As I sit here the washing machine is rinsing the last Zambia dust from my African Revival Zambia cycle team shirts. A good time then to jot down some memories of a remarkable week or so cycling across rural Zambia.
The briefing notes suggest the weight limit for ones case is 20kg. Now I’m not one to travel light as a rule and I know the BA hold limit is 23kg. In spite of this margin of error my first go at packing weighed in at 26kg - Oops. Now I’m a fussy eater to say the least, so I’m packing 5kg of energy bars and dehydrated meal packs. These get put in my hand luggage along with my cameras and cycle helmet. The hand luggage now weighs in at close to 10kg! I’m concerned this backpack is going to be too heavy to carry around, but surprisingly proves to be very comfortable.
Day One - Heathrow to Lusaka
After a ten hour flight we arrive at Lusaka airport and our first taste of Africa. Passport control and a nun unexpectedly directs some of our party to a V.I.P. desk in the corner of the small arrivals hall. The rest of the group queue for the other (identical) desks. Right hand four fingers, left hand four fingers, right thumb left thumb. They are very keen on their new biometric data capture procedure. Meanwhile people are milling around passing to and fro from the main airport area in and out of the immigration control area. Among these people is Claire Powell, better than any man in Africa, and our guide and host from Thorn Tree Safaris. Claire soon gets the party through passport control and oversees baggage reclaim. Meanwhile Jody Halstead from African Revival sets off to get the film crew kit (yes, we brought our own two-man film crew!) out of customs.
The gang starts to gather in the fresh morning air outside the terminal building. We have three vehicles waiting, two for people and a Toyota pickup nicknamed “the pig” for luggage. While people and possessions are gathering I spy a Barclays Bank ATM. We have been told we don’t need much local currency, just enough for beer in the evenings, and so I have my first experience of the Kwacha currency which was to confuse me for the remainder of the trip.
The official language is English so there are no issues understanding the on screen instruction, “how much would you like?” Good question. On screen options range from 100,000 to 800,000. One pound is about 7700 kwacha but how much is a bag of nuts in a down town bar? In the end I plump for low-medium, thinking, wrongly, there would other opportunities to visit an ATM and besides I have USD with me.
So we pack up and board the venerable Toyota buses and are whisked a little way out of town to the Eureka camp site. This turns out to be a rather lovely location. A small private reserve formed from a corner of a farm. Overnight accommodation is allocated, two to a room, with the rooms being basic but well-made and comfortable.
We are formally introduced to the team, Claire and Shean who operate as Thorn Tree Safaris, Raj the team volunteer doctor from the UK and our cycling guide Henk Blanckenberg. Henk is a tall slender South African with a ready smile for whom life always appears to be “fantastic!” and downhill. So we have our cycle briefing, medical briefing, (including an amusing description of the use of chamois cream!) and tour briefing followed by breakfast. After this we are introduced to our steeds for the week and issued with our team shirts.
The bikes were Silverback Oakland mountain bikes. This is not a brand I’ve come across before, designed in Germany and made in South Africa, as far as I can tell. They have basic but solid Shimano components and all in all were much better than I had been expecting. A few of the guys set off around the reserve trying out their new rides.
A few of us, however, were keen to see the town as we would be leaving the next day. Claire and about five of the gang set off. I had little idea what to expect, there’s parts of London I wouldn’t be happy carrying my DSLR camera around with me. Claire was keen to assure me all would be well. We set off to the local market area. It looked bad, like something out of Black Hawk Down! In places broken cement road covering had been piled up with a plank put on top to for a market stall. Of course it wasn’t all like that, the Kamwala shopping world was a fully formed shopping block which the more makeshift stalls had popped up around. By European standards it looked a mess and I must confess to feeling somewhat self-conscious both being white and carrying a grand’s worth of camera in what was clearly a less well-off area than those parts of London I mentioned. The most surprising aspect of the area however was the people. The people were great, really the nicest people one could hope to meet. Most looked on curiously at us with a number engaging us in conversation, just conversation about where we were from and what we were doing etc, not wanting us to buy from the stalls or asking for cash just simple unnerving curious conversation. We had been advised to ask permission before taking photographs of people, it wasn’t necessary. So many people called us over and asked us to take their photos. At first I found this a bit odd - After all, why would someone want, actually want, a stranger to take their photo? After a while of course it dawns on me they were just wanted to see themselves on the little LCD on the camera. Seeing any kind of image of themselves was really a novelty and, surprising as it sounded to my ears after working all my life in the photo trade, many of these people would never have seen an image of themselves.
We moved down the road a way to a second market area, where a stall was selling local honey. As I have friends who keep bees I bought a jar for them. The local women wear a sarong style garment called a Kanga. As well as being used as a skirt they are multi-function, used to carry children, cushion loads carried on one’s head, folded to form bags and many other uses. I handed the stall holder a 50,000 note (not really knowing what the cost was) and waited for my change. The young woman untied the knot in her Kanga and removed from the fabric a bunch of crumpled sweat damp dirty notes which was my change. Not wishing to offend or pay £6.50 for a jar of honey (this was a market stall after all not Waitrose) I gingerly thanked the woman and took my change.
RTB, dinner, prepared by Sean, under the stars and off to bed, via the bar. The sun sets around six pm here and combined with the long journey I kept thinking it was ten or eleven O’clock only to see it was seven or eight. Anyway at around nine I gave in and went gratefully to bed as we had an early start next day.