumen that stretched all the way to the horizon like fresh jet trails.

We stopped three times. Once to inspect a hippo, dying slowly in front of a buckled safari 4X4 and a couple of times to buy meat pies and chocolate bars in clean, well stocked, expensive supermarkets and petrol station shops. We used the word ‘expensive’ a lot once we set foot in Namibia.

Flat Botswana, across the Okavango river and hours of flat Namibia are an awesome sight to behold. Crazy hills appear at last, proudly holding weird quiver trees atop their barren rocks. Farm gates punctuate the unending fences at each side of the road, leading to houses somewhere over the horizon. Warthogs and strikingly handsome oryx liven up the roadside very occasionally. The country seems almost void of people.

We felt a little disconcerted by loud notices at our hostel in Windhoek, “Do not carry valuables…” Dreading an expensive and sterile tour or a prolonged stay in this smartie coloured city, we were thrilled to meet up with a British and South African couple who agreed to take us to the Sossusvlei Dunes and on to Cape Town.

Sossusvlei is the most popular visiting point for the Namib Desert, home to the world’s oldest and largest sand dunes. We arrived in the evening as the wind picked up, carrying with it the red sand and heat. I wondered why anybody would want to visit this uncomfortable place without shelter from the desert. By morning, the air was still and clear. We marched up the ridges of a tall dune and hiked into Deadvlei, where skeletons of trees remain, cut off by a wall of sand from a nearby seasonal river. It was eerie, beautiful and too bizarre to be disappointing.

Before the mid morning sun could make the heat unbearable, we were back in the land cruiser and charging over dirt roads towards the main paved road that would take us to South Africa. The following day, we crossed our last African frontier, a little excited and apprehensive that our journeys had very nearly ended.

Our hosts had driven all the way from London, down the West coast of Africa and we had come by public transport from Cairo, down the East coast. At dusk, we sat in hushed anticipation as Cape Town crept into view, a sea of shimmering lights in the distance. The car gave a bit of trouble as we entered the city centre, cutting out at intersections, so the last few kilometres took a couple of hours. When, at last, we hobbled into our backpacker hostel, we uncorked a bottle of local sparkling wine and drank to a long, fascinating and safely completed journey.
– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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