Zambian Transit

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7 September 2015 by Justine


Cycling in Zambia – December 2014

We left Sumbawanga, our last Tanzanian city (we didn’t have to go there, but we did, for the only pleasure of pronouncing it… Sumbawanga! Sumbawanga! Blaow!) in direction of the Zambian border, already having the crystal clear water of Lake Malawi in mind. For some very dark reasons, we left Tanzania for Zambia, convinced that the road would be much faster and much easier. But we first took the wrong turn and missed our road to the border that made us cycle 20km for nothing in the countryside, even though we asked about 25 people on the way – no trouble. Once back on the “main road”, which was a small dirt road, our map was telling us to go “Isopa”, a village in a four-way intersection, while the signs were saying “Sopa” for a village with no cross-road. We were so sure of not being on the right road (for more than one reason) that we texted our manager (…) to check if our actual GPS position was matching were we hoped we were… Gilles, JP’s dad, was attending a meeting in his office downtown Montréal that morning (while it was afternoon in Tanzania since Canada and Eastern Africa have six hours difference) when he got our text message: “Good morning dad, we are not sure where we are. Are we on the way to Zambia? Thanks!” Gilles briefly checked our GPS localisation on Google map, and answered five minutes later: “Hey guys, you’re on the road B8 going to Zambia. Borders are in 25km, straight south. Travel safe!” (…) Thank you, technology!

We then crossed one of those funny African border with a policeman dressed in civilian, asking us how many days we wanted in Zambia, and if we were brother and sister “since we were born the same year” (…). It took us five endless days to cross Zambia, the same amount of days it took us to cross Burundi from North to South, including a day off in Bujumbura. The road was brand new from Mbala, then under construction – thanks once again to the Chinese. Then the road got worst and bad, and small and isolated, and then under construction again, and then unbelievably muddy. We got to Malawi in a much worst state that what we should of, trying to remember why WHY we passed through Zambia. The people met on the road were extremely friendly and the children reminded us Rwanda and Burundi, surrounding us with their giant fascinating eyes the second we set foot in their village. Continuing to take our breaks, hidden in the bush, like we learned to do before was still the only way for enjoying tranquility. Not that we are some kind of antisocial stock-up tourists… We just think it is impolite to let people watch us eat mangos in the most ungracious way, licking spelling juice from our fingers, stained shirt, beard (JP, not me) and knife. During that stretch, we were every day greeted with a one-hour shower around two in the afternoon. We would then set up a little shelter in between the trees and wait for the rain to stop while eating fruits or drinking tea. Many times, the local kids would stay under the rain, few meters in front of us, and stare at us, or dance on some imaginary music. That African craziness… Once again. We would be sitting under a mango tree, eating mangos that we would have picked from the ground, and kids would beg for mangos, just like kids would beg for water while standing ten meters away from the water pump. Somehow, basic stuff gets more interesting when we are handling it. We also got to cross few rivers that got flooded by the daily rains. The local people would take great pleasure in watching people cross and sometimes they would laugh if an unlucky one would fall in the water, because of the strong current. The cars and motorbikes would wait (or not, and if not, with or without success!) for the water to retreat, and people would attempt the crossing, a child sitting on their shoulders or with a chicken on their head. We would, us, cross right away, brave like Vikings and not too much scared of the water – because knowing how to swim. Holding the bicycles up to our shoulders, water to our hips or knees, we would continue our way under the laughs of the villagers. TIA. This is Africa.

There was another reason to pass through Zambia: getting bicycle chains shipped. Like said in my previous chapter on Tanzania (“Gone with the Heat”), not everyone agrees on what to do with the bicycle chain while touring for many thousands of kilometers. We only lubed ours last trip in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, and our chains held on – but it was only for about 5 000km including 2 000km of real dirt road. This trip, we are planning about 9 000km and a lot of dirt roads. We then decided to change our chains when 75% stretched. Turned out that moment came faster than we tough… Right after Bwindi National Park in Uganda (day 14), our tool was already showing 75%, and again after the Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda (day 24). What can I say… The roads were nasty! We left home with three extra chains each, and we got to Tanzania after one month with one left. It may sound ridiculous, considering that each chain weights around 300g. But what a nice feeling to cycle on a brand new chain! There was about fifteen cyclists in Eastern and Southern Africa when we were there (and we met eight of them) and like our previous trip, we heard many crazy stories. It took little time for the cycling community to know about our crazy habit and we soon became “the two Canadian cyclists with the three spare chains in their luggage”.

With no nine-speed bicycle chain available in that part of the world, we tried our best to have some shipped ahead of us. With Internet, no problem – the biggest challenge being about finding Internet, and not having something shipped from Europe. The big Chain Reaction Cycle online shop ships everywhere in the World! …But where we are, only in Zambia. No problem, we’ll cross in Malawi from Zambia instead of staying in Tanzania. But what are the chances our package finds us?! Against all odds, it took three days for our chains to be shipped from United Kingdom to Zambia, and they got in Mbala in the same time as us.

We shipped our package in an “Executive VIP Guesthouse” where we dealt a 10$/person/night campsite – with no showers. There was an outside shower, but as I opened the door, with my clean clothes, shampoo and soap in my arms, I heard the angriest biggest barking dog ever, and felt that something strong was pushing the door as I was pulling it. I closed back the door as soon as my busy shaky hands could. Few minutes later, I said to the hotel boy, very calmly, that I had tried to take a shower but opened the wrong door. He then looked at me, his eyes as big as mangos: “you opened THAT door?!” “I told you, my friend, I wanted to take a shower” “Not that door, the other one!” “But there is no running water in the first one!” “… I’ll turn it on. 15 minutes” and then he left, still shaking his head (…). He never did turn on the water, probably too busy texting this incredible story, and I shall only take a shower five days later in Malawi.

And so, for some dark reasons, we left Mbala (with 1kg each of chains and lube) thinking that Malawian borders were close – so close. And the local people were also giving us hope: “Malawi in 15km!” “Malawi in 15km!” (…) We heard that for three days. At the end of the third day, I was ready to throw a mango to the face of the next one who would dare tell me that Malawi is fu**ing 15km away. TIA – This Is Africa. And then we stopped asking for Malawi borders – we would reach the border post two days after that.

But first, we had to go through Tunduma, the biggest Tanzanian-Zambian border post. We got there with mud to the knees – no comment on the condition of our bike. We managed to negotiate a camping spot in a guesthouse, including an exterior hose to wash our bikes – but no shower to wash our dear selves. Excited to be in a little town on a Friday night (p-p-p-party!), we decided to walk around and go look for a restaurant. It took us a good twenty minute walk before finding an open place to eat, after being almost hit twice by drunk drivers. The power went off, it took about an hour to get our food even though it was already cooked, and so we left in the dark. As said, Tunduma is a huge border post. There was lines and lines of parked trucks and buses, waiting to pass through. We were smoothly walking back home, in the dark, when we got to places we didn’t see on our way to the restaurant. How could it be? We walked a straight line, didn’t we? There was a bar with noisy people so we decided to go ask for indications. The owner jumped on his feet and came to greet us with a rhum and coke in his hands. It’s the first time I’ve seen ice cubes on African soil. The noise of the ice in the glass was so refreshing… The owner, barely standing: “you stay in the Golden Leaf lodge? That’s too fare! You need to go back and make a left at the filling station”. He then offered us a lift because “it would be so much safer for us to jump in his truck than walking in the dark”. We thanked him for his offers (a lift and a drink), and we went back on the main road. One minute later, a van was pulling over: “what are you doing? Don’t walk here in the dark! You need a ride?” we hen refused for a second time, starting to wonder how great of an idea it was for us to walk this road. Bah… We’re so close. And then… Second car to pull over. Same story. Ok, let’s walk a bit faster now… And finally got to our lodge.

Two days later, we reached Malawian borders. I remember noticing that the border officer was, first, a lady, then, had fake nails and hair, and third, was drinking water from a Nalgene bottle. I then thought to myself: “we are getting closer to civilization”. We then asked for a money changer, and the lady officer called her man for us. He got to the post ten minutes later in a cab, taking out a huge stack of colored bills from his pocket: “How much you need?” I know changing money isn’t always a good idea at the border because of the high chances of getting completely ripped off, but staying in rural areas without any banks around didn’t leave us many options. Plus, those transactions make you feel like a gangster for a minute (…). Then, we asked some questions to the lady officer about our route and had one of those typical African conversation where distances and time are on African time… “Where is Chitipa?” “It’s too far.” “How far?” “7km” “…” “It’s very mountainous. It goes up, and then down, and then up again, and then down, and up, up, up, and then straight to the city” “… Thanks!” … Malawi, here we are!!!

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