FACING OUR GIANTS IN EDEN
Words & Photos by Ricolette von Wielligh
My husband and I had always dreamed of embarking on a wildlife adventure through untamed central Africa on our bicycles. After months of planning and preparation our dream finally became a reality, but due to budget constraints we decided to go without a GPS and only a digital Tracks 4 Africa map loaded onto our notebook. We were excited and probably a bit crazy, but the heart of Africa called.
For three-and-a-half months home was wherever we put up our tent along the 5000km of tracks. The bicycles were heavily loaded, weighing between 30-40kg each. Our daily menu included oats (without milk), locally bought vetkoek topped with peanut butter and honey (no butter), peanuts, rice, eggs, onions, tomatoes, green vegetable leaves of some kind and anything else we could buy along the way. Water was sourced from either boreholes or wells in local villages. The most punctures we had on a single day was nine. The furthest distance we cycled in one day was 155km.
Setting off from Leonardville, on the south eastern side of Namibia, we cycled to Windhoek and then continued to Okahandja, Kalkveld, Otavi, Grootfontein and all the way to Rundu. From here we turned eastwards towards the Caprivi Strip of Namibia, and on our 17th day we cycled through the Bwabwata National Park. It was just the most perfect day; the air was fresh after a recent rainfall and the wind blew from behind for the first time in many days. Life on a bicycle was ‘hakuna matata’ until an elephant bull walked out of the bushes just ahead of us and stood next to the road. My heart started to beat like a run-away train and any sign of bravery instantly evaporated. Adding to our dilemma was a car that hooted right next to the elephant as it flew past. The elephant got such a fright that it charged after the car, however the offending vehicle sped away, leaving only dust and us in its wake. With its trunk tasting the air, the agitated elephant stood its ground in the middle of the road. It looked huge. The was wind blowing from behind us and carried our scent straight towards the elephant. As time ticked on we stood dead still, hardly daring to breath. Still agitated, the elephant crossed over into the bushes to our right, his back clearly visible to us. We contemplated going forward, but realised that he was watching us. So with a quick change in plans, we turned around to move backwards. And then he charged! Hendrik shouted, “Trap-p-p-p-p!” but I struggled to clip my right foot onto the peddle and ended up peddling with my heel instead. I looked down at my speedometer, which indicated a speed of 24km/h, but I knew that an elephant can reach speeds of 40km/h ... After what seem an eternity, the bull finally gave up the chase and stopped beside the road. My legs felt like jelly. We waited for quite some time, but the bull wouldn’t move off and were not sure how we would ever get past it. A passing tourist in a van stopped to ask if we needed to be escorted past the elephant. “Yes sir,” answered a grateful Hendrik, “but you can’t drive off if it charges and please don't hoot.” The driver promised he wouldn't and agreed to drive in-between us and the elephant. If things turned messy our plan was to jump onto the step below the sliding door of the van and cling to the open windows as the van speed off - foolproof! So as the van slowly pulled away Hendrik and I started to peddle. Just then the elephant swaggered up to the driver’s window with its ears stretched out wide. I watched him through the windows and hoped that the exhaust fumes would conceal our scent. After what seemed like hours, we passed the elephant and parted ways for good this time. I never looked back as I waved goodbye to our saviour and kept peddling, whilst scrutinising every bush ahead for signs of more elephant.
A few days later I wasn't feeling well; I was exhausted, felt emotional and my legs were cramping. Hendrik was confused because conditions were perfect for cycling, the wind still behind us and the road ahead flat and straight. Reaching a corner garage in Katima Mulilo, I sat down and proceeded to cry for almost an hour. Hendrik gave me a double dose of Rehydrate and tried to console me, but nothing seemed to help. It turned out that I wasn't just being a girl, there was a more serious problem at hand. A few days prior I had been stung on my left leg by what we presumed was a wasp. However, the doctor in Katima Mulilo diagnosed it as a Violin spider bite and prescribed antibiotics and lots of rest. Instead of healing, the wound became septic and seemed to get worse by the day. After two weeks of rest, we slowly made our way to Kasane, in Botswana, and then to Livingstone, in Zambia, but my body wasn’t fit for cycling yet. The doctor in Livingstone prescribed steroids to calm down my immune system, which had prohibited the antibiotics from doing its work, and promised me that I would be back in action in less than a week. His timing was spot on.
We passed many cyclists on the Zambian roads, some carrying three passengers at a time, while others carried piles of wood, bags of charcoal, furniture, bundles of chickens hanging upside down and even squealing pigs. We took a short cut from the Zambezi Valley towards Lusaka, via Leopard Hill Road, and didn’t encounter any cyclists; and for good reason too. On the Tracks 4 Africa map Leopard Hill is indicated as heavy 4x4, not recommended. A local had also warned us that field bikers only dared ride Leopard Hill in the opposite direction, from Lusaka towards the Zambezi Valley. But they were not over optimistic mountain bikers ready for a challenge!
In the saddle at 06:00, we started peddling up Leopard Hill Road. More hills followed and by 09:00 we had only cycled 28km. I got a puncture so we unloaded the bicycle to fix it, the temperature rising with every minute. Back on the road again we met two women and asked them for water, but they didn’t understand English. So we continued cycling, convinced we would find water at a nearby village. Little did we know how few people lived along that road. The road became so steep at times that it took both of us to push just one of the heavy laden bikes up the uphills. The heat was unbearable and we rested in every splash of shade available. We drank sparingly from our decreasing supply of now hot drinking water and dehydration was becoming a real danger. At times our progress was too slow for the speedometers to take a reading. We stopped in a kloof to fix another puncture and it felt as if we were inside an oven. Hearing the warning calls of baboons echoing from the cliffs, I followed the calls in the hope of finding life-giving water. I did, but it was dirty, stagnant water covered in algae and swirling patterns of dirt, with small fish feeding on a dead frog that floated upside down on the surface. We filtered the water as best we could, but my eyes kept wandering back to the dead frog, my stomach churning, but my overriding thirst proving stronger.
By 16:00 we had covered 34km. We met two young women, who could barely speak English, and asked them for water. The one pointed ahead and said, “Let’s go,” but she was in no hurry. Whenever we waited for them to catch up, she would point forward and repeat, “Let’s go.” The gruelling day, punishing heat and little food and water had taken its toll on us and we started hallucinating about fresh, cold water. Finally at 17:30 we reached an oasis - a well of crystal clear water that tasted like heaven in a bottle. We continued cycling until long after dark and after 14 hours on Leopard Hill we had only progressed 55km. We decided to rename the road Leopard Hill Hell.
It was already dusk when we arrived at Luangwa River. From here we needed to get across the river to our overnight accommodation at Chifunda Bush Camp. “Hellooo,” sounded the greeting of the camp manager from across the water. Returning his greeting we enquired about how we would get across the river. He said we'd have to walk through. We then asked about crocodiles, to which he responded that the water was too shallow for crocodiles. We spotted a pod of hippo about 50m to our left, but this did not worry the manager, who was already wading through the murky, knee deep water to our side, to help us carry our stuff across. With bicycles on our shoulders, we nervously made our way to the camp's bank. The camp was merely a cleared patch on the river bank. Its facilities were out of order and there was no running water. When we asked the manager for some water for a bath, he told us we had to wash in the river. I politely turned down the offer. Only then did he offer to collect river water for us for drinking, cooking and washing purposes. Hendrik only had bigger notes in his wallet to settle the bill for the (lack of) use of facilities, so he asked the manager for change, but none was available. Hendrik then asked him who would bear the loss: himself or the camp. The manager smoothly replied, “Bwana,” meaning ‘sir’. And so it was. That night we heard the whooping calls of hyena, the hoo hoo’s of owls, the grunts of hippos and roar of lions. Nature really was on our doorstep.
We cycled through a desolated, old mopani forest with little undergrowth and skeletal-looking trees. It felt like we were the only living souls there, or so we thought until we cycled over fresh elephant spoor. Mixed feelings of excitement and anguish stirred within me. Sunlight drizzled through the tree tops to awaken sleeping beauties with a kiss. Racket-tailed rollers tumbled above our heads and woodland kingfishers called persistently, the raucous applause of the many birds deafening my thoughts. As the heat built up in the forest, cicadas screeched louder and louder, reaching decibels so high that it was impossible to hear each other talk. We surprised an enormous troop of yellow baboons that dashed across the road in front of us for more than a kilometre, screaming like children. More elephant footprints edged the soft sand. Vampire tsetse flies bit us on our shoulder blades, arms, legs, bums and even the tips of our fingers. Even though we were dressed in double layers of clothing and Hendrik had pulled an insect net over his head, the tsetse flew off the victors. With just two kilometres to go to the Chipuka Scout Camp we came across a small herd of elephants, which fled soundlessly into the bushes like giant phantoms, ears flapping and tails erect.
The next morning we cycled through Luambe National Park. Little surface water flowed through the enormous sandy twists of the Luangwa River’s pathway, and the road was marked with patterns of hippo spoor from the night before. Kudu, impala, waterbuck and warthog ran for cover as soon as they saw us. The atmosphere was blissfully wild. We cycled through dried out water holes, over kilometres of cracked black cotton clay and past numerous dry elephant dung balls. We felt incredibly privileged to cycle where elephants have walked and get a glimpse into their world.
South Luangwa National Park stretched out in front of us like a dust pancake and hundreds of dead trees pointed like needles towards the sky. We followed a meandering cycling path towards Chichele Hot Springs, where a large flock of grey crowned cranes walked in the green pastures. They were surrounded by grazing puku, while white-headed lapwings ran amongst them. In the distance a thornicroft giraffe walked gracefully by – four ‘lifers’ in one go! Rich in wildlife experiences, we still had to face the mighty Great Rift Valley.
In Nkhata Bay it was so hot and humid that sleep was impossible. Seeking relief we ventured outside for a dip in the refreshingly cool dark waters of Lake Malawi. Early the next morning, the sound of thunder woke us and the rain poured down. We stayed in the tent later than usual before loading our things, including a soaking wet tent that was extremely heavy, onto the bikes.
Back on the road we headed for Mzuzu and encountered some very steep and long hills. On numerous occasion I thought we had reached the top of the escarpment, only to find more steep hills looming ahead. At least we had the luxury of granny gears, unlike the single-speed bicycles used by the locals along the way. Their bikes had basic brakes too, which made me wonder whether they cycled down the hills or got off and walked. We passed a truck that had jack-knifed across the road and saw some safety workers doing their best to try and recover it. It was a very tough uphill and I was determined not to get off my bike and push. Higher and higher we climbed and as we got closer to the top a cyclist flew past us down the hill. I guess I had my answer … Suddenly I remembered the jack-knifed truck, but there was no way to warn him. And even if I could, I doubt he would’ve been able to stop in time. I said a prayer for his safety and can only hope that he made it down in one piece.
From Mzuzu we cycled to Vwaza Marsh National Park, a national game reserve in Malawi that is rarely visited largely due to poor road conditions and difficult terrain and inaccessibility. As the only visitors there, we decided to pitch our tent overlooking a semi-dry pan. Ominous clouds had started to build up and the wind danced vigorously through the tree tops, lifting our Big Agnes tent like a feather. It had already flown a few metres before we managed to grab and secure it, and just in time too as the heavens opened once more, washing the earth clean.
The next morning the air was fresh and nippy as we set off for Nyika National Park, Malawi’s largest national park. It looked (and sounded) like all the birds had come out to celebrate the recent rains and we regretted leaving our bird book and binoculars in Namibia, in an attempt to lessen the weight of our panniers. Hill after hill after tormenting hill we cycled and sometimes we pushed. The road surface was bad and my thoughts wandered back to Leopard Hill, which now seemed mediocre in comparison. We reached the park gate at midday and thought we were on top of the world, but the hills ahead continued to taunt us. By 17:00 we had covered 95km and still had another 25km to go to reach Chelinda Camp. I was exhausted beyond my limits and for the first time in three-and-a-half months I quit.
We set up camp in the middle of Nyika National Park and were surrounded by the most breathtaking views. White cumulus clouds framed the rolling hills below us, black thunder rumbled all around us and golden sun rays caressed the warm earth. We didn’t have the strength, nor the time, to cook anything other than 2 Minute Noodles. As we climbed into our sleeping bags a storm broke loose and rain poured down in glistening silver streams. We listened to the soothing sound of falling water until we fell asleep …
Don't miss the next chapter of our epic journey in the October/November issue of DO IT NOW Magazine, where a sudden change of plans saw us having to return home as quickly as possible and this meant having to give up our two wheels for four. We had thought cycling through Africa would be a challenge, but it was nothing compared to Africa's public transport system and our harrowing ordeals.
Source: DO IT NOW