Zambia

Wetter Than Victoria Falls.

The warning signs were everywhere. More than 50,000 people evacuated from Mozambique and another 10,000 from Zambia. The Zambezi River was on course of destruction. Weeks of torrential rain caused Africa’s fourth largest river to burst its bank and flood surrounding valleys. Crossing the mighty Zambezi, which winds its way from Central Africa to the Indian Ocean, flowing some 1,700 miles through six countries, was a questionable proposition. Surprisingly, only five bridges span the river, and one accessible only by foot.
I’d succumbed to the notion it’d be a wet ride. Now I wondered if I’d ever cross into Zambia.
Holed up in Botswana, dark brown mud oozed down the driveway of my guest house. The same brute force that had washed out roads, bridges and flooded essential agricultural areas created the mesmerizing Victoria Falls and Batoka Gorge more than 100,000 years ago. Now, at the confluence of the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Zambia, I was stuck. Trapped.
The only way into Zambia and across the river was through high water. I had to try. I passed a lineup of more than 30 cargo trucks before I came to where the muddy road meets the Zambezi. At the riverside, local people huddled under a patchwork of colorful umbrellas. With two motorized pontoons and, when lowered, ramps that screech loader than elephants, the Kazungala Ferry can carry one truck, maybe 4 cars and as many people that can fill the spaces between. The ear splitting noise of truck horns compounded by the yelling and shouting in Swahili of truck drivers and frustrated pedestrians, the scene sounded more like a congested city street, if you closed your eyes, than a tiny remote and primitive border between two third-world countries. I slithered my motorcycle into a narrow gap between a truck and the ramp. Then waited for the unlikely captain to sail the feeble vessel for a painfully slow and white-knuckled quarter-mile ride across the river.
Endless rain can take its toll on the mental state of anyone. For me, it was physical. After hours of riding in the cold pouring rain, my teeth chattered, and even through my gloves, my fingers wrinkled like prunes. Seeking shelter, I stopped at the kind of tiny roadside stand that would scare most travelers accustomed to valets, porters, luxury resorts and westernized versions of ‘ethnic’ foods.
I think I scared Martha, the short woman with mocha colored skin and a bright yellow scarf holding down her wet hair. She attentively served lunch to a couple locals crammed under the shelter of the shack. Not only was I the first muzungu (white man) to stop here, but my protective motorcycle gear (jacket, pants, gloves and helmet) made me look like an alien from a distant planet.
The rain sounded its own African rhythm as it pounded loudly on the corrugated metal roof, while like a mini waterfall, a steady stream of water fell from the roof and gargled as it drained down the nearby ditch. Despite the gray and wet surroundings, I felt sunshine from Martha’s dark brown eyes and easy smile as she poured warm water from a bucket over my hands, catching the excess with a plastic basin. This hand washing ritual is practiced in homes, restaurants and even these road side stands before serving a meal with nshima — a Zambian staple made from corn meal and water. Nshima is both served and eaten with one’s hands. As I grabbed a handful of nshima and scooped the steaming hot ndiwo, a stew-like relish, with tender goat meat, into my mouth, I felt I was finally arrived in “real” Africa.
The rain continued to pour, filling and masking the thousands of potholes in the road to Lusaka, perhaps the most frustrating stretch of tarmac I’d traveled since starting this trip. Each time my front tire slammed into a pothole my forearms stung with pain and the jolt vibrated through my arms and down my back through each vertebrae. In Lusaka I learned that not only had the rainy ride beaten my body, but one of my forks was badly bleeding — a blown seal.
It was destiny that I found George, a sturdy black man with arms thicker than my legs, who not only helped me muscle my forks and replace the seal, but hiding in the corner of his shop I found perhaps the only set of tires in all of sub-Saharan Africa that would fit my motorcycle. With enough tread on my rear tire, I figured I could make Kenya before I had to change it, so I replaced only the front tire and strapped the other to my bike.
Along yet another potholed Zambian road, I passed thatched huts, poor communities, co-ops and hundreds of people walking and riding bicycles. Everywhere I traveled, I noticed people carrying large white sacks tightly tied with twine. Somewhat lumpy and always bulging and over flowing, they were stacked on the sides of the road, in the backs of trucks, strapped to feeble bicycles with missing spokes and over the shoulders of pedestrians, hunkered and barefoot. I stopped and met Peter, the thin framed village Head Man with an inviting smile. He explained that the huge bags are filled with carbonized wood—charcoal—which serves the energy needs of nearly half the population of Zambia. Charcoal is their fuel. It heats their huts. Cooks their food.
But charcoal is controversial. The transformation process from wood to charcoal causes considerable energy loss and requires increasingly more forest resources to meet the demands of Zambia’s, and other African countries, growing population. Walking down a dusty path, Peter led me to his home. A simple compound in a small clearing surrounded by casava. There are two thatched huts, one for sleeping and the other for cooking and eating. He explained that charcoal isn’t necessary for everything. Lifting a large tan woven basket filled with somewhat fuzzy peanut sized caterpillars, he pointed at the sky and flashed a huge grin sporting blazing red gums and white teeth. “We soak with salt,” he takes a handful and stuffs them in his mouth, “and the sun cook for food.” He cups his hands together and presents me with a few dried, fuzzy caterpillars, “for you Mr. Allan.” I chew and crunch them. Salty alright. Not bad. Before I leave, he hands me a small bag for the road.
Thirty minutes after my inspiring afternoon with Peter, the village Head Man, I noticed that the only tire in all of sub-Saharan Africa that fits my bike was no longer strapped to the back. Destiny? The strap broke and it flew off and bounced somewhere, or nowhere into the Zambian bush. I retraced every inch of that road for hours, asking locals, military and charcoal entrepreneurs if they’d seen my tire.
No luck. So I headed northeast toward Malawi just as the skies opened and pelted me again.

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