Cape Town to Kampala

Trek Through Southern Africa: A treacherous journey by road

Since the age of 14, Justin Chapman has always wanted to come to Africa. More than a decade later, at the age of 26, he realised his dream, with an exhilarating, if not risky, adventure from Cape Town to Kampala

By Justin Chapman, Sunday edition of New Vision's Discovery Magazine (Uganda), 5/27/2012

Although I am a white American, I consider myself a global citizen. Uganda is the 25th country I have visited. When most Americans think of Africa, they think safaris. They envision lions, zebras, elephants and giraffe running wild. They think of languages with clicking noises. They think of skinny, starving children, their rib cages exposed, barely covered by a thin layer of skin, swarmed by flies that are so plentiful it is useless to swat them away. They recognise names of some people and places: Nelson Mandela, the Serengeti, Mount Kilimanjaro, Johannesburg, and a few others. Most Americans have no concept of the size of the continent (indeed many think Africa is a country, not a continent with 54 individual countries), let alone the countless cultures, ethnic groups, and languages.

I came to Africa, by myself, to see this exotic land with my own eyes, to experience the people and feel Africa's powerful energy.

I have a lot of experience travelling to places that are not like America. But this three-month journey I am undertaking is an enormous step above the rest. Africa and America are almost polar opposites; there are similarities, yes, but they are vastly different worlds.

I decided to take buses and trains from Cape Town, South Africa, all the way to the Pearl of Africa. Once I had my plane ticket to Cape Town, I worked for three or four months to save money for the trip. It took 30 hours from Los Angeles to Cape Town by plane.

I had business in Cape Town and in Mityana, so I could have easily taken a plane and made my trip much easier and less expensive, but I wanted to see more of Africa, not fly over it. This decision really made the journey a test of survival. I must be either a very brave or a very stupid mzungu, but despite the challenges I have faced, I have made it, triumphantly. What follows is a painfully condensed account of my adventures, I could fill several thick books detailing the entire journey, which has yet to come to a conclusion.

Third class

The idea was to visit Cape Town for a couple weeks, where a non-profit organization called Art Aids Art, based near Los Angeles in Altadena, California, where I grew up, has built a community center in the township of Khayelitsha and employs women living there. Among other activities, they buy artwork from otherwise unemployed women at fair trade prices, bring the art back to America, sell it at home parties, and then reinvest the profits back into Khayelitsha. I travelled to Cape Town to see their work firsthand.

I spent about two weeks in Cape Town and experienced nearly everything it has to offer: from the poorest townships in the Cape Flats to the upscale mansions on the hills of Fish Hoek. I hiked around the entire top surface of Table Mountain and swam in a lake in its foothills. I attended the screening of an independent film about Derick Orderson (who was present at the screening), a swimmer who broke international records and would have qualified for the Olympics had it not been for apartheid. I enjoyed the International Cape Town Jazz Festival. I always rode in third class on the Metrorail trains and never felt threatened despite dozens of horror stories and warnings from locals and visitors alike. I almost got locked up in a mental institution when the guards thought I was an escaped patient. I almost got stranded at night in Guguletu, a dangerous township to be in at that hour. I also squeezed in a couple touristy activities like Robben Island and the Cape of Good Hope.

I rode third class in the Shosholoza Meyl train, a 28-hour journey from Cape Town to Johannesburg. The entire time, women in my carriage were dancing and singing and pounding the walls, never repeating the same song, while the men got way too drunk and began screaming and fighting each other. It was impossible to get any sleep. My carriage was a fracas, but in the very next carriage, which was still third class, there was utter silence, like in American trains. There were South African police on the train, but they did nothing to stop the drunken men screaming and punching each other. I enjoyed the experience, but I vowed never to take third class again.

From Johannesburg, I took a bus to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, then to Francistown in transit to the Zimbabwe border. What happened next was one of the highlights of my trip.

Zimbabwe the hard way

Zimbabwe was the country I was most worried about because of what I had seen and read in the news about Robert Mugabe's regime. As it turned out, Zimbabweans were among the friendliest of all the Africans I met along the way (except Ugandans, of course).

After going through immigration at the Zim border, I walked outside and asked a young woman and a professor how to get to Bulawayo, where I needed to buy my overnight train ticket up to Victoria Falls. They said it was better to wait with them than go outside the gate and be surrounded by vultures [taxis for hire]. A ride was coming to pick them up, so I stayed with them.

Finally, their van arrived, and the three of us crammed our luggage and ourselves in along with six other people and their luggage. It was a very tight and uncomfortable fit. After we passed the gate and officially entered Zimbabwe, we began speeding along the road, which was undergoing construction. Cars had to veer in and out of the lanes in order to avoid the barriers on teh two-lane highway.

Not five minutes past the border, I was talking to the professor to my left when all of a sudden a car slammed into us from the right side, shattering the windows in our faces. We started spinning uncontrollably for what seemed like 10 minutes and one second at the same time. We could feel the wheels on the left side of the van lift up as we did a 180 degree turn and thought for sure the van was going to flip over into the bush, which would have surely killed us all.

The driver saved our lives by managing to bring the van to a halt. Everyone immediately scrambled out of the vehicle. It wasn't until I got out that I realised there was glass in the hair on my head, on my face, the hair on my arms, in my shoes, in my trouser cuffs, and all over our luggage inside the van. The car that hit us was about 250 feet away, having landed in the bush. About eight or nine people got out, one a mother holding a baby. Both cars were demolished, done, finished. It's amazing that no one got hurt, because it was a terrible car crash, the worst I'd ever been in, and certainly a near-death experience.

If I had been killed, it would have taken months for my family in America to find out what happened. And how would they retrieve my body, let alone deal with the grief?

After we made sure no one was hurt, the girl I met at the border flagged down a truck and asked for a ride for three people to Bulawayo. As the driver of the van was screaming and yelling at the people from the other car (it was their fault), the professor and I grabbed our luggage out of the van and ran for the truck, joining the girl. We hopped into the open-air bed of the truck, which already had a couple people in it, and sped away. Still shaken and shocked, we sat mostly in silence for the hour-long drive to Bulawayo. If we had been in the back of this truck when the accident happened, we would be dead, yes sir. I lifted my arms to the windy sky and laughed and screamed, "WE'RE ALIVE!"

We came upon a police checkpoint. The professor told them in the local language about the accident and that two cars and many people were still down the road dealing with the situation.

"Oh, really? Huh," was their response. They didn't care, and showed no signs of moving from their shaded post under a tree.

"That was the largest car crash I have ever been in," I told the 35-year-old professor.

"That was my first," he replied, which surprised me considering the haphazard way Africans drive, and the risks they take. In America, I've experienced quite a few accidents, but nothing like this.

When we arrived in Bulawayo, the truck driver did not charge us. It took a near-death experience to get a free ride. The professor, the girl, and I said goodbye, us three strangers who will never see each other again but experienced something together that we will never forget as long as we live.

River rain

The Bulawayo-Vic Falls train was built by the British in 1952. It had no electricity and no toilet paper. Victoria Falls itwself was brilliantly beautiful. The falls are so massive that you can see a towering cloud rising up all the way from the small local town. Once inside the park, I walked along a narrow path through a rainforest, literally. The closer I got to the falls, the harder the river rain would pour down on me, a constant shower pushed up from the bottom of the valley high into the air as the hot sun burned bright. I couldn't help but lift my arms in the air, lift my head to the sky, and laugh hysterically as the river rain drenched me in the middle of this Zimbabwean jungle.

People are constantly trying to sell you their wares in any city or town in Africa, but walking through Vic Falls was particularly annoying. Several guys would come out of nowhere and surround me, following me wherever I went, trying to sell me this or that. They would not take "no" for an answer. If I reached my destination and hours later came out, they would be there waiting for me.

I walked with a young local man across the road and into a dense bush. We walked over huge piles of elephant droppings and down some railroad tracks and then back into the bush. We came into a clearing where locals had set up a small huts and lined up their stone-carved statues. It was a shame my camera wasn't working. I suppose it was for the best. Some things are just supposed to exist in the moment and the memory, not to be recorded or shared. I could see several spots where people had recently built cooking fires, and several warthogs walked around us, looking for food.

I eventually went to the Zambian border, where baboons walked around freely, lounging in the sun. As I waited for the bus in Livingstone, I pulled out my playing cards. Three Zambian guys immediately came over and several others watched as the four of us played an African card game in the dirt.

The African Darjeeling Limited

I took a bus ride to the New Kapiri Mposhi train station, where the famous Tazara railway train departs. This one was built by the Chinese for access to Zambian copper, which is why it doesn't reach the capital of Lusaka. It is a much better train than the British-built ones. It has electricity, showers, toilet paper, bed sheets. I bought a first class ticket this time, and was placed in a compartment with a young guy who lived in Zanzibar, where I was planning on going. His parents have a mansion right on the beach. He invited me to stay with them, an offer I couldn't refuse.

Zambia was relatively uneventful, but Tanzania is one of the most beautiful countries I've ever seen (besides Uganda, of course). It took a day to reach the border between the two countries. I was in the lounge at the back of the train, charging my phone while the Zambian immigration officials went room to room, so they didn't find me even though they knew how many passengers were on board. I was never stamped out of that country. Bureaucratically speaking, the Zambian government still thinks I'm in their country. The Tanzanian officials stamped me into their country, though. It wasn't their problem.

For Americans, Zanzibar is an exotic place that doesn't really exist in our sphere of influence or effluence. I had no plans of visiting the mysterious island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I came to learn quite a bit about the Zanzibar Archipelago, which contains several islands that used to be its own country. Incredibly, it is the only (semi-)working joint government that exists on the entire continent.

Zanzibar has a "revolutionary government," though there are hardly any tangible signs of it, give or take a few actual signs that read "The Revolutionary Government of Zanzibar," as well as worn campaign posters plastered on every public surface that will hold them.

Unlike most places in Africa (or the rest of the world for that matter), you feel completely safe and unthreatened walking around anywhere at night by yourself.

Ending and beginning

Back in Dar es Salaam, I took a 30-hour bus ride to Kampala via Nairobi. As we approached the Ugandan border from the Kenyan side, I woke up and saw our bus driver being chased by a Kenyan police officer with a big, protruding belly. The cop's hat fell off, so he rushed back to pick it up, and then resumed chasing the driver as all the passengers watched in amusement. The officer was too far to catch the driver, so the two went around a small building in circles for several minutes. It was like a cartoon.

The police brought us to the Busia District station. One of the passengers told me the driver would be tortured. He was taken inside a building and sure enough, he emerged 10 minutes later with two black eyes. We proceeded towards Kampala. When we reached Jinja, the police made everyone get off the bus and a sniffer dog was brought onboard. It was the first drug-sniffing dog I had seen in Africa. The police here have only recently begun using them to search for drugs or bombs. The passenger who had been sitting to my left, a South African, whispered to me that he had some marijuana in his bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. He was sweating bullets of nervousness, but to my surprise, and his relief, the dog did not find anything.

The Pearl of Africa

My business in Uganda consists of teaching at a couple of high schools in Mityana with Father Kizito Ssendi of Kiyinda Cathedral, as well as my regular profession of journalism. Although I have reached my "final" destination, my time in Africa is only half over. Now the real work begins. My first impression of Uganda was favorable. It is a much cleaner country than most of the places I've visited in Africa. There is hardly any trash on the ground, the environment has been preserved, even the dirt looks clean. The dirt itself is blood red, mixed with green so bright that it actually looks Christmassy.

The villages and town that we passed are actually very nice. A lot of Americans work very hard (or usually pay Mexicans to work very hard) to make their yards look like what Ugandans have naturally. Jungles give way to square, dense forests with hundreds of thin trees give way to vast expanses of plains and farms give way to small towns, which give way to hills surrounded by green fields and banana trees and wheat fields and coffee plantations and sugarcane stalks. You can smell the life in the air, hard won by a proud yet still wary people.

These breahtaking, multi-layered landscapes, farmers plowing, animals grazing, all shades of green trees and yellow plants shining in the Ugandan sun, let all troubles pass from my mind. These landscapes are fertilized by the victims of the horror regimes of Amin, Obote, and the many vicious rebel groups, such as the Lord's Resistance Army, of which Joseph Kony is a leader. A friend of mine named Ben Wallingford recently visited Gulu in northern Uganda, the site of much of the kidnappings many years ago and reported via Facebook that, "Kony has not been here for six years. It is 100 percent safe. Are you listening, Invisible Children?"

At the time of publication, US Special Forces have joined the Ugandan army in the Central African Republic to find Kony and his rebel bandits.