Zambia: Bicycle Tour Travel Guide
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by David Mozer
Thanks to Mike Hutton for contributing to this article.
During the period of the cold war between the "front line states" and South Africa, Zambia had a high security alert for terrorists. Officials were very xenophobic and tourism wasn't encouraged. Elections were held in November 1991, which changed the government. There is now more positive attitudes towards tourism, but with the exception of around Victoria Falls, few tourist to show for it. The "peace dividend" has not really been realized as the economy expands slowly and successive the government are condemned for a variety of corruption and mismanagement.
Zambia has some wonderful cycling to offer the well prepared and adventurous cyclist. In many parts of the country there is still a very real sense that you’re seeing a different side to Africa that few tourists are lucky enough to see. Often the only signs of “civilisation” are cream biscuits! Roads vary from perfect asphalt (not much of it though) through wonderfully enjoyable dirt roads to loose, deep sand. It is possible to plan routes of several thousand kilometers almost entirely on dirt roads. Away from the few main roads traffic is almost non-existent, but people are rarely far away. It is often said that Zambian people are the friendliest in all of Africa, and this is one of the many things that make Zambia such an enjoyable cycling destination.
It is worth emphasizing that even on the main corridors there can be surprisingly long distances between services for travelers (i.e. package stores, restaurants and lodging) so you need to carry an adequate supply of water and always have a backup supply of food and energy boosters.
Temperatures are tempered by altitude so it’s rarely too hot to cycle, though the winter months from May through August probably are the more ideal time to visit. Night time temperatures during the winter months can be surprisingly low – a sleeping bag rated down to around 0oC should suffice.
Lusaka International Airport is some 20 kilometers from the city centre. It’s a good idea to arrange transport prior to arrival as most taxis will be unable to accommodate a boxed bike. Expect to pay around US$20 or US$30 for transport to the city centre. Bringing a bike into Zambia is generally problem-free, though customs regulations are strict and a new and unused bike may be subject to import duties. You can avoid potential hassles by not arriving with a pristine and unused bike.
Along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola you may be questioned as to your motives, but when it becomes clear you are a tourist you will be welcomed. Having quick access to your passport is a good idea as there are numerous army and police checkpoints where they like to check the validity of your visa. An invalid visa will attract a hefty fine, but visas can be extended in most provincial capitals.
Roads and Maps
Roads are generally poor other than the main international arteries. Some roads have been “all-weathered” and covered with rough gravel. Others have been neglected for decades and are deep in sand. Consequently, daily attainable distances can rarely be known with any certainty in advance so take this into consideration when route planning. There are currently no good maps covering Zambia. The Michelin Africa Central and South is acceptable, but sometimes inaccurate in the more remote parts of the country. In many areas route finding can be interesting. Beware that locals generally do not give accurate directions and distance estimates.
During and immediately after the rains many roads are impassable or extremely difficult to pass. There are often no bridges across the numerous rivers that flow only during the rains – dug-out canoes must be used for the crossings. Roads in the Luangwa valley, in particular, are highly susceptible to the rains.
Accommodation and Food
Accommodation in villages is basic, but usually cheap (as little as US$2). Bush camping is necessary in some parts of the country. A free-standing, naturally colored tent is highly recommended for bush camping. A strong ground sheet is essential. It is sometimes possible to spend nights at schools.
Food is generally in limited supply. In small villages only nshima (maize flour dumpling - called sudza, ugali, and posho elsewhere in East Africa) and basic vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots and onions are widely available. Porridge oats, noodles, milk powder and bread can be bought in most towns. Shoprite supermarkets (in Lusaka, Livingstone, Mongu, Chipata, Kasama, Mansa and the Copperbelt towns) are okay, but less well stocked than those in the southern countries. Bottled water cannot be bought in most villages. The water quality is generally good, but filtering or treating it may be advisable at times.
A strong and reliable bicycle is essential for traveling the minor bush roads of Zambia. Roads can be very rough so strong wheels and pannier racks should be a priority. Pannier racks made from tubular steel can be repaired in most large villages and towns. A front rack with a shelf as opposed to a low-rider type rack is more suitable as low mounted panniers will snag often. Thorns are plentiful meaning a suitable tire with Kevlar beading is best.
Spare bike parts are not available anywhere in Zambia, the only exceptions being low quality inner tubes and tires suitable for 26” wheels. Importing any bicycle part into Zambia using couriers will attract duty, regardless of the intended use of the part. It is essential that suitable spare parts and tools be carried, including a spare tire and tubes, chains, spokes, cassette lock-ring tool and chain-whip, brake and gear cables, brake pads, cable ties. The quantity and number of spares clearly should reflect the trip duration. Due to the sand and dust chain life is relatively modest; expect no more than 4,000 km per chain before cassette and chainrings start to wear excessively. Light oil for the chain applied daily provides the necessary lubrication while limiting the build-up of dust and sand.
There is no doubt that Zambia is a challenging cycling destination and any trip into the Zambian bush should not be taken lightly. Local people will always be surprised to see a tourist on a bicycle, but providing you treat people respectfully and (most importantly) smile, then you will be made to feel welcome. You are likely to return from a Zambian adventure with a new understanding of the problems facing Africa and pondering how, despite the poverty and hardships, people remain so happy.
Links of Interest:
For current news on Africa and more web sites with country-by-country information go to the link section and click on "Africa: News, Background, Travel."Africa Guide Home IBF's Bibliography: Africa IBF's Travel Page IBF's Africa index
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