Chongwe, Luangwa, Nyimba, Petauke and Katete

Note to self . . . never leave Lusaka with anything less than a full tank of fuel.

Filling up in Luangwa!

I’m always up for a bit of excitement, but our trip to Eastern Province this week proved a little more exciting than is comfortable – on various fronts. If you’d like to share some of the sights, the map below summarises what we saw where (you’ll need to be online to view it):

I was keen to get on the road as soon as possible on Wednesday (11/1/12) morning as the trip to Petauke was going to be a long one. I’d drawn out cash the night before, and we set off early, thinking we’d buy fuel on the way. Mistake. A couple of hours into the journey, we realised this wasn’t the M4. It wasn’t even the Great North Road (which we are used to) or the Kafue Road going south (which had lulled us into a false sense of development). This was the Wild East. There is not a lot between Chongwe and Nyimba and certainly no filling stations. By 11 am, it became blindingly obvious that we were going to run out of fuel.  As the fuel gauge wobbled between ‘Reserve’ and a quarter full we started doing some sums and some planning. When we ran out of fuel would Jane stay in the car while I hitched a lift or would she come with me? How many litres were were going to need to get to the next filling station? The answer was about 30 litres.. so, this wasn’t a small jerry can situation!

At this point some people flagged us down for a lift. One of them was the guy in the NY hat above. “Where are you going?” we said. “Luangwa.” We explained our predicament. “I sell fuel”, he said, “I have fuel in Luangwa”. We were not going to the Luangwa we knew (on the border with Mozambique). And we didn’t have enough fuel to reach there. But the cross-roads town at the river is also called Luangwa. “How far?” we said. “12 Kilometres.” Actually it was 20 or so. “How much?” “10 pin a litre.” 10 pin is ten thousand Kwacha – it’s 8 or 9 a litre in Lusaka. So, this was a bargain…(it must have fallen out of a lorry). Anyway, there is no filling station, as such, in Luangwa. But the picture tells the story and we were on our way.

One good turn deserves another so we stopped to give  lift to another group after Luangwa. We had absolutely no language whatsoever in common and one of the passengers was obviously very sick. We dropped them at Nyimba and they headed straight to the hospital.

The aim for this trip was to sound out wholesalers from our very short shortlist of districts which fit our criteria for the trial. We’d been given a contact in Petauke and we were off to visit him. When we got there we tried to track him down. In the process, we quickly realised that Petauke was not going to work as an intervention district. Among other problems, the Coca-Cola was sold from a shipping container – these get too hot in the summer to store medicines, even the simple medicines we will be distributing. We never did find our contact. The nearest we got to him was his nephew who told us he was travelling outside the country. That would explain my failed attempts to confirm with him before we travelled.

It was now nearly 4pm and we were feeling pretty down in the dumps. It looked like we were going to have to go back to the drawing board, and it’s a long way to go, to find out that what looks good on paper isn’t going to work in real life. But having come all this way, we decided to travel to the next district town, Katete, to ‘have a look’. It was ‘only’ another 100km up the road towards the Malawi border and we’d already driven 400km from Lusaka.

We arrived by 5, and asked where the Coca-Cola wholesaler was. We were directed around the corner. It was easy to find, as there was a huge lorry outside unloading crates of Coca-Cola! We explained in broad terms what we were up to and were guided around the back to meet the owner who greeted us very warmly and invited us in. Anyway, to cut a long story short, after an hour’s discussion we felt we’d found our second ‘willing wholesaler’ in a district that matched our criteria – even though it was a bit further from Lusaka than we’d intended to go. All of sudden, a wasted day was fast turning into a very worthwhile trip. But it was now 6.30 pm and a beautiful sunset quickly took over the horizon. The sun drops fast here; within minutes it would be dark. Zambian roads after dark are full of unlit obstacles, animate and inanimate – and all too often the animate are inanimate by morning. So, we asked about places to stay and in ten minutes pulled up at the recommended lodge. Fully booked.

Sunset at Katete
Katete at dusk

It was decision time. Should we waste another half an hour trawling around the tiny town of Katete in the dark? We’d seen 3 or 4 big lodges in Petauke, it “wasn’t far” (according to our newly calibrated sense of distance) so we decided to drive back. It didn’t take us long, however, to find out that the old merc had 2 more quirks, along with the temperamental electric windows, funny hand-brake and wobbly petrol gauge: the headlights.  They worked, but only when it suited them. So, very slowly, very carefully, both of us peered head into the black, shouting at the slightest movement: “Pedestrians!”, “Bicycle!”, “Goats!”, as we tried to make out the sand drifts across the road, pot holes, broken down lorries, parked pick-ups, and unlit motorbikes coming the wrong way…. We tail-gated other vehicles with better headlights, until nearly two hours (and a dry radiator) later we saw the lights of Petauke ahead – exhausted but so relieved, that we didn’t even mind the mosquitoes that insisted on sharing our net… in fact, we hardly noticed them. What’s a mosquito, when you’ve managed not to hit a cow?

The trip back to Lusaka the next day was long (5hrs) but totally straight forward. Today (Friday the 13th – but auspicious for us) we got the nod for Katete as a suitable intervention district from UNICEF and Rohit. So, we are very pleased. This has enabled us to complete the Terms of Reference for the research aspects of the trial and early next week UNICEF will issue a call for Expressions of Interest for the subcontractor to carry out this (significant) part of the project.



  1. challenges of finding the right distribution points for community medicines and supplies

  2. The intrepid search for District number 2 . . .

  3. challenges of finding the right distribution points for community medicines and supplies