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Long roads, lodges, lions and a long ladder with baboon poo

We just had time to publish our last blog post before we left Livingstone, so I thought I’d do a quick recap on our time there.

We had a rendezvous with my brother Francis, my niece Sarah and my nephew Ben. They’d just about recovered from the Zambezi hippo attack.

In Livingstone, we stayed at the Fawlty Towers backpackers. But there was nothing faulty about the establishment. Once through the small front gates, the area opened up to reveal a large manicured garden, pool and bar area and, they even offered free pancakes in the afternoon!

Francis sponsored both Sarah and me to do a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls Bridge. It’s a 113 meter drop so it was a terrifying way to fundraise another 2 bikes for our World Bicycle Relief campaign (nudge nudge hint hint Francis). Sarah didn’t hesitate at all before hurling herself off which was especially impressive as she only decided to jump about an hour earlier.

James's niece, Sarah, throws herself off the Victoria Falls Bridge to raise enough for another 2 bikes for World Bicycle Relief

James’s niece, Sarah, throws herself off the Victoria Falls Bridge to raise enough for another 2 bikes for World Bicycle Relief

After saying early-morning goodbyes to my family, we rode to the Zambia/Botswana border at Kazungula. There, we bought fuel for our stove from a guy selling it illegally from his hideout in the bushes, got our Zambia exit stamps in our passports and wheeled our biked onto the one of the small flat-level ferries that crisscross the Chobe river between Zambia and Botswana. We’d heard that overladen trucks had caused a few ferries to sink in the past resulting in many deaths. Even though there are now mandatory weighbridge checks for trucks, our ferry’s engine was at full revs at it struggled against the current to get us across.

James checks out the view from the Zambia/Botswana ferry across the Chobe River

James checks out the view from the Zambia/Botswana ferry across the Chobe River

The ferry at the border crossing is a huge bottleneck for the truckers heading north from Botswana. The queue of trucks can stretch for many kilometers and we learned that it takes about 8 days from joining the back of the queue to crossing the border into Zambia. The long-awaited construction of a bridge has recently started.

Once stamped into Botswana, our 23rd country, we headed to the magnificent Bakwena Lodge in Kazungula, where we were incredibly grateful to have been invited to stay for the evening.

Owners Adam and Jen told us they’d bought the land in the early 2000s, but they’d had to endure 12 years of bureaucracy before the land was ‘re-zoned’ from agriculture to leisure/tourism so they could build the lodge. The wait was worth it.

They’ve created a tranquil eco-luxury retreat on the banks of the Chobe River. 10 chalets, each with their own private deck and river view offer simple luxury and a very special personal touch that made us feel incredibly special.

We had the most amazing welcome, meals and what’s more, we got to experience a majestic intimate sunset cruise on the Chobe River. This gave us the opportunity to see loads of animals (Kudu, crocodiles, monitor lizards and hippos) at close quarters but the highlight was witnessing two elephants cavorting in the water – from only a few meters away. It was stunning.

Adam and his son see us off after we spent an amazing evening at Bakwena Lodge

Adam and his son see us off after we spent an amazing evening at Bakwena Lodge

As we got back on our bikes the next morning and the staff sang us a farewell song, we were finding it very difficult to leave. And, if we’d known what was going to happen to us next, we may well have never left at all!

The stretch of road from Kazungula to Nata is 300km long with only two places to pick up water and food. After 100km, there’s a tiny town of Pandamatenga but then there’s nothing for 150km until you reach the Elephant Sands campsite. Then it’s just 50km to the larger town of Nata.

The road slices straight through the Botswana bush which is home to tens of thousands of elephants and huge numbers of buffalo, hyena, leopard and lions. We can’t cycle 150km in a day without leaving at dawn and arriving at sunset – which is highly unadvisable because these are the times at that lions are most active.

We had to plan this section carefully.

Emily and I had been discussing what we should do on this section of road for many weeks. My preferred option was to wild camp out in the bush. If we lit a fire the animals would stay away and African predators, even lions, don’t just pluck people out of their tents at night. Lions aren’t polar bears.

Emily, on the other hand, has a more cautious attitude towards the African wildlife and was dead set against wild camping alone where lions roam free. Her preferred option was to accept an invite from a farmer, Paul, we’d been put in touch with who lived 20km off the road from Pandamatenga. He’d even offered to pick us up from the road. The only trouble with this was that we’d needed to cycle 150km on day 2, which we thought would be too risky on this road to ensure we were off the road at dawn and dusk.

We needed to find a compromise.

That compromise came when we met a northbound cyclist, Jacob, in Zambia. He told us that he’d spent a wonderful night sleeping on top of a lookout tower, which was 30km south of Pandamatenga. He even saw elephants wander underneath his perch at sunset and advised us that it was a very special place to camp.

It seemed like the perfect compromise; we’d be able to do the mileage on day 1 which wouldn’t leave us overstretched on day 2 and we’d get to experience sleeping in the bush – hearing the sounds of the animals at night – whilst being out of reach of any of them.

The only trouble was that Emily’s terrified of heights.

But, after some gentle persuasion, she was wiling to give it a go.

We left Kazungula and cycled past the long queue of trucks. Many of the drivers shouted “be careful of the lions!” to us as we cycled past. Signs at the side of the road warned that we were now in a wildlife area and exempted the authorities if anything were to happen to us.

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Taking a break with the sign warning of animals behind

Taking a break with the sign warning of animals behind

At Bakwena Lodge, Adam gave us parting words that African animals are much like icebergs. It’s not the ones that you can see that are the problem, it’s the ones you can’t. So with that warning ringing in our ears, we cycled along the long, straight flat road towards our first night’s stop, and scanned the bush constantly for any sign of wildlife.

For a road known as ‘the Elephant Highway’, we were disappointed to see only the one elephant on the first day. When it saw us it turned on its heels and ran into the bush. Rather that than at us.

A headwind made progress tough going and, due to a later start that expected, we were battling against time. We both had to put in a lot of effort to battle a headwind. When we finally reached Pandamatenga, I went into the shop to feed our daily Coke habit and came out to find Emily slumped against the wall, absolutely zonked.

After a sugar fix, we were back on the road. It was now 4pm and we had 28 kilometers to do and to ascend the tower before we could be assured of safety.

We received a text from farmer Paul. “Be careful,” It read “Botswana’s largest pride of lions lives 20km south of Pandamatenga”.

This made us put in even more effort on the bike. Emily, who’d been struggling with the heat and headwind all afternoon, found some energy out of nowhere and we made good speed towards our destination.

8km short of the tower, we rode over a cattle grid that marked the transition from ‘safer’ (although not entirely safe) farming land to the open bush again. Soon afterwards, we were stopped by an Afrikaans lady who asked us where we were going because it was getting late and wild animals were around. We explained we were going to sleep up the lookout tower. “You know that baboons live there? “ she said, “You’ll have to fight the baboons for the tower. They’ll probably move away but they’ll bark at you throughout the night!”

This made Emily question our idea even more but I reassured her and the lady that we’d be fine. The lady drove off and Emily told me I was being “belligerent”.

We arrived at the tower just as the sun was touching the tops of the trees. In this part of the world, the sun drops behind the horizon like a lead balloon so we didn’t have much time to make it to the top of the tower.

But climbing the tower was a lot easier said than done.

The platform was high and was reached by a very small, rickety vertical ladder. It was also covered in baboon poo.

Being a gentleman, I invited Emily to go first.

She made it a few rungs up before asking if there was another option. Nearby, there was a compound of disused buildings so we went over and tried to find a way through the padlocked gate. We couldn’t, so there was no other option but to give the tower another go.

This time, Emily made it half way up before being overcome by her fear of heights. I thought about ‘motivating’ her to keep climbing by telling her that lions were coming but didn’t think it would go down too well. She clung on bravely, baboon poo oozing between her fingertips, before deciding that she couldn’t continue.

To be fair, even if we’d made it to the top, it would have been a cold an uncomfortable night and I’d have had to have done 12 shuttle runs up the tower to get our kit up there (for fear of our precious panniers being ripped open by prying animals).

In the meantime, the efforts of the afternoon’s sprint had caught up with me and I started to feel feint and started retching. We needed to get out of there.

We headed back to the road to thumb a lift back to the ‘safer’ side of the cattle grid. The second vehicle stopped and offered us a lift but, just then, the Afrikaans lady who’d stopped us earlier returned with her husband and son and invited us to stay at their house – in fact they had come along to check on us and bring us some coffee before seeing our new predicament. I accepted her offer before she could finish her sentence.

En route, their son told us they had a “very stupid” dog because it kept on sitting on puff adders. Referring our hosts’ dog in Kampala that had chewed my Vaude sleeping mat, I told him that I also knew a very stupid dog. “It’s so stupid it walks backwards and wags its head”. Everyone laughed. When the laughter died down, the boy, in his strong Afrikaans accent said “I don’t know what you just said but I laughed anyway because everyone else did!” which made us all laugh even more.

We are incredibly grateful to Herman and Anname for coming to rescue us that night and giving us a lovely shower, meal and somewhere to sleep that wasn’t covered in baboon poo. They were also kind enough to drop us back at the tower the next morning so we didn’t have to do the additional 30km.

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The Lookout tower where we’d planned but failed to camp

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Annoyingly, we have lost the piece of paper with Herman and Anname’s address so, if you’re reading this, please do contact us as we’d love to send you a personal thank you.

The next day we battled the headwind on the long road south. Sightings of warthog and giraffe livened up the journey but, in truth, we were still on edge as we scanned the roadside bush for big cats.

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Sightings of giraffes livened up the journey

We made it to Elephant Sands, a delightful camp set around a waterhole. As its name suggests, elephants frequent it but due to recent rains, there’s plenty of water around in the bush so the elephants don’t need to come to this specific waterhole. Although we didn’t spot any elephants at the camp, we had a peaceful night’s sleep and breakfasted whilst cheeky hornbills perched on our bikes.

A cheeky hornbill perched on our bikes as we breakfasted at Elephant Sands

A cheeky hornbill perched on our bikes as we breakfasted at Elephant Sands

The next day we made it to Nata, picked up some provisions and headed to Nata Lodge where we camped for two nights. We met Stuart and Sheelaugh, who were Zimbabweans now living in Australia and were on holiday in Botswana. When they lived in Zim, they were good friends with Chris and Hillary, who we stayed with in Zambia. Small world.

Nata Lodge sits on the edge of the Makgadikgadi and Nxai salt pans. It’s the largest network of salt pans in the world – the same size as Switzerland – and, having seen the (former) Top Gear team drive across them a few years ago, I’d always wanted to visit. We booked onto an evening tour to see them. We were more than a little disappointed when the guide pulled up at a huge lake and explained that, because of the rains, the pans were flooded. A warning would have been nice.

The sun sets over the Makgadikgadi Pan - which was flooded on our visit

The sun sets over the Makgadikgadi Pan – which was flooded on our visit

The adventurers at the Makgadikgadi Pan

The adventurers at the Makgadikgadi Pan

We left Nata on my birthday and started early so we could get our 100km done in good time to enjoy our stay at Planet Baobab. It’s an impressive lodge let around huge baobab trees and I allowed myself a birthday beer whilst sat by the pool.

The next morning, we were taking a short break under the shade of a thorn tree at the side of the road when a 4X4 with a familiar logo passed. It was the Tour d’Afrique – the organised and supported Cairo to Cape Town cycle ride. They stopped to say hi and invited us to pop in for a cup of tea as we passed their camp 30km up the road.

We did and chatted to front-runners Rupert and Katja. That cup of tea turned into two or three and, before we knew it, we decided to make up our miles the next day and camp the evening with them.

We’d been following the Tour d’Afrique’s progress and were wondering when they were going to pass us. It was great to spend time with other cyclists doing a similar journey but on a very different purpose, schedule and budget to ours.

Having three meals a day and a mechanic at your disposal sounded like heaven to us but, on reflection, we wondered if they’d missed out on many of the experiences that have made our adventure so special – such as market traders in Sudan refusing payment for our vegetables or being invited to stay in locals’ houses as we have. Perhaps the Tour d’Afrique gives the safety ‘cocoon’ that some people who want to cycle in this continent desire? If so, it’s not a bad cocoon to be in and we had a lot of fun with the team that night and were very thankful for the delicious meal they cooked us.

The Tour d'Afrqiue bandwagon rolls into 'town'

The Tour d’Afrqiue bandwagon rolls into ‘town’

We headed west to Maun, where we had a wonderful couple of nights with Hattie and Chris and their 3 beautiful daughters Isla, Ottalie and Amelia. Hattie is alumni of Emily’s old School and is now a renowned scientific researcher on herbivores. We tried on some of the animal tracking collars that emit signals several times a minute and joked that our parents would be over the moon if we’d worn these on our trip instead of the 30-minute update we have on our London to Cape Town Live GPS Tracker. I had fun throwing tennis balls for the dog but the poor thing had to rely more on smell than on its deteriorating sight due to too many run ins with spitting cobras.

We tried on some of the animal tracking collars that emit signals several times a minute and joked that our parents would be over the moon if we’d worn these on our trip instead of the 30-minute update we have on our London to Cape Town Live GPS Tracker

We tried on some of the animal tracking collars that emit signals several times a minute and joked that our parents would be over the moon if we’d worn these on our trip instead of the 30-minute update we have on our London to Cape Town Live GPS Tracker

Maun lies on the edge of the Okavango Delta. We’d have loved to have paid a visit but you need bags of cash to do so. Botswana has a ‘high value/low volume’ approach to tourism and the inland delta is home to some of the most luxurious, exclusive and expensive lodges in the world. We’ll save that for another day.

Instead, we continued west and put in two gruelling 150+ kilometer days and wild camped in the (now safe) bush. Towards the end of the 4th day we crossed into our 24th and penultimate country, Namibia. A few kilometers after crossing the border we camped at the Zelda guest farm where we saw more animals, albeit in captivity, including warthogs, emus and a pair of young leopards.

At Zelda’s we met a group of Kiwis travelling in a tour group. One of them asked whether we found it “boring” cycling on such long flat roads.   We told her it wasn’t as there are plenty of things to think about.

Yes, the roads are long. Cycling towards a never-ending horizon with little in the way of visual stimuli is mentally challenging. But I spend that time thinking about the family and friends who’ve been in touch with their support but also about those who haven’t. I also think about the foods I miss, the things I want to achieve when I return home and, to be honest, anything else that’ll keep my mind from the pain in my ‘backside’ when I’m spending 10 or more hours a day in the saddle. Above all, I try to think about anything to get annoying songs, earworms, out of my head. So, boring? No, there’s plenty going on!

The first sign for South Africa!

The first sign for South Africa!

A 'cartoon-style- rain cloud

A ‘cartoon-style’ rain cloud

In Gobabis, the ‘meat capital of Namibia’, we were grateful to Warm Showers host Tinus, for giving us the keys to his house even though he’d travelled to a wedding in South Africa. And, halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek we were again grateful to the proprietor of a biltong shop for allowing us to camp in the grounds.

Camping at the biltong shop halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek

Camping at the biltong shop halfway between Gobabis and Windhoek

We made the final 100km to Windhoek (which, got quite hairy in the last hilly 40km past the international airport due to traffic) where we’re staying for a couple of days well-needed R&R at the Cardboard Box backpackers campsite before heading 400km west to Swakopmund for an eagerly anticipated reunion of family on Emily’s mother’s side.

Cycling through Botswana and into Namibia has been much tougher than I expected. Although it’s been mostly flat, we’ve put in some very long days in the saddle, which has caused us both lots of pain. Together with the headwinds and heat, we’ve both struggled and we’ve both agreed to not cycle over 130 in one day unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s just not worth the strain that it’s putting on our bodies.

That said, we’ve given ourselves quite a punchy target for our last section from Swakopmund to Cape Town – 1,800 kilometers across the mighty Namib Desert in just 18 days – so we might just have to break our promise!

Struggling through western Tanzania

After a couple of wonderful days with Mike, Jenna and their kids in Kigali it was time to hit the road again. We’d had such a great time with them all that it was hard to leave. Mike and Jenna met while cycling across Canada and never looked back! A few years later they married and spent their honeymoon cycling from North to South America – we had lots of great stories to swap and thoroughly enjoyed meeting them.

We spent the first night after Kigali at the Discover Rwanda Eco-Lodge near Kayonza. It’s located within the Women’s Opportunity Centre where women can come to together and engage in different community and economic empowerment activities.

We were impressed by the eco lodge’s solar power and water heating systems, rainwater harvesting and composting toilets. They even had a wood-fired pizza oven. Although it was slightly weird knowing that the toppings on our pizzas had been grown in the kitchen garden using the very compost that previous guests had contributed to.

Discover Rwanda Kayonza Eco Lodge

The Discover Rwanda Kayonza Eco Lodge had great rooms, dorms, tents and a camping area.

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The Discover Rwanda Kayonza Eco Lodge hd a terraced kitchen garden that provided the toppings to our pizzas. But the composting loos helped the said toppings grow!

We would have loved to have stayed to visit the nearby Akagera National Park but we had to press on to get to Tanzania.

We crossed the border into Tanzania at Rusamo falls; a waterfall located on the Kagura River. Nearly every Rwandan river flows into the Kagura and it was at this point that, during the genocide in 1994, thousands of dead bodies flowed underneath the Rusamo Bridge while a simultaneous stream of refugees crossed over it. An estimated 500,000 people fled Rwanda; 250,000 of those crossed here in a single 24-hour period.

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Thousands of dead bodies flowed underneath the Rusamo Bridge while a simultaneous stream of refugees crossed over it. An estimated 500,000 people fled Rwanda; 250,000 of those crossed here in a single 24-hour period

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One of the many mass graves we passed in Rwanda

Rwanda has come so far since the genocide, but, quite understandably, there’s still a simmering tension across the country. It was a poignant end to our time in Rwanda as we gazed down from the bridge into the churning waters below.

As soon as we crossed the border into Tanzania, we were greeted with a few steep climbs that got our legs and lungs working. But it was great that, just a few miles into Tanzania, we saw the first lady on a bicycle since we were in Hungary. It’s incredible that the bicycle is such an important machine throughout Africa but, it seems, only for men. Traditional gender roles in Africa mean that women work in the field and home and then men venture out of the home. In many countries there is great stigma around women on bikes that prevents them from cycling. We learnt about this while visiting Team Rwanda earlier that week and Emily wrote about how hard it is for women to cycle in Rwanda in an article for Total Women’s Cycling.

At Nyakanazi we turned off the main road onto the B8 – a dirt road that that would take us 960km through remote western Tanzania to the border with Zambia at Tunduma.

Daily rains made cycling on the earth roads incredibly difficult. Car tyres formed some dry patches on the road but we had to negotiate the channels carved into the surface caused by running rain water.

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In most places the road was thick with mud making progress very, very slow!

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This little dude had the most amazing wooden bicycle!

In Swahili, the word for slow is pole. The phrase for very slow is pole-pole. And, with the tough road conditions, we were certainly cycling pole-pole.

One advantage of cycling pole-pole is we got a chance to see animal life that we’d have otherwise missed if we were behind the wheel. We saw dung beetles rolling balls of poo with their back legs, snakes, huge columns of marching ants and even a chongologo which raced us up a particularly steep hill.

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Although this snake was dead, it was sign that we were sharing the road with other creatures!  We think it was a juvenile mamba.

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One of many huge columns of marching ants that we passed

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This chongololo ‘raced’ us up the hill!

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This chameleon was apathetic to the traffic on the road!

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I named him Isiah;  One eye’s ‘igher than the other.

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Another day in the office

It wasn’t long before Emily became the first casualty of the conditions. Her front wheel snagged a rock and she tumbled from the bike, grazing knees and elbows.

The next day, she took a more serious fall, hitting her head and suffered a suspected cracked a rib.

On the 95km day’s ride from Kibondo to the tiny village of Makere we were just 1km short of our destination when the heavens really opened. We threw our bikes under a tree and ran across a courtyard where we were welcomed by a family and took shelter with them on their verandah. The torrential rain bounced off the earth and formed an instant flow of water across the courtyard. It was interesting to watch the woman of the house working away to collect the rainwater running off the roof in buckets, lighting fires in the kitchen and doing other chores whilst the men stood and stared at the rain. Amazingly however, in the hour that it rained, they had probably collected enough water for an entire week.

This chap had an innovative use for an old bike: he used it to sharpen knives

This chap had an innovative use for an old bike: he used it to sharpen knives

The next day, we reached Kasulu, the first significant town since we entered Tanzania and also the first place we could find an ATM that accepted Mastercard. Up until now, we’d been getting by on the tiny amount of Tanzanian Shillings that we had with us and we were getting worried that we’d run out. It was only 50km from where we’d stayed the night before but, after the torrential rains and the horrific roads, it took us the entire day to travel that distance! Ironically, it was our mudguards that held us back the most as the sticky mud would just collect inside the guard meaning we could not move forward! We could only laugh when a lorry passed us and hit a huge puddle that covered Emily from head to toe in glorious orange mud!

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We could only laugh when a lorry passed us and hit a huge puddle that covered Emily from head to toe in glorious orange mud!

Mud got stuck in our mud guards that made it very tricky to move!

Mud got stuck in our mud guards that made it very tricky to move!

Despite the road conditions, some of the views were pretty special

Despite the road conditions, some of the views were pretty special…

Although disheartening when you can see your next ascent coming

…although disheartening when you can see your next ascent coming

That night, we checked into a reasonable guesthouse and decided to take an impromptu but well-needed rest day.

We continued onward to a town called Uvinza. The stretch between Uvinza and Mpanda was incredibly remote and we had to stock up on food for the 2-day, 175km journey. All along this road, we have been passing ginormous refugee camps housing displaced people from Burundi and the DRC – we’d been told that some of the camps had over 250,000 people in them. In these damp, humid conditions, disease spreads rapidly and, despite the UN and aid agencies doing all they can to help, they have quite a humanitarian crisis on their hands. After we’d learnt more about the horrors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, it’s shocking to think that similar troubles are brewing in the neighbouring countries, forcing the mass exodus of refugees.

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We thought we were carrying bulky loads!

We wild camped in the forest and tried to light a fire to keep the mosquitos at bay but everything was damp. Even the sprinkle of petrol I used from our stove burned spectacularly before dying out just as quickly. Phone and sat phone signals also let us down so we were gutted not to be able to do the live call to the Tales of Adventure event as planned.

We finally reached Mpanda, a scruffy town that lies at the end of the railway’s branch line and checked into the ‘New Super City Hotel’, a disappointing choice which was neither ‘new’ or ‘super’ and, after a wander around town, it was doubtful that it could be described as in a city either.

Yet, the rooms were large and it kept the rain from our heads so we decided to take a rest day as Emily had managed to pick up yet another stomach bug and the prospect of continuing the rain in that state was not appealing whatsoever!

The first night we ate at the hotel’s restaurant. I say restaurant, but it was merely one charcoal fire with a few pots on it. Much like everywhere else in the region, the choice was chicken and rice, beans and rice or cow and rice. I opted for the cow. The ‘beef’ was so tough it was as if my molars had been entered as contestants in the Krypton Factor.

In fact, the food options in western Tanzania are as poor as the region itself. We’ve noticed that, in Africa, the poorer the region the less food there is on sale. This is possibly because there isn’t the surplus after the farmer has fed his family.  After the abundant fruit and veg in Uganda and in most parts of Rwanda, we were now scouring roadsides for onions and tomatoes. One thing we always found was the ‘Chipsi mayai’; it’s essentially a chip omelette with lots and lots of oil. Otherwise, we’ve been surviving on stale bread and honey, over-ripe avocados, and bananas that quickly putrefy in the heat and rough roads. When wild camping we’ve cooked up rice and beans and had a chocolate biscuit each for desert.

We walked into Mpanda to get a few supplies. Eventually, we found a small shop that sold bread. We needed two loaves but, although the shopkeeper claimed it was “fresh fresh”, I insisted that we bought one first to check whether it was as he described. Needless to say it was stale so, with a smile on my face, I demonstrated the fact by banging a slice on the wall and then on my head, much to everyone’s amusement.

Back at the New Super City Hotel, we were in our room when we heard a strange, loud chanting coming from hotel’s conference room. I walked down the corridor and peeked inside. What I saw was deeply disturbing. A man had whipped the room into a frenzy by getting everyone to shout “fire! Fire! Fire!” repeatedly. Frightened children ran from the room in tears as the crescendo of “fire! Fire! Fire!” continued. I then watched as he went round to each person, shouted something which included the words “Lucifer” and “Power of Jesus”, placed his hands on their heads and they fell backwards to the floor. Some people even writhed and convulsed on the floor

A screenshot from the clandestine video I shot of the prophet at work

A screenshot from the clandestine video I shot of the prophet at work

That evening, I bumped into the man I’d seen at the centre of that morning’s dramatics in the conference room. He was wearing a designer shirt, carried a smart leather briefcase and smelt of expensive aftershave. I don’t remember his name but he introduced himself as a prophet. I asked what had gone on in the room. He explained that it was the “power of God’ in action. He told me he traveled across Africa working as a “faith healer” and people with health and other problems travelled for miles to see him. He also had his own radio show. He’d hired the hotel room for a few days and invited me to attend the next day.

I couldn’t help myself and told him I didn’t think it was ethical for him to take money from potentially vulnerable people in this way; knowing full well that it was just the power of suggestion at work and that the only ‘prophet’ was the money he was making from the suggestible people in attendance.

In fact, since we entered Kenya, we’ve noticed many churches across 101 different denominations; most of which I hadn’t heard of before. It appeared to me that anyone could set up a church if they wished.

Back in Jinja, Uganda, we met an incredibly nice group of British Jehova’s Witnesses whilst rafting on the river Nile. We talked about the number of different churches across Africa.

To me, Jehovah’s Witnesses are the Jonny Wilkinsons of religion; they never miss an opportunity for a conversion. Part of the group’s time in Uganda was to speak to as many people as possible to show them the Jehovah’s way. Gavin, the leader of the group, confirmed my suspicion that churches sprung up left right and centre in this region and that, on many occasions, they’d be speaking to someone who’d say that their church leader was ‘encouraging’ his church-goers to give 10%-20% of their income to the church each month. Except in January when it was 100%. Gavin described the look on people’s faces when he explains that nowhere in the bible does it say that they must do this. After a long day rafting on the Nile, I didn’t have the stamina required for the resultant debate if I’d suggested to Gavin that there might be an alternative to the bible too. But, the fact remains that huge sums of money are ‘earned’ by ‘prophets’ across Africa, which, if you have a bit of charisma and a copy of a Derren Brown book, could be a very appealing prospect in an impoverished region.

After a mix up with camera chargers, I arranged to pick up my charger from Gavin’s office in Fort Portal a few days later. I quite enjoyed the role reversal of knocking on the door of the Jehova’s Witnesses.

Cycling Katavi National Park

Although we enjoyed seeing the tiny creatures on the journey so far, it was the larger creatures we had to be wary of for the next part our journey.

We stayed a night at the Riverside Camp just on the northern fringe of the Katavi National Park and spent a few hours sitting on the riverbank in the company of their resident hippos.

Cycling Katavi National Park - hippos

The Katavi National Park is Tanzania’s third largest national park and it’s also its most remote. The park is full of wild animals including elephants, buffalos and lions. The main road in the region slices straight through park and cycling through the Katavi National Park isn’t strictly allowed. But, it’s not strictly prohibited either. We did some research and got in contact with Nicolas Marino a cyclist who’d blogged about crossing the park in 2015. In Nico’s reply to us he strongly discouraged us from taking the park on firstly due to the tsetse flies and, secondly, the very real danger of cycling in the presence of wild animals. He even told us how stubborn he had been when he’d cycled across and avoided warnings not to do it (mainly due to the flies) and urged us to listen. It seems, however, that cycle tourists all have a stubborn nature.

Cycling Katavi National Park - Katavi National Park entrance sign

Cycling through the Katavi National Park isn’t strictly allowed. But, it’s not strictly prohibited either.

The crossing of the park was only 60km. And to get a lift would have set us back over USD$150. We figured that the flies “couldn’t be that bad” and lions tend to hunt at night so we decided to give it a go. How wrong we were.

We were up early and crossed into the unfenced park at 7am – before any rangers could take their post at the entrance. Within moments we saw a huge herd of impalas and baboons sauntered across the road in front of us.

But, very soon, the tsetse flies arrived in their hundreds. Tsetse flies are armour-plated biting machines. They landed on every bit of our bodies and bit any exposed skin and through even through our socks and gloves. They got so bad that, even though it was over 30°C that day (of course it had stopped raining that day!), we had to don our waterproof jackets to prevent them from biting through our shirts. We controlled our bikes with one hand whilst swatting the stubborn insects away with the other.

No matter how fast we cycled, the flies landed and bit. The extra effort we put into the pedaling made us hotter. We sweated buckets under our waterproofs and we were reluctant to stop to top up our water because we would get mobbed.

In short, they made our lives a complete misery and we were dehydrating fast in the waterproofs. But at least they took our minds off the larger creatures that lurked in the undergrowth.

From the road we saw a huge herd of zebra and I even saw a couple of giraffes before they ran into the trees.

Cycling Katavi National Park - giraffe

This giraffe stuck his neck out to say hello

Then, at the side of the road, we saw huge footprints from some very big cats. Our heartbeats quickened as we realised these footprints were very fresh and that lions were near. We stopped for the quickest of photos then got back on the bikes and followed the footprints for around 8km until they veered left off the road.

Lion footprints whilst cycling Katavi National Park

Lions are about!

 

We followed the lions' footprints for a good

We followed the fresh lions’ footprints for at least 8km

It was a good 20km after the park that the flies gradually petered out. But the effort put into cycling fast through the hostile Katavi National Park in waterproofs had taken it out on us and we were both massively dehydrated and exhausted. We limped to Chisi where we filled our two 10 litre water bags from the village water pump and found a wild camping spot just off the road a few KM further south.

After such a challenging day it was a delight to sit back under the stars and sip a cup of tea whilst watching fireflies streak across the sky tracing their paths with their intermittently glowing bodies.

For two more days we struggled along the bumpy earth road. 35km before Sumawanga we reahed the crest of a hill and the sight before us took us by surprise. A brand new road had been carved through the countryside. Like a river of molten lava it was unsympathetic to the environment and left nothing in its path as it tore through woods and carved deep gashes through hillsides. For two weary cyclists it was like looking at heaven, but it was a sight that would have given Swampy a coronary. But, where there’s a coronary, there’s a bypass, and we were overjoyed to see this ribbon of Tarmac nirvana skirting the villages and snake away from us into the distance.

The beautiful sight of a brand new tarmac road

The beautiful sight of a brand new tarmac road

This symbol of economic progress also meant that we could make better progress too. And we were overjoyed with the knowledge that we wouldn’t see another dirt road again until we reach Namibia.

One of the more impressive bicycle loads. We cycled past this guy pushing this insane load up a very steep 2km hill into Mbeya

One of the more impressive bicycle loads. We cycled past this guy pushing this immense load up a very steep 2km hill into Mbeya

Our time on the road along the west of Tanzania has been one of the toughest sections of our route so far.   The condition of the road, weather, remoteness and physical hostility of the region has taken its toll to the extent that we needed a break. We found a cheap flight from Mbeya to Dar es Salaam where we are now taking a little break. We are incredibly grateful to Ashley and Livi for hosting us in their lovely home by the sea. We spent our first night in Dar sitting by the sea eating fresh seafood and sipping cool, crisp wine. After a few more days like this we’ll be braver, wiser and more optimistic for the journey ahead into Zambia and beyond.


If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.

Cycling a thousand hills from Uganda to Rwanda

We left Fort Portal on the promise that “It’s all downhill” to the Queen Elizabeth National Park. We’d looked at the map before we left and saw that the elevation did drop by around 1,000 metres, but in Uganda that means that you’ll have to climb over 1,000 metres as well because the roads are continually undulating. The mind is a funny thing though, because it was nothing that we were not usually used to and, secretly, we knew that there would still be some climbing, it seemed so much harder because all we could think about was that is was meant to be all downhill!!

Momentous occasion as we pass from northern to Southern Hemisphere. Nearly 12,000km on the clock.

Momentous occasion as we pass from northern to Southern Hemisphere. Nearly 12,000km on the clock.

As we travelled, the landscape began to change from tropical lush green jungle to dry savannah as we approached the Queen Elizabeth National Park – famous for its tree-climbing lions. We spent the night at Simba Camp just outside the park gates, but sadly we did not have the time nor budget to stop and enjoy this park – we can’t do it all.

Descending into the National Park

Descending into the National Park

The next morning, we cycled along the road that runs through the park hopeful that some of the elephants might have taken a wrong turn and decided to hang out near the road. [Would that make it a trunk road? – James]. The reality is that this road is the main trucking road to the DRC border and, although we did see some water buffalo and impala, it’s no surprise we didn’t see much else with the huge trucks carrying shipping containers blasting pass. We then endured a long winding climb out of the park. Actually, despite the road surface deteriorating into patchy tarmac, sand and gravel, the climb meant we were able to enjoy some stunning views over the savannah as we climbed back into the tropical zone and passed hundreds of small hold banana plantations. Our day ended at the Cielo Country Inn in Ishaka; a lovely little hotel where the manager Ben hosted us for the night – thank you!

e saw plenty of wildlife on the road past Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

We saw plenty of wildlife on the road past Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

From here we travelled through the hills for two days to Muko, a small village on the banks of Lake Bunyoni, the second deepest lake in Africa. The road to Muko was breathtaking as we passed through tea, banana, coffee and cotton plantations on a brand new tarmac road (thank you Ugandan Government!). Despite the terrain providing challenging cycling, the views more than made up for it and when we turned the final corner of the day we had arrived at the shores of the lake where we would camp for the night.

We cycled through stunning tea plantations in Western Uganda

We cycled through stunning tea plantations in Western Uganda

We woke the next morning to stunning views of the mist rising off the lake; it seemed a great way to spend our final morning in Uganda, a country that we have so enjoyed cycling through. Everyone seems so cheerful, happy and helpful here and we had such a blast. It’s been great feeling fit again too – definitely helped by some great new roads, but I’d go as far as to say I’ve enjoyed almost all the cycling – no major heart palpitations and I even beat James cycling up a hill which has not happened since Bulgaria!

The stunning morning mist

The stunning morning mist

After a seamless border crossing into Rwanda we had arrived in “The Land of a Thousand Hills” and our first stop was a much-anticipated stay with Team Rwanda, Rwanda’s cycling team, in Musanze (Ruhengeri).

We’d been invited to stay at the Africa Rising Training Centre where the team was in the middle of a tough training camp. Some of the team is in preparation for the African Continental Championships in 2 weeks’ time. As the team was in really focused training we did not spend much time with them other than at meals, respecting their privacy and the focus they required. We did, however, have a great time meeting Kimberly Coats, the team’s marketing director, finding out more about the team and its ambitions. Of particular excitement was meeting Team Rwanda’s first female rider, Jeanne D’Arc. Jeanne is working hard as we speak to qualify for the Olympics in Rio and a win at the Continental Champs, which she is expected to do, will guarantee her that place. She’s recently competed at the UCI TT championships where she was the only female rider from Africa in the field – this young lady has incredible promise and we cannot wait to follow her career with interest. As it stands, Team Rwanda will now have two cyclists attending the Olympics in Rio.

Team Rwanda return from a hard training ride

Team Rwanda return from a hard training ride

Team Rwanda shot to fame at the London 2012 Olympics as they fielded Rwanda’s first ever cyclist at the games, Adrien Niyonshuti who competed in the cross country mountain bike event. The team was established in 2007 by ex-pro cyclist Jock Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France, and is going for strength to strength with Jock and his wife Kimberly at the helm. The centre now has a strong men’s team and their first female rider and hope to have three athletes competing in Rio this summer. The team is based at a complex called the Africa Rising Cycling Centre just outside the Volcanoes National Park in North West Rwanda where they run intensive training camps for Team Rwanda as well as camps for riders from other African countries. We could not help but be impressed with everything we saw there with a hugely dedicated team of cyclists who, through cycling, have united their country in pride and passion for cycling.

Team Rwanda

Team Rwanda

That does not mean, however, that it does not come without its problems and the team struggle daily with the pressure of professional cycling in a country like Rwanda. It is particularly hard for Jeanne D’Arc, the team’s first female cyclist. She’s the only girl on the team and would absolutely love to have some female compatriots but finding women who cycle in this country is tough. We learned that throughout East Africa that many girls are made to stop cycling when they reach puberty, because it is commonly believed that riding a bike would lead to a young girl loosing their virginity. It’s such a sad belief and we can only hope that as education levels rise, this will one day become a legend and we hope successful young women like Jeanne will be able to become confident female role models in Rwanda.

Meeting Kimberly Coates at the Africa Rising Cycling Center, Musanze.

Meeting Kimberly Coates at the Africa Rising Cycling Center, Musanze.

The UK arm of World Bicycle Relief, who we are raising money for, provide their Buffalo bikes mainly to young girls to help them get to school and remain in school longer will help to improve education levels in rural communities where it is most needed – never have I felt so passionate about helping girls get an education.

From Team Rwanda we spent a truly magical day trekking to see the mountain gorillas; a day we will never forget. Before we left home we outlined a few things that we really wanted to do, regardless of cost on this trip and although this was by no means a cheap day, it was incredible to have the opportunity to spend some time with these unbelievable creatures. Sharing 97.2% of our DNA, they really are just like big hairy versions of us. The day involved a 14km trek through the bamboo forests and into the jungle where we hacked our way through dense jungle to find the Susa family of gorillas.

Gorilla Trekking Slide Show

What made it better was that we had such a great group of people with us – Matt, a Canadian living in Kigali with his young family and his parents and uncle and aunt who were over visiting from Canada. An highly successful and lovely group of people. It really is a small world as we discovered that Matt actually met his wife whilst cycling across Canada and they spent their honeymoon cycling from North to South America! We are now spending a couple of days with Matt and his wife Jenna in Kigali before we make our move to Tanzania.

We decided to split the journey to Kigali because, although it was only 100km, there is a lot of climbing and we wanted to go to the Genocide Memorial Museum on our way into town so needed enough time to do this. Our ride out of Musanze (Ruhengeri) was awesome as we passed Team Rwanda on their way home from a training ride – a great way to say wave them all goodbye!

Rwanda-1196

Coach Sterling Magnell in the middle, with Jeanne D’arc Girubuntu following closely

Bikes are used to carry everything here!

Bikes are used to carry everything here!

After a 7km climb we passed a small guest house around 50km from Kigali and decided, as we did not think we would pass anything else on the way, we’d take a look to see if we could stay the night there and have some time to do some much needed admin before arriving in Kigali. All was looking good – they had a simple room for $5 and a quiet beer garden where we could set up camp and get our work done – we just needed to pick up some food to cook as they didn’t have a functioning restaurant.

Once we’d settled in, the manager arrived and decided that, as we were Muzungus, we should pay extra for the room, no room for negotiation. Now don’t get me wrong, it was not much money more but the room was pretty gross and we were not going to pay more just because we had white skin so we decided to leave, thinking that they would change their minds. They didn’t. We took back the money we’d paid and set off.

One small problem, however, James’s helmet seemed to have disappeared…it was definitely there when we arrived but, having searched everywhere, we whizzed back to the nearest town to see if we had left it there instead but no joy. It was only when we cycled back past the guest house we saw that it had miraculously  turned up – and, funnily enough, they were happy to give us the room at the old price. Too late. We decided to wild camp instead so cycled along for a few more kilometres until we found a (very rare) patch of flat land with no houses or crops on it – just outside a church. We found some water from a spring and set about pitching our tent. Rwanda is incredibly populated so it was no surprise that within minutes we had an audience of around 100 people watching us! Even when I popped into the tent to put some trousers on I noticed the local women trying to peer into the tent to watch me. They stayed with us until sunset when we met the local pastor who kindly asked them all to leave us in peace! It was the same the next morning and when I emerged from the tent at sunrise, there was a new audience ready and waiting for us! We didn’t mind too much though, they quietly watched us, clearly fascinated by what on earth we were doing – it just made the morning loo visit a little awkward…!

Within moments of arriving, our presence drew a crowd of people which grew to be as large as 100 by sunset time!

Within moments of arriving, our presence drew a crowd of people which grew to be as large as 100 by sunset time!

Although brief, it is great to be in Rwanda, the second time for me. Aptly named the Land of a Thousand Hills, it is incredibly hilly on bikes but incredibly beautiful. In a country with such a dark recent history, it is humbling to meet so many optimistic, friendly people who all take the time to tell us that we are welcome in their country. Their recent past will never be forgotten, it’s hard to when so many people were affected by the genocide here is 1994 however the country is moving forward in the right direction.

For us, we have a few more days here before we hit remote Western Tanzania where we hope it will stop raining soon so that the clay road we intend to take remains a viable route for us!


If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.