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.

dav

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.

sdr

Lundazi Castle

mde

Our castle room

mde

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.

dav

It’s for roads like this I cycle tour!

dav

Forest camp before big animals became an issue

dav

Huts along the road

dav

A school

dav

That light!

sdr

And some more of it

20190723_085706.jpg

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

dav

Riding through a typical rural Zambian village

dav

One of our favourite parks

20190717_141207.jpg

Looking at the Luangwa River and the hippos

dig

Hippos chilling out

dig

A big elephant

dig

A big elephant is scared of us and leaves

dav

Always on the look out for animals

sdr

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

20190717_172312.jpg

Sunset behind the rangers huts

dav

I love the sky and this tree

dav

Another small and delightful backroad

dav

so many shades of gold

dav

Quick lunch stop – bread and peanut butter is standard

dav

It is so dry

dig

They do indeed!

dav

Huge boabab

dav

The dry and dusty landscape indicative of the drought

dig

Zebra watch us

dig

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!

sdr

Filthy but happy

sdr

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).

dig

Elephant family

sdr

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.

sdr

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.

sdr

The bar and pool area

dav

It was hard to leave

dig

Luangwa River

dav

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?!

dig

dav

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.

20190723_105949.jpg

Back into the wilderness – of sorts

20190717_152637.jpg

Just us and the bush

20190716_171001.jpg

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.

dav

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.

dav

Looking out onto the hills

dav

The great eastern road

dav

Camping at the police post not far out of Lusaka

20190728_080435.jpg

Another day, another sleep at a police post

dav

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.

dav

The road south

sdr

Searching for a camp

bty

Such amazing colours at the end of the day

bty

A typical camp for us in the bush

bty

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…

bty

on the road to Zimbabwe

bty

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.

dav

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.

39C1F04F-23A6-4196-AF5B-525E82C4F589

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).

dav

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.

dav

Sunrise

3F09B676-BEBA-457E-9C2C-BAE4E77CA220

So peaceful

sdr

Fresh bread!

sdr

Tea time happiness

dav

Watching the colours of the lake

dav

More lake loveliness

dav

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.

dav

The road up

sdr

Getting closer..

dav

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!

358D7EBA-9E94-4624-ABDA-A395BB55D749

Views don’t get much better..

dav

Vegie burger happiness

sdr

Breakfast time

dav

Cooking in the kitchen at Mushroom farm

dav

Our amazing camp spot

sdr

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.

dav

Livingstone, a slightly creepy mission town…

dav

Trying to find our way out of Livingstone

98CD16BC-A3DB-4F42-86A9-6B95531B7B44

Still trying..

D54C131F-28FE-4A8D-8FF8-E00FFCE077BD

Success

B029D488-7AF8-4ECE-81B5-D93583DBB217

Taking a breather

C8ADC504-52D6-4BC3-A2BE-3CAC0FBD310E

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.

dav

Small rural roads made us happy

dav

Loving the lack of traffic

dav

Sleeping a school

6AF87C08-420F-4F20-B9C4-06AC5C5F290B

Breakfast set up

dav

Towards the mountains!

dav

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

dav

Shopping for supplies

dav

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

dav

So we found the mountain..

dav

Ever upwards to the national park boundary

dav

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).

4B822098-FBC8-453E-8CBE-6249C7DC11B1

Elephants are definitely around..

By the time we reached the campsite on the Nyika Plateau, the sun was fading from the sky and the air was cold and damp. We were high up now, and the landscape was all rolling treeless hills, mist and crisp air. In many ways it reminded us of the Scottish highlands, instead of sheep we had various antelope, including my favourite the Eland. While hugely overpriced, the Chilinda campsite was rather lovely and came complete with a man who seemed to be employed solely to light our campfire and keep the fire for our (very hot, amazing) shower lit. Aside from the hot shower and the fire lighter (kind of my dream job), the campsite was super basic, but exactly what we didn’t know we had needed. Oh and it also came with two very nice NHS doctors who handed us beers on our arrival.

Aside from the cold beers, friendly doctors and deliciously hot showers, Nyika gave us space to breathe and be still. While Africa is full of wild places, it is also full of people. And this is exactly what makes this continent so wonderful; it’s friendly, hospitable humans. The nature of the way that we travel ensures that we have dozens of small interactions a day, from chats at the water pump, to kids giggling at the funny mzungu on bikes, to buying food in small villages and asking about where we can put our tent for the night (when we can’t wild camp). We’re an understandable curiosity wherever we go, sometimes this means we unknowingly (or knowingly) crave the quiet places.

sdr

being watched..

dav

View from our campsite

dig

Morning eland

dav

It could be Scotland…

dav

The dramatic mist rolls in

Well the Nyika Plateau gave us that. We sat by the fire, went for misty morning walks, made flat bread and read our books. It was so quiet and so peaceful, sometimes zebra and antelope would come and graze in around our campsite. If it hadn’t been for the hefty price we would have stayed longer. However, our budget meant that after two wonderful days we needed to retrace our steps back to the park gate.

74708854-A2E1-4825-A159-3A58A78FAFF8

being watched

4F08F7F6-8455-4AB4-8EE9-42DF83B830EA

Flat bread happiness

CDFF9F62-4B19-40E1-92D0-D71D4C840E21

Chilinda campsite, Nyika plateau

38FCF32A-5726-476B-B301-7B40AF93E4C5

On our morning walk

sdr

Fire!

2E59F8F8-66ED-45E9-A5C3-696B1CC091C1

More moodiness

Of course this time it was all mostly down hill and much easier. We stayed again at the gate with the friendly guard lady and made tracks the following day. It was a steep descent, the one where your hands get tired from braking and you can’t quite believe you cycled up those hills. We needed food for the next few days and stopped at several small villages to try and stock up. Malawi is one of the poorest counties in Africa and there is certainly a lack of a variety of food to buy. I enjoyed the challenge of it. It felt very real and much more adventurous than heading into a supermarket and buying exactly what you want. We bought flour to make bread, rice, tomatoes, eggs, soya chunks and red onion. With some imagination we made some pretty delicious meals.

4AF397D0-E1C9-4F86-B818-58D45C39B581

Nyika plateau

dav

Back off the plateau causing a stir

dav

Water collection

Chasing down the last of our supplies we took a slight detour up a dusty road, hoping we’d find a stall selling tomatoes and some cold beers. We found these and also a small bar, the type you find all over Africa and the kind I feel most foreigners probably don’t see. They’re usually simple wooden shacks, with a home made bar from where someone sells beers from an ancient fridge. Men will be crowded inside, often drinking and shouting above the blaring TV which will be streaming music videos. It’s always a lively place and we’ve always been treated with respect and genuine kindness. People seem happy to see us, even in these kinds of bars and every effort was made to make us feel welcome. After several funny conversations and exchanging of phone numbers (everyone wants our number and it often leads to a few weeks of exchanging texts before people inevitably grow bored of us) we left the bar and went back out into the bright African sunshine. We now had everything we needed for the next spot of relaxation.

Vwaza Marshes national park was a short ride down the road and here we found more idyllic living. While, like everywhere in Africa, the national park fees were steep, they weren’t as steep as other places (Malawi has some of the most affordable fees so far for us). A guard then led us to simple shack, which overlooked a lake. Half an hour later we were sitting on our porch, drinking a beer and watching an elephant herd walk by. Life couldn’t get much better. While elephants came down to drink, hippos lounged in the shallows and the occasional nervous warthog family would make an appearance. It was simply one of the best places we’d been and the simplicity and beauty resonated deeply.

dav

Our hut, Vwaza Marshes

BC1D5FB9-73B5-4EDC-9124-1160991C888F

Our view

dav

Pretty happy

After two days enjoying the tranquility of the lake, the bellowing hippos (they really are very loud), elephant families and the beauty of watching the colours change over the landscape we left to hit more back roads towards Zambia.

8A0F5979-D158-40FD-A6AE-2F2BC5D1797A

Sunset, Vwaza

C05DBD32-E56D-4436-AB8B-C2BEA1329DD2

Hippos!

CB5A6F53-A269-46C7-BD77-6857D40899A8

Morning yoga

0679996E-7CD2-4BDC-A8E4-D4B7867562C7

Elephant family

90DF4FD1-3871-42B4-BFF1-06C0EDC45BA5

More hippos

dav

Hard life…

CD64D3AF-AD73-4E7A-9988-0C477C014249

And some more

sdr

coffee time

3889CC40-2415-47CE-8BFA-696EB9BA1752

Flat bread making. Serious stuff

2790C598-FB6D-4C66-9DEC-7F26FFCC996A

Elephant footprint

dav

Just ‘cos it’s so pretty

sdr

Feeling pretty chuffed

We biked along small dirt roads where not many tourists go. Children were polite and friendly (unlike other parts of Malawi where they beg quite a lot), adults bought us lunch, or helped us shop at the market just out of kindness and we genuinely felt welcomed and not like wallets on wheels. Pen wielding tourists have not yet found their way to this part of Malawi. Not that we had found it too bad at all, even in the more touristy places we’d been. However, many friends had reported they’d found the children in Malawi particularly tough.

By the time we neared the Zambian border we felt not like leaving, but like staying to explore more. For us Malawi being the “warm heart of Africa” had rung true. People had been warm and welcoming, the scenery diverse and beautiful and we were certainly inspired to return someday. It remains one of our favourite countries in Africa.

47C77817-BA49-4EEE-BAF3-5E0720A968D9