We pulled out of Nairobi along a wide highway, passing a smiling policeman who boomed, “Long Distance Cyclists, welcome to Kenya! Enjoy yourselves!” Our decision to cut east from Nairobi towards Mombasa was regarded by Kenyan professional road racer and mentor to Chris Froome, David Kinja*, as possible, but stressful. Lonely Planet reckon cycling it is “tantamount to suicide”. But we survived the huge numbers of hauliers plying the route from Mombasa’s gigantic port to the Kenyan capital and beyond thanks to our rear-view mirrors and a simple communication strategy. “OFF!” one of us would shout; we’d hit the brakes and swoop onto the roadside scrub to wait for the thundering lorries to pass. After four days of this we were rewarded by a few days off on the idyllic beaches south of Mombasa, and by the quiet road south towards Tanzania.
The terrain to the border was flat and a warm breeze on our backs swept us swiftly along to the man with the stamp. Crossing into Tanzania the hills started and the humidity sky-rocketed. Humidity sapped our energy in a way the dry heat of the desert never did, so we were glad to climb up and away from the lovely town of Tanga and inland from the coast. Like most of Africa, Tanzania is busy improving her roads, but the stretch south of Segara, where we joined the main Dar-Arusha highway was not finished. Covering hills with the contours of 1000 London bobbies’ hats placed in a line, a new layer of tarmac was down on the road, but no markings, meaning buses had no yellow sideline to stay on the right of. Twice we had to launch ourselves off the foot high drop into the bushes to escape when two buses passed at once or someone tried an ill-advised overtaking manoeuvre. Tanzania’s drivers – most Tanzanians seemed eager to agree – are the worst on the continent.
Halfway through our second dangerous day of this we were frazzled. We were aiming to get to Bagamoyo to hang out in the place where our buddy Kathy had been doing a Phd. Bagamoyo is 70km off to the left, and we’d be turning round and coming back the same 70km to the main road, so we decide to get a bus to escape the last 40km of the hellish narrow, hilly road. As bad as any road is, the stress of getting our bikes and all our bags (nine, plus camera, sleeping mats and tent) onto a bus is a pretty miserable alternative, but we negotiated it without too much hassle and zipped ludicrously quickly over the hills to the Bagamoyo turnoff.
There we hopped off the bus and back on our bikes, downhill on a newly finished, and almost totally empty of traffic, road. It was much nicer riding. But we had set off after 2pm to cover 70kms. We’d be cutting it fine to get there before dark. Everything was going to plan, until 20km out from town the new road ended. The tarmac turned to gravel, and the gravel turned to dry and dusty mud. Our speed plummeted and we found ourselves cycling alongside Tanzanians making their way home as day turned to dusk. They kept us right – guiding us along side tracks that avoided the trucks on the main route and, as it turned from being difficult to see to impossible to see, along the back streets of town to a place where Kathy’s friend could come and find us.
There followed a great couple of days in the hospitality and company of Sylvain and his family, Stefano, Kaya and the rest of Bagamoyo. Another few swims in the sea, bike rides to ruins and excellent Burundian home cooking by Sylvain’s beautiful wife and family. Thanks all.
Back on the road we had a few of the most special days of cycling we’d had since the Ethiopian Highlands. South of Morogoro the main road towards Zambia and Malawi passes right through the middle of an amazing national park. We did our research and realised that this is one of the few parks that allow cyclists to ride through. We reached its edge and, passing the huge CAUTION DANGEROUS ANIMALS sign, pedalled on with our best lion spotting eyes on. If you’ve ever been on safari, you’ll know that every log, ant hill, oddly shaped tree and patch of grass is at first glance an animal. We cycled for 20kms but saw little actual wildlife. Then, we rounded a corner and looking down at us was a giraffe. And then another. Then elephants, far back from the road. Until all around us were zebra and impala and every kind of animal you’d hope to see as you cycle by, and none of the ones we didn’t. It’s very special to coast by an elephant and hear him ripping up grass to chew.
Beyond the park the road climbs for a few days up into the Southern Highlands. We weaved our way through alpine valleys and past hills as pointed as piles of sugar. We made it to Iringa, where ten years previously I’d attended in-country training before my placement as an SPW volunteer. Unlike returning to Ethiopia after eight years, everything in Iringa – indeed Tanzania – was familiar. The town, and the country are as sleepy as I remembered. This East African giant has not yet woken from its slumber, still apparently a very difficult place to do business with a government in no hurry to reform. Tanzania was the first place we’d been where people weren’t excited to talk politics.
My old friend Frank greeted us at gloriously unchanging culinary institution, (think beans on toast, omelettes and chips, Kellogg’s Frosties and cold milk) Hasty Tasty’s. He was coming to the end of a two year stint in the town working for the same organisation we’d both volunteered for – SPW, now rebranded as Restless Development. He and his friends took exceptional care of us for a few indulgent days in the town of warm days and cool nights – a colonial posting of your dreams.
Leaving Iringa we headed further south to Mafinga where we left the bikes behind to catch the bus to the village where I’d volunteered ten years ago. I still call the village chairman Baba Yangu – Kiswahili for My Father – and we’ve been in sporadic contact over the last decade. He knew about our journey and we’d been texting back and forth about our progress til our phone got nicked in Sudan and with it his number. Despite Frank trying to get hold of his contact details number, we’d never managed to find a number that worked so were getting on the bus with no idea whether he’d even be there.
Having wound up into the hills through tea plantations and old growth forest the bus came to rest in Mdabulo after three and a half hours. It quickly became surrounded by meeters and greeters, and people picking up packages, and others just coming for a look and to shoot the breeze with whoever’d been to town. We stepped off and chatted with the old faces I recognised, then wandered down the path to Baba Yangu’s. As we got close his son, now 12, was playing outside. He recognised me and shouted “Mac!” We hugged him and he led us into the house where Mwan ya Kiti Kangalawe was having a nap. The surprise in his eyes and familiar half-smile as he worked out what was going on will stay with me forever.
Most things seemed to be very much the same in Tanzania, but in Mdabulo one thing was exceptionally different. When I was a working there we took some volunteers, including Baba Yangu, to be tested for HIV in Iringa – showing the importance of knowing your status. The best doctors could do for those who tested positive – and some unquestionably would have – was to return to the village, eat well and stay as healthy as possible. Treatment for Africans living with HIV was a pipe-dream. Now there is a gleaming HIV Testing, Treatment and Care unit attached to the small rural health clinic. Over 1600 people from Mdabulo and the surrounding area are now receiving life-saving HIV drugs, including children as young as six, thanks to international development funding.
You meet a lot of aid cynics in Europe and indeed Africa but the clinic records showing, in red ink, the list of patients with dangerously low immune cell counts was incredibly stark. Those patients are now all on ARVs. It is unquestionable evidence that aid works, and millions are alive because of it.
We spent three days in Mdabulo, walking the roads, calling in on old friends, getting tipsy on ulanzi and komon and trying to remember people’s names and to whom they are related. By the time we got back to the bikes in Mafinga I was feeling decidedly peaky – as we’d both known, drinking the home brew bamboo juice (ulanzi) and millet beer (komon) was a bit foolish. I was laid up. After a couple of days we set out again, now riding in the middle of the Tanzanian rainy season. We got thoroughly drenched once, but narrowly avoided the most cataclysmic thunder and lightning we’ve ever heard. Sheltering in a small guesthouse we sipped beer and listened to the air crackling and fizzing as lighting came to earth just outside and the electric storm passed right over our heads.
The contrast in culture, language, landscape and, honestly, almost everything when you pass from Egypt to Sudan to Ethiopia to Kenya is shocking. Crossing from Tanzania into Malawi, the changes were more subtle. There are South African supermarkets in the bigger towns in Malawi, and with them a much improved supply of Cadbury’s. And Malawi’s roads are empty, a consequence of an economic crisis that has left people struggling even more than usual to make ends meet. We found the prices of everything had taken another little hike, as happens every time you get further south from Ethiopia. Whilst still a friendly place, Malawians’ stress was palpable, and an anger about the government and the IMF advice on economic reforms close to the surface.
People’s inability to cover the cost of filling their petrol tanks meant we were able to cycle alongside the beautiful Lake Malawi and through rubber plantations on roads where cyclists out-numbered motorists. Malawians and Zambians were some of the first people to have an understanding of our journeys and how far we might go in a day, because here too we met people cycling 120km round trips to visit families, attend funerals or work a distant piece of farmland. Malawians understand the efficient beauty of a bicycle; how to load them eight feet high with firewood, and ride them over 30kms of hills to market.
Through Ethiopia we’d come to rely on cheap and decent hotels to rest our heads being available in every small town we passed. We didn’t quite shake the habit until Malawi where it felt like we got more of the adventure back. We struggled to find food, we camped wild, we slept in the courtyards of guesthouses no longer open for business. One afternoon I ate a sandwich with two slices of bread as a filling. Our map was totally wrong (think made up towns and non-existent roads) and so we relied on local know-how for directions. It felt like the trip was intrepid again. Coming into Salima, David who was on the return leg of a 110km round trip to his family maize field, guided us off the road and along a narrow 15km shortcut to town, passing through fields and past villages as people gathered in front of their homes to discuss the day as the sun lowered itself towards the trees. We’ve rarely been able to stray far from the tarmac and so this was a wonderful change of pace and perspective.
After climbing away from the lake up into Lilongwe we rested for a few nights. Since Tanzania we’d been on a much stricter schedule. I’ve to be back to work on the 1st of June (albeit from Cape Town for the first two weeks), my Mum and Dad had booked a flight to meet us in Livingstone, and our brilliant chum Jamie has confirmed he’d be coming to meet us in Springbok to join for the final leg through South Africa. Basically we no longer have the freedom we’d had in the north, where the end seemed far too far to imagine, never mind factoring it into our daily mileage or plans. Having consulted the maps of a couple of French bicycle tourists – the wonderful Romain & Emilie* who are travelling from the Congo to Cape Town – we realised Lilongwe to Chipata, Zambia was 148km, not 90km as our piece of shit map suggested.
Determined not to slip behind, and learning that the road was flat, we decided to attempt our longest day of the trip. Pulling out of Lilongwe just after 6am, we made great time thanks to a tailwind and a road which, better than flat, was slightly downhill. We were over the border, visas stamped and onto the first major town in Eastern Zambia by 4pm. That though was the easy part. There followed six days through constantly rolling but very scenic Zambian hills, with the sections either side of Luangwa Bridge particularly testing. Zambia, however, marked a welcome return to something we’d almost forgotten. Solitude.
The country is vast and the population is only 13 million. The land either side of the Great East Road to Lusaka sustains a small population and we relished the novelty of eating lunch alone at the side of the road. Not since Sudan had we had this kind of quiet. It feels strange to say it, but whilst the people we’ve met have been essential to making this trip special, the serenity and calm of simply cycling and breathing and watching the world has been deeply moving. It was great to get that feeling back.
To immediately counter my own point, we came to a rest one evening in the village of Rufunsa, the kind of place where the only foreigners who are likely to stop are bicycle tourists or NGO workers (bicycle tourists often find they’ve cycled as far as they can in the most unlikely of tourist destinations). There, having enquired about a place to sleep, we were pointed towards the frankly grubby establishment of Mr Lazarus. Lazarus presides over an intriguing courtyard mix of enterprises: guesthouse, welder’s, mechanic’s, scrap metal dealership, and restaurant. We took a look at the rooms and after a few exchanged glances, Hannah and I enquired about camping in the scrap yard. Lazarus was unflustered – it turns out he’s hosted many a cycle tourist. Indeed his first ever guest was a Russian on a bicycle, also heading for Cape Town. Lazarus worked as a boiler fitter in the mines in the north of Zambia for many years, but had now returned to his home town to work the land, run his own business and raise a family. Along with his constantly busy wife, Lazarus is typical of so many parents we met throughout the journey; working slavishly hard and sacrificing a lot to get their kids through education in the hope they’ll get on.
A fascinating man with quick wit and solid knowledge of world affairs we talked politics and economics, mining and farming. We pulled out our kit to cook dinner and, as a former boiler man, he took a keen interest in our stove. Our MSR Whisperlite pump had sheared itself in two in Ethiopia and our back up gas canister number (generously donated to us in Sudan by motorcyclist Rick who’d realised he was only going to eat in restaurants) had sprung a leak in Malawi. There we’d been reminded by a Yank who’d walked the west coast of America of the Pepsi can stove and set out to get the ingredients to craft this simple and brilliant methylated spirits burner. Lazarus loved it. So having hunted down a couple of spare Fanta cans I set about making one with him so he could start production himself. Meths are sold in the village shop and everyone wants to be able to make a quick cup of tea without having to wait for the charcoal to get going. It was a wonderful exchange.
Lazarus also talked to us about the weather and GM crops. The rains have been particularly bad again in Zambia this year. Like in Malawi, many people in drought hit regions are relying on food handouts. Lamenting the drive to embrace GM maize Lazarus noted that – yes, with reliable rain and fertilizers you’ll get a bigger yield with genetically modified maize, but the traditional, local varieties are more drought resistant and will still produce a harvest without the need for expensive fertilizers. He was also one of the few who knew exactly what the problem was. All along the way we’d met farmers lamenting the rains, but Lazarus was one of the first to mention climate change before we did. He spoke to other farmers in the fields about it. They all know the climate in their region has changed – is changing – before their very eyes. But, as Lazarus lamented to us, “What can we do? Zambians didn’t create this disaster.”
It is an incredibly frustrating and damning indictment of our world, when farmers in Zambia can identify the problem, but the leaders and the populations of the nations responsible for climate change still find weak excuses to ignore or deny the reality and the solutions that we know exist to resolve it.
Arriving into Lusaka halfway through day six on the road, and over 700 hilly kilometres from Lilongwe, we camped at Kalulu Backpackers and went out for a slap up lunch. Getting to cities on bicycle tour is always a bit of a guilty pleasure – strolling around supermarkets to stock up on the badly needed calories with luxuries like fresh cheese and salt and vinegar crisps. On our second day Hannah began to feel quite rough, and she retired to the tent to sleep. By the following day – despite some super strength lemsip – she was still feeling rough. We’d ruled out Malaria cause she’d been taking her prophylactics and was feeling feverish. That evening the Frenchies rolled into town, also knackered by the long push from Lilongwe. Hannah explained how she was feeling to Emilie and she practically ordered her to the clinic. She was right. Two hours later her lab results confirmed that she had malaria.
A tent is not a nice place to recover from malaria, so we found a guesthouse at a decent price across town and got in a taxi. We knew the place was going to be interesting from the conversation I had with the owner, Mr Oumo:
“So how much is the room?”
“250 a night sir”
“Is there any flexibility on that? We were hoping to pay around 150”
“Well why don’t you come here and we can discuss”
“Ah, but once we’re there we’re trapped – you have us. Could you do 200?”
“Ah ha ha! Well we might be able to do something, but really it is Mrs Oumo who is in charge. You can come here and discuss with her.”
“Can I speak to her now, or can you not agree to 200 please for a night? We normally pay around 80 to camp but my girlfriend has malaria...”
“You’ve to speak to Mrs Oumo – I’m sure you can work something out.”
We did work something out...250 a night, with a free breakfast. But Mr & Mrs Oumo, from Northern Uganda, were truly wonderful hosts. As Hannah snored in the room I accepted Mr Oumo’s offer of an Amarula, and sat chatting in the lounge with him and his wife. The place is like a 70s B&B, but spotlessly clean, and very homely. We were able to cook in the kitchen, and choose our satellite TV channel, and Mr Oumo sorted out our taxi (with roof rack) to the bus station. Because after five days recovering from the misery of malaria, Hannah was well enough to get out of bed, but not by any stretch of the imagination well enough to get on a bicycle.
We booked the luxury 9am Mazhandu bus to Livingstone and, having received by text our seat number confirmation, headed to the station. The bus was genuinely one of the most comfortable I’ve travelled in – complete with complimentary snacks and drinks. I thought the man standing up at the front of the bus at the start of the journey was our host – ready to talk us through our journey and the on-board facilities. But no. This man was a Pastor. A religious man on the make. Zambia is an exceptionally religious country (all Africa is, but the abundance of Seventh Day Adventist and other evangelic churches alongside southern African roads makes me feel it’s getting crazier the further south we go) and this chap was ready to service (and exploit) this predilection. The first hour of our journey we were led in booming prayer by this young man no more than 21 years of age on the biblical lesson of “he who does harm unto me, I shall do harm unto them”. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening and looked around expecting to share a few raised eyebrows and looks of ‘what can you do’ with the young, wealthy Zambians on the bus, but instead I saw many reaching for their copy of the bible to find the corresponding chapter and verse, with the rest bowing their heads. The prayers ended, of course, with an envelope being passed around – indulgences to ensure the bus travelled safely and swiftly to its destination – before, with his takings tucked under his arm, the Pastor hopped off the bus and left us to fend for ourselves. I’ve never been more convinced that a vehicle I was in would crash than that bus.
We got to Livingstone safely – passing the Frenchies on the road. And the next morning hitched a lift with the taxi providing the free airport pick up, to meet Helena and Oliver McDonald off the plane. There followed ten adventurous days off the bikes in our own fully-equipped 4x4, complete with rooftop tents. We saw Victoria Falls, and plunged through the deep sand of Chobe National Park in Botswana to watch families of elephants swimming and lions greeting the day. We got to hang out with my parents and get to chat properly with people we know about the trip and life outside Farcycal. And we got to understand why you’d want to do Cairo to Cape in some way other than by bike. The freedom of a four-wheel drive car is incredible, especially when you’re in a place like Botswana, where the roads are straight and long and scrubbily dull but the back country is world-class beauty. Plus you have cold beer in a fridge in the back.
*We were honoured to meet David and his crew of young pros of the future in Nairobi. We read about him in the blog of another tourer, found his website and gave him a call out of the blue. He arranged to meet us and we went on a ride with his Safari Simbas Cycling team and saw their workshop and training facility. In reality these are all small rooms in David’s tiny compound in the poor Nairobi suburb of Kikuyu. David trained Chris Froome when he was a youngster, and he now trains a new generation of Kenyan road cyclists; feeding and housing them in his tiny home on a very meagre income. He is a true inspiration and an awesome guy. He’s one of the people who deserve a whole blog piece.
*The wonderful Frenchies have been basically on the same schedule as us since Mzuzu in Malawi, but a few days behind. We’ve had a lot of fun overlapping when we rest in a city for a few days and they roll in just before we roll out. We’ll be there to welcome them to Cape Town!