It was late February 1998 and we were considering our options. We needed to get from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to Blantyre, Malawi, by early March. We could wait five days for the TAZARA train or we could leave the following morning on a twenty- hour bus journey to Mbeya. Neither sounded ideal. The border crossing was complicated and we would need to get from Mbeya to Kyela where local youths would pedal us and our luggage to the border on the backs of their bikes. On the Malawian side, we understood that the buses were few and far- between and we would probably need to hitch- hike the forty kilometres to the nearest town, Karonga. We decided on a much simpler option- to wait five days for the direct bus from Dar to Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe. It would take twenty- four hours.
We’d already experienced Tanzanian bus travel. On our recent journey from Dar to Arusha, a coach- load of passengers had been crammed into the front half of the bus as a stack of large boxes had blocked the aisle halfway up. Our bags had been behind this barricade and we’d arrived in Arusha, tired, hot and cramped, to find that they’d been rifled through and our belongings scattered across the floor.
This time we were determined to secure a safe space for ourselves and our rucksacks on the long journey. Unable to find a taxi in this city where we were usually hounded by drivers and self- appointed porters, we made our way through the deserted night streets, dragging our bags behind us. We were far too early for the 5.30 am bus, which we suspected wouldn’t leave on time anyway, and secured the front seats with our belongings well within view.
A short time later a large, stately woman entered the bus brightly clothed in a colourful kanga. That the front seats were already occupied appeared a mere technicality as she wedged her hefty frame firmly between us. It was just as well we were slim on our Zanzibar diet of kingfish and octopus, avoidance of the grasshopper omelettes in Arusha, and the occasional upset stomach. We were determined not to give up our hard- won seats and silently commanded each other not to move. The stand- off was good natured and an uncomfortable hour later the woman found a seat further back.
The roads were poor as far as Morogoro, but progress was good as the driver delighted in racing other coaches from the same company, hooting and screaming out of the window as we overtook them. We reached the border early that evening and entered Malawi just before it closed.
But then the inevitable happened. There was a commotion near the doors and the bus turned back to the border. Fifteen minutes passed before the driver re- boarded and made an announcement in Kiswahili. We would have to spend the night on the bus, the woman behind us translated, and when the border re-opened the next morning, we would cross back into Tanzania. One of the drivers had absconded with some passports he’d taken to be stamped: we were to be detained until he was found. We had no choice but to settle down for the night, not expecting to move until morning but an hour or so later, the engine started. I will never know what happened but we were on our way again- for the time being.
The roads were so bad we spent a sleepless and terrified few hours until, at 2am, there was a loud bang as two tyres blew. At first we were hopeful, people got on and off the bus with various pieces of equipment but it soon became clear that we weren’t going anywhere. We spent the night on a jacked- up coach in the wilds of Malawi, far from anywhere. As dawn broke we could see small wooden huts grouped together in tiny communities. It was astonishingly hot already and as the tyres were changed we sat in the shade at the side of the road, to the amusement of local children beginning their long walk to school.
Around eight o’clock, our journey resumed for a third time, our first stop the bustling provincial capital, Mzuzu, where we faced another long wait for new spare tyres to arrive. Thirty- two hours after leaving Dar es Salaam we arrived in Lilongwe. We still had to get to Blantyre but that would have to wait.