We had tickets for the 9 am bus to Livingstone on the Mazhunda Bus line. This is the bus line typically recommended for ex-pats and tourists. We were picking up an FSRP driver on the way who was going to drive our car back. Our plan was to leave at 8 am, pick up Edward at 8.15 am, and get to the bus station by 8.45 am. We should have moved everything up by 15 minutes because no matter where we are or what situation we’re in, Thom is always 15 minutes late. Ryan has inherited this trait. It drives me nuts because I’m usually early or exactly on time. Well, as usual we were on Thom time and left at 8.15 am, got Edward at 8.30 am, and I was really stressing about whether or not we were going to make our base (vowing to myself all the while that I was never, ever going to tell Thom the real time of something again; I was going to account for the Thom time adjustment). Edward drove like a bat out of hell and got us there by 8.50, primarily because it was a Saturday morning so the roads were empty. If we would have left on a week day we would have been in trouble.
We decided to take the 6 hour bus to Livingstone because (1) it’s a fraction of the cost of airplane tickets (~$22 vs ~$180 per person), and, (2) people recommend it as a way to see the real Zambia. It was completely chaotic at the bus station with lots of buses lined up and ready to go. Some had their itinerary printed on a piece of cardboard and taped to the side of the bus, like this one below.
We asked around and were directed to this barrel, where our bus would pull up.
The bus station was swarming with activity. We huddled with all of the others waiting for our bus…
…posed for photos…
…and inspected the street vendors’ goods, including their wigs. We decided that this wig did not flatter Ryan…
…but that it was perfect for Thom, since he is (after all) a rock star…
(Commercial Break: By the way, have I told you? Thom really is a musician — he’s released two CDs (The Forgotten Conquest and Road Trip) and both have won multiple awards. And, he is kind of a rock star (though his music is more world fusion/new age/jazz). He and his band once opened for Sheryl Crow. Given we’ll never ever break even on what it cost to self-produce his CDs, I encourage you to do some early Christmas shopping and buy them for your friends and family. Actually the music is really good. The last few concerts Thom and his band gave sold out. Click on the albums above for clips.)
Thinking of the 6 hour bus ride ahead I went to find the bathroom. I passed lots of piles of luggage. This stack is typical of local “suitcases.”
The bathrooms were pay toilets, I imagine to keep the riff-raff out, and cost 1000 kwatcha (about 20 cents) to enter.
Well, it’s tough keeping the riff-raff out with a charge of only 1000 kwatcha, so there’s a bathroom monitor who makes sure you don’t violate any of these rules. This is where they get their real money.
I didn’t know this at the time but the bus makes two stops and at each stop you can use a pay toilet, also for 1000 kwatcha. It’s best to have exact change because the bus driver gets antsy if you’re standing there making change.
Our bus soon came and there was a mad dash to load our luggage. I stood back and let the guys take charge.
Then, someone volunteered to take our photo so I jumped into the fray.
Soon we were on our way. The bus was clean and comfortable. Thom and I had the very front seats on the passenger side of the bus (the left side in Zambia), so I could see everything our bus driver did. We were no more than 5 minutes out of the bus station before he started texting while driving!!!
I couldn’t believe it! The lanes in Zambia are narrower than they are in the U.S. and highway rules (like traffic lights) are often taken as suggestions, not laws. Plus, there are always cars pulling out ahead of you or people randomly stepping into the road. I said in a fairly loud voice as I elbowed Thom, “Look! Our bus driver is texting while driving.” Some people in the other front seats looked but it didn’t affect the bus driver at all, probably because he had his earphone in and was no doubt listening to Eminem on his Ipod.
Now, I’m an information junkie so I tend to read lots of newspapers (on the internet) everyday. There’s always a story about a bus going off of a cliff (not necessarily in Zambia, but in some third world country) or rolling off the road. In the previous week there had been a bus/semi truck accident in Zambia where apparently both vehicles were straddling the middle of the road and collided head-on (and the bus was speeding and significantly overloaded). Bodies and lime (what the truck was carrying) , were thrown everywhere and 34 people died, 20 people went blind.
I thought of this as I watched the bus driver. The Mazhunda line is known for safety and not doing typical African things (like overloading), but this driver was really making me nervous. The shoulder was maybe a foot at the most and then it was a 4-5 inch drop off from pavement to dirt. The driver would look down and text and we’d drift within 1/2 an inch, I swear, of the drop-off and then he’d over correct and we’d go over the middle line a few inches. Back and forth. For hours.
Now I’ve been through learner’s permit driving with three teenage boys (and two of the three boys totaled a car each while in high school) so I’m pretty immune to high testosterone driving, but this distracted driving is far worse. I kept thinking that if the driver didn’t correct in time the bus would probably roll. I kind of wished I was in the back so I couldn’t see what the driver was doing.
We survived the first 1.5 hours and I figured cell reception must get weak at some point. We made a quick stop in some remote town and within five minutes were back on the road. I didn’t see the cell phone so was starting to feel more at ease when the bus driver reached down and put a box of pizza in his lap, and proceeded to eat the whole thing. While driving!
Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, he pulls out a yogurt and a spoon and starts eating that!
None of this bothered Thom, as you can see from the yellow pad above. He just worked away planning papers, retreats, and making to-do lists. I dug out my Ipod. The only way to cope was to listen to a book on tape (or Ipod) and get my mind off of the driving. I took one last glance at the driver and you are not going to believe this! Now he was eating yogurt (with a spoon, which means one hand has to hold the yogurt and the other holds the spoon) AND texting.
I was in the front row, taking flash pictures, and noisily commenting on the eating/texting while driving and the driver didn’t even notice. There was nothing else to do but look out the window and listen to a book.
At our second stop, about 2/3rds of the way through the trip, a new bus driver took over and he was very good. We stayed between the lines, he used both hands, and he followed the traffic rules.
We arrived at Livingstone and took a taxi to Jollyboys Camp, a hostel, where we were staying. Unfortunately, the taxis were all one size so we really had to squish in to fit all four of us and our luggage.
It was only a 5 minute drive to Jollyboys, which turned out to be a very nice budget accommodation place.
Jollyboys had several en suite rooms (meaning there was a bathroom in the room), several private chalets (just beds), a dorm block, and areas for tents. Thom and I stayed in an en suite room and the boys stayed in a chalet, and used the shared bathroom. Below is the chalet and shared bathroom.
They had a very reasonably priced small out door restaurant, which we used primarily for breakfasts, as well as an open self-catering kitchen for any of the patrons to use. The grocery store (and restaurants) are within walking distance so I made salad and fajitas for dinner one night using the Jollyboys kitchen. The average age of guests was about 25 years so, Thom and I fit right in. The accommodations are basic but clean, and about 1/4 of what the big hotels cost. There’s also an excursions desk where they’ll book everything from white water rafting to bungee jumping to elephant safaris.
Regarding the bus experience, overall we liked it despite our first driver. I think it’s actually easier and less stressful to take the bus as opposed to driving to the airport from our house (45 minutes), sitting for 2 hours, taking the hour flight in a small plane, waiting for our luggage (another hour), and then catching a taxi to our hotel. With the bus ride we’re uninterrupted for 6 hours, unless we choose to get off. And, we can pretty much do whatever we want. However, bring food and drinks. At the stops you can buy some local foods and drinks and a bus steward actually hands out juice boxes and a pink cupcake sealed in cellophane, but we’re food snobs and prefer our extra crunchy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on whole seeded bread.
NEXT: Victoria Falls