33 – 8th March 2006 – Palapye, Botswana.

Distance Cycled : 26,167km

  It’s three weeks since we left Lilongwe but it might be a lifetime!  We’ve had an interesting time, but with typhoid, elephants and headwinds behind us, we’re now facing the final frontier – literally, with the South African border just a day’s ride from here.

After our lazy week off, it was a bit of an effort to get back on the bikes.  In fact we were delayed in Lilongwe a little longer than we wanted, held up not by laziness but by a bad cold Luke had caught and the fact that his cycling shoes had gone AWOL!  In the confusion of catching a minibus when we were with Julie and Chris, we left our shoebag behind.  With no registration number, not even the name of the driver finding the right vehicle in Lilongwe’s bustling bus station seemed like a needle in a haystack job.  But we did locate the vehicle miraculously, and agreed to rendezvous with the driver, who knew the whereabouts of the shoes and would be back in the capital in 48 hours.  We were hugely relieved when he did appear at the appointed hour bearing the shoes, which a boy in a village had been unsuccessfully trying to sell.  Hardly surprising that he hadn’t found a buyer – ragged and smelly with months of dust and sweat ingrained in them, these shoes are hardly desirable items.  As a result of all this hanging around, we were eager to be off, and left Lilongwe in the cool of dawn on 15th February.  We raced along a smooth road bordering fields of maize and eye-high grass, reaching the Zambian border by mid-afternoon.

The border guard relieved us of USD 60 each – not an extortionate bribe but the official visa fee that Britons visiting Zambia must pay!  It seemed a lot for a stay of two weeks.  They obviously don’t use the money to repair roads – as soon as we entered Zambian territory, the tarmac became pocked with potholes, and crumbly along the edges.  Then a drumroll of thunder advanced towards us, a brilliant fork of lightning rent the sullen sky and the rain came down.  We’ve never been caught in rain like that before – sheets of water slashed at our legs, visbility was down to 50 metres and torrents of brown water, laden with silt, rushed across the highway.  With the potholes, crossing these mini-rivers was a bit hazardous!  We reached Chipata in an utterly sodden state, and were dismayed to find the campsite we were heading for in a state of abandonment!  We found a motel where there was hot water and that evening Luke enjoyed his first bath of the expedition!  Zambians must be rather short – Luke had trouble fitting in the bath-tub!

Our watery welcome to Zambia was not over yet – a long, uninhabited stretch of 600km lay ahead and the rain continued to fall for the whole 5 days it took us to cover the distance!  We rode through a wild and green landscape, covered with maize fields where human habitation had encroached on the wilderness, but otherwise cloaked with forest and grassland.  Much of the vegetation is mopane woodland, the term refers to a particular dominant tree species which has butterfly-shaped leaves that gave rise to the name – in the tswana language mopane means butterfly.  There were plenty of real butterflies fluttering delicately between the flowery verges when the sun made its brief appearances.  Thumbnail-sized yellow butterflies mingled with white, blue and brown ones, and at night the moths took over, fantastically patterned with velvety spots and blobs of shiny mother-of-pearl.  Zambia itself is shaped something like a butterfly, with one wing reaching up towards Malawi, bordered to north and south by the DRC and Mozambique respectively.  A dark blue line of hills marked the Mozambican border but the Congo was several ranges of rugged mountains away – the only sign that we were in the middle of this colonial sandwich being the odd word of French we heard – Zambia must have absorbed a fair share of the DRCs refugees in recent years.  The hills were tiring and the rain made us a bit miserable, but we were rewarded by fabulous mountain vistas, flocks of chirruping bee-eaters and raptors soaring above and the quietude of the countryside – quite a relief after densely-populated Malawi!  The night sky was a deep, velvety blue-black pricked with innumerable bright stars – a sort of celestial pin-cushion!  The best stellar display was on the night before we reached Lusaka, when we stayed at an orphanage-cum-school.

The chalets were rather ambitiously named, and the bathroom was the concrete ledge round the back of the building!  Still, it was shelter from the rain and it’s hard to beat the view from Africa’s open-air ablution blocks – though it wasn’t quite as easy to strip off and wash as when we wild camp – a stream of people cycled or wandered by while Anna was slathering soap on her grubby self.  With all that stuff falling from the sky, it was frustratingly hard to get hold of clean drinking water.  Somewhere along the way, Anna must have drunk a dodgy bottleful because she was feeling decidedly ill by the time we rolled in to the capital, Lusaka, and returned to civilisation.

With hypermarkets and three-lane highways, Lusaka was something of a shock to the system!  Anna was too unwell to take advantage of the gastronomic temptations on offer (probably a good thing, financially speaking!) and spent much of her time studying the campsite toilets and lying groaning in the tent.  After two days without food, though, she was feeling better and we reckoned the bug had been banished, so we saddled up again and headed south into Zambia’s lower “wing”, and towards the Zambezi River.

Mercifully, the road was flat and the tarmac smooth – the rain even held off for a few days and the sunflowers in the drenched fields turned their faces upwards again.  Swallows and bee-eaters were out in force, skimming the road and

chittering on the telegraph wires.  They were long days, though, and Anna was feeling weak having subsisted on a diet of fizzy drinks for days by the time we reached Livingstone.  We had a bit of a setback when Anna’s gear cable frayed through and we discovered the linking device had corroded so badly it was impossible to extract the cable or thread a new one…  We improvised and Anna struggled on with her range of gears down from 27 to 6 – now we know why local people on 3-speeds curse on the hills!  We fashioned a slightly more long-term repair in Livingstone which will hopefully last the rest of the way!

With a rather remote section ahead, we decided Anna had better go to the doctor in Livingstone to rule out anything serious.  A few blood tests later…the doctor informed her that she had paratyphoid.  He suggested possible treatments and rolled his eyes when we said we needed to leave asap as we were on bikes and had to make up some distance…  He rolled his eyes and pulled a face exactly like the GP in Cambridge did when Anna once had ‘flu but said she had to go rowing all the same….  “Some people, honestly” he almost muttered and sold us a course of antibiotics which would allow Anna to heal along the way – the alternative would have been a three-day regime of intravenous infusion.

We rested in Livingstone for an extra day, visiting the spectacular Victoria Falls at dawn.  We got absolutely soaked!  All this rain has swelled the Zambezi and the spray is phenomenal as the channel plunges into the red rock of the gorge and flows on into Zimbabwe.  An impressive bridge forms the border and a multitude of soft rainbows filled the void beneath it.  On the other side, the tin roofs of Zimbabwean houses glinted in the morning sun and a

few trucks and buses rumbled over into Zambia.  More and more people are leaving Zimbabwe as the country slides further towards economic catastrophe – we heard on the news that bread is so hopelessly unaffordable that many people are substituting sweet potatoes for this staple.  A new note has been issued – a value of 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars.  With this note, the largest denomination there is, you can buy, well, nothing much.  Zambia itself had been more expensive than we anticipated, perhaps affected by the instability of it’s neighbour.  The currency has also been bolstered by the writing off of debts and the strength of the copper industry, among other things.  Zambia also has a 50,000 note but at least it’s worth almost ten quid – there is also a 20 kwacha note, though, equivalent to a third of a penny.  If there was the same range of denominations in Britain, there would have to be a £12,500 note.  That would be handy for buying a car…but you might kick yourself for leaving your wallet on the Tube if you had a few stashed in there…

Full of buttered toasted raisin bread and tea (Livingstone was blessed with a supermarket – hurrah!), we struck west, parallel to the Zambezi, on the morning of 1st March.  A nervous few kilometres through the Mosi Oa Tunya National Park provided a taste of things to come – the rangers at the park gates told us there were “plenty” of elephants about.  We saw none, but had fun fixing a hard-to-find puncture instead.  By now the mopane trees had been replaced by acacia, whose needle-sharp thorns we had studiously been avoiding…only for Anna to run over a sharp bit of wire on the roadside.  Very deflating (ho ho). It was time to get the passports out again as we rolled in to Kazungula and got ready to board the ancient ferry to cross the watery border between Zambia and Botswana.  Anna was beginning to wonder what was taking so long when Luke re-emerged from the office.  He hadn’t had to part with any more dollars but the official had obviously been bored and decided to quiz Luke.  “How much does a British passport cost?” was one of the questions.  We didn’t like to tell him you couldn’t simply grab three off the shelf in Tesco, as he seemed to think.  Zambian passports were much cheaper, he moaned – a mere 72,000 kwacha – 15 quid.  Surely still quite pricey for your average Zambian, though?  The five-minute ferry crossing was uneventful, though the queue of waiting lorries was quite entertaining.  The ferry could only transport one at a time, and a score of juggernauts was waiting to cross, the drivers pacing about in the dust or simply sleeping in their cabs.  Bicycles have distinct advantages – they only take up as much space as a fat local “mama” so there’s always room and we were in Botswana before the next trucker had even revved up his engine ready for embarkation.  Perhaps building bridges is another thing they could spend all that touist visa revenue on….

We experienced a distinct sense of deja-vu when we spread out the map of Botswana to plan our route.  It looked like the Western Sahara had on paper – a ruler-straight red line through a contourless, featureless flatland with only the odd dashed blue line indicating a seasonal (hmm, dry then) river.  But we knew it was good tarmac, and surely one locust plague was enough for one lifetime, so we reckoned we could bump off some big distances.  Between Kazungula and the small town of Nata lay 300km of wilderness and so we set off with enough water for two days – a whopping extra 20 litres weighing Luke’s panniers down and making us pray fervently to the god of nuts and bolts – surely the attachment clips wouldn’t fail now, after all these thousands of kilometres??  The first day we saw a whole lot of trees and waving expanses of grass and shrubs.  By midday something appeared on the skyline – a grain silo??  You can imagine our frustration when we rolled into a village called Pantamatenga to find a petrol station, a shop and WATER!  Carrying an extra 20kg for over 100km is not too amusing, especially when you realise it was unnecessary…  The ice-cold Sprite from the shop fridge went down a treat, though, and we soon got over the annoyance.  The road narrowed in the afternoon, the vegetation became thicker and the piles of dung on the road became more and more frequent.  Anna was just about to tentatively comment that it was surprising we hadn’t seen any elephants when we heard a crash and a sound of splintering branches – a huge, male elephant loomed from the undergrowth on our right and our heart rates soared.  During the afternoon we saw a further half a dozen elephants, usually alone and always nonchalantly ripping up shrubs or effortlessly toppling trees.  It is hard to convey just how BIG an elephant is, and quite how powerful and, well, mighty.  From a vehicle you can appreciate them, but perhaps only on a bicycle or on foot do you truly appreciate how awesome they are.  By 6pm we’d covered 165km and the landscape was still looking like ideal elephant habitat, and the piles of dung steamed on the road, albeit ringed rather prettily by clouds of tiny yellow butterflies – presumably attracted by the moisture.  A radio mast appeared on the horizon and took an age to reach – your sense of perspective seems to struggle in a featureless landscape.  We reached the radio mast and found a little hut and some solar panels in an enclosure, but razor wire surrounded the would-be sanctuary and a sturdy padlock secured the gates.  We leaned the bikes against the fence and erected the tent close by the gates.  We cooked dinner in the twilight, glancing nervously around, before snuggling down in the tent and zipping ourselves in.  Our green tent, our mobile shelter has been pitched in so many places and our familiarity with it makes it seem like home.  Inside, you feel somehow protected and safe and our sleep was not too broken that night.

Of course the first person we talked to the next day scared us to death by telling us there were lions about!  It was a truck driver, who flagged us down and told us to watch out for the next 20km or so.  Feeling rather silly about, we prepared our, ahem, defences a few kilometres on, once out of his sight.  No doubt a gun or something big and bangy might have been more appropriate but what we actually did was put our whistle in Luke’s pocket – a shrill blast would maybe see off any marauding lions.  Anyway, they’re just big mogs, we told ourselves.  It was 50km before we dared sit down for a rest, and then we managed to stop on top of a colony of biting ants.  We toiled on in the sun, and soon fear of lions had given way to elephant-phobia again.  A particularly enormous male was flumping around right by the road and we waited and waited for him to move.  Just as we were despairing, a vehicle from a government ministry stopped and turned around to escort us past the pesky pachyderm, crawling at 20kph and flanking us for the whole stretch.  Saved!  I could have kissed them.  We finally rolled into Nata at 5pm and were delighted to hear from the receptionist at the campsite that the stretch from Nata to Francistown was elephant free – hmm, there are some donkeys and goats, though, she added thoughtfully.  We just grinned in relief – no more wild beasts!  After a delicious (and rather large) dinner, during which a family of bushbabies scampered about in the trees overhead and made funny gurgling noises, we slept exceedingly well and were read to do battle with a 180km stretch to Francistown the next morning.  The weather, unfortunately,

had other ideas – a blasting headwind slowed us to a crawl and flattened the tall grass on the verges, whirled small birds through the air and whipped up sand that scoured our faces.  There is nothing quite as demoralising as a headwind and soon we were tired and frustrated, wanting to shake our fists ineffectually at the sky.  My midday it was clear we weren’t going to be reaching Francistown, so we stopped in a tiny village called Mosetse and asked if we could pitch our tent behind the shop there.  The lady said we were very welcome but thought we might be too cold under canvas – in fact, it was a biting wind and we hunkered down in the tent for the rest of the day, swaddled in our sleeping bags and hoping the rocks holding down the guy-lines of the tent would be heavy enough!

The next day the wind had dropped enough to allow us to make better progress, though it was still hard going.  Luke removed his front panniers and strapped them on top of the rear rack, and we adopted a regime of military precision,
taking it in turns to face the wind – 4km for Luke, 1km for Anna, 4km for Luke, 1km for Anna and so on and on and on until, at last, with some relief, we reached the outskirts of Francistown and fell gratefully into the tent once more.  We had a rest day in the rather dreary town, and testing the tactfulness and training of the lady in the local launderette – a lesser mortal would have been horrified by the damp and stinking plastic bag of clothes we shamefacedly handed over, as an odour of mould filled the shop…  Yesterday was another long stretch to reach Palapye – 170km – and now we are facing the South African border, which lies just over 100km away.  It’s hard to believe we will soon be in the the southernmost country of this vast continent after all these miles and so many months.  We’ll be in touch again soon from somewhere very near Cape Town…!

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