Africa Cycle Tour – Zambia

The Road to Livingstone

We left the odd little guesthouse we were staying in and cycled off back into Kazangula. The town appears to exist purely as a means to serve the thousands of truck drivers waiting to enter Botswana. As we weaved our way through the hundreds of trucks and up the main street, we saw a chicken shop that might be able to refill our bottle waters. The staff was friendly enough to do so, and as we waited, we got chatting to a truck driver sitting nearby. He said he would usually wait five days to get through the border, sleeping in his truck the entire time!

With our water topped up, we cycled up to the turn off onto the main road to Livingstone. I immediately noticed the change in vegetation and landscape. We were only a few hundred meters from Botswana but it was far greener and more hilly here, just from being on the other side of the Zambezi river.

The road was quite busy with trucks going both ways from the border. It didn’t have a particularly decent shoulder, so we were forced to move off every few minutes and had to listen out for trucks coming from behind. Although the hills were an added effort, it was a nice change from the long flat roads of Botswana.

Upon arrival in Livingstone, we went straight to Jolly Boys backpackers, checked in grabbed a beer and chilled by the pool. It was full of all these blonde Norwegian girls on some kind of tour but they spoke little English and were less social than we hoped.

We did, however, meet a group of about ten other people who were going to a fancy riverside bar for happy hour, so we joined them. In the taxi on the way one of the guys, Ashley, recognized my voice and he turned out to be an Aussie guy I had met exactly two years ago in Pai, Thailand – what a bizarre and incredible coincidence!

We got chatting over many half-price cocktails and beers and caught up on what we had been doing since. He told me he is working in Canada and well, I’m obviously still travelling. We all watched a beautiful sunset over the river, got drunker and then headed back home around 11 pm.

The following few days, Romain and I explored Victoria Falls and spent some time relaxing by the hostel pool. I also went into Zimbabwe just for one night to party with Ashley and his friend and came back at 6 am. Romain and I were meant to catch a bus to Lusaka but delayed it for one day as he had met a girl. Eventually, we headed off to Lusaka where we would continue the cycle to Malawi.

Lusaka

In Lusaka, I had my first robbery of the trip. When getting off the bus and collecting our bikes out from underneath, I put my brand new flask down for a second and it disappeared. It was annoying because it was new but at least it was just a flask and nothing serious. We camped that night at a cheap campsite nearby and I got some work done on their dodgy wifi. While sitting on one of the sofas in the chill area I got badly bitten by fleas all over my legs and arms, which was annoying but fairly common in Africa I guess.

The following day my laptop was acting weird and not charging. I feared that it had finally broken for good after two years and I’d need to buy a new one. We headed to the nearby mall to investigate options but everything was too expensive, so we just had pizza and then headed back. By now it was too late to start cycling, so we booked in another night at the campsite and fortunately my laptop had magically started charging again.

We met some guys from the campsite and an older couple who had traveled to 80 counties in 11 years in an old 4×4. Initially, they meant to only do a one month trip to South America and just never stopped.

Cycling to Malawi

We were finally ready to cycle off to Chipata on the Malawian border after a week off the bikes. We got up early and after some coffee and breakfast, headed off. As the city faded away around us, lots of quaint Zambian villages started popping up with typical African style huts.

We stopped for some lunch of fat cakes and cold drinks at a small roadside shop and then cycled on through more and more villages as the countryside grew more beautiful around us. Just as evening was descending we bumped into another French cyclist coming in the opposite direction. He was very excited to see us and especially to speak French with Romain.

They chatted for about 15 minutes during which time Romain picked up some tips and info about the road ahead and Malawi. After we continued it soon started to get cloudy and fearing a storm might come we decided to ask about camping at a nearby clinic. The caretaker who lived on site kindly said we could camp in his garden and showed us where to get water from a borehole.

We set up camp and I did some work while Romain cooked dinner. We went to bed just before a thunderstorm split the skies and crashed down upon us.

Luangwa Bridge

We awoke early and did our best to dry our tents in our host’s back garden while having a few cups of coffee and some boiled eggs. We set off a bit later than usual because of drying the tents and it was already quite hot by the time we got going.

Stopping for lunch around 1pm, we ate nshima and chicken – a local staple that costs around $1 usually. It’s not bad although often a bit dry and chewy and usually without enough sauce. Still good value for money. Towards about 4 pm we saw a sign for ‘cold beer’ so pulled over and found a nice restaurant/bar. The owner came and chatted to us and was very friendly but kept saying he needed an investor to help build to his guesthouse. I told him I’m saving up to buy a new tent to live in so can’t help much, but I gladly supported him by buying two beers.

We were considering camping there but decided rather to head off and see if there was somewhere on the roadside up ahead. Very soon we hit a huge hill and had to cycle up quite a steep gradient for a few kilometers. Eventually, near the top of the pass, we found a boarding school and as usual, they were very accommodating. They showed us a nice covered concrete sitting area where we could camp and told us we could use the toilets and refill water. It was a very comfortable night and I managed to do more work although the cell connection was getting weak now as we got further from civilization.

That night it didn’t rain and we managed to get going early at around 7 am. After coffee and some biscuits, we set off towards Luangwa Bridge Market where we planned to stop for lunch. The roads were becoming considerably more tough, winding along between valleys and hills.

We arrived at Luangwa Bridge by lunch just as the heat was becoming unbearable. Unfortunately, the lack of electricity means none of the makeshift roadside restaurants have fans, so we tried our best to enjoy some food and a beer in the blistering heat. The hustle bustle of the African market surrounded us, with the sounds of competing music, sputtering food and the occasional argument filling the air.

Fortunately, one store used solar panels to keep its drinks cold and we managed to find a shady spot to cool down and relax. After about two hours we were ready to continue, although to be honest, I was ready to call it a day since it was so hot. The cycle down the hill to the bridge cooled me down a bit but it didn’t last long as we had a big climb out of the valley after.

Villages and Rural Clinics

The road continued up in a winding fashion and we passed the rusted, twisted chassis of an old truck wreck. It was a sobering reminder to watch for dangerous drivers. The further we went into rural Zambia the more children appeared from villages along the roadside. They would all come running towards us shouting “How are you? How are you?” repeatedly, which must be the first thing they learn in English. It was quite cute and eventually I learnt to reply “Fine, how are you?“ – anything else they wouldn’t understand.

As evening approached, we pulled up to a rural health clinic and decided to once again ask about camping. They were also accommodating and even offered to give us a room in the women’s shelter which turned out to be two rows of very rough, rundown rooms full of insects. They very kindly cleaned them out a bit but we still ended up pitching our tents inside to avoid mosquitos. I then investigated my bike and found the source of all the ants that had been crawling all over it the entire day. There was a small colony of ants which had made a home in a screw hole of my handlebar bag. I sprayed them with insect spray, mourned the passing of my adopted children and then cleaned their corpses out with a stick.

While making dinner, I asked the security guard if there is anywhere I could get some drinks. I was hoping for beer but figured it’d probably be unlikely in a health clinic. Anyway, he took me down the road to a tiny village shop which had cooldrinks and small bottles of whiskey for less than a dollar. So I bought two knock-off colas and some of the suspect whiskey. The whiskey obviously turned out to be some diluted crap but I didn’t care, it was drinkable.

After our usual pasta and sauce dinner, we had a coffee, watched the lightning storm and then got to bed.

We were up early, packed up our tents, filled the water bottles and got going. The day was clear and sunny as usual and the roads became less hilly, opening to long stretches which helped us cover a lot of distance in a short time. We stopped for lunch in a small guest house with a nice restaurant that was cool and shady and I got some work done while we ate the usual rice and chicken. After another 30 km’s or so we found an old church, the caretaker of which allowed us to camp in the grounds. It was a full moon and we had a nice campfire dinner before getting to bed early again.

Bike troubles

The next day we packed, filled our water bottles and got moving early. We passed through Kachalola and Nyimba villages reasonably quickly and made it to Patauke by about 10 am. There we sat at a small gas station restaurant while I got work done and we had some breakfast of samosas, fried chicken and a salad that Romain put together from our leftover vegetables.

We even saw some Mzungus (the African word for foreigners or white people) for the first time since leaving Lusaka. Petauke is a turn-off point for the South Luangwa national park, so it hosts many foreigners. Just after leaving Petauke, I noticed my wheel was wobbling a bit and I made a mental note to get it aligned in Chipata. However, it was too little too late. A few kilometers out, a spoke snapped loudly. At first, I wasn’t sure what it was and kept going, but a few minutes later another snapped and my wheel went completely out of shape. I pulled over and waited for Romi to return. Luckily he had some spare spokes and a spoke tool but we couldn’t figure out how to get the rear cassette off to replace them. Fortunately, some locals informed us that there is a bike repairman a few meters up the road!

I put some of my luggage on Romi’s bike to ease the back wheel and then we walked for about 15 minutes until finding a bike repair guy. He also couldn’t take off the cassette but ensured us he could repair the spokes by bending them in. With no other option I trusted him and after a short time he had repaired them in fairly good looking condition, for less than a dollar!

We continued on after two hours and found the road a bit flatter here so we could move faster. We rode fairly well throughout the day only stopping for short breaks and quick snacks until reaching Sinda, where we decided to grab an end of day beer. We found a bar that wasn’t too crowded or noisy but being Saturday, a lot of people were already out getting drunk.

Luckily we didn’t draw too much unwanted attention and just received the usual questions from a few guys who seemed friendly. After the beers we continued on out of the village to find a spot to camp. We soon reached a sign for a rural clinic and followed a dirt path into a village. We finally found the clinic managers and they said we could camp behind the clinic but it wasn’t fenced off or anything from the village so we attracted a lot of attention. Fortunately, they offered to put our bicycles in a secure room with the night guard.

As we set up our tents, a huge group of children began to gather and stood staring and laughing. Once done, we started cooking and that made them even more interested, so they came closer. It wasn’t annoying or anything but it wasn’t exactly peaceful after a long day riding. Eventually, some older boys came and after chatting we asked if they could ask the children to leave us in peace. They obliged and shouted ‘jia’ at the kids which seemed to do the trick. We thanked them and they said they’ll see us in the morning.

With some peace, we finished our evening meal and coffee and then turned in for the night. Morning involved the usual coffee and breaking camp before heading off toward Chipata. At lunchtime, we stopped in a small town and found a cool lodge with good food and a place where I could get some work done. We were making good time so we chilled for a few hours before moving on. Back on the road just as we arrived in Chipata, disaster struck again – another spoke broke!

I realised this was going to keep happening and I might need to buy a stronger back wheel but now it was too late so we just walked to the lodge where we were camping and chilled for the evening. For dinner we wanted to go to a local buffet restaurant but on arrival, it was closed (Sunday), so we ended up at a popular but expensive pizza place called Panarottis.

Chipata

The next day I took the bike to a local repair place and after considering all options, decided to keep the wheel and replace all the spokes with stronger ones. The mechanic didn’t know much about the European hub and cassette I have and didn’t have tools to remove it but eventually managed to wrench it off. After spending a few hours replacing each spoke he tried to put it back on but when I tried to cycle it got stuck.

I took it back and he spent the rest of the afternoon brutalizing it back on until eventually, with some bits missing, it worked. I’ll still need a new wheel soon but I had no choice but to take what I could get. After a long and tiring day, I decided I needed something enjoyable so I bought some cheap meat and wine and headed back to enjoy a braai at the lodge. We drank and ate and listened to cool music before crashing out in the hostel beds that we had decided to upgrade to for that night.

The next day we stupidly decided to take a bus to Lilongwe because we thought it would save time but it ended up taking longer than cycling. We waited at the Chipata bus station for hours for two people from Lusaka to arrive, on a bus full of flees that was filthy. We had some pretty good local nshima and chicken though while we waited.

Once arriving at the Malawian border we again had to wait hours for the staff to check the bus until eventfully leaving and arriving at Lilongwe in the dark at about 8 pm. After a stressful mission getting everything off the bus in the pitch black in a muddy car park, we cycled off along dimly lit streets to a nearby backpackers.