Zambia – The Great East Road part 2

23 Oct

“Are you nuclear scientists?” A guy called Alex asks us while his friends inspect our bikes.
“No, why?”
“Because only nuclear scientists are mad.”

Jimbo and I are sitting outside a shop eating our morning fritters while the locals of Malambe village tease us.

“You don’t have a job? That is why you cycle. You don’t work so you cycle to burn all your energy!” Said Alex, whirring his hands round manically in a cycling motion while the fellas laugh hysterically.

The days and the kilometers roll by slowly but surely. While I climb the curving hills in high, easy gears I can hear Jimbo just behind me clicking and clattering away, before the inevitable gear-skipping crunch and accompanying Japanese expletive. I know then without having to look back that he’ll be pushing his bike up the rest of that hill.

We rely on the people by the road for information. ‘Is there a village this way that we can buy nshima for lunch?’ ‘Where do they have electricity?’ ‘Where can we buy a cold drink?’ And not to forget ‘how many kilometers?’

Extracting decent intel isn’t easy. Many people apparently have no idea where they are, or where anything else is, but will confidently give directions anyway.

A message now to rural Zambians – You lack basic pointing skills, people. When you point, point in the direction of the thing you are pointing at. Don’t point at a field and look over your shoulder at a road, or point at the road perpendicular to the direction you are trying to indicate. It’s very confusing. And when you point, don’t keep eye contact with me as you flash your arm up to your left. You’re indicating several dozen locations. Sort it out, will you? Then you might not have to personally escort lost and hungry cyclists around town all the time.

We double and triple check the extremely variable answers against what we know from Jimbo’s map, which lists only 5 or 6 towns along the 600km stretch. Jimbo then makes a timeline-style map for each day’s mission, which we use to decide our targets for lunch and which market to buy our veg from for the evening meal.


Often, we’re recommended to stop at villages that aren’t visible from the road, which means we ride past them hungrily. This happens today, and so it’s past 3pm when we finally find food for sale in a small ‘wild-west’ style town, booths and taverns facing out into a dry dirt square – tumbleweeds replaced by empty corn beer cartons. Lunch is impala and nshima, cabbage and mango for 7000 ZK / 85p. Afterwards, we find cold soft drinks in a busy bar, and Jim and I don’t pass up on that opportunity.

While I sit in the shade with my Havana coke, a thin, sharp eyed character struts over with a tall friend.
“I sell you gold. Gold from the mines. Good price, you sell in Germany* and be a rich man. 200 grams for 5 pin**. Good price.” I notice he’s wearing a golden ring.
“Real gold like this one?” I said, pointing at his ring.
“Yes. Like this one. You see? Gold.”
“That’s not real gold.”
“Yes. It’s real. Gold from the mines. 200 grams of gold dust, just 5000 Kwatcha.”
He bent the ring into a ‘U’ shape and removed it from his finger and handed it to me.
“That’s definitely not real gold, my friend. Gold doesn’t, er… bend.”
“Yes. It’s good gold. You buy.”
“It’s fake gold. Sorry. Definitely not real.” I say, looking around at the crowd of earwigging men and boys. It’s probably painted copper from the mines nearby, which provide something like 70% of Zambia’s GDP.

We’ve met one too many drunk or dodgy dealer over the last week, so for a bit of solitude we decide to try to wild camp.

We stock up with water from a bore hole at 4.30pm and ride until just before dark, looking for a quiet stretch of road we can slip off of unnoticed. There are people everywhere. We get our only opportunity at about 6.30pm, disappear down a thin path, over 2 streams and into a field dimpled with hoofprints. We can see smoke coming from 3 surrounding huts. Damn. We would surely be found. The entire local community, drunken ‘gold’ traders and all, would hear about us in no time. It’s after dark, so, frustratingly, we give up and look for somewhere to camp within the next town.

At 7.30pm, we come accross a lodge. The idea of a decent shower and watching football in a bar appeals to me, but not to Jimbo, who is more hardcore than a solid diamond statue of Lofty Wiseman giving a wheelbarrow of hardcore a fireman’s lift. We carry on and find a Jehovah’s Witness church but the pastor isn’t around.

Jimbo and I have been bickering (mildly) since we failed to find a wild camping spot, but I can tell neither of us want to risk falling out. Some solitude is still the solution. I tell him that I’ll camp at the lodge tonight while he stays on the lawn outside the church, but I ride over later to cook dinner with him, inside the church.

* Almost without exception, the Zambians that have a crack at my nationality guess that I’m German.
** 5 ‘pin’ is 5 thousand Kwatcha

Too Warm for School


We camped outside Chiteleywa Basic School the next evening. The Headmistress Mrs. Monica kindly showed us into a hot and dark classroom, but I requested that we camp outside.

“Outside?”
“Yes. It’s cooler!”
“But there are snakes!”
“We have tents, we’ll be fine.” I reassured her, unconvincingly.
“What if they crawl under the tent?”
“Er… Jimbo has been camping in Africa for 3 years, every night. We think it’s OK.”
“OK.” She said, with a don’t-come-crying-to-me-when-you-get-bitten look on her face.

In fact, it was very cool outside. For the first time in the 3 months I’ve been in Africa I climbed into my sleeping bag.

Jimbo’s petrol stove – little trooper though it is – ran out of juice after just about heating our pot of pasta.

Similarly, I was also running low on juice. After being surrounded by the Headmistress’ pesky kids, I woke up and we packed up quickly to go and get breakfast. Thirsty as hell because we didn’t like the taste of the water around here.

What’s the matter, mineral-water boy – Afraid you might taste something?


Bore holes have been our preferred source of water. Usually pumped from deep underground by a child nominated to lead us through the bush, the water is clear (a few sand particles aside) and sometimes cool. After around half an hour, however, it tuns yellowy brown.

We both drink the stuff by the gallon, commenting on the distinctive tastes coming from each individual bore hole.

When there’s no bore hole, we drink from the well. This is less desirable as the water is open to the elements and drawn up in scummy plastic containers.

On one occasion, when there had been no bore holes or wells for several dozen kilometers, we took river water. This was in the dark so we weren’t in a position to comment on the colour. Very metallic to the taste, we thought.

We thanked Mrs. Monika and bolted down to the village and asked a shop owner to boil us some eggs and water for coffee. She gave us some drinking water while we waited. It appeared strange and different – clear, you could say. I asked her where she takes the water from.
“The well.”
We looked at her.
“I put chlorine in it.” She said, disappearing into her shop to dig out a water purification solution.
“Does everyone in the village put this in the water?”
“Yes.”
“Ah…” We’d been drinking Chiteleywa’s water untreated last night. I’ve been carrying water purification tablets but it hadn’t occured to me to use them – a couple of half hours squatting over a hole in the mornings is nothing to write home about – but if the people in this village are purifying their water, then I probably should too. I plopped a couple of tablets into my camelbak container and tried to ignore a stomachache for the rest of the day.

The Restaurant at the End of The Great East Road

The chicken is crispy, the water ice-cold, the cabbage dish hearty and well cooked. The serving of nshima isn’t too big, and there’s peri-peri sauce on the table. The mama and sister are friendly and give us a good price straight off (6000ZK / 75p). There’s beef or beans if you don’t want chicken. The chairs are plastic and comfortable.There’s soap to wash your hands, and a hand towel to dry them. A cold coke is available.

These things have been missing over the last 10 days and 600km. At our last lunch stop before the end of the road, in Chongwe market, we found a place that has it all – Nelly’s Momba Restaurant

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3 Responses to “Zambia – The Great East Road part 2”

  1. Lauren Kent March 8, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    AH man, your posts make me want to get back on the road asap!

  2. ANGIE BRYANT March 8, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    What an incredible journey! Loving the blogs Jack and the images are fab. Keep going. Thinking of you and wishing you a safe and comfortable trip every day. x

  3. Alan Frost March 15, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    Great detail Jack – it makes me laugh every time.

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