#21 last stopover: Lusaka – Windhoek

Dear friends,

18.838km and counting. Eleven months of cycling have brought me to the final stopover before Cape Town. Namibia’s capital Windhoek is an oasis of life in a deserted part of the world. With a total population of two and a half million in a country 2.3 times the size of Germany, cycling on Namibia’s white gravel roads can be a lonely endeavor. This is more than made up, however, by the stunning views and wildlife that regularly crosses my path. I’m very tired as I write these lines. I feel like the gravel has worn me out. Continuously searching for the ideal cycling line, and avoiding piles of dry sand, requires full concentration. On top of that I have been averaging over 100km per day. Luckily nothing kicks more life back into my legs, for the final push to Cape Town, as black coffee at the many coffee shops in Windhoek.

So what happened?

  • I enjoyed some family time.
  • Four missionary workers from Texas thought I’m starving because I drink water from boreholes.
  • I cycled and camped in the Caprivi strip.
  • I felt at home with the first words of Afrikaans along the way.
  • I stayed with locals in mining villages.
  • I made my way across white gravel roads.
  • I defied razorwire and camped wild in farming areas.

In the last post I wrote that I was waiting for my parents, sister, and my sister’s boyfriend to arrive in Zambia. For two weeks we visited the country, and also went to Botswana for three days. I was thrilled that they could also be part of my adventure, and as far as I can tell they were very happy with their “local” guide (a.k.a. yours truly).

We visited the victoria falls, spotted rhinos during a walking safari, did a game drive, and rented bicycles in Livingstone to celebrate the family’s love for two-wheelers. The highlight of the family reunion was undoubtedly a twenty hour train journey from Livingstone back to Lusaka. I love trains.

After I dropped my family off at the airport, and put on a new pair of tires, I was ready to go. Jesus was already close to the border with Botswana at this point, so I set out on my own.

I headed south, basically cycling the train journey to Livingstone in the opposite direction, 480 uneventful kilometers along the main road. With Jesus not being there to entertain me, I stopped to talk with women selling vegetables along the road. They are always curious and chatty.

These women position themselves strategically near places where passengers wait for combis. Combis are the backbone of informal public transport in Zambia. Combis are privately owned minibusses serving as share taxis. They usually do a fixed route, and there’s always a “salesman” attracting passengers by yelling the destination out of one of the windows. Passengers negotiate prices for tomatoes and other vegetables from inside the minibus.

150km before Livingstone I saw a car with an open bonnet and four people staring at the engine. I stopped and asked if they needed a hand. They turned out to be missionary workers from Texas. I handed them a screwdriver to tighten a valve that had come loose. The engine was overheating as well so they asked two local women for water. When the women came back with two buckets of water (surely from a borehole) they poured a few cups into the cooling system. I asked if they needed the rest and started to drink from the buckets. They were shocked that I did this, and when they restarted the engine, before driving off, one lady came out and slid a 20USD bill in my hand as she shook it… I said “but I don’t need money” and wanted to give it back. “sure you don’t”, she replied (imagine a southern accent here). And they drove off.

The last part before the Namibian border took me along the Zambezi river. Every day I had nshima with fish from the river, so good.

On the first day in Namibia I experienced a culture shock for a number of reasons. The first thing that struck me is that men fetch water here. In the 13 African countries that I cycled in so far the picture below would not feature men.

Secondly, there is courtesy towards cyclists in Namibia. On an empty road drivers actually go to the opposite lane to pass me by safely. Elsewhere they behave like absolute dicks and never deviate more than 10cm. The reasons for this are still unknown to me. I yelled at dozens of drivers, and banged on many car windows, but I never got a proper answer during the ensuing “discussions”.

The first 500km in Namibia took me along the Caprivi strip, the northeastern panhandle of Namibia, situated between Botswana, Angola, and Zambia. This area is very tribal, and most people live in huts.

I’m used to calls of “mzungu” in places like this. I almost fell off my bicycle when kids called me “meneer” in Afrikaans, as they mistakenly took me for a white local. They even pronounce it “menièèr”, exactly like my grandma says it. 

The caprivi strip consists mostly of conservation area. The longest stretch is called the Caprivi Game Park. It borders two larger parks in Angola and Botswana and features lions and elephants. There is one road that runs through it however, and I wanted to cycle it. There is a checkpoint at the entrance of the park, and I was afraid that I would not be allowed to cycle in the conservation area. Luckily the guy operating the barrier was asleep, so I could casually cycle around the blockade. I saw waterbucks, kudus antilopes, red lechwes, jackals, warthogs, luckily no lions, sadly no elephants. 

The park is 200km long so I had to camp. I put my tent next to an electricity pole that I could climb into in case any dangerous animal approached me at night. I slept very well that night and carried on the next day on small roads, following the Kavango river, towards a city called Rundu. 

In stark contrast to surrounding villages, Namibian cities are relatively developed. There are large shopping malls and fast food chains such as KFC. In Rundu I washed all the dust of my bicycle, and went for ice cream at KFC.

Hilda, who works at KFC Rundu, saw me tighten some screws in front of the shop, and invited me to camp in a part of her house that is under construction. Here she is with her son junior the next morning.

South of Rundu I cycled on white gravel roads for five days down to Windhoek. Almost all land is used for cattle farming. Huge farms are surrounded by fences, sometimes electrified, and topped with razor-wire. These gravel roads’ primary use is to provide access to farms, therefore they are generally empty. I asked one of the farmers or “boeren” that I met, why there are so many fences. He said “it’s not for animals, but to stop cattle theft”.

Because of all these fences camping is not easy, and I would not want to be seen as a poacher. Luckily I could stay in villages, such as Okondjatu, 150km south of Grootfontein. The picture below shows two boys there.

People in Okondjatu rely on nearby mines for their income. Mining contributes to 25% of the country’s income. Namibia has various natural resources including diamonds, uranium, copper, gold, lead, tin, lithium, cadmium, zinc, salt and vanadium.

During the final 300km to Windhoek I  did camp wild. I figured that because there’s barely any traffic, a car every five hours or so, I can just put up my tent next to the road. The picture below shows one of those spots. The white spot in the left corner is the gravel road that I was cycling on.

I’ve been in Windhoek for two days now. Tomorrow I’ll head south towards the border with South Africa. I still have about a week of desert in ahead of me, so I’ll stuff my bags full of canned food and water. I can’t believe Cape Town is less than 2000km away! Even though that is still quite a distance to cycle, I already feel as if I’m cycling the final lap on the Champs-Élysées. I’ll write again in Cape Town!

#20 The Great East Road: Lilongwe – Lusaka

Hi friends,

16750km and counting. I’m sitting in the common room of a hostel/camping in Lusaka, Zambia. I am waiting for my parents, my sister, and my sister’s boyfriend, all of whom arrive in five days for what will surely be a special family reunion. My partner in crime for the past few weeks, Alessandro, is sleeping all day long to recover from malaria and bilharzia (yes, both!). I accompagnied him to the hospital yesterday. He had 40°C fever and could hardly remember his last name. It turns out that his blood is full of parasites. Whilst Alessandro is receiving intravenous injections with anti-parasitic drugs, I have time to fulfil a promise I made to Achraf in Meknes (read post #8): that I would read the Qur’an before reaching Cape Town. What better time to read it than during Ramadan? I’m sure Alessandro will be back on his feet soon, by the grace of Allah!

“Azungu, how are you?!”

So what’s up?

highlights:

  • Since the last update Alessandro and I cycled on precisely one road: the ‘Great East Road’ that connects Lilongwe to the Zambian capital, Lusaka. This post consists of pictures along that road.

Cycling with Alessandro has been a blast, it has also been quite a change from nine months of solo cycling. It’s nice to have long discussions about life on the go, and to share tricks and tips about cycling gear. Duo cycling is also less tiresome than pedalling alone, not only because I can avoid headwinds by cycling in the slipstream of Ale’s back wheel. Ale’s presence also allows me to cycle more relaxed. When I need a break from the continous attention our bicycles and skin colour attract, Alessandro talks to curious bystanders in villages or responds to “azungu how are you?!!” callers. When Alessandro is tired the roles are reversed.

On Alessandro’s 40th birthday we left for the Zambian border. We celebrated his birthday in a bar at a tobacco farm, and arrived in Zambia the next morning.

Last mile in Malawi, the hills are in Zambia.

During the eight days we cycled the great east road, we camped wild six nights. There’s lots of space along the great east road, as it is surrounded by nature parks. Also, guest houses are relatively expensive in Zambia, rarely under $20/night. By European standards that is still cheap of course, but I’ve grown accustomed to $3/night in East Africa. For that price I gladly accept occasional bedbugs on the sheets, and insistent prostitutes knocking on the door. Anyway Alessandro and I did find some great spots to camp, for free!!

Apart from Chipata, east Zambia’s main city, there are only small villages along the way to Lusaka. Luckily I still carried canned food.

Breakfast
Company along the way – locals use bicycles to transport food and charcoal.

One evening we couldn’t find a suitable spot to camp. When we explained our situation to a shopowner he directed us to an empty school. The school guard kindly gave us pillows to turn the desks into beds. The classroom in which we slept was filled with posters about agriculture, namely different sewing and planting techniques.

Agricultural techniques

The next day we carried on. The entire 715km to Lusaka were hilly and green. Although the road is in relatively good shape, occasionally I did get punctures from steel wires. These wires are leftovers from ruptured truck tires. 

Great east road – long and empty
Lunch

The ride was very smooth. The only strange event that occurred was a group of children who bragged with a dead hyena pup they had killed. They tried to sell it for 40 kwacha ($4). Alessandro, who’s vegan, spent 15 minutes googling how to say “killing wildlife is bad”, but I doubt that his message came across.

Since Malawi I rely completely on water from wells. Alessandro is making the transition as well. In remote areas it’s hard to find bottled water in containers larger than 50ml, and I drink at least six litres per day. Luckily, wells can been found everywhere. Alessandro and I are always the only men at these wells, as fetching water is traditionally a woman’s job.

Selecting a well to drink from is a craft on its own. You need to make sure there’s no cattle around, to avoid E-coli bacteria. A second criterion is the usage frequency. Water from a well that is rarely used tastes like iron. Lastly, I use moringa, a super food used by vegan body builders that grows naturally in Malawi, for a better taste.

Buying moringa

One drink you do find a lot is moonshine, home brewed alcohol. The ingredients and the alcohol percentage vary greatly. We are offered different kinds of moonshine regularly. I never take more than a polite sip, because I’ve read that it can turn you blind if it is not cooked properly. Also, I don’t like what it does to rural communities, entire villages seem to be addicted to it (not just in Zambia).

Maize moonshine
Puncture

After 715km we finally arrived in Lusaka. Alessandro’s bicycle is being repaired, so I give him a lift when he needs one.

Lusaka city market

I will rest for a few days before going around sightseeing with my family. Alessandro will continue towards Botswana when he feels recovered, and I will cycle to Namibia after the family visit. So I will be cycling alone once again. Our bromance has been fun, but I do believe that cyling alone is the most intense way of traveling. I can’t wait to write about Namibia!

Malaria hospital selfie