A Travellerspoint blog

August 2009

The Long Way to Lilongwe : Part 2

Zooming through Zambia

sunny 30 °C

The burgers did the trick. Fully revived we stormed up out from the river Luangwa and enjoyed incredible scenery. There were few villages and those we passed through were small, most without even a market

The corner shop!

However fish could be found in all of them if you looked hard enough.

We caused much excitement as we passed through these small villages – even the cockerels seemed to crow “Aba Zuuuungu, Aba Zuuuuuungu” (White people)

A beautiful spot by a stream in the middle of vast woodland that we passed through about 40km into the day would have been the perfect place to set up camp but since it was only about 10am we made do with replenishing our water and enjoying a peaceful break. We knew we would be in the bush that night as there would be nowhere for miles.

By the time we did start looking for a place to stop the villages were larger and more frequent. We carried on nearly until sunset and left the road unspotted heading for a small mango orchard. The trees provided good cover and we washed and set up camp. We had bought plenty of tomatoes and onions and were sat preparing a sauce for our spaghetti when out of the darkness we heard a cough. We saw 3 or 4 men approaching from the other side of the tent. They hadn't seen us but with the fire burning and our things scattered around it was inevitable that they would. We greeted them and they approached towering over us with their pangas (machetes) and the heavy smell of alcohol lingering in the air around them. We rose quickly to our feet feeling pretty nervous. There were more voices and looking to our left we saw a group of maybe a dozen more men coming from the direction of the road all of them brandishing clubs, hoes or more pangas.

It seemed as though all the men from the village had turned out. And they had! But not as we feared it might be to clear out the abazungu. They were in search of the cow thief! Apparently someone had been through the village during the day and taken a cow and must now be hiding out somewhere on the outskirts. The alarm was raised and the fighting aged men gathered. They were sweeping through the area when our torch was spotted from the road. The men were coming to retrieve the cow and deal out justice. But we were OK. They were very friendly and assured us we were safe, taking pains to put us at our ease. We chatted for a while and then off they went to complete their errand. As the quiet returned we sat down to eat our meal under the mangos. Our thoughts turned to the cow thief hiding out in the bush. We did not envy him in the slightest.

We slept well. Packed up early and headed on. We never heard any more about the cow, or the thief. The remnants of the steep hills we had defeated over the last couple of days stretched themselves out over the next 20km until they became very manageable undulating waves. We covered good distances and re-fuelled frequently at the markets and roadside stalls on plump tomatoes, sugar-coated dough balls, freshly baked bread, bananas and convenient sized packets of home grown peanuts roasted, salted, bagged and sold outside peoples huts. We compared techniques for carrying loads on bicycles amongst the cycling fraternity...



We were quite confused to hear a plaintive bleat from the back of this bike! It crescendoed into a panicked cry whenever we got too close behind.

The original “people mover” - We saw another guy with his wife on the pannier rack carrying a child on her back and their son sitting on the cross bar – 4 on 1 bike!

and we bought tomatoes from the cutest tomato vendor in Zambia.


Initially gathered around the table waving to us her friends scattered when we stopped and drew near. She was quite overwhelmed and there was a long silence when we asked her how she was but then the shock subsided and she answered with the most beautiful clarity in her voice “I'm very well thank you and how are you?” Perfect English. It was however her only English and we did have a little trouble negotiating our change – in the most innocent way possible.

We enjoyed more stunning scenery...


Looking South to Mozambique


... and we terrified a little girl who came across us as we were taking a break in a banana plantation. She was only about 4 and she didn't notice us until she was very close. When she did see us she just screamed hysterically and then turned and fled screaming all the way.


Before we knew it we were through the town of Chipata ascending towards the Zambia – Malawi border which runs along the watershed of the Zambezi and Shire Rivers – the Shire River flowing out of the South of Lake Malawi.

Malawi is instantly distinct from Zambia. The most obvious difference is the housing. Small brick houses replace the toadstoolesque grass huts and every village has at least one homestead where bricks are being made.


But there are more subtle differences too. There is a greater variety of freshly grown veg available along the sides of the road and people are busy cutting potatoes and cooking chips and goats meat at the markets. The people seem industrious. Metal buckets outside peoples houses overflowing with peanuts replace the small packets bought in Zambia. A cup sits in the bucket and the nuts are bought by the scoopfull. Rob heroically saved one of these buckets from a cheeky group of goats by charging them at full speed as the villagers shouted and clapped. They quickly scattered.

We snacked on goats meat and chips

As we pedalled along we were puzzled by mats spread out in the villages covered in something bright and white, dazzling us in the sunlight. It turned out to be maize meal. The women work hard getting flour from their maize. It's a lengthy process. They wash the corn broken off the cobs and then crush it. Some villages have an electric mill where the corn is crushed but those who live further away do it themselves in giant wooden pestle and mortars. Then the powder is washed again and spread out on reed mats to dry in the sun before being packed away in sacks until it's needed. It forms the staple diet, being made into a porridge called “paap” or “sheema” which looks a bit like mash potato.

We camped once in Malawi under the cover of some banana palms and a termite mound before reaching Lilongwe. Rob didn't sleep too well since his larium kicked in and he heard a psychopath screaming menacingly in the night!


An early start got us to Lilongwe by lunch time where we were given the most wonderful welcome by the Taylors. We spent several days relaxing, enjoying Janet and Dons company and hospitality feeling pleased at the completion of another leg of our journey and looking forward to our trip on the boat up Lake Malawi.


Posted by robandpol 05:00 Archived in Malawi Tagged bicycle Comments (7)

The Long Way to Lilongwe : Part 1

Hills, Heat and Headwind

sunny 29 °C

After leaving our rather sooty mark on Zambia we pedalled on to Lusaka and managed to arrive without causing too much more disruption. Lusaka is a big hectic capital city. As we approached it and the buildings grew bigger we were delighted by the artwork – the shops advertised their wares with beautiful images painted on the walls.

Dad – I took this one for you!

The highlight of Lusaka was meeting 2 spaniards – Aitor and Laura - who have cycled together from India via the Middle East.. they are currently heading to Capetown, where they will turn around and head back up the West Coast of Africa to Spain! It makes our trip look like a teddy bear's picnic, especially when we found out that Igor actually started his trip in SE Asia !

Hardcore spaniards

We had a good early start from Lusaka... however after a short distance we discovered that Rob wasn't going to get very far after his excellent effort the night before with an 'all you can eat' curry.

After a very slow 20km we arrived at a very nice campsite and Rob spent the rest of the day recovering..


Rob sleeping off the 'all you can eat' curry with his new friend.

The cycling was tough.... with hills, heat and a strong headwind for much of the way....

Hills we can deal with.. just put the bike in a low gear, keep pedalling and soon you have a nice view... heat isn't too bad.. just need to keep drinking... but headwind... there is nothing more de-moralising than a strong headwind..

It can literally stop you in your tracks... today I slogged up a long hill.. the only thing keeping me sane was the thought of the cruise down the other side... but as I started the downhill I had to keep pedalling almost as hard - then before I knew it I was struggling up the next hill.. of course you look forward to the flat parts.. but they are the worst as the wind really picks up the pace and there is no respite. The buses speed past at 120km/hr wondering why the umzungu cyclist is only going at 10km/h and the umzungu cyclist wonders why he's not on the bus!

Anyway apart from the misery of the headwind...

The scenery has been stunning and there have been stretches of miles at a time between the little villages.


A characteristic feature of rural Zambian life is the production and sale of charcoal. Heaps of smouldering wood are covered in soil so they resemble small burial mounds. After a week the mound is excavated and the charcoal skillfully packed into sacks with at least as much balanced on top as inside.


The sacks are for sale all along the road but the more enterprising businessmen load up their bicycles and head for the towns where they can get a bit more for their efforts.


This guy was making the 80km round trip into Lusaka to peddle his wares!

The day we headed on after Rob recovered was HOT. Hills began to grow out of the flat and we drank a lot.


Mid afternoon our water was getting low. We had a potential campsite lined up but it was still a long way off and we were considering camping in the bush. We stopped at a water pump to refill only to find it had broken the previous month so we headed on. Before long a water lorry with 2 guys in the back passed us on the road. We saw the liquid splashing in the 2 huge vats. It beeped its horn several times and stopped up ahead at the village. We pedalled hard and Rob got in line before all the villagers got there. I checked with the guys that they didn't mind us taking some explaining we had a few empty bottles to fill and we needed quite a lot. They were extremely jovial “Yes. It's fine. We have some, you have some, we all are happy.” Zambians really are so nice and obliging!! I grinned.
“Is it drinking water?” I asked “Is it good to drink?” I gestured with my hand as though drinking from an imaginary glass. “Yes, yes. Very good to drink. Very sweet!” Sweet – It's funny the way language use subtly shifts. Rob shuffled his way up the queue. At the same moment we caught sight of the liquid flowing out of the vats – it was grey - a grey, milky liquid.
“It's beer!!”
“Yes, beer, very good to drink, very sweet.”
It was Chibuku – a local beer made from maize. We put our bottles away and pedalled off laughing, much to the disappointment of the locals and the guys in the back. But we hadn't seen the last of them. Shortly later we found a functioning pump to quench our thirst and filled our bottles there.


We spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening leapfrogging the beer truck as it stopped to inebriate the villages in its path washing away our chances of finding a safe place to camp with the Chibuku as it went. We were just starting to re-assess our options when the wobbly writing “dam-view camping and charlets” came into view at the foot of a large hill and we headed a few hundred metres off the road to a beautiful dam escaping the hill until the next day.


The revenue from the camp site goes towards an orphanage in the village. We bathed in hot water from a huge kettle heated over a fire before cooking our supper on the coals.

The next day the hills only got bigger.
We enjoyed stopping at the little markets along the way.

We found delicious samosas filled with potato and rice here and also dough balls which were soon to form a major part of our diet!

and enjoyed reaching the campsite at the Luangwa River even more. We sat on the deck of the lodge slumped in the chairs too exhausted to move. We were so tired that after we'd showered (just in time to avoid an influx of “overlanders”) we didn't even mind spending about £8 on a beef burger each!


Posted by robandpol 02:55 Archived in Zambia Tagged bicycle Comments (4)

Leaving Livingstone

The Burning Bush

sunny 29 °C

So we finally managed to drag ourselves away from Livingstone. You know you've stayed too long when the grass under your tent is yellow! Cliff the Cowboy escorted us out of the town in style and we headed off into the empty bush pleased to be cycling once more.

Forewarned that the main road was being reconstructed we braced ourselves for the bumpy detour. However to our delight we found a big enough gap in the barrier for our bikes to slip through.


Road closed – but not to cyclists!!!


The result was traffic free cycling on clay as smooth as glass.

The first day took us through miles of beautiful, sparsely populated bush. We were quite surprised at the lack of construction activity going on given it was mid week. The only people we came across were the teams of obligatory “flag wavers” we've become so used to during our time in Africa. We still don't know whether the red flag they frantically wave is a signal to stop or to go. We just smile and wave as we cycle on by. Their role on a closed road is even less clear especially when we later learnt that it was a day off for the road building team!

Late afternoon we passed the construction teams camp and had a nice chat with a chap sitting on a digger who turned out to be the guard. He kindly refilled our water bottles and waved us on our way. We soon found a perfect spot to camp a few kilometers on before we got too close to a nearby village.


The camping spot - Pol is also in this picture somewhere!!

The grass was quite long so while I went off to collect firewood Rob prepared to clear an area for the tent and campfire..............

I hadn't been gone long – there was plenty of wood around and I managed to find some nice, big, thick branches. I made my way back with them to the bikes and found Rob - surrounded by fire, LOTS of fire. With no rain for months and a strong wind the flames were rapidly growing. I dropped the wood and we started beating at the flames with some branches. Just as we got one part under control the flames would surge somewhere else before re-igniting the patch we'd just contained. We rushed around trying our best to get a grip on the fire. A couple of times we had to rescue our kit– including a canister of petrol – as the fire was spreading fast in all directions. We alternated between manicly hitting at the flames and standing back in disbelief gazing at the chaos we had unleashed.

From the flat the flames raced towards a nearby hillock topped with a tree. They hit the bank and roared up, doubling, tripling in size, licking hungrily at the branches of the tree above. The sky was filling with smoke and disorientated birds flayed their roosts squawking coarsely. We had definitely lost control.
My mind darted to the signs we saw so often in South Africa depicting a bewildered buck with the caption below: “Fire stops with you!! Call 0027”.


Fire starts with us.

We needed a new plan. Rob would stay and fight the flames and I would go for help. I pedalled away as fast as I could passing a pair of lilac breasted rollers sitting haplessly on a log beyond the blaze. The guard had said there were 300 men at the construction camp – I figured 10 Zambian guys with bush-fire know how would do the trick.

It wasn't long before I saw a lone figure approaching in the distance. I quickened my pace and slammed to a halt in front of what turned out to be the guard who had filled our water bottles earlier. Brushing aside his inquiries concerning my well-being in an attempt to instill some urgency I tried to explain what had happened. He gathered I needed some help and in the next instance I was pedalling furiously back to the fire – local fire expert loaded on the pannier rack.

We reached the fire and the guard leapt to action seeing instantly the nature of help required. Shouting to Rob I spun the bike round and headed once more towards the camp to get more men!!

  • ****************************

As I beat at one edge of the fire with a stick and my feet the leading edge of the fire raced away from me faster than I was extinguishing the leeward edge... I started to pray.. “Dear God.. put this fire out!.. make it go towards the road... help me put it out..” as I prayed I seemed to make some headway.. slowly catching up the leading edge.. as my confidence grew in my ability the flames hit another thick patch of dry grass and flared away.

Then Pol arrived back with the guard from the camp.. like our guardian angel he ran in, broke of a big branch with leaves on (mine was leafless) and started putting out the fire left right and centre.. he knew which bits we could ignore and which needed urgent attention - within 30mins it was out.. The guard stated triumphantly... “30minutes.. all out.. knock off now.. I very strong at putting out fire!” I wanted to hug him but thought it inappropriate - so gave him a firm handshake. I explained to him.. “I prayed , you came, we put the fire out”. “Yes” he said, “Jesus is real!”

  • ******************************

I thought it would be simple. 10 men, a backie, 4-5km back to the fire – it shouldn't take long. I was wrong. I hadn't factored in the multiple language barriers I would have to break through first!! The Chinese have the contract for building the roads. They oversee the Zambian workers and call all the shots in very ropey English.

Eventually a rather stern, poker faced Chinese man grasped the levity of the situation and took control. A crowd of Zambian men gathered, recalled from their various quarters where they were enjoying a rare day off. The Chinese man barked at a frightening volume and the men started piling in the back of a big truck.

“You. In front. Show us where.” I hauled myself up into the front of the truck and we headed off into the night.

I was feeling uneasy. It was a while now since I left the guard with Rob so I knew one of two things had happened – either the fire was raging out of control, or it was simply out. I had lent hard on the Chinese overseers to persuade them to help. I had a truck full of about 20 workers wrenched from their rest and I was scanning the bush for the fire. It would be hard to say whether I would have preferred the fire at that point to be out or out of control!

The truck hurtled down the road. I saw a light up ahead – that could be Rob. I strained my eyes. No, it was 2 black guys. With a headtorch? We passed them by. It was Rob and the guard.

I shouted. “Stop!”. The truck stopped and we reversed. The Chinese guy wound down his window and Rob grinned up at us. “It's out. It's all ok!”. A mixture of relief and embarrassment flooded through me. I climbed out the truck and thanked the scary Chinese man. The guard hopped into the back of the truck and the other Zambian guys handed me down my bike. I thanked them and apologised for the false alarm. They couldn't have been kinder – not a flicker of reproachment.

  • ******************************

That night we didn't really feel like cooking! After a tin of cold baked beans we crawled exhausted into the tent and slept very soundly.


Posted by robandpol 02:29 Archived in Zambia Tagged bicycle Comments (3)

Cliff the Cowboy!

Inspiration in a Cowboy Hat

sunny 28 °C

Cliff used to work for one of the tour companies and noticed a disturbing phenomenon: Livingstone was becoming more and more divided. The tourists were too scared to go to the 'black' areas and the blacks becoming resentful of the tourists, thus the black areas were becoming more and more unsafe for visitors and the community becoming more and more resentful of the wealthy whites.

He started tours into the township areas.. first on foot.. then he got a loan and bought a bike to hire out.. but on the second day he had 2 customers so he needed another bike... and so it spiralled.. he now has 40 bikes for rent, employs tour guides and has used all the profit into making a Pre-school.


Us on a cliff


Us on a cliff with Cliff with Cliff!


Batoga Gorge


The story of the school is depicted in this mural. The school started with Cliff's wife teaching their 2 children and 3 neighbors in the shade of a straw roof. The community saw a change in these kids and so wanted their children to attend too. Unfortunately Cliff's wife died a couple of years ago but with the help of a Dutch school teacher (who met cliff on one of his tours), the school is thriving. The institution now has 3 full time teachers, 100 kids, 4 classrooms and is looking to expand!

We were invited to visit the school to talk about our trip.. we jumped at the opportunity and enjoyed every moment.

The kids are soo lovely, they all wear little blue hats because it's 'The Local Cowboy Pre school!'


Spot Rob!


The teachers - Gloria, Pumta, Exildah and Pol


'Cliff The Cowboy'


'Pol the Cowgirl' (Note Zambian flag in background)

It is incredible what can be achieved with a bit of vision, some energy and faith.

Posted by robandpol 00:15 Archived in Zambia Comments (4)

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