Published: May 2nd 2011May 2nd 2011
The road connecting the Congolese and Zambian border posts was like a portal to another world. On the DRC side, it was hectic with hours of backup; I ended up slipping through without showing my passport to anyone. On the Zambian side, there were decent lineups and a straightforward procedure, not to mention lighting and AC. Roads are tarred and driving laws enforced. I was astonished at the existence of traffic police when a truck I had hitched with was pulled over for speeding. Later on, in another truck, I was further taken aback when we were stopped at a checkpoint and the contents of the truck were searched for poached animals; everywhere else I had been in Africa the only vehicle inspections were for smuggled weapons (or bribes). It is nice to experience an African country that has the wisdom and resources to protect its wildlife, even if a good part of their motivation comes from the appeal of tourism revenues.
As much as getting to Southern Africa felt like being transported back to the modern world, it wasn’t hard to see that the differences only go skin deep. On entering Zambia, I decided to head northeast to pay tribute to David Livingstone, in the remote village where he died in 1873. It was a 400 km detour on the tarred road followed by a 26 km walk along a bicycle path. Throughout my travels it has become clear that visiting rural villages, such as those along the Livingstone memorial trail, is always an easy way to expose the truth about a place; in this case the truth being that Southern Africans face many of the same challenges as their neighbors to the north. No running water or electricity; unqualified teachers with classes of a hundred kids; single nurses running clinics that are the sole medical facilities for miles and miles; deep-rooted corruption (fueled in part by humanitarian aid) that blocks both the success of deserving individuals and the progress of the country. But visiting villages also serves to expose the humanity and hospitality that form the true fabric of a society. Getting to the memorial the villagers were surprised that I had walked the whole way there, so invited me for lunch and insisted on lending a bicycle to get back to the main road. That night I asked at a village school for a place to sleep, and was warmly welcomed without question into the home of the headmistress. As usual, the community leaders are always happy to help a traveler and give a positive impression of their home.
The bicycle the villagers lent me rekindled a former idea to give hitchhiking a break, and when I got to the first major Zambian town and chanced to come across a used bike shop, I took it as a sign. That night, sitting on his porch staring at the colours of the sunset dancing on the clouds, my Couchsurfing friend Gordon and I contemplated how to load up my stuff and stay safe while cycling the rest of the way to South Africa. Going with the flow and not forgetting to embrace idleness once in awhile was the conclusion - and it has been working great like that. The smooth roads of Southern Africa make cycling a relative breeze.
I ended up spending three days on Gordon’s farm, learning what goes into a quality cigarette, how peaceful life can be on the savanna, and most importantly about an approach to African development that actually helps the people. Gordon is the founder of the Canadian-based Simon Poultney Foundation, which embodies the concept of ‘grassroots’, having completely adopted the community of 6500. The road to becoming an independent, healthy community is being properly paved, from filling in the immediate potholes such as adequate healthcare and education facilities, to laying down a quality foundation of technical skills instruction and opportunities for economic sustainability. Unlike many other development approaches that, like African roads, are rendered useless after a few years, SPF doesn’t simply throw money at a problem, order people around, publicize a half-assed job, and then disappear. They encourage the community to initiate its own projects, provide support without taking over, and then follow through on whatever is started. What Lao Tzu taught remains true: a leader is best when people don’t know they are being led. The other benefit of this approach is that it is small scale and run locally by someone who grew up nearby and therefore understands the system, so the prying hands of the higher powers are fended off. I have visited many development projects in Africa, and it is rare to find one that gives so much hope for the future.
Leaving Gordon’s it was time to cycle. I quickly learned that my projected 150 kms a day was just a little too hopeful, particularly on a second hand bike bought in Africa and loaded down with a heavy bag strapped on with pieces of motorcycle inner tube, and ridden by someone who has done nothing but walk for 14 months. Averaging 80 to 100 kms has been a little more realistic. I followed a trail of Gordon’s contacts and Couchsurfing friends through Zambia, meeting wonderful people while training my rear end to get comfortable eight hours a day on a bike seat. By the time I got to Victoria Falls I had most of the kinks worked out and was completely happy with the change of pace. After a rest day of getting soaked and awed by the overwhelming power of the most powerful waterfalls in the world, it was across the Zambezi and into Botswana, the land of elephants and flat, open space. An hour in, I saw two of the giants crossing the road, and while cycling towards Nambia there were many more elephants, a rhino, all varieties of antelope (including the proud kudu), ostriches, jackal, hyenas, baboons, awesome birds, zebra, warthogs, hippo, crocs and something like zebra striped ferrets that people call squirrels. And all that without even being in a national park. I was constantly warned about buffalo, lions, and other cats, and although I wanted to see them, I was happy not to while on a bicycle.
As I made my way across Botswana, I started hearing about ‘the other’ cyclists, and was soon caught by the Tour d’Afrique, which turned out to be the biggest blessing I could have wished for. They are an organized ride of around 80 diverse people, from all over the world and aging from younger than me to in their seventies, and had spent the past three months riding from Cairo, also en route to Cape Town. Although with their empty bikes and professional legs most of them cycle at twice my speed, they were friendly and welcomed me not only to stay with them for a few days and enjoy plentiful, delicious home-cooked buffets while camping in the middle of the bush, but also got their mechanic to tune up my bike and teach me a thing or two about touring on a bicycle. On top of all that, a few of the wonderful riders sent me off with a new bike rack, energy bars for when I’m stuck in the bush, and padded shorts that have literally saved my ass. Not to mention a tent, meaning that now that I am in Namibia, a country of desert and Sahara-like distances between human settlements, I can camp in the beautiful wilderness guarded against the cold winter wind and scorpions. When we parted ways, I rode off in my padded spandex feeling like my ‘hitchhiker’ identity might actually be in danger of replacement with that of a ‘cyclist’.
So here I am in Namibia, a stunning country of breathtakingly diverse landscapes. The other day I camped on a deserted section of the endless beach, listening to the sounds of the crashing Atlantic on one side and feeling sand blow off the huge orange desert dunes on the other. Right now I am taking a long weekend off to relax, drink beer and braii with wonderful new friends before setting off along the dirt roads to visit more of the beauty of the Namib desert. I hear the best apple strudel in the world is served in a small town somewhere in the heart of this former German colony, so you know where I’m heading ;)
I have had several people ask me for my opinion on which humanitarian organizations I would recommend as worthy to donate money to. As I’ve told individuals and repeated in this blog, I am completely behind grassroots initiatives like SPF. This is their website http://www.simonpoultneyfoundation.org/?page_id=81/
. If you are thinking of going to Africa to volunteer and learn about development, it might also be a good choice.