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

Fuelled by avocados, chapati and pineapple – a ride through Tanzania.

IMG-20190513-WA0021Having accidentally overstayed our Kenyan visa (we had a month, instead of the 90 days we thought which was completely illegible on our visa) we were happy to be in Tanzania without having been relieved of any extra money. It was already dark, so a border official walked us over to a cheap hotel where we bedded down for the night. Our first impression was that both the hotel and the beer was very affordable.

Our route now was to pedal south and east towards Dar Es Salaam. We dropped down from the high plains surrounding Kilimanjaro, on smooth roads, surrounded by lush green. The rains had arrived and we were regularly soaked and muddy. Luckily for us, Tanzanian hotels are very affordable, and we were happy to spend a few dollars every night, rather than put up a damp tent in a field somewhere. It is very hard to dry out at all in the wet season!

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“Top Jesus” we were highly amused by the trucks in Tanzania

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Definitely in need of an umbrella!

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So lush and green

Tanzania initially was rather soul sucking. After the thrill of whizzing down from the border, we were now faced with endless undulations, surrounded by rather dull monoculture sisal crops as far as the eye could see. Day after day we rode on the shoulder of a busy highway, wind in our faces, rain intermittently soaking us, pedalling over endless hills. Tanzanians don’t speak as much English as Kenyans, so we were faced with a bit of a language barrier as well (we’d been a bit lazy with learning Swahili) and unlike Kenya, a lot of people tried to rip us off on food when we stopped to eat. This makes interactions with people a little tiring, and it gets my back up, which is not a pleasant way to be. On top of this, we were killing poor Lucy. Having spent the best part of a year on the bikes, Astrid and I were used to doing around 100km a day. While not new to cycle touring, Lucy had had a tough time over the last few months and was not at peak fitness. Nor had she or I discussed how many kilometres we did on average a day, a massive oversight on both our parts. All of us being cycle tourists, we’d made a bunch of unwise assumptions, which was now causing us issues. Not only because we had to meet Doug and Niovi in Zanzibar, but also for the rest of Africa. We needed to pedal around 100km most days to feasibly make it through, especially with the side trips. Most days  Lucy had to get on a bus in order to make the kilometres. While she quite enjoyed the bus rides, and it was awesome that this was an option, we did feel bad that we had to make her do this, and she in turn felt bad that she couldn’t pedal as fast as us. The camaraderie between us was great though, and we had fun in the evenings and mornings hanging out together, but on the cycling front we were proving to be somewhat incompatible at this stage in the game.

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Endless hills

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Saturated by the afternoon rain

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So much sisal

It was a valuable lesson for us all; about the importance of communication and danger of making assumptions. And also about the dynamics of inviting someone to come cycle touring. When you are already on a trip, and invite someone along, it’s a very different dynamic to when you meet on the road. With Craig and Clo and the Habibi’s, we’d all been on our own tours already, with our own goals and route plans. We became a team because it worked at the time and we had all meshed together well. However, at the end of the day we were all independent travellers. While we looked out for each other, we didn’t have the same responsibility one does when someone joins your tour. At any point in time, we could have left to do our own thing (like when Ewaut left for a bit, or Clo headed off on the bus) and while we made decisions collectively about things like food and short term destinations, we all had our own longterm routes planned.

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Lucy was also a vegan, so we made the best food together

With Lucy it felt more like we were dragging her along (even though she was having fun), at a speed that was uncomfortable for her. Plus we had more or less decided which way we would travel through Africa, and being a couple who are used to travelling together we were probably quite set in our ways when it came to daily chores and the way we go about our day. I felt increasingly like I was being unfair to Lucy, but not knowing exactly how to change the dynamic. We needed and wanted to get to Zanzibar, having made a commitment months ago to be there. Lucy too, was having second thoughts, not only because of our speed issues, but a variety of different and personal reasons.

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Towards clouds and rain

The last few days into Dar, Lucy went ahead by bus to go and figure out what she wanted to do. We put in big, long days, both of us not really feeling it. In many ways we just wanted to be in Zanzibar, the endless somewhat boring road was wearing on our tired souls. After some discussion we came up with a compromise; Dar and Zanzibar were side trips anyway, so we would ride to the turn off, and take a bus into the city. On our way out in a few weeks, we would take the bus back to the same spot, ensuring a continuous cycling line through Africa. Not that we cared that much, but we did care a little!

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So many shades of green

The bus journey reminded me again why we had been so adamant at avoiding putting our bikes on transport this time around. We were instantly surrounded by men trying to rip us off, our bikes were then questionably secured on the roof (causing us anxiety the whole way) and although a price had been agreed, we then needed to argue about it again (like always). Then finally, the 140km journey took over 5 hours as the bus stopped every few minutes, driven at dangerous speeds in torrential rain.  On the bus I also got an awful phone call from Lucy.  She’d been a victim of a temporary abduction and assault. A guy had scammed her to get her into a taxi and then taken her to an ATM to clear out her account. This had not succeeded as she hadn’t had her cards on her, but they had terrorised and assaulted her when she couldn’t deliver. Eventually they’d let her go, relieving her of only her camera and a few dollars. At that moment speaking to her on the phone in that crowded bus, I hated Tanzania. Both Astrid and I were now desperate to get to Lucy and the endless bus journey was nerve wracking on another level. Of course we’d been mislead as well, and the bus didn’t actually take us into Dar, like they had said. So at 7pm at night we found ourselves still 20km out of the centre, it was dark and the roads were narrow and completely suicidal to ride.

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Drink stop

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We spend a lot of time listening to podcasts

What to do? It was one of those moments where I realised how adept we are at traveling and how things  rarely fazed either of us anymore. We went into a crowded market and I found a rich looking guy in a fancy car and asked him for help (cos I figured correctly he would speak english). Being Africa, he was only to happy to assist (it was a good reminder given Lucy’s current circumstances, that on the whole Africans are incredibly kind). Within a few minutes he’d called a friend who came to get us (at a price, obviously). Soon us and the bikes were crammed into a makeshift taxi, whizzing towards the city.

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“avocado rice” one of our favourites

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Tanzania is hard.

Finally  after more than 6 hours of travel we reached Lucy and gave her a massive hug. She was in remarkably good spirits, given her ordeal. We talked and talked,  ordered room service and drank beers well into the night.

Lucy had already decided that she was going to fly back to Europe from Dar, before the assault. It just wasn’t the right time for her to be traveling in Africa by bicycle. So the next day we helped her pack and organise her things. It felt sad to see her go, she really is a remarkable human. I think this experience with someone less amazing could have really gone badly, given all the hurdles we’d come up against. Even before what happened in Dar, the three of us had managed to negotiate a challenging situation with compassion, open communication and understanding. It wasn’t anyone’s fault that our cycle together hadn’t worked out. And I think it showed a lot of strength and insight for Lucy to make the decision she did to go back to Europe. Not to mention how amazingly calm and philosophically she had dealt with the horrible abduction/assault. She really is an amazing individual. We promised each other that one day we would plan a tour together somewhere in the world.

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Scrabble and beers on our final night together

It was now time to go and meet Doug and Niovi who had just arrived on Zanzibar. For weeks Doug and I had been sending each other screen shots of the weather in Zanzibar as the forecast had been more or less torrential rain. So I was pleased to arrive in Stone Town with blue skies and sunshine. It was the end of the wet season and we’d all been slightly concerned it would still be pouring.

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Riding on the beach, Zanzibar

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Most days were like this..

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Many hours were spent in this pool

We found Doug and Niovi by the pool of their hotel and there was a lot of excited hugging. Niovi had only met us once or twice before when she was really little, but it wasn’t long before we were all playing together in the pool. And this was pretty much how we spent the next two weeks. I’ve never been on holiday with a 4 year old before, but it was awesome. Niovi was so much fun. We played in the pool and the sea, went for walks, played more in the pool, danced, played games, read books and watched amazing sunsets. At night Doug, Astrid and I drank too much vodka and caught up on life. The weather was mainly awesome. After a few days of rain, the skies cleared and we had hot sunshine and blue skies. One night we built a fire on the beach and got pizza delivered (to the beach). Another day we went snorkelling. But mostly we just hung out and played in the pool. It was very relaxing and a lot of fun. Doug had kindly treated us to an amazing villa for a few of the days, which was complete bliss. Zanzibar is an incredibly beautiful island and it was such a treat to just slow right down for a bit.

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So much fun with these two

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Beach walks

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Relaxing

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Beach fire

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Beautiful sunsets

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Hmmmm Vodka?

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More beach walks

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Stone Town walks

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Niovi’s artistic impression of our holiday

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Happiness

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More blue

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Dreamy susets

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Cocktails…

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Boating

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Night sky loveliness

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Pool or sea? Hard choice.

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Our amazing temporary home

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One can never get sick of this view!

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Watching green fairy maintenance (:

Astrid and I were sad to see Doug and Niovi go, but grateful they had come to see us, and for their friendship. We pedalled back to Stone Town and celebrated one year since leaving London. It was now Eid, so Stone Town was full of celebrating families and we enjoyed the night market and energy a lot.

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View over Stone Town

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Stone Town is known for its doors

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More amazing doors

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Stone Town

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amazing architecture

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Exploring the backstreets with Lucas, another cyclist.

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Sunset beers and one year on the road

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Night Market, Stone Town

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Sunset fun, Stone Town.

From Stone town we headed back the the main land via the cheaper night ferry and spent a few days with a Warmshowers host, Elaine and her two lovely kids. We needed some time to re group and prepare for the road ahead, mentally as well as physically. In many ways it felt like we were about half way, from here we would be heading southwest to Malawi and into southern Africa.

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The road awaits

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But first a small break

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And some lunch

By the time we began to pedal again the wet season was well and truly over. It was hot and sunny and fruit was on sale on the side of the road. I actually need to mention the food in Tanzania. While the diet in the local cafe’s remained pretty dull and nutritionally lacking  –  cooked to death beans, ugali and chips, the availability of fresh food was wonderful. Markets were brimming with avocados (about 10p each), tomatoes, bananas, papaya and pineapples. Oh and you could pick up freshly cooked chapati for a couple of pence. Needless to say we lived off avocado and tomato wraps, fresh fruit, and we even began to make avocado chocolate mousse. When we cooked for ourselves we were certainly eating like queens.

From the coast we headed inland and through our first national park where we saw elephants. That was a huge highlight, seeing these humungous creatures chilling under a tree, ears flapping in the afternoon heat. We also saw giraffes and a myriad of different antelope which made us grin from ear to ear. From the national park (Mikumi) we climbed up and into a wondrous valley of baobabs, and then higher up to the fertile plains around Iringa. Here there are many huge farms, and we had the fortune to be invited to stay at one. Our friend had put us in touch with a friends of hers; Mark and Mel and this is where we now headed.

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Mikumi National Park

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Fine for animals

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Elephants!

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The amazing baobab valley

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So magic

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Coffee and tree happiness

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We arrived in the dark and woke up to this

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They look a bit like ancient spirit people..

They were absolutely wonderful people. Mark was one of the managers at the farm and the first thing he did was give us a box of veg to eat. While we had already been eating well, Tanzanian’s (and everywhere else we’d been too) seem to have a habit of all farming and selling the same products. You can be riding along the road and see 10 stalls all selling onions. Or tomatoes. Or avocados. While you can get a lot of things, there isn’t a huge diversity. So to have baby corn, mushrooms, cucumber, broccoli and cauliflower was a massive treat.

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All the vegetables!

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Exploring the farm

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Beer o clock

Our days soon went like this: wake up, copious cups of tea. A hike around the farm. Breakfast. Discussion about what dishes to make. Recipe research. Bread baking. Food prep that went all day, interspersed by cups of tea. Sunset beers on the balcony. Cooking. Amazing dinner. Hanging out together, reading, or finally watching Fleabag. Repeat. Needless to say, it was hard to leave. Mel and Mark are super amazing people and the time with them gave us the normality we didn’t know we’d been craving. It gave us a kind of peace we hadn’t experienced for some time.

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Tea and reading

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Awesome breakfast

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Mark and Mel who looked after us so well

Traveling in Africa, and traveling in general is of course amazing. We are so privileged that we get to do this (and also we’ve made unconventional choices about how we want to live life) but it doesn’t mean that at times we aren’t challenged. Africa especially can be confronting and wearing on the soul. Not only are you the centre of attention in most places, but you are very aware of your own privilege. You can’t hide from it and it’s inadvertently pointed out to you at many opportunities. You are often asked for money and after months, it can feel a little dehumanising. I don’t know exactly why, but Tanzania was a our down point. Having had friends join us, and the sanctuary of Mark and Mel’s had also highlighted some of what had been lacking; community, normality, friendship. In a place where you are understandingly always viewed as ‘the other’ this was something we had deeply and unconsciously missed. Perhaps it was somewhat more intense for Astrid and I; being a same sex couple in a continent that has some of the most violent and ingrained homophobia, is on some level quite exhausting. We’d never felt threatened, but had to constantly police our behaviour and wonder how we would be perceived if people knew.

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I have a pineapple!

We may have left Mark and Mel’s with slightly heavy hearts, but like all things, this too passed. It was interesting how difficult leaving had been; psychologically we’d been dreading going out onto the road but within a few days we were back in the swing of wild camping, buying delicious fruit and veg from the market, laughing with locals and climbing up into the mountains. It seemed that our rest really had cleared our souls as nothing was as hard as we had imagined it would be.

For our final leg of Tanzania we had decided to head high up into the mountains onto the Kitulo plateau. It was some of the best riding we’d done, and certainly the best in Tanzania. For days we climbed, along dirt roads, through smaller and smaller villages until we were finally high above the clouds. We made a point to wild camp right up on the plateau and it was certainly up there with picturesque spots we’d slept in.

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Towards the mountains

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Heading towards Kitulo, some of the most beautiful riding!

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Hard work, but so worth it!

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For roads like this!

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And this

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High above the clouds

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Slightly misty

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A choice spot to camp

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Contemplating the descent

After our brush with the clouds it was a heady descent back to sea level and the Malawian border. Unfortunately, Tanzania wasn’t quite done with us. The day we were to pedal the last leg to the border, I was struck down (again) with some god awful stomach issue involving endless fevers and diarrhoea. Luckily we had antibiotics and while I lay around waiting for them to work and feeling miserable, Astrid brought me food and drinks and was generally awesome. After two full days of living in a rather dim and depressing cheap hotel, I had recovered and it was finally time to bid Tanzania farewell.

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Finally leaving the hotel!

We wooshed passed beautiful tea plantations down towards Lake Malawi and Southern Africa, excited and thrilled about what lay ahead.

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