We arrived in Zambia by accident and before we had officially crossed the border. Apparently, by crossing the road to spend the last of our Malawian Kwatcha on a cold beer, we had crossed into Zambia. Not that anyone minded – the border official who was also buying a beer laughed and said he’d see us soon.
Once officially stamped into Zambia we had a short ride to Lundazi where we briefly had a stress getting access to money – none of the ATMs took Mastercard (they were all broken) and we didn’t have visa (thanks to a hungry ATM in Malawi). Luckily, we did have US dollars and were able to change them just before the bank shut. Phew. Now there was nothing left to do but go find a Norman castle to call home for the night. Built in 1948 by the British administrator, Lundazi castle is perhaps one of the oddest things in Zambia. The rooms are super old school with no hot water, (but a friendly guy working there brought us more buckets than we needed), mismatched ill fitting furniture and a fair amount of British kitsch. But we certainly enjoyed the novelty of spending the night in a fake Norman castle in southern Africa.
We’d been debating over the last couple of weeks which route we’d take through Zambia. Our options were the main highway via Chipata to South Luangwa National park, then on to Lusaka, or the more adventurous option of small back roads and then onto the Old Petauke Road, a route which was heavily discussed on our whatsapp group due to lion sightings. Predictably, we chose the latter.
And I am so glad we did. What followed were some of the best riding days in Africa so far. Small dirt roads with mostly bike and foot traffic (and not a lot of that), immaculate little villages (sweeping is an African wide obsession it seems), with thatched roofs and smiling kids, and the wildlife! We rode through the Luambe national park where we would round corners and startle elephants who would then try and hide unsuccessfully behind trees (pretty funny watching a giant elephant try and hide behind a tiny tree). There were a myriad of different antelopes, as well as warthogs, and loads of birds. It was truely spectacular riding and fitted in with all the cliché dreams one has of this continent and its magic.
After 3 long days on dirt roads and sleeping at national park posts, we reached the relative tourist hub of Mfewe. Here we shopped for food (and a cold beer) and then headed off to Wilderness Camp, a place that came highly recommended by other touring cyclists on the Luangwa River. On our way into Wilderness camp, which is several kilometres outside Mfuwe, we were held up by a herd of elephants. There were dozens of them eating right next to the road, some with babies. Although we had never experienced aggressive elephants, they are more likely to be protective/aggressive when they have young with them. Luckily, some dudes in a truck rounded the corner and escorted us to the camp. Just another day in Zambia!
At the camp we were told they had no tent spaces available. They must have taken pity on our exhausted and slightly devastated faces, and the fact that we were both covered in red dust, looking rather worn. Very kindly and generously they offered us a safari hut with ensuite for the same price as a camping spot. We were floored and so grateful. It was quite an experience wheeling our bikes through the camp. I feel really uncomfortable writing this, as it’s not at all what we’re about, and to us this life is so normal and we know so many people do this kind of trip. However, walking through that camp I can only describe that it felt maybe a bit like what it feels to be a celebrity. Everyone stared at us. And then everyone wanted to talk to us. We kept getting side tracked with offers of drinks and people wanting to hear our story. It was very flattering and slightly overwhelming. We hadn’t seen so many white people in one place in months, nor had that much attention (other than from children).
Our safari tent was lush. Probably one of the nicest places I’ve stayed and our small balcony overlooked the Luangwa River, complete with hippos. During the night I woke to a ginormous bull elephant eating a tree right outside the tent (it was a solid safari tent and not dangerous at all), I was so excited and a little bit startled and I had to wake Astrid to show her. He was massive! It was an amazing experience.
Our time at Wilderness Camp was slow and easy. We ended up getting two nights in the Safari tent before a campsite became available. In the mornings we drank tea and made use of the camp kitchen, caught up on writing, reading and went swimming in the pool. I never got tired at looking at the river, which was full of hippos (some were pink from sunburn!) and crocodiles, and would turn the most divine silvery colour at sunset. We talked with other travellers and were thoroughly spoiled by several different South Africans who invited us for dinner and sunset drinks.
The major draw card of this area is the South Luangwa National Park. While we had already cycled through some of the park and seen many giraffes, antelope and warthogs, its also one of the most affordable places to do a night safari. So we thought, why not? While it was cool and we did see a leopard, I’m not sure I’m a massive fan of the safari. There were a lot of us being driven around, looking for the same animals. Everyone wants to see a big cat of some sort (which we really didn’t care about that much) and it all felt a bit contrived. This is kind of where cycle travel ruins you for normal tourist experiences! I’d much rather stumble across a heard of giraffe on my bike. Or be drinking coffee as zebra graze nearby. While we might not have spotted all of the ‘big 5’ Astrid and I just found seeing animals incidentally like this much more rewarding.
After our break at Wilderness Camp it was a day and a half ride for us along the last of the Old Petauke road to the main road. This section traversed an area that was known for a lot of wildlife, including lions. It was the bit we’d been most hesitant about, but after enjoying the first section so much, we weren’t about to take the main road now. So off we pedalled, along something that wasn’t much more than a bumpy track at times. Again, we were rewarded with elephants, warthogs, waterbucks, impala and even a herd of buffalo. We passed through a few small villages with heavily fortified animal enclosures, which always alerts us to the fact that predators are around. As we were making good time, we passed through a larger village where we knew we could have stayed as a fellow cyclist had overnighted there. The afternoon wore on and the track got bumpier and rougher, the light began to turn a little, indicating the approaching evening. I began to get a bit nervous. What happens if there wasn’t another village soon?! All kinds of scenarios began to come into my head. I could tell Astrid was thinking the same thing. Surely, there was going to be a village soon?!
The bush began to look ominous and I longed to see a break in the trees that indicated agriculture and a nearby village. Our phone maps weren’t helpful, as villages are often not marked. We had half a fight and began making plans about building something around our tent, and talking about the likely, or non-likelihood of lions. I felt responsible for the decision (although I don’t’ remember why now) and as it turned to evening I really began to panic inside while trying to remain calm on the outside, making a plan to build a big fire to keep the lions away. Then through the trees we spied a field. I felt relief, but only a bit. It looked abandoned and all around us there seemed to just be more bush. I never usually want to see people just before we pull over to camp but tonight I was desperate to see another human. It’s the first and last time I’ve felt like this in Africa, and it was an interesting feeling to observe. I felt fragile and alone, aware of my inability to fight off any kind of predator, wanting to be with my own kind, away from the scariness of the bush and all it holds. Mostly I actually feel the opposite of this.
After what seemed like forever since we’d seen the field, I finally spied a mobile phone tower. I’ve never been so happy to see one of those! They are always in villages. What a relief. We were not going to be eaten by lions after all. Soon we reached the outskirts and some friendly guys (who didn’t seem at all surprised to see us) directed us to the school where the lovely teacher said of course we could camp in the classroom. We were soon setting up and cooking our meal, while the kids peered in at the weirdos, shouting “hello and how are you!” (over and over again) and giggling at the dirty cyclists camped out on their classroom floor.
Our time in more remote Zambia had now drawn to a close as we met up with the great eastern road the following morning. This was the major road into Lusaka, sealed and busy at times. We still enjoyed our cycle into the city over the next four days as we found the countryside quite beautiful, the people friendly and the wind on our side.
Lusaka was a huge reverse cultural shock: first big supermarket since Nairobi and so many shiny malls (which we didn’t really like). We enjoyed the diversity of food – although still no hummus, catching up with some Italian cyclists and doing bike repairs as well as some serious clothes washing. For the first few days we couch surfed with a lovely woman called Sylvia. She gave us an interesting insight into life in Zambia and the hurdles often faced by women. Teenage pregnancy is rife and girls are unlikely in general to even finish high school, which in itself puts them at much greater risks of poverty. Then, if you do finish high school and go on to university and a good job, people still judge you and believe you only got there by sleeping with the boss. Sylvia had herself faced many obstacles, including a crazy long walk to school from a small rural village, which involved river crossings – things we can’t even comprehend. One of the really interesting things about Sylvia was that she was seriously smashing some stereotypes; not only did she live alone, have a master degree, she also was a navigator for rally drivers on weekends and had won loads of trophies. Super cool.
From Lusaka we rode steadily south towards Livingstone and Mosi ao Tunya (Victoria Falls). It wasn’t the most interesting, or pleasant ride south, especially as Astrid became quite ill just before we reached Livingstone. Of course, being super tough, she managed to cycle 100km with a fever before 2pm.
In Livingstone we collapsed into a camp and spent a few days recovering. Because of a severe drought, the Zambian side of the falls weren’t flowing much, so we decided to head over the border to Zimbabwe. Our plan was to spend two days in Zim, before crossing into Botswana. But plans have a funny way of not always working out…
Love Reading your stories. Your bravery or madness rewarded. It’s a chance for me to have a virtual experience and I’m loving it. Hope you are both well
I just found your blog and it´s full of amazing stories! Especially this remote backcountry road seems like a big adventure. You didn´t mention it and it seems unbelieveable but I read somewhere that “many” cyclists take that road, do you think that´s true? Do you think it´s feasible to wait in one of the camp grounds in the beginning to wait for fellow bikers?
Hi! It would really depend. Many is relative! For us it seemed at the time that a few of us were doing that road. But possibly not feasible to wait. There’s a whatsapp group Cairo to Capetown that is a wealth of up to-date information. That’s how we knew someone had done it recently, but it was a few weeks ahead of us..