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Vic Falls and Zambia

I do enjoy riding on a motorcycle, I really do. The only time when I don’t like riding on a motorcycle is when it’s raining (it’s cold, visibility is bad, your grip on the road is less, other drivers drive even worse), and when there are lots of animals or people in the road, or when it’s a multi-lane highway and you need eyes in every direction, when there’s lots of gravel or sand or oil or bits of metal on the road – particularly the corners! I don’t particularly like riding through cities and I don’t like riding when there’s snow and ice on the road, or when you’re stuck behind an oil-burning clapped out truck/bus/taxi pouring black smoke into your face, or when there are loads of potholes, and I really don’t like riding through deep, loose sand or deep, wet mud. I hate it when an oncoming overtaking vehicle doesn’t give a sh*t about you and forces you off the road (happens literally on a daily basis, especially in Tanzania), I don’t like riding with a hangover (which is fortunately seldom since I’m pretty close to tea-total), or when all the bugs in the vicinity make a bee-line for my face, or a wasp gets stuck down my neck and stings three times, or when I`m tired, oh and I hate riding at night time, or when teenagers on the side or middle of the road make a `joke` throwing-themselves infront of you, or when a much anticipated petrol station never materialises and you’re riding with your revs as low as you can to try and squeeze out a few more kilometres and you’re kicking yourself for not having filled up at that one place 100km before (I can get an impressive 500 km out of my tank if I ride like a granny). I don’t like riding westwards at sunset when for the final hour I can`t see much, and I don`t like riding eastwards when the drivers coming towards me can`t see much either, and I hate riding behind vehicles that obviously have head-gasket or piston ring issues and are spewing out large clouds of black smoke that both line the lungs and make visability an issue (these vehicles are invariably travelling slowly due to their engine troubles and overtaking swiftly is a necessity), and on a good day in Africa these cars only make up every one in three vehicles on the road. Other than that, I really do enjoy riding on a motorcycle.

I had a great days ride up to Livingstone, including a 200km shortcut off road section that avoided passing through Bulawayo again, and rendezvous’d with Eudiet, who’s English language skills were starting to suffer since I’d set off on this trip. Vic Falls is everything they say it is – expensive excursions, but breathtaking majesty and awe-inspiring views. We were lucky that the season’s rainfall had been less than usual, and we were still able to go rafting when they would normally be shut down. The highlight of the stay was without doubt a somewhat illegal, and somewhat dangerous walk the two of us did from the top of the Zambian side, with two local “guides”, across the lip of the falls. A short walk upstream from the falls and we plunged into a deep and fast-flowing section of the river and had to quickly swim across to the first of many vegetated divides. At times the river was shallow and could easily be walked across, at others deeper and fast flowing and either had to be waded at an angle against the current, or swum as fast as you could. The trip took 2.5 hrs and we made it within spitting distance of Livingstone Island, were frequently stood on various rocky outcrops at the top of the falls with millions of gallons of water falling all around us, and spent 15 min plunging and swimming in a couple of pools at the fall’s edge. A private company has a stranglehold of the tourist excursions to Livingstone Island, and has done since 1982, charging up to $150 per person for the 2 hr trip, so controversial as it may be, I admired our guides who did a fantastic job, and were just trying to make a living in a place that had always been their home. I assume that they will inevitably “lose” a few tourists every so often, but then so do the rafting companies, so let’s just put it down to natural selection.

The pleasant few days rest at Vic Falls meant that I was again rushing against time to meet up with my old school friend Dan, who was working in Malawi, and was flying into Zambia to meet me. Instead of the more direct route to Lusaka I followed my old Belgian friend’s touring advice (Hans) and followed the Zambezi River upstream, and so began several days of hell, interspersed with brief moments of joy, elation and relief. The troubles began a few hundred kilometres up the Zambezi after the tarmac had turned to very bumpy off road. I’d stopped for a 5 minute break and found the bike wouldn’t start. In fact the headlights and even power lights started to fade and disappear. This was a three week old battery. The previous one had died abruptly also, but I was living in denial and couldn’t believe that the battery was dead – there must be something else going on. Anyway, I was push-started by some local guys – it actually took about 8 goes, which was very unusual, and I put down to the continued dirty fuel problem. I then reached a tiny ferry-crossing over the Zambezi from the west bank to the east, and discovered that the other side would involve around 10 km of loose deep sand. Knowing it would be impossible to push-start again in the sand I had to leave the engine running until the boat arrived, and I was safely across on the other side. Keeping the revs high to reduce any chance of stalling I managed around 3 km fairly well, until an oncoming car forced a diversion and I stalled. A little flummoxed I was delighted that the drivers of the other car insisted on helping me, and after various attempts at push-starting I was persuaded to be dragged behind the car by a rope in order to jump-start it, still through loose, deep sand. Miraculously this did work and without serious injury, and off I went again, for another 1 km until I stalled again (I blame the dirty fuel rather than rider-error!). The day was coming to an end, I was a good 6 km from a tarred road and surrounded by Zambezi riverside vegetation, and whatever riverside animals that comes with, and I prepared for the prospect of pitching my tent here until sunrise. My saviours then arrived in two vans and a car, a total of ten local men, who insisted that it wouldn’t be safe for me to stay, bandits being the biggest danger once the sun goes down, and they wouldn’t rest until my bike and I were safely ensconced in the next town. It took us about 2 hrs, and I’ve never sweated so much in my life, but between us we managed to push and jump-start and stall and push my bike and all its luggage all the way to the tar-road.

I left the bike and luggage at the local police station and went immediately to bed, having given my saviours enough money for a few beers each. In the morning I found a local mechanic, and between us we stripped the bike down, emptied the tank (oil found), removed and cleaned out the carburetor, checked all the wiring, and got the bike back on the road, albeit still needing to push-start each time. I was now on the main road to Lusaka, and if all went well I would be there the following night, and still be only 24 hrs late to meet Dan at his chosen meeting place, as close to Malawi and as far away from where I was as he could find, South Luangwa National Park. Despite a good ride for the rest of the day, I was noticing that push-starting the bike was getting harder, and perhaps the cleaned out carburettor was not the solution to the problems. The next day I managed to start the bike, but it was stalling easily whenever my revs dropped, and eventually, about 200 km from Lusaka, stopped, and wouldn’t start again, despite spark-plug cleaning and topping up with new fuel from some roadside salesmen. My objective now was to somehow get myself to Lusaka and then get everything checked there, including a new battery, which I still couldn’t believe was part of the problem. I met a chap on the roadside who was also looking for a lift to Lusaka, and he confidently assured me that we would find a lift no problem for the two of us and my bike. An hour later he had successfully negotiated us a four-hour ride in the back of a truck for a fairly small fee, and off we bounced down the road. I was disappointed that my first opportunity to ride through a game park was lost to me, but revelled in the relative luxury of sitting back, not having to pay attention to the road, and getting from A to B, and it occured to me that the elephants and antelopes that I did see from my vantage point would most likely have been obscured by tall grass had I been riding. I ended up in a backpackers in Lusaka paying $13 for a tiny, dirty room with four bunkbeds squeezed into it. On the road I can normally find a truckers lodge, or the like, where for $2-3 I can have a double bed and room and toilet to myself. However, the backpackers was close to a few motorbike shops and the next day I spent 7 hours running around the city trying to find the correct sized battery for my bike and carry out an oil and spark-plug change. A friendly local chap with a small Chinese motorcycle, with an enormous white storage box on the back of it, escorted me to various shops. The presence of the box on the back meant that I was squeezed into the bike seat with the rider literally sat in my lap. This was not only a little close for comfort for a prudish Brit, but also forced my knees out far to either side, and as we swerved and wove our way through the thick congestion of Lusaka, I was forced to squeeze my thighs together as my knee-caps narrowly missed the rear corners of cars and trucks by mere millimeters. On enquiry it turned out that my escort was a courier delivery rider. By 4pm I was able to head off and knock 350km off the ride towards Chipata, finishing quite late at night and pretty exhausted since much of the road was undergoing improvements and necessitated long offroad detours, and the intermittent showers did nothing to help matters. The dark, one street town I found myself in was pretty much shut up for the night and whilst failing to find anything to eat that night, as I wandered the street, two giggling young ladies of the night invited me to join them for some restitution. Laughing awkwardly and declining their offer, I rushed back to my room, but this would be a recurring occurrence throughout much of Africa that I would need to get accustomed to. Prostitution is another thorny topic that rightly stirs strong feelings on the subject and is probably best avoided in this journal; let’s simply agree that they all charge too much.

My poor friend Dan had by this point resigned himself to having a pleasant but somewhat lonely mini-break in South Luangwa National Park, so I think he was quite pleasantly surprised when he heard the sound of a motorbike approaching and finally saw me riding up to him; although having a natural predisposition to moodiness it’s difficult to say for certain. I’d headed off early in the morning so met Dan in time for a pleasant lunch. We had 24hrs before his flight back to Malawi so I made an exception and joined him for a few drinks at various local drinking establishments and a great dinner back at our lodge, and a few nightcaps next to my tent, which was drying out from an out-of-nowhere storm shower that flooded my groundsheet during dinner. I should mention my tent was carefully selected for it’s large internal volume to weight ratio, claiming to be a 5-man tent and weighing around 2kg. It’s a GoLight Shangri-La, a Tee-Pee design with a single head-height pole holding up strong mesh that’s attached to the groundsheet, perfect for keeping cool on hot nights, and for enjoying the stars without suffering the mosquitoes on cloudless nights. So far on this trip I have been woken up in the middle of the cloudless-night by sudden and heavy rainshowers four times – I guess what you get for travelling during the rainy season! The very waterproof groundsheet, which has a two inch lip around its edge, is exceptional at containing any rain that falls on it much like a swimming pool liner.

One has to learn pretty quickly in Africa to not make any assumptions. Almost every time I have made an assumption about something or other, it’s always come back to bite me in the ass. The latest assumption I had made was that after meeting up with Dan I would be able to drive northwards and explore some areas of Zambia less travelled. My plan had been to then cross into northern Malawi and ride all the way through it southwards, before entering central Mocambique and riding up the coast into Tanzania, enjoying three meals a day of freshly caught seafood. As it turned out the roads from Chipata either go back to Lusaka or various entries into Malawi: I was stuck on the wrong side of South Luangwa National Park. With little options available I headed off to Chipoti and met the nice South African owner of the local Spar and managed to stock up on his recently introduced biltong and chilli sticks. A relatively painless border crossing later and I was into Malawi – country number five!

Zambia had been quite a test for both the bike and for me, but sadly I hadn’t been there long enough to be able to talk knowledgeably about it’s people, politics, culture etc. but I’d certainly enjoyed myself very much and only met extremely kind and helpful people. Hygiene is taken far more seriously than I had expected, with facilities for handwashing next to every eating and drinking establishment, even when running water isn’t available. A good example of this was when I went for a beer with a friend of mine at a small makeshift shabeen (local bar) close to South Luangwa National Park. To protect anonymity I shall make an anagram of his name and call him Nad. So Nad had asked where the toilet was, and disappeared down the side of the shack to pee against a plastic sheet, but upon his return walked right past the plastic water-container with tap and bucket beneath it, and soap and towel on the adjacent plastic chair, and came to sit back next to me. The outraged look on the face of the young female shabeen proprietress was quite a picture! She came and collected all the hand-washing paraphernalia, and painstakingly rearranged it immediately next to Nad, who was obliged at this point to wash his hands, to her obvious satisfaction.

Posted by igotlostagain 12:53

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