“Hey mate, how are you?!”, declaims Johnno with tremendous excitement, racing down the hill to greet the first fellow cycle-tourer we had come across so far.
“Where have you cycled from? How long have you been on the road?”
“8 Years. I started in New York in 2009. How about you guys?” replied Mike, without a hint of arrogance or pride.
Humbling experiences come ten a penny when you are touring through Africa, from facing off with bull elephants, to being out manned by a veteran cyclist of the highest calibre. The last week or so of our journey has been a true test against the outdoors, a kind of purgatory before one is allowed through the pearly gates of the Zambizi and sent on your merry way to a land of fifty cent beers and the fantastical waterfalls.
Upon leaving Francistown I was struck by the sense that we had passed our undergrad in African bicycle touring, some with flying colours, and others, namely me, with another fu**ing 2,2. The course consisted of overcoming a mountain-range in South Africa, twice, then making up for the slow ground with an epic ten days of non-stop cycling, in order to catch up with our targets again. Francistown was the rest that we needed, and on the subject of universities, Johnno discovered that he would be pursuing his masters at Cambridge… which, while impressive, pales in comparison to our Cycle-Touring post-graduate at the university of Botswana.
We entered what we thought at the time was “the bush”, as we headed North from Francistown, camping off the side of the road to prepare ourselves for the vast, lion inhabited, elephant dominated wilderness that lay ahead of us. We built our first fire, which ended up blinding us with smoke and going out within an hour, but we were at least learning from our mistakes and wouldn’t be using wet wood to ward off lions when we reached the park!
The next morning we were faced with our next challenge… a robbery. This robber was a sly dog, he approached our camp at the crack of dawn while we were cosily sat around our stove cooking up some hot & spicy beans, which I highly recommend to anyone that wants to make their already raw behind considerably more uncomfortable. Anyway, his gear was fit for a 90’s rave, in marijuana decorated bucket hat and three stripe, and we were therefore on relatively high alert from the word go. He hustled about some gold that he wanted to sell us, and then became extremely friendly, chatting about football and generally lowering our guard. He said his goodbye, his friend also, and they headed off. If was not until we looked back up from our fire beans that we noticed he was nonchalantly swinging our loaf of bread in his hand while trying to get out of sight as quickly as possible.
The next few of days consisted of covering the couple of hundred kilometres that lay between us, and the game reserve that we were to cycle through. One incident involving Johnno inadvertently wading through Waddi’s conveniently located bush dump aside, it was a relatively un-eventful passage, until inhabited areas became less and less frequent, and it became apparent that we had entered the land of beasts… the trial by wild had begun in earnest.
There are no fences around game areas in Botswana, cows slowly disappear from the roadside until suddenly they are replaced by their larger, prehistoric and tusked counterparts, the Elephants. There are very few, if any, experiences that I can compare to the feeling of vulnerability and exhilaration of cycling through a game reserve. Two hundred and fifty kilometres of uninhabited land, ruled by lion, elephants and buffalo, through which one would normally pass with the protection of a large Land Rover, or for the few brave cattle herders a large calibre rifle. One such herder that we came across told us, grinning from ear to ear, “there are loads of lion! Yes I just saw them on the road down there!”
We reached a camp in the middle of the reserve by early afternoon, and spent the day observing the comings and goings of tourists who, descending from their air-conditioned bus, would be chaperoned along protected walkways so as not to risk running into any game, fed to the eyeballs with steak and desert, then rammed back on the bus to go and experience the great outdoors. While feeling a little smug about the freedom of bike touring, it dawned on us that being behind a glass window probably is the more advisable way of viewing twenty foot tall bull elephants.
Our suspicions were confirmed the next day. We’ve been told different advice by just about everyone on this trip, from ‘make yourself big and shout at it’ to ‘treat it with respect and back off’ to ‘run for your life, you will die anyway so you might as well try and call your loved ones’. We chose the ‘look straight, clench and pretend nothing is out of the ordinary’. This, it turns out, is a pretty good policy, but in this particular case something about our appearance, it may have been my wife-beater burn lines, didn’t sit too well with him. Just as we were passing, less than ten metres away, he suddenly turned his huge frame towards us, flapping his ears and trumpeting. I looked back at the footage we have of this moment, and it was only a few seconds, but it honestly felt like an eternity. He pulled himself to his full height, threatening us and, sizing us up at the same time, kicked up dust turned on the spot, disappearing like a ghost back into the bush.
We completed our hundred and fifty kilometre day of riding through the park just as it was getting dark. The bush is not somewhere you want to be at nightfall, it is the hunting hour and we would be sitting ducks. Luckily a lodge gave us free accommodation, and we had a few rums to celebrate, swam in a bizarre phallic shaped pool and generally congratulated ourselves for passing through the park un-scathed. We woke up late, messed about with the bikes and laughed at the swimming pool a bit more, and it was not until long past midday that we were ready to leave and meander the next few kilometres until we found a place to camp. As we were leaving a land rover came hurtling down the dusty road towards us. It pulled to a halt and the landlady stepped out, looking concerned.
“ You haven’t left yet?!” she exclaimed. “You do realise that it is one hundred kilometres until the next inhabited area, and it is all game land!”
We had to cover that distance in four hours, or we would be left out in the open with no protection, and almost certainly be bush meat by the morning. The atmosphere changed in a heartbeat, we got straight on the bikes, and, via the shop where we bought cold beans for lunch, hit the road. It was brutal, we took one five minute break to down tinned fruit and beans, but aside from that we pushed ourselves to the limit non-stop. About two hours into the journey I heard a shout from Theo behind me:
Johnno was twenty metres back and didn’t understand our calls for him to catch up with us, or he did but resented, quite understandably, being told to hurry up when already at breaking point. Thus we passed the lion, with Johnno isolated and utterly unaware of its presence, with our hearts in our mouths and lives flashing before our sweat soaked eyes.
So, we passed our Masters in African bike touring, or purgatory, without a scratch. We sauntered into Kazungula with spirits as high as they have been all trip, drenched in sweat and utterly exhausted. It was at this moment that we spotted Mike. We cycled up to him with high spirits, keen to share with him our achievement and warn him of the challenges that lay ahead of him. It was as if the world was toying with us, allowing us the sense of achievement that comes with passing through the trials of a game reserve, but putting it quite brutally into perspective with Mike’s truly monumental journey, through the thirty five countries that have brought him from New York to Botswana. We may never experience the nomadic independent existence that Mike has created for himself, but reaching Zambia via Botswana’s Jurassic park is enough of an achievement for me.