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It’s been nearly two weeks since we left Walvis Bay and set out into the Namibian desert and we are now just 142km from the South African border which we should cross tomorrow. The Namib Desert has been challenging but beautiful to cross and, despite some really bad sandy roads, we have actually been reasonably lucky with the roads and even managed to fit in a trip to the stunning sand dunes at Sossusvlei.
Exhausted after 12 days on the road and a 75km detour to get my bike fixed (I was riding single speed and had a broken bottom bracket for over a week – if you don’t cycle, be rest-assured, it’s not fun!) we are now on beautiful tarmac, with two working bikes, ready to take on the South African mountains.
There is so much to share about the past week but we are two weary cyclists and, after two weeks of mainly wild camping, we have been given a bed at the Grünau Country Hotel so we are looking forward to actually sleeping instead of shivering all night. Someone has turned down the thermostat over here!
So, for now, please excuse this brief update and enjoy some photos which should give you a flavour of what we have been up to.
Please follow our progress over the last week on our Trident Sensors GPS Tracker and do please consider making a donation to World Bicycle Relief and help us change the lives of some more people – we would love to raise as much as we can during this final stretch.
We’ll be in touch from CAPE TOWN where we will hopefully arrive on the afternoon of the 3rd June.
We had a straightforward cycle north (yes, north!) on the B1 from Windhoek before we turned west onto the B2. After 118km we topped up our water bags at a roadside farm at Okazizi and found a dried-out riverbed to pitch our tent for the night – which displaced the resident cattle from their usual overnight spot.
From Windhoek we’d been cycling on a large hard shoulder but this disappeared once we’d passed through the gold mining town of Karibib.
We reached the town of Usakos. Emily’s uncle had warned us that it was the kind of place that 1st first prize was a week in Usakos; second prize was 2 weeks in Usakos. Nevertheless, we begged the owners of a fuel stop/restaurant for us to pitch our tent in their grounds that, itself, was a closed campsite.
We had our first experience of the Namibian gravel roads when we took a detour to Spitzkoppe – a majestic outcrop of racks that have been weathered over the years into a beautiful collection of boulders, crags and arches. We even saw some ancient cave paintings.
From Spitzkoppe, we had a punchy 154km ride towards the coastal town of Swakopmund. Although it was gently downhill all day, the wind suddenly changed direction meaning we had to pedal hard into a biting headwind for most of the day. We arrived exhausted but were pleased to see Emily’s uncles John and Nigel and Auntie Astrid who’d come over from Johannesburg to see us. It was the first time Emily had seen them in 15 years! The next day Emily’s folks arrived from the UK to join us and we spent a very fun few days in Swakopmund catching up and spending some precious family time together.
Emily then sprung a huge surprise on me, for my birthday, she’d organised for me to do a Skydive in Swakopmund. What’s more, she (reluctantly) agreed to join me. For somebody who’s terrified of heights, is a nervous flyer and hates rollercoasters, it was completely out of her comfort zone but, thanks to Eddie and the remarkably professional set up at SkyDive Namibia, we both experienced the thrill of freefalling to the ground from 11,000 feet. As I’d done a few jumps before, my tandem master allowed me to do a few turns whilst in free-fall and even let me pull the cord. I’m not convinced Emily enjoyed it quite as much as me however.
From Swakopmund, we drove north and spent a fantastic few days in Etosha National Park. Etosha is a vast National Park and we were spoilt with the huge numbers of animals we saw including giraffe, zebra, a catalogue of antelope and stunning birds but also huge numbers of elephants, 7 very endangered black rhinos and a leopard. When the time came for Emily and I to leave, we were disappointed not to see any lions or cheetahs – only for us to spot them as we made our way out of the Park. Thanks again to John and Astrid for organising such a memorable trip!
After Etosha, we were reunited with our bicycles in Walvis Bay where we’d left them with Warm Showers host, Brian. Sadly Brian wasn’t there but he kindly let us stay at his beautiful cottage overlooking the Walvis Bay Lagoon and its resident flamingoes. In Brian’s absence his landlady, Caroline, looked after us and, over a cooked breakfast, it transpired that she came from the same town Emily’s parents in and even went to Emily’s old school. Small world.
The notion of a small world soon disappeared the next day when we were back on our bikes. 115km uphill on gravel and into a headwind is tough. Even tougher when we have to carry 2 days’ water supply with us. We fell short of our intended camping site and so wild camped in the desert – too exhausted to enjoy the stunning sunset and star show.
We struggled through on the corrugated roads until we reached the Rostock Ritz – a desert lodge and campground which has an amazing policy of offering touring cyclists a free room for the night. The staff gave us an incredible welcome and we made use of the soft bed by sleeping for 10 hours straight!
We’ve had a shorter day today – just 45 kilometers form Rostock Ritz to the desert outpost of Solitaire where we’re incredibly grateful to Grant at the Solitaire Country Lodge for hosting us tonight. Nevertheless, today’s ride taken us over 5 hours as we’ve struggled over the corrugations, sand and dust of the desert road.
Just 3 days in to bumpy gravel and the skin on my behind has broken…which should make the next stretch south to Cape Town memorable for the wrong reasons.
We’ve set ourselves an ambitious target of cycling 1,800km from Swakopmund in just 20 days so we’ll arrive in Cape Town on Friday 3rd June. Please do follow our progress on our live GPS tracker and support our fundraising by donating to World Bicycle Relief – we’d really love to fund as many bicycles for school kids and communities in Africa before we reach Cape Town!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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!
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.
After our brief detour to Dar es Salaam for some well-needed r&r, we headed back to Mbeya. From there, we cycled the short distance to Utengule Coffee Lodge, where we met up with Tom and Eva, whom we’d first met in the lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia. They’d been stuck at the lodge for a week awaiting parts for their poorly Unimog and it lovely to see them once again.
The next day, we were both heading in the same direction so they loaded our panniers into their vehicle whilst we cycled kit-free for the first time since we left home. Unburdened of the 40-50kg panniers we’re each carrying was liberating and, as we crossed the border into Zambia, we were figuratively flying at an average 20kmph as opposed to our usual 10-15kmph.
We met up with Tom and Eva later that day at a small lodge in Isoka where they greeted us with a delicious home cooked meal and another evening in great company. It’s a shame that they were heading home to Johannesburg and weren’t able to follow us all the way to Cape Town! After a decent night’s sleep in our tent, we headed south to Shiwa Ng’andu; a place that’s very special to my family.
Deep in the northeastern Zambia bush lies the crazy creation of a British imperialist who wanted to ‘live like an Emperor’ – a Home Counties estate in the heart of Africa
Shiwa Ngandu was the dream of an English army officer called Sir Stewart Gore Browne, who went to Africa in 1911 as part of the Anglo-Belgian commission drawing up the border between Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo. Whilst at Harrow, and, at the age of 16, he drew a detailed plan in his diary under the heading “House to be built at some future date for S. Gore Browne Esq”, showing a 12-bedroom estate with sweeping entrance, tower, billiards room, library, smoking room, long hall-cum-ballroom and servants’ quarters.
Although his family was relatively well off, he realised his income would “make little impact” in England but in Africa he could “live like an Emperor” and set off to find the perfect place.
In 1914, Gore Browne arrived at Lake Shiwa. In his diary he wrote: “It was all so magical that I felt I had entered a fairy kingdom.” Although he’d chosen the spot, war broke out so it wasn’t until 1920 before he returned to Africa to begin the monumental job of building Shiwa.
The resultant manor house, red-brick outbuildings, gate house with clock tower and walled rose gardens would more likely be found in Surrey or Hertfordshire rather than 13-hour drive north from Lusaka.
Gore Browne struggled to make the farm a success. In fact, it only made money for three years. One of his many different ventures was to make low volume, high value products such as essential oils but, over time, he relied on frequent bailouts from his wealthy aunt back in the UK to keep his African dream alive.
In the 1960s, Gore Browne handed over the running of the estate to his daughter Lorna and her husband Major John Harvey. It was at this time that, whilst working as teachers at a nearby school, my parents met John and Lorna and were regular guests at Shiwa. To this day they have very fond memories of their times there.
In 1992, Michael Palin stopped by at Shiwa on his Pole to Pole adventure. But, tragically, just 6 months after his visit, both John and Lorna were killed by gunmen whilst at their other farm in Chisanga near Lusaka.
After their deaths, the house was left vacant and fell into disrepair. That was until 1999 when their eldest son, Charlie, took it over and, together with his wife Jo, they set about the monumental task of restoring the house and turning the huge grounds into a fully-functioning farm once more.
For me, it’s been a lifelong dream to visit a place that has been talked about for so long in our family. Therefore it was an honour to be invited by Charlie and Jo to stay on the estate for a few days.
The main house has now been restored (although it’s a never-ending task for the couple to keep such a building intact) and, at over $400 per person per night, it’s the preserve of the wealthy that either come to soak up the history or join Charlie on safari or hunting trips. We stayed in a small cottage 7km from the main house, itself an outbuilding of the larger house named ‘Impandala’ which was built in 1930 for missionaries.
There, Tink Robey, a retired vet, and his wife Jen greeted us and they were incredibly kind by inviting two hungry cyclists to dine with them at Impandala – especially as their nearest grocery store is a 250km round trip!
Whilst driving across the estate, Tink pointed out some of the many varieties of mammals that roam Shiwa including Impala, Elands, Zebra and Lechwe, although he lambasted me each time I (innocently) called something a ‘deer’!
To this day, it’s a gargantuan task to run an estate like Shiwa. Charlie has had to diversify as much as possible and grows several different crops and also breeds chickens, pigs and cattle. The sheer distance from market and the fact that business loans are in dollars but income from agriculture is in Kwacha (which has recently devalued) makes running the farm tough. Poaching’s also a problem and we joined Tink as he lead one of the regular ‘cattle counts’.
The name, Shiwa Ng’andu, means ‘Lake of the Royal Crocodiles’. A name that is as ever relevant because, just a few days before our arrival, three of the Harvey’s dogs were taken by a croc in one of the estate’s streams.
We took a day to cycle 25km to the far side of the estate to Kapishya Hot Springs, where we met Charlie’s younger brother, Mark. We soaked in the springs; the deliciously warm water bubbling up form the sands below. My parents wouldn’t recognise the surrounds; Mark runs a successful luxury lodge, restaurant and camping grounds at the springs and they get over 6,000 visitors a year.
It was an honour to join Charlie, Jo and other guests (including Chris Barker, who was visiting on business) for dinner that night in Shiwa’s grand dining room and, the feast of slow-cooked beef, followed by homemade fruit crumble and ice cream was heaven to the taste buds of two touring cyclists.
The next day, Jo showed us into the library and pulled out a few of the visitors’ books. Leafing through, I found my parents’ signatures on a number of occasions, one of which was the day of Gore Browne’s funeral in 1967. I even found an entry in Gore Browne’s diary that mentioned one of my parents’ visits.
After leaving Shiwa, we cycled 90km south along the Great North Road. There, we stopped at Lwitikila Girls’ School; the school at which my parents taught between 1965 and 1968.
We camped at the nearby waterfalls and took a walk around the school to see the sports field that my dad built. We even found the house where they both lived. It’s now occupied by the deputy head, Mwila Martin.
The next day, he gave us a tour of the school and introduced us to a few of the classes. Today, Lwitikila Girls’ School is one of the top schools in Zambia and my parents would be proud that it’s such a high-performing school.
We explained to the kids the purpose of our trip and it was great that they’d all head of World Bicycle Relief’s Buffalo Bikes. In fact, we’ve seen many of the Buffalo Bikes on the streets of Zambia; ridden by kids so that they can get to school and get an education. We hope that, through our fundraising efforts, we can make education accessible to more and more children throughout rural Africa.
We cycled south from Lwitikila, stopping briefly outside Chilonga hospital where my eldest brother, Francis, was born 49 years ago. It was no real surprise that there wasn’t a statue or blue plaque in his honour (just yet) so, after a quick loo stop in his honour, we continued on our journey south.
The people of Zambia have been incredibly warm and friendly. The kids shout “How are you?” from the sidelines and other road users we’ve passed have all shouted friendly greetings. One minor observation, though, is that when you say “hello” to somebody, they’ll reply with “I’m fine”. Much like Ethiopia’s “Where are you go?” It’s another small conversational error that, starts to niggle when you hear it a thousand times a day. Still, at least the never-ending East African shouts of “Muzungu!” have disappeared.
We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Great North Road so far. The Tarmac’s good, the traffic is light and has predominantly consisted of petrol tankers that pass by in convoy meaning we can relax and get the kilometers done rather than worry too much about what’s coming up behind.
Zambia is a beautiful country and it would have been a shame to just cycle through without venturing off the path to see more of the countryside.
So, we turned off the main road, struggled for over 3 hours to travel just 25km along a sandy track and made it to the Muntinando Wilderness Lodge. Our effort was definitely worth it as we’ve been rewarded with beautiful tranquility; camping with views across to the South Luanga National Park. Muntinondo Wilderness combines 10,000 hectares of pristine miobo woodland and has over 1,000 different plant species and 324 species of bird.
It’s a great place to explore by foot with over 50km of maintained and signposted tracks. We decided to do just that, but our attempt at a walk in the countryside was cut short when the heavens opened and we got completely drenched. We had planned to hike to the top of a nearby hill but, with a spectacular lightning show filling the sky, we thought it unwise to be the highest protrusions on the ground, perched on a granite mountain.
Instead, we headed to the nearby Chiso falls to relax the leg muscles .That said, it was slightly less relaxing for Emily. She’d volunteered to swim 300m up the river to help one of the local guys retrieve a welly boot he’d lost in the river earlier that day. The “300 meters” turned into a 1km round trip in the river, so she definitely earned her hot shower and a good meal!
If you’re ever passing though Northern Zambia, this place is an incredibly peaceful escape from reality.
We’re now back on the road and hope to cover the 600km so we arrive in Lusaka for the Easter weekend.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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!
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 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!
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 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.
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.
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!
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…!
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!
Emily was terrified. She’d been saying to me for weeks that she didn’t want to do it. And now, as we teetered at the top of a 10-foot drop, she was regretting that she’d ever followed my lead by agreeing to go white water rafting.
We were facing upstream but were stuck on rocks at the top of one of the most notorious grade 5 rapids on the White Nile near Jinja, Uganda. Behind and immediately below us, the water tumbled down as a ferocious force of froth and foam.
Further below, those in the other raft in our party looked up at us. For the group that had, up until now, been the boisterous banter boat, they were eerily quiet. Nervously watching us as we awaited our fate.
The guide had his leg out of the craft and eventually pushed us free from the rocks. The current caught us and we tumbled backwards down the rapid. A wall of water hit us full in our faces. Crouched low into the raft I clung on for dear life.
When the rush of water subsided I opened my eyes. Emily had vanished.
I looked across and I could see her head bobbing as she was swept along in the turmoil of the white water. Her eyes wide as she saw the rocks that were ahead. Emily was now being tossed about in what was known as “the washing machine”.
We all shouted for her to swim to the raft. As if a switch was flicked, she appeared to snap our of her panic and swim towards us. With a few powerful strokes, she was back at the boat and we hauled her into the raft.
This was just one of the rapids on our daylong white water rafting trip on the White Nile. I too took many a tumble out of the raft on the trip. Although I’d rafted before, I’d never rafted it in warm water with warm sun on my back so I didn’t really mind if I fell in. In fact, on the traverse between rapids, we all got into the water and swam alongside the raft rather than cruising slowly.
We’d spent a few well-needed days off the bike at the Nile River Camp in Jinja, which is a secluded and peaceful backpackers that overlooks the White Nile. The rafting was of the many activities in the area they offered. I’d only ever rafted in the freezing waters of New Zealand, North Wales and Northampton before, so I couldn’t resist the warm waters and reliable rapids of the White Nile.
From Jinja, we made our way towards Kampala. But we had an important stop to make first.
When my camera smashed in Ethiopia, I needed to get a replacement sent to me quickly and, crucially, without being liable to a ludicrous amount of import tax. My mum swung into action and contacted Sister Mary Costello, a nun she knew from her time working in Zambia 50 years ago but who now lived in northern Uganda. Sister Mary put her in touch with someone she knew was travelling from Dublin to the convent in Mukono, near Kampala and also to another nun who was to travel from London to Dublin. The new camera thus made the trip from Hampshire to London, then from London to Dublin and on to Kampala.
We stopped in Mukono to meet Sister Mary – a name I’d heard over many years. It was great to meet her and learn of her order’s work with disadvantaged children across Uganda. Sister Mary also told us many stories from Lwitikila; the village in Zambia where my parents lived and where we are to visit in a couple of months’ time. Thank you mum for your work behind the scenes and to Sister Mary, Kay and the other nuns for welcoming us in Mukono.
After saying goodbye to the nuns and Kay, we continued our soggy ride towards Kampala. For the remaining 25km the traffic was some of the worst we’d experienced in the whole trip. Although the volume of traffic meant speeds were relatively low, the impatient drivers tried anything to make an advantage that meant they drove perilously close to us. We were limited to cycling well off the road on the potholed and rutted dirt. Progress was slow. On reaching Kampala city, it was rush hour so, instead of battling against the motorbikes, cars and trucks on the packed roads, we walked the remaining 3km to our central hotel on the pavement.
In Kampala we met with Anna, an old friend of Emily’s who just happened to move to Kampala a week before we arrived to start a new job. We’re thankful to Anna because she used some of her precious luggage allowance to bring out couple of essential items for us: we now have a chain whip!
We also met up with ‘Pikey’, another friend of Emily’s who’d made the trip down from his home in Juba, South Sudan, to see us for the weekend. ‘Pikey’ has been pivotal to our journey through East Africa and we can’t thank him enough for sharing his knowledge and contacts in the region. It was great catching up although quite a bizarre experience playing croquet in a garden in Kampala whilst being watched over the fence by the locals.
Whilst in Kampala, we visited the Rainbow International School to tell the kids about our trip. We knew that a couple of journalists would be there but what we didn’t expect was that a full press conference had been organized. We sat at a long table and spent half an hour or so fielding questions form the journalists lined up on chairs facing us. As a result, we made the Ugandan national TV news on their prime time news program. Sadly, the message about the charity element of our trip and the work of the Rainbow International School in supporting us was lost from the badly edited segment. And phrases such as “on the cusp of history” and “swashbuckling adventure” were used.
We spent the afternoon the as guests of the school’s directors, Mr and Mrs Kotecha and met the teachers and some selected pupils.
We are grateful for Mr and Mrs Kotecha for putting us up for the night in a great hotel that overlooked Lake Victoria and we returned to the school the next day to take part in an assembly that had been organized on our behalf.
Once again we were blown away by the facilities and ethos of an International School and how bright (and well-behaved!) the students were.
From Kampala we headed West towards Fort Portal. We spent nights in Mityana, Mubende, and Kyenjojo. The road was in good condition so progress was reasonable, although the terrain in Uganda makes cycling difficult. There’s no flat whatsoever and countless hills to climb – never more than 7% in gradient, but it meant that 50% of the days’ rides were uphill with no real time for recovery. For a 100km ride, 50km is uphill with no real time to recover on the disappointingly short descents.
The kids at the side of the road greeted us warmly although, in these Western parts, they tend to say “goodbye Muzungu” as we approach.
We passed miles of banana and tea plantations and also a forest reserve where the sounds of birds and monkeys in the trees made us feel as though we were deep into tropical Africa.
Now in Fort Portal, we’re staying two nights at the RuwenZori View Guest House; a beautiful and peaceful place. We sat at a huge table and enjoyed a sumptuous 4-course dinner whilst chatting to other guests about there travels and work in the area.
Electioneering is still in full force. And the government schools are closed until all votes are cast. We leave Fort Portal tomorrow and, for us, it’s a race to get cross the equator and reach the border of Rwanda before the election results are called because there’s talk of trouble on the streets regardless of who wins the election.