Miles on the clock: 37,560
"I do not believe you!"
"It is true."
The Botswanan border guard's final exclamation is my favourite in Africa. The 'eh!' is a high-pitched squeak of semi-sincere disbelief. The more profound the disbelief, the higher the pitch. This amusing utterance acted as a partial salve for the following warning, shouted at my back as I pedalled away from the border:
"Beware the lions - they will eat you up."
The road was dead flat. The headwind was consistent and exhausting. I was left with little choice but to gaze at the abundant insect life and to force my mind to wander. Each day I started early, rode a steady 50km, ate lunch and dozed under a tree, rode another steady 50km, wandered a little way into the bush, put up my tent, cooked rice and slept.
The insects were prolific: big grasshoppers, small grasshoppers, armoured crickets, vulnerable crickets, big beetles, winged beetles, dung beetles, millipedes, white butterflies, yellow butterflies, prettily-pattered butterflies, stick insects, praying mantises, hornets, hoverflies, horseflies, flying ants, red ants, safari ants, scorpions, caterpillars and, of course, regular, irritating black buzzing flies.
When I did pass villages, each was a portrait of African gender roles. Women would be washing clothes, pounding maize, cooking over fires, sweeping the dirt around the huts and keeping an eye on the children. The men would be little more than a hard-to-spot collection of mostly-horizontal shapes lounging listlessly under trees; long, thin limbs splayed carelessly across the dust in the tiring act of falling asleep.
In the town of Ghanzi I met a group of missionaries on a tour from Cape Town to Cairo. They had a minibus and a couple of 4x4s and were stopping to play and preach in orphanages along the way. On their minibus, among other slogans, was a crude map of Africa with "Africa4Jesus" written over it in thick black capitals that almost entirely obscured the continent. The possessiveness of the order of this sentence amused and unnerved me in equal parts. It reeked of acquisitiveness rather than charity.
After Ghanzi I passed a night in a bush clearing with vast spider webs elegantly straddling the sometimes ten-metre gaps between trees. Perched in these webs were literally hundreds of spiders, each with a body as fat as my thumb's final knuckle, sporting a yellow stripe, white dots and long, hairy legs. I returned to the road almost on all fours in the morning.
The first city of northern Botswana is Maun and acts as the gateway to the Okavango Delta and Chobe National park. Both are world-renowned tourist attractions and priced well out of my range so I settled for a couple of days' rest in a riverside campsite/hostel. The Okavango oozed lazily past and other penny-pinching tourists loafed around in the midday heat.
One lunchtime, I left the unending tarmac and followed signs down a sandy track to Planet Baobab Lodge where the staff allowed me to sit at a shaded picnic table to cook my lunch. Pieter, the manager, appeared and we chatted about running a small lodge in the African bush. He took the reins five months earlier when the place was bleeding money. After hastily checking the figures he realised that $7,000 worth of supplies were being stolen monthly by the staff. After installing a system of stock-checks and accountability most of the staff simply resigned without him having to root out the culprits. In his words: "the gravy train had been halted and the relatively well-paid jobs seemed insignificant compared to the unearned extras that came before...so most upped and left."
The lodge was spread around one huge baobab tree that has been estimated at 3,000 years old. These trees, sometimes called the upside down tree, consist of a trunk of vast girth and then short, stubby branches that look like roots...hence the nickname. These trees are common in Africa and survive today because their wood is 80% water and therefore useless as timber or firewood.
The final three days were along a road called "The Elephant Highway". A stretch of unfenced land with large numbers of elephant roaming and not a few lions too. I was only 30km along this northward stint when I stopped to relieve myself. I received a shock when a hefty bull elephant wandered out of the bush not fifteen yards from me, casually glanced at my frozen figure (excepting the still flowing stream of urine), and strode across the road before plunging into the bush again.
I passed many elephants grazing on the roadside over the next couple of days, usually in small herds of young and cows with a sagging matriarch evidently in charge. I ceased stopping to take photos after one bull reared to his intimidating double-decker bus height, trumped and then charged me. I pedalled hastily away and didn't look back, my overworked-heart lodged in my throat.
There was a short, free ferry across the Zambezi and I was in Zambia. After barren Namibia and unpeopled Botswana, Zambia had a refreshingly stereotypical African appearance: neat little villages punctuated the roadside, groups of women sat behind little piles of homegrown vegetables for sale, men on heavily-laden bicycles slogged along the undulating roads, workers slashed back the grass on the verges with little scythes and children played with homemade kites or wire toy cars.
In Livingstone I gaped at the mighty 'Mosi oa Tunya' (The Smoke that Thunders, AKA Victoria Falls). Every second 10,000,000 litres of water plunged over its lip and the eternal mist cloud frothed and frolicked overhead like an amorphous crown. I visited the falls in 2006 but time had lessened their might in my memory and I was again awestruck.
The route to the capital was a main road but not busy and largely through untouched woods. No slash and burn farming here. Small adobe huts with grass-thatched roofs and fragile smoke stacks sat beside subsistence plots of maize crop and fecund vegetable gardens.
Eventually the peace gave way to a steadily rising cacophony and I joined chugging, honking traffic vying for space and shunting opportunistically into narrow spaces as the pockmarked road sucked us all into pleasant, pricey, manageable and unspectacular Lusaka.
Archie flew in on Easter Day. I first met him just outside Cairo. He and two friends were travelling from their home in Scotland to Cape Town on motorbikes. We crossed paths again in Addis Ababa and then again in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and South Africa. We shared a flat for a month in Cape Town where he has since been working.
And so began a month of wrestling with various authorities and agents to secure our visas. We returned to the embassy numerous times and befriended a junior "chancellor" there but got nowhere. To escape Lusaka, we went to the South Luangwa valley for a few days to see my cousin Zillah and our friend Katie who work for a safari company. We camped near the slow-moving Luangwa river and on the first night Archie woke just as a hippo wandered past a couple of yards away and emptied its bowel in doing so. Archie didn't sleep much for the rest of that night and may have emptied his bowel too.
We met the various characters who live there and work for the safari companies and lodges. One evening we stood by the river with sundowner drinks and watched as a single-file herd of elephants crossed the river; the mothers nudging and shepherding the calves. The river's evening luminescence rendered the scene almost filmic.
-proof of employment (forged)
-police records check (forged)
-official and authorised letter of invitation (cost £100)
-proof of return flights (forged)
-proof of sufficient funds of $60/day for three month visa (most definitely forged)
-permission stamps from nine different officials (including head of security service)
-proof of guide meeting us at border
Our last day in the valley was also Zillah's. After seven years in a fairly remote and wild setting among a small group of close friends/colleagues, Zillah flew home that afternoon. In the evening we joined the twenty or so people she had lived and worked with in the bar of a lodge. This small tribe of whites in Africa mourned the loss of one of their members in the only way they knew how: a long night of heavy drinking peppered with numerous toasts to the freshly absent friend.
With sluggish brains, we began our journey back to Lusaka the following morning. It became a 25-hour hitchhike with several rides in a variety of vehicles. We sat in the back of a pick up truck and munched on sugarcane with farmhands and we dozed in the cot behind the seats in a truck cabin driven by a small smiling man named Hendrix.
After three weeks of frustrating inactivity, it was with heavy legs that we pedalled out of the city. Archie on a shiny new bike and starting his first ever bike tour. With more headwinds, we worked as a two man pelaton, taking turns to ride in the other's slipstream. We took long lunches and late starts. There was truly no rush. One lunchtime a large, plump cobra stumbled upon our clearing in the bush and came within a meter of my head (laid on the ground) before turning tail and fleeing.
At Kabwe we left the main road and took the dusty back tracks. We found perfect campsites and made campfires in our little nests of flattened vegetation surrounded by a wall of long grass. We took water from wells and washed in river pools. Boiled eggs on wood-smoked toast for breakfast started the day and slow-stewed vegetables and spices finished it. Friendly, house proud villagers waved from their huts with a spread of various pots and old tyres around the doorway with carefully tended green plants and herbs growing from them.
Tomorrow our passports arrive in Kitwe and the following day we enter DRC. A country that attracts me and chills me in equal measure.