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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!

Zambia, Zimbabwe, Zebras and a hippo attack on the mighty Zambezi!

When we set out to cycle to Cape Town, we could never imagine that we’d be spending an afternoon watching a village cricket tournament in Zambia. But that’s exactly what happened. When we stayed at Shiwa we met a lovely man called Chris who worked for Greenbelt, a farming company, and was staying at the main house on a business trip selling fertiliser. As he left, he handed us his card and invited us to stay with him because we were due to pass straight past his house on the Great North Road towards Lusaka. We then discovered that, when we were due to pass, there was a cricket tournament in Mkushi, around 40km from where Chris and his wife Debbie live. James is a keen cricketer and therefore, when he heard about the tournament, he could not quite believe what we were hearing. We were left with no choice but to politely invite ourselves to extend our stay with Chris and Debbie to two nights so that we could join them at the cricket.

The tournament was an annual social occasion for the farming community in Zambia and many had travelled over 800km to get there for the weekend. With stalls selling Boerewors sausages, steak sandwiches, the best carrot cake we have ever tasted and beer on tap.

The cricket tournament was sponsored by various farming companies. But, one particular promotional event caused great controversy. During the semi final, a crop sprayer passed over the ground three times, spraying scented water over the players and spectators. But the dousing had unexpected consequences; it soaked the wicket meaning the ball no longer ‘came on’ to the bat. This made it difficult for the home team, Mkushi, who were bating and meant they failed to get the runs they required to win the match. In effect, the crop sprayer changed the match meaning the home team failed to get through to the final!

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Nevertheless, it was a truly awesome and thoroughly unexpected day. Thank you to Chris and Debbie for looking after us and being such an amazing support for our journey throughout Zambia. Chris and Debbie then put us in touch with a few of their farming friends who we have had the pleasure of staying with as we cycled south through Zambia and the next night it was the turn of Speros and Wendy to host the smelly cyclists at their farm! Another super evening packed full of delicious food and great company – we had decided that Zambia was suiting us rather well!

Speros and Wendy were fantastic hosts at their farm

Speros and Wendy were fantastic hosts at their farm

My mother grew up in Africa, in Rhodesia, where her parents farmed tobacco. I have grown up hearing about farm life in Africa and have often wondered what it would have been like to live in this part of the world on a farm. We’ve experienced the most incredibly generosity and hospitality from the white farming community pretty much from the moment we arrived in Zambia. The sad thing is that most of the farmers we have met are all Zimbabwean, driven off their farms in Zimbabwe by Mugabe and his war vets.

From Speros’s farm it was on to Lusaka, with a quick pit stop at Fringilla Lodge on the outskirts of the city. On our way to Fringilla James was cycling quite far in front of me so we agreed to meet each other there, as it was just one straight road to the lodge. My gears broke back in Tanzania and I was awaiting a new part and so had limited speed, the harder I rode, the more I was like a hamster in a wheel, going nowhere! I’m not sure whether it’s because I’d managed to convince James to do the bike leg of a triathlon when we get home with our club Clapham Chasers but we was off and made his own 40km TT to the campsite in record time! I limped in around 15 minutes after him – I think it was payback for all the ironman rides I made him come on then left him behind while doing TT sections for training!

There is not much to do in Lusaka however we stopped over in the city to visit the World Bicycle Relief’s distribution centre which is based in the city. It is here that the bicycles that we are fundraising for are assembled and distributed to people across the country. It’s been a privilege cycling across Zambia and seeing so many of the Buffalo Bikes in use. Each time we have seen someone riding a Buffalo Bike we have stopped them to ask where they got it from and it’s been awesome to hear a variety of tales. Buffalo Bikes are incredibly sturdy bikes make specifically for use in rural Africa. There are a variety of ways in which a bike can end up in the hands of a Zambian. We are fundraising for World Bicycle Relief UK arm of the charity’s program called “Bicycles for Education and Empowerment Program”. This program funds bikes for students (70% of which are female), teachers and education workers in rural Africa, which are given to children to get to school on. We’ve been lucky enough to meet many children who have been given bikes to get to school, and they are all so thankful. We were even stopped by a shopkeeper one day to thank us – he then said that 200 kids in his village had been given a bike and that it had genuinely changed their lives. It is just awesome to see that the bikes we are fundraising for actually being used and having a genuine impact. You can help change a life by supporting World Bicycle Relief and making a donation on our fundraising page.

Visiting the World Bicycle Relief headquarters in Lusaka

Visiting the World Bicycle Relief headquarters in Lusaka

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The bikes can also be bought by people to use as transport to work or to carry produce to and from market. In many instances employers will buy bicycles for their staff (especially on farms) and take micro payments off their salary. Some NGOs also buy the Buffalo Bikes to give to their workforce (e.g. healthcare workers) and to people within their project catchments that might benefit from the bikes.

After a restful couple of days Lusaka with our Warm Showers hosts Matthias and Karine (thank you!!) we took a side trip to Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. James’s older brother Francis was due to join us from the UK with two of his four children Ben and Sarah and so we planned four day canoe safari on the Zambezi from Chirundu to Mana Pools. Francis was born in Zambia when his parents were working at Lwitikila School and so, prompted by our journey; he came over to Zambia to take a trip down memory lane.

On arrival in Kariba we spent a few days at Warthogs Bushcamp in stifling heat however we were able to sit in their bar and watch elephants and zebras stroll through the camp.

Hippo Attack on the Zambezi!

Francis, Ben and Sarah arrived and we set off to Chirundu in a 4X4 to meet our canoes. The trip was 4 days along the mighty Zambezi River to Mana Pools National Park camping each night on sandbanks and islands on the river. I was incredibly lucky to visit this park with my family back in 2001 and I was so excited to return. There is something so special about the Zambezi, it is a magnificent river, stunningly beautiful and peaceful despite the vast number of animals living within its waters – namely hippos and crocodiles.

So, after our safety briefing we were on our way. A safety briefing is incredibly important here as we needed to know what to do should a hippo interact with our canoe and how to get out of the water as quickly and calmly as possible should we capsize to minimise the risk of being attacked by a croc! All was good though as we asked our guide if he had ever had a canoe attacked by a hippo or a capsize and he told us that in 16 years of guiding he had never encountered such a problem.

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That was until Sarah and Ben Davis took to the mighty Zambezi.

Around 100m from our campsite on the first night Sarah and Ben canoed over a hippo. Hippos don’t take too kindly to a canoe brushing over their body while they are having a snooze under water so it stood up, knocking Sarah and Ben into the water. Luckily they were right next to our guide Norman’s boat so they grabbed on while he calmly stood up and started to smack the water (and probably the hippo) with his paddle to scare the hippo off into deeper water. While the commotion was going on though, the hippo managed to take a huge bite into the canoe leaving it beyond repair. Thankfully Ben and Sarah had fallen out of the boat and were safely moved onto the bank and everyone escaped unharmed. I can’t imagine what was going through their minds after Norman’s safety briefing which casually warned us that if we were to fall into the water we had a 50/50 chance of being attacked by a croc! Despite being clearly shaken by the event, I’m sure Ben and Sarah will be dining out on this story for years to come in the pub!

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Ben and Sarah scramble to safety after their canoe is overturned by a very grumpy hippo!

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The capsized canoe floats downstream – with all our kit getting wet

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Ben and Sarah inspect the damage caused by the teeth of the very hungry hippo

It was a 4 magical days where, after the dramas of the first day, we enjoyed paddling down this beautiful river sharing the water with elephants, kudo, hippos, crocodiles and a plethora of stunning birdlife.

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Camping under the stars on the Zambezi – spot the photobombing firefly!

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Sunset over the Zambezi

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You've got a 50/50 chance of being attacked by a croc if you fall into the Zambezi!

You’ve got a 50/50 chance of being attacked by a croc if you fall into the Zambezi!

It's not the ones you can see that are the issue...it's the ones lurking int the water below!

It’s not the ones you can see that are the issue…it’s the ones lurking int the water below!

As soon as we were back on dry land, we were back on the bikes to take on a 6-day ride to Livingstone, where we are now and to mark the end of the Zambian chapter of our adventure.

To get to Livingstone we had to climb back up a pretty steep escarpment back into Zambia – a somewhat brutal way to get our bike fitness back again! We’d been warned by a few people that this road was bad and that you will always see broken down lorries but we were not quite prepared for quite how many we did see. It was terrifying the speed with which these lorries flew down some of the steeper sections of this road and I guess why so many of them overturn.

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Baboons approach yet another overturned truck on Zambia’s dangerous roads

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Passing yet another crashed lorry

But before long we were back onto the main road to Livingstone. Our first night was spent at the magnificent Munali Coffee Farm. We’d been put in touch with the farm via my brother Jeremy as his colleague at the UCI had contacts there – plus one of their farm managers is a mad keen cyclist and is the president of the Zambian Cycling Federation. We had a lovely evening on the farm and even got a guided tour of the coffee production in what appeared to be a Dutch WW2 army vehicle.

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Peter Chintu – farm manager at Munali Coffee and president of the Cycling Association of Zambia.

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Seeing the coffee cherries being washed at Munali Coffee Farm

After a night back in our tent we spent the next two nights on yet more farms where we were so generously looked after by Sharon and Willy and then Hillary and Chris – both tobacco farmers forced to relocate to Zambia from Zimbabwe. We were both slightly blown away when we discovered that Chris has built his own pub in his house that had the most impressive collection of miniature spirit bottles and some whisky that would most definitely have impressed my old colleagues at Glenfiddich. Naturally, James kept the bartender company, which I think he may have regretted as we took on a 145km ride the following day into Livingstone (that’s 10 hours in the saddle when you have such heavy bikes!).

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Chris and Hillary had their very own pub…in their house!

Today we saw the magnificence of Victoria Falls and tomorrow from where we will close our Zambian adventure and welcome the wild roads of Botswana.

James's brother, Francis, Sponsored James and his niece Sarah to do a bungee jump of the Victoria Falls bridge for World Bicycle Relief. That's 2 more bikes earned!

James’s brother, Francis, Sponsored James and his niece Sarah to do a bungee jump off the Victoria Falls bridge for World Bicycle Relief. That’s 2 more bikes earned!

The mighty Victoria Falls!

The mighty Victoria Falls!

Reaching 15,000km on our 145km ride into Livingstone.

Reaching 15,000km on our 145km ride into Livingstone.

We’ve been so lucky to see two sides of Zambia and to learn quite a bit about what life is like here – both for the white farmer but also the local community. Zambia is a poor nation, struggling with a shockingly corrupt government. There is an energy crisis here and so the whole country is on a power sharing system meaning most people are without power for 8 hours a day – just imagine trying to run a farm when the electricity disappears half the time… There are challenges from all walks of life. AIDS is a huge issue here and a drain on the nation’s resource and unless things dramatically change after the elections later this year – it is hard to see things improving in Zambia for quite some time.

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We’ve had nothing but smiles and friendly greetings from everyone in Zambia!

However, Zambia is home to some of the most friendly and hospitable people we have ever met so to everyone who has taken us in and fed us over the past few weeks thank you so much for opening your homes to us. But also to all the incredibly friendly people we have met along the side of the road. You have made each day, no matter how hard the going has been, a joy to cycle. The smiles and cheers of encouragement from all age groups as we have passed through towns and villages had been awesome. And to the lady that won the “can you life James’s heavy bike lifting competition” beating at least 5 men, you rock!

Botswana, here we come! – follow our progress on our live GPS tracker.


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.

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.

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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.