The Ecphorizer

The Zambia Cannonball
George Towner

Issue #31 (March 1984)

A railroad from the days of muzzle-loaders

6:00 AM The travel alarm goes off. We have been sleeping in a rondavel, an African-style round hut with thatched roof, on the north bank of the Zambezi near Victoria Falls. Although one of the mosquito nets was full of holes, it has been a peaceful night. Now

Apparently Zambia Railways owns but one set of dining car chairs.

we wash quickly, jug-and-basin style, and do up our backpacks. We don't want to miss the train to Lusaka, which leaves Livingstone at 8:00 AM.

6:45 AM We hike down the road to the government-owned Rainbow Hotel, where the kitchen is just coming awake. They serve us toast, tea and fresh pineapple juice.

7:30 AM We had made arrangements with a taxi driver the night before to take us 5 km to the Livingstone station. He picks us up by the side of the road. An unexplained additional passenger sits quietly with us during the trip.

7:45 AM Two "standard class" tickets to Lusaka cost 14 kwacha (about $8) each. We buy them and hurry to the train.

8:00 AM There is a train standing at the platform but we are told to wait. Porters are throwing chairs and food out the windows of the dining car. Soon the train backs out of the station, going away from Lusaka. People are beginning to gather in the station.

8:30 AM More people are arriving, evidently old hands who know about 8 o'clock departure times. Much shunting of cars from track to track. A porter arrives with a hand truck full of Coke and Fanta bottles.

9:00 AM At last a train chugs in and everybody gets aboard. The chairs that were thrown off earlier are handed in the windows of the new dining car, along with the Coke and Fanta. Apparently Zambia Railways owns but one set of dining car chairs.

9:15 AM We leave, amid much whistle-blowing and flag-waving. We chug through the lush landscape past villages of thatched huts, each with its patch of corn and vegetables.

11:00 AM.
The train has been bouncing violently on the track, so that we are nearly thrown from our seats. We stop at a place called Kabuyu. Cows graze along the track. Little boys come and stare at us. We are the only whites on the train. We smile and wave.

Noon. Still at Kabuyu. We take some pictures of the boys, the cows and the village.

1:00 PM. Still at Kabuyu. Local opinions differ. Some say the engine has broken down; others blame the brakes. We go to the dining car and have two lunches of beef-rice and tea with milk - total 7 kwachas. The beef is like leather. They must prepare it from cows that were hit by the train. But the rice is tasty.

3:00 PM. Still at Kabuyu. A Land Rover arrives, filled with railway officials. They climb into the engine. We hear the brakes being clamped and released several times.

3:15 PM. The officials leave and the train starts up again, still bouncing violently. We are now over five hours behind schedule. We hurtle past more cows, boys and villages.

5:30 PM. Choma, our first big stop. We are besieged by food sellers carrying baskets of corn-on-the-cob on their heads, the corn is delicious, and a bargain at 40 ngwee. Three young ladies, dolled up to the point of questionable virtue, plop themselves in the seats opposite us. One of them goes down to the dining car and brings back bottles of Fanta. Another calmly uncaps them with her teeth. Watch out for that one. According to the schedule, we should have arrived in Lusaka by now; instead, we are not yet half-way there.

8:00 PM. The sun has set and the train has filled to overflowing. The extra people help keep it on the track, but occasionally everyone is thrown into a heap nevertheless. We are still the only whites aboard. We have been warned not to walk about Lusaka after dark, and wonder what we'll do when we arrive. The lady with the Bottle-opener teeth offers to escort us to a taxi.

11:30 PM. Lusaka station. An incredible scene of shoving, shouting, African humanity. We feel like two plump chickens in a building full of foxes. We grab our packs and run for the taxis.

1:30 AM. It turns out that there is an international conference in town. All the regular hotels are either full or have locked their doors for the night. After much searching, we finally secure a room in a bordello. But that's another story.

Ecphorizer founder George Towner and his faithful side-kick Christine Palmer-Persen are crossing the African continent in search of the legendary kingdom of Prester John.  George will take any excuse to get out of the house for a while. You can read about George's latest book here!

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George Towner

George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.