bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

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Lions are top of the food chain and Africa has a dirty little secret

426/07/2011 LIVINGSTONE TO MAMUNO, BOTSWANA (Reza)

- Distance cycled: 1400km
- Cycling days: 12
- Average distance per cycling day: 116km
- Total distance since London: 12854km

Zambia was a blast. A previously unknown country to us which proved to be full of adventure, beauty and amazingly warm and welcoming inhabitants. With only 70km left to the Botswana border, it was difficult to tear ourselves away from the place where we had made so many new friends and had so many uplifting new experiences. On route to the border, we stopped at Rob and Beth’s home for one last evening of fun and relaxation. Their house is stunningly beautiful, situated on the banks of the Zambezi River. An open plan, circular structure, complete with original brick fire place and open air bathroom for bathing under the stars to the sounds of passing hippos. A planned one night stay soon become two as we enjoyed Rob’s musical talent and the uber chilled atmosphere they so easily create. But time was against us as we had to cover some 2000km in 26 days in order to meet Hannah’s parents in Namibia. So we hit the road early, stooping only to show Beth’s students the route we had travelled through the dark continent on her wall painting of the world map. Before long, we arrived at the Kasungula border post and were on the barge crossing the Zambezi and so landed on Botswanan soil. Botswana. A large mass of land hugely underpopulated by people with large expanses of bushland. We had heard that one could easily go days without seeing other people whilst travelling by bicycle between towns and that the threat of wild animals was very real here, with stories of lions hanging out on the tarmac roads and prowling the villages at night. The first night was spent at the border, camping in the front yard of Victoria’s aunt’s house. A lovely lady with a friendly roundness in the mid-region, she welcomed us to Botswana and provided a matured Baobab fruit which she informed us was good for viral infections and deliciously sour. The 300km road ahead of us to Nata was said to be the wildest stretch. High numbers of lions and elephants inhabited this region and we were warned not to camp away from villages. The only problem was that there was only one village along this road, some 100km from where we were. So we set off early to ensure our safe arrival. After 10km from town were elephants on the road. We took heed of the advice given to us to stay well back and allow them the space they desired. Being so vulnerable on bicycle and appreciating the strength they possessed made this piece of advice easy to follow. One hundred kilometers were completed with plenty of sunlight to spare and we set up camp at the village petrol station. To our amazement, upon nightfall, anyone left without abode also came to sleep at this place of safety. The fenced-off enclosure provided a safe haven from the night hunting lions. This act of precaution from the local people firmly confirmed to us the very real threat posed by the wildlife… We started to think seriously about our onward route. We were somewhat worried about the 200 remaining kilometers to Nata due to its lack of villages or settlements. The gas station employee did tell us of a workman’s camp around half way which we should not miss, or alternatively, get on a truck. The latter was not a possibility, although desirable, and so we set off, eyes open, and constantly checking the surrounding bush for unwelcoming felines. Our breaks were few and brief, without fear, but a definite heightened sense of the environment. The strong smell of our lunch, pilchards (sardine-like tinned fish), was probably not the best choice of sandwich filling and in true eco-style, carrying the empty but still pungent tin on the back of our bikes to the nearest bin was probably somewhat too idealistic. But sure enough at Km105 was a semi-permanent, post-apocalyptic style, camp comprising tin huts surrounded by a tall fence guarded by barbed wire. Here we befriended a young woman called Dechips, the campground cleaner who provided us with a gas stove, clean water and a flat space beside her cabin to pitch our tent. She welcomed us in true African style and although living in poverty by European standards, she managed to send us on our way with a personal gift. The third and final day on the road brought us up close to a herd of elephants. Graceful and passive from 40 meters, we marveled in their beauty and once again felt the power they possessed. By dark on the third day we reached our first check-point, Nata, and enjoyed 2 days of poolside reading complete with cocktails and being waited on. We even managed a short excursion to the neighboring Makadikadi salt pans and watched the sun extinguish itself into the flooded plains while silhouetted flamingoes stood perched on one leg, taking advantage of the trapped aquatic life.

Back on the long, infinitely straight roads. Next stop, Maun. Distance: 300km. In between us and Maun lay the Makadikadi national park and yet more threats from the wildlife with too few settlements. Botswana was quickly proving to be a country designed for a 4 wheeled machine. The first 100km brought us to Gweta, a small settlement with a newly completed government hospital. Here we stopped for a refill of staple foods, and the all-important, colourfully packaged cold fizzy drink. A young man, Banda, approached and enquired about our trip. In awe of what he heard, he invited us to spend the night at his flat in the hospital accommodation. It turned out that Banda was in fact a laboratory technician at the hospital with an inspirational outlook on life. From a modest background, he intends fund his way through enough education to take the fight to the government for those who are unable to fight for themselves. We shared a connection on a higher level and understood each other in a way rarely experienced by strangers. He also made the best curried goat in the Southern hemisphere. In contrast, his flatmate, a male nurse at the same hospital, had a different outlook on life, one that involved a far too indulgent greed for alcohol and a bad habit of mistaking the bathtub for the toilet bowl… the stench rendered the lavatory out of bounds. Banda had already made it to work before we awoke the following morning, and so we spend an uncomfortable and embarrassing breakfast in the presence of his flatmate before getting back on the road. We crossed the national park, taking lunch at the official entrance, and continued towards our destination, a small settlement on the park boundaries. After 100km of cycling that day, we still found ourselves within bush land some 30km short of our miscalculated target. We were tired from the long day and without much of a choice, had to press on along the endless road. We finally reached another workman’s camp, more temporary than the last with tents and campfires. As always, the inhabitants were welcoming and helped us with firewood. As we sat around the fire after dinner, staring at the stars and listening to the African vibe seeping from the radio, we were once again reminded of where we were. Africa. That night, winter engulfed the Southern countries and caught us off guard. Growls and howls from nearby hyenas, a bitter frost and complete darkness. A change of season within a nightfall and the first of many sleeplessly cold nights. The morning remained cold with the sun being sluggish at heating the land, we were however within striking distance of Maun and cycled fast to generate warmth. Roaming cows, the first in a long time, eased our concerns of lurking predators and by midday, we missed the frosty morning. Maun lies beside the Okavango delta, a region rich in a diversity of African wildlife, and as a result, a point of interest for tourists. This is where we had our final rest before heading for the Namibian border.

With still about 500km to go, we had planned one extra day off before crossing over to the former German colony. We bypassed the last major town, Ghanzi, unknowing of the barren landscape that lay ahead. The kilometers passed by slowly, the nights grew colder and the landscape of the Kalahari remained constant. Six days passed without a rest and we grew progressively more tired and cold from the Antarctic headwind. Persistent hunger, cold, and tiredness has a reciprocal effect on conversation which started to waver. However determination, commitment and downright stubbornness brought us to our goal. The days that followed saw us camp at a road block, a police station, and inside a half-constructed shop in D’kar courtesy of James and his wife, both descendants of a combination of Bushmen and early Scottish settlers. A couple more hundred kilometers and we were there. By the end we had crossed a country where lions still pose a threat to humans and settlements lie over a hundred kilometers apart. One thing we learnt from this part of the trip: Africa’s dirty little secret is that this beautiful continent has winters rivaled only by Northern European countries (note to readers: bring warm clothes in the Southern African winters). But a new chapter was now upon us. Namibia.

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