Matt and Rachel's African travel blog
We’d had a pretty good run for the first month or so, but it had to happen to us somewhere. It turned out our first unpleasant encounter with the police was in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, a city whose traffic police apparently has about the worst record of corruption in the nation.
We’d just arrived in the city and were driving through the centre on the way to our guesthouse in the suburbs on the outskirts, when a taxi van raced past us and started swerving side to side, forcing us to slow down, and seemingly wanting us to stop. Of course, we had no intention of stopping for a strange vehicle under such circumstances, so we tried to manoeuvre around it, but this proved unsuccessful. We were beginning to get slightly concerned about how to get away when we noticed that a woman in some sort of uniform was getting out of the front passenger seat and walking over to us.
It turned out she was an officer in the previously-mentioned traffic police, and asked to see Matt’s drivers’ licence. After confirming that she was in fact who she said she was (at least as far as we could tell), Matt showed her his licence. She promptly confiscated it and told us to accompany her back to the local police station, where she said she would explain the offence and what would happen next.
Thankfully the drive was not far, and she did in fact take us to a real police station, or at least to the car park out the back, where a number of her colleagues were milling around. She proceeded to explain that at the intersection prior to where she had stopped us we had gone straight using a lane that was marked for turning right only, and that the offence was disobeying a written traffic sign or marking. (Although we hadn’t seen the lane marking at the time, this turned out to be true.)
We apologised and explained that we were new to the city, that we hadn’t seen the marking, but that we had looked to see if there were any other cars coming at the time (which there weren’t), and that we felt our driving was not unsafe. There was some discussion on this point, during which she mentioned that she was generously not upgrading the offence to one of dangerous driving, which was considerably more serious and an impoundable offence.
It seemed as though there was very little chance of her letting us off with a warning, so we said we understood the offence and would pay the fine (which was not unreasonable), but (in keeping with advice we’ve been given) that we would like an official receipt.
This would be a problem, she said, because it was Sunday afternoon and the police station was closed. If we wanted a receipt we would have to leave the car in the carpark and return the following day to pay the fine, collect the receipt, and pick up the car. However, we were free to pay the fine in cash to her immediately, and then we could proceed on our way. We asked why it was possible to issue and pay a fine with the police office closed, but not receive a receipt. This was not satisfactorily answered.
At this point we were directed to what turned out to be a sequence of other police officers. We explained the situation to each of them, pointing out that we understood the offence and were prepared to pay the fine, but wanted a receipt. In each case, they quickly got bored of us and directed us on to another officer. Eventually we reached one who seemed to be slightly more senior, and slightly less enthusiastic about relieving us of our cash. After confirming that we were tourists and not residents, she told us to drive carefully and that we were free to go. We didn’t wait for her (or anyone else) to reconsider this, and hit the road as quickly as (legally) possible.
We should point out here that the vast majority of police officers we’ve encountered, both in Zambia and elsewhere, have seemed professional, courteous, sincere, and in many cases even very friendly. (We should also point out that there are a ridiculously large number of police checkpoints in many southern and eastern African countries!) However, as happens in many other cases also, the actions of a small number of ’bad apples’ spoil the reputation of the majority.
Most of our guidebooks and the other travellers we’d spoken to had suggested we minimise our time in Lusaka, but unfortunately we couldn’t skip through as we needed to visit the Malawian and Tanzanian consulates to apply for visas. We were very close to managing to apply for and receive both within 8 hours, which would have been record time, but a network failure at the Tanzanian consulate held us up for another half a day. (The network wasn’t actually fixed in the end, but we were told that it shouldn’t be a problem to have the visa issued at the border.)
Despite warnings about poor road conditions, the newly resurfaced Great East Road from Lusaka lived up to its name, and the drive was surprisingly scenic and stress-free, save for the occasional suicidal goat (we managed to avoid all of them) and a 15-minute burst of torrential rain that we had to stop and wait out.
Our final stop in Zambia was the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia’s premiere wildlife viewing region. Although the first evening was mainly occupied by Matt recovering from a bout of food poisoning, on the second evening we had a very successful game drive. We’ll spare you too much more reading and go straight to the pictures…