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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Camping in a laundry, breaking my finger and getting harassed by police…
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.
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.
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!
I continued on past the border post with the aim to reach Nisela Game Reserve, 40km’s away. The tour guide I had met at the service station in South Africa told me it would be a good place to camp.
I was fairly tired by now so stopped for a half hour rest at the border town and bought some water. I had another funny chat with a local guy who couldn’t understand why I was doing this and then got back on the road.
The roads are equally as nice as South Africa along this section, well paved and with a wide shoulder. I was surrounded on all sides but what must be sugar cane fields, as loads of broken bits of sugar cane filled the road.
The locals walking this section didn’t appear to be as friendly as in South Africa, often not responding to my waves or greetings. They were likely just confused as to what I was doing.
After about an hour I took refuge in the shade of a bus stop and rested for a while to cool down. By now I had cycled over 120km’s and was quite exhausted so the last slog to Nisela was a tough one. I kept checking my Google Maps, wondering how I’m not there yet!
Eventually, a sign for Nisela appeared around the last corner and within a few minutes, I saw the entrance come up on the right. I cycled into reception, sweaty and exhausted, and checked in for a camping spot.
They had a function on in the main bar and dining room that evening so I had to quickly shower and get food before 6pm. I had a beer and sandwich and then ordered another beer to take away.
While sitting by my campsite two park rangers came up to me and for a moment my guilty conscience assumed I had done something wrong but they just wanted to borrow my bicycle pump.
Seeing as there wasn’t much else to do, I took a photo with a zebra and then got to bed very early, around 8pm.
Day 6: Short cycle to Big Bend
It was Monday now and I needed wifi to work but Nisela only had these ridiculous vouchers that give you 15 minutes of Internet with 100MB data limit.
I was still exhausted from the day before and didn’t want to cycle too far but luckily discovered that there was a backpackers called Entsabeni only 30km up the road near Big Bend. The receptionist kindly called them for me to confirm that they have wifi before I headed off.
As I’ve since learned, Google Maps is not very accurate in Swaziland so I missed the turn-off and ended up in a small village settlement where the backpackers was reported to be.
I really didn’t want to waste the day looking for the place so I decided to cycle back to a place called Lismore Lodge I had passed a few km’s back and see if they have wifi and a cheap bed. On the way, I thought I’ll quickly check one more side road and to my luck I discovered Entsabeni.
Unfortunately, Entsabeni is not actually a backpackers but more of a guest house, with only private rooms. They did have fast wifi though and I couldn’t be bothered to check elsewhere so I decided to spoil myself (and my budget) for one night.
I was the only guest so I had the entire place to myself and spent all day catching up on work. Around about 3pm they told me they would be closing the kitchen for the night, so I ordered dinner to be kept for later and at 4pm everybody went home, leaving the entire house to myself.
I hadn’t watched TV in months and they had satellite, so I ate and watched stupid sitcoms until eventually getting to bed a bit later than planned at 10pm.
Day 7: Uphill to Lobamba
Nodoby was around when I awoke at 5am but I had already paid the evening before so I packed had some coffee and got back on the road by 6am.
I knew today would be difficult because it was 100km’s, almost entirely uphill. It began off fairly calmly with a cycle through Big Bend and a minor incline that steadily became steeper throughout the day. It was still early morning so the first few hours weren’t too hot.
Around about 10 am it began to get hilly and hot, so I stopped to get some breakfast at a small roadside shop. I bought three cream donuts, water, Energade, chocolates and biscuits all for only R40 ($3).
After a half hour rest and feeling re-energized, I got back on the road. Quickly the hills began to come in succession, one after the other with each getting bigger than the last. It was now only 25km to Manzini, my planned lunch stop, but it was also 38 degrees Celcius and I was forced to stop at the rise of each hill and find some shade to cool down.
It took me almost two hours just to do 15km’s and get within the final, huge hill before Manzini. Here the shoulder was almost entirely gone and what was left of it was often filled with sand or scrub from bushes. As a result, I was often having to cycle in the road a little bit.
Around here many people stand on the road waiting for taxi’s, which hoot to indicate they have space to pick you up. Unfortunately, trucks also hoot when they don’t have space to pass you and need you to get off the road. In one case I didn’t move off the road, think it was a taxi hooting, and very almost got killed. The truck passed me so close its trailer scraped along my arm but it made no effort to slow down. I wobbled off the road briefly into some sand but didn’t fall and continued on.
From there on I was being very cautious to stay within the shoulder which at times wasn’t possible. I often had to stop and wait for a gap in traffic and then cycle quickly through sections that had no shoulder.
Eventually, a friendly guy stopped and offered me a lift, saying that this section is too dangerous to cycle and anyway, it’s far too hot. I didn’t argue. He even offered to let me stay at his place that night and take me into Manzini the following day. I should have accepted but I really wanted to try to get to my planned destination of Lobamba today as I was very short on time, needing to get home for Christmas.
As we drove he asked if I had seen any other cyclists in Swaziland and after thinking, I said no. He said that’s because nobody cycles here and as a result, the drivers probably don’t think to look out for cyclists. There aren’t even any scooters or motorbikes, so he makes a good point. He told me I was the only cyclist he had ever seen in all his time in Swaziland… and that I’m definitely crazy.
He took me about 10 km’s over the final huge rise into Manzini and went out of his way to drop me on the other side of town so I was closer to Lobamba. I thanked him profusely, gave him the address of this blog, and then headed off to find somewhere with wifi to have lunch and do some work.
The nearby KFC didn’t have wifi so I cycled a bit further and found a bar called Saltees. Although it showed up as having wifi on my phone, none of the staff knew the password. I stayed for one beer anyway and spoke to my waitress about my trip. Again, as with everyone, she struggled to believe me and told me I was crazy. She kindly helped me out by calling a nearby backpackers, Sondzela, to see if they had camping space and wifi – both of which they said they had.
I continued on in an effort to get to Sondzela but stopped along the way at a small, touristy looking restaurant since I was now starving. I ate a bacon and avo salad, drank two much-needed cold beers and since they had wifi, got some work done. Eventually, at around 5pm, I headed off on the last 3kms to Sondzela. However, upon arrival, the gate staff told me I can’t use that entrance unless I have a pre-booking. They said apparently there is another entrance around the other side, 10km’s away, that I must use!
I told them it’s getting dark and I don’t have lights (although I do) but they wouldn’t listen and sent me on my way. I couldn’t believe the stupidity of it – Sondzela was right there but I must cycle around to another entrance for no reason? Needless to say, I wasn’t going to give them my business and won’t be recommending Sondzela to anyone. The most annoying part is that the route I took is the only route that Google Maps shows to get to Sondzela – the route they described doesn’t appear anywhere on the map that I could see.
Fortunately, my friend had just told me about another decent backpackers called Legends that she stayed at previously but was a fair distance away. I had no choice but to push on through and luckily it was mostly flat until the last few hundred metres, so I arrived before dark.
The backpackers offered camping for R100 ($6) so I checked in and set up my tent in their very decent, shaded campgrounds. I cooled off in the pool for a bit and then grabbed dinner and few beers from the nearby store before heading to bed, exhausted.
Day 8: White water rafting
After checking some maps, I realized I wouldn’t have enough time to cycle through the mountainous regions of Swaziland and still make it back to my family home in South Africa in time for Christmas.
Since I was now in a relatively popular tourist area, it would be one of the few places I could potentially catch a bus from over the worst of the mountains and back into South Africa, so I decided to do that.
It was unfortunate because the mountains look lovely and I’m sure there are some amazing cycling routes, but the time of year was also not ideal – with high temperatures and flash storms. I chose to spend a day exploring Lobamba before heading off and resolved to return to Swaziland to explore further when I had more time.
I firstly arranged for a bus to take me and my bicycle to the nearby town of Nelspruit the following day, and then decided to do a half-day white water rafting trip.
The trip was decent and well organized although surprisingly short considering the R1,000 cost ($70). We only did four rapids, of which only one could really be considered a graded rapid (3+). The first two ‘rapids’ were essentially just fast flowing water and the second just a sluice down a weir.
We then reached the final rapid which was impressively big and my paddling companion and I were thrown out of our raft, with me smashing my elbow into a rock fairly hard. Despite the pain, I was glad to have had the opportunity to face a rapid that was an actual challenge.
Afterward, we had lunch and beer provided by the tour group on the riverside and then headed back to the town. As an introductory taster course, it’s probably acceptable and the drinks at the end were a nice addition, but I still felt it was a bit over-priced for what it was.
I awake at 4am in the campsite in Mtunzini. I’m camping alone and nobody else is up at this time but the sun is rising and its light enough to see. I use the campsite ablutions and then slowly begin to pack up my stuff. I see no point in showering as I’ll be covered in sweat again by 6am.
I sort all my bike stuff out as best I can and strap it all on in various ways, take one last swig of last nights whiskey and head off into the slowly brightening day. I would like to cycle the N2 freeway to St Lucia as it’s the most direct route but there is a toll-booth coming on from the Mtunzini on-ramp and I’m uncertain they will allow me through. I choose to cycle through with confidence as if I do it every day and nobody appears to notice, although after about 50 metres I hear a muffled shout – oops, too late.
Technically, cycling on the freeway is illegal but I’ve been informed by some people on cycle forums that police are unlikely to pay any attention to you unless it’s within a city. I forge on fearlessly, 18-wheeler trucks zooming past within inches as the road’s shoulder varies in width from a few metres to a few centimetres.
There are lots of roadworks on this section of road so I spend the next two hours squeezing between construction barriers and piles of sand. Eventually, a newly-paved but as yet unutilized road appears on my left, so I take the chance and begin cycling on it, hoping my tyres won’t sink into the tar at any point. I pass a few workers and construction vehicles and nobody seems to mind so I continue, enjoying an entire four-lane highway to myself. Unfortunately, my luck runs out eventually and the tar road turns to unpaved gravel. I decide to test cycling in the stormage drain, which works fairly well but at various intervals, it disappears and I need to rejoin the crazy traffic.
By 8 am I reach a service station with a Wimpy and decide to stop for breakfast. For safety, I hoist my bicycle over the fencing of the outdoor seating area of the Wimpy so I can keep an eye on it from inside. Upon entering, I see a man wearing an official-looking shirt step outside and eye my bike. I ask him if it’s okay that its there, thinking him to be a manager, but it turns out he’s just a customer admiring my bike. A cyclist himself, he offers to buy me breakfast and we take a table together. It turns out he’s a land surveyor heading along the same route as me and even offers to give me a lift but I decline, explaining that it would defeat the object.
We get chatting about cycling and it turns out he’s good friends with a cycling blogger I follow called Blonde on a Bike – a woman named Bridget whom, he informs me, is, in fact, South African and lives in the nearby town of Howick. We eat together and I tell him of my plans, show him my blog and we swap Facebook contact details. I stupidly ordered a second coffee, thinking Wimpy still do free refills, and ended up costing him a bit more on breakfast than he expected. Kindly, he still refuses my offer to split the bill.
We go our separate ways and I fill up my water container before heading back out on to the road. The next section is far quieter, once I pass Richard’s Bay, and the road becomes a simple, dual lane bi-directional road with a very wide, comfortable shoulder. This is a big industrial logging area, lined with endless rows of tall gum trees and a never-ending stream of huge, logging trucks zooming past to collect the days wood. I still cycle in the stormage drain whenever I can just for added safety but it mostly feels like a nice country road out here.
As the day wears on, the heat increases exponentially and I begin to run low on water. Checking my map, I can see that there is a turn off slightly earlier than my intended turn off that weaves past a lake. I decide to get off the freeway here and hope to find somewhere to get water, if not from the lake as a last resort. I cycle on down a deserted road through what appears to be conservation area and eventually stop at a small guest house that advertises a stall. I don’t have any cash to buy water and tragically, their pump is not working. The guy also informs me that the only route to the lake is down a steep, dirt road – something I’ll undoubtedly struggle to get back.
I discard the lake plans and check Google maps. There appears to be a small safari resort up ahead and down a side road, so I head in that direction. It takes me along a very bumpy, sandy dirt road and I have to push my bike at sections, but I eventually arrive. There is nobody around but one of the farm hands point me towards a tap. I’m sure it’s borehole water and can’t be certain its potable but at this point I’ll take what I can get. I fill up and relax in the shade of a tree for a bit before heading back out.
It’s peak sun now at midday and I have to continue along a horrible, bumpy dirt road for a few kilometres before the tar starts again. On reflection, I should have just stayed on the freeway until my turn off – now I’m stuck in rural farmland. Just before I reach the tarred section a local guy on an old, rickety bicycle passes me and I decide I really need to up my game, so I start pedaling hard. Unfortunately, this shakes my bag free from my pannier and it crashes off on to the ground. Luckily, none of my stuff is broken, especially my laptop. I try to strap it on a bit tighter but I’m missing a bungee cord so it’s not very stable.
Eventually, after one more rest stop, I reach the tar road and plan to stop for lunch and a much-needed rest at the Spur steak restaurant in a nearby town a few kilometres ahead. I reach the Spur a sweaty mess and they kindly let me keep my bicycle safely inside the door while I eat. I decide its a good opportunity to do some work and fortunately, their WiFi is working for once. I order the cheapest thing on the menu, a chicken mayo sandwich, and get to it.
After two hours of work and copious glasses of water, I feel I’m rested enough for the last 30 kilometres to St Lucia. I figure it should only take two hours at most but little do I realise there is an endless stream of rolling hills between here and the coast. Despite my rest and feet, my legs are still broken and I’m pretty much drained of energy. More so, with each kilometre I head away from the freeway and towards the coast I become increasingly aware that I have to do this all again tomorrow in reverse. I figure I’ve come all this way, though, and it would be sad to miss out on St Lucia.
Eventually, after what seems like a hundred hills, I arrive in the small town of St Lucia and head towards a backpackers my friend has told me about. Unfortunately, they inform me they don’t have WiFi because there is a problem with the Internet across the entire town. I figure since I can’t work anyway I’ll just camp somewhere cheap and head back to the Spur in the morning for breakfast and work there. They direct me to another backpackers down the road that offers camping for R100 ($7).
When I arrive at the backpackers, the camping section is under construction so they kindly offer me a bed in a dorm for the same price. It’s only a two-bed dorm and nobody else is there so I basically get my own private room for R100. The backpackers looks like it recently burnt down and so facilities aren’t great as most things are in various stages of reconstruction. I don’t mind though as I’m so tired I feel ready to go straight to sleep. I decide to have a brief look around town, quickly grab some food and then head to bed.
On my wanders, I come across a seafood restaurant that has half-price sushi on Wednesday nights. Despite it still being out of my budget, I can’t turn down a sushi special and there doesn’t appear to be much else in the town so I eat three small plates of various sushi rolls and drink two beers. Around about 8pm I walk back to the backpackers and fall asleep before my head hits the pillow.
Day 2: St Lucia
I decide to spend day 2 relaxing my legs after a hard first day. After getting to sleep at 8pm, I awake very early and have a coffee while doing some work. I then head off to Wimpy for breakfast and to try find some Wifi, but unfortunately, theirs isn’t working either. Instead, I just write content for some blogs I’ve been meaning to do while eating bacon, eggs and chips with tea – like a true Brit.
Eventually, I discover an internet cafe with a semi-decent connection and get the majority of the rest of my work done. I then head back to the hostel to check out and get my stuff. After a bit of deliberation, I decid to check into Monzi Safari’s backpackers rather than cycle far out of town to the caravan park. It’s a bit more pricey than I would normally do, at R220, but turns out to be a good choice.
Monzi’s has an incredible setup, with two lush swimming pools surrounded by beautiful, shaded loungers and well-equipped kitchen and BBQ area. They also do a free, albeit small, breakfast and allow guests to bring in their own alcohol – even offering fridge space!
I grab some much-needed supplies from the nearby shops, including bungee cords, a new cooking pot, bicycle lube and a knife for protection. I also grabb a six pack of beer and then spend lunch relaxing by the pool drinking for a few hours.
In the early afternoon I decide to use my spare time wisely and explore the surrounding beach area on my bike. I cycle down to the coast and investigate a few beaches, encountering some guys who have gotten their 4×4 stuck in the sand and then promptly driven into a tree. I offer to try tow them with my bicycle but they just glance at me and then get back to the car.
I then head south towards the Boat Club which takes me along a 4×4 only road that crosses a section of the beach. Despite my best 4×4 cycling efforts, I have to push my bike for a bit but am rewarded by an awesome wooden path through a nature reserve in the St Lucia estuary.
Coming out the other side, I discover the Boat Club where I chill for a bit and have a beer with a plate of chili poppers and test whether I can work purely from my phone. Turns out it’s not too hard.
I then head back to the backpackers for one last chill session and a few more beers by the pool. There doesn’t seem to much happening at the backpackers or in town so I decide to get an early night. Just before bed I receive a message from a friend warning of a potential riot blocking the route I need to take tomorrow. If the riot happens, I not only might not be able to get to my destination but could get caught up in the violence.
I decide to sleep on it and see if I can get more information in the morning.
Day 3: St Lucia
I awake at 6am and have an early breakfast, still uncertain about whether I should risk the ride into a potential riot. I’m not too concerned with actually getting caught up in the riot, just that it’s 30km to the N2 highway and if I get stopped by traffic police there then I will just have to cycle all the way back. I don’t really have time to wait a few hours for the protests to be over otherwise I won’t make my next stop before dark.
Eventually, I decide to wait it out one more day, which is unfortunate as I’m already a day behind and want to spend the weekend in Swaziland. Now, I’ll be lucky to get there by Monday, which means I might miss a day or two of work – money I can hardly do without. Unfortunately, with cycle touring it’s best not to plan to be somewhere on a specific date as you will almost certainly be late.
Fortunately, Monzi backpackers is lovely so I’m not too upset. I spend the morning getting as much work done as I can and then cycle out to explore the Cape Vidal nature reserve. Upon arrival at the gate the woman guarding says I can go in with a bicycle, however, she fails to mention that about 500m down the road there is another fence that clearly states “no bicycles allowed” and has a picture of lions, elephants, hippos and leopards. This gate isn’t manned or closed though, it just has one of those grids that animals can’t walk over, so I figure if there really are lions in here they would certainly have better security.
I cycle in a short way and briefly consider just ignoring the sign but in the end I chicken out, not wanting to be that idiot cyclist who gets eaten by a lion on the third day of his trip.
I cycle around the part of the park that isn’t fenced off along some pretty hairy sand roads and see some zebra and impala. Then I take a side road and discover a horse riding school with a pen full of beautifully kept horses.
By now it’s hot and lunch is calling, so I head back and decide to have a braai (BBQ) and see if any guests would like to join in. I buy some meat, beer and wood and head back, only to be told by the staff I can’t make a wood fire. Luckily, somebody has left some charcoal, so I make a small fire and begin to cook my food. Nobody is around to join, though, so I eat and drink alone and have enough leftover for dinner and possibly even breakfast tomorrow.
Then I just spend the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool, drinking beer and doing a bit more work. I also finish my long overdue blog about sailing Australia. Although there are a few people hanging about the hostel, it’s mostly couples, unlike in South East Asia where most people are single and traveling solo or in a friends group. As a result, I don’t see any opportunities to link up with a group to go out with and decide to just watch a movie on the communal TV and get to bed early.
Day 4: St Lucia to Hluhluwe
Finally, it’s time to head off, so I awake early, pack my stuff and grab some breakfast. I’m done and on the road by 8:30 am.
Things begin fairly well, even though I have to cycle out along the same rolling hills I had come in on. Fortunately, I don’t have the headwind this time and with fresh legs, it takes half the amount of time it took coming in.
I fill up my water at a gas station just before the turnoff to the N2 and chat to the security guard who can’t believe that I live in a tent and am cycling to Tanzania. He says I’m crazy. I agree.
Once I get on the N2, the cursed headwinds return and for the next two hours I fight into them, moving about 5 km an hour up and down hills. Eventually, they recede somewhat and I manage to pick up the pace a bit.
After about 30km, I reach a fairly populated area that goes on for miles and has a wide sidewalk away from the street. This makes for an awesome cycle path and I ride along it for hours saying hi to all the locals I pass. They have little stalls selling pineapples and tea which remind me a lot of India but don’t have any cash on me so can’t buy anything.
Eventually, at around 1pm I arrive at a service station just outside Hluhluwe. I stop for lunch and have a nice discussion with a woman who is a tour guide in the area and kindly offers me some good advice about the hilly areas and where to stay in Swaziland. After a burger and coke, I refill my water and head off to do the last 6km to Bahati campsite. This takes me along a fairly bumpy dirt road which isn’t too bad but when I eventually arrive at the campsite, it looks closed. I decide to try continue on to a backpackers I can see on Google Maps called Bushbaby – closer to the centre of town. Unfortunately, after 4 more kilometres of bumpy dirt road, I reach a very deserted, rundown town and a sign for Bushbaby pointing back the way I have come!
Annoyed, I cycle back and ask some guys in a truck if they know where it is. We get into a discussion of my travels and again they can’t believe what I ‘m doing. The one guy even says “you are lying, you could not have cycled from St Lucia”. Haha, it’s not even that far!
Eventually, unable to find Bushbaby I ring the number of Bahati and a women answers. She asks my name and then opens the gate remotely to let me in, describing how to get to the campsite. It must be low season as the entire game reserve and campsite is completely deserted. I cycle past some impala on the way in and then set up my tent and go for a swim in the swimming pool.
For dinner, I try to make spaghetti with a tin of onion and tomato, only to realize that I don’t have a tin opener and have to settle for spaghetti and cup-a-soup. It begins to sound like a storm is coming so I move my tent under a steel cover and spend some time updating my blogs before heading off to bed.
Day 5: Entering Swaziland
I struggle to sleep because I’m camped on a concrete floor under the steel roof, so I awake a bit later than planned at about 4:30am and, after packing up, only get on the road just before six.
I get warmed up along the dirt road out of Hluhluwe and am greeted by local workers as they walk to the game reserves and farms. I reach the N2 fairly quickly and then pick up the pace, enjoying the wide shoulder and lack of headwind for once.
I am passed by the occasional truck and car along this section but otherwise, the traffic is fairly quiet. Eventually, after about two hours of straight roads and minor hills, I reach a slightly more built-up area that has a number of villages along the roadside. To avoid pedestrians walking in the street the council have built a smooth, wide pavement separate from the road that goes on for miles.
Since it isn’t too busy with pedestrians I decide to cycle along this. It gives the advantage of being away from traffic as well as putting me closer to the villages and locals, all of whom wave enthusiastically and shout “hello” or “sawubona” as I pass.
I stop around 10am at a service station in Mkuze and eat a ham and mushroom pizza for breakfast along with a coffee. Then I stock up on water and snacks, since this is the last stop for the next 50km’s or so to Pongola nature reserve where the Swaziland border post is.
After leaving Mkuze, traffic thins out drastically and I sometimes don’t see a vehicle for up to ten minutes at a time. Again the road is straight and long with occasional small hills until I get near to the border. Then it starts to climb steadily and doesn’t let up for a long while. After about an hour climbing I come over a ridge into a mountainous valley with beautiful, twisting roads snaking along the cliffside.
After a brief and thrilling downhill run, I have to climb again for another half an hour or so out of the valley and over the next pass. Fortunately, this is the last one and as I reach the bottom I stop on a bridge to rest and take photos.
It is scorching hot by now but I only have a few kilometres to go until the border so I figure I should get there by 2pm. I don’t account for one final, long climb after the turn off to the border. I’m so hot I can’t make it up the hill so I stop in the shade of a tree and almost finish my water while desperately trying to cool down.
I rest for half an hour before struggling over the last bit of the rise and coasting down into the nature reserve below. I fly over the animal grate and shoot into the park at full speed, noticing a number of impala and kudu skittering away on the roadside.
I arrive quite soon at the border post, which is tiny and deserted, so within minutes I have my passport stamped and leave South Africa. On the way out the security guard is very interested in my trip and chats to me for awhile. At first I think he is suspicious but he turns out to just be curious, tells me I’m crazy, and sends me on my way.
(with acknowledgment to Margaret Mitchell) I’m in a Dan Murphy’s bottle store near Harbour Town in Australia’s Gold Coast region, just south of Brisbane. It’s brightly lit and cavernous, with row after row of wine, beer, spirits and any booze you could want. Tomorrow, I will join legendary New Zealand powerboat racer Jim Harris on his 42-foot catamaran for a two-week trip sailing in Australian along the east coast. How do you stock up on enough booze for two weeks on a boat? In my mind, I imagine there may be many long hours with little else to do but drink. Australia has the answer: Goon. For as little as 10 Aussie dollars (£7.50) you can get five liters of questionable quality wine, all nicely and securely backed into an aluminum sack safely guarded by a cardboard box. It may not be Châteauneuf de Pap, but at least you can use the bag as a flotation device when you’re drowning. Make no mistake – this is no South African ‘papsak’, or American ‘box-wine’, no siree – this is GOON. It’s an Aussie past time, a part of their culture. It may as well be on the friggin’ flag. I buy two, just to be sure. With the goon and I ready to go, I pack my life into a backpack and prepare for the morning departure.
Day 1 We depart around lunch time, pop open a few beers and sail up the waterways that surround Brisbane. On route, we stop at a services marina to get fuel and water. I learn my first bit of sailing skills – tying a knot off on a jetty pier – it’s a simple case of looping the rope under itself so it pulls itself tight. That evening we anchor in a small protected bay, still within the Brisbane waterways, and have the first of many drunken dinners on the boat.
Day 2 I awake early due to my bed being located directly over the generator, which needs to be on almost constantly due to a problem with the batteries. By the time I crawl out of my bed we’re already moving and we have breakfast on the go. Throughout the day we gradually make our way out of the Brisbane shipping channel as massive container ships pass us and eventually break into the open sea in the afternoon.
We need to sail throughout the night for the next few days due to there being nowhere to anchor until Lady Musgrave Island, a few hundred clicks north. This means the two skippers need to take turns sailing through the night and we need to take turns keeping them company.
I opt to do the morning shift, so after dinner and a few glasses of goon, I get an early nights sleep. I awake at 3 am feeling relatively good, considering, and join second-in-command Rodney at the helm. It’s utterly pitch black and we sail by radar only, hoping there is nothing large floating out here in the ocean. I stroll out on deck briefly but the wind is howling and I can’t see a thing – if I were to fall overboard nobody would hear me scream. As 4 am rolls around the sky slowly begins to brighten and I can ever so slightly see shimmering reflections off the waves. The sky morphs from dull yellow into bright orange and red and for the first time, I can see the horizon all around us and no land in sight. We are alone in the ocean and at its mercy – a new experience for me.
Day 3 Rodney heads to bed soon after daybreak and Captain Jim takes over. I make us coffee and begin to prepare breakfast as the rest of the crew stirs. The 4-berth boat has a tiny kitchen that is well equipped – with two gas cookers, a small oven, fridge, and a microwave. There is also a separate freezer to keep meat and other perishables. As we bob from side to side, I try to maintain my balance and successfully whip up some eggs and bacon for everyone. We sail throughout the day, taking turns at the helm, and Jim teaches me a bit about fishing. He keeps two fishing rods permanently cast out the back of the boat and we need to listen for the sound of the reel in case of a catch. Presently, one of the rods start unraveling and Jim calls me to grab it and shows me how to reel it in. As I’m pulling in a small tuna, a shark leaps out the water directly over my line, trying to steal my catch! I manage to pull it in though and get a further lesson in skinning and gutting it. By early afternoon we begin drinking, for lack of any other activity, and by early evening I’m ready for bed. After a quick dinner, I opt to wake at 3 am again and head off to sleep.
Day 4 When I awake this time, Jim is behind the wheel. We have some coffee and he teaches me how to read the instruments and navigate the boat. As before, we sail on blindly into darkness putting our trust in the radar. Just before the sun begins to rise, Jim heads off for much-needed rest and leaves me to navigate alone. Fortunately, the boat has auto-pilot so navigating mostly just means keeping an eye on the controls and the horizon.
Soon after Jim leaves, I hear one of the fishing reels unraveling. The cartridge the line coils around makes a loud whirring noise as a fish yanks it out to sea. With no time to wake Jim, I grab the reel and start cranking the handle like mad, pulling in what feels like a whale. Eventually, I get the fish close enough for a good look – it’s a small tuna. I reel it in anyway and attempt to get the hook out its mouth but just as I do so it flops right out my hands and back into the ocean. The one that got away! A short while later the crew awakens and I regale them with the story of how I lost our dinner, which is met with skepticism at best. We eat breakfast and continue to sail throughout the morning until we reach our first stop of the trip, Lady Musgrave Island.
Lady Musgrave Island is a tiny atoll off the coast of Bundaberg with a large, enclosed coral reef and a small circular island around 1000 metres in circumference. A narrow entrance has been cleared through the coral so that boats can enter and anchor within the reef. We carefully navigate in and find an available buoy to tie up to before lowering the small coastal access boat (called a tender). We all squeeze in and begin chugging off to explore the tiny island.
The island is host to a small diving campsite, a selection of birds and a bizarre amount of sea slugs crawling in and out of the coral. We cross from one end of the island to the campsite in a few minutes and then walk around the circumference back to the boat, exploring a curious lookout point along the way that reminded me of that old HBO show Lost, about the mysterious deserted island.
On returning to the yacht we decide we should set off again and sail through to the Percy Isles where we will anchor for the night. We set off in a northwesterly direction and with autopilot guiding us, settle into a lengthy, boozy lunch. Upon arrival, we dock in a calm, secluded bay just off the Percy Isles and have a relaxing night on the boat.
Day 5 We head around to the main Percy Island in the early morning and dock offshore from the entrance to the lagoon. After breakfast on the boat, we jump in the tender and head to shore. The main island in the Percy Isles features an amazing, decades-old wooden A-frame structure built on the beach which is a popular stopping point for boaties sailing in Australia.
The entire structure is covered inside and out with the names of sailors, their boats and the dates they came to shore – inscribed on whatever bit of driftwood or material that was available at the time. Some of the oldest ones date back as much as 50 years! We explore the A-frame for a few minutes and then begin the two-hour walk inland to visit the 100-year old homestead built high up in the centre of the island by early settlers.
The walk takes us up a relatively steep incline through thick forest before breaking out into a stunning view across to South Percy island. We arrive at the homestead and are greeted by a collection of goats and peacocks. The current occupier welcomes us in and offers us some lemonade which we graciously accept and provide him with a gift in the form of a bottle of wine – something that is, no doubt, hard to come by out here.
After a brief chat about the history of the island, we say our thanks and begin the walk back down along a slightly different route. As we descend, I see a number of small snakes or similar creatures scurry off the path into the bushes. The end of the path takes us to a small inlet that hosts a boathouse and jetty but since its low tide, the entire thing is dry. A few sailboats sit propped-up on the seabed looking like bizarre shipwrecks that somehow didn’t fall over.
Once back I decide to get some exercise and swim back to the boat, which proves to be easier than I expected. I then get a beer and kayak back to the shore to enjoy it in the A-frame before boarding and preparing to head off through the night to our next destination.
We sail through the night again and I join Captain Jim in the early morning as the sun begins to rise. Suddenly the reel starts spinning on one of the fishing rods and I jump up to pull in whatever catch we have. Jim stops the motor so it’s easier to pull in the reel but as a result, the boat begins to turn slightly with the wind. This causes the fishing reel to drift sideways and get caught up in the propellers of the wind generator, which sits high up on a pole at the back of the boat. We watch helplessly as the line coils around the propeller and grinds the entire thing to a halt.
Seeing no other option, Jim climbs up and begins trying to unravel the tangled line while I hang on loosely to the remaining line, the fish having now escaped. While I’m busy pulling in the remaining line to retrieve the tackle, Jim manages to free the tangled line. However, this causes the propeller to spin up again and smash him in the head, inflicting a huge, bloody gash above his eye. He falls on to the deck grasping his head and stumbles off towards the kitchen swearing, but I’m unable to help as I have both hands gripping the remaining line. While frantically trying to get the line reeled in I shout after him to ask if he’s okay but he returns momentarily clutching a wad of tissue paper to his head and swearing like only a sea captain can.
Having sailed once more throughout the night and most of the day, we anchor at lunch time just offshore from another small, uninhabited island. The entire coastline around here is dotted with small islands with varying degrees of habitation, although many are in protected conservation areas and don’t allow any construction. We briefly explore the small beach and I attempt to discover the source of some rustling in the nearby bushes, but to no avail.
The cliffs overlooking the beach appear to be inhabited by some kind of small bird that makes a bizarre sound, almost like a laser gun from an old 90’s computer game. Although we can constantly hear them we never manage to actually see one. Eventually, we retire to the boat for a beer. Since we are anchoring here for the night we can all happily get drunk without anyone having to stay sober to drive.
Day 7 We arrive at Mackay Harbour very early in the morning, before the marina is even open, and have breakfast on the boat while waiting to refuel and get a mooring. Once settled we head out to restock on basic supplies like food and goon. Once in town, I find a Red Rooster with Wi-Fi and get some much-needed work done while eating somewhat dry chicken and chips.
Then we hit the bottle store, stock up on beer, whiskey and wine and head back to the boat. We spend a pleasant night in the marina wining and dining in style on quality fresh goon and the spotted mackerel Jim caught the previous night while he entertains us with tall-tales of his years sailing in Australia.
As soon as the tide is right the next morning, we head out of the marina and set sail north for the Whitsunday islands. We set course for Whitehaven beach, a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. Upon arriving we tender to the shore and take a walk down the beach amongst the throngs of tourists. It feels odd to be around crowds of people again after a week of almost complete solitude on the open ocean.
We then continue on to a small inlet where we moor for the night. Apparently, there is a path over the island that takes us to a beautiful viewpoint of Whitehaven estuary but the tide is so low now that we are unable to get the tender to shore. We decide to try again in the morning and settle in for a night of goon, whiskey and loud power ballads, no doubt annoying the surrounding boaties.
After a rather hungover breakfast and copious amounts of coffee, we splutter to shore in the little boat and begin the hike over the island. It’s quite busy as a few day trippers have arrived in the morning and chosen to do the same. It’s a lovely walk though and the view is totally worth it, the ocean appearing a spectacular aqua colour from the increased vantage point. We take several photos from the various viewing platforms and then head back.
On the way to the boat, Jim spots a friend and they chat about where the best spots for snorkelling are and he tells us about some giant sea turtles he saw that morning in the nearby river that comes into the bay. We head off to explore and although we see the occasional head, the water is a bit too murky by now to get any good photographs underwater.
We reboard the yacht and head off to another small bay where we explore some old aboriginal caves and then watch dolphins swim around the boat after the sun sets.
Today we head off to Airlie to do some shopping and explore the town. We moor in a bay around the headland from Airlie and catch a bus into town while Jim stays aboard with Rodney to do some repairs on the engine. I need to get some work done, so after a rather lame McDonalds lunch, I chill at the famous Magnums pub while the others go shopping for more goon.
Back on the boat, we decide to head to Hamilton Island where Jim’s wife, Carlene (who came up with the fabulous name for this article), is flying in to meet us. We dock in the exceptionally posh harbour and I proceed to stink the place out because I need the toilet and don’t realise the valves underneath the boat are still open. Fortunately, we don’t get evicted, yet, but I feel sorry for any fish in that harbour. Goon does weird things to your digestive system.
That evening we hire golf carts (standard transport apparently) and head up to one of the highest points on Hamilton Island with spectacular 360 views around the entire collection of isles. There is a band playing old pop covers and a bar serving some kind of pink lemonade cocktail. It’s all very congenial in comparison to the time we have spent at sea drinking cheap bourbon and box wine. After a mind-blowing sunset, we head back down to have dinner on the boat and apologize to the goon for cheating on it.
Day 11 After doing some much-needed washing and a spot of shopping, we explore the island a little further before returning the golf carts and preparing to head out again. This time we are on a mission to find some good snorkeling spots and head off to Haselwood Island, which Jim’s friend has recommended.
Unfortunately, the swell on the main reef is very choppy so we have to moor around the corner in a smaller bay and wait for the wind to die. Luckily we manage to find a fairly decent section of reef along the coastline of the bay and got some good snorkeling in there just before the sun begins to set.
The following day we attempt Haselwood bay again but are unable to anchor successfully, so head off to Butterfly bay, which is a popular snorkeling spot. Despite the popularity of it, I find it to be murkier and with less impressive reef than the previous bay. We do manage to spot a few giant sea turtles though before heading back to anchor in the calm waters of the small inlet where we explored the aboriginal caves.
I decide to kayak around another small inlet I had seen earlier to explore for more reefs and discover a beautiful, calm little bay protected from the wind. No reef though but some interesting birds flying about. We enjoy a final, boozy night on the boat, chilling with cockatoos, polishing off the remaining goon and reminiscing on the past two weeks.