Pole to Pole

Palin, Michael


Book ID 212

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole, 1992
Page Number: 227
Extract Date: Oct 1991


I've noticed that everything in my room from the grey pillow that I didn't dare lay my head on to the mirror I don't shave in front of because there is no hot water is stencilled with a long serial number and the initials TRC" Tanzanian Railway Company. It's appropriate I suppose, for our destiny is now in their hands from here to Mpulungu in Zambia" 800 miles through the heart of Africa.

When nine years old or thereabouts . . . While looking at a map of Africa, and putting my finger on the blank space then representing the unsolved mystery of the continent, I said to myself with absolute assurance and an amazing audacity which are no longer in my character now: 'When I grow up I shall go there'.

I read this last night as mosquitoes poured through the holes in my net and, although it is Joseph Conrad's recollection of his childhood in Poland, it could as well have been an expression of my own boyhood fascination with somewhere as remote from my domestic surroundings as it seemed possible then to be. Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest lake in the world (after Lake Baikal), set in the centre of the African continent, surrounded by mountain and jungle and God knows what is, I'm sure, what I was thinking of. It's now one railway journey away.

I like Dodoma. It's not beautiful but the people are pleasant. Tanzanians don't intrude, they aren't curious or reproving or obsessive starers. They quietly go about their business, which might include selling wooden whistles outside the Parliament building.

`How much?'


`I only have 200.'

`I'll give it to you for 300.'

`I only have 200.'

`All right. 200.'

Now that's the sort of haggling I like.

I meet an Englishman, a university professor checking out Tanzania prior to some investment from the World Bank. He is in despair over the paperwork needed to get anything done here. He shakes his head in disbelief:

`They have a saying in this country that bureaucracy is like God. It's everywhere.'

The servants of God are certainly here in force. Religion seems to be the growth industry. On one of the major intersections the Indian Christians' huge domed neo-classical chateau stands next to the sweeping modern redbrick lines of the Lutheran cathedral, which in turn faces across to the squat polygonal towers and domes of the Anglican Church.

The English language Daily News has a sports headline with a familiar, almost nostalgic ring. 'Angry Fans on Rampage.' Football is popular here with a big match in prospect tonight as Black Fighters of Zanzibar take on Railways of Morogoro, whose players most likely have TRC stencilled somewhere on their bodies.

At ten minutes after midday a large metal cylinder hanging outside the office of the stationmaster at Dodoma is rung loudly, and the purveyors of nuts, eggs, bananas, dried fish, sweet potatoes, rubber sandals, fresh water, loaves of bread, toy aeroplanes and other traveller's fare edge closer to the railway track. Beginning as a distant shimmer, a diesel locomotive with a red cow-catcher and a distinctive yellow V on the front slowly materializes, bringing in the express from the port of Dar es Salaam, 280 miles to the east. It's an enormous relief to see it. This and the boat down Lake Tanganyika are two of the essential connections on the journey. Neither is easy. There is an element of uncertainty about our rights to seats on the train as none of our bookings has been confirmed, and indeed, all our compartments are occupied. Polite persuasion is not enough and we just have to move in and hope that the sight of 30 boxes of film equipment will put the skids under anyone. An emotional farewell to Kalului and Kabagire who have looked after us since the Ethiopia border. I leave Kalului my Michelin map" Africa North and East and Arabia" which I know he coveted.

The train is not in good shape. Most of the windows are broken, and that's only in First Class. There are, considerately, two types of lavatory, announced on their doors as 'High Type' (European) and 'Low Type' (non-European). Once we are under way, I approach the High Type, prepared for the worst, only to find that it is not there at all. The High Type has vanished, leaving behind only a hole in the floor.

It's seven in the evening. To the restaurant car for dinner. Hot and crowded, but there's something familiar about it. A metal manufacturer's disc by the door reads 'BREL, Derby 1980'. Of course, these battered coaches rolling across the East African bush, are exactly the same design as British Inter-City stock. They may look as if they've had it but they're 30 years younger than those which many London commuters travel in.

Chicken or fish with rice and potatoes. Run DMC rap music sounds loudly from the next door table, making it difficult to hear my dining companion who says he is a footballer with CDA Tabora. CDA stands for Capital Development Authority. Not an easy one to chant on the terraces.

We stop frequently, and I wish I hadn't eaten on the train. By the line-side is a feast of food" tables set up with chicken stews and rice and beans, all fresh from voluminous saucepans. Kebabs and live chickens and even a duck are bought and sold through the windows. At all these stops I've been aware of a persistent clicking sound. I thought it might be cicadas but now I see it is made by children who carry their wares" cigarettes maybe, or bananas" in one hand and click loose coins in the other to attract business.

Craig and Nigel have ears pressed to a radio at the window, trying, in the midst of this line-side cacophony, to pick up the sound from Edinburgh where England are playing Scotland in the Rugby Union World Cup semifinal.

Nigel suddenly turns from the radio with a look of total disbelief: `They've gone to the news! . . . They've gone to the news with two minutes left!'

As we pull away from Itigi, 105 miles beyond Dodoma, Mbego, our coach attendant, a wraith-like figure in white cap, blue tunic and trousers, appears dragging a shapeless green canvas bundle from which he extricates my bedding which he lays out with infinite care and precision. Later I see him sitting at the open door of the train gently and ruminatively stroking the head of a young man next to him.

Night falls and the electricity supply fails. To sleep reading Heart of Darkness by torchlight. Outside is Africa . . . 'its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life . .

Extract ID: 5727

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole, 1992
Page Number: 231
Extract Date: Oct 1991


Dream of thousands of shuffling feet, a babble of strange voices, baby cries, chickens clucking, heavy objects being dragged close by me, clicks and curses and strange cries. My eyes are wide open, but I can see nothing. My window has been boarded up. The noises continue, growing in intensity.

Dawn. In the Low Type, which is filthy and caked with un-flushed waste, a sign reads The co-operation of passengers is required to prevent waste of water and the misuse of this toilet compartment'. There's no water to waste.

Something is different about the train this morning. It's shorter for a start, and the restaurant car is different (the clock has stopped at 8.10 rather than 1.05). Over breakfast of fried egg, boiled potato, bread, marge and three cups of sweet tea, I hear the explanation of my dream last night. Soon after midnight the train stopped at Tabora in order to be split up and re-grouped into three separate trains. Patti and Craig had to spend three hours on the platform making sure our equipment was not sent north to Mwanza or south to Mpanda. Apparently Patti received one proposal of marriage. Craig none, sadly. Angela tried to help out with her torch until she found out that the entire shunting manoeuvres at Tabora were being co-ordinated by torch signals.

Later, to the restaurant car for elevenses. It is closed. All the windows have been covered up with some kind of material. Rueful smiles all round. No one seems particularly worried, except me. I try again in half an hour only to find the rueful smiles turned to wholehearted joy at the continued closure of the restaurant. Then a soldier emerges from inside, positively wreathed in smiles.

`It is a girl,' he announces.

It must be almost as we touch the 30 degree meridian, for the first time since the Mediterranean, that a little girl is born in the restaurant car of the Dar es Salaam to Kigoma Express. It is certainly the best thing the restaurant car has provided so far and I take it as a very good omen for the rest of our journey.

Mercury being well out of retrograde at the moment things do seem to be going, if not comfortably, at least smoothly and we are on the final curve into Kigoma by late afternoon, only three and a half hours behind schedule on a 27-hour journey. A lush, thick, heavy heat spills in from the open doorway. Children run out from groves of bananas, papaya and mango to wave at the train. Mbego sits on the step at the end of our coach, unselfconsciously tickling the ear of his friend. There is a marked absence of the heightened stress and strain that usually grips arriving passengers.

Kigoma Station is a fine old colonial building, and looks as though it could be North Italian with its arches and loggia. Its grand clock, in the fine tradition of TRC, is stopped. Useless Facts Department: from a hanging sign above one of the doors I learn that the Swahili for Stationmaster is Steshinimasta.

We are driven to our lodgings by a soft-spoken middle-aged man in a well-kept Toyota Corolla, with a transfer of the Pope on one window. He turns out to be a doctor as well as a taxi driver and apologizes for not taking the direct road to the hotel.

`There are large holes in it, you understand.'

Our detour bounces us along a red earth track, scattering chickens and goats, which leads to the low, nondescript fa´┐Żade of the Railway Hotel.

We unload for the 53rd time. Kigoma, elevation 2541 feet, population 50,044, is just about bang on course at 29.36 degrees East. We have completed our long, enforced eastern swing from Khartoum in 30 days, and hopefully we've made it in time to make the infrequent but vital ferry connection to Mpulungu and Zambia.

Clem, who should be feeling very pleased with himself, appears from hotel reception looking quite the opposite. Apparently no one knows anything about our bookings, and they do not have enough rooms for us. Kigoma is by no means awash with alternative accommodation so this is a cruel blow. As Clem and Angela embark on the slow process of sorting out the reservations, I walk across a bare and uninviting lobby to be confronted with the sort of view that lifts the spirits however low they might have sunk. A descent of chipped concrete steps leads down to a grassy bank, studded with tables and parasols, beyond which the waves of a wide blue-green lake spill lethargically onto a beach of coarse red sand. Lake Tanganyika, confined here into a small bay between low, grassy headlands, stretches away, across to the hazy cliffs of Zaire, once the Congo, Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

It is a breathtaking revelation of scale and space, as if I had opened a door onto the centre of Africa.

`When I grow up I shall go there . .

Well, I've had my cosmic moment and now the reality must be faced. The Railway Hotel, Kigoma is not the heart of darkness. It is more like a cross between a pub in Earl's Court and a minor Hilton. Encamped on the thick unmown lawns are two dozen Australian and New Zealand overlanders drinking beer. A Japanese film crew are at work in the lake and another harassed European rushes past us clutching a sheaf of papers.

After hours of patient negotiation we are all found rooms. They are arranged in unglamorous functional blocks which do no justice at all to the splendour of the location. Mine has a small bed with a frame for a mosquito

and basin, but no hot water. My lavatory is of the High Type, but the cistern overflows gently and persistently. As if to further mock my dreams of solitariness and isolation, all I can hear as I unpack is a radio crackling out the last seconds of commentary from the Rugby Union World Cup followed by a roar from the darkness outside as Australia defeat New Zealand.

Later I settle down with Conrad on my narrow bed, and read myself to sleep to the sound of 'the howling sorrow of savages' and the gentle lapping of an overflowing lavatory cistern.

Extract ID: 5728

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole, 1992
Page Number: 233
Extract Date: Oct 1991


Day of rest and recuperation at the hotel. I have fixed the cistern by jamming a lavatory brush beneath the ballcock.

Examine myself in the mirror (Serial Number TRC HOT GM NM 024) to see whether three and a half months of

travel have left any damage. I gaze into dull weary eyes set in sun-reddened features. A bleached immobility of expression. I look like a survivor from some awful natural disaster. Laugh at the thought, and only then do I recognize something of myself.

At breakfast" omelette, chips and sliced white bread" the manager apologizes for the lack of facilities:

`We have hot water boilers and supply all ready, but no one comes to fit them' . . . He rubs a handkerchief across his face and shakes his head . . . 'They are simply standing in waste.'

A few African horror stories with our omelettes . . . Craig tells us that in his opinion electric shocks are the best cure for snake-bites. He recounts the story of someone whose life was saved after a bite" from 'some sort of cobra'" when he was wired up to an outboard motor.

Put the earth in one hand and the live wire on the bite. Five applications in 15 seconds. Oh sure, his hair stood on end and he was lifted a foot or two off the ground, but the doctors said it saved his life.'

After breakfast, having ascertained that the risk of bilharzia is low as the water is not stagnant, that crocodiles would not come in this far and sea serpents are all I have to watch out for, I take a cautious bathe. The water is clear and cool, the surroundings quite beautiful. No sailing boats or watersporters to disturb the peace. Only the barely perceptible wake of a passing dugout troubles the placid water. And I can tell my grandchildren that I swam in Lake Tanganyika.

Dry out in warm sun with a cold Safari Beer. At the bar is a small, straight-backed European who turns out to have spent 19 months in Antarctica. Had he enjoyed it?

He pulls fiercely on a cigarette, scouring it for every last ounce of nicotine, before answering, with eyes narrowed against an endless exhalation.

`Put it zis vay . . . It is an experience you should go through.'

He knows the MV Agulhas, the ship we hope to take to Antarctica, and asks me to remember him to the captain.

`Sure . . . Your name?'

Doktor Brandt,' he replies after an inexplicable hesitation. I ask him what he's doing here in Kigoma.

`Teaching blacks to use the telephone,' he replies crisply.

Having nothing better to do, I begin to suspect him of being involved in some sort of racket and later I find that I could be right, when I overhear him asking the manager, sotto voce, 'Any news?'

This surely is the stuff of Conrad. At last a whiff of intrigue and corruption in the heart of darkness.

It turns out that he is enquiring as to the whereabouts of his lavatory seat.

The manager spreads his arms helplessly. We wait for them . . .' But the Doktor is not in a mood to be trifled with.

`Vy cannot you take the lavatory seat from 14 and put it in 15?'

I rush to make sure my door's locked against possible loo seat predators.

Round off a bizarre day eating goat stew and drinking Primus beer from Burundi in a local restaurant in the middle of a power cut. Our host is the taxi driver-doctor, whose name is William, who has become our self-appointed guide to Kigoma. The restaurant, or what I can see of it in the lamplight, is rough and ready, with an ancient, almost biblical feel to it. Above the doorway is a large hand-lettered wooden board, like a pub sign. I presume that to be the name of the restaurant and ask William for a translation.

`It says "Pay Before You Leave".'

Anyway, the goat is excellent, and best of all, it is not the property of Tanzanian Railways.

Extract ID: 5729

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole, 1992
Page Number: 236
Extract Date: Oct 1991


Another day to kill before the ferry leaves. Take a boat to Ujiji, a few miles down the coast. Once the centre of a thriving slave trade it's also the place where Livingstone and Stanley met in 1871.

The location of this historic meeting is now a small museum in a well-tended garden on a hill above the busy waterfront. A forbidding, lumpish grey monument, 'erected by the Government of Tanganyika Territory' in 1927, stands beneath two mango trees said to be descendants of the one under which Livingstone and Stanley met. On it is carved a map of Africa with a cross incised into it. It's a brutal and arrogant image. The only visitor besides ourselves is an Englishman from Leicester, looking very red and unprotected in the sun. He is in his fifties and had decided, after reading a book about Cecil Rhodes' plan for a railway from the Cape to Cairo, to do the journey himself. Today he had only one thing on his mind:

`All I'm looking for, Michael, is a cold beer.' I suggest he make for the Railway Hotel, Kigoma.

Things are more light-hearted inside the museum, despite its depressingly empty rooms and smell of disuse. Most of the work is by a local schoolteacher, A. Hamisi. There is a series of paintings of the great moments in the life of Livingstone" 'Dr Livingstone saving Chuma and Others from Slavery', 'Dr Livingstone Sitting Under the Mango Tree Thinking About Slavery in Ujiji'. Beside these are two life-size papier mache models of Livingstone, looking like Buster Keaton in dark blue three-piece suit, raising his peaked cap to a Stanley looking like Harold Macmillan in light blue safari suit and pink face. These are also the work of A. Hamisi of Kigoma Secondary School. There is nothing else in the museum.

We drive out of Ujiji, up Livingstone Street, then right at Lumumba Road, and back via Mwanga" home of 'Vatican Enterprises Hardware Supplies' and 'Super Volcano Tailoring' to the busy mango and acacia-lined main street of Kigoma" also named after Patrice Lumumba, one of the great heroes of African independence who was assassinated in 1961.

At the Railway Hotel, half an hour before sunset. This is a magic time as the sun sinks toward the lake and the mountains of Zaire, always grey in the haze, sharpen to a deep black. At the lakeside tonight Australians and New Zealanders, Dr Brandt, erect and smoking powerfully, two Dutch boys, the Japanese underwater cameraman, even my friend from Leicester gather to watch the sun go down, and for a few minutes every sound, even the cries of the naked children plunging into water nearby, seems to grow distant.

Extract ID: 5730

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole, 1992
Page Number: 240
Extract Date: Oct 1991


Down to the waterfront at 9 a.m. to join the queue for tickets on the ferry which runs to Mpulungu once a week. Ahead of me in the line is Francis, a farmer from Karema, one of the stops on the way down the lake. I explain to him what we are doing, and, with more difficulty, why we are doing it. He listens carefully before asking, politely, 'And will your film help to solve the problems it exposes?'

The MV Liemba, 800 tons, her lines as straight as the back of a Prussian cavalry officer, is said to be the oldest passenger ship in regular service anywhere in the world. Judging by her history she could have been better named the MV Lazarus. Built as a warship in Germany, she was carried in pieces overland and assembled on Lake Tanganyika in 1913. At the end of the Great War she was scuttled by the Germans, and lay on the bottom of the lake until raised and refitted by the British in 1922. She was in regular operation as a steam ship, before being converted to diesel in 1978. After 80 years she remains the only way out of Kigoma to the south or to the west. If we had missed today's sailing we would almost certainly have missed the sailing from Cape Town to Antarctica in a month's time.

We pull away at 5 p.m. The Australian and New Zealand overlanders have taken over the stern deck, and the locals crowd into the bows or the lower covered decks, squashing in with their boxloads of plastic sandals, pineapples, and even Lion Brand Mosquito Coils" 'Keep Out of Damp' "and with apparent good grace accepting the presence of two white-owned Land Rovers, which further reduce the space. At least we can all feel ourselves better off than the several hundred tired and confused occupants of the Kabambare, a barge just arrived from Kalemie in Zaire. They are refugees from the inter-tribal violence which has recently flared up in their country. They do not know if the Tanzanian authorities will accept them.

A last look at Kigoma from the departing ferry. I had come here expecting dense jungle, snakes, monkeys and swamps. Instead the town at the centre of Africa resembles a small port on a discreet Scottish loch, with the railway line running picturesquely between the water and low grassy hills" reassuring, comfortable, rendered exotic only by the bright slash of purple from the jacaranda trees on the shore.

My cabin has the stamp of Tanzanian Railways all over it. It claims to be air-conditioned but the fan is missing. There is a basin but no water, hot or cold. All but one of the light bulbs is missing.

Three hours out from Kigoma I am unenthusiastically facing up to a plate of rice and scrawny chicken leg, when the engine note changes down an octave, the ship slows and within seconds the night air is filled with a growing clamour of voices. They grow louder and more insistent, and are mingled with the splash of paddles and the thudding of boats against the hull. Out on deck in some alarm to witness an extraordinary scene. Flooded by powerful shipboard lights, a dozen or more dugouts are clustering around the Liemba like maggots at a corpse, filled with vendors of every kind of food, families trying to get themselves and their belongings aboard and water taxis touting to take people off. Everyone is screaming to make themselves heard, as a forest of hands extends from below decks, waving, beckoning, holding out money, helping some people aboard and others down into the bobbing mass of boats below.

Every boat is vying with its neighbour to get close to the Liemba. As soon as the tiniest gap is glimpsed paddles are applied furiously and very often one hull will ride up over another, until with cries of protest, the offending canoe is thrust back. Babes in arms are passed to the hopeful safety of outstretched hands. Small boys frantically bale out their boats.

This is African business. The whites can only watch and photograph. There is an urgency about it all that is spellbinding and exhilarating and exhausting. And I'm told later that what looked like a fully-fledged native attack is just one of 15 scheduled stops.

Extract ID: 5731

See also

Palin, Michael Pole to Pole, 1992
Page Number: 241
Extract Date: Oct 1991


Aboard the Liemba, Lake Tanganyika. The last day of October, 1991. Have taken a capsule of Imodium as a prevention against having to make use of the toilet facilities. I know it is unwise to meddle with my metabolism but the alternative is too frightful to contemplate.

It has rained before dawn and I step out of my cabin onto the head of a sleeping figure swathed in cotton robe and woollen shawls. I needn't have bothered with my profuse British apologies as he doesn't wake up. A row of passengers is sheltering beside him. Their heads turn towards me, defensive and unsmiling. My hot and airless little cabin may not be the last word in comfort but it is First Class, and I know that by the time I return from breakfast the officious policemen on board will have shooed these people back down below.

Later in the day the captain agrees to be interviewed. His name is Beatus T. Mghamba and he lives on the bridge deck, which is nearly always empty apart from the lifeboats (made by Meclans Ltd of Glasgow in 1922), a jolly group of ladies and a hard-drinking Englishman. At the appointed time for the interview" about five in the afternoon" I knock on Captain Mghamba's door. After some time it is answered by a handsome dreadlocked lady who

is obviously surprised to see me. I ask for the Captain. She disappears into the cabin. There is a long wait and some muttering before she returns. `He is asleep.'

She bats not an eyelid, and as I utter the immortal phrase, 'When he wakes up, tell him the BBC are waiting', she closes the door on me.

The Captain finally appears, dishevelled but surprisingly cheerful after his sleep. I ask him about the problems of running an 80-year-old ship.

The ship is big, but the engine is small . . . manoeuvring is a little bit difficult.' He shrugs. He has no chart of the lake.

`We are sailing this through experience. If you are one mile away from the shore you will be safe.'

The Liemba, he tells me, is registered to carry 500 passengers and 34 crew, 'but sometimes, in summer seasons where we find that these people along Lake Tanganyika are harvesting their crops it can be more.'

`How many more?'

`Up to a thousand.'

At one of our 15 stops a wedding party paddles out to welcome guests off the ship. Huge brightly-coloured flags and banners stream in the wind and there is great singing and chanting as they circle the ship. The progress of the Liemba reminds me of the Hurtigrute service which took us up through the Norwegian fiords three and a half months ago. In both cases the service is the only lifeline for communities unreachable by road or air. There the similarity ends. I cannot imagine the manic, uncontrolled exuberance of the Liemba surviving long in the cold Protestant waters of the North Atlantic.

As we progress south, some Zambians come aboard. Tomorrow they are voting for a new government, and I am quite shocked to hear that Kenneth Kaunda is so unpopular that he may well be unseated after 28 years in power. I always had the impression that he was one of the most secure, successful and responsible of the post-colonial leaders, but Japhet Zulu from Chingola, who describes himself as 'a simple businessman', thinks Kaunda has ruined the economy and he will not be voting for him.

At dusk, unobserved, except by me, one of the policemen who chases steerage passengers off the upper decks has removed his hat and boots and is praying towards Mecca. The sight of this man of authority so completely prostrating himself before a higher authority is oddly moving.

Extract ID: 5732