bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

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Fantastical villages, improvised lemonade stalls and camping with truckers: Lilongwe to Lusaka

09/06/11 LILONGWE TO LUSAKA, ZAMBIA (Hannah)

- Distance: 750km
- Cycling days: 9
- Average distance per cycling day: 83.3km
- Total distance from London: 10842km

“Zambia is flat! Flat like a pancake” …everyone had said.

Zambia is not flat. We’d happily and naively believed the words of many (what mind-numbing drugs were they on?) as well as – incredible though it may seem that we’d actually include this in our assessment of the road ahead – the little brown shadows (or in this case, absence thereof) which indicate the face of a mountain on our fantastically undetailed Michelin map that covers the entire Southern part of the continent, plus Madagascar, on one foldable piece of paper. Despite our subconscious acceptance that our methods for preempting geographical upcomings are ridiculously undependable, it didn’t stop us from indulging in a hearty dose of shock and incredulity at the sulk-worthy unfairness of having to tackle more hills, when we thought we’d left them all behind in Tanzania.

So Zambia isn’t flat. That now accepted, we could start to enjoy the rolling hills on very quiet roads, through a countryside more wild than most. The first town we reached was Chipata, Eastern Zambia’s major city and a clean, all mod con answer to Malawi’s equivalent standard. The restaurant we found opposite our campsite served a Western-worldly meaty chicken, with crispy paprika’d chips and… coleslaw. On a side table sat a shiny box for customer comments and suggestions, neat wall baskets presented the hand-washed individual with a clean towel to take, and a dirty towel to drop. It felt more like a Cornish seaside café than a Zambian “shed restaurant”.

We didn’t lose much time re-entering real Africa once we exited the comfort city’s boundaries, and re-acquainted ourselves with village life and the more basic on-the-road facilities. Zambian villages are of the picturesque, fantastical type, neat, swept dirt paths of varying width, comfortably spaced-out groups of huts, each with a central communal area for outdoor cooking and washing. Feeling tired one day, we stopped early in one such village. We met John at the roadside shop, he was the village secretary and offered to put us up in the new house he was building, as yet uninhabited. He led us by foot a kilometer or so into the heart of the village, which was clearly more expansive than had seemed from the road. John left us the key and gave orders to his sons to fetch water and candles and what-not, so that we settled in comfortably and instantly felt like we had a place in the community. We were then free to roam around and enjoy a peacefulness and harmony truly different to anything we know back home. We passed young men at stalls with big pans of oil, frying chicken to sell, and crossed paths with the women returning from the watering hole, huge 20 litre yellow containers balanced on their heads. Uniformed schoolchildren got distracted on their way home and started following us around, a contingency of 20-odd whispering and giggling but otherwise surprisingly quiet youngsters. Herds of cows and goats were led back home from pasture by stick-yielding teenage boys. Dust rose into the later afternoon sky, a curtain through which the last rays of amber sun pierced to form otherworldly shadows of oncoming dusk.

We left somewhat reluctantly the next morning, resisting the temptation to stay on and experience more village life. Ninety-odd more undulating kilometers, the sun beating down on our necks, our Zambian Special lunch routine: sandwiches of locally baked bread (hurrah! Zambia has embraced the bread oven!), with the invariable flecks of grit, a tin of chilli Pilchards (the cheap alternative to sardines), a tomato, an onion, and hey presto: carbs, protein, healthy oils and a few vitamins thrown in for good measure. Sadly Zambia hasn’t had “A Drink”. Since Kenya we’ve been looking forward to each new country’s Drink. In Kenya: the thirst-quenching 500ml bottle of Krest bitter lemon, or Stoney ginger beer. Tanzania: Sparletta, an exotic tasting coconut and pineapple combo. And Malawi had its own, distinct version of Sparletta by the name of Cocopina, and, if you fancied a change, the same company also made a Plumcherry drink. But here, all we’ve had is cheap, copycat versions of the usual sodas, sold in small ugly plastic bottles, coloured fluorescent green or orange and crammed full with enough chemicals to kill any rebellious tastebuds who may be whimpering for some genuine flavour. There has been minor redemption in finding an as-yet undiscovered Fanta “grape”. And to Zambia’s credit, not all the plastic drinks are horrible: one, called Apple Max, does actually have some apple juice in it. You may have gathered, drinks feature heavily in the life of a long-distance cyclist. They break up our day and in addition to fulfilling the obvious need for rehydration and glucose, they cool us, soothe us, and are an excuse for sitting down on something other than a saddle for 10 minutes.

The day came to an end and we sought out a camping spot at a secondary school that lay some 1,5km off the main road, along a dirt track, to the stream and up the other side (like any African school, far from anything – kids happily walk for miles and miles every day to get to school here). As usual, we were warmly welcomed by the principal and water, a good field and wood for a fire were found. Our map indicated that the next formal accommodation was to be found in Kacholola, a dot on our map which signifies a bigger town. We planned, therefore, to take a couple of rest days there. It was a gradual climb to Kacholola, but we were fueled by the thought of chilling out awhile. Expecting it to be further than it actually was, we asked a group of men at some roadside stalls how far we still had to go. “You are here!”, they exclaimed. “This is Kacholola.” Ok, so where is the town centre? “You’re looking right at it.” Michelin man, you fooled us again! It hadn’t lied, however, about the hotel: opposite the stalls and shops, up on the hillside and overlooking the valley, stood a grand building on large terraced grounds. A winding path led up to a central fountain and carpark. Something wasn’t quite right, though: it looked as though it hadn’t been operating for years. The only thing that looked new was the Coca-Cola sponsored signboard indicating the name of the place: Kacholola hotel. The men assured us it was still running, so we proceeded up the path to the unmanned reception and hung around for some time before the owner appeared. George was a burly, wide-faced man with a child’s smile full of good teeth, and the sweetest nature. We spent the evening discussing the history of the hotel: as we had thought, it had once been a booming, lively place, filled with the rich and glamorous from Lusaka. Always full, people chatting, laughing under the gazebos, drinking in the light of the ‘till the early hours of the morning. Up until the mid-nineties. What happened then? We were a captivated audience. There is no electricity, no running water in the bathrooms, broken windows were left unrepaired when we are there. A government change, a lazy investor, but most of all, a new tarmac road. When it once took a whole day to drive from Lusaka, making it the perfect stopover on the way East, it now only takes a few hours – people don’t even stop for breakfast, preferring to push on through to Chipata. A shame. We could easily picture the excited, elegant, vibrant nights at the Kacholola hotel…

It was lemon season and the bitter fruit abounded. We decided to make lemonade for ourselves on our day off: a wonderful refreshing treat in the warm climate. In the evening we added a dash of vodka. Recommendable. We didn’t expect the level of interest, though, from the villagers who were complaining of a lack of a market for their lemons. So we made a day of it. Got a board, painted it: “Fresh Homemade Lemonade”, to bring down to the roadside, hoping to catch thirsty overlanders on their way through. Though not many stopped, we did (once the price was adjusted) have some success among the locals, and by the end of the day we even made some profit. We’re not sure what has come of the business venture, but some had said they would continue the trade once we’d gone…

Three hundred and fifty kilometers now separated us from Lusaka, and we fit them into 3 and a half days cycling. On the first, we rejoiced in a 40km downhill to the Luangwa river when a half kilometer long bridge brought us to the other side. We stopped just up the Western bank where we saw some stranded truckers who’d made camp at a layby. Both trucks had broken down and were waiting on either spare parts or a mechanic from their homeland, Malawi. The drivers and their companions made for jolly company; we shared our supper on a straw mat under a tree in candlelight, and they put us to shame with their intricately knowledgeable talk of politics from both home and away. One truck left in the middle of the night, the mechanic had arrived and worked in the darkness. They left a sweet, neatly written goodbye note in one of our helmets.

We’d planned it so as to arrive in Lusaka by early afternoon and succeeded in doing so, making way through the increasingly busy traffic and attempting to coordinate our inspirations/expirations in time with the particularly foul exhaust spews. After an interminable stretch from Greater Lusaka to the town centre, we ended up in a industrial-looking area and asked around for the centre, and the name of a cheap hotel we’d been recommended. The industrial area was the center, or just a few streets away, and so was the hotel. Grimy and unappealing, we nevertheless didn’t have much choice in this price-inflated zone. At night it become even seedier, as suspiciously gorgeous, heavily made-up, ladies emerged from the adjoining bar with significantly less attractive and more greasy men asking for spare rooms. Although we’d planned on staying a few days in Lusaka to catch up on internet shenanigans, we left early the next morning, escaping the city to a campsite some 9km South. We had bumped into some old friends we met in the Chalby desert of North Kenya on our way into Lusaka. Franzi and Gerry are overlanding from Switzerland at a leisurely pace down the continent. They had told us about the Eureka campsite when we’d seen them, and we rushed out to find them after our unpleasant night. It was a beautifully laid out place, run by white Zambians who’d been in the country for generations. We met many interesting people there, mainly South Africans – Gert and Ankit, selling medical equipment throughout Africa, and Nico and Rico, mapping out Africa for Tomtom. And while it should have been an enjoyable place to spend a few rest days, it was instead the site for many a mishap… It was where we found out our camera was missing (seen that morning at the seedy hotel), along with every single photograph we’d taken on all three of our SD cards. It was there that Reza’s tooth broke biting down on a crisp. And it was there where we both fell ill with a fever and had to delay our departure. After seven days on the premises and with significantly fewer numbers on our bank account balances, we finally, finally, got back on the road.

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