The road to Chongwe………..maybe

27 Oct

Back when I was planning this Final Continent Expedition I was envisioning adventure with isolated African landscapes, rutted dirt roads, wild animal encounters, thirst, exhaustion, dehydration, flies, life or death decisions. I unexpectedly got what I was looking for on the road that went to Chongwe…..maybe.

SIDE NOTE: This is bloody long. I wrote it whilst cycling in Zambia a month ago but have only just got around to completing it. So fill up your coffee and tell the boss not to disturb you as you working on that report, it’s long.

Most of the time I have spent cycling through southern Africa I have been on sealed roads. Villages are scattered along the roadsides where I can get water, a constant stream of colourful people walking along the side of road carrying 20 litre buckets of water on their heads and stalls selling tomatoes, bananas and onions. One thing people will tell you about Africa is that no matter where you are, even if you think you are in the middle of nowhere, you will see people. That’s what I thought as well, until I took the road that went to Chongwe……maybe.

My little micro adventure started as I wanted to avoid Zambia’s sprawling capital Lusaka because I had no map or guidebook. Trying to navigate through a third world African ant nest city with no map is like trying to find a rubbish bin in Korea – by the way that is quite hard, or use to be hard when I was there.

Therefore I decided to bypass Lusaka, take a “short cut” that would get me back on the Great Eastern Highway at Chongwe, about 50 km past Lusaka. I checked about four different maps of people I met and every map was different. On some maps this short cut road simply didn’t exist, on another it led straight back to Lusaka, on some maps my only option of missing Lusaka was to cycle through a game reserve –which I wasn’t game for-, and on some maps this magical “road” existed. Bugger it, there’s only one way to find out.

After spending the night camping at a road side truck stop hotel I arrived at the border town of Chirundu, Zambia across the Zambezi river from Zimbabwe. From the sea of trucks transporting all kinds of wares and fares to the landlocked countries I turned off the main road down a dusty red sand road where the locals told me I needed to go. Now one thing you have to realise here is that the locals were as reliable as the maps, four different people gave me the same four different answers the maps did.

I arrived at the 30 metre wide Kafue River and waited for the barge to take me to the other side. Mr Brown and Charlie the helpful barge operators drew me a map of the road I was going to take. Which by the way they were adamant that it did not go to Chongwe, but went to Lusaka and it was extremely steep, with exaggerated hand gestures to match.

On the other side of the river I followed their directions. I cycled about 9 km’s on the sandy dirt road and turned left at the banana farm. There I was, on the road to Chongwe…….maybe. All I knew was that it was a road, worst case scenario I would end up in Lusaka of I would have to turn back and retrace my tyre tracks.

From Chirundu to Chongwe via this road I guessed it to be roughly 150 km, which if it was a tarsealed flat road I could cover easily do in two days, but it wasn’t going to be flat or sealed. The locals told me it ranged from 100km to 170km. On my bike I carried 15 litres of water which was enough to last me one and half days (including cooking). Plus there are always villages everywhere so I could fill up, so I thought.

I started off down the road. It was late morning as I had been taking my time, not worried about the 150km I could comfortable cover in two days. I passed a couple of mud hut villages with the locals waving out and kids running full tilt giving me the usual relentless machine gun fire shouted barrage of “how are you, how are you, how are you”. I passed another village and little did I know at that point it would be the last sign of humanity I would see that day.

I was in high spirits, flying down the undulating dirt roads pumping on the pedals to give me more speed like I was on a mountain bike and not a fully loaded touring bike. I tried to dodge the ruts and golf and tennis ball sized rocks, I failed. I had my first crash and looking back I stupidly used a litre of water to wash my grazed knee – why not? There are villages and people everywhere in Africa, right?

As the sun got hotter, the flies became more abundant, the people became nonexistent. I was loving it, I was in the real Africa. I didn’t have the apprehension about the animals as I knew the game park boarder was about 50km away. Even though park boarders are only represented on the map by green line and not physical fences it was enough to make me feel relaxed. The only sign of wild life I saw all day were the usual baboons and something that took off into the bush with a crash before I could see it, no doubt bambi.

At about 3pm I hit the hills. Slowly but surely the hills coupled with the rutted rocky road became unrideable. I pushed my bike up the mountain. It was bloody hard work, grunting like an anorexic Japanese sumo wrestler, swearing like an Australian miner and drinking water like an Irishman does Guinness. As I was still in the valley the towering mountain I was pushing my bike up was to block the sun and throw the evening blanket over me earlier. I was buggered and thought it best to try and find a flat spot to camp on the mountain side instead of chancing it and pushing on. I planned to start off before sunrise the following morning.

I saw what I believed to be a flat spot on top of a hill with a view over the valley below from which I had come. I hid my bike in the bushes for the night, grabbed all my camping and cooking gear and puffed my way up the final incline to my resting spot. The spot wasn’t as magical as my expectations had had me believe. It was rocky and long dried grass covered the view I had imagined. But it was flat, I was on the side of a mountain, I was hungry and wanted to sleep, it would do.

I set up the tent, and got the cooker on straight away. As I had my rice, potato, soya mince, tomato and beef stock bubbling away with the sun just dipped behind the mountain I pondered my situation. I hadn’t seen a person since midday, something unheard of in Africa. Usually I would have loved that serene isolated feeling, but it concerned me a little as people represented water, in a sense they were my life line. You have to remember that since I have been Africa there has been no rain, we are now at the end of the dry season, river beds are dry, especially in the mountains. I had no map so I did not know what lay ahead of me, did the mountains continue? Was it flat? Was there a village over the hill? Was it another 30km of pushing up and down hills until a village with water appeared? I felt very much in the middle of nowhere. I had only covered 50km on the road so far, of which the last 2km of steep hill had taken me an hour in itself.

Water was what worried me most. After cooking, washing my grazed knee and drinking a lot more with the effort of pushing my 60kg loaded bike up hill in the African sun I only had 5 litres of water left. This would usually last me a day in normal circumstances, but this mountainous road to Chongwe was not normal, the scorching heat reminded me of working in the outback. Plus I would need water to cook my pasta. My situation was that if I went a further day into the unknown and didn’t come across a village then I was in the shit. On top of the hill where I was camped I knew I was only a half day bike ride to the last village I saw. If I continued on the road, I would eventually reach that point of no return, the point where it was over a day to get back to the water source and safety of the last village. I made my plan. I was to set off before sun rise when it was coolest, and hopefully on the other side of the mountain was down hill, hopefully flat savannah and a village where I could fill up on water and a McDonalds.

My beefy soya stew was ready. I took it off the boil and willed it to cool down as I burnt my tongue with the first spoonful. I had worked up quite the appetite. I sat with my back to the valley as the long grass covered my view. I was looking up the mountain at the rocky tree covered terrain as I waited for it to cool down. The trees that were bare of leaves after the long dry season silhouetted in the glowing light from the sun that had taken cover behind the mountain, signalling the start of dusk.

I felt truly alone, not in a sad lonely way, but in an isolated way. As I have said it is very rare in Africa not to see people. I had a great feeling of knowing that I had to rely on myself, take no stupid risks. The thought of flying down the other side of the hill and having a golf ball sized stone sending my heavily laden front wheel into a rut and me over the handle bars leaving me injured would not be an ideal situation. The likely hood of it happening, like my location was rather remote, but it made me realise how the situation could easily turn from great little adventure to disaster quite easily. I had to be careful, there was no one with me to raise an alarm, and no one around to help, it was just me and Africa. Just what I had wanted.

As my stew cooled and I pondered my isolation a movement caught my eye. A movement that would usually have excited me, but in my situation it was a movement that suddenly made my knees shake uncontrollably. About 150-200 metres in clear view from my open camp spot I saw the unmistakable silhouette of a leopard stealthily making its way up onto a rock. I watched it. Was it watching me? I was frozen, half awe, half fear. I willed it to say there to turn around and head back up over the rocky out crops and through the skeleton of trees. In the clearing on top of the hill that it overlooked I felt as though I was waving a flag saying “hey kitty, down here”.

From it’s perch on the rock where it surveyed the dusky valley below with the arrogance and elegance of an animal that is scared of nothing it made the move I feared. It slid down over the rock like water, in a way that only a cat can move, with grace. I had seen no wildlife all day, probably due to years of uncontrolled poaching. I had especially chosen the “maybe” road to Chongwe instead of the “definite” road to Chongwe as it avoided the nearby Zambezi national park that lay 50km’s away. Until that point I hadn’t seen a cat in Africa and seeing a leopard was every African tourists dream. The mountainous rocky terrain away from human activity was ideal Leopard territory. It effortlessly made its way down, the clear muscular silhouette was unmistakeably leopard. All I knew was that it wasn’t a little domesticated tabby out looking for a bird. BUGGER

As it gracefully glided down over the rocks I felt like it locked me into its predatory radar. Maybe if I was a wildlife expert and knew about Leopards sense of smell, eyesight, hunting habits I may not have been worried. But all I knew was that I had seen no wildlife all day. The fact that I was skinny probably wouldn’t bother it too much, meat was meat. And let’s face it, humans are a pretty easy meal, our claws are laughable, teeth are blunt and we move like a turtle in comparison.

If I had a car or a hut to go into and enjoy this once in a life time experience I would have been loving it. But I didn’t. My only form of protection was my little tent with its paper thin nylon walls which gave me as much confidence as if I stayed on my stool and covered my eyes like a little kid thinking that because I can’t see it, it can’t see me.

Then my attention turned to the pot of beef smelling stew on my lap. All of a sudden my hunger had disappeared. I was unsure if leopards liked beef stew or if they could smell it, but I didn’t want to find out, I didn’t want to send out any invitations. I rose from my camp stool, keeping one eye on the predatory figure, the familiar rolling movement of it’s shoulders as it inched closer, meter by slow metre towards my spot. It was a predator, it was made to hunt, maybe it hadn’t seen me, I didn’t know. Now I took my eyes off it and focused my attention of getting that stew away from my tent. Feeling like a soldier running under enemy fire, I quickly and quietly made my way through the grass with the stew. Each metre I was calculating how far away I could take the stew without putting myself in danger of being cut off from the safety of my tent. My heart was pounding, waiting to be confronted by a snarling leopard, or in true predator fashion I wouldn’t even know it was there. I made it about 20 metres from the tent. I hoped that it had not spotted me and had continued its leisurely pace, as opposed to going into hunting mode, using its silent speed to gain an attacking advantage. I threw the stew in a discus thrower motion to disperse the stew as you do when feeding chickens. The last thing I wanted to do was leave an inviting pile of cat food. I gently placed the pot on the ground trying not to make a metal on rock sound that would give away my position. I retraced my footsteps back to the tent with an urgency and genuine fear, I was in survival mode. It may sound foolish and silly but I genuinely thought I was going to end as cat food. Maybe a wildlife guru will read this and laugh at the way I acted, but I’m no wildlife expert. I come from a country where there are no dangerous animals; we have no snakes, no bears, no lions. The biggest chance of death is an HIV positive sheep.

What compounded this fear was the fact I was alone, I had no one to share this moment, to talk things over with, to rationalise, to support me. All I had was the thin fabric of a tent to separate me from the wild. To say I felt vulnerable was an understatement. I was shit scared, scared in a way that only a wild animal can make you feel.

Without wasting time looking up the mountain I got back to the tent; I grabbed my pannier with the food in it and hung it on a tree away from my tent. Did leopards even care about rice, biscuits and bread? I didn’t know, but all I knew is I didn’t want to be sharing the tent with it. I even grabbed the camping stove and other pots and put them 10 metres in another direction after I had elephants going through them in the last camp site I stayed at. The whole time I was doing 360 periscope scanning movements around the high grassy surrounds of my tent. With all the food related items away from the tent, I unzipped it. A sound that seemed to pierce the silence and be shouting to the leopard “hey ya pussy I’m over here”.

I didn’t bother taking my shoes off, I didn’t bother brushing my teeth, I was still wearing my cycling shorts and sweaty cycling clothes. I zipped up the tent behind me in a way that was meant to be stealth like, but in the noiseless surrounds where even the breeze in the grass seemed like a racquet it was pointless.

In my tent, I lay motionless trying to figure out whether I take the chance of making noises and taking my shoes and clothes off and crawling into my sleeping bag, or just lay there. I decided it best to do it then, there was still a chance the leopard was not close yet. Better to do it now and lay motionless in my sleeping bag and then there was a hope that sleep would whisk me away into a world where I was not in the middle of Africa with a prowling leopard outside. Shit, did leopards even care about sound? I knew I should be safe in a tent with it zipped up, but then you hear stories, are they true I don’t know. Usually I find ignorance to be bliss, I hate TV, I never check the news on the internet, I like to live in my little world away from the horrors of the 6 o’clock news that show all the bad aspects of the world. Ignorance is bliss, well so I thought. But my ignorance of cat behaviour, what they were capable of catapulted my fear to a new level. I was out of my comfort zone, like one of the villagers I had passed earlier that morning arriving in New York and perceiving the thought of crossing the hustle and bustle streets as a dangerous endeavour.

I lay there not daring to move. When there is only wilderness and the sound of Mother Nature breathing and no sound of traffic or a radio in the back ground, every sound radiates to you Every noise was that leopard circling my tent. I felt like a paranoid stoner, I imagined I could hear the leopard scratching at the pannier in the tree, and what a fool I was, I put my food pannier in the tree, but leopards can climb trees, for shit sakes they carry dead animals twice their size up trees to eat them away from the pestering scavengers. If I was to get attacked, no one would hear my screams, no one knew where I was, I was in the middle of nowhere land, the maggots would find me before people, and even if a nomadic wandering villager came across me, what would they do? Would they think to get my identification and take it to a policeman, did they even know about identification, they certainly wouldn’t know about passports? Would they see all my gear and think that God had handed them a miracle with all this gear. My mind was becoming over active, this is where I needed someone to rationalise things with.

Did the leopard come? Did it come to my tent? I cannot tell you, all I can tell you is that I genuinely feared for my life, uncontrollable shaking. But when death feels a little closer you feel a little bit more alive. Yes to me it seems quite dramatic writing this now that I’m safely back in reality. But when I go back to the moment, I was thinking about the possibility of dying, that isn’t an everyday occurrence.

As you can imagine I didn’t get much sleep, I tossed and turned fitfully through the night. As the night wore on my fear of the leopard wore out. But when I needed to pee I didn’t dare get out of the tent, I unzipped the door just enough do fit the old fella out (basically had to open the whole door), I didn’t care that the pee ran back under the tent and dribbles got on the tent. Piss on the tent beats being cat food. No way was I getting out of that tent, this cat was a predator, I thought it would happily wait patiently for the prey.

I woke in the morning before sunrise as usual, but I was still wary of the possibility of the leopard being around, it really had put the shits up me. I knew I was being paranoid now, but the animals are most active around dawn and dusk. I should have been on the road, making the most of when the sun was lowest and the heat not draining me of my energy and making me consume all my water. But I couldn’t get that silhouette of one of nature’s great killing machines out of my mind, an image that I think I will always remember. I waited in the tent until it had become an unbearable sauna, which as its nearing Africa’s hottest time of year was only 7.30am. My head was pounding with a headache, probably due to having no dinner, bugger all sleep and dehydration from trying to conserve my water through the night.

Like a turtle poking a cautious head out of it’s shell after being played with by the family dog I emerged from the tent. I scanned the long dry grass that had seemed to roar with the sound of a circling leopard through the night. Like a child that is scared of the dark I felt more relaxed with the caring embrace of daylight. I was still cautious. Like a little kid who stays close to their mother on the first day of kindergarten I stayed close to my tent with the door zipped open ready for a quick entry. With the hard day ahead I had to eat, I couldn’t eat my rice or pasta as I couldn’t afford the water, but luckily I had a safety ration of baked beans I kept at the bottom of my pannier. I put my camp stool in the door of the tent with my back covered by the tent and cooked the beans and devoured them like one of the emaciated African dogs you see wandering the village grounds.

As Mother Nature’s beaming sunny smile warmed me, the ibuprofen deafen the thud in my head and the baked beans filled my stomach the paranoia started to be replaced with that sense of adventure. Now feeling calm, I weighed up my options strategically, to play it safe and turn back, or keep pushing in the hope of reaching a village that had water, and continuing to my destination of Chongwe.

I had come thus far I had to push on, I would get to the top of the mountain and from there I could make my decision, maybe I would be welcomed with flat African savannah and smoke rising from nearby villages.

I packed up my bike and started to push it up the rutted dirt track. It was 8.30am and already bloody hot, the sweat started instantaneously, the kilometres were painstakingly slow. But I loved it. The activity of pushing had dulled the worry of the leopard and coming across wildlife. The possibility of what lay on the other side of the mountain fuelled my engine. An engine that was rather thirsty, I was trying to ration my water, only allowing myself a drink when I had pushed to the next shady spot 20-50 metres away. Once at the shady spot I would collapse on the ground with my bike and cherish the two mouthfuls of water and lie on the ground as I was collapsing onto my bed after a hard days work. This is what I wanted from my little African adventure, to be challenged.

During this time I was intensely aware of my situation, I had only myself to rely on. I was very aware of dehydration, I had experienced dehydration whilst working in the outback. I knew that when you are severely dehydrated, you lose your senses and your decision making ability. Here I had no one to put me in the Land Cruiser and take me back to the mine to get the medic to put me on a drip. I was on my own, I had to depend on myself. Game on.

When I hit the top of the hill, the sight of flat savannah with villages and the golden arches of McDonalds I had wished for was not to be. More hills with no clear end in sight. Having reached the top of the mountain, a small accomplishment I wanted to push on. Like a gambler, just one more mountain, maybe there is a village on the other side.

A couple of hills on I was flying down the steep rocky dirt road sounding like a herd of buffalo. I bounced through a dry river bed at the bottom of the valley that was over grown by bushes. From in the riverbed bushes a movement caught my eye, but it was a movement the filled me with ecstasy not fear. It was a person. I jumped off my bike and quickly made my way through the bush so excited at the thought of seeing a person. I didn’t even care if the person was a poacher, I just wanted to be with people.

I reached a clearing and there on the sand of the dried up river bed were three local guys cooking the white stodgy Southern Africa staple meal of nsima on a camp fire. They looked surprised to see me. The spoke no English, but they let me fill my bottle up from their water bottle that still had the sticker on it showing in its previous life of containing battery acid. I acted out with a drinking motion and a thumbs up to see if it was OK to drink, they nodded. I then pointed to the bottle and then to the slimy green stagnated pool of bacteria filled water five metres away. They nodded again. I decided I would only be drinking this if it really came down to it. I remember hearing that Bear Grills gave himself an enema with this type of water to avoid getting sick but still getting hydrated. Bugger I forgot to pack my garden hose. Maybe I would just use it for cooking then.

I started to try and get information from the guys about how far away the next village was, or what the road was like. From the hand signals and the odd word of English I interpreted it to be 50km away, and the next 20km was mountains. This didn’t quite seem to add up for me, but since I had no map it was all I had to go on.

I set off again, feeling recharged after my human encounter, thinking I would bump into more people. After an hour more of pushing my bike up hills in the midday heat, slipping on the loose gravel, flopping to the ground exhausted I looked at the amount of kilometres I was covering. I was averaging 2.5km an hour, 2.5km bloody hard kilometres. Judging from the local guys estimate of the next town being 50km away, it would take me 20-25 hours. My drinking water that didn’t require the hose technique was low and would barely see me through the day. I had to face the reality. I would be stupid to keep going into the unknown hill country. From where I was I knew if I pushed hard I could probably make it back before sundown to the last village I had pasted the day before. Reluctantly and a little pissed off at not having made the decision earlier I turned my bike around and started to recover the ground I had struggled over.

Now I was thinking of my contingency plan. The reason I had wanted to push on was because I was couch surfing with a US peace corp volunteer in her village the following day, 60km past Chongwe. Now with retracing my steps I would have to get back to the point where I had started from, then take the main highway up through Zambia’s capital Lusaka, adding four long days to get to Chongwe. At least there would be no maybes. I was a little annoyed as I’m not a big fan of turning back. I especially wasn’t looking forward to getting back on the barge and recrossing the river and having the barge operators telling me “we told you so”. But hey what’s four days out of a life time.

As I came over my second hill I surprisingly met one of the three local guys nonchalantly walking towards me. I asked where he was going and got the feeling that he was going to his village. Then I understood that he was walking to Lusaka after that. Then I clicked that when the local guys on the riverbed had been talking about the next town being 50kms away they were talking about Lusaka. I asked the guy if he wouldn’t mind if I tagged along with him and if he could help me push my bike up the hills. Yeah I know, these guys are tough. Here was me with all my camping gear, water bottles, camelback, computer, camera, quick dry clothes. Here was Nicson with a battery acid bottle of water, a little back pack and a reusable shopping bag wearing tattered clothes and odd shoes.

I was still unsure of how far we had to go, how many hills lay ahead of us, where the next village was but having the human company of Nicson who was a local I knew I was now fine. With Nicson helping to push my bike up the hills I could now cover the kilometres at a walking pace instead of my previous snails pace. I didn’t bother to stop for lunch as I didn’t want to slow Nicson down anymore than I was already. He was my life line.

A couple of hours later, the hills became less and then we came across the first village. Nicson led me to the well, we dropped the bucket down and pulled up the glorious water. I filled all my bottles up and drank like the bar tender just announced “drinks on the house”.

Now with the safety of villages I thanked Nickson and waved our goodbyes so I didn’t slow him down anymore. Then on the roadside I cooked a massive feed of pasta. The rough dirt road gradually became better with the increase of villages. About an hour before sunset I hit a T intersection, and what seemed like a mirage, a graded dirt road. Left went to Lusaka, and right went to Chongwe!

After sleeping that night in a school the following morning I cycled the 40 km into Chongwe. I celebrated with a bottle of coke, then set off to cover the following 60km to my village couch surfing destination arriving on time.

I had made it. The road to Chongwe……..maybe, had given me my fix of adventure in Africa. It had also reinforced to me my travel motto, “you lose much by fearing to attempt”.

2 Responses to “The road to Chongwe………..maybe”

  1. Geoff November 6, 2011 at 3:15 pm #


    This is a damn good yarn. Glad you survived to to tell it!
    Your mother still remains heavily medicated!
    Kilamanjaro and 11/11/11. JFDI Bro.



  1. Photo journal – Zambia. « Hap Working The World - December 21, 2011

    […] Here are some photos from my cycle through Zambia, with photos from my infamous blog post “The Road to Chongwe………………..maybe“. […]

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