Tuesday, May 18
Kasane - Nata, Botswana
Paranoid about another possible scorpion incident my mind was put at rest before bedding down for the night when Bjorn told me the tent was 100 per cent sealed. “Nothing can possibly get it once the inner layer is zipped up. Not even a small snake,”
It does rather come as a surprise therefore to wake up around 4am and discover a big, friendly white cat peering through the tent door meowing at me. Turns out Bjorn has gone to take a leak in the bushes and forgotten to re-zip the canvas.
A Zimbabwean, working a few kilometers down the road at Dunlop, kindly drops us at the main road junction near Leshomo – the best place to try and cadge a hitch hike in the area. We must be in South Africa by Thursday so, dare I say ‘sadly’, we need to revert to hitch hiking rather than cycling to cover most of the remaining kilometers.
After an hour of fruitless thumbing of potential lift attempts a Toyota truck finally stops. Three locals negotiate a spot: one in the passenger compartment, two in the back.
“You people never stop and give us a lift when we need one,” the driver’s companion tells me.
I know what she is referring to but play dumb, “What do you mean – ‘your people’?”
“You white people never stop for us. It is the same where I come from in Zambia. It is the same here.”
“I am sorry. I cannot speak for the locals. We’re from Europe. There’d be no issue about picking you up where I come from.”
“OK. Where you travelling to?”
“We want to get as far as Nata today. We also have bicycles.” (I don’t bother to mention the dozen bags and cycle trailer)
“OK. 60 each, OK?”
“Yes, sure. Thanks for picking us up.”
With our bikes, trailer, bags and two other locals already perched in the back of the open-air truck the two of us manage to squeeze our masses into the last few centimeters of available space at the very rear of the Toyota.
From here it is 300 kilometres of almost entirely deserted tarmac.
Perched in the back we feel every bump, vibration and pot hole; every air current. My nostrils are occasionally filled by diesel fumes and the odd collision with unfortunate high speed flies. With a can of cold Castle in hand we pass two elephants by the road side munching from some tree or bush. Lush greenery is replaced by arid semi-desert. The drive is extremely uncomfortable at times; the first signs of cramp surge through my left leg. But this is an amazing way to travel. I feel alive, so very alive.
As the truck passes through its second animal disease contamination check point of the day and the Makgadikgadi Pans draw closer, we pull up in Nata.
The town resembles a posh North African desert town, something, of course, that does not exist.
Adjacent to where we are dropped is North Gate Lodge, the most luxurious night’s accommodation I have had since my journey began more than six weeks ago: Air con, bar next to swimming pool, satellite TV and friendly owners.
It is the perfect end to one of those days when you really can say ‘I feel alive’.
Eight dead snakes, one shy crocodile, a pair of inquisitive impalas, three hornbills and a bike crash
Sunday, May 16
Livingstone, Zambia - Kasane, Botswana
We set off early Sunday morning and say our goodbyes to Tore, who has been a brilliant host. While we set the bikes up (after wheels and parts were removed after travelling south from Lusaka), you can hear psalm readings and Christian hymns competing with birdsong.
The M10 between Livingstone and Kazungula passes through the Zambezi National Park. We have the road and parts of the park almost entirely to ourselves.
After swirving to avoid a decapitated snake, stretched out across the asphalt, I suddenly spot a tremendously beautiful impala stood transfixed next to some bushes at the side of the road. He is staring back at me on my Chinese bike like he's never seen anything like me before. As I turn my head back to the road in front, the next thing I notice is Bjorn's right arm raised in the air and his trailer less than a metre away from my front tyre. I am only doing about 10 kph but I have got no chance of breaking in time.
Tyres-a-screeching I go head first over the handle bars, bouncing into the side of Bjorn's trailer, before hitting the road. I am lucky it is only cuts and bruises to both legs and a long, deep cut near my right shoulder.
A kind passer-by drops his bicycle and runs over to check that I am OK. Where the impala has gone I do not know, but if he was staring at me before I smashed into the back of Bjorn's bike then he must really think I am silly now.
Bruised and bloodied we get back on our way. Parrots, hornbills, lovebirds and fish eagles swoop overhead, treating us to a collection of beautiful and rather weird birdsongs. It is incredible to be cycling through a place like this.
Having passed our fifth dead snake of the day Bjorn does another of his sudden abrupt stops in front, although now I have learned my lesson and allow a stopping distance behind him more like 50 metres instead of five. There, in the creek below the main road, a shy crocodile eyes us then retreats to a hidden spot below some driftwood. It is fair to say it makes your head spin when you see a crocodile when you are out on a sunday morning bike ride.
After a series of tough hills, each rewarded with spectacular views of the national park, we reach the outskirts of Kazungula. The phone rings and it is Aussie Tim texting us to tell us his bus has just overtaken us on its way to Namibia.
Kazungula is where Zambia ends, the Zambezi River roars by, and a pontoon bridge transports lorries, cars and foot passengers across to Botswana.
A local lad, Adam, points us in the direction of customs and immigration and after saying goodbye to him and Zambia we are on our way to Botswana for 30 pence each.
The Zambezi River current is viscious and unpredictable with what look like tiny maelstroms appearing and disappearing thoughout the short crossing. In 2003, 18 people drowned when the pontoon sank. The pontoon bridge ferry can only accommodate two lorries at a time, meaning that the vehicle queue to get on board stretches back a couple of kilometres. The joy of travelling by cycle means we do not have to queue to get across, and do not add much weight to its 70 tonne capacity.
On the Botswana side of the Zambezi, the pontoon ferry completes its 400 metre journey, we climb onto the back of one of the flat-bed lorries to avoid having to trapse through the knee-deep water, and visit customs to pick up our free Botswanan visas.
As way of a change it is Bjorn's bike that is causing us problems today, his trailer needing repairs before we can set off in search of a bed for the night.
Immediately, Botswana feels and looks far more affluent and developed than anywhere else we have been in Africa. As well as this every third person has magically become white rather than black.
On Zambian Adam's advice we cycle on to Kasane and, with nearly 100 kilometres on the clock, make our base for the night at Thebe River Safaris. Several Africa overland companies are present at the camp - these are basically huge trucks cum armoured personal carriers used to transport gap year students across Africa on the cheap and with safety in mind.
In the space of 30 minutes we see more white people than we have seen in the past 5 weeks combined and, sat at the camp's bar, we watch England beat Australia in the cricket Twenty20 final.
Home for the night is Bjorn's two-man tent. As we zip up its protective inner sanctum a noise resembling a Jurrasic Park dinosaur breaks the silence from somewhere out there in the Bush.
Saturday, May 15
After emailing photo and editorial content to British and Italian journalists Tore drops me at the Livingstone Stadium where Zambia (including players based in Holland, China and Egypt) are due to play the Southern provinces. Outside the stadium over excited rugby scrums of locals are trying in vain to squeeze inside. I wasn't expecting this, but then I didn't realise that the first President of Zambia (1964-91), Kenneth Kaunda, is the guest of honour, prompting many thousands to turn up here. It is hot, dusty and chaotic. Many give up trying to get inside and go home, while lines stretch around the walls of the stadium.
Two soldiers, guarding one of the entrances, let me through as I climb under a broken gate. Inside thousands are crammed behind two-metre high metal fences, many surging forward as the stadium MC announces that KK is about to greet the players on the pitch. This is a big deal for the locals. Kenneth Kaunda is still held in high esteem by many Zambians, who see him as responsible for helping to end colonial rule and putting the country on the right track to its new found independence. KK, now aged 86, jogs on to the pitch along with his huge personal entourage, which includes a gargantuan body guard who appears to be three metres tall.
When KK joins in a quick kick about the crowd goes wild, before the former-president leaves the pitch at a noticeably slower pace than he arrived, looking like he has rather overdone it in all the excitement.
I would love to stay and watch the whole match but it is uncomfortably hot, uncomfortably overcrowded and uncomfortably close to the kick off time of the English FA Cup Final.
Tim, Axel and I jump in a local minibus and head for town.
The Capitol Theatre, a colonial 1930s cinema, is showing Chelsea v Portsmouth on its big screen. Back of the net! For less than a pound we are each ushered to our seats where, instead of popcorn, a theatre employee walks around selling Castle Beer.
This really is a theatre of dreams and, for the locals, the closest thing to ever being at an English football match. Fittingly, therefore, those present are wearing Chelsea shirts and scarves and create their own crowd noises in addition to those communicated from Wembley with the horns and rattles they have brought to the cinema. It is a beautiful football moment as Chelsea hit the woodwork for the fifth time in the first half and I witness dozens of Zambian football fans jump up and down in this atmospheric old cinema.
Friday, May 14
Victoria Falls, Zambia
After Norwegian porridge, Internet and 'real' coffee we head out for Victoria Falls, regarded by many as one of the wonders of the world.
"Take your shorts and raincoat," I am told.
I take no notice, thinking the locals are being wet in every sense of the word.
Imagine the Scottish Hebrides in a November force 9 storm and you will get a sense of what it is like to walk the slippery, water-lashed path that allows you to pass just metres away from the full force of one of the world's greatest waterfalls.
Truthfully, it is a little scary if you have a fear of heights or of slippery-pathways-leading-to-a-vertical fall-and-almost-certain-death; particularly the walk over the narrow suspension bridge above part of the falls.
It is, though, an amazing, exhilarating experience and rates as a must if you are passing through this part of the world.
Sunset is an ice cold Castle by the banks of the Zambezi. The Zambezi Hotel is colonial throwback at its very best. A night of pure luxury here will set you back anything from 400-2000 dollars but non-residents can slip in and enjoy the daily 6pm near perfect sunset.
Amongst those present for another of those unforgettable African sunsets are the squad members of the Zambian National Football team. Their manager invites us over for a photo and wants to discover more about ‘The Shirt’ project. About to make plans for an impromptu kick about with the national team the following day he is suddenly whisked away to meet the country’s most famous man - the first president of an independent Zambia, . You can’t really compete with that.
Later on we join our new good-value Aussie mates, Axel and Tim, for a night out on the town with tales of snakes, scorpions and the world of ‘props‘. A brilliant laugh is had by all, but I guess you had to be there…
Thursday, May 13
Lusaka - Livingstone, Zambia
We leave the millionaire expat lifestyle behind and return to the two-poor geezers-with-bikes-harassed-by-bus-station-spivs game.
It is a "five hour journey south to Livingstone," we are told - and your heart sinks, because in A.T. five probably means ten.
Luckily for us, we are the last to board the 'Namibia Bus', stopping at Livingstone.
"You wouldn't happen to be a Norwegain bloke cycling to the world cup, would you?" a young Muzungu asks Bjorn. Tim has got a copy of the Zambian Daily Post in his hands with said story about said Norwegian. Somebody else reading the Zambian Times also gives a knowing nod: today's fresh off the press article mentions a Norwegian cyclist, (Mr. Bjorn Heidenstrom), and his new travel companion 'Justine'. Makes it sound like Bjorn's picked up a random transvestite en route.
The road south to Livingstone is unspectacular, by the standards so far experienced, and certainly the most industrial to date. Fuel is 8500 per litre, or 1.20 pounds - about the same as the UK.
5 hours...6, 8, 10, 11 hours later we pull into Livingstone, the bus violently rattling over a stretch of road that wouldn't be out of place in delapidated Burma.
We are met off the bus by Tore, a locally-based Norwegian, who kindly contacted us by phone 24 hours earlier and offered to put us up for a day or two. We don't know his name so he's been stored in ou phone as 'Dr. Livingstone I presume".
Tore works for Norwegian Christian Aid.
Sadly though, the two hitchbikers sit in the back of his Toyota as he pulls into his private house whispering "Shit, if he's a full-on Christian he probably won't want beer in his house,"
"Yeah, I'm dying for a beer...alternatively though he could be an axe murderer so it's not the worst result,"
Tore leads us into his home from home and tells us, "Help yourselves to some beers from the fridge."
There follows an excellent Norwegain supper, countless beers and several hours of good chat.
Tuesday, May 12
Chipata - Lusaka, Zambia
I wake up suddenly with a huge gasp, having endured a particularly nasty Larium-induced nightmare. I have also managed to wake Bjorn up, who is unfortunate enough to be sharing the small double bed with me, cocooned from the rest of the hut by a huge mosquito net.
The nightmare leaves me feeling disturbed. I have ‘the fear’, lay in the dark, unable to get back to sleep and listening intently to every single noise and rustle of the bushes that emanates from the street outside. It is only midnight. I feel convinced somebody will try to break into our hut. My heart is pounding, while Bjorn is once again snoring.
The fear builds and builds, but by the time the umpteenth car engine, lone footstep and panting stray dog passes I no longer feel so scared. It is around 2am that I fall back to sleep, having mentally exhausted myself with my fears…
…and 4am that I wake up once again. A taxi driver (tried and trusted by SKZ) is due to pick us up at four and to take us to the bus station for our 5am departure to Lusaka. It is pitch black outside as we pile up our bags and ready our bikes for the taxi driver’s arrival. It is not safe enough to cycle to the station in the darkness. Ten minutes late, 20 minutes late…seems like a bad case of A.T.
When the driver does finally arrive (after four phone calls) we can smell booze on his breath and it is already 5am.
With every Tom, Dick and Emmanuel grabbing at our bags as we arrive at the bus station we manage to flag down and get on board the Lusaka-bound coach as it is departing the bus terminal. It is 600 kilometres to the Zambian capital. I once again drift off to sleep.
The scenery in eastern Zambia is some of the finest in the country. For many dozens of miles there isn't a single person in sight - only fabulous bush and mountain views.
Why are we on the bus instead of cycling? Because on our bikes it would take us 7-8 days instead of 7-8 hours to complete the journey from Chipata to Lusaka. We need to be in South Africa by May 22 and we have at least 2,500 kilometres left to travel.
The UNHCR greet us at Lusaka coach station.
When we reach the headquarters our truck is checked for car-bombs and the security staff salute us.
Together with UNHCR Kelvin we plan ahead for wednesday's Zambian press conference. Those invited include Reuters and the BBC.
We also get in touch with UNHCR South Africa. Many things need to be planned ahead including World Refugee Day and the press coverage of us crossing the border from Botswana later this month.
A very kind Belgian lady, who works for the UNHCR, puts us up for the night at her house in a pleasant suburb.
As if to prove that every day has an incident of some kind, one of the security guards working at her house collapses in the early evening with breathing problems. It is at least 30 minutes before help arrives, and that comes in the form of the security company's 'armed response team' driving a Benny Hill style comedy ambulance. I get the sense that the fallen man's well being isn't of vital importance to his secutiry firm colleagues.
The man is bundled in the back with his bare feet hanging out of the back as the van crawls off into the darkness. I hope the lad is ok.
With that drama over, we watch Gordon Brown resign as British Prime Minister while our friendly hosts treat us to a tasty Chinese takeaway meal and a couple of glasses of whiskey.
More latest news and photos here
Monday, May 10
As well as increasing awareness of the refugees, one of the great personal pleasures of this trip so far has been meeting and seeing the work, first hand, of small organisations that are trying to make a difference in Africa. A few weeks ago I got in contact with ‘Smiling Kids Zambia’. Today, we got the chance to spend some time with this small organisation.
Smiling Kids Zambia is based in the eastern Zambian town of Chipata (population 350,000). The organisation helps to take local kids off the streets and to give them a second chance in life. The children are housed, educated and given fresh hope and motivation for their futures.
Why do kids end up on the street in Chipata? There can be many reasons but the most common explanation is a lack of food at home and the decision by their parents to send them out on to the street begging. Others find their way into the forgotten shadows because of parental abuse or because they suddenly find themselves parentless.
Stephen and Jane from Smiling Kids showed us their kids refuge, where three ‘house mothers’ help look after all the kids there. They took us to see a brilliant drumming, dancing and drama production by one young group of the boys and girls at the recently erected cultural centre, built under the shadows of Chipata’s attractive tree-lined hillsides. One of the young boys, sporting a Man United football top, flared trousers and a trilby would have put Michael Jackson to shame in his prime, such was the brilliance of his dancing.
Next we were taken to the DK Stadium where a football match was quickly organised so that we could watch the under 15 boys play. Once again, football is used by this organisation to help unite the boys (and the girls) and as a way to promote, amongst other things, AIDS/HIV awareness.
It was quite an afternoon with Smiling Kids Zambia, which certainly lives up to its name. The project is successfully taking kids off the street and giving them a future. It is a project well worth supporting. Please take the time to check out their website and donate to the organisation if you wish to.
After getting a bite to eat with two SKZ members of staff in the evening, it already having turned dark, they warn us against flagging down a taxi in that particular area of the city as we think about getting home:
“A lot of the taxi drivers in this area are crooks. They pretend to be taxi drivers then take the people they pick up into the middle of nowhere.”
“Have they attacked any of those people?”
“Yes, there have been a spate of attacks. I think around five people have been killed by false taxi drivers this year. Of course, three or four genuine taxi drivers have also been killed by the people they pick up.”
These are shocking stories in a city the size of Chipata; particularly as this Zambian city is something of an African success story. Not only does it feel very safe in daylight hours but it is very apparent that Chipata is developing positively.
We didn’t need to hear stories like this just before going to bed. Particularly given the fact that the NGO is housing the two of us free-of-charge in a small residential ‘hut’, in an unlit side street, less than a kilometre from the dodgy area we were warned about.
I swig a couple of shots of vodka to help settle the nerves and get off to sleep. We need to get up at 4am to move on. The only two white men in this part of town are all alone in a small hut, our security a feeble padlock, having just been told awful stories of local murders.
Update: (I received this message from Daniel of SKZ):
Thanks a lot for this nice article about Smiling Kids Zambia. I hope you have enjoyed a better night in Lusaka;-)
Some pictures of the SKZ project "Running Streetkids Chipata" you can find under:
Wish you all the best and a safe trip to South Africa
Sunday, May 9
Lilongwe, Malawi - Chipata, Zambia
A million ants have decided to make my room home. The expression ‘ants in your pants’ now has new meaning for me.
It is time to leave Malawi and head west. Malawi has been an excellent experience. Tomorrow Bjorn and I are due to appear in both ‘The Nation’ and ‘Malawi Daily Times’ newspapers. We have enjoyed national coverage on TV, radio and in the papers, and yesterday’s trip to the refugee camp will stay in the memory for many years to come.
I part With 100 dollars in return for two Zambian visas at the Mchinji border post, Bjorn Exchanges his remaining Malawian Kwacha and we are on our way to Chipata, the first sizeable town after the border.
The town feels noticeably more affluent than much of Malawi and our night’s accommodation is the most expensive to date. I guess that is a sign that we are edging ever closer to South Africa.
We watch Chelsea annihilate Wigan 8-0 to win the Premier League in our local bar together with some good humoured Zambians.