I now asked myself if the pain of the journey would not far exceed the pleasure of travel. I had a couple of minutes to decide and I made a dash for the exit door, pulling my bag behind me, barely a few seconds before the bus left on its long journey.
(Daily Times, 27 February 2013)
Among the many people I met during my short stay in Dares Salam, there was a white South African man in his mid-forties who had been travelling overland in the continent for six months. There wasn’t a hint that he had had enough. Then there was a young Dutch who had cycled all the way south from Sudan. While full of praise for Sudanese hospitality (which is well-known), his best cycling experience had been in southwest Uganda.
Though he pedalled most of the way, occasionally he would put his bike on a train or a truck to save time and rest his muscles. He had taken the train from Kigoma in western Tanzania for Dares Salam on the east coast. Midway through the journey, in Dodoma, he realised that he would probably reach his destination faster if he just cycled his way. When he asked the attendant to off-load his bike from the luggage van, he was told this was impossible until the train arrived at its final destination, Dares Salam. A few dollars, however, turned the impossible into possible. He reckons he arrived in Dares Salam long before the train did!
With a few exceptions such as South Africa, the railways in Africa, which were laid out by the colonial powers, are in a shambles. However, they keep a large number of people on the payrolls. And passengers can’t complain about the frequent delays and breakdowns when they don’t pay the fare!
Even the more recent and rather prestigious Chinese-built Tanzam (Tazara) suffers from poor maintenance. Its aim was to provide Zambia access to the sea through the Tanzanian port of Dares Salam, avoiding dependence on Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), which was then under white minority rule. Built during the early 1970s and costing $500 million, the 1,870 km-long Tazara is regarded as a great engineering achievement.
I wanted to travel by bus from Dares Salam to Lilongwe in neighbouring Malawi, a distance of 1,515 km. The tourist information office as well as the Indo-Tanzanians in my motel recommended “Taqwa” company buses. I took a taxi to the sprawling bus station some distance from the centre of the city to make further checks before I decided.
No sooner I got off the taxi than I was surrounded by touts selling tickets. Dodging them with some difficulty I entered one of the many little booking offices. It had three desks, one of which was selling “Taqwa” tickets for Lilongwe. I was shown a photo of a large bus and a seating plan I could choose from. The bus, I was told, left at six in the morning, three days every week, arriving at the Malawi border, 850 km to the south, sometime in the evening. As the border is closed at this time, the bus halts here for the night. The passengers rest as best they can, resuming the journey the next morning after completing border formalities, arriving in Lilongwe in the evening.
After much deliberation and a little trepidation, I bought the bus ticket. I prepared myself very meticulously for such a long bus journey in an unfamiliar land, ready for some hardship in exchange for the experience. On the early morning of a very rainy day in near-darkness, I took a taxi to the bus stand. Helped by a porter who carried my large bag on a push-cart over many potholes, I waded through ankle-deep water from the taxi to my bus a short distance away. A man at the bus door checked my ticket and asked me to take my bag inside with me for there was no space left in the luggage compartment of the bus. What’s more, I was forced to pay another $10 for my luggage.
Inside, I was shown an empty seat and my bag was put next to it in the aisle on top of a mountain of luggage already stored there. As soon as I had taken my seat, somewhat nervous about what to expect, I quickly got into a chat with a Malawian sitting next to me, who claimed that he travelled frequently on this route. Contrary to what I had been advised, he told me that the bus would not cross the border until late afternoon of the next day, as it would take the whole day to complete the border formalities. In other words, we would be stuck at the small border post with little or no facilities for nearly 24 hours.
The crowding in the bus was bad enough. I now asked myself if the pain of the journey would not far exceed the pleasure of travel. I had a couple of minutes to decide and I made a dash for the exit door, pulling my bag behind me, barely a few seconds before the bus left on its long journey. The aborted trip cost me the equivalent of $120.
This 24-hour holdup at the border, I learned, happened in one direction only and, from my experience, was not typical of border crossings in Africa. My experience of crossing the Kenya-Uganda border (by bus), the South Africa-Swaziland border in both directions (by self-driven rental car) and Zambia-Zanzibar border in both directions (on foot) was rather pleasant and smooth. In all three crossings I was granted visa on the spot on my Australian passport within minutes and without any hassle whatsoever. It took me less time to complete border formalities here than it takes to deposit a check in a Pakistani bank or, for that matter, an African bank.
And everywhere I could see large numbers of locals also crossing the border with little or no hassle or delays. Whether any money changed hands, I don’t know. But, at least, cross-border travel for Africans seemed rather easy and commonplace. This was a sharp contrast to the situation in South Asia, where borders are more often shut than open and the visa regimes are so onerous as to prevent most people from travelling.
(To be concluded)
By Razi Azmi