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In Search of the Authentic African Experience

A little while ago, someone proudly showed me around their hotel while telling me all about how they wanted to provide ‘the authentic travel experience’ for their guests. It was the ‘old English tea shoppe’, lederhosen and yodelling version of authenticity – great fun but about as authentic as – well – Disney. It started me thinking about what is an authentic travel experience. In Britain, I decided, it would start with a typical day’s commuting on the Victoria Line in London at rush hour and probably involve the traditional Sunday morning traffic jam outside Ikea in Croydon, followed by a pub carvery lunch with an overcooked roast and slightly soggy sprouts.

Customers drinking and eating at tables at the Kalahari Lodge, Lusaka (c) Melissa Shales

In Africa, where everyone spends a fortune on hardwood timber and thatch, Masaai spears and and zebra skins to get the ‘authentic’ African feel for their luxury lodge, I ended up having something very close to a truly authentic African experience in Lusaka last week. I was staying at the Kalahari Lodge, a jolly cross between a guest house and an upmarket bar in the shadow of a giant telecoms mast. Friday night came around and so did the live band – a key board, steel drummer and electric guitar plus a couple of singers who proceeded to play golden oldies, Radio 2 style, Summertime jazz-style, while the ‘more mature crowd’ (the words of James and Chris, two local lads who turned out to be accountants who invited me to sit with them) munched on chicken, chips and coleslaw and downed bottles of Fanta and Castle lager. Mr Karaoke in the corner crooned to himself, a gaggle of girls in too much make-up screeched their approval as the first of them got up to dance. It was an African version of Colchester town centre on a Saturday night. I am sure that somewhere else in Lusaka, there are headbangers, but meantime, this sea of imported music, drinks, and food blended into a totally genuine Zambian evening.

Traditional African dancers in costume at The Boma, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe (c) Melissa Shales

Last night, across the border in Zimbabwe, I had dinner at The Boma – an unashamedly touristy African showcase at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. I dined on crocodile, ostrich, warthog and buffalo. I had a lesson in drumming, listened to Zimbabwean music and watched traditional dancing, had my face painted and heard a folk tale about a hippo. There was even a fortune teller dressed in skins and feathers ready to cast the bones for me. Every bit of it is based on tradition, but so tarted up for the tourists it is a world away from the everyday life of normal Zimbabweans – particularly these days. Did it feel strange? Yes. But it was a very good evening’s entertainment and my money was helping to supporting a lot of local people.

Truthfully, most tourists would enjoy it far more than the beer and goat night in Lusaka. Perhaps it’s time for us to accept that jeans, burgers and bad karaoke are part of the authentic travel experience and to stop being coy about the modern world. Perhaps it’s also time to accept that there’s nothing wrong with the fantasy version created by the tourist trade – as long we recognise that that is what it is and that the proceeds go to the right people.


Zambian woman with bunches of bananas on table in front of her looks out of train window (c) Melissa Shales

I was lucky. The First Class compartment for four (female only) turned out to have only two occupants booked the whole way from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania to Kapiri Mposhi in Zambia – all 1860 km of it. Not only would we travel in comparatively spacious luxury, but it soon turned out that I had won myself the perfect travelling companion. Racheal, a young Zambian woman living in Dar, has done the journey a number of times and actually works for Tazara. She knows all about the train and the journey. Within minutes of leaving the city, she shed her city girl image, wrapped herself into a chitenge (sarong) and a headscarf and became an African woman on safari. We shared my giant bag of sweets and her small fat yellow bananas and she became my guide to the intricacies of life along the tracks.

“There used to be four services a week, now there are only two,” she said. “Everyone takes the bus because it is faster, but it is dangerous, there are so many accidents. There are two trains, one run by Tanzania and one by the Zambians. This is the Tanzanian one. It will go down on Tuesday as the Express train and return on Friday as the stopping service.” I ask if there is any other difference.

“No difference, just one is Tanzanian and one Zambian.”

I’d been warned to bring food and unsure there was going to be anything at all came armed with portable food that would survive the journey – digestive biscuits, Philadelphia cheese (it comes in a plastic pot), cashew nuts, cartons of fruit juice and plenty of water. But there was food – chicken, fish or beef was offered, with rice or chips. Rachel took the rice, and produced her own chicken, with a long explanation, which I never really totally understood, about there being two sorts of chicken in Tanzania and this being the wrong sort. The flavour was fine but it had run a marathon or two in its life.

At Mbeya, she started a brisk trade in potatoes and carrots and huge sacks were heaved into our compartment and stored under the bed.

“How will you get them to Lusaka?” I asked. “I am meeting a friend in Kapiri,” she replied, “they are for her. Potatoes from here are very good and they are very expensive in Zambia.” And she went back to her book, When Jesus Wins Your Husband’s Heart.

A growing cluster of tiny children gathered under the window of the compartment at one stop, almost chanting ‘Kopo, Kopo, Kopo’ in an increasingly desperate chorus. “They are asking for plastic water bottles,” she explained, coming back in as the noise drilled through my skull, ‘they use them in the slums.” Between us we mustered three to give them but it was nothing like enough and the sound will haunt me forever.

At the border she ran a commentary on the flood of people crossing over to shop for cheap goods to sell – anything from plastic bowls and sandals to beer and crates of Coca Cola – and pointed out the side deals going on to get things past the police and onto the train. It may be freight that pays for the line, but even in third class, it is trade that keeps it alive.

Without Rachel, I would have watched and taken pictures and enjoyed myself immensely on my Tazara journey. Thanks to her, I understood a tiny glimpse of a different side of Africa.

The Tazara runs twice a week, leaving Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Kapiri Mposhi on Tuesdays and Fridays; the Tuesday train is the faster express service. To book in Dar, from abroad, the easiest way is to use a tour operator. I used Wild Thing Safaris – Cost inc. commission US$100. In Zambia, contact Lewis Kaluba at Tazara; email:; tel: 00-260-966-747 725. As you are booking direct, it will be cheaper.


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