The Back Of The Bus

The-Back-Of-The-Bus

My brother Brian and Jan Polisensky hitching a thousand miles to the southern tip of Lake Tanganyika in 1963

The Back Of The Bus

Lots of change was in the air in the early sixties. The ‘Negro’ Freedom Riders were protesting against being relegated to sit at the back of the bus in the American South. Their bus was set alight. Macmillan’s Winds of Change were sweeping down Africa.  The great experiment of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dismantled in December of 1963.   Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland got their independence.  My brother, Brian, finished up school at Chaplin High and was headed for Cape Town University and his own much anticipated independence.

The Back Of The Bus

There was a six week gap, over Christmas, between school leaving and higher learning.  Restless after the holiday, Brian wanted to get to Lake Tanganyika having snorkeled in Lake Nyasa amongst the plethora of colorful tropical freshwater fish a few years before with the family. On the map, it seemed a very doable one thousand miles. Jan Polisensky, already having racked up a year at the Post Office Engineering College, agreed to go along for the ride.  Short of cash, they planned to hitch hike.

It was easy to get a 600 mile lift, the going smooth on the tar road north from Bulawayo to Kapiri Mposhi.  Here the road forked; west, paved and well traveled, to the rich Copperbelt.  North: the dirt road beckoned.

The traffic thinned.  Not many were going that way even in 1963.  Rides were few and far between.   They were lucky to make it to Mkushi before night fall. Though they were out on the road early in the morning not a single car passed them the following day.

Next day, luck was with them.  They pushed on to Mpika. Beyond Mpika they branched off the Great North Road.  The tedium of the long haul of endless woodlands to Abercorn with nothing to punctuate it except the occasional isolated trading stores lay ahead. It was three days of waiting before they got a lorry.  Finally at Abercorn they got a lift down the short steep road to Mpulungu,  on the southern tip of the lake.

True to form Brian went for a swim. He struck out for a good distance before he became aware of stinging sensations. He felt slimy things on his thighs.  When he got back to shore he saw big black, leeches clinging to him.

“Where are your fags? The thing to do is burn them,” Jan advised. “This is one time your Dad will be happy you’re a smoker.”

They looked at the inviting ferry MV Liemba that cost a bomb. They inhaled deeply as they poured over the map.  The way north by road was circuitous. The spaces between dots loomed large.  Miles were no longer the measure.  Measurements instead were made in days of waiting.  How many days of waiting would it be between Mbeya and Tabora?

Suddenly the University of Cape Town seemed a long way south.  “I think we’ve come far enough,” Brian said.  “I’ve got to pack for ‘varsity.”

“This is as far as I go. I’m turning off to my farm at this trading store here,” said the driver in the middle of nowhere.

“Who know’s when we’ll get out of here,” said Brian gloomily, taking a deep breath of the meld of smells as he looked around at hessian sacks of mealie meal, along side bags of fertilizer and cement, sugar and flour, tins of paraffin for stoves and lanterns.  Hand ploughs and yokes along with pans for gold prospecting were stacked at one end.  Black cooking pots, aluminum kettles along with Dutch ovens, copper pots for boiling marmalade and dryers for coffee beans were jumbled together. Glass beads and gumballs filled the sweet jars on the counter, men’s suits and cheap cotton frocks hung on a rod at the back of the store.  Bolts of ‘Kaffir‘ sheeting, muslin and canvas were stacked on shelves.  There were rows of tins of sardines and kippers along with boxes of Oxo cubes, Fray Bentos and Beefex canned meats, soups, spreads and gravy powder, Splendo vegetables and puddings, bottles of Olivine and tins of Tanganda tea.  A section of herbal remedies for common ailments was well stocked.  Two typewriters and a few Supersonic radios were for sale. Babies knitted caps and booties were jumbled on a small table. Bolts of fencing wire: barbed, woven, mesh, and poultry, was also on hand.   He negotiated the run of fowls through the store, adjusted his eyes to the filtered light and finally looked up.  There amongst the tin baths, bicycle tubes and tractor tires were two brand new Raleigh bicycles, The Greatest Name in Cycling.   “There is no use hanging around here,” he said.  “Might be weeks before anyone passes by.  Lets buy these bikes and peddle under our own steam to Kapiri Mposhi. Back to thumbing it after that!”

“Buy bikes!  They must be ten pounds a piece,” said Jan in alarm.

“They have the latest Strumey-Archer 4-speed gear and Dynohub,” chimed in the storeowner.

“More to go wrong.” said Jan.  “It’s a long way, hundreds of miles.  What’ll we do with the bikes when we get there?”

“Sell them and get our money back,” said Brian.

“Where is the money coming from in the first place? Now that I’m eighteen I’m on my own.  My old man is not going to spring for me.  It can’t be more than ten shillings to take a bus.  More comfortable.”

“There’s a bus in two days.  You can camp on the verandah if you like, free water and P.K. (toilet)” volunteered the trader.

In Africa there is no such thing as a full bus.  They threw their packs on the roof along with the hoeks (cages) of chickens, sacks of meal, bundles of kutundu (belongings).   They boarded the bus and worked their way past all the mfazies, (women) with babies on thier laps and small picannins (children) at their sides and medalas (old men) headed for one village or another to visit relatives as well as young men destined for jobs on the Copperbelt. They squeezed gratefully onto the bench at the back of the bus.

10 Comments

  • Andrew Davis

    Reply Reply May 29, 2011

    Jan and Brian must have had many more adventures that went exactly like this! Such a great start to Jan’s decades of hitch hiking!
    Thanks for sharing!
    – Andrew

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 29, 2011

      Andrew, Yes, this was the first of many for Jan as you know from all the endless bedtime stories of high adventure from London to Singapore and then some. Jan should write those up….

  • betty

    Reply Reply May 30, 2011

    I agree! Jan probably has so many adventures to share….we have enjoyed many of them!! If not write, then at least record some. We know of no one else who hitch-hiked across the world, practically starving to death, and fending off the evils of the uncharted world! Throwing down the gauntlet, Jan!! You can do it!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 30, 2011

      Jan and I once sketched out a book entitled 80 Ways Around the World chronicling all the different vehicles Jan hitched rides with…ambulances to camels etc…those were the days my friend. Miss having you for dinner…you are such a wonderfully receptive audience.

  • betty

    Reply Reply May 30, 2011

    When are you leaving for Boston? So envious!! Eat lobster and clam chowder until you explode!! Have a wonderful time with Andrew! Is Jan going ? Hope so!

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 31, 2011

      The show is June 15th. Everything shipped. Flowers ordered. Looking forward to it…and the family, food, and big city life in Boston. I’ll eat an extra lobster and bowl of chowder for you.

  • Bob Atkinson

    Reply Reply May 31, 2011

    Marion and I have done trips into this part of Africa on a number of occasions over the last number of years with the first being in 1994/1995. The roads then were terrible.The original plan was to go through Lusaka, Kapiri Imposhi (described in Lonely Planet as the A–hole of Africa, they are not wrong), Mpika, Kasama, Mbala (Abercorn) to Mpulungu. This must have been the same road as your brother took. Our plan was then to put the three vehicals onto the MV Liemba and travell on the ship up to Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi on the Northern tip of the Lake. From there turn West to Mwanza on the Southern end of Lake Victoria, on through the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater to Arusha (Kilimanjaro). From there turn South to Dar Es Salaam and eventually back down home through Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Mozambique was still to dangerous due to land mines in those days, thankfully now mostly lifted.
    However on arival at Mpulungu we were told that the Liemba was broken as usual so the plans changed and we decided to attempt to drive up the Eastern side of the Lake. We got as far as Mpanda in Western Tanzania where we literally drove into a wall of refugees. The troubles had started in Rwanda and they were streaming South in their thousands. Again we were forced to change plans and turn West to Tabora. From there we turned North to Mwanza and were back on plan. To give an idea of the condition of the roads, the distance from Mbala to Mwanza is about 1000kms. It took us a week to travell that distance , stopping only to repair vehicals and set up camp in the evenings. It was incredibly tough as then there were no camp sites so we camped at villages and the odd mission station. On the 16000kms. of the trip, not once did we ever feel threatened by the locals and although they are extremely poor they go out of their way to make you feel welcome. For a good part of the trip we were in the Rift Valley which thankfully is still infested with tsetsy fly so remains very sparcely populated and full of wild animals. On the nights that we could not find a village to camp at we would bush camp and often heard lion arround us despite not being in a reserve. The scenery and sights must rank as some of the finest in the world.
    Today the roads are varstly improved and therefore more accessible but still a great trip. I think I am correct in saying that Lake Tanganyika is the world’s second deepset fresh water lake and is crystal clear. You can snorkel in 10ft. of water and get the impression that you could reach down and touch the carpet of incredibly brightly coloured tropical fish on the bottom. The fishing is fantastic but the indigenous fish are being threatened by the introduction of nile perch
    Bob

    • Diana

      Reply Reply May 31, 2011

      Bob, Amazing that the road hadn’t changed for forty years! (only got worse I expect!). Jan found in his hitchhiking around the world (123 countries) that the poorer the people the more hospitable. He hitch hiked overland from London to Singapore in 1967 departing with 100 pounds on his back and 100 sterling in his pocket. He thought it would take him ten weeks but it took 10 months arriving barefoot and penniless.

      But it’s hard to beat the wildlife experiences of Africa. We experienced the snorkeling earlier (1959) in Lake Nyasa…it was my first and so memorable. Good to know the lakes are still clean. We are also experiencing problems with invasive species here in Oregon….plant and animal, a constant battle with travel and cargo so mobile these days.

      Thanks for the great update entry.

  • Norah

    Reply Reply August 16, 2011

    Do you remember the hitch hiking competitions that a South African newspaper used to run during the Christmas holidays?
    Two boys were a team and they left Johannesburg with R10 and had to see who could get the farthest north and back in a certain time.

    • Diana

      Reply Reply August 17, 2011

      Norah, No I don’t remember this. but Jan must take the all time record for hitchiking. In 1967 he hitch hiked overland from London to Singapore with a final destination of Australia (and work) in mind. He left with a hundred pounds sterling and one hundred pounds in his backpack estimating the trip would take ten weeks. The trip to Singapore took ten months. He arrived, bare foot, with an empty back pack and twenty five pounds lighter in body. There he got on an oil research vessel headed for Australia….but not before spending two years in the South China Sea…Perhaps I should blog about his adventures along the way?

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