I’m leaving on a jet plane.., then a taxi, then a train, then another taxi…
Hours I spent pouring over guide books, scrutinising web forums, googling routes and asking friends how to get from one part of Africa to another. I was nervous about how we would get from location A (Zanzibar) to destination B (Malawi) – a mere 1000km or so – as there was no direct route or seemingly succinct itinerary. ‘The train only leaves on a Tuesday and a Saturday’, ‘the train can sometimes be delayed by days’, ‘try and get a shared taxi with a few people’, ‘there are no direct buses and anyone selling a ticket is scamming you’. Normally Doug and I turn up in a place without making any plans and just see what happens, but this seemed impossible with such an unreliable transport system – especially as we needed to be in Malawi by a particular date.
Hence my desire to describe our journey over African lands from Zanzibar Island, through Tanzania mainland down to the tip of Lake Malawi. Plus the fact that it was no small feat given the umpteen forms of transport and personal patience standards involved. Never does Africa seem so vast as when you are over-landing its wide stretches of baked earth and scrubland, past giant baobab trees, long-forgotten shacks and rural villages using public transport. I enclose our full trip below – true as of October 2012 – for any travellers that may be in search of the same information.
In brief, this is how we got from Zanzibar, through Tanzania to Lake Malawi:
DAY 1: Friday 19th October, Zanzibar to mainland Tanzania
8am: Taxi to Zanzibar airport from Clove Hotel, Stone Town
10am: Tiny tinny 12-seater plane from Stone Town to Dar es Salaam
- TIP It’s cheaper by ferry, but not recommended if you are prone to sea-sickness.
I sat so close to the pilot I could have blown seductively down the back of his neck had I so wished. He went through the pre-flight safety procedures, “please keep your seat belt fastened, lifebelts are behind your seat…the toilet is in Dar Es Salaam”.
- TIP Take comfort in the fact that the pilot seems unperturbed by the wobbly plane and ancient gear stick. Soar through cartoon clouds, forget your fears and gaze at island clumps below, luminous in the clear ocean.
- TIP Organise tickets beforehand with Abe from Sykes Travel. I was concerned about wiring money to Tanzania in advance without really knowing the company – not to mention the additional bank charges – so Abe had someone meet us at Dar Es Salaam airport with the tickets.
- TIP Make sure you have cash! None of the ATMs in Stone Town or Dar Es Salaam Terminal 1 were working and we were out of money. Solution: bundle ticket guy in the taxi with us to find a money source.
10:40am: Taxi to Terminal 2 to find working ATM
11am: Taxi to Tazara train station, Dar es Salaam
- TIP If travelling as a couple, I highly recommend buying all four 1st class cabin tickets in advance so you have a lockable compartment to yourselves – you can do this via Abe at Sykes Travel. Also check train times when planning – trains only left on Tuesdays and Fridays. This website is great for information: www.seat61.com
13:50: Train from Dar Es Salaam to Mbeya, Tanzania
- TIP This train is notorious for delays – a note scrawled on our cabin wall described a 72-hour journey to Zambia following an initial 10-hour delay. We were lucky and our train pulled away within a couple of hours of its original departure time. The train goes all the way to Kapiri Moshi near Lusaka. It is such an amazing experience – and by the sounds of fellow travellers’ tales, exceedingly better than the life-endangering bus journey for the same route. We bounced and shunted along at a leisurely pace. Through the Selous game reserve, past remote huts, acacia trees, ant hills, the Udzungwa mountains, burning brush, vast sun-baked lands, abandoned train carriages and the odd giraffe if lucky.
- TIP At every stop – and there are many – the entire village turns out to sell ‘street’ food, fruit and various curios which you can purchase through the carriage window. When there is nothing to sell, tiny children run barefoot alongside the carriages through the dust holding out their hands for plastic water bottles.
- TIP Make sure you take plenty of snacks. You can buy food on the train, but you risk eating chicken that looks like it has already travelled for 26 hours. On its own wiry legs.
- TIP On the subject of legs, watch out for sneaky cockroaches – I was rudely awakened in the night by one scampering across my face.
- TIP Lock yourself away from thieves at night, shut the window shutters, chain backpacks away from the windows.
DAY 2: Sat 20th October, overnight in Mbeya, Tanzania
26 hours later we were thrown to a halt in Mbeya.
- TIP There are not a huge amount of taxis, it’s worth finding some other tourists if you can and share a ride into town.
16:15: Taxi to hotel
- TIP There are bus ticket scams going on at the bus station – boxy offices full of ‘helpful’ people bear posters of buses and (very high) prices offering advance tickets, DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. Wait until the bus is actually about to leave and buy the ticket then.
DAY 3: Sunday 21st October, Mbeya, Tanzania to Chitimba, Malawi
8.30am: Walk to bus station from hotel
8.45am: Board a bus to Tukuyu for a good 51,000 shillings less than the scammers had quoted.
- TIP African buses (& cars & trains) are a bit like Mary Poppins’ bag – there is never not enough room for more people, animals, luggage etc, so be prepared to squish up!
- TIP Be ready to duck when police are spotted in order to give the impression that everyone is in fact, comfortably seated.
10.30am: Bus to Kyela
En route, jack-knifed lorries and several wreckages in the road reminded us how perilous road travel in Africa can be. As did the sound of the brakes straining at every downhill.
- TIP Don’t think about it too much.
12.30pm: Tiki Tiki (motorbike) to Malawi border, Karonga
At Kyela, as ‘Mzungus’ (white people’) we caused quite a stir. No sooner had we disembarked, we were swarmed. We each hopped on the back of a Tiki tiki, backpacks and all and drove in convoy to the border. Black market money exchangers waited like hounds, baying for blood. I have never seen anything like it. A group of men, all waving thick wads of cash, encircled us as we sat down for a drink to quench our Tanzanian thirst. It was chaos. The hounds also pulled up chairs, trampling our bags, leaning over us, shouting and scrabbling over each other, fighting for our attention and American dollars. Their aim is to create as much confusion as possible, freak you out and con you. No matter how many times we said no, it fell on deaf ears. Two seasoned travellers in our group were totally ripped off thanks to their confusing counting technique.
- TIP Pay a shopkeeper to sit in their shop away from the madness and sit and count money away from the pandemonium. Or cross the border and change your Tanzanian shillings to Malawian Kwacha there!
2.30pm: Shared taxi to Chitimba, Malawi for somewhere to stay for the night.
Enjoy & good luck!