Brasov – More than Just Dracula, a Hidden Jewel of Eastern Europe

I came to Brasov with the plan to stay just one night and, like everyone else, all I planned to see was Bran Castle: the legendary home of the Vampire Dracula.

On arrival, I checked into a very cheap hostel (45 lei / €8) called Art Hostel which isn’t in the best location but since I was only planning to stay a night I didn’t mind. It’s probably the smallest hostel in the world, with only one 8-bed room and a tiny kitchen and common area but I really liked it. That evening I headed out to explore, not expecting to find much in this pokey little village. After a brief walk around the old town square and the Black Church, I discovered a busy looking road full of bars and restaurants. Being Saturday night, it was quite packed with a bustling mix of young and old locals.

I soon came across a bar called Biblioteque, which caught my eye because I know it as the word for ‘library’. Turning up the long passageway that forms the entrance to the bar I found it was lined with bookshelves full of old books, antiques, and board games. Immediately I was enamored with this bizarre find and began to realize there is far more to this pokey little village than I first assumed. After a few beers and a bit more exploring the awesome nightlife on offer I knew I wasn’t going to be leaving Brasov tomorrow.

In the end, I actually stayed a whole two weeks AND didn’t even go to Bran Castle in that time. I did cycle the 25 kms to the Bran Castle location on my first day as planned but it was a Sunday and the place was absolutely packed. It looked like Disney World with all the cheap souvenirs, stalls and hawkers trying to sell you crap. It was not at all like the creepy environment I expected and I quickly decided I had wasted my time coming here. Also, it was never even the home of Vlad the Impaler who inspired Dracula – it just looks similar to the castle described in Bram Stoker’s Dracula book.

On the cycle home, I decided to take a different route via Poiana Brasov (the ski resort overlooking Brasov) due in part to roadworks I had encountered on the way and the feeling that I should at least do something while I’m out. The road was fairly long and steep but I didn’t have my bags so it went smoothly despite the lack of any high range gears on my bike. As I climbed I quickly began falling in love with the surrounding nature and by the time I was cycling down the hill on the opposite side back into Brasov, I had again reiterated to myself that I would be staying longer.

I entered back into Brasov through a nice dirt path and then turned on to a road that followed the ancient walls and a small river. Suddenly I came across a door in the rock face opposite the river with a bridge leading to it. It was pitch black inside and as I stood wondering if it was open to exploring, somebody popped out and confirmed that its a collection of tunnels that you can explore with your phone torch.

So I went in and spent about an hour exploring and got quite deep into the caves, having to crawl at some places. Eventually, I grew concerned I may not find my way out and started heading back. It was a bit confusing at parts but I eventually escaped unscathed. I thought it’s pretty cool to just have something like this open to the public with none of the usual worries about health and safety. Oh Romania, you silly sausage.

Getting closer to town

That evening I began to develop a rather nasty cough and spent the next day in bed at the hostel, getting some work done but mostly trying to rest. It may have been from overexerting myself on the cycle, or possibly something I inhaled while in the cave? Either way, I booked another night in the hostel and stayed in that night. A hitch-hiker showed up and we got chatting and he said hitch-hiking in Romania was very easy and people were friendly. He went out and when he came back showed me some amazing pictures from a hike he had done up to the Brasov sign, so I resolved to do the same before I leave.

The following day I abandoned plans I had made to leave Brasov and go cycle the Transfagarasan Highway and instead moved to another hostel more centrally located. Incredibly, this hostel was even smaller than Art Hostel, with only one 6-bed dorm and a tiny bathroom but a slightly bigger kitchen. I got some more work done and then went for a hike to the Brasov sign, which turned out to be quite a lot further and higher than the hitch-hiker had made out. It was totally worth the view though, and some good exercise.

When I got back, another cycle-tourer was at the hostel – a French guy who was heading in the opposite direction to me. We chatted a bit and then he headed out to an Irish bar called Deane’s where I later found him. The bar was having a 10 lei pizza special (about €2) so I joined him and some girls he had met and we had a few €1.50 beers and pizza. I guess it’s not the most traditional Romanian place but it’s a really cool bar, and they do karaoke every Tuesday!

The 7 Ladders Canyon

By now I had picked some info about the surrounding area and heard about an incredible hike up a gorge called the 7 Ladders Canyon. I headed off early the next day on the 10 km cycle to the canyon, stopping briefly for some very cheap McDonalds breakfast along the way. I locked up my bike on arrival and began the easy 2-hour walk to the start of the gorge. It follows a small river and a really awesome looking zip-line course which I planned to do on the way down. Entrance to the 7-ladders canyon is about 30 lei (about €6) so remember to bring some cash if you intend doing this. Luckily, I had enough, but the zipline is quite a bit more (80 lei), so I decided against that.

Hence the name, the canyon consists of a climb up 7 steel ladders through a huge gorge created by the river and has a similar feel to Antelope Canyon in the US. Along the way, I met a Norwegian girl who was living and studying in Copenhagen. She wanted to continue the hike all the way to the top of the mountain but was afraid of bears and asked if I would join her. I said yes, of course, because it was the chivalrous thing to do and not at all because she was drop-dead gorgeous.

After what felt like ages up steep sections over rocks and dirt where the path sometimes disappeared completely, we eventually reached a clearing with a small hut. The hut was a refuge for hikers and had some supplies so the Norwegian girl bought us a coke each since I had shared my water and biscuits with her. From here it was another hour or so hike to the highest point and we bumped into some others who decided to join us – a Norwegian guy who looked like a Viking, a French girl named Camille and an English girl from London. Just as we were heading off a small bear walked out of the forest up ahead and crossed the path but didn’t even notice us. After that, we were all on the lookout for more bears but sadly didn’t see any.

We did, however, bump into a shepherd who got very mad with us for apparently scaring his sheep off the path although we couldn’t understand what he was actually shouting. Despite taking another two hours, the hike to the top was totally worth it as the views are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve heard that the mountains in Switzerland are even more beautiful but they would have to be pretty spectacular to beat this! If you ever get a chance to visit Romania, which you definitely should, I would recommend this hike over any other tourist attraction.

Becoming a local

During the hike, we had all become friends but sadly the Norwegian and English girls had to leave that evening, so I arranged to meet Camille and the Viking for some after-hike drinks. We went to Bibliotheque for some beers and then another bar where we drank some Bechrovka shots and then headed back to their hostel for homemade Palinka, an awful tasting local liquor. Needless to say, I stumbled back to my hostel very drunk, with the promise to move to their hostel, Boemia, the next day.

Despite a mild hangover, I was up early, packed my stuff and moved to Boemia hostel before the others even woke up. After being assigned a bed I had some coffee and got some work done. I was now quite settled in Brasov and had quite decided I might just live here now, so I no longer felt the need to try squeeze in lots of touristy stuff. Camille was a volunteer at the hostel along with a Kiwi girl, Jess, who I had briefly met the night before. They took turns looking after the hostel in the evenings in exchange for free food and board and so the young couple who ran it could get some time off.

Peles Castle

I had been hearing a lot about Peles Castle since I arrived, which people reported as far more beautiful than Bran Castle, so Camille, the Viking and I decided to go visit it the following day. We headed off early and took the €3 train to nearby Sinaia, a short walk from the castle. It really is far more beautiful, although quite expensive to visit if you want to see the whole thing. Just the first floor is 30 lei (€6) and for both floors, it’s double (60 lei), which seems excessive. The other two had student cards so they got half-price but I decided I couldn’t afford that much and just took a first-floor ticket.

After exploring the opulent first floor we attempted to go upstairs but they asked to check our tickets. I said I had accidentally given mine in at the door but since the other two had second-floor tickets, she assumed we were a group and let me in. Score! If you do go to Peles and can afford it, I suggest getting a ticket for both floors (or sneaking in like me) – the upstairs is far more impressive than the first floor! Annoyingly, they try to scam an extra 30 lei out of you for ‘photograph tax’, which is bullshit and I told them so. It does, however, mean you need to be very discreet when taking photos if you don’t cough it up. Fortunately, after traveling to so many supposedly ‘sacred’ sites around the world, I’m a pro at taking discreet photos.

That evening the Viking had to leave but Jess, another guest and I headed out to watch a live music event that the local council was hosting in the town square. It featured some local bands and ended off with an incredible opera singer that sounded as professional as anything I’ve seen on TV (although, I’m tone deaf so what would I know).

We took a bus up to Poiana Brasov the following morning despite mild hangovers and decided to hike up to one of the ski chalets. It wasn’t the most beautiful hike as it mostly followed a dirt road that is a skiing piste during winter. However, at the top, we discovered the pot of gold – free food and palinka! We don’t know why, but a small restaurant was giving away platters of bread, ham, cheese, and cake along with free shots of palinka, so we proceeded to get drunk before stumbling back down the mountain and almost dying. Good day.

Transfagarasan

I spent the following few days mostly working during the day and playing increasingly complex drunken card games with Camille and Jess in the evenings. The hostel (Boemia) had a nice flow of really interesting guests, many of which we got to join in with our game of figuring out, and then playing loudly, the song that was number one when they were born. This, I found, is a great way to get everyone in the hostel involved, even the commonly shy ones. I really should work in a hostel full time.

Anyway, during these days we formulated a plan to hire a car and drive up what Jeremy Clarkson once called the most beautiful road in the world – the Transfagarasan! The road was built by ex-president Ceausescu as an attempt to improve upon the already popular Transalpina, a few kilometres to the west. While it is admittedly more impressive, it is so treacherous that they need to close it every winter.

The car hire companies are a bit odd in Romania and require a minimum rental period of 2 days, so we collected the car the day before Jess and I drove up to Poiana Brasov to have some lunch. It was also good practice for me to get used to driving on the right. The next day we all woke up super early and hit the road at 7 am, along with Camille’s friend who had come to visit her for the weekend. Unfortunately, we didn’t choose the best day weather-wise but that just added to the spookiness of the Romanian countryside.

The road past Bran and around the back of the Carpathian mountains winds up and down along mountainous roads with beautiful scenery all around. It’s dotted with creepy old towns that are littered with interesting and bizarre sights, like strange sculptures and bizarre buildings. After a few hours driving, we eventually began the ascent up the south side of the Transfagarasan, where we stopped to visit another one of Dracula’s supposed castle – Poianeri. Unfortunately, it was closed due to bears, so we continued on across precariously built bridges and through small tunnels until we were winding up along the sides of a huge valley.

Suddenly I realized we were very short on fuel and the chances of finding a gas station out here were slim. The girls were freaking out but I figured as long as we get over the peak we can just free-wheel down the other side to the gas station at the bottom. We had one moment of panic when we stopped for photos and the car wouldn’t start at first but eventually, we made it to the top. Right at the very peak is a short tunnel which, when driven through, result in the most extraordinary event. On the side, we entered it was sunny and clear weather but as we broke out the other side it was practically snowing! The sky was dark with clouds, thick rain was falling and patches of snow surrounded the road. It was like going through a portal into another world.

We found somewhere to park the car amongst the throng of tourists and day-trippers and went to explore this strange landscape. Despite being mid-summer, large swathes of snow remained on the mountain, almost like a glacier. Despite this, many people were hanging around by the lake and some even went for a brief swim. The view from the top is incredible, looking down over what must be the windiest road ever built. Surprisingly, the food stalls at the top weren’t overpriced and we managed to get a decent lunch for about 15 lei (€3). One of the nicer things about Romania is that it isn’t spoilt by tourism…. yet.

Soon we needed to head down, so we all climbed back in the car and started to roll down the road with the engine off to save petrol. It made it difficult to brake and steer without mechanical assistance, especially considering the sharp corners and steep inclines, but we made it. We stopped briefly to explore a waterfall near the base of the pass and then got back on the road for the long ride home.

Personally, I find Brasov to be one of the undiscovered jewels of Eastern Europe but a friend of mine recently visited and found it boring. This highlights how unique the travel experience is for each different individual and how our perception is largely subjective. I always hope my blogs can help people to enjoy a destination better but in reality, the only way to know is to get out there and do it yourself.

As always, have a happy journey …. and never stop exploring!

Europe Cycle Tour: Sweden (Part 1)

I was excited going into my cycle tour of Sweden because I had heard about their law that allows anyone to camp anywhere in nature for free. The law is called ‘Allemansvretten’ and roughly translates to ‘all man’s freedom’. It has certain conditions that are fairly obvious – you can’t camp on (or too near to) private property, you can only stay a few days and you must leave the area clean. Those making use of this law clearly abide by its conditions – because Sweden is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever seen.

However, having heard about a law and knowing how it works in practice are two different things, and I was a bit apprehensive about just how lenient this law is. Could I really just pull in and pitch up my tent wherever I wanted without being asked to move on? I was about to find out…

Day 1 – Stockholm to Soldetalje

I awoke in my overpriced Stockholm hostel ($30) ready to escape into the beautiful, and most importantly free, countryside. I spent the past week on a very expensive and boozy cruise through the Baltic peninsula and desperately needed a few cash-saving days of sobriety.

I had been raining heavily that weekend so I bought a rain suit and wrapped all my bags in plastic before heading out. However, by the time I got to the outskirts of the city, it was starting to clear. My first stop was a Decathlon just outside Stockholm where I hoped to get my bike serviced. Upon arrival, I proudly informed the store attendant that I had purchased my bicycle at a Decathlon in India over a year ago and ridden it through seven African countries. He looked disinterested and told me the bike mechanic wasn’t in yet.

Disheartened, I shopped around for a tent and some waterproof pannier bags, convinced I would be spending the next four months cycling in rain. Eventually, the bike mechanic arrived but told me they were booked up that entire week for services. He was equally disinterested in my global cross-country cycle expedition on a Decathlon-built bike that wasn’t designed to do more than collect groceries from the store.

I packed all my stuff into my new panniers and decided to see if any bike stores in the next town could help me out. Since rebuilding my bike in Stockholm after the flight it wasn’t changing gears properly and just needed a service in general after four months crossing Africa. I soon arrived in the next town of Soldetalje, following Sweden’s intricate but confusing bicycle paths all the way.

In Soldetalje I found a bike shop and the mechanic said he could have it done by tomorrow. I told him that would be fine and asked if there is anywhere to camp. People don’t usually camp in or around cities but Soldetalje benefited from a large forest on a hill right in the middle of it, so he told me that should be fine. I left the bike with him, took what I needed and headed into town to buy a simcard and grab some food. I got a simcard fairly easily at a small shop and topped up 3GB of data for 100 krona (€10).

I then checked out the town and ended settling at a familiar spot, a Subway sandwich shop, where I ate and used the wifi. I realised I was still wearing my cycling shorts so decided to change in the toilets. They only had a single toilet and stupidly I forgot to lock the door, so just as I had pulled down my cycle shorts and was bending over with my ass facing the door, somebody opened it! They must have gotten a terrible shock. Needless to say, I got the hell out of there pronto before someone called the police and reported me for indecent exposure.

I decided to check out the forest on the hill, called ‘Kussens Backe’, or Cousins Hill, and discovered its quite a popular after-work running area. I wondered if I would be able to find a quiet and hidden place to camp. The South African in me couldn’t shake the feeling that if somebody saw me setting up camp they may come back later in the night and try to rob me. Looking back now I realize I was more likely to get offered some coffee and cake than get robbed!

I decided to go work a bit at another nearby restaurant and wait until after dark. Little did I realize that the sun only sets at about 11pm in Sweden at this time of year, so I had a bit of waiting to do. Eventually, around 10pm I decided the park should be empty and I headed back. My suspicions were confirmed and the park was deserted, most likely because it was now freezing cold by this time. I quickly pitched my tent in a secluded area and turned in for the night.

Day 2: Soldetalje to somewhere in the countryside

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much sleep since the sun awoke me at 3am! I suddenly realized why the Decathlon had such a large stock of black-out tents. It never gets dark in this crazy country! I tried to get back to sleep but mostly just lay down for another two hours before packing up and heading down the hill to find coffee.

Nothing was open yet so I sat outside a cafe until they opened and then I promptly left upon discovering their coffee is €3.50 a cup! I sat on some benches at a nearby cafe advertising €1 coffee and did some work while waiting for it to open. Eventually, the owner arrived, opened up and promptly shouted at me to get away, even bringing out a hose for added intimidation. Clearly, he thought I was some kind of laptop-using homeless person with all my bags.

I packed my shit quickly, flipped him the bird and then continued on towards the shop where I had left my bike to get fixed. Fortunately, I found a nice cafe on the way which did bottomless coffee for €2 and had some cheap sandwiches, so I had breakfast and worked there for a few hours until it was time to get the bike.

Unfortunately, the bike shop turned out to be a dud, and they barely did anything to my bike. All they did was replace the gear cable and realign the gears – I was expecting a full service. He even forgot to fix my right brake which I told him was loose. So that was a waste of €30! Long story short, Soldetalje is a shithole, don’t go there.

I cycled off towards a nearby store to buy some camping gear and food and then cycled out of town, happy to see the last of that place. Town quickly gave way to the countryside and I enjoyed the decent roads with a wide shoulder and minimal traffic as lakes and forests passed beside me. Eventually, I had forgotten all about Soldetalje and as the evening drew near I began looking for a camping spot. This turned out to be easier said than done.

As I turned down a side road to find a lake I suddenly got a puncture on my front tyre. It was quite strange as my Schwalbe tyres are practically bulletproof and I couldn’t find any thorn in the tyre. I did find a small split in the side, though, and fixed it quickly enough with a patch and then headed off again. Unable to find any decent lake or grassy area I settled for hiding down a dirt path in small patch of forest.

As soon as I stopped, thousands of mosquitos surrounded me and started sucking the very lifeblood out of my tired soul. Wonderful. I carried mosquito spray 5000 kilometres across Africa and barely used it, and now I need it more than ever! I quickly set up the tent, jumped inside with my stuff and managed to get it closed with only one ill-fated mosquito sneaking inside. After splattering him, I cooked some tasteless tomato pasta and got to bed.

Day 3: Random camp spot to Stavsjo

Cleverly using a thing to cover my eyes, I managed to sleep until about 6 am. I packed soon after a quick cup of coffee and headed off towards Norrkoping, my next destination where I had arranged to stay with someone from the cycle touring app Warmshowers (like Couchsurfing). The route was relatively uneventful as I cycled along back roads and through farms and fields. Towards the afternoon my left knee started to get quite sore so I slowed down and took it easy.

I reached the town of Stavsjo in the early afternoon and decided to get some lunch, rest my knee and do some work. After a few hours I tried to cycle again but my knee was still quite bad and the evening was approaching. I messaged the Warmshowers guy and said I’ll rather stop here the night and could hopefully still stay with him the following night.

Using ‘satellite’ view on Google maps, I managed to find a lovely spot next to a lake to camp for the night. Although it was on a walking track, I barely saw or heard anybody passing until late in the night when somebody ran very close by my tent but didn’t stop to bother me.

Day 4: Stavsjo to Norrkoping

Since it was only about 10km’s to Norrkoping I was in no hurry to rush off. I had a few coffees around my beautiful campsite and waited until the sun was quite high in the sky and morning cold had worn off. Eventually, I packed and headed off on a slow cycle. Along the way, I found an awesome viewpoint and took some pictures overlooking the ocean.

Arriving in Norrkoping around lunchtime, I found my host Emil’s house easily enough and met him, his wife and their toddler. After they kindly shared their lunch with me, we headed out to check out the town. Norrkoping is built upon a complex water system that was one of the oldest operating hydroelectric power stations in the country until it was recently upgraded. Lots of the old construction remains, making for a beautiful old town built around a canal system and man-made waterfalls.

I bought a few extra pieces of equipment I needed and then we headed back for dinner at theirs. Emil offered to introduce me to a Swedish sauna, which inexplicably every building in Sweden has included as default. We grabbed some cold beers and up to the stairs to his buildings roof-top sauna. The experience was actually really cool as I’m not usually a fan of public saunas, but having the whole space to ourselves to drink some beers and chat was a nice change.

This was actually my first time as a Warmshowers guest and I was amazed at how welcoming and hospitable complete strangers can be. That evening after a nice dinner, Emil and I went out to town for a few beers and chatted about football, cycling and my life growing up in Cape Town.

Day 5: An awkward day in Norrkoping

My knee was still hurting in the morning and the night before Emil had offered to let me stay another night, so I told him I would. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had expressly discussed this with his wife so I may have caused an expected exchange between them. I didn’t understand what they were saying but it seemed awkward, even though they both said it was fine. I probably should have just left then but then it may have made her feel like it was her fault, so, unsure what else to do, I just kept quiet and stayed.

We all visited a beautiful nearby lake together which they had probably planned to do alone as a family that day. Either way, everyone seemed happy enough so I just went along with it. We swam briefly in freezing cold water and then hiked a nearby mountain that is clearly very popular with rock climbers.

Feeling bad for overstaying my welcome I stupidly offered to cook everyone dinner, as if my cooking would somehow make things better. Foresight lacking, I headed out to the shops and bought some lasagna sheets, butter, CRAZY EXPENSIVE beef (€10), cheap low-alcohol beers (50c), normally priced cheese (€2) and tinned tomatoes.

Back at their apartment, I placed myself in front of the stove promising my poor hosts the best lasagne they’ve ever had. Within minutes I had burnt the butter and set off a fire alarm that automatically alerts the fire department, so they had to call and tell them it was just an idiot homeless cycle-tourist who had forgotten how kitchens work.

Crisis averted, my long-suffering hosts somehow allowed me to continue my rampage of destruction and I managed to cobble together a barely-passable form of Italian cuisine that I feel unqualified to call lasagne. They assured me it was lovely in that special way that only parents with children are able to do. Needless to say, we all got to bed early and I made my thanks/apologies and departed early the next morning.

Day 6: Norrkoping to Gamleby

I cycled southeast from Norrkoping towards Valdemarksvik, a small coastal town where I hoped to find a pub playing the Liverpool – Spurs Cup final that night. The route took me along some lovely forested lanes and a town bizarrely called Tindered where I would have stopped if they had a pub with a TV.

Arriving at Valdermarksvik by early afternoon I quickly discovered they wouldn’t be showing any football in this tiny fishing village. After some lunch and a nap in a park, I continued on to Gamelby which Google Maps promised had a bowling alley and sports bar. On arrival, however, Gamelby was a literal ghost town, with the bowling alley long-closed and dilapidated.

I realized my quest was doomed and resigned myself to following updates of the score on my phone. I found a lovely quiet little spot on the river mouth, set up camp and made dinner. I briefly attempted to fish with a fishing line and hook that Emil had kindly gifted me but without proper bait, I didn’t have any luck. I ended up eating pasta and tomato sauce again.

Day 7: Gamleby to Oskarshamn

Heading south from Gamleby I discovered a strange wooden troll outside the town of Vastervik and decided to cycle onto a small, dirt forest road to see what I could find. After about 20 kms this quickly turned into a disaster as the path degenerated into a sandy, overgrown scrub that was impossible to cycle on. Too far in to turn back, I pushed my bike for a few kms until a more cyclable terrain reappeared.

I passed a shooting range which inexplicably faced ON to the road but fortunately was empty and then managed to rejoin the main tar road. I got back on the highway and road along in the fairly decently sized shoulder until I was almost in a small town called Oskarshamn.

Once again, Google Maps’ satellite view showed me a nice, discreet bit of lakeside forest that I could reach via a side road. I cycled off down there and found a quiet spot to camp. It was quite early so I spent some time exploring the forest and watching some fishermen who actually knew what they were doing.

Day 8: Oskarshamn to Kalmar

After leaving Oskarshamn I managed to find a decent bicycle path that weaved through the forests along the main road, keeping cyclists away from traffic. Unfortunately, it was also quite difficult to follow and often just ended without notice, leaving the cyclist abandoned in a random town. At one point while I was resting a young cyclist passed by and offered me an energy bar – I must have looked tired!

I decided to stop going on adventures and just get back on the highway and head straight to Kalmar where I was meeting friends I had met in Vietnam the year before. My knee was getting really sore again but all the strange and bizarre objects along the roadside in Sweden managed to keep me distracted long enough to arrive in Kalmar safely.

I pulled into a Burger King and spent a few hours working while waiting for my friends to get home from work. Oskar and Maria are a young couple who live in a lovely 1-bed flat in Kalmar and kindly let me crash on their couch and do some washing. We also visited the amazing Kalmar castle and the nearby island of Oland, accessible by a crazy long bridge.

One Year as a Digital Nomad: My Thoughts

I’ve been working as a digital nomad now for almost exactly one year and decided that I would share my inane thoughts and experiences for those who might be interested in the lifestyle.

A digital nomad is a term used to loosely describe people whose jobs are usually done on a laptop and are location independent. That is, they either don’t require you to attend an office or don’t involve the kind of work that requires you to stay in one particular place. Some examples include writing, photography, graphic design, web design, coding and video editing.

Being a digital nomad doesn’t necessarily mean you work for yourself – many digital nomads are normal, 9-5, Monday to Friday, company employees. However, the nature of their job means they never have to go into the office and can work from anywhere in the world – so long as there is an internet connection. Many digital nomads stay in one place for months or even years at a time, while others are essentially homeless travelers who work from hotels, restaurants, airports or anywhere else they can get a wifi signal. I fall into the latter group.

I got into digital nomad’ing via what I consider to be the simplest route available – content writing. Content writing simply means writing content for any kind of publication – websites, blogs, marketing agencies or even physical newspapers. All it requires is a laptop and a basic grasp of grammar and literacy in the language of your choice – English, of course, being the most widely accepted. Through content writing, I got involved in product reviews, research, technical writing, financial analysis and eventually journalism, which is what I mainly do now.

You can’t put a price on freedom

Working from a yacht off the east coast of Australia

The number one reason that I chose to become a digital nomad is the freedom. Not simply because I can work from home in my underwear (something I do far less often than you would think) but because I can go wherever I want, whenever I want. This is not something that necessarily appeals to everyone, but for me, I would go so far as to say that it is now a non-negotiable aspect of my life.

I earn CONSIDERABLY less than I did in my old 9-5 office job. I mean, like, seriously multiple, multiple times less, but I would never give up what I have now to go back to that. For me, there is genuinely no price that you can place on freedom. As a result, my lifestyle has had to take on some changes and I can no longer afford to live in major cities like London or New York. I can’t even eat sushi that often anymore. I can, however, live on a beach in Thailand, a lakeside cottage in Bulgaria, or literally anywhere else in the world that has vaguely decent wifi and affordable accommodation. For somebody with a severely debilitating addiction to travel, this is an understandably necessary requirement.

The unforeseen benefits

In the course of becoming a digital nomad, I have reaped many unforeseen benefits along the way. Probably the most significant of these are the lessons in motivation, self-restraint, diligence and independence. In my old job, I would do the least amount of work required in order to not get fired and I would call in sick the maximum amount of times possible without it triggering a disciplinary hearing. I was lazy, inconsiderate and unmotivated because I knew that I would still get paid the same amount of money no matter what I did.

Now, there are no sick days. There are no unnecessary toilet breaks or extended lunch hours. No sneaky work avoidance tactics or bullshit excuses. If I don’t work, the only person who loses out is me. Every minute of every hour of every day is potential earning time and every minute spent not working is money lost. This is an aspect of the lifestyle that would scare off many people but if I can do it, trust me, anyone can. It all comes down to how badly you want it.

Another incredible benefit that I have gained from this lifestyle is the amazing amount of new information that I learn on a daily basis. Over the past year, I have done the equivalent level of research that most people would do while studying for a degree. Not only have I learnt how to write on a professional level but I have also gained a wealth of knowledge on a range of ludicrous and useful topics in which I previously had no interest. Cloud computing, health and nutrition, gambling regulations, UK and US politics, relationship and sex advice – you name it. I now know all this crazy stuff about finance and economics that was all Greek to me before and I know practically everything about blockchain technology – something that I seriously hope will be useful one day because, f*ck me, it’s confusing!

All and all, I can safely say that one year on, the decision to become a digital nomad is working out swimmingly. I’ll admit, I’m still incredibly new to all this and have no idea if it will actually be successful in the long run. I haven’t even done my first tax return yet and have literally no idea which country I’m even supposed to do it in. But I’m no longer afraid of losing my job like I used to be in the old days because now the only person in control of my financial future is me…. which, when written down like that doesn’t actually seem like the best idea.

Anyway, whatever, the point is – life is too short to worry about money. I still have 153 more countries to see and this world is not going to travel itself. So, see you on a beach somewhere! I’ll be the guy squinting at my laptop in the annoying midday sun. (Seriously though, who works on the beach? That’s just ridiculous.)

Me, working on the beach

Actually becoming a digital nomad was, of course, a relatively more difficult and complicated process than I have described here. However, if you think it’s something that would interest you, feel free to ask me any questions. I would highly recommend it – especially if, like me, you have the nagging feeling that there is more to life than spending 40 hours a week in a dimly lit office cubicle.

One Week in Zanzibar on a Budget

Zanzibar is an island paradise, although it is not as famous as similar budget beach destinations like Thailand or Sri Lanka. This is largely due to its position off the south coast of Africa and its lack of nightlife or party scene. Due to the island hosting a largely Muslim population, alcohol is not as readily available as in some other countries.

However, the main city of Stone Town has become very westernized and as a result hosts, several bars and most Western hotels and restaurants serve alcohol. Don’t expect crazy hostel parties until 4am though – after midnight the city goes deathly quiet (except for Tatu which stays open a bit later on weekends).

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Sunset from Swahili House

The island is quite an odd place. It’s not technically its own country (it’s part of Tanzania) but you need to pass through immigration to enter it. While its official currency is the Tanzanian shilling (Tsh), the US dollar is more willingly accepted due to some or other tax laws.

The majority of places on the island use an inflated conversion rate of $1 = Tsh2400, so paying in US dollar is cheaper.

Getting There

To visit Zanzibar, visitors from most countries outside of Africa will need to apply for a Tanzanian visa for around $50. You can fly directly into Zanzibar airport which is a short 10-minute drive from Stone Town, or fly into Dar Es Salaam (if it’s cheaper) and catch a ferry to the island.

There is a fast (2 hour) ferry for $35 or a slower (3.5 hour) ferry for $20. I took the slow ferry which leaves daily at 12pm (noon) and it was very comfortable, with airline-style seating and a TV playing western movies. There is also a small canteen with snacks and drinks.

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Attractions

Stone Town

Zanzibar is an ancient slave island and Stone Town was the base of operations. There are many old slave buildings and forts around the town that are now museums or attractions. It was also the birthplace of Freddie Mercury and features the famous Freddie Mercury restaurant. There is an endless supply of merchants selling clothes and curios along its maze of streets and you can easily spend a day just wandering around. At night there are several fish markets along the promenade and more locally on the main street.

 

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Prison Island

Prison Island is popular for its population of giant turtles. These huge beasts have populated the island for hundreds of years and some are over a century old. The island used to be a prison but the buildings have now been converted into a hotel, bar and library.

For $10 you can visit the island from Stone Town and go snorkeling in the many reefs surrounding it. This is preferable to trying to swim or snorkel near Stone Town where the water is full of sewage.

 

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The Rock

The rock is a restaurant situated on a rocky outcrop on Michamvi beach. I didn’t have a chance to visit so I can’t comment on the quality of the food but I assume it’s expensive. It makes for an excellent photo opportunity if you’re in the area though.

Accommodation

Zanzibar is not really a backpacker destination but it can still be done relatively cheap. I visited in low season which helped to keep my accommodation costs down but still offered all the benefits. In ten days there I had only two days of heavy rain – the rest of the time was beautiful beach weather.

Bottoms Up, Stone Town

This was my favourite hostel, set right in the heart of old Stone Town. It is only $12 a night and includes a fairly decent breakfast of egg, fruit, bread and coffee or tea. The hostel is a confusing maze of staircases and rooms with a fabulous rooftop sitting area that has amazing views across the city. They don’t have a bar but keep a small amount of $2 beers and $1 bottles of water in a fridge that seems to operate on an honesty system.

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The rooftop at Bottoms Up

Nearby is the local restaurant Lukmaans, which does great local meals from as little as $3. Unfortunately, they get very busy and the staff seem a bit clueless, so service is terrible, but you can fetch your own food from the counter to save some time and confusion.

Around the corner is a slightly more expensive western restaurant that serves beer for $2 and has meals for $10 – $15.

There is a fancy hotel nearby called Swahili House that has a (tiny) rooftop pool and does happy hour between 4:30-7pm with cocktails for $3.20 and beer for $2. It’s a great place to have sundowners and a dip at the end of the day, which I did several times.

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The tiny pool at Swahili House

Lost & Found, Stone Town

This hostel is closer to the touristy part of town and is more modern than Bottoms Up. It costs $13 a night for a bed in a huge 18-bed dorm and doesn’t include breakfast. The aircon works a little very well though and the mixed dorm has a nice balcony overlooking the main street.  

Across the road is a pricey Spanish bar called Taperia that does live music every night and has a wide selection of expensive imported wines. Beers are about $2.50.

Further south towards the beach is a three-story pool bar and restaurant called Tatu which does beer for $2.50 during happy hour is another good place to watch the sunset from.

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The view of the main street from the balcony at Lost and Found

Ananda Hostel, Paje

The cheapest hostel I found was Ananda Hostel in Paje, a beach town on the opposite side of the island. It was $10 a night for a bed in a 6-bed dorm room and didn’t include any extras but breakfast is available for $2. It is certainly the best option for budget travellers, as it is well maintained and situated on an exquisite beachfront with several hammocks and sun loungers.

It was very quiet in low season so I can’t comment on the party scene but its a great place to relax and drink a beer on the beach. The nearby Africana BBQ restaurant does meals with veg, curry, goat or chicken for around $5 and serves large beers for $2. For delicious local seafood, the Fisherman’s restaurant a few meters up the beach does seafood platters of various fish, calamari octopus and lobster for between $6 – $8. They don’t officially serve beer but will gladly fetch you bottles for around $2.50.

A few meters south of Ananda is the Buccaneer Diving bar which does 2-for-1 cocktails between 4:30 and 7pm. This means you can mojitos, pina coladas or whiskey sours for as little as $2 each. The sun doesn’t set over the ocean this side but if the clouds are right it makes for a pretty amazing pink sky.

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New Teddy’s on the Beach, Jambiani

This place is more of a boutique hotel than a hostel but it happens to have dorm rooms too. I didn’t stay here but a friend did and they said they paid $22 a night for a bed in a dorm. It has a huge fancy pool, a decent restaurant and bar with beer and cocktails and beautifully manicured grounds facing onto the beach. If you have the extra cash, it’s worth splashing out just for a night or two.

Kiteboarding is a very popular activity in both Paje and Jambiani but is quite pricey at $30 per hour. In low-season this can be negotiated down if you book 4-6 hours at a time, but not by much. Other popular activities include snorkeling and spear-fishing for around $10 per person.

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Transport

Stone Town is small so you will be able to walk almost anywhere or catch a taxi short distances for $4-$5.

To keep costs down you can catch the local ‘Dala Dala’ buses around the island for a few dollars per trip. Private taxis are also available but prices fluctuate wildly depending on your negotiating skills. It will be anywhere from $20 to $50 to cross the island depending on how many people.

 

Africa Cycle Tour – Tanzania

We entered Tanzania without much trouble and then drew some money at the only ATM in town, which is just to the right of the bridge when you cross over from Malawi. (If you come this way, use it – there isn’t another for 100 kms!)

After cycling up a short hill into the border town we stopped at a bar/lodge and had our first ever Tanzanian beer, the aptly named Kilimanjaro. I then tried to source a simcard from one of the many roadside stalls outside. As usual, it needed to be registered against my passport, which is always a bit confusing and took a while. Once done they gave me the simcard and it was the wrong size, which means I couldn’t use it but had to buy it since it was registered to my name. I would have to get it cut down to size somehow.

Fortunately, I still had my Malawian simcard which was still working via data roaming so I was able to use that to work that night. We finished our beers, left the lodge and headed off towards a nearby campsite that was listed on the app iOverlander. I later discovered we should have stayed at the lodge since they are usually cheaper in Tanzania than camping!

The campsite turned out to be very basic, with no electricity or hot water, but we stayed anyway since we had nowhere else to go. The caretaker gave us two warm beers and we cooked some dinner around a rickety table while I got work done. The time change from Malawi means the sun stays up an extra hour in Tanzania, so it felt quite late when we finally got to bed.

Uphill to Tukuyu

We awoke early as usual at 5 am but it was now pitch dark, so Romain slept in a bit longer while I did a bit of work. After a quick coffee, we packed the tents and headed off. We knew from checking on the travel app Mapy.cz that it was going to be a long, uphill day. The countryside fell away beside us as we climbed higher and higher up the Tanzania escarpment away from Lake Malawi (or Lake Nyassa, as it’s called in Tanzania).

The road rose and wound along high mountain ridges with deep valley’s dropping away on both sides, providing us with beautiful vistas across fertile land lit by the rising sun. We stopped for a break and a drink in a small town where I managed to get my simcard cut to size but was unable to source any airtime to top it up.

After a brief snack, we continued on and made it to the small mountain town of Tukuyu by early afternoon, where we planned to spend the night. We found a lodge I had seen on the app iOverlander which gave us a room with two double beds for only 15,000 Tanzanian shillings (Tsh) – about $7! The entire experience reminded me a lot of my time cycling in India, not just because of how cheap it was but the way the lodge was set out and especially the toilets. Just like in India, they use Asian squat toilets with a bum-gun and always have a rickety shower located directly overhead.

After checking in I went to find some cold beer, which caused a bit of confusion (few people speak much English in rural Tanzania ). As I would learn over the next few weeks, it’s uncommon in Tanzania for people to drink beer cold. While the bars usually have a fridge or freezer, they don’t keep the beer in it. Eventually, a nearby local bar managed to understand what I wanted and put two beers in the freezer for me, instructing me to come back in half an hour.

In the meantime, Romain and I had a shower, washed some clothes and cleaned our bike chains before heading into town to grab some food. We found a place that did rice and beef for only Tsh 2000 ($1) and I also managed to get 10GB of data added to my sim card for around $12. After dinner, we went back for our now cold beers and watched a movie on my laptop before getting to sleep.

Tukuyu to Uyole

In the morning we discovered our clothes weren’t dry yet but we needed to head off since it would be another long, uphill day. We tied all the wet clothes to the backs of our bikes as best we could and cycled off into the hilly countryside. On the way, we grabbed some cheap samosas for breakfast and stocked up on water and biscuits for the road.

We stopped for lunch in a small village and had some rice and beans for around Tsh 2000 ($1). It was a hard struggle uphill all day long and around 2pm it began looking like it might rain. I tried to cycle faster, which only made me more tired, but luckily we reached our destination of Uyole before any rain arrived. We found a cheap room at a place called the White House, although it only had one bed so Romain opted to set up his camping mattress on the floor.

It was still fairly early so with an afternoon to kill we decided to get our hair cut into mohawks for no particular reason other than it was less than $2 to do so. Mine didn’t come out quite as well as Romain’s, mostly because I don’t really have much hair left. We then grabbed dinner and a few beers before heading back to the lodge where I got some work done before bed.

Uyole to Igurusi

Today we would finally have some downhill, so we didn’t need to wake up too early. I got some work done in the morning in case the connection was bad later and then we had a big breakfast of chip omelet and samosas before hitting the road. I also drew some more money as I wasn’t sure if any MasterCard ATM’s would be along the road, but it turns out they are far more common in Tanzania than Zambia.

The road leaving Uyole wasn’t great. It’s a major transport route for cargo coming from Dar Es Salaam to Malawi and Zambia and as such is very busy with large trucks. In addition, the shoulder is all cracked and worn away, making it difficult to cycle in. As a result, we spent a lot of time weaving on and off the main road surface while trying to avoid trucks and still get the smoothest ride.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a long cycle as I was feeling a bit ill and weak by lunchtime. I wasn’t sure if it was the food or early signs of Malaria but we decided to stop for the day anyway. It was a bit before our intended destination but we could always make up the distance tomorrow. We found another cheap guesthouse (they are everywhere along this route, I guess to serve the truckers) and then later in the evening walked into town to source food. After a big dinner of chicken and chips, I was feeling a bit better but decided to get to bed early anyway.

Igurusi to Makambako

Fortunately, I woke up feeling fine, so after the usual two cups of coffee we got going around 7 am. If we hoped to make our destination of Makambako today we would need to cover 100 kms – most of which was uphill! We stopped for breakfast around 9 am and had the usual chips with a bit of onion and tomato salad – a staple breakfast food in Tanzania for around $1.

As the day wore on the rolling hills gave in to a gradual, slow ascent that drained the energy out of us. It was also very hot now and we were struggling to find anywhere with shade to rest or cold drinks. The roadside was sparse here and the few places selling drinks didn’t have any electricity to keep them cold. We settled for the warm water in our bottles and pushed on through the midday heat until eventually reaching the outskirts of Makambako by 5 pm. We stopped at the first roadside bar we saw, which by some miracle had cold beer. After downing one, we continued on to a place called Three-in-One guesthouse, which had been recommended on iOverlander.

It was very cheap at only Tsh 10,000 ($4) for a twin room with two single beds and ensuite, although rustic, bathroom. The bikes didn’t fit in the room but they had a secure courtyard within the property to store them. For dinner, we had some slightly pricey chicken and rice at Tsh 5,000 a plate – almost $3!

That night we were interrupted by a loud knocking on the door and some voices speaking in Swahili. Assuming it was a mistake we ignored and waited for them to leave but they knocked some more. Eventually, Romain opened the door and a plain-clothes man claiming to be an immigration officer said he needed to see our passports. We naturally didn’t believe him and argued but he showed Romain a badge which apparently looked genuine although I didn’t see. We showed him our passports anyway and he looked at them very briefly and asked where we had come from. Despite claiming to be an immigration officer he clearly didn’t know that Songwe is the Malawi/Tanzania border gate, which seemed suspicious. Anyway, he left and we went back to bed but I felt quite uneasy about the whole episode.

Makambako to Mafinga

Fortunately, our interrogator from the previous night didn’t return in the morning as I had feared. After a brief coffee, we got going towards the next town of Mafinga. As we left town we passed through one of the very common police checks, but for the first time, they stopped and asked us questions about our travels. This, coupled with the checks last night, makes me think Makambako must be a common route for illegal immigrants moving through Tanzania, as we were never checked or stopped again after that.

We grabbed some peanut bars and cookies for breakfast at a petrol station and continued along the road. It was unusually misty and cold and almost looked like a storm was brewing but it turns it was just a result of the change in altitude. We were much higher up now and the early morning air clearly takes a bit longer to warm up. Bizarrely, I started to get hayfever symptoms – something I haven’t had since leaving London two years prior. It was just a mild irritation – the usual itchy eyes and sneezing – but I really hoped it wouldn’t continue throughout Tanzania.

By lunchtime, the air had cleared and I was feeling much better. We stopped to rest and made some avo, tomato and onion sandwiches – the cheapest and most common roadside ingredients available here. Further along the road, we hoped to find a farm stall that, according to iOverlander, apparently sold wine, meat and most importantly: cheese (unheard of in most of Africa). However, to Romain’s bitter disappointment, it was no longer operating.

Heartbroken, we dragged our ragged souls over the last climb and then rolled despondently down towards our destination for the day, Mafinga. Much like most other small towns along this route, Mafinga is principally designed to serve truckers and is lined with cheap guesthouses. We chose the one with the most garish plastic animals outside (a common theme in Tanzania) and checked ourselves into a pricey (Tsh 20,000 – $8) but rather fancy room with satellite TV and all. It even had a real flush toilet and hot water shower – 5 star! It also had cold beer and amazing samosas in the restaurant.

Dinner consisted of the usual rice and beans with beef, after which we tried to watch some satellite TV only to discover it’s controlled by a central unit and we couldn’t choose the channel. After a few minutes of a bizarre Swahili-dubbed kung-fu movie, we retreated to the safe haven of watching Rick and Morty reruns on our phones.

Mafinga to Iringa

We had hoped for some of the lovely samosas for breakfast but had to settle for fat cakes and boiled eggs because sane people don’t cook samosas at 6 am. The route to Iringa looked mostly downhill so we took it easy, pedaling along and enjoying the scenery. Along the way, we saw the occasional burnt-out truck and colonial church, common sites around these parts. Lunch consisted of chips, onion and tomato with a few bonus bits of charred and chewy beef – yum! People who like well-done steak and undercooked chips would love Tanzania.

Presently, we arrived in Iringa and battled the horrible 200m climb to the village, which is oddly built high up on a hill overlooking the Ruaha river. It’s quite a bizarre place – a mix between local African with colonialists relics and modern tourists. We immediately noticed that things might be bit pricier here, so after an exorbitantly priced Tsh 4,000 beer ($2), we went in search of affordable accommodation. A kind gentleman directed us to the shit side of town where we found a Tsh 15,000 room in a guesthouse down a dirt road between a filthy sewerage river.

It was ideal and almost big enough to fit both the beds while still having space to open the door. The shower was particularly impressive as it needed to be manually switched on at the wall, after which is proceeded to electrocute me while showering. I decided cold water was fine.

After a quick beer, we tried to buy Romain airtime but it was Sunday so everything was closed. Instead, we took the world’s bumpiest tuk-tuk ride half a mile across town to get pizza at a horribly overpriced western restaurant advertised on iOverlander. Anyway, the pizza was actually fairly decent and almost worth the $8 price tag – double what we were each paying for our accommodation. Back in town we grabbed a beer and watched Tanzania beat Uganda at football before getting to bed.

Iringa

We decided to take a rest day from cycling and chill out in Iringa today. This mainly consisted of sitting at an expensive western cafe called Neema Crafts drinking coffee and eating cake and ice cream which was actually really good. They also had free wifi so I got quite a bit of work done and finished my Zambia blog. We reverted back to our usual cheap and cheerful rice and chicken for dinner at a small cafe near the lodge.

Iringa to Mbuyuni

The road from Iringa to Mbuyuni took us through an exceptionally beautiful mountain pass, although the road was very bad and we saw a few trucks along the way which had gone off the edge or been in accidents. The authorities don’t seem very active in removing the leftover bit from prior crashes – maybe to serve as a warning to others?

On the way down I was clenching my front brake so hard the connecting piece became loose, which gave the entire experience an exciting extra level of near death. It has managed to sufficiently stay in place though and still works so I guess I’ll have it looked at one day. Once we reached the lower escarpment the weather and scenery changed drastically. It was crazy hot down here and the surrounding bush reminded us of Botswana. We briefly tried to cool down in the shade of a tree but it was no good so we pushed on until we reached a small roadside cafe. The local guys there were cooking meat on skewers and every few minutes would run yelling into the street trying to get the trucks to stop and buy some. It looked quite dangerous but was hilarious to watch.

We had a cool drink followed by a beer and then a local girl decided she wanted to make me her husband so she came to sit next to me and we chatted in broken Swahili. I used my Swahili app to tell her she was very beautiful, which resulted in a cacophony of laughter from all the surrounding men. She then tried to coax me into bed but we needed to get going before sunset and I wasn’t sure I was ready to settle down in Tanzania just yet. I wished my new love a fond farewell and we cycled off into the sunset, never to be seen again.

In Mbuyuni we again found a decently priced guesthouse and bought some tomatoes and onion to make pasta in the room on Romi’s crazy petrol stove. That thing will be the death of us one day, mark my words. It’s a steel tube full of gasoline and sends balls of flames in every direction whenever he lights it. I’m fairly sure indoor use is not recommended.

Mbuyuni to Mikumi

We had the most interesting breakfast in Mbuyuni. It was just like the kind of beef noodle soup you get in Vietnam which chunks of boiled beef floating in broth, only without the noodles. Okay, it was just boiled chunks of beef with some onion and chili, but they gave us two chapatis with it to add a bit of carbs. The road to Mikumi was a long and winding uphill slog along a river but fortunately not as hot as the previous day.

In Mikumi, we decided to stay at a slightly expensive ($10) hotel/campsite because another guy from the Cape to Cairo WhatsApp cycling group was going to meet us there. Also, it did have an amazing swimming pool. After a quick beer, we got the tent set up and had a swim before getting some cheap dinner at a small local place across the road (the hotel restaurant was a bit overpriced). Since the other cyclist didn’t arrive that day and we hadn’t had much chance to use the pool we decided to take a rest day and stay another night. Fortunately, the hotel agreed to give us a discount for two nights.

I spent most of the time catching up on work and then in the afternoon Gilles, the other French cyclist, arrived. We had a few beers and pizza by the pool and then went into town in the evening for some local dinner.

Mikumi to Morogoro

We were up early the next day and headed back onto the road towards Dar Es Salaam. Surprisingly it runs directly through the Mikumi National Park, which has lions, hyenas and elephants, amongst other wild animals. The road is entirely unfenced and was a bit of reminder of Botswana, only this time we saw way more wildlife. There were impala and a buffalo as soon as we entered, followed by multiple giraffe, zebra, elephant and the occasional wildebeest.

After about half an hour we reached a park gate, where we stopped for some breakfast of biscuits and crisps. Along the second half of the ride, we didn’t see nearly as much game and towards the end, it began to rain. I kept my eyes peeled for lions but the rain clearly scared them off.

We stopped again in Doma, mainly to dry off a bit and grab an early lunch. We briefly considered stopping the night here as Morogoro was another 66 km away but in the end, continued on all the way. We soon discovered that this area of Tanzania is very catholic and as such, won’t allow two men to share a motel room in fear that we might be gay. It was mildly amusing until we realized that not only is it discrimination that should be illegal, but now we might have to pay twice as much for accommodation. We had grown accustomed to only spending around $3 a night!

Fortunately, we found a relatively cheap place ($7) which actually had really nice rooms. We checked in and had more chicken and rice with a beer before bed.

Morogoro to Chilenze

In the morning I finished my final work for the month and then we drew some cash and hit the road. It immediately started raining so we stopped after an hour for breakfast of beer soup and chapati again. The rain died down a bit so we continued on, but no sooner had we hit the road and it started again. This continued until lunch time and we tried to again to wait it out but it never ended. Eventually, we knew we would have to continue in it or we wouldn’t make it to Dar by Sunday night.

We pushed on through and finally made it to Chilenze soaking wet. We had a coffee and samosa at a gas station, grabbed some supplies at a supermarket and then found the cheapest lodge we could and got two $5 rooms. The restaurant owner next door decided to become our new best friend and sorted out everything with the lodge as they couldn’t speak English. He then made sure we would return to have dinner with him, which we did.

Unfortunately, the pillow in my room must have had fleas in it and I struggled to sleep, constantly feeling little bites on my neck. I didn’t think much of it at the time and eventually just fell asleep but awoke in the morning covered in bites.

Chilenze to Dar Es Salaam

The final push through to Dar Es Salaam quickly became a very difficult day. After a nice breakfast of beef soup and chapati with our new friend, we began the 100 kms to the capital city. Quite soon the roads became very busy and then we hit construction work that continued all the way into Dar city centre. For the next few hours, we were stuck in heavy, slow-moving traffic along broken half-finished roads.

It was slow going and headache-inducing as the beeping and honking never stopped. We couldn’t even find anywhere decent to stop for lunch and eventually just had some water and biscuits from a shop on a very run-down side street.

Cycling into Dar es Salaam sadly wasn’t the fan-fare event we had hoped for, as we were both too exhausted and frustrated to celebrate. We were, however, exceptionally relieved to arrive at the rather boutique Airbnb that Ash and Jeff had organized. After a shower and nap, we celebrated our achievement with some champagne and beers.

And so concludes my Africa cycle tour – 5,000 kms over four months through seven countries!

 

Africa Cycle Tour – Malawi

We started our Malawi cycle leg in Lilongwe, having come across by bus from Chipata on the Zambian side. On reflection, we should have just cycled, as the bus took even longer than cycling would have. As usual in Africa, everything takes forever and we had to wait for about three hours at the border for the security guards to check the vehicle. It was dark by the time we were dropped off at Lilongwe bus depot, so we hassled to get our stuff out the bus while taxi drivers constantly haggled us. Getting luggage on and off these buses is a notoriously bad way to get your stuff stolen – and it’s twice as likely when it’s dark and you also have a bike to worry about.

Fortunately, we sorted everything, put our lights and head torches on and made our way towards a nearby hostel and campsite. We arrived safely at the campsite and checked in before setting up our tents and then cooking a quick dinner. There weren’t really any other guests and the hostel didn’t even have wifi so, with little else to do, we got to bed early.

Lilongwe to Salima

I awoke early and went to draw some cash so we could pay our bill while Romi made coffee. Then we got going as soon as we could, knowing there was a fair amount of uphill to Salima. We stopped on the way at an Airtel shop to buy simcards and mobile data which turned into a long nightmare of a mission. After the rigorous process of registering our sims against our passports, we tried to buy data but the Airtel guy was busy so we went to a shop next door where they only had airtime vouchers for 500 kwacha. I needed to buy a 6GB data package which cost 10,000 kwacha and I wasn’t going to individually scratch and enter 20 different codes.

We decided to get some food and wait until the Airtel guy was available. Eventually, we got sorted but by now it was already quite late and we were hoping to get to Chipoka, the town just after Salima where the ferry stopped, to see if we could catch it the following day to Monkey Bay. That meant we would need to do about 120 kms.

We pushed on through the day and luckily had good weather – no rain but enough clouds that it wasn’t hot. By mid-afternoon, we reached the escarpment overlooking Lake Malawi and started on the downhill towards Salima. After talking to some other ‘mzungus’ at a gas station we decided we could get a cheap guesthouse here and hopefully make it to Chipoka for the ferry in the morning. We stopped at a little place that agreed to let us camp for cheap under the cover of its outdoor conference area.

Salima to Monkey Bay

In the morning we set off early and soon bumped into two Swiss cyclists coming in the opposite direction. Like us, they too were members of the Cairo to Cape cycle Whatsapp group and we stopped to chat for a while. They were also heading north but along the coastal road, while we planned to take the ferry from Monkey Bay just for the experience of it. We exchanged contacts and hoped to meet up again somewhere further along the road.

Arriving at the port we were quickly informed that the ferry no longer departs from there and even if it did we would have missed it. That meant we would have to cycle the long route around to Monkey Bay – a total of 135 kms if we wanted to arrive today. Our friends Jeff and Ash from Zambia were expecting us at Monkey Bay and were leaving on the morning ferry so we needed to make it if we were to see them.

We put our heads down and pushed on hard – so hard that I missed a crucial turnoff and we ended up going 5 kms in the wrong direction! Now our daily total would have to be 145 kms! I quickly discovered why I missed the turnoff – despite being marked as a national road on Google Maps it was actually just an unmarked dirt road. We had no choice but to follow it into the bushes and it turned out to be quite a fun ride although a bit bumpy at times. We weaved through some towns with bemused villagers until eventually reconnecting with a tarred road.

Eventually, after our longest and hardest day in the saddle so far, we arrived at Monkey Bay as the sun was setting. We met Ash and Jeff at a lovely, secluded beach backpackers called Mufasa Eco Lodge and after a quick beer, I enjoyed my first swim in Lake Malawi. That night we all had an expensive but very decent dinner with the other guests and then joined some locals playing bongo drums around a beach fire.

Two weeks of relaxing

Ash and Jeff decided to delay their boat trip for another week so we all went to the nearby beach resort of Cape McClear and spent a week relaxing there. It’s a beautiful location for scuba diving and snorkeling, although we spent most of the time eating, drinking and playing the local African board game Bawo. While there we met a Dutch volunteer named Jonna and a real, genuine Afghan princess named Shiwa. She was an image of such extravagant beauty that I instantly declared my undying love for her, but alas she was already sworn to a prince back home.

Eventually, it was time to catch the ferry which we initially intended to take to Nkhotakota but the hostel owners at Mufasa explained there is no jetty at Nkhotakota. This means we would have to go to shore by a small boat and walk through the water with all our luggage and bikes – an improbable feat. We decided instead to go all the way to the next stop, Nkhata Bay, with Ash and Jeff.

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The ferry took two days and one night which is just about enough time to enjoy it without getting bored. To save money we slept on the deck but Ash and Jeff kindly let us keep our valuables in their room. The ferry has a really good restaurant and stops at a few islands along the way which you have time to explore while it loads and unloads goods. In Nkhata Bay we spent another week off the bikes exploring the surrounding area and hanging out with Ash, Jeff, Jonna, Princess Shiwa and a few other travelers.

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Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu

Our extended holiday finally had to come to an end, so we bid our friends farewell and begun the long cycle inland up the escarpment to Mzuzu. This was the steepest incline I had attempted with my six gear bicycle and it proved a bit too much for it in places. For the first time on the trip, I was forced to get off and push the bike uphill.

In the end, it took us about seven hours to cover the short 50 kms up to Mzuzu and we arrived hot and exhausted at a rather fancy campsite someone had recommended. The cost of camping itself wasn’t expensive but the cost of food and drink was similar to that of a fancy European restaurant. We could have explored somewhere nearby instead but we were too tired and ended up just having their cheapest pasta dish.

Mzuzu to Rhumphi

After leaving Mzuzu the steep hills died out a bit and we got to enjoy some winding, curving roads into the mountains of northern Malawi. The first stop along the route was a tiny village called Rumphi that only had one small campsite and very little else but it was in a beautiful valley. Although it was early and we had only done a short distance we decided to stop for the day and relax here. I think their highly recommended Italian style pizza had a big influence on that decision.

I spent most of the afternoon working and then in the evening lightning and thunder crashed across the sky as the heavens opened up and poured down upon us. Fortunately, our tents were under a small wooden cover because I assume this was a minor off-shoot of the cyclone that had ravaged the southeast of Malawi recently.

Rumphi to Livingstonia

By sunrise, the rain had fortunately died down, so we had a quick coffee, packed up our wet tents and got going. The road that day followed a winding stream that took us along an exceptionally beautiful route through a long valley towards Livingstonia. We hoped to take a different, dirt road up to Livingstonia from the south but the rains the night before meant it would surely be washed out.

Instead, we stuck on the tar road that went down to the coast and decided to see if we could get a lift up to Livingstonia from there. The Swiss cyclists from before had been in touch and informed us that the ride down the north road from Livingstonia is quite enjoyable but riding up would be impossible. For this reason, we decided to take our bikes up on the back of a truck. This turned out to be a rather disastrous mission, with about five guys arguing about how to tie Romain’s bike on the back. Eventually, we got going but the bike fell off twice on-route before they eventually managed to attach it successfully.

After a very long and bumpy ride, they dropped us at the top of a long dirt path that led down to Lukwe Lodge which the Swiss couple had recommended. On arrival we discovered it to be a very expensive boutique lodge and not really a backpacker campsite at all. Most of the food and drink on offer was twice the usual price we were accustomed to but luckily the camping cost wasn’t too extreme. Since we had our own food and were now all the way down the hill we decided to stay. That night we saw an incredible lightning storm over Lake Malawi.

Livingstonia and Mushroom Farm

The following day I joined three Dutch girls on their drive up to Livingstonia town so I could get phone signal and do some work. They explored the local markets while I finished two articles and then we headed back down to Lukwe. As we had decided to take a day off and chill here, I decided to go visit the Mushroom Farm backpackers down the road. It’s not actually a mushroom farm and doesn’t appear to have any mushrooms so I don’t know where the name came from but it made good food and was far cheaper than Lukwe.

As a result, I chose to move for our second night to Mushroom Farm but Romain was not feeling motivated to pack up the tent and do the long journey over. After visiting some nearby waterfalls I packed up and moved over. Unfortunately, my decision turned out to be a bad one as Mushroom Farm has no fridge to keep the beer cold.

Downhill to Hakuna Matata

In the morning we reconvened at Mushroom Farm and had some coffee and breakfast before starting the cycle down the bumpy dirt road to the coast. It turned out to be somewhat easier than expected, although we did have to take it quite slow. The views were spectacular though and I highly recommend it if you are cycling in the area.

Back at the bottom we bumped into an Isreali couple we had met in Monkey Bay and they told us they were staying at a nearby campsite called Hakuna Matata. We followed them there and decided to spend the night, although they were leaving that evening to head up to Livingstonia. Still, we spent a really nice afternoon chilling together and then later I got very drunk and annoyed some overlanders at the fancy lodge next door.

FloJa Campsite

We were up early and after some breakfast and a chat with Willy, the campsite owner and a fellow South African, we were back on the road. Although we could have cycled all the way to the Tanzanian border today, we still had a few days on our visas so we didn’t rush. Instead, we stopped around lunchtime at a very nice campsite called FloJa which is run by a Dutch couple.

We chilled the afternoon and then in the evening bought some fish from a local fisherman and some vegetables from the campsite owners. Then I threw together a fire from some dry branches lying around and we had a makeshift fish braai with salad for dinner.

To the Tanzania border

Finally, it was time to say our sad farewells to Malawi and head into Tanzania. The day was long but fairly quiet and uneventful and we arrived at the border post around 4pm. We didn’t have any hassles this time and got through in about 15 minutes. I took this ridiculous selfie while cycling across the bridge into Tanzania:

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.

Africa Cycle Tour – Botswana Part 2

Day 19 – Meeting Roma and sleeping at the police station

I had heard last night from a guy name Roma, a member of the Cairo to Cape Town cycle WhatsApp group, that he was in Maun and leaving in the morning to head towards Nata. Unfortunately, I woke up a bit late and he was already on his way but told me to try to meet up with him in a small village called Motopi.

I did a final bit of work and after breakfast said goodbye to my cousins whom I’d been staying with in Maun for a week. It was 100km to Motopi and it was already 10am when I got going so I knew I would have to cycle pretty fast to make it before evening. The first 50kms were fairly uneventful, I just cycled at a steady 20km/h along the long, flat road out of Maun. There was a bit of a headwind but nothing I couldn’t handle.

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At about 50km I reached a Veterinary checkpoint where they control the spread of foot and mouth disease. Any vehicle with tyres needs to drive through a small puddle of disinfectant chemicals, including bicycles. Everybody also has to wipe their shoes on a square of carpet that is also soaked in the disinfectant. I went through the process and then stopped by the nearby stall and had something to eat and drink. These little roadside stalls are very expensive and I spent $5 on some biscuits, chips, a can of beans and a cool drink. The stall owner told me had seen another cyclist who had told him to tell me to meet him in Motopi, so that must have been Romain.

At around 1pm I headed off and again had nothing but a straight flat road for the next few hours. I stopped at one point to test out the tripod invention I had made in Maun. Using the phone clip from a selfie-stick and an old traditional camera tripod that my cousin-in-law had kindly given me, I created a small phone tripod. I balanced it precariously on a road meter marker and then started filming and did two cycles by. The footage came out okay but I need to find more interesting backdrops to film on.

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Eventually, just before 4pm I arrived at the turnoff to Motopi and after a few kilometers down a nice side road towards Orapa I arrived in the tiny village. Romain hadn’t replied to the WhatsApp message I sent him (turns out he didn’t have a simcard) so I just headed towards the Kgotla, which is like the town hall of any small village which also acts as a police station and sometimes the chiefs home. Fortunately, Romain was there waiting for me. We made our introductions and I met with the police who man the station and explained I would also be camping there with Romain. As usual, they were very welcoming and told me where I can get water.

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Romain and I went to buy a coke and chatted for a bit about our trips so far. I decided we needed a beer so after setting up my tent I went and sourced us two. There wasn’t much else to do in town so made dinner quite early and then after getting constantly harassed by kids asking for sweets, we headed to bed.

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Day 20 – Elephants and Baobabs

I awoke around 6am having not slept too well. It had rained a bit in the night so Romain and I hung up our tent covers and then I made some coffee for us. For breakfast, we shared some bread and boiled eggs Raomin had left over. We faffed around a bit getting packed up and only got on the road by 8am which usually wouldn’t be a problem but we had 138kms to cover if we wanted to make it to my proposed destination that night – Planet Baobab. It’s quite a famous stopping point for overlander trucks and other travellers and had been recommended to me by a few people.

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We started off quite well, maintaining a solid 20km/h pace before the heat started setting in. By 11am we reached a small village and pulled off to go look for cold drinks. We found a small shop and had two ice cold cokes each – a life saver in this heat. We also decided we better eat some beans since we hadn’t had much breakfast. Food is really hard to come by in Botswana outside of the large cities and often small shops only have huge bags of corn meal, rice, beans, macaroni, tinned fish and if you’re really lucky, tomatoes and onions. Even bread is very rare and fresh fruit is non-existent. Local villagers seem to survive on mielie meal, beans and presumably the occasional unlucky goat. Romain, being a chef, was quite well prepared though with herbs and spices and managed to make some pretty decent meals out of the limited supplies. I, on the other hand, had been eating a lot of plain pasta and tomato sauce.

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Back on the road, we bumped into some elephants at around 2pm. They were just crossing the road so we waited but one big one spotted us as we started cycling past and starting flapping its ears at us. As a precaution, we started cycling back the other way and eventually it moved on. The rest of the trip was uneventful but very hot so we couldn’t move to fast. We stopped again briefly for some juice and biscuits under the shade a tree and then eventually by around 6pm we made it to Gweta where Planet Baobab is. We had a much-deserved cold beer outside a small petrol station and then finished the final 3km to Planet Baobab. Tragically their wifi wasn’t working but I was too tired and bothered to try to find somewhere else in Gweta so I accepted I’ll have to miss a day of work and make up for it tomorrow.

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They kindly phoned another lodge in town, Gweta Lodge, to check if their wifi was working and it was so we decided we would take a chill day there tomorrow and I’d catch up on work. We set up camp and then jumped in their awesome swimming pool. An overlander truck had stopped the night so there were a few other young British people swimming too but they went off for dinner soon after we arrived. Although it was a bit expenisve we decided to have a proper meal for one night at their restaurant. Before turning in we had a couple of beers at the bar and spoke to some of the overlander people about our trip.

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Day 21 – The awesome Gweta Lodge

In the morning we grabbed some of the over-priced restaurant coffee which was admittedly very good and then packed up and cycled the few kilometres into town to find Gweta Lodge. On arrival, the receptionist offered to give us a room at discount ($25 for the room) so we decided to take it as Romain hadn’t slept in a real bed for a while. Then we chilled by the pool while I worked. Romain went and bought some food from the small shop nearby and made us an awesome pasta for a kind of late breakfast. I finished up work and we had a few beers and swam and had some late lunch.

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Around about 5pm the owner came by the bar and offered us each a beer which we gladly accepted. We got chatting and had a few more beers and then he whipped out a bottle of brandy and coke and we got stuck in on that. After a few drinks, he offered to let us join the meerkat safari in the morning at a huge discount. Although the original plan was to leave early for Nata, we couldn’t say no. He said it would be back by 11am so possibly we could still make it to Nata if we wanted. After a few more brandy’s he took us to see all his 4×4 vehicles in his workshop and we chatted about the lodge and the tours he does. Eventually, by 11pm we stumbled drunkenly into bed and spent the night trying to ward off mosquitos.

Day 22 – Meerkat safari and sundowners

We groggily awoke at 6am and had a few cups of free coffee before crawling onto the safari vehicle and heading out into the Makgadikgadi salt pans to find some meerkats. The drive took an hour during which time we stopped to admire a huge baobab tree and I tried not to fall asleep. We picked up a local villager who was the guide said would help us find the meerkats. He came through and a few minutes later we stopped in the open plains and spent an hour or so watching a small family of meerkats popping in and out of their burrows.

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We continued on to see the salt pans and the other guests attempted to do those forced perspective photos that everybody loves doing on saltpans. Romain and I were maybe a bit too hungover to join in. Although we got back to the lodge even earlier than 11am we decided to chill another night, much to James the owners delight. He told us he would take us out to the pans later for some beers because he needs to find a camping spot for an upcoming safari.

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I spent the rest of the day getting work done, making lunch and swimming until around 3pm James came round and gave me a gin and tonic but said he was a bit busy to make it out to the salt pans today. Instead, he decided we would go to a nearby watering hole and watch the sunset with another bottle of brandy and coke, obviously. We chilled a bit longer, had a few more drinks and then headed off.

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The sunset was amazing over the watering hole and although no elephants came there were a lot of cows and donkeys. James also introduced us to his favorite snack – corned beef on salty cracks with onion, tomato, Aromat and sweet chili sauce. Considering the limited supplies you get out here it was quite an inventive snack.

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We finished off the evening with a few more drinks until it was dark and then headed back to the lodge and checked out an old 1918 Dodge that belonged to James’ grandfather. In my drunken state, I promised him I would return so we could work on rebuilding it and getting it running – a promise I hope to live up to, despite knowing nothing about car mechanics!

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Day 23 – Sketchy elephants and Ruperts campsite

Up at 6am, Romain and I packed and had some coffee and breakfast before settling our bill and hitting the road by 7:30. We didn’t have a big day ahead of us but it was still 100kms and the heat would start setting in soon. The usual headwind that we had become accustomed to set in fairly early but we did a good job of fighting against it. We stopped in a small village for some lunch and spent a while relaxing and avoiding the heat before realising we would need to get moving if we wanted to make it to Nata before dark.

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Since we were past the main part of the Mkagikagi game reserve I wasn’t expecting any elephants on the road but around 4pm we noticed three elephants hanging around on the right side. We stopped and waited for them to move but they didn’t look like they were going anywhere and after about 20 minutes I started to stress about the time. It was only about 20kms to Nata by now but the sun would be setting soon. Eventually, a truck passed going in the other direction and stopped to ask if we okay. We explained we were afraid of the elephants so they kindly offered to drive back with us in that direction and create a barrier to protect us. Fortunately, we got past safely and waved goodbye to our helpers as they turned to go back in their original direction.

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We arrived in Nata just after 5pm and quickly grabbed some food from the Choppies supermarket before heading to Eselbe camp where we spend the night. The camp was deserted when we arrived but eventually, the owner, Rupert, showed up and welcomed us. He didn’t have a bar but kindly drove me back to the bottle store so we could grab a few beers and then we all had dinner together. The camp was fairly basic and we were the only guests, but it was nice and quiet and I slept well. At 100 pula a night though, its a bit overpriced and I was surprised when he asked us to pay for the wine too but I happily obliged as he clearly needed the business.

Day 24 – Sleeping in a cell phone tower

We had an early breakfast of coffee and biscuits, thanked Rupert for his hospitality and headed off north onto the Elephant Highway – a 300km route through Chobe National Park that’s famous for its many elephants.

Other than two giraffes we didn’t encounter anything dangerous the initial part of the route. By lunchtime, we reached the veterinary checkpoint that controls the spread of disease into Chobe park and marks the entrance to the more densely populated part of it. We had planned to camp at some secure cell phone towers we had read about on various blogs that offered cyclists on the road protection from animals at night. Since parks in Botswana are entirely unfenced, it’s too dangerous to wild camp just anywhere but these cell phone towers are famous for offering protection to cyclists on the route.

However, when asking the police about the existence of the towers, they pretended to not know anything about them. We were a bit confused and wondering what to do when a group of three cyclists came towards us from the other direction. It was great to see some other cyclists and we all took some time to chat about our respective journeys so far. They confirmed the existence of the cell phone towers and assured us we would be able to camp there safely so after having some lunch we set off more confidently.

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After only about 20kms we reached the first tower and decided to see what the situation was. We found some workers there who were busy fixing an issue with one of the solar panels that had been damaged by an elephant which had breached the enclosure. They seemed happy to let us camp there the night but suggested we camp up on the roof of a building in case an elephant breaks in again. It seemed like a logical and safe plan, although a bit scary, so we decided to stay the night. Before heading off around 4pm, they kindly gave us some cold cokes and a few bottles of water which was a lifesaver since we were seriously running low.

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We chilled the rest of the afternoon, climbed the cell phone tower to take photos and then around 6pm made a fire to cook some dinner. We had our usual tomato, onion and tuna pasta with a slightly unique twist being cooked on an open fire rather than the gas stove. After eating and watching a beautiful sunset we had a coffee and lay on the roof staring at the incredible star-filled sky and listening to the distant crack of elephants walking around. After heading to bed I heard an elephant walk very close to the compound but it moved on fairly quickly.

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Day 25 – Long stretch to Pandamatenga

We awoke just as the sun was rising and I made some coffee and then we made instant noodles for breakfast. Just as we finished we heard loud cracking behind and turned to find an elephant right up against the gate surrounding the compound. The large, steel gate suddenly didn’t look very big or strong anymore. The elephant flapped its ears, trumpeted quite loudly and for a tense moment, I thought it might try break into the compound but eventually, it calmed down and moved off.

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We packed up soon afterward, cleaned up the areas of the compound we had used and then head off to complete the rather long 112km cycle to Pandamatenga. After 40kms we stopped at the next cell phone tower where the occupants kindly gave us some water and let us relax in the shade for a while. After that cell tower, we had been told there would be nothing for the next 70kms to Pandamatenga and it was true. We cycled through fairly brutal heat, saw a few cars and stopped once for a quick and rather scary snack on the roadside but saw little else.

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A short while after our break I noticed an elephant hidden in the shadows right by the roadside. Roma was ahead of me but hadn’t noticed the elephant and had headphones in so didn’t hear me when I called to warn him. The elephant seemed to head towards him but after I shouted it turned its attention on me. I quickly turned around and started cycling the other way, which was when Roma looked and got the fright of his life when he saw a huge elephant charging into the road. Luckily it was just a mock charge and after a few steps the elephant turned back and headed into the bushes but we both left a little shaken. Roma decided headphones in the Chobe park weren’t the best plan after all.

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Eventually by around 5pm, after a long and hard final push, we reached an army base just before Pandamatenga and stopped for a beer with some of the local soldiers. After a brief chat, we completed the last few kilometers, stopped to pick up some supplied and then arrived at our campsite for the night – Touch of Africa.

It’s a fairly nice lodge and campsite run by an Austrian guy who had lived in the area for decades. He informed us there had been lions in the camp the night before and then showed us where we can camp, telling us to use a torch and be careful of the lions. Seems safe.

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We met another cyclist who was also heading north and had come all the way from Cairo over the past year or so. I got some work done while he and Romain cooked boerewors spaghetti for dinner and then we had a few beers and headed to bed. During the night we could hear the lions roaring not too far off in the bush.

Day 26 – Last stretch to the border

After coffee and some farewells to our new friend, we headed off for the final stretch towards the Zambia border. We were hoping to get there early enough to cross into Zambia, clear immigration and still find somewhere to camp so I cycled pretty hard. Luckily it was flat and lacking the usual headwind so we managed to get into a good pace maintaining around 30km an hour for the most part. Other than a brief break around midday we pretty much cycled straight through and made it Kazangula by about 3pm. We grabbed some fried chicken and Pepsi for lunch from Choppies and then headed to the border. After checking out of Botswana quickly and easily we bordered the small ferry that crosses into Zambia. The crossing is at the only point in the world where four countries meet at one point and as such is the only place in the world where you can be on a ferry in four countries at once.

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On the other side, we disembarked and had the usual guys trying to help us organize everything in the hope for a tip. They did promise some very cheap accommodation so I agreed and went along with it. Immigration for me was fairly quick although Romain had to draw money to pay for his visa. Then we stopped on the way to get sim cards and arrived a really rundown looking motel which was pretty crappy but they gave us a room for $10 so we took it.

We grabbed a few beers from the nearby bar, cheers our achievements so far and got ready for new adventures in Zambia.

Africa Cycle Tour – Botswana

How to almost die of dehydration

I crossed into Botswana from South Africa last night and camped at a small lodge on the border post at Martin’s Drift. It’s was surprisingly expensive, at 140 pula (about $10) just to camp! I was warned before coming that Botswana is not cheap.

I cooked up some oats and coffee for breakfast, then packed up my stuff and used the lodge wifi to do some quick work before hitting the road. I had a litre of water from the camp but bought one more litre from the gas station and then got going. I wanted to draw cash and get a simcard but the station didn’t have either and said I could get further down the road.

After a few kilometres I passed an even smaller gas station but it didn’t look like it would have either so I assumed the place they meant was further along.

Boy, was I WRONG!

For the next 100 kilometres there was absolutely NOTHING. Ok, there was a few donkeys and several cows but they didn’t have any water to sell me and even if they did – I had no cash!

I continued to cycle on, 10 kilometres, 20 kilometres, 30 kilometres all passing me by, constantly thinking there must be something up ahead? Surely!? But alas I was alone in a never-ending landscape split in half by a hot strip of tar.

Fortunately, I had filled both my water bottles before leaving but this was nowhere near enough water to get me the 100 kilometres to Palapye. Eventually, at around 60 kilometres, I saw what I thought could only be a mirage – two women sitting at a table under a tree! I cycled off the road and gingerly approached them, expecting the dehydration-mirage to disappear at any second, but no! They were real!

They had some pots and a small stove and appeared to be selling food to passing travellers. I asked if they had any water and they indicated that they have frozen bottles for 8 pula. I emptied my coins on the table, a paltry 2.50 pula, and explained my situation and the error of my ways. Fortunately, the road Gods took pity on me and these lovely women gave me the remaining half of their own two-litre water bottle, which amazingly was mostly frozen! I thanked them profusely and promised to repay them should I pass back this way.

Now with just enough water to potentially get me safely to Palapye, I cycled off with renewed energy. This didn’t last too long, as the midday heat and sun beat down on me relentlessly. Eventually, by 1 pm, I decided I needed to take refuge in the shade of a tree before I die.

Long rest and a surprise gift

I put down my sleeping mat, ate some biscuits, drank lots of water and desperately tried to cool down in the shade. After about half an hour a car pulled up suddenly and braked sharply, a man jumping out in a hurry. I sat up in a start, wondering what I had done wrong. He leapt out pf his car and handed me a mango, instructing me to eat, and then wandered off to shout at some cows. How bizarre.

I graciously devoured the mango as I the only other food I had was biscuits and dry noodles. The man returned shortly, gave a smiling wave goodbye and sped off again. Another road angel! After a further hour rest, I decided I was cool enough to continue the last 30 kilometres.

After about 10 km I came to what I now know was a veterinary checkpoint to reduce the spread of cow disease. I stopped there to waterproof my stuff as I could see a storm coming on the horizon – surely the water I prayed for! They also had a large container of water onsite and offered me some happily and for free. Now I had more water than I could carry!

After a few more kilometres a gale began blowing into me and the first drops of rain fell. Tired and unable to pedal into a headwind, I flagged down a truck and asked them to take me Palapye. They gladly agreed and I threw my bike in the back while I jumped in the rear cab. Within a few minutes, a storm of unimaginable proportions exploded from the sky, absolutely drenching everything. I realized I would need to keep an eye out and avoid these in the coming weeks as they are certainly not safe to cycle in.

Itumela Camp

The truck dropped me at the Palapye intersection where there’s a shopping centre and a few food places, so I parked my bike, drew some cash and ravenously devoured an expensive chicken meal from a fast food shop. Then I decide to buy a sim card. After putting in the sim, setting it up and loading data I still couldn’t get any internet and told the staff at the shop their stupid simcard doesn’t work. Then the friendly woman at the counter took my phone and switched mobile data on. Oops.

I was finally ready to cycle the last 5 kilometres to Itumela rest camp where I planned to stay the night. The rain had finally subsided and the town had that dusky after-rain glow to it as I cycled around puddles and wet sand.

When I arrived I was tired, sunburnt and exhausted and needed a good night’s rest in a proper room, so I decided to take a dorm bed. Fortunately, I was the only one (as so often happens with dorms in Africa), so I had the whole place to myself. After showering I headed to the bar to work but the wifi wasn’t working so I had to use my newly purchased data. Luckily it was working and was quite fast. There were a few other people hanging around the bar, mostly the staff, but I was too tired to socialize, so after a few beers, I hit the hay.

Day 9: A small rest and restock

I slept like a log on my comfortable bed in the nice cool dorm but still didn’t feel ready to head off again immediately in the morning. I decided to take a chill day, buy supplies and sort out some things.

First thing, I needed to move to a campsite as it was too expensive to stay in the dorm a second night, so I packed up and moved everything. Then I went to ask about breakfast but they weren’t serving any and also informed me that the drinking water had been turned off by the council.

This meant I had to walk all the way into town just to get some food and water. I had slept quite late so by now it was 10am and getting hot. I made the mission and stocked up on loads of food for the road ahead but the Spar didn’t have any bottled water for sale. Luckily there was an Oasis water shop nearby. Obviously, the cash machine didn’t accept my card so I had to walk halfway back across town to another cash machine and then come back for the water. By the time I got back to Itumela it was almost lunch time.

Anyway, I ate some breakfast and then decided to try to find the source of the clicking sound coming from my crank shaft. While riding around the campsite I discovered an awesome camp kitchen with a covered roof area, so I moved my tent there in case of rain and so I could use the cooking equipment.

A failed lunch

I had bought some samp and beans because I was trying to be all local and decided I give them a try, only to discover samp needs to be soaked overnight! I had already started boiling it in water so I just took it off the stove and left it to soak for dinner while I made noodles and soya mince instead.

Then I headed back to the bar to see if the wifi was back, but no such luck. Again, I had to work off mobile data – which I calculated costs me about $1 per article, which is annoying but not too bad. After a few hours work, I headed back to have my samp dinner which seemed a bit small now, so I added some spaghetti and a tin of tomato and onion and in the end, it came out pretty good.

When I returned to the bar they had finally fixed the wifi so I did one more article, had a beer and then headed to bed in preparation for waking up at 4am. It had been raining a bit earlier so now it was humid as hell and my tent was a sauna. I knew it would be hard to sleep but I had no choice and just lay there naked and sweating on my shitty thin mattress.

As soon as I fell asleep I heard an insane rattling noise that sounded like a machine gun right next to my head. I awoke with a start and the noise stopped. Then it came again, so loud it sounded like it was in my tent! I realized eventually it was the world loudest bullfrog, croaking in the pond right outside my tent. This continued non-stop throughout the night, this insane gunfire rattling every 3 seconds. Needless to say, I barely got any sleep and didn’t wake up at 4 am.

Day 10 – To Khama Rhino Sanctuary

After desperately trying to sleep through the gunfire croaking of the toad right outside my tent, I eventually dragged myself out of bed at 6 am. By now it was already light and I missed a lot of the cool morning I was hoping to most of my cycling done in.

I packed quickly, skipped breakfast and hurried off, stopping to buy a pie at the only shop I could find open – a gas station. Fortunately, it was still quite cool for the first three hours and I managed to cover the 50 kilometres to Serowe by 11 am.

Along the way, a policeman drove up next to me to ask where I was heading and where I camped, but otherwise, it was a mostly uneventful few hours.

50kms later In Serowe, I stopped for a second breakfast/early lunch at a Hungry Lion fast food joint. They didn’t have wifi, of course, so I did one article off data again while eating fried chicken and coleslaw. Then I drew some extra cash in preparation for the next few days through the remote Kalahari desert, where I probably wouldn’t find any shops but emergency cash is always a good idea.

Ice cream in Paje

I listened to music for the first time on this trip as I cycled the next 10 kilometres through beautiful countryside to the quaint village of Paje. I was planning to stock up on last-minute food supplies here but the place turned out to be a real tiny African village. Some guys flagged me down and told me to eat with them but I explained I’d already had lunch. I bought an ice cream from their stall, which appeared to only sell ice cream, and they kindly filled up my water bottles with chilled water.

Then one guy, my new friend Patrick, took me to his cousins store to get some supplies. Unfortunately, it was a bit limited to mostly rice, beans and tea but I managed to secure some macaroni and a tin of chakalaka for a slightly high import price. I gave Patrick 5 pula for his troubles and cycled off to Khama Rhino Sanctuary, where I planned to camp the night.

On arrival, it didn’t work out so well though. The campsite is actually inside the sanctuary so you can only enter with a vehicle. They seemed to think maybe a ranger could take me in but I would still have to pay the full 84 pula park entrance fee on top of the 105 pula camp fee, even though I can’t actually see any of the park. This seemed ridiculous – $20 to camp for the night?! This left me with a bit of an issue, as it was getting late now and there was much ahead for another 50 kilometres.

The Khama Rhino receptionist explained I could go camp at a cattle pen down the road where they have water and possibly even a cold shower, but first I asked if I could have something to eat at their restaurant and used their wifi to get some work done. They agreed and a ranger took me the 300m to the restaurant. Just before 4 pm, a thunderstorm began and it starting raining and hailing hard for about an hour. When I got back, fortunately, they had moved my bike out the rain although not before most things got wet.

A failed camp mission

After searching for an hour I couldn’t find the cattle ranch and decided I’ll just have to wild camp somewhere. I cycled on past Khama Rhino for 6 kilometres and stopped at a rest stop as the sun was setting. As I was considering setting up camp there a stray dog came and starting barking aggressively at me. I took out my mace and walked off slowly towards the road with my bike. The dog entered the rest stop and starting eating trash off the floor.

I decided this was bullshit and I was gonna go back to Khama Rhino and ask if I can just camp at the gate. Upon arriving back they seemed confused how I had not found the cattle ranch but as it was getting dark now I asked if I couldn’t just camp near reception and I’ll leave early – I was even happy to pay the camp fees of 105 pula.

They discussed between themselves and then said okay let’s just get me checked in. I asked how much it will cost and they said don’t worry about it so I figured they have taken pity on me and might let me stay free. Unfortunately, as I found out in the morning, this was a bit of a trick, as they then asked me to pay the full 200 pula amount! On reflection, I should have just refused and left but stupidly I paid.

The wifi wasn’t working that evening because of the rain so I just watched some TV in the restaurant before going to sleep.

Day 11 – Back to Palapye

This morning as I left Khama Rhino, the grinding noise in my bike was worse than ever. News from my cousin in Maun wasn’t reassuring either – there were certainly no bike repair shops there that could help me. As I cycled towards Orapa and further away from Gaborone I began to consider my situation.

It was highly unlikely the problem would go away or fix itself and the further I got from civilization the less likely I would find a mechanic and replacement parts. Eventually, I bit the bullet, turned around and decided to go to Gaborone and get it fixed once and for all. It would shed some days off my trip, but I wasn’t on a tight schedule so it didn’t matter much.

Halfway back to Serowe, one of the friendlier rangers from Khama Rhino passed by and asked why I was going back. I explained my situation and he said to he’ll take me to a bike shop he knows. I doubted a bike shop in Serowe would have imported French parts but I came along for the ride. Naturally, it didn’t in the end but I thanked him for his help and cycled off back towards Palapye to check with a mechanic there that he recommended.

Unable to find any help there either, I decided to call it a day and check back in at Itumela Campsite. It was Saturday now and nothing would be open until Monday so no point rushing to Gaborone where accommodation would no doubt be more expensive. I grabbed some beers and lunch and headed to Itumela to relax for the afternoon. That evening I took advantage of having the Sunday off and got quite drunk with a Scots guy and someone else playing pool.

Day 12 – Lazy Sunday

Today was a bit of non-day. I woke up on a bed in the dorm where clearly I had somehow managed to pass out drunk. Fortunately, nobody else was in there and nobody noticed that I wasn’t supposed to be there, so I quickly snuck back to my tent.

After some coffee, a shower and a bit of breakfast of samp and beans, I went to the train station to ask about a train to Gaborone. A security guard said it only opens at 2 pm and to come back then so I went to the bottle store but it was closed. Lame.

Back at Itumela, I decided I may as well get some work done and then had lunch and went back at 2 to the station. I was informed there is a train just after midnight that arrives early morning in Gaborone but since no parcel staff were on duty I wouldn’t be able to check in my bike.

I decided to give up on the train and just hitchhike early in the morning. I did some more work back at Itumela, had dinner and some drinks, played some more pool and then secretly slept in the dorm room again since it has a fan and is away from the loud frogs.

Day 13 – Hitching to Gaborone

I was up and packed by 7 am and began cycling south for about 10km’s to get out of Palapye before hitchhiking. After about 10 minutes a workers vehicle that has just passed me turned around and came back to ask if I need help. I explained I had bike trouble and needed to get to Gaborone. They were only going to the next town of Mahalapye but agreed to take me there.

In Mahalapye they dropped me off just past the town and I cycled a bit further out before beginning to hitch again near a bus stop. Again, after only about ten minutes a guy in a pickup stopped and agreed to take me all the way to Gaborone. We chatted along the way about Botswana and crime in South Africa. After about 2 hours we arrived in Gaborone and struggled a bit to find the bike shop which had recently moved. Eventually, he got me there and I gave him 50 pula for his troubles.

The bike shop seemed unsure about my problem and needed to investigate so I left it with them and went to grab lunch and do some work at a nearby Steers. While there the bike shop guy found me and told me the issue was actually in my rear cassette not my bottom bracket bearings as I had expected. This was the same cassette I had replaced just a few weeks ago so I asked him to double check as it seemed odd that it broke so quickly.

Surprise Encounter!

While waiting, a woman I didn’t recognize came up and asked if I was Mark Hartley. I briefly thought I had finally become famous but it turned out to be Inga, my father’s cousin’s daughter, who had recognized me from Facebook. We hadn’t seen each other since I was 12 years old. I explained my situation to her and her husband and they immediately invited me to stay the night with them while the bike is repaired.

Back at the bike shop, the mechanic said it is a cassette issue and I’m likely looking at about $150 to fix the bike properly because the rear hub would need to be replaced too. I told them to get me an exact price and I’ll come back tomorrow.

I went back with Inga and partner to her home just outside of Gaborone where they have a bit of a farm with miniature horses, ducks, geese, peacocks, quail, rabbits and a few other things. They show me the spare guest cottage where I could spend the night and I met their two young daughters who were off school for the holidays. That evening we caught up over dinner and a few drinks.

Day 14 – Chill time in Gaborone

I spent most of the morning getting work done and then went in the afternoon with Inga and John to check up on my bicycle. On the ride there I spent the entire time considering my options – could I afford to spend the estimated $150 on repairs or should I simply abandon the trip for now until I can buy a better touring bicycle in Europe later?

As it turned out, the store was unable to source the correct parts needed to fix it but directed me to a guy named Paul who may be able to help. We gave him a call but unfortunately, he was heading out for the day and said he would only be free tomorrow. So we put the bike in the back of the car and went to do some shopping for dinner. Passing a pharmacy I was reminded that I need to still get my yellow fever injection for Malawi and Inga kindly called up a doctor and arranged an appointment for the very next day!

We swam that evening before dinner and afterwards I met the neighbour’s son and a friend who catch snakes for fun. They brought in a python and two egg eater snakes that swallow quail eggs and regurgitate the shell. Lovely. We also watched a tiny duckling being born before getting to bed early since the school was starting again in the morning and the kids would have to be up at 7 am.

Day 15 – Paul’s Amazing Bike Store

After grabbing an early morning coffee I went with John and Inga to their office and then checked at another bicycle store next door if they could help at all. Again, they didn’t have the correct parts so we called Paul. He said we could come round immediately, so we headed off.

Paul runs a shop that is a subsidiary of Mike’s Bikes, which is a kind of charity organization that ships in large containers of bikes from the United States to support cycling in Africa. They also run a bike shop and sell and repair bikes to cover costs. The store is run from the most incredible old game lodge out in Mokolodi reserve, with a huge three-story main house overlooking a bar and swimming pool area. The entire house and every room is completely stuff full of bicycles and bike parts with everything you could possibly imagine from BMX’s to fixies, to full carbon racers, 29ers, mountain bikes, fat bikes and classic old steel frame antique collectables. It is truly a cyclist’s heaven and worth a visit even if you don’t need any repairs done.

Paul immediately took great interest in my trip and offered to do all he could to help, free of charge, wherever possible. We couldn’t find a suitable rear cassette to replace my broken one, so he took me to look through the crates of bicycles to find a replacement rear wheel with cassette included. We found an excellent Alexrims wheel with an 8-speed cartridge which the mechanic fitted and adjusted my 7-speed shifter to somehow accommodate all 8 gears!

He also replaced my handlebar tap, gave me a new seat, a second bottle holder, cycling shorts and rear rack – all free of charge! I couldn’t believe my luck and was incredibly appreciative, not only for the gifts but also the level of help and interest he showed. Although Paul wouldn’t accept any money from me, I tipped his skilled mechanics 100 pula each to say thanks.

I was planning to catch the train that evening to Francistown but decided to stay one final night and test the bicycle properly the next day to ensure everything is ready before I leave. This decision may possibly have been influenced by John and Inga’s spectacular hospitality and the enjoyment of the company after a week of relative solitude.

Day 16 – Final day in Gaborone

We headed off early again in the morning to John and Inga’s office and after some minor adjustments, I cycled off on a 20-kilometre circumnavigation of the city. The new wheels and gears definitely felt like a great improvement on the old ones and the only slight problem was the rear rack which needed some adjusting. After lunch, we picked up the daughters from school and headed back to Paul’s bike shop because John and Inga wanted to buy them some bicycles. I got my seat adjusted and spent some more time looking through all the gear like a kid on Christmas.

With the bike now ready to go, we drove to the train station and I checked it into the parcel carriage and bought a ticket for the 9:30 pm train that night. In usual African style, it took as long as possible but eventually it was all packed and ready to go by 5 pm. We headed back home for one final meal and then my wonderful hosts dropped me back off at the station at 9 pm.

I can’t be more appreciative of the incredible generosity and hospitality John and Inga showed me while staying in Gaborone. They went far out of their way to help an almost-stranger and I hope one day to have the opportunity to repay their kindness.

Africa Cycle Tour – Mozambique

Camping in a laundry, breaking my finger and getting harassed by police…

Day 1

I’m on my way to Mozamboogy festival in the sleepy coastal village of Ponta de Ouro, Mozambique, near the South African border. I’m coming from the north though, so I enter via the Komatipoort border post between the Kruger National Park and Swaziland. With only a few hundred kilometres to Ponta de Ouro, I should make it within two days.

I get through customs without any issues but the town on the other side is a typical border town – poor, rough, and with dodgy characters hanging around. It’s getting dark now so I cycle off quickly, hoping I find somewhere safe to camp for the night. The air is cloudy with smoke from fires that villagers are cooking on, creating a moody feel reflecting the rays of the setting sun.

Within a few kilometres, I come to a roadside motel and enquire about prices. It’s a bit out of my budget though, at 3000 Mozambiquan Meticals (MZN) for a room – the equivalent of 600 South African Rand (ZAR). I ask if I can camp around back for the night but the owner isn’t around and his employee is not comfortable making a decision. He tells me to try another place further down the road but instructs me to return if I have no luck because it’s not safe to camp on the roadside here.

At the next place I’m greeted by a friendly man who offers me a room at a similar price but I can tell he thinks its a very cheap offer. I explain that I’m cycling around the world and I’m very low on cash so I carry a tent for camping on the roadside. He’s seems a bit confused at first but then suddenly becomes very sympathetic and says I can camp for free in the back garden. He shows me where I can get water and offers me use of the shower and toilet facilities. I’m very grateful and give him ZAR50 for his troubles as I don’t have any Mozambican money yet.

After setting up my campsite in the lush garden next to the swimming pool, I go to watch TV in the bar area at my host’s request. He gives me some free peanuts and I desperately want to buy a beer but feel that wouldn’t align with my ‘poor traveller’ sentiment. I settle for tap water, which unfortunately is warm. After watching some old 80’s movie dubbed into Portuguese (the local language), I head off to spend my first night in the tent that I carried around the whole of India and never once used.

Day 2

In the morning I wake early to a dewey morning and pack up while the sun rises. By 6am I’m on the road, heading direct for the capital, Maputo. The road heads towards the coast so it’s slightly downhill pretty much all the way, with no real wind to speak of. As a result I cover the 100kms to Maputo before lunch time. The road is long and boring with nothing but fields on either side until I get close to Maputo. Just before the city there is a smaller town called Matola which appears to be a busy trading post for vehicles heading north and south and delivering goods for the capital.

It’s horribly busy and the dusty streets are packed full of trucks weaving around the half-finished construction works. I pass through a toll booth just before Maputo and instead of letting me simply pass around the boom I’m told to go back and join the pedestrian route. Seems a bit nonsensical but I comply anyway. The last few hundred metres into Maputo are uphill and I arrive sweating in the midday heat at Base Backpackers.

The original plan was to stay the night here but since its only lunch time I decide to only stop for lunch and hopefully do some work using their wifi. The receptionist kindly agrees to look after my bicycle while I head out to draw cash, buy a simcard and grab some lunch. Then I head back and offer to buy a beer or two in exchange for use of the hostel wifi.

At around 3pm I decide I better head off as I still need to catch the ferry across the Umbuluzi river and then cycle the last 40 kilometres to Bella Vista. I thank the staff and promise to return and spend a night on my way back.

Heading down to the ferry I’m exceptionally careful not to break any road rules after a warning from the receptionist that police will try get money out of me for any silly reason. I arrive and the ferry is busy loading, so I quickly cycle on amongst the throngs of fishermen, fruit sellers and vehicles.

Presently, the ferry departs and starts the short 20 minute cruise across the river mouth. It provides excellent views of the new bridge that is being built to cross this section of river and connect Maputo with southern Mozambique via a brand new highway. The bridge is the last section to be completed, meaning I’ll have a fresh tar now all the way to Ponta de Ouro.

Nobody comes around asking me to pay so it appears I get a free ferry ride! I disembark on the other side and have to cycle over some rough dirt road with sandy patches before the tar begins. I slide out in some sand while passing a biker and say “Oh shit!”. He laughs and tells me I’m going to have quite a few more “oh shit” moments. Maybe the road isn’t as complete as I’ve been told?

Eventually after a few bumpy kilometres I reach a brand new section of tar road and pick up the pace, heading south. It’s after 4pm now and the sun sets at 6pm so I’ll need to cycle flat out to avoid the dark. Fortunately, the brand new road has a clean, wide shoulder so I can move quickly and avoid traffic. Unfortunately, there are some sections that aren’t complete so several times I have to take a slow, dirt road detour around unfinished sections.

Although I can’t quite see the ocean, the scenery and vegetation around here is more coastal than the farmland coming into Maputo. It’s mostly green bush with the occasional palm tree and a mild breeze that keeps me cool despite the intense sun.

After two hours I’m exhausted, I still haven’t arrived at Bela Vista and its starting to get dark. I check the map and it seems further than it should be. On changing Google Maps to satellite view I realise the reason – despite appearing in satellite photos, the new road hasn’t yet been added to the main map. The satellite photo shows it winds quite a long way inland as opposed to the old road – meaning my route is actually about 10kms longer than indicated to me.

I briefly toy with the idea of just camping on the roadside but everything around me is very dense bush and I haven’t got any food since I didn’t plan to camp. I eventually just decide to push on through the dark as it should only be another half an hour or so and traffic is slim. By the time I arrive in Bela Vista it’s very dark and I turn off the road to head into the main town which is on the coast. Loud music is coming from the end of the road and it seems to be quite crowded with people, which seems odd for a Tuesday night.

I stop at a guesthouse and explain my story, asking if there is anywhere safe to camp off the street. The owner seems uncertain but invites me inside, asking if I’m sure I wouldn’t like to take one of his rooms. Again they are out of my budget and I offer to pay him something in exchangefor camping on the grounds. We eventually agree on R150 (about $10) for me to camp in the laundry room which includes my own private toilet, so as long as I leave early in the morning. I assure him I’ll be off at 6am.

After setting up my tent on the rather hard concrete floor, I head down to the bar area to get some food and drink. I can’t say no to their 50 meticais beers (less than $1 US) so I have two while getting some work done.

DAY 3

I’m up with the sun at 5:30am and packed and on the road by 6, as promised. On the way out I pop into the bar to see if I can get a coffee but the staff direct me to another room. There I find a few people having breakfast. I sit down and ask for a coffee which is promptly delivered along with a breakfast of bread, cheese and salad. Apparently this is included with the rooms, although I’m not sure the kitchen staff realise I’m not an “actual” guest. I keep quiet, eat quickly and head off before anyone says anything.

Today is a short day of only about 70kms which means I should make it to Ponta de Ouro with enough time to find a lift to the festival and setup camp before dark. The last few kilometres to the festival site on the beach is entirely sand and accessible only by 4×4.

About halfway, I reach a game reserve which is gated off but the entrance isn’t closed or manned by security, although it does have a sign warning of some wildlife, including elephant and crocodile. I guess not a lot of people cycle this road but there is no other route south and I figure the animals will likely avoid the main road, so I head in.

I keep a keen eye out but don’t see any animals and the few cars that pass don’t appear to be concerned with my presence. After a few kilometres the park ends and I exit onto the main road and continue south through sandy, coastal grasslands. At around 12pm I arrive at an intersection and turn left towards the Ponte and the ocean. After a few more kilometres the road ends in a construction site and I continue a bit further until the dirt becomes sand and I have to start pushing my bike.

After pushing a short distance throug the blazing heat I reach a small wooden bar and decide its beer time. I grab a cheap quart of beer and join some locals on a log outside. They’re very interested in my bike and as usual can’t believe I’ve cycled so far. We get chatting and I mention the festival which they say they are also attending. We make introductions and I tell them I’ll see them there, before continuing on through the sand.

Eventually I reach the centre of town, grab a beer and begin hitch-hiking at the intersection, hoping someone will take me to festival. Within a few minutes a guy stops and says he saw a post I put on the Facebook group asking for a lift – what a stroke of luck! We grab a few more beers, pile my bike into the back of his 4×4 and head off.

We get chatting along the way and by the time we arrive we’re best mates and he invites me to camp with him and his crew, which turn out to be a huge contingent of festival goers from Durban in South Africa.

The festival goes down well except towards the end when I slam a thorn through my finger while trying to make a fire. It gets stuck between the knuckle of my middle finger and I have to yank it hard to get it out, tearing through the flesh and joints. I manage to patch up the bleeding but by the next day it’s very purple and swollen.

As a result, I end up spending a few days longer in Ponta de Ouro than expected, during which time I chill on the beach and strip and clean my bike as best I can with diesel. Eventually, about a week after arriving, I’m ready to head back. I leave very early Sunday morning with the plan to cycle all the way to Maputo, about 110kms.

Again I have to go through the game reserve and this time I am lucky enough to see an elephant quite close to the road. I stop for lunch at a tiny roadside stall and have a conversation with some friendly locals who again can’t believe I’m cycling all the way to Maputo, which at this point is only 50kms away!

I reach the end of the tar by about 4pm and once again have to brave the sand and dirt to the ferry port. Unfortunately, this time the shaking wobbles a screw free from my pannier rack and I can’t find it in the dirt, so have to improvise with a cable tie – the cyclists lifesaver! I join the queue for the ferry and have to actually pay the 30 meticais fee this time.

Once across, I disembark and start cycling back to the hostel. Along the way I stop on the roadside to check my Google maps and a sneaky police car that I didn’t notice, stops and calls me over. Here we go..

The police ask for my passport and then tell me I owe a 5,000 meticais fine for stopping in the road because it’s ‘dangerous’. There’s no way I’m giving these clowns 5000 meticais so I show them a 100 meticais note and tell them its all I have. After some resistance, I insist they can take me to the station and I’ll pay a fine there. Of course, as usual, they eventually give up and send me on my way.

Back at Base backpackers hostel I check in to a dorm room for R180 (about $12) and grab a much-needed beer and shower, in that order. I think this is the only backpackers in Maputo and its clearly popular as its quite busy with a mix of travellers from Germany, the UK, the States and various other places. One guy said he’s been staying there for over a week!

My left crank is loose and has been giving trouble, so the following day, after getting some work done, I head off in search of a bicycle repair shop. I find one and they simply tighten the crank and send me on my way. Seems to do the trick.

Back at the hostel, I get chatting to a cool British guy who’s been traveling and working throughout Africa, in places like Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. I tell him of my plans and he gives some recommendations on places to visit. Then we head out to dinner with an American girl and grab more than a few beers at a pub afterwards.

I haven’t got too far to go on my final day, assuming it will only take a few hours to the border, as before, so I awake late and only leave at 11am. Unfortunately, I didn’t account for the mild uphill and a gale force headwind. The initial 10kms is okay but once I turn with my back to the coast I have to fight into a wind so strong I might as well be walking. Eventually, at around 4 pm, I stop and wave down a taxi to take me the last 20kms to the border – I’m finished!