The final leg south

We rolled across the border in the afternoon and talked ourselves out of cycling further. Instead we made camp at a caravan park within site of the border post. Although we had bade Franz farewell back in Namibia, turned out we needed one more night of hanging out. He rocked up with wine and some story of having to go South Africa to pick up a part for his pump. We settled in for one last night.

And oof, did climbing all the next day hurt with a hangover. We both became a bit teary (not from the hangover) when we saw the sign that stated Cape Town was 678km away. To think about how far we’ve come, well it’s hard to even comprehend. The day was tough going; with a head wind as well as the hangover and climbs, and we were super grateful when i overlander helped us find a very nice local homestay in Steinkopf.

Throughout all of Africa we had heard that hands down, South Africa was going to be our most dangerous country. The violence of the crime here is notorious and we had certainly been told the odd horror story. However, we had also been told that the West Coast would more or less be okay. There was certainly an edginess immediately apparent as we parked our bikes by the supermarket in Steinkopf, but other than a few annoying men asking us for money, everything was fine. Then we met some ladies who were utterly delightful, and it just felt like we were anywhere in Africa.

The big surprise for us in South Africa was that it was actually cold! For the first time in months, we were piling on our jackets and huddling together at highway rest stops, feeling perplexed by the sensation.

Undulations, cold and headwind made the N7 a bit of a slog for the first few days. We felt unsure of camping too, given everything we had been told. It felt hard to get our heads around this new country, and where to place our safety in it. One night we had planned to camp, but due to the wind and end of the day climbing we were still out on the road near dusk, having not found anywhere suitable. A kind couple, Willem and Anne-Marie, rocket up in a ute, piled our bikes in and took us to their home. We were given their grown up kids beds to sleep in, cooked a braai (BBQ) and treated with immense kindness. It was a look into a world we know very little about, with people we perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily converse with, nor have very much in common. Warmth and hospitality however speaks volumes and we were so humbled.

After a few more days on the N7 we were finally able to turn off towards the Atlantic. This also involved a rather intense section into an even more ferocious headwind where it felt like we were never going to get anywhere. However, when we finally glimpsed the Atlantic, it was pretty special. We had now cycled from one side of Africa to the other.

Things got even better when we pushed off into the coastal scrub and camped right by the beach. In the morning we swam naked in the crashing Atlantic as the sun rose and felt so fucking alive. This for me is what life is about.

Atlantic!

From here on in, South Africa really showed her true awesomeness. We were able to meander along roads that were closed to through traffic (private railway access roads) and even splurged on a fancy lunch and wine by the ocean. In a way it felt like we were on holiday, or a long wind down from the road. Most of the challenges traditionally faced when cycling in faraway lands had ceased to exist. Everyone spoke english, the roads were well maintained, water was mostly easy to find, there were shops and pubs and rest stops. Supermarkets were back on the scene in a big way and everything worked and was pretty familiar. This is not really what I look for when I go out on an adventure, but it’s also not a bad thing. We decided to embrace it, and from our fancy lunch cycled to another idyllic seaside village and enjoyed a beer as the sun set.

Aside from rocking up into a town where everything was shut as there had been a riot, our days were pretty uneventful. We always managed to find somewhere safe to sleep, wether it was a campground, or in a courtyard with a peacock watching over us.

And soon it transpired that we were only a day out from Cape Town. It was a straight ride into the city from where we were…Or we could just go check out the cute little micro brewery just over the hill… Enough random people in the cafe we were lunching in (and yes, we are now those kind of cycle tourists) told us enthusiastically that we must go to Darling Brewery. And Neil (remember Neil who we had cycled with in China, Kyrgyztan and Tajikistan?!) had also said it would be an abomination to miss it.

So without a plan, except to drink a few good brews, we turned off the main road and headed into Darling. It was one of those days where I just knew it would all work out. We loved the town and the brewery immediately, and after a pint I mustered up the courage to ask the owner Kev, if we could perhaps bed down on his amazing astro turf (we’d been eying up all the places we could potentially sleep the minute we got there). He said yes. Then Russel and Camila joined our table and after explaining our story we were invited for dinner with everyone and to camp in their backyard (they offered inside, but we wanted one more night in our faithful tent Meredith).

A perfect last night

We could not have had better last night. Our new friend’s were the most delightful and engaging of soul’s and we had the most wonderful night. A true gem right at the end of our epic journey, and so beautifully telling and typical of how life on the road has treated us.

I hardly slept that last night, waking excited before dawn. Today we would finish our pedal through Africa. The weight of the continent that we had cycled thus far lay behind us. All those sunsets, sunrises, bush huts, laughing kids, kindness, amazing fauna and prickly flora, the mountains, deserts, cities and the African sky. It was all now really about to start drawing to a close. Not only was this the end of our Africa pedal, we were one step closer to being back on Australian soil. To being home. Whatever that meant.

Another thing that had woken me, was the wind. And it was not in our favour. We left as early as we could, having just met all these lovely people, we kind of just wanted to stay and chat. However, the road really was calling us. Neil would be waiting in a bar for us on the waterfront at 2pm. And we wanted to be there.

At first we made good time, undulating through farmland back to main road. Our first glimpse of Table Mountain made our morning. This was happening. Once back on the highway, and especially when we began following the bike path into Cape Town along the water, the wind began smashing us. As we pedalled closer, we could see Table Mountain, and even the city, but it never seemed to get any closer. The coast taunted us as we had a perfect view of how far we still had to go. Our time to meet Neil came and went. We pedalled on in frustration. Finally, after several hours of battling the wind, we were enough in the city to be somewhat sheltered. It became easier. Then with 4km to go, the Dirty Salmon thought she’d have one last laugh with a flat tyre. We were so tired and so close to having cycled from Cairo to Cape Town that we could only laugh. Flat fixed, I had one more opportunity to take us the long way around, which I did. But then, we were finally pedalling and pushing through the crowds on the water front towards that iconic table mountain sign. The one where we had seen the likes of Craig and Clo and Tristan post their photos only a few short weeks before us.

And there was Neil! Our brother from long ago China, with whom we had shared so many miles and so many months. After leaving us, way back at Vero’s In Dushanbe, Neil had cycled through Iran and Turkey before heading south to Africa. He had cycled all the way back to his home and had been waiting for us ever since. Well, not quite, but we were bloody happy to see teabitch in the flesh once more. Hugs ensued. Followed by the obligatory photo on the sign, on which strangely was placed a tub of hummus.. And then Israa jumped out from behind, with a sign and a huge grin on her face. She’s been trying to lure us hippies with the hummus. Much hugging and happiness. Followed by beer. I felt elated and it also felt surreal. Big moments take some time to sink in, to form into a a reality.

After a few brews on the waterfront, we all piled into Neil’s car and drove to his parent’s house. They had kindly offered to host us as Neil and his partner had just had a baby and there wasn’t quite enough room for two festy cycle tourists. Neil’s parents, Karen and Dave, were absolutely delightful and we were so spoiled. Not only that night but for the many days we spent with them.

We spent the evening eating delicious food, drinking wine and reminiscing with Neil. It didn’t quite feel real that we had finished, that we were indeed in Cape Town.

After a good nights sleep it was time to explore. Cape Town is an absolutely gorgeous city and we were keen to get in amongst it. Plus we had more than a few friends to catch up with. The next week or so was a whirlwind of socialising and exploring. We hiked up Table Mountain (twice), picnicked in the botanical gardens with our friend Christine from the long ago Camino, and gorged on food we hadn’t seen for months (felafel for one). Neil took us to a secret local spot and we drank beer in a cave, watching the sunset and the stunning coastline. Miranda and Garth who we had met in Zambia utterly spoiled us with food, wine, hikes and penguins. The guys from Drifter Brewery who we had met in Botswana welcomed us with open arms and we drank their brews overlooking table mountain and talked and laughed and then went to a psych trans party. One day Christine took us out to Stellenbosch and we marvelled at the beautiful vineyards and the utterly perfect Spring day. Linda and Neil, who had gifted us the wine in Namibia happened to live around the corner from Dave and Karen, and we went there for dinner too. We had some bike maintenance done and tried to spend as much time with Israa as well. From all sides people showered us with kindness and hospitality and we were so grateful and humbled.

Picnic time in the botanical gardens
So epic
cheesy photo
Climbing up
Cave beer
On the top
Street art
Many were sampled..
Wine farm
So delicious
A wine farm around Stellenbosch

Time went rapidly and it was soon time to pack our bikes into boxes, ready for the Shosholoza Meyl train to Johannesburg. This train would allow us to see vast areas of South Africa on our second favourite mode of transport. As all flights out of Cape Town go via Jo’burg anyway, this was the perfect solution to avoiding a flight and we had one more friend to visit. Fanus, who we had met on the banks of the Mekong in Laos back in 2013. He had kept in touch the whole time with an open invitation to come visit. So visit we did.

Dave dropped us and our packed bikes (not to be unpacked again until Adelaide) at the station and the next leg of our journey began. Of course we had to argue our bikes onto the train, despite having read all terms and conditions and thus knowing we were allowed to bring them. There’s almost always a hassle, but we were used to this kind of thing by now, and once we’d talked to the manager our bikes were put on the train without further drama. We then went off to find our carriage, which was awesome. Naturally we’d taken a cheap option, but we still had our own beds and little carriage. It was all my train fantasies coming true. What was even more amazing was that Kev, the owner of Darling Brewery, had dropped off an esky full of beers for us to drink on the train. South Africans really do take generosity to the next level. It was time to settle in and enjoy the journey. And enjoy we did. We napped, read, chatted, drank beers and stared out at the wild expanse of the Karoo. It is indeed a beautiful country.

Our train got into Johannesburg 5 hours late but we didn’t care. This is Africa after all. Fanus was there to meet us and we had a joyful reunion. Then it was off to meet his family. We felt very welcome and had a wonderful last few days, which included exploring Soweto, the Apartheid museum, a water park, the cradle of civilisation museum and a few of Fanus’s other favourite spots.

And just like that our time in South Africa drew to a close. We both had truly enjoyed our time, it had in many way been the perfect wind down with socialising, friends and familiarity. South Africa has many similarities to Australia which is in equal parts disturbing as it is comforting. Both countries have brutal colonial histories (as do most on the African continent) with a deep inequality and trauma running throughout. It is perhaps more overt in South Africa and thus more unsettling. There is an underlying energy that felt to us unnerving at times. The constant vigilance surrounding safety is exhausting, as is the visual evidence of poverty and inequality on the landscape. Being wooshed around in a 4WD, protected and shielded from the outside, felt unnatural. Yet it is unfair of me to be too harsh on South Africa, considering where we come from. Our own colonial history is a bloodbath of barely acknowledged massacres and frontier wars.

I loved the beauty and the people of South Africa. It is the place that brought up a lot of feelings and thoughts, which is good. You can’t forget your privilege there and it is something that we should examine constantly. And that’s the thing, while there is a lot of inequity and shit stuff going on, there is also a lot of hope. So many of our friends and people we met are doing amazing things. As one friend said: it’s about recognising your privilege and being part of the solution.

The end of South Africa also meant the completion of 10 months on the African continent. We have both fallen in love with Africa, and will be back. It is a diverse, beautiful and incredible place. More hopeful and complex than most people who have never visited seem to believe, and Africans are some of the kindest and humblest people we have ever met. On the whole we have felt incredibly safe and welcomed and have had a blast. From the drinking tea on the side of the road with the habibis in Egypt, to sleeping by pyramids in the Sudan, waking to zebras outside our tent in Kenya, to munching fresh pineapple on the side of the road in Tanzania, climbing high into the hills in Malawi, sleeping in a school in Zambia, laughing with new friends in Zimbabwe to the elephant highway in Botswana, apple cake in Namibia and hikes up Table Mountain. Africa really has given us so much and one day we will return.

A tough cycle through the desolate beauty of Namibia

Namibia is a vast country of harsh beauty, desert, mountains, heat, and a wild coast littered with skeletons (of whales and ships, but mainly whales). Human habitation dates back far into prehistory, colonisation came in the form of Germany (trying to get into the empire game?) and with it the horrors of genocide. After the defeat of Germany in world war one, it fell into South African hands and thus lived through the dark days of apartheid. In 1990 it became an independent nation and what exists now appeared to us rather eclectic.

Out of all the counties in Africa I have been to, it is Namibia that felt both the most familiar, and the most confusing. Because it felt a little like both the cultural identities I have grown up with. And it is also clearly, very much Africa; the people were as kind, hospitable and welcoming as they had been all over the continent, maize was the staple, the wildlife as wonderful as ever.

However, it was also the strangest mix of Germany and Australia I have ever encountered. It looks and feels like the outback; the open skies, kilometres of nothingness, large cattle stations with kind but tough farmers, the peculiar villages which appear to have a similar socio-economic and substance abuse issues as back home, and even the road houses and pubs felt like they’d been pulled from northern Australia somewhere.

Then there was the rather peculiar German aspect, which you catch sight of every now and then; an older lady chatting in German in a deli which mirrors any deli I’ve ever been to in Germany, local ladies dressed in traditional 19th century German attire (I told you it was weird!) and German brew pubs.

In Namibia we felt so comfortable. The kind of comfort one gets when you know at the end of the day there is really nobody around. Not everyone finds space a comfort, but I do. I like nothing more than a starlit sky, a campfire and the feeling that no other human is nearby. And we had so much of that. Many of our friends talked of the endless fencing of Namibia and it’s true; most of the country is fenced, strangely. They spoke of having to lift their bikes over at the end of each day and push out into the bush or desert, away from the road. We did this the first night, but found it so cumbersome we never did it again. Nor did we cook on our stove. Most nights we lit a fire, and often we didn’t even pitch the tent. Our days ended by simply rolling our bikes off the road. We still made an attempt to hide; a depression, a dry river, perhaps behind a bush. But in reality, in the 12 plus hours we would inhabit the space, perhaps 3 cars would pass us. And from years on the road, we knew most people weren’t serial killer-robbers.

Two days from the border we had a delightful stay in Windhoek where Charis and Dieter took great care of us, and to our delight we also caught up with Richie again. He’d decided to return to Namibia to figure out where he wanted to go next. It was a great crew and we even managed a magical camping trip the the beautiful Spitzekoppe.

Spitzkoppe
Also felt so Australian in a way
Magnificent in all lights
Exploring
Moonrise
Sunset
coming down from our sunrise spot
sunrise
It’s so hot during the day, this is the answer
Ostrich comes to say hi

Namibia then became a test of resilience for Astrid and I. Not since long ago out back Australia had we ridden such tough roads, in such harsh conditions. It began easy enough, while almost all roads in Namibia outside of towns are unsealed, they were at least at first in good condition. Then however, things got harder.

Warning giraffes! Not sure where. We never saw any in all of Namibia.

The road deteriorated to where it was a constant zig zag to find a rideable section. Our daily average plummeted, sometimes as low as 4km an hour. At one point our tent bounced off the back of my bike and I didn’t notice until 5km later. I nearly had a melt down (well, I kind of did have a melt down) but I was saved when after only 1km of back tracking I waved down some Germans who said they had seen it and kindly went back and retrieved our home.

Resting

The road kept getting worse and it kept getting hotter. And the tourists often sprayed us with dust as they passed too fast in their hire 4×4’s. One day, just when I’d really had enough, my inner tube rapidly deflated. Pissed, I stopped to change it, Astrid already too far in front to notice my absence. Changing a tube in the blustering heat of the mid-day Namibian sun is no fun at all. This was made worse when once fixed, 20 metres down the road it happened again. I was so mad I wanted to scream. I probably did, as I was completely alone. Turns out the stem of the inner tube had been severed. This is usually not repairable.

In the end I hitch hiked with some Germans (always) to our destination, a very glamorous petrol station. Like Australian outback camping, Namibians charge a ludicrous amount of money for a piece of dirt. Luckily, as cyclists there was a loop hole. They let us camp for a fraction of the price on some dirt behind the petrol station. And we still had access to the pool and showers.

Petrol station home of luxury

We were now in a dire situation with only one spare tube between us and two of mine severed at the stem. And more than 400km of rough roads ahead of us. I needed to fix one of my broken tubes and take Astrid’s only spare in order for us to keep going. We tried desperately to get a spare from Windhoek, but had no luck. So like any modern nomad, I turned to u tube. With a bit super glue, determination and u tube inspiration I managed to super glue the stem together and then put a small hole in a patch and shimmy it over the stem to secure it. It held for another 200km.

Crisis averted. So now it was time to actually appreciate the beautiful Sossusvlei, a salt and clay pan surrounded by immense dunes. We’d taken up residence as the Sesriem petrol station so that we could experience the magical beauty of this area . So we hitched hiked in with some friendly Germans and had an amazing morning exploring this alien and super unique landscape.

Unfortunately, I also had a really high fever that left me shivering and freezing in the hot desert sun. On return to Sesriem I lay in a miserable heap, trying to sleep and somehow muster the energy to cycle. We needed to leave as we had been evicted from the petrol station. I felt truly awful and had no idea how I would possibly pedal 1 km, let alone the several hundred we needed to cover. It’s these times on the road that you feel the most vulnerable. We had nowhere really to go. The idea of spending days lying in a tent, especially when the midday heat hit well into the 30’s was not appealing. Nor could we afford the nearby hotel, which was some kind of fancy resort. I suppose we could have hitch hiked, there’s always a way in Africa, but it would have been cumbersome and unpleasant and we still wouldn’t really have known where to go. Instead I decided to take my chances with our last antibiotics. Not something I recommend! However, it was either going to work, or not.

Chapped lips and sun burn

Luckily, either the antibiotics began working, or the fever passed. For I woke the next day (we cycled a few kilometres and camped with a French family who had met Clo) weak but afebrile. We also woke to a howling, cold head/cross wind.

Crazy morning wind

Namibia had already been getting tough. Now it upped its game. The wind blew sand in our faces. The road was so bad we were constantly weaving from one side to the other, sometimes stopping dead in the soft sand. My neck ached all day from the concentration it took to steer the green fairy, and the kilometres inched by. Everyday we said to each other: tomorrow will be better.

But it wasn’t.

Days began before sunrise, where the joy of a breakfast fire was the only thing that got me out of bed. We’d eat and drink coffee, already weary. Once on the bikes it would be hours of terrible roads, sheltering behind trees, or fences to eat, the only time that we’d escape the wind. By midday it was hot. Really hot. And our bikes were heavy with the extra kilos of water we had to carry. We had to push until dark just to get within the ball park of the kilometres we wanted to achieve. Everyday we re-calculated, slipping further and further behind where we wanted to be.

It was tough and a little soul sucking. Our resilience was certainly tested and neither the road, nor the wind improved. This was compounded by the fact that Namibia was challenging anyway; big distances, heat and like outback Australia, very little services. We carried days worth of food and often up to 15L of water each.

However, because cycle touring is a microcosm of life we knew eventually it would get better, and it did. It happened at a rest stop where we had planned to camp the previous night. But due to the wind we’d had to stop 15km out. So we arrived early morning, probably looking rather grim. The kind owner immediately welcomed us warmly and then proceeded to offer us a free hot shower. What a legend. His small shop was the first time we’d been able to resupply in days, so we happily bought a heap of food, including fresh bread. They were kind enough to let us cook up our second breakfast (washed down with ice cream) and then just as we were leaving we met a very kind South African couple who gave us a very nice bottle of red.

After this lovely exchange, our souls felt lighter. The wind was still howling however, and in fact a storm blew up which made everything even more insane and wild. But our fortunes began to turn because after some lunch at a turn off (with some lovely goats for company) the road turned, meaning the wind was now more or less behind us. AND the grader had been through. After so long inching along, we were now flying. It felt amazing.

That night we found the most perfect sheltered spot, lit a fire and shared the fancy bottle of wine while watching the sun set. Life was perfect. It is these quiet moments I will forever treasure. I don’t think life can get much better.

When life is kind of perfect

The road continued to be kind. One day while refilling water at a large fancy resort near fish river canyon, we were invited to partake in the buffet breakfast in exchange for an interview. Then we managed to hitch hike into fish river canyon, saving us many kilometres. Fish River Canyon was immensely impressive, if a little drought ravaged.

We had somehow managed to make up the kilometres we had lost and as we approached the border with South Africa. From Fish River Canyon we had climbed all afternoon, making camp in a dry river bed, surrounded by rocky mountains. In the morning we finished the climb and then descended, mountain zebra and oryx, running alongside us in the golden morning sunshine. A moment of pure magic.

The next moment of magic came, after weeks of reds and browns, dust and heat, we spotted the green slither of the Orange River. This marked the border with South Africa and the end of Namibia for us.

Astrid’s chain busted on the last full day in Namibia.

Well, almost.

We still needed to ride to the border post, a further 50km or so along the river. The first stop on the river was Aussenkehr where we came face to face with crazy inequality. We’d been somewhat sheltered from this, given that Namibia is so devoid of humans. A dusty shanty town with no sanitation sat alongside rich green vineyards and a Spar supermarket. Those in the settlement looked like they were the labour for the vineyards. We stocked up on food and decided to continue on, to try and reach Felix Unite, a camp on the river many Namibians had recommended.

With 80km already in our legs we still felt confident in making it another 30km. Unfortunately our tailwind turned into a headwind and everything became epically hard. Namibia wasn’t quite ready for us to have it easy. After all we had come through, it kind of seemed fitting. We did make though, just after sunset, utterly spent.

Felix Unite was as lovely as everyone had said. We lad a lazy rest day, swam, ate, made friends and then somehow sunset whisky turned into some kind of party with a German guy and a South African who lived in Namibia. I remember falling asleep to them both speaking in Spanish. One never knows how the day will end up.

Or what will happen next. Turns out, the South African guy owned a farm 100km up the Orange River and invited us to come stay. With a few days left on our visa, we thought; why not?

So the bikes and us jumped into Franz’s buckie and we drove 100km out into the middle of nowhere. His farm really is surrounded by no other humans. I think his closest neighbour is 50km away. It’s right on the Orange River, and I really got to appreciate the life giving force of water. Everything around Franz’s farm is dry, except for his orchard of dates and limes and pecans. In a way he was practicing permaculture, without knowing it. Growing different plants together, trying to harvest and store water, and rather than having one kind of animal, he has several, in small numbers.

Our days with Franz were full of laughter and fun. We went paddle boarding and kayaking on the river, cooked bread on a fire, made tortilla’s from pap (Franz had once lived in Mexico), swam, read, napped, slept under the stars, chased pigs back into the paddock they escaped from, drank whiskey and watched the sunset over the Orange River. It truly was a marvellous end to Namibia. Our souls felt restored and refreshed, ready for our final country on the African continent.

Partying with Elephants

Our cycle through Botswana

By reaching Botswana we had well and truly hit the tourist trail of southern Africa. From now on we would find well stocked supermarkets, fancy campsites and 4X4’s filled with tourists. It was a far cry from the mountain tracks of Ethiopia, or the highlands of Tanzania. Hummus still eluded us though.

However, the adventure was far from over. The distances in Botswana are large. And there are elephants. A lot of them. Which is kind of why we were there. The elephant highway is a stretch of road running approximately from Kasane to Nata and had been something we’d been looking forward to ever since we’d first heard the magical words “elephant highway’. I love elephants. A lot. The idea of seeing many of them filled me with great excitement. Riding the elephant highway does of course come with risks, however it also comes with cell phone towers. These said cell phone towers are fenced and guarded ( I am not exactly sure why they are guarded, but presumably people have tried to steal materials). The men whose job it is to guard these places are used to scruffy, dirty cyclists turning up and sleeping within the safety of the fences (there are also lions).

Elephant Highway! With Ann and Clo’s sticker.
Onward towards Elephant
onwards

So we had a plan. Firstly though, we needed to go on a safari. Chobe National Park is one of the cheapest and best places to go on a river safari. We picked the most affordable company, which was awesome as it was us, a german family and locals on holiday. Astrid and I (in river safari style) cracked a beer and prepared to watch animals. It felt so different to the way we usually experience wildlife. It turned out to be as magical as we had hoped though. Elephants, hippos, crocs, many kinds of antelopes, birds.. Our cheap mobile phone photos don’t do it justice, but probably no photo really would.

Bird
Antelope
Chobe river
elephants!
hippos munching
boat happiness

We had the added adventure of having to cycle back to our campsite just after dusk, when elephants like to walk about. The kind people from the safari company drove behind us slowly to make sure an elephant didn’t walk across our path (we certainly saw them lurking in the shadows by the road!).

The following morning, after stocking up we finally headed out onto the long awaited elephant highway. It did not disappoint; we rode along a lightly trafficked highway, along side the African bush in which we saw many an elephant. Sometimes munching on trees in family groups, other times meandering across the highway liked they owned the place (they do!).

Ready!
Here we come!
Add here they are..
meandering across the road
Rest time
A service station offers a safe place to sleep
Picnic tables!
A beer at elephant sands (is all we could afford)
Worth this view
Hanging out
Yep, the elephant posing shot

At night we slept safely in cell phone towers (which we occasionally climbed) and watched stunning sunsets. It was warm, dusty and perfect. By the time we reached Nata to restock and head towards Maun, we were very much delighted with our experience.

Cell tower safety
Another day, another tower
Climbing up
The view
The VIEW
Beautiful
Ready for another day

Since there had been no rest days since we crossed the border and long days thereafter, we looked forward to a rest at Gweta Lodge about 2 days out from Maun where we would meet the others for the festival. Gweta was managed by James who both Ann, Clo, Craig and Tristan had said we must meet.

‘Cos Giant Anteaters eaters need to be climbed

What can I say I about James? He is a whirlwind of energy, fun and kindness. We were so well looked after, and had such a blast with him. In true Jude and Astrid fashion we had such fun that we stayed an extra two nights. Although rest we did not.

James took us out to build a fire and drink beer in the middle of nowhere on the first night and we stared up at the amazing starlit skies. Followed by 2 am hectic ramen making. Then he took us out to the Makgadikgadi salt pans, which we would never have seen on our bikes. That was epically magical. There was much crazy driving around, drinking beverages of an alcoholic nature and some kind of random sushi making. It was one of those experiences where you just go with the flow, laughing and enjoying each moment.

Afterwards, 100km down the road, back in the quiet bush with only the shifting of the wind and the odd night creature making noise, we kind of looked at each other and wondered what had just happened. It’s these incredibly heartfelt and joyous (with a tinge of madness) encounters with humans that really add to the fabric of a trip like this. I think for years to come we’ll be chuckling and saying ‘remember that time in Botswana with James where we made hectic 2am ramen?”

The quiet was not to last. Soon we rolled into Maun, one of the larger towns in Botswana and the jumping off point for the Okavango Delta, and for us, the Okavango Delta Music Festival. It was also the place where we were reunited with Israa, having last crossed paths in Lalibela, Ethiopia. In the meantime Israa had been on a safari where she had met Richie, and Richie in turn had convinced several other people to come and join us all at the festival. So by the time we rolled into Old Bridge where we were all staying it was a whole crew of us heading out to the festival the next day.

Sunset in the bush

We barely had time to appreciate the hippos lounging right by the camp (unfortunately, due to the drought, there was barely any water in the river and the hippos and crocs were confined to an awkward co-existence in not much more than a pond) before we were back out on the road towards the festival.

Lucky for us, Richie’s friend’s Charis and Dieter offered to give us and the bikes a lift. The festival director had assured us we could cycle out there. She had no idea. It was 20km of deep sand that would have taken us two days of pushing probably.

After not two days, but quite a lot of four wheel driving, we arrived in the dry and dusty Okavango Delta. We should have been surrounded by water. Last years festival goers spoke of the magic of the water. However, this year was a drought, so water there was not.

Still, we were in high spirits. It was a festival after all. In Botswana. We made camp with Charis, her dad and his friend Dave. There was also Richie, Israa, as well a few Belgium’s, Brits and Israeli’s. Did I mention Richie is a bit of a social epicentre?!

Those of us who had signed up to volunteer headed to find the organiser to find out what we needed to do. What followed were 2 rather chaotic days. There was a lot to do. Astrid and I mainly helped the wonderful Tumie, who was in charge of decorations. We climbed trees, balanced on ladders and untangled endless flags. We helped wherever we could and it was exhausting but satisfying. I think I speak for both of us when I say we both felt like we got so much out of volunteering and that it felt a lot richer than just turning up with a ticket.

Unfortunately the festival was plagued by issues. Firstly, the generator stopped working on the first night which obviously meant no music or lights. Another one had to be organised to come from Gaborone, and that one also struggled by the end. Then there was the festival organiser. She was a big employer in town and thus wielded a lot of power and we observed some pretty severe double standards in how she treated us, and how she treated her local staff. Not to mention, how the community on whose land we were on, were potentially exploited. We all observed it and we all felt it, and by the end of the festival we were all pretty devastated. Racism and division were rife, barely disguised under a thin veneer of ‘nice’.

Trust us, we’re volunteers

Before these double standards and colonial attitudes became so blatant we did manage to have fun. The music (when the generator worked) was grand, we danced, laughed and made friends with the guys who ran Drifter brewery. At one point a giant creature followed Astrid back from the toilet. We had a good crew and made our own fun and there were definitely moments of pure hedonistic merriment.

On the last day, the festival really began to unravel. The generator had some serious issues and many of the artists left, before playing their set. It was left up to a bunch of south African DJ’s to try and save the night, and they did for a time. The festival organiser tellingly was no where to be seen. It made me sad and angry that when things got difficult, she just pissed off to her chateau. Astrid and I had really wanted to love this festival. Sadly, we were pretty out of love with the whole thing by the time we left.

However, what does one do when the festival falls apart around you? Go grab a huge keg of beer and make your own party around a huge fire with a bunch of randoms, including a rather eccentric south African drug dealer, a Namibian who lives in an eco fort, and some brewers from Cape Town. I think I crawled into my tent as dawn began to creep over the delta.

Because this was the festival the keeps on giving (in the worst way) the following morning, after helping Tumie clean up as much as we could, a bunch of us all found ourselves stranded in the delta. The transport guys were doing the best they could, but it’s a long, hard road out, and there simply wasn’t enough room on the few pick ups and mini vans that did turn up. Sitting around with the other volunteers and local staff hoping that someone would turn up to give us a lift out, we really got to hear the stories about how they had been treated by the festival organiser and it left us feeling even more upset and angry. We all felt a bit helpless. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is, when it isn’t your community and you don’t really know what ramifications your actions will have. In the end I did write a scathing review, but tellingly, it got deleted.

Post festival fatigue and craziness

After hours of waiting, we all finally managed to hitch a ride out. Of course the ute ran out of oil and overheated, but with 5km to the tarmac, Astrid and I took our chances, bade our fellow volunteers farewell and went it alone. It was a slightly exhausting ride/push to the main road and then a further 10km out to Old Bridge. We just missed Richie and the isreali’s who had come to look for us.

It was the usual end of festival vibe at old bridge; a lot of clothes washing, body washing and taking stock over a few quiet beers. I was exhausted and crawled into bed to the sound of hippos (who were still uneasily living with the crocodiles) and laughter from my fellow festival goers.

It’s still awkward

Astrid and I took a day off the next day, while our friends slowly left one-by-one; towards Zambia, Namibia and South Africa. It’s always a little sobering, we had certainly cemented our friendship with Israa and Richie, and had no idea when we would see them again.

So now we only had a few hundred km to go reach Namibia, with our next destination being Windhoek (a few hundred kms after that), where Charis had invited us to stay.

It was smooth flat riding through the African savannah with the wind at our backs. After the joy of so much socialising, it did also feel so lovely to go back to our more simple life; pedal, eat, pedal, eat, pedal, find a camp spot, build a fire, cook, eat, stare at the stars, sleep. I had missed the simplicity.

Back to simplicity and quiet

We did run into a peacecorp volunteer (one always eventually does!) who invited us to stay, so we spent a lovely evening eating pasta and playing scrabble. Aside from that it was a quiet ride to the border and before too long we were saying goodbye to Botswana and heading into our second last country in Africa.

Onwards

The friends you make in Zimbabwe..

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Zimbabwe!

When people think about Zimbabwe they often think about the failing economy, political violence, forced acquisition of white farms and Robert Mugabe. South Africans will go all dreamy eyed as they recall childhoods spent in Zimbabwe on holiday, describing its beauty and incredible infrastructure. While I won’t pretend to have nuanced and detailed information on the ins and outs of the particular issues Zimbabwe faces, what however seems clear, is that under Robert Mugabe’s leadership there has sadly been a decline in living standards, GDP, and an increase in political violence.

When we entered Zimbabwe their economy was barely functioning; it was very difficult to get Zimbabwean Bonds and US dollars had stopped being officially accepted. The value of the Bond appeared to drop daily. We could pay with credit card at the supermarket (when the machine was working) but this stopped us from spending our money at the more local shops, which was a shame.  There were also huge (day long) queues for fuel and frequent 8 hour power cuts. And we were probably quite sheltered from the real harsh reality as we were only in Victoria Falls, probably the most touristy part of Zimbabwe.

However, even though the economy is in tatters, and people are hurting, the Zimbabweans we met were incredibly kind and warm hearted. It is definitely a country I would love to spend more time in in the future and one that many of our fellow cycle travellers speak of highly as well.

Our time in Zimbabwe didn’t exactly turn out how we had planned. After settling into the hostel, we decided to see the falls the following day at sunrise, which had been recommended by a local. So there was nothing left to do but go to the first microbrewery we’d found on the continent. It was so exciting to delve into some deliciously hoppy beers. Finally.

As planned, we got up before dawn and pedalled the 5kms to the falls. We were the first ones there and the guards kindly let us in a few minutes before it officially opened.

What can I say, Mosi-o-Tunya is an incredible feat of nature. Even in this drought ravaged year, it was impressive. You hear them well before you see them. The roar is incredible. As is the fine mist that creates a micro climate, and depending on which way the wind is blowing, can soak you. Being there are sunrise was magical, and while we weren’t quite alone, there were not too many people about. We had packed a picnic and enjoyed breakfast with a rather incredible view.

Afterwards we rode back to the hostel along the river and sighted a huge elephant. Just another day on this incredible continent.

Back at the hostel we had a the good fortune to run into a guy called Richard. Richie had just arrived in Vic Falls after a long trek from Mozambique after attending Mozamboogy, an electronic festival held on the beach. He said he was travelling around Africa volunteering and going to festivals after having completed a semester at the university of Stellenbosch. This all immediately peeked my interest. We all began chatting. Turns out Richie was heading to a music festival in Botswana next.

A few hours later I had secured Astrid and I a spot volunteering at said festival. Sometimes you simply meet the right people at the right time and need to just run with it. We were going to a FESTIVAL!!! I decided to let Israa know, the girl we’d met on the ferry coming into Sudan and had last run into in Ethiopia. We’d been in on and off contact for the last few months. Not much later Israa also had a spot volunteering. Whoo hooo! I have definitely missed partying, and Botswana was not the place I had envisioned doing it, making it all the more exciting. Richie also already knew a bunch of people going who he’d met while couch surfing in Namibia.

Astrid and I were soon to learn that Richie is an epicentre of social connections, fun and loveliness. By the time we all made it to the festival a few weeks later, he was responsible for about 15 people having decided to come along.

But I digress. So we were now in Zim with a whole new and marvellous plan. It also meant we had more time ( and less, later on). So we decided to stay one more night. 

And this is kind of how it went for the next 5 days. There was always a reason to stay. Firstly, Richie introduced us to his friend Selma who he had partied with in Mozambique. Selma was super cool and had been hitch hiking all over southern Africa. As she had already been to Vic Falls, she knew her way around. So one day we took a hike right down to the river to drink a beer and enjoy the beauty. Another day we went shopping at the local flea market for festival outfits.  And then there was the fact of the pool, long lazy afternoons and fabulous company.

In the evenings we’d often cook together and drink whiskey, which was absurdly cheap. One evening I had a crazy night out at the local bar with Selma and rode home by moonlight at 2am, looking for elephants hiding in the shadows. Another night we made Mexican. Oh and there was the matter of Ann Jangle.

Ann is a South African musician who was traveling north to play at the Kilifi New Year’s festival in Kenya. She’d met up with Craig, Clo and Tristan in Botswana and they’d told us we must meet Ann. Our plan had been to meet her in Bots, but the longer we stayed in Zim, the more complicated our meeting up location became. So in the end we figured why not stay and wait for Ann. So we did.

Ann is amazing. Such a vivacious and fun human, we immediately connected and had another reason to stay. It felt like we had met a kindred spirit; another adventurous cycling woman full of stories and laughter, in a world that is often dominated by men. So we spent a few more days, just hanging out, laughing, exploring and enjoying each others company. It had been a while since Astrid and I had been around people our own age and it was so nice to have these more social days.

Eventually, we did however have to leave. While it was sad, we knew we would at least be seeing Richie again in a few weeks. And there was no way that our path wouldn’t cross with Ann’s again one day.

So we left and cycled the last 70km to the border with Botswana, seeing elephants and giraffes on the way. As you do.

What an incredible unexpected joy Zimbabwe had turned out to be.

Huge elephant sees cycle tourist and hides behind a tree

sdrWe 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.

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Lundazi

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.

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Lundazi Castle

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Our castle room

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Stove maintenance in the castle

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.

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It’s for roads like this I cycle tour!

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Forest camp before big animals became an issue

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Huts along the road

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A school

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That light!

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And some more of it

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I imagine not many foreigners get to see these parts if rural Africa

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Riding through a typical rural Zambian village

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One of our favourite parks

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Looking at the Luangwa River and the hippos

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Hippos chilling out

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A big elephant

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A big elephant is scared of us and leaves

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Always on the look out for animals

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The national park gate is a safe place to call home for the night

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Sunset behind the rangers huts

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I love the sky and this tree

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Another small and delightful backroad

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so many shades of gold

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Quick lunch stop – bread and peanut butter is standard

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It is so dry

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They do indeed!

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Huge boabab

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The dry and dusty landscape indicative of the drought

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Zebra watch us

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Giraffes meander by

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!

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Filthy but happy

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Had to stop in here!

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).

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Elephant family

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Wildlife camp

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.

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Our safari tent. Luxury!

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.

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The bar and pool area

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It was hard to leave

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Luangwa River

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Not sure if things get much better than this..

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?!

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I just love this

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.

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Back into the wilderness – of sorts

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Just us and the bush

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The light is fading and we’re not sure where the next village will be

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.

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Safe in the classroom

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.

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Looking out onto the hills

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The great eastern road

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Camping at the police post not far out of Lusaka

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Another day, another sleep at a police post

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Beers on reaching Lusaka

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.

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The road south

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Searching for a camp

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Such amazing colours at the end of the day

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A typical camp for us in the bush

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Small roads are good for hiding

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…

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on the road to Zimbabwe

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Boabab magic

The dusty and magical backroads of Malawi

80F57D41-B22E-4885-A3F7-87F8693A2787We cruised into Malawi with no issues, fresh from a morning of descending amongst beautiful tea plantations in the wonderful sunshine. It felt so good to be alive and out of that hotel room and pedalling into a new country.

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Riding towards the lake

Our route took us down towards Lake Malawi and it felt much like many other places we’d been in Africa. People were friendly, waving and smiling, children were mildly annoying (the occasional shout for money) and wares were sold by the side of the road, often near a cluster of huts.

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FLEE!

Oh and there were amusing signs.

By the time we reached the shores of lake Malawi it was getting late, and as the sun began to fade from the sky, we didn’t have the energy to find a place to wild camp. Instead we opted for the easier ioverlander (travelling app we’ve been using a bit in Africa) option and soon found ourselves at a seemingly semi deserted resort by the lake. It was a little run down and old school and exuded a charm that instantly resonated with us. The men running the place were super friendly, we were able to camp and they kindly let us store the bikes in an empty room and even use the shower (which we didn’t actually use as we have a high tolerance to mild fest. And are possibly lazy).

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Happy to be in Malawi

Before too long we were sat by the lake, admiring the changing colours and sipping a beer. Life was pretty perfect. Some locals came to talk to us and they were lovely and we all had a nice chat before they headed off home and we went to cook our dinner. Malawi felt friendly and safe, like most of the places we’d been.

The following day we meandered along with the lake on our left, sometimes in sight, sometimes not. We stopped off in Karonga, a larger town, to stock up on some supplies and the inevitable painful and time consuming simcard activation (I still don’t know why it is always so hard). In the afternoon we passed  small villages where people sold tiny dried fish from the lake, tomatoes, onions, eggs and not much else. Men on bikes were slightly annoying, trying to race us (failing) and watching us have lunch. It wasn’t threatening, but we were glad to turn off to the sanctuary of Floja Foundation camping and lodge. This Dutch supported social enterprise helps children with extra educational opportunities who would normally fall through the cracks. Next to the school was a rather idyllic campsite on the lake. After a couple of weeks of wild camping in Tanzania and the odd dingy hotel, this was paradise. We tried out all the hammocks and best chillout spots and debated far too long the exact perfect place to put our tent.

Needless to say we spent two restful and peaceful days at Floja. We meditated at sunrise and even snuck in a swim after hearing the risk of Bilharzia was minimal. The water felt delicious. Pauline and Andre were wonderful hosts and we treated ourselves to some freshly baked bread and a glass of wine or two. Simple but very luxurious items for us.

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Sunrise

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So peaceful

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Fresh bread!

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Tea time happiness

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Watching the colours of the lake

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More lake loveliness

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And some more

After Floja it was time to leave the shimmering beauty of lake Malawi and climb up onto the escarpment and the hilly interior of Malawi. Judging by the severe wiggly lines on our mapping app, we surmised it would be a fairly challenging feat. At the turn off we were met by a host of men who told us we couldn’t possibly cycle up the hill. I rolled my eyes and was ready to just ignore them, but Astrid is much more patient. She humoured them and let one show her the first part of the road. When she indicated it would be fine, he changed his story that she would be robbed by bandits. So she asked about why Malawians would rob tourists and he retorted that it was people from other countries. It all sounded a little far fetched. No doubt a tourist or tourists have been mugged on the road at some point. However, it smelt heavily of  cash making opportunism to me. And look, if they’d offered a reasonable price, to save our legs and support some locals, we would have paid. However the price they asked for was about 5 times us much as locals paid and well beyond our budget. So we opted to cycle.

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The road up

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Getting closer..

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Hot, sweaty, tired but happy!

And gosh, I am so glad we did. It was a beautiful ride. No one mugged us. People just waved and beeped in encouragement as they passed us panting up the hill. The road was rough in parts but the hairpin bends actually made the gradient mostly rideable. We only pushed a few times. The 10km did take us about 3 hours, but it was worth every pedal stroke. The views from the top were spectacular, as was Mushroom Farm, a guest house built on the edge of a cliff.

This place is one of my favourite places I’ve ever stayed. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves and add that the food is amazing and the associated permaculture garden a wonderful example of what is possible. We stayed longer than we had planned because the atmosphere and surrounds just suited us so much. While we were there we did some walks and made onward plans for southern Africa. We even started talking vaguely about logistics for Namibia and South Africa. Shit is getting real!

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Views don’t get much better..

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Vegie burger happiness

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Breakfast time

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Cooking in the kitchen at Mushroom farm

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Our amazing camp spot

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View of our spot

By the time we left Mushroom Farm we had completely changed our plan for Malawi. We were now headed high up to the Nyika Plateau. A local had told us about how beautiful it was, then added how we’d never be able to make it up there on bikes. Challenge accepted.

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Livingstone, a slightly creepy mission town…

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Trying to find our way out of Livingstone

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Still trying..

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Success

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Taking a breather

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Heading towards Nyika

It took us a day to get within striking distance which included spending the night camped by a school, our one visa card getting eaten by an ATM machine and us cycling up some of the steepest, gnarliest roads (where at times we were pushing) on the trip so far (well, not quite as bad as cycling up a river bed in Kyrgyzstan). By the time we reached the national park gate we were pretty exhausted. The guards who manned the gate were super kind, quite used to the odd cycle tourist making it up here, and introduced themselves and then unlocked the toilet for us. Again, we felt very cared for and safe.

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Small rural roads made us happy

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Loving the lack of traffic

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Sleeping a school

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Breakfast set up

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Towards the mountains!

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Snapshot of a typical rural Malawian (and African really) market

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Shopping for supplies

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The dry and dusty road – how amazing are the women carrying stuff on their head?!

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So we found the mountain..

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Ever upwards to the national park boundary

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Sleeping at the park boundary

The ride further up onto the plateau was hard, even though it was only 40km. After a day of seriously steep riding, we were tired. Some more seriously steep riding on slippery, stony dirt roads was challenging. Plus, there was the obvious threat of animals – nothing too menacing but elephants were a distinct possibility. We climbed and climbed and climbed. A few locals passed us in trucks, and one 4X4 with foreigners. Mostly though, we were alone with just the African bush, steep roads and sweeping views (of more steep roads).

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Elephants are definitely around..