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Bikepacking from Malawi to Zambia

Rufunsa (15 Oct 2016) — posted on 10 Nov 2016

I've been backpacking for quite a while now. More than a year! It has been incredible. And still is. But I had been thinking of changing my mode of transport. More specifically to cycling. On the one hand because I had been squeezed into too many minibuses on my way down. On the other hand because other people had inspired me to try cycling.

When cycling trough a country, you also go over land. And you see even more of the country and the way it changes because of the lower speed of traveling. But it is not too slow, so it is still possible to cover a significant distance over a reasonable amount of time. And as a bonus, it keeps you fit!

So when I met this cool bunch of fellow travelers at the amazing Lake of Stars festival in Malawi at the end of September, amongst whom was one cyclist (the one who with all the hair), some of us just said yes and promptly decided to buy bicycles and end Thomas' lonely five month long cycling trip from Cairo to Nkhata Bay by joining him!

The Wolf Pack at Lake of Stars 2016

The Wolf Pack at Lake of Stars 2016

After the festival, we returned to Butterfly Space in Nkhata Bay for a night and then rushed to Lilongwe in search of four bicycles. This wasn't an easy task but all of us decided to get local bikes, costing us no more than €60 initially. Which had some repercussions we could have foreseen: broken pedals, broken seats, broken brakes, multiple flat tires, loose handle bars, no gears or no working gears. But it all added to the adventure of the next week and a half.

Rosy (NZ), me, Thomas (UK), Gunbritt (NL) and Gary (UK); ready to roll

Rosy (NZ), me, Thomas (UK), Gunbritt (NL) and Gary (UK); ready to roll

The Humber, when it was brand new

The Humber, when it was brand new

My Humber

My Humber

I decided to buy an Indian-made bicycle of the make Humber. Which caused a lot of laughter when cycling through towns and villages. None of the locals believed I could make it to Lusaka on this kind of bike. A bit strange since the locals also carry huge loads on their bicycles all the time:

Four bags of charcoal on a Humber, not bad

Four bags of charcoal on a Humber, not bad

Mine doesn't look so bad in comparison:

The Humber, fully loaded

The Humber, fully loaded

We left Lilongwe in the afternoon of the 7th of October. The first days were filled with frequent stops, mostly for repairing our bikes: pedals falling off, flat tires, chains coming off. But also to take refuge under a tree to hide from the sun and replenish our sugar with a coke.

On the road! Safely!

On the road! Safely!

Here's a day to day summary of my bike trip:

day 1

Lilongwe to Mpingu - 22 km
We left in the afternoon, the hottest part of the day, only to break down on the first hill, still in Lilongwe. Rosy's pedal fell off.. After that little hiccup we managed to cycle for 22 km and reached Mpingu where we slept in a roadside guesthouse.

A flashlight and a bottle make for great ambient lighting

A flashlight and a bottle make for great ambient lighting

day 2

Mpingu to Mchinji - 88 km
This time we left a lot earlier to try to avoid the heat. But my t-shirt was still drenched in sweat within the first minute of cycling. We managed to ride all the way to Mchinji, just before the Zambian border. Here we stayed with an American Peace Corps volunteer, who we've met a the festival. Unfortunately Gary had to give up because he injured his ankle.

Our bicycles needed a rest too

Our bicycles needed a rest too

day 3

Mchinji to Chipata - 37 km

Crossing the border from Malawi to Zambia

Crossing the border from Malawi to Zambia

This is the second time I cross a border on a bicycle! Early in the morning we go from Malawi to Zambia and reach the closest town on the Zambian side, Chipata. From there we quickly jump in a taxi and drive to South Luangwa National Park to try and spot some elephants and hippos.

The elephants found us!

The elephants found us!

Fine-tuning the bikes turned out to be an impossible task

Fine-tuning the bikes turned out to be an impossible task

Most of the wolf pack, with matching shirts, except mine for some reason..

Most of the wolf pack, with matching shirts, except mine for some reason..

day 4

Chipata to Chisanti - 104 km
Our first +100 km day! I struggled with flat tire in the morning but managed to find a roadside bicycle shop and got it fixed for about €2.

Taking a rest and having a coke after 80 km

Taking a rest and having a coke after 80 km

Lunch break under a mango tree

Lunch break under a mango tree

Sunset..

Sunset..

After 100 km we started looking for a place to sleep. We stopped at Shishanti, one of the many villages along the road, and asked to speak to the headman and ask him for permission to camp out there. And even though there was a funeral for his aunt we were allowed to stay there. An incredible experience this was! Our tents were pitched between the clay houses, close to the headman's house of course. We were constantly surrounded by at least 20 children watching us. And during the night we could here the sad but very beautiful singing of the people attending the funeral.

The children of Shisanti

The children of Shisanti

Entertaining the children

Entertaining the children

Spot the Mzungu...

Spot the Mzungu...

Our tents in Shisanti village

Our tents in Shisanti village

Shisanti village

Shisanti village

day 5

Shisanti to Nyimba - 133 km
Day five was a bit of a crazy day for me. After cycling for about 90 km the heat got the best of Rosy and she decided to hitchhike to the next town where there was a guesthouse. After deliberating a little bit I decided to join Thomas and cycle those 45 km! So we ended up doing 133 km. Since I was cycling a single-speed bike it was hard to keep up with Thomas but after a bit more than two hours we arrived in Nyimba. Still feeling ok, for now..

Wolf Pack on the road

Wolf Pack on the road

day 6

Nyimba to Luangwa bridge - 105 km
I definitely felt the effort of the day before on this day. I struggled going up even the lowest hills and walked up most of them. Sometimes with the help of children walking back from school pushing my bike up. Completely exhausted I reached Luangwa bridge!

day 7

Luangwa bridge to Rufunsa
The road after the Luangwa bridge is quite a bit steeper than what we had done before and since I really needed a days rest I stayed at our campsite with Rosy and Gunbritt for the day. In the afternoon we hitched a ride with a truck for about 70 km where we found Thomas extremely exhausted from the heavy day! He found us a camp spot behind a local bar just before Rufunsa.

Our tents pitched behind Kalundu bar in Rufunsa

Our tents pitched behind Kalundu bar in Rufunsa

day 8

Rufunsa to Chongwe - 122 km
In Rufunsa Rosy and Gunbritt decided to hitchhike all the way to Lusaka, so just me and Thomas would continue to Lusaka. After walking up one long steep hill just after leaving Rufunsa I was finally able to cycle again. I felt good again and managed to cycle about 120 km until we reached Chongwe, just before Lusaka.

day 9

Chongwe to Lusaka - 45 km
The last day was a short and easy day to Lusaka. We reached Lusaka before noon and had enough time to relax.

I cycled a total of 660 km on a single-speed bicycle through Africa with a bunch of amaznig people.. this was amazing! And also very inspiring for future trips! But next time I want a bicycle with gears.

My lovely Humber survived it to Lusaka and is currently located behind the kitchen at Wanderers Backpackers. Feel free to take it for a ride :-)

Thomas and Gunbritt are still cycling! Most likely until they reach Cape Town. A lot of respect!