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First Class to Lusaka (Part 1)
October 25, 2010

Read Part 2

We were not to travel by air. We had decided to cut costs and go by road. But, knowing road travel in our part of the world, we did want to avoid as much discomfort as possible. So Charmaine, the young auditing student, doubling up as Assistant Director, having done her research, reported that there was a coach of superior quality from Harare to Lusaka. We would have to pay a little extra but we thought that would be worth it. The coach company was called 'First Class'. Well, this was such an obvious piece of advertising bamboozlement that we should have smelt a rat from the start. When they sold us vouchers and not tickets and said we should get the tickets and seat numbers from the driver on the day and, what is more, we could not book or pay for our return journey, all of which we accepted, perhaps it would be true to say that we deserved what we got. Well, the day came. As we had to be at the Road Port in Harare at 7.30am and as the CHIPAWO truck was still not on the road, the redoubtable Nzou was called on yet again to bear the brunt. Nzou you might remember from other adventures, means 'Elephant' and refers to my 1983 Ford Cortina Station Wagon.

At about 5.30am I and Tinevimbo, the young man who was playing Tongoona, the Zimbabweanisation of Torvald in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" and who had been asked to sleep over at my place owing to his tendency to come late, set off for the Road Port in Nzou, laden with a table, three green boxes, a clothes horse, a trunk containing four Fresnel theatre lanterns, a large suitcase, containing costumes and props, and a mop. These were duly dropped off - with Tinevimbo posted on guard as I sped back to my house to park Nzou, pick up Charmaine and be driven off again to the Road Port by a friend. When we got there we found the other two, Steve, the dramaturge, and Memory (Norah), already there. Also there was our luxury coach, "First Class"!

Now in Zimbabwean public road travel there are what are called 'chicken buses' and 'coaches'. We did see one or two coaches at the Road Port. One was even a 'First Class' coach. But these were all going to South Africa or pronounced to be unreliable by other passengers as they broke down regularly and were driven too fast and recklessly. Later on we saw that this last was a serious consideration and not to be taken lightly by any means. Ours was, whatever the owners might wish to call it, a 'chicken bus' - but lacking even some of the conveniences that the average chicken bus normally boasts. For instance, most 'chicken buses' will have luggage racks inside the bus and a large roof rack. 'First Class' had neither. We had also been told that they had loads of luggage space. This too turned out to be untrue. This was not too much of problem on our way to Zambia but as I shall relate, was the main cause of the nightmare our return journey turned out to be.

I was told that Steve was already in the bus. I saw him sitting towards the back and went down the aisle towards him. He was sitting on what turned out to be two seats, so narrow that put together they made up a relatively comfortable seat for one. He moved up and I tried to sit down. This I could by no means do as my knees would not fit into the extremely restricted space set aside for them between my seat and the seat of the person in front. I immediately got up and sat on the middle seat in the back row where the aisle afforded my legs some room. And that is where I sat all the way to Lusaka - with three people sitting on seats wide enough for two to my right and two people sitting on seats wider enough for one on my left. I felt like the filling in a sandwich - definitely a slice of polony had it been a CHIPAWO rehearsal.

Two details concerning our journey to Lusaka need to be touched on before explaining to you what this journey was all about. The first was the descent from the Zambezi Escarpment into the Zambezi Valley and then up again on the Zambian side of the river on a new road built by the Chinese. The second is the fact that the border crossing at Chirundu boasts of the first 'One-Stop' border post in the region.

The descent and then ascent on the other side is worth mentioning as it soon became obvious that the road is extremely dangerous for large vehicles, including coaches and chicken buses' like ours. In South Africa there are compulsory stops for heavy vehicles and emergency off-ramps filled with sand for any vehicle that might be out of control. Here there is none of that.

The problem is that such vehicles cannot rely on their brakes as they will become so hot as to malfunction yet even proceeding slowly in low gear may pose a problem to the gear box, which can likewise get too hot. So negotiating such terrain really requires a careful and experienced driver and a vehicle that is in good mechanical condition.

I had already seen our bus constantly veering off towards the left and smelt the telltale small of binding brakes. Our bus was not in good mechanical condition. The price of driver error or mechanical failure was there for all to see as the road was literally littered on either side with the hulks of burnt out or capsized trucks, buses and trailers. Fortunately, our driver turned out to be a real pro and he knew the road like the back of his hand - that was obvious. He safely negotiated the bends and descents both going there and returning.

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