The Great Africa Transit

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Written by Chris

Note: this is a delayed update from our trip across Africa from August to October.

We have finally come to what I anticipated to be the most challenging part of our trip and the part I was the most nervous about. For reasons that sounded good at the time of our original plannings, Mindy and I had decided to transit through the middle of Africa over land. This could be considered a little crazy for several reasons; it is a continent with many of the poorest nations in the world and as a result basic infrastructure is lacking in many, many places. We decided to check it out.

The real reason this happened is actually simple; we wanted to see two places on opposite sides of the continent and there was something in the middle we wanted to check out as well. We wanted to see South Africa because we heard it was great and Tanzania for the natural beauty and that “Africa feel”, but also in the middle is Victoria Falls, one of the world’s grander spills. It looked like it would make way more sense to just drive through rather than fly from place to place, because we’ve got more time and less money these days.

So we started out in Cape Town and after a great week there, we headed off. Ever since we settled on this trip, I became enamored with the idea of crossing Africa by rail. Rail lines were actually put in place across Africa to Victoria falls in the 1800’s to satisfy the wealthy Victorians who wanted to come for a visit. And, as luck would have it, the lines originated in major ports on opposite sides of the continent; Cape Town in the south and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to the east. So it seemed more or less possible to make it using a compilation of the various rail companies that still run routes on this line.

Cape Town to Johannesburg

So the first leg was from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Johannesburg is not a pleasant city to be in, so we were careful to select a route that got in during daylight hours (and with reasonable margin should things get delayed). However, once went to book the tickets, everything was full except for 3rd class and the next train was not for 3 more days. So we selected our seats like the 3rd class citizens we had now become and settled in for the exciting 26-hour seated journey that lay ahead.

The ride was unpleasant, to say the least. Train travel is normally slow and plodding to begin with (they usually seem to take about double the amount of time of a bus for the same route), but this got a little out of hand. It was making what seemed to be frequent stops and sometimes they were as long as an hour or two.

We tried our best to sleep through the stop-and-start, but 3rd class is just not made for comfort. The well-lit cabins stayed well-lit all night, but there was no heat to speak of. While we put on what clothes we had available, we still ended up shivering and staring longingly at the fluffy and luxurious blanket that a few of the passengers had known to bring with them. Dawn started to roll around, and every few hours some train official would come through with announcements. They weren’t clear and often not in English, but it appeared (surprise!) we were running behind schedule. One time is was blamed on mechanical problems with the train, another it was the switches on the tracks, and once it was even blamed on baboons messing with train. A likely story.

So imagine my surprise when, at our designated arrival time of noon, the train stops and the conductor tells everyone it’s time to get off. We’re here?

LOL j/k

They had me going for a minute. We were loaded onto busses for the remainder of the journey. I tried to ask a few people where we were or how far was left to go, but the only response we could get was, “not too far.” Time is very fluid in Africa.

So we rode and rode in the bus, had a pit stop, and kept riding and eventually we were in a city and we made it to the bus station at around 8pm, 8 hours behind schedule and well after dark in a pretty sketchy part of a pretty sketchy city. We couldn’t find an obvious taxi stand so we asked one of the night security guards at the station. She then led us through the station, out one exit underneath an overpass, through the packs of people congregating in the dark, and opens the door of some car. I was pretty suspicious, but didn’t have much other choice and, it turns out, this is the most legitimate a cab gets in ol’ Jo’burg. Once we gave the guard the tip she was demanding, she finally left and we were on our way. And imagine my surprise when we got to our hotel and the driver suddenly couldn’t find any change for me…

Johannesburg to Victoria Falls

The next leg was into Zimbabwe and we elected to take a night bus for this one so we could arrive during daylight again. However, this necessitated a border crossing at 2am. This was all very straightforward; we got out of the bus, checked out of South Africa, but as we were waiting in line under the eaves of the building, I felt something smack the top of my head, it was suddenly warm. I had been shat on by a nice little birdie.

I, luckily, had a handkerchief, Mindy had a wet wipe, and we were back in business. We got our visas, waited for customs inspection, and as we were waiting to reboard, an amazing woman on our bus named Charise started chatting us up. Turns out she lives in Victoria Falls and offered to let us tag along. That would really save us a lot of trouble sorting out logistics for a while and we gladly accepted her offer.

We learned that, just like South America, African busses love to blast music all night long while you sleep, but here, instead of the repetitive salsa music, we found that Africa really likes Tracy Chapman and they LOVE Kenny Rogers. We continued hearing him all across Africa, but, for some reason, this ride necessitated a four-peat of “The Gambler”.

We arrived in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe at 10am; just 5 hours late this time. We planned to hang out until the afternoon bus to Victoria Falls left, but Charise’s sister happens to live in Bulawayo, and she picked us up at the station and took us back to her apartment. Instead of just sitting around at the bus station, we got to spend our layover watching the umpteenth Fast and Furious movie and something involving some Van Damme.

That afternoon, Charise took us to the Vic falls bus and we arrived, uneventfully, in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe at about 8pm. We were pretty far from our camp and didn’t know how to get there, but Charise’s husband had come to pick her up and he offered us a ride back to camp, which, again, we very gladly accepted. When we finally arrived, we again thanked Charise and her husband profusely and they graciously refused any kind of remittance we tried to give them. We said our good-nights and turned in.

Victoria Falls to Lilongwe, Malawi

After a great several-day visit to Victora Falls, we headed back out. Our lodging was close to the falls, and therefore the border, so we walked to the border crossing into Zambia. Since we arrived on foot rather than by bus or plane, we were mostly by ourselves in immigration and we bought our visas and were on our way. We caught a cab once legally in the country and headed to the nearby town of Livingstone where we hung out for a few days. Coming from Zimbabwe, walking into Zambia was like walking into the future. We were living the life of luxury in Zambia where I went to a mall and got take-out and used their functional ATM and returned to the hotel to use my computer, which fit in a single room to download and entire web page in under one minute.

No waiting in lines for this immigration

No waiting in lines for this immigration

It was a bit easier now. We stayed in Livingstone for a few nights and caught a bus to the capital, Lusaka, where we stayed a few more. From there, it was one more bus to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. All was reasonably uneventful save the border crossing.

Africa doesn’t really do standing in line and this was especially evident in Malawi. Often, but not always, if someone is in the way of their goal, they just walk around. Normally, there isn’t much to stand in line for, but immigration is a golden opportunity. There are no nicely roped-off aisles to guide you where you need to go, just a small, hot, open room. So, naturally, when busloads of people arrive, they just crash the gates in a big mass. Interestingly, they keep the immigration forms at the window where you submit them, so you have to fight to the front and then the world has to wait while you fill it out.

The sea of humanity had somehow washed me up to the window and I started shoving our passports and hastily scribbled forms through to get our special stamp. While I was bobbing about, Mindy was staying out of the fray. She was busy turning down all the photo ops from the locals to whom a white person is quite a rarity. We were veering off the beaten path.

With immigration conquered, we spent a few days in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. It was a big dust bowl with comparable infrastructure to Zimbabwe. Our host from the NGO we were to be working for made the 3-hour drive up to pick us up and bring us down to Balaka, our home for the next month for our Malawi volunteer experience. We spent a long, hot, and, enlightening month in Balaka, but it was soon time to move on.

Malawi to Moshi, Tanzania

Up until now, our stops had been at major (for Africa at least) transit hubs, but Balaka was no such thing. As such, no buses originate from Balaka; so you can’t hop on a fresh, empty buss, you only get already full buses stopping to stuff in some more passengers on their way through. Additionally, due to the distance we had to travel, a long night bus was the only option. So when we boarded our 40-seat bus at 6pm, we squeezed in to put the total body count up over 60. We could only hope that enough passengers would get off at the next few stops and we could grab their seats rather than stand for the duration.

No such luck was had and it turned out to be a horribly long night. People sure left frequently at the stops, but for every one that got off, it seemed 2 more got on. We wedged ourselves into corners, and leaned or sat on what we could, but there was little room to move and we got sore from being in the same position long. Fortunately, enough people were shuffling in and out that we were constantly rearranging to let them through. But there was such a backlog of people between us and the seats that we could never hope to get comfortable that night. Towards the end, I found myself standing in the middle aisle, falling asleep on my feet. I would periodically jolt awake when my knees unlocked and rammed the back of the person in front of me or when my butt hit the person behind. Mercifully, we reached our destination at 3am, the bus cleared out, and Mindy and I stretched out on the empty seats to finally sleep a few hours in comfort. At least we weren’t one of the many mothers who were forced to hold their 2+ children during the 10 hour ride.

We awoke and caught a bus to a minibus to the Tanzanian border. This is where things got really fun. In Malawi, tourists are a bit of a rarity and therefore only attract passing curiosity. But Tanzania, with Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti, and Zanzibar, is no stranger to the tourist who has come to spend their hard-earned foreign dollar. Our white skin makes us stand out as a mark for all those who seem to think it is their duty to separate us from as much of our money as possible by whatever means necessary (without getting arrested, of course).

The minibus experience. Normal van. Crammed in seating for 16. Fits 25 comfortably, with livestock

The minibus experience. Normal van. Crammed in seating for 16. Fits 25 comfortably, with livestock

We had several more buses to negotiate before our destination, but once in Tanzania, it was like a switch was flipped and everything was a battle. Mindy covered much of this in her Getting Swindled post, but features were constantly over-promised, drawbacks denied, and prices always started with the 150-200% markup mzungu (whitey) tax.

I’m happy to say we finally made it to our destination in Moshi, Tanzania with most of my wallet intact and it was indeed an experience to be had. I must say that even with the late-night rides through very poor countries, we never felt too unsafe and we met the most amazing people, often at 2:00am security checks. It was a challenge and it was trying at times, but we did get an up-close view of the dark continent, a much deeper understanding of the challenges locals face on a daily basis, and one heck of an unforgettable experience.


So, all told, in order to avoid 2 flights in Africa, our route looked like this.


Cape Town, South Africa to Johannesburg

36 hours

2 nights in Johannesburg


Johannesburg to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (overnight)

17 hours


Bulawayo to Victoria Falls

6 hours

4 nights in Victoria Falls


Victoria Falls to Livingstone, Zambia

1 hour

2 nights in Livingstone


Livingstone to Lusaka

8 hours

2 nights in Lusaka


Lusaka to Lilongwe, Malawi

14 hours

2 nights in Lilongwe


Lilongwe to Balaka

3 hours

1 month in Balaka


Balaka to Mbeya (overnight)

8 hours


Mzuzu to Karonga

5 hours


Karonga to Tanzania Border

3 hours


Kasumulu, Tanzania to Mbeya, Tanzania

3 hours

1 night in Mbeya


Mbeya to Dar Es Salaam

15 hours

1 night in Dar Es Salaam


Dar Es Salaam to Moshi, Tanzania

9 hours


9 days (excluding stays in Vic Falls and Balaka)

128 hours in transit

Fun fact: after all of this, we discovered an ultra-discount airline in Tanzania, Fastjet, which can often get you there for as little as half the price of a bus ticket, in a quarter of the time and with ZERO of the hassle. We used them for the rest of our time in Tanzania with great success, including my world-record lifetime cheapest flight; $49.50 for BOTH of us to Zanzibar. Score!

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One Response to The Great Africa Transit

  1. Pattie says:

    I have decided that you two must definitely go on the Amazing Race! With your experiences you should win easily!!!! Please do it!

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