2014 – SOUTHERN AFRICA DIARY – FIVE

DAY 28. MONDAY MARCH 17th 2014. LUSAKA, ZAMBIA.

Zambia is a vast country, I am just realising that fact. My first preoccupation has been to buy a map of the country to orient myself. So this morning I rode up the Great East Road to a shopping mall with a bookshop – rare things in Zambia.

Several people have told me that there is no tradition of reading in Zambia. A conversation yesterday amongst the VSO workers bemoaned the fact that no Zambian partners read their reports, particularly when comments from local partners is part of the requirement before payment is made by donors and funders. Daniel, my friend in Livingstone, said the same thing when he helped me in looking for a bookshop. The only one in Livingstone had closed. I found the bookshop in the mall, and from my enquiries there seem to be only a couple in this capital city. It was a poor effort indeed, dully lit and ill-stocked. There were a couple of sections of novels, mainly pulp fiction from America; two sections of the biblical, evangelical and ‘inspirational’ books, such big business in Africa; a section of ‘self-improvement’ books – also popular; a section of Zambian books, mainly very moral stories with a religious bent and the rest was school text books. Book World, the shop was called, hardly apt…

Odd, these cultural differences. In Bulawayo, in Zimbabwe, there were second hand books laid out on several street corners for sale. It amuses me sometimes, the eclectic reading matter I end up with on these trips. I spotted an almost new copy of ‘The Lighthouse Stevensons’ in Bulawayo and picked it up for five dollars, an excellent biography of the famous lighthouse builders of Scotland that I am now reading for relaxation. It is pure chance, the books I find to read on the road.

Lusaka has a severe traffic problem! I’d decided to ride to the main market area and was then embroiled in traffic jams and jostling vehicles trying to cross one of the three main railway bridges crossing a single track that appearsm to divide the city in half, but one still in operation as it has been since colonial times. The market area was just chaos and the sun hot; the engine between my calves becoming uncomfortable, so I aborted the ride and found ways to dip and dive through the traffic and get out of town to the botanical gardens instead. I’ve always liked botanical gardens, especially in the tropics. I was amused, though, by the brief conversations I had with many of the young men selling all sorts of goods in the traffic jams. They sell everything from lavatory rolls, clothes pegs, car mats, phone changers, dog leads, tomatoes, onions, lottery tickets and trousers to religious posters and framed pictures of the president. Like the few policemen who stop me at the road check points, they mainly just want to look at the red BMW of course. But my smile attracts them and a few cheerful pleasantries does make even an African city centre traffic jam some sort of fun!

Munda Wanga gardens were only laid out in the 1950s and have suffered years of neglect, only recently receiving a little funding for a bit of refurbishment. They were a pleasantly relaxing few acres of mature trees and shrubs, ponds, pools and streams, bridges and calm meandering pathways. It was, I felt, much superior to fighting the hot, fume-filled streets of the city.

At least I have a map now and it makes me appreciate the sheer scale of some of these land-locked central African countries. I had glibly thought I might head up to Lake Tanganyika in the far north east. It is the second deepest lake in the world and several
people told me at the barbecue that it would be a great destination – until I looked at my new map… It would be a drive of about 500 miles all the way up the same road I would have to use to get back. Were I on a longer trip through Tanzania for instance, I would take that route. But with only six or seven days to spend in the country if I am to visit the rest of Zimbabwe and Swaziland – and arrange to sell the bike back in South Africa, I have to restrict my wanderings. I have decided to content myself with a ride northwards from Lusaka, just a few hundred miles and then back via Kariba dam for a small border crossing back to Zimbabwe. Only really a taste of central Zambia but this trip is only a short two months and I am over half way through already.

I stayed on in Lusaka today for the pleasure of an evening’s company and supper of yesterday’s excellent left-overs with Rosie and her compatriots, Sarah and Michelle before they head off to their VSO conference tomorrow. These solo bike journeys can get rather lonely and introspective so an evening of conversation with like-minded Africa lovers and wide minded intelligent people makes a great change from evenings fending for myself. Tonight is a late night for me – after 11.30, I am writing this. I have to sleep…

DAY 29. TUESDAY MARCH 18th 2014. NDOLA, ZAMBIA.

Sometimes I feel faintly embarrassed to keep professing that I do not believe in luck, and then go on to tell a story that smacks of little else!

Ndola is an old town two hundred miles north of Lusaka in the so-called Copper Belt, the mining district of Zambia. It has colonial roots and a number of buildings of the period. This is as far north as I will ride on this journey. From here on, it is all southwards again. Sadly, there is no way one can make a circular route in Zambia and today’s road was so boring that it has impressed upon me that riding endlessly up the same road I have to use to get back will be just too tedious. The only circular route would include a road across the narrow finger of the Congo that dips down into the middle of Zambia, but that road, even if it is only about 60 or 70 kilometres of the Democratic Republic, is considered unsafe thanks to the political situation in Congo. So from here it is back southwards…

It was a very boring ride today, 200 miles of flat bush country interspersed with small mud brick and thatch villages selling endless amounts of charcoal, water melons, butternuts, tomatoes and sweet potatoes, piled high at the roadside in tottering heaps to catch the passing trade. It always amazes me that so many people live in hope of sales of their produce and sit side by side with their neighbours selling the same perishable items day after day.

About thirty kilometres shy of Ndola I had to get out the waterproofs for a five-mile shower of heavy rain. Then ten kilometres out I was hot and sticky in the now humid sunshine so I stopped to take them off again. I got to Ndola. Riding the streets I remembered that I had a small map of Ndola on the back of my Zambia map, so I pulled to the side of Broadway and stopped. The bike would not turn off.

Much of the time I ride in Africa in dread of mechanical breakdown. I am an utterly useless, inept mechanic with no aptitude whatsoever. I love to ride my bikes but I still do not understand what makes them go – or not. Sometimes I wonder if part of the impetus for these long journeys is just challenging myself to overcome my anxieties.

Oddly, today I was riding in a state of strangely heightened anxiety. It’s not usually very marked – normally just that gentle nag as I listen to the motor for unfamiliar noises. I wonder if it was the malaria prophylactic I took last night? The warnings of side effects runs to a whole, closely written sheet and mainly comprises of warnings of suicidal tendencies, depression and anxiety! This was the first of a new type of tablet for me, not my usual malaria pill, so who knows?

Anyway, suddenly, at the side of Broadway, Ndola, my fears were realised. My engine would not turn off. But I have learned that in this situation panic, my natural inclination, is not helpful. I decided I had to find help quickly before I did further damage. Soon I spotted a petrol station with a serious-looking engineering workshop attached. I pulled over, leaving the engine running. At that precise moment a passer by elected to engage me in conversation in the manner that is so Zambian. He was a middle-aged gentleman and was intrigued by the number plate on my bike for I am now pretty far from its home in Eastern Cape Province, let alone from that of the confusing Union Jack sticker on the mudguard. I explained that I was from England but the bike was from South Africa. “But I have a problem!” I said. “I need to find help.”

Immediately this friendly Zambian advised that I take the bike to a garage down the road. “They are proper engineers, none of these electrical fellows who will just mess up your bike! There, you see? The brown building at the end there. They have motorbikes in the back! It’s a proper motor mechanics’ shop!”

Well, what a piece of luck! I rode the couple of hundred yards and threw myself on the owner, using my biggest smiles. Herbert Longone was quite charming and very knowledgeable. A portly fellow with a ready Zambian smile, within three minutes he had diagnosed the problem as a short in the starter solenoid and reassured me that he could help right away. An hour later, after a torrential downpour that stopped work for 45 minutes of that hour, he had removed the starter solenoid from a semi-derelict Suzuki in his yard and fitted it to my BMW in true African mechanic fashion.

It is extraordinary, the good fortune I have when things go wrong. Before I left on my first motorbike journey, to West Africa in 1986, all my biker friends, knowing my ineptitude, asked me, “But what’ll you do if the whatsit in the wherehaveyou goes?” using the technical language that has always been so foreign to me.

On that journey who did I meet but Rico, probably the best ‘African’ mechanic in Africa! Although Dutch he has a remarkable way of adapting and making do just like all of Africa has to do by necessity. We travelled together across the Sahara for five weeks or so. Some years later, in the middle of the Icelandic lava desert, nineteen and a half miles from anywhere, I put a rock through the sump of my motorbike. I had to walk to the nearest farm – nineteen and a half miles away (in my panic I did it in less than five hours!) and who should I meet there but a farmer whose other job was a motor mechanic in the nearby town. Next day we drove far into the desert in his pick up with his son, collected my poor bike and he drove me right to the door of his garage in town, then delivered me to his cousin’s bed and breakfast. Twenty four hours later, and a quantity of epoxy resin and I was on my way again. In 2002 when I lost all but second gear in Lesotho – fortuitously as I arrived in Maseru, the capital, having been off road and deep in the sticks on goat tracks for two days, I rode back to South Africa and within minutes met the only other biker around, Steven, who rode all day with me to Bloemfontein, arranged the repair at the local BMW dealership and took me home to stay for five days – and formed a friendship that still lasts. Another time I had a puncture on the forecourt of a petrol station where an RAC man was sitting; and on yet another occasion I had a breakdown on the way back from Africa at the bottom of the on-ramp of the motorway services near Wakefield, walked up the ramp to phone the RAC – to find the van sitting idle 100 yards away. Lesson? Don’t worry about what might happen until it actually does! Generally my philosophy in life.

‘What if…?’ and ‘if only…’ are the saddest words in the English language. If you catch me using them you have my permission to shoot me down.

But how remarkable that that passing man took an interest in my bike and knew that just down the road was the only likely place that could solve my problem within a couple of hundred miles!

What an absolute delight Zambia is. I have so many conversations with educated, respectful, warm-hearted people. Strangers introduce themselves in an open manner and greet me with warmth. I rode about town for a while, enjoying and laughing about the new repair, looking for a likely hotel. By chance I found probably the best one I could have hoped to find. The New Ambassador Hotel is a just post-colonial sort of place, a bit run down but just right. For my £19 tonight I have a pleasant twin room overlooking the street three floors below. Spotless but old fashioned and a bit worn round the edges, it’s just the sort of place for which I look. There’s an enclosed car park round the back where my BMW sits by some flowering plants and the washing lines, two friendly bars where I have enjoyed warm conversation with Mwili and Mwape, a couple of charming ‘entrepreneurs’, as they termed themselves, of the aspirationally entitled ‘Destiny Innovation Limited’; a friendly barman and several other patrons. Zambia really is astonishing: a country apparently filled with sociable, polite, respectful people who love to talk to strangers but have the sensitivity never to intrude. My smiles and eye contact are all they need to approach in the friendliest manner that never spills over into the expectation of anything but conversation. They are truly a lovely nation with bags of curiosity, that quality I like so much.

The thump and reverberation of sub-bass music resounds in the street outside, beating up from somewhere down the road, the vibrantly daubed nightclub a block away, I expect. It must be physically shaking. I doubt it will keep me awake though. I find the sun, warmth, concentration and endless fresh air makes me sleep so well in Africa, for as much as ten hours a night.

Except the nagging anxiety about breakdown. But that never quite goes away. Silly, because it always turns out well.

‘What if…’ and ‘if only’. Pointless phrases that limit so many dreams.

DAY 30. WEDNESDAY MARCH 19th 2014. LUSAKA, ZAMBIA.

“So you are going to ride this motorcycle all the way to South Africa? HAHAhahaha!” It is a feat inconceivable to most people, even the older policeman at one of the road check points, that I could ride a motorbike even as far as Lusaka, let alone to South Africa. Shaking his head he turned away to a decrepit old lorry on the other carriageway to check a Zambian licence. “Good luck! Drive safe, Baba! Hahaha!”

Well, things don’t always turn out as I think. I had no plan to be in Lusaka again tonight but the throbbing discotheque pounded on until four in the morning (‘Zero four’, as Zambians would call it) and I realised that Ndola, pleasant though I found all its people, had little to attract me for a whole day as I had planned. Also I decided that riding these long, pretty boring roads, in my little sixty mile an hour vacuum was lonely and not achieving much. The traffic too added to my decision to turn back. Those roads, and the are so few of them, carry all the traffic for industry, commerce and business, long toiling wagons with trailers, rushing intercity buses and lumbering petrol tankers. Add to those the usual clapped out pick-ups, local lorries, taxi minibuses and the occasional donkey cart and bicycles and riding the roads is not a lot of fun, especially when the scenery is just mile after mile of low flat bush lands. And, as I wrote before, I have to use the same roads to return since there are no circular routes and dirt roads will turn to slippery mud very quickly.

So I decided to cut my losses and turn south again. Pity: I liked that hotel room up on the third floor overlooking the town. But having ‘done’ the rather tired, cash-strapped local museum, there were no other sights to see except taking a ride to look at ugly copper mines a few miles north, and the photos dissuaded me from that! I will maybe spend a little time at Kariba instead.

The scenery north of Lusaka reminds me strongly of northern Ghana, vast tracts of bush country, all low trees and tall waving grasses pressing to the sides of the road, interspersed with small raggedy mud and thatch villages, a thousand and one Kingdom Halls of the nutty Jehovah’s Witnesses, and fields of tall maize. It is all very green at the end (surely, soon….?!) of the rainy season. Everywhere people walk the roadside in that way that is so very typical of Africa. Where are they all going? Sometimes they seem miles from anywhere, but probably there are small thatch hamlets hidden by the tall grasses. Thousands of small schoolchildren, all neatly dressed in cotton school uniforms, the girls with long white socks, wave at the passing white motorcyclist with a smile on his face. It would be difficult not to smile at the enthusiasm and charm of all these small black children so neat and smart, pink palms waving. Women dress like West Africans with a printed ‘cover cloth’, their hands forever re-knotting them at the waist, a gesture that is so typically African, the hands spreading the colourful cloth briefly behind them as they hitch it up and tuck it again into its own waistband; a short flag wave of coloured print and dexterous hands. Babies snuggly on backs, they walk lightly over their own small shadows at the roadside or sit behind delicately balanced mountains of watermelons, squashes, tomatoes and knobbly sweet potatoes, or pad across the black dust of charcoal villages, unattractive hamlets scarred by their sooty produce.

People in this country are so kind and open. One of the young men working at the New Ambassador Hotel washed my mud-stained motorbike at some early hour this morning. He did it out of friendship and welcome and because he thought it looked dirty, not for reward. In fact, he casually told me as he wished me a warm good morning and then promptly walked off before I could even think of tipping him for his kindness. I didn’t see him again! That is a typically thoughtful Zambian gesture. There is no malice in anyone, just a desire that I should feel welcome and at home with no status or assumptions based on our different skin colour. It is SO refreshing, especially to one who has spent time in South Africa.

Tonight, weary as I was from a long, hot and diesel-fumed ride, I went round to the backpackers’ hostel to cheekily use their wifi and have a meal, for I was too tired to go and search for food. Backpackers is certainly not my kind of travelling. I sat, alone and ignored, in a yard of white people, mainly young and several on Facebook. No one greeted me, wanted to exchange information or mix in any way. I always avoided those places for that reason: I come to Africa to be amongst Africans. Last night I ate in a faded old bar, The Borehole Bar, in Ndola and was engaged in conversations throughout my beers and meal. In my cheap Lusaka hotel (actually cheaper than the backpackers’!) I was welcomed back warmly by Patrick, who does the washing and the chores and has the most delightful smiling face; I had a pleasant conversation with the owner. Graduate of a British university, now working as an agricultural adviser and sometimes teaching in university, she has a fondness for England, she tells me, and once holidayed in Devon. She was doing some business with her receptionist and broke off to welcome me. “Don’t forget the breakfast!” she admonished me. “Breakfast!” I exclaimed. “Why, I stayed here three nights and ate my own boring breakfast of hot cross buns and juice out in the garden! No one told me there was breakfast in the price! I shall have four tomorrow!”

“Tell Patrick to make sure you get the Full English then!”

In Ndola, the hotel manager, Robert, made a point of introducing himself yesterday afternoon and sought me out his morning to wish me good day. I was staying in the old hotel’s cheapest room. All the staff were as polite and smiling and friendly as if I had been a passing potentate, offering help and comfort to be sure that I felt welcome. All done without expectation of reward; just basic human kindness. So typical of this charming country.

The Ndola Museum, a slightly dogeared and fly-spotted place had a surprisingly good small exhibit on ethnography of the region, mainly illustrated with photos from the 1950s. It impressed upon me just how much has changed on this continent in the 60-odd years of my lifetime. I was looking at faded black and white photos of ceremonies, dances, customs and costumes that have disappeared except in museums. Now everyone lives a polyglot greying life with CNN blaring irrelevant 24 hour, wall to wall ‘news’, and supports Manchester United or Chelsea, and the Coca Cola Corporation welcomes me, alongside the town council, to every town on subsidised signage. My travelling life has been about 40 of those years since the curling black and whites were taken. I have seen so much diversity lost as tabloid TV has reached every corner of the globe. Is it ‘progress’ to lose your own cultural identity and join the muddy commercial ‘culture’ that has seeped and oozed everywhere?

I was amused though to find a ‘gallery’ (a slight exaggeration in Ndola Museum) devoted to the hand-made toys of the villages, made from scrap materials, tin, wire and shoe soles. The only two things I collect on my journeys are those toys and hand-carved wooden spoons. Both are already becoming difficult to find as Chinese plastic covers the world – (and ends up as a great new country of floating plastic granules in the Pacific Ocean and its fish…). I used to enjoy looking for spoons in local markets, items of vernacular design with a veneer of adornment and local decoration. Who needs to cut a branch and sit and whittle a spoon when PEP stores, purveyors of all things Cheap and Chinese (and Crappy) are in every town in Southern Africa?

I did stop and buy a curling calabash gourd ladle from a roadside stall today. Here and there local resources and local industry still beats PEP stores.

A tiring day on that road with its big thundering trucks, dust, fumes and sun. As I creaked off the red bike, rubbing a numb bum, face burning, I had to joke with Patrick that just sometimes – very briefly, thank goodness – I feel my age!

Fortunately, I soon forget it again.

DAY 31. THURSDAY MARCH 20th 2014. SIAVONGA, ZAMBIA.

‘FAST FOODS. QUICK IN, QUICK OUT!’ – a sign on a small kiosk as I rode. They probably didn’t read it the way I did. African English always amuses me. But Zambians speak beautiful Queen’s English, along with the Zimbabweans. It’s the official language in both countries, backed by many local languages and dialects.

“Oh, all the people causing the trouble, if only we could put them all on an aeroplane and fly them out. It would only take one plane!” I fell into conversation with my neighbour at the breakfast table, a businessman from Zimbabwe. “The whole country, ruined by so few people!”

“So what,” I asked, “are the prospects for change?”

“Dim…” he replied ruefully. “They are dim… Of course, Mugabe, he is 90 now. He can’t be there forever, but he has created an institution with control of the military, and the opposition is in disarray. If they could get their act together… But when change comes I fear it may lead to armed conflict…”

He pondered his spongy white bread, legacy of the British Empire to be found in all the ex-colonies. “Tourism used to be the second earner after agriculture. Now we have no tourists and no agriculture. Our image in the world is so bad. People don’t come. We are a country without even our own currency. Our economy is derelict. And Zimbabwe used to be one of the richest countries in Africa… One aeroplane, that’s all!”

I sipped reluctantly at my ‘Ricoffy’, a disgusting ersatz coffee unaccountably popular down here, and contemplated my Full English – two eggs, three small sausages and a heap of baked beans and a mound of Kleenex-substitute bread. Here was a well educated man, a graduate from Birmingham, representing such a fine country in such a mess and earning a living as a ‘consultant’ – business-speak for doing whatever he can to earn a crust. More educated than me; at least as cultured and intelligent; urbane, able and articulate – just born the wrong side of an arbitrary border line in Africa, the ignored continent.

Having discovered the charms of the Zimbabweans, I shall watch with concern when the change ‘at the top’ comes, as it surely must before long. I am so sad for that country, ruined by crazy despotism and a misguided idealism. “They have to hang onto power. They will not relinquish it easily. It is more than their jobs: it is their fortunes. They have created a whole institution.”

Ricoffy: ‘Dextrins, Dextrose, Maltose, chicory and soluble grains of choice fresh roasted coffee beans’. Hmmmm… In that order… My friend left and I went to pack my panniers. Sometimes you have to acknowledge the privileged lives we lead. I may not like my government but at least I have the democratic right and privilege to do something about it.

*

After yesterday’s tedious ride, today’s was delightful. And shorter, just a couple of hundred kilometres on curling roads through low green mountains and elegant forest, dotted with thatch and mud-brick hamlets and small maize fields. The heavy traffic thinned at last as I turned off the main border road, the last of the walking-pace low loaders and articulated trucks heading into Zimbabwe at the bigger border. I am now at Siavonga, a small town on the shores of Lake Kariba, Africa’s second largest man-made lake (after Ghana’s Lake Volta).

It is astonishing to find a veritable sea in the middle of these sprawling Mid-African countries! I was thrilled, on breasting a rise on the beautiful mountain road, between trimmed verges, to see the gleam of blue water spreading as far as I could see. It was hot, hot, hot but that refreshing expanse of water was like an oasis.

A few miles away I stopped at a petrified forest to look at the fossil trees with Amos, a conservation assistant. Another warmly likeable Zambian, he walked with me through the bush pointing out the many fossilised logs and random bits of ancient tree until we reached two long fossils complete with root bolls. Amos was happy with his job, having been promoted from a caretaker at the Livingstone Railway Museum and transferred here nine years ago. His work entitles him to a pension after a number of years of service, so valuable in this economy. He has a rustic house nearby, a couple of brick rooms with a zinc roof where his wife and children called polite greetings. He is typical of the Zambians: surprisingly educated, happy with his lot and doing his work with no expectation of reward from the occasional visitor, although receiving my small tip (“For your children…”) with almost embarrassing gratitude and fulsome thanks. A thoroughly decent man.

A thoroughly decent nation…

I twisted and wove down to the lakeside town of Siavonga and began my usual tour looking for accommodation. It’s easy with the bike. I tried the cheapest and found a noisy place and a room next to the Ladies; I tried a very plush place but cannot really justify £65. I compromised with a luxurious spot, a holiday within my holiday and am treating myself to a £40 room, that I bargained down from £50, the reason being the location: twenty feet from the lake on a grassy terrace looking south over the water. How my travels have changed! But then, how I have changed! I am forty years older than on my first big journey – October 1973 to May 1974. Huh! I achieved that whole journey, from New York to Argentina and back to England on £527. And here I am, forty years on, spending forty quid, twice my normal budget, on a lakeside rondavel. But how often will I be at Lake Kariba? Tomorrow I guess it is back to reality.

Trimmed verges give this country such a pleasant, tidy appearance. They are cut by hand by tens of thousands of swinging machetes, tidying thousands of miles of roadsides, using the ubiquitous machete, the African answer to slicing the top off a coconut to hacking through jungles. And such a hugely effortful way to clear grass! Africa always has the ability to boggle the mind! I have passed hundreds of young men swinging energetically at the long grasses, and seen many village women raking the long grasses into heaps that presumably become fodder, roofs and basketry. Cut by hand..! Thousands of miles..!

So odd the vestiges of imperialism: not just the ghastly bread but everything from justice systems, bureaucracy, the railways, language, and newspapers – to the fact that I just ate a Yorkshire pudding with some slices of beef for my supper! I am in the middle of Africa, eating Yorkshire pudding.

The red bike feels more part of my journey this year. Maybe it is familiarity (- or maybe it is the new tyres!). I still dislike the weight distribution but I am enjoying the ride much more. While I was away I had the seat rebuilt, which has also made a great difference to my comfort, not that comfort describes the reality on extremely hot, sun-beating journeys dodging potholes and vast lumbering wagons…

A fresh breeze has sprung up off the lake this evening, dispersing the sweaty humidity. The great Zambezi is subsumed into the lake on its way to the Indian Ocean. Sheet lightning flickers on the horizon and the flat-bottomed fishing boats ground slowly out at sunset, circular nets suspended behind them, one of them towing three swimmers. I did see a sign somewhere, ‘Beware of hippos’! Tonight I shall sleep next to Lake Kariba as a mid-journey treat.

A blood-red moon has just appeared above the water, climbing upside down into the velvet southern sky. Water laps at the rocks below my room and the temperature is perfect now. The Southern Cross, the only constellation I recognise down in these skies, is right in front of my terrace. A string of distant lights delineates the Zimbabwe coast of the lake. The lights on the fishing boats spread silver pathways across the water. It is very peaceful.

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