Zambia: Cycling in Mbala, Northern Province

5th April - 24th April 2002


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The MV Liemba moored at the small dock in Mpulungu at 08.00 and I stepped ashore and into Zambia. There were not many passengers disembarking, the majority of them had gone ashore at the last port in Tanzania, Kasanga. We all walked, looking rather bedraggled after our long voyage down Lake Tanganyika, through the port and to the small immigration office. The office seemed to take forever to process our passports; I suppose they don't get much practice as the MV Liemba only arrives once a week. The customs were more thorough though and took delight in going through my pack with a fine toothcomb, it was probably the only excitement they get once a week. One of the soldiers amused himself by just pressing the buttons on my Walkman and wondering why there were no batteries in it. At the end of their ritual I repacked my bag and the soldier, who had previously been mesmerised by my Walkman, now asked me for money to buy a soda. I just smailed, laughed and walked out of the customs office and out of the port.

As we sailed into Mpulungu I still had not decided exactly what I was going to do today, whether to stay here in Mpulungu for a night or to take a minibus to Mbala, 40km up the road. I walked with Paul into town, he was going to take a bus to Serenje today. As we walked I finally decided that I would spend the night in town before travelling to Mbala the next day. I left Paul on the main road and took a small dirt road along the lakeshore to the Nkupi Lodge, near the edge of town just past the small market on the waterfront. It was a nice peaceful place to stay, I had a rondavel to myself and there was also a bar and restaurant. The people running the place were very hospitable and laid back, as well as their two dogs.

Mpulungu is described as a busy crossroad's between East, Central and Southern Africa. I would dispute this somewhat, it may be a crossroad's but it was definitely not a busy one, it had more a town at the end of the road feel. The town sits at the bottom of the Great Rift Valley, the 1,000m escarpment runs along the eastern and western shores of lake Tanganyika. It is a very hot and dusty place with very little amenities except a large market, it wasn't the kind of town that inspired me to stay long and explore. I still had a large supply of Tanzanian shillings stuffed into my money belt that were now useless, so I wandered into the centre of town to the one and only bank to change them to Zambian kwacha. On route I bumped into Paul again who was killing time while he waited for his bus to depart. We reached the Finance Bank who said they didn't change Tanzanian shillings and advised me to go down the road to the BP petrol station were they would be able to help me. Silly me, I should have realised that to change money I should go to the petrol station and not the bank. I left Paul at the small bus park and walked back to the Nkupi Lodge, now with some extra Zambian kwacha in my pocket and spent most of the afternoon sleeping.

The next day, before leaving for Mbala I walked to the ruins of Niamkolo Church a short way along the shore of the lake from the Lodge. This was one of the first stone buildings built in the area. It was built as a mission station by the London Missionary School in 1898, but was later abandoned in 1906 because many people fell ill with sleeping sickness from tsetse flies living by the lake. The mission station was moved ten miles inland and the church left as a ruin, which is today a national monument. I stopped on my way back at the Nkupi Lodge to pick up my backpack and continued my walk into town to find transport the 40km to Mbala. For a supposedly crossroad's town there was very little traffic. It was hot and the walk from the lakeshore had tired me out. I sat by the side of the road in the heat next to the main market waiting for a passing bus or minibus. Eventually one came by and I jumped in. I only got a few hundred metres down the road before turning around and returning to the minibus park, a dusty patch of wasteland behind some buildings on the main street.

It felt like it took forever to leave Mpulungu. Whenever we set off down the road, no sooner had we got going we would stop yet again. You couldn't get any more passengers on board but we still had to stop all the time to tell everyone, it started to become annoying and frustrating in the heat of the day. Fish seemed to be one of the main cargoes we were carrying, bundles of fish were tied to the roof rack and hung down outside the windows, blood dripping onto the glass. For the last few days wherever I went I could smell fish, I would be glad to get inland and away from this lingering smell. Eventually, just before everyone on board the minibus began to loose patience with the driver we hit the open road. The road to Mbala was paved but stretches of it were badly potholed, slowing down our progress.

Mbala sits at the top of the escarpment of the Great Rift Valley, the journey was never going to be quick from Mpulungu when we had to climb 1,000m as well in such a short distance. Mbala is a small town, not much more than one commercial street. It was previously known as Abercorn and it is here that the German East Africa force's surrendered at the end of the First World War in 1918. A small monument on a roundabout as you enter the town commemorates this event. The minibus eventually dropped me off along the main street and I was given directions to the Grasshopper Inn, one of the few guesthouses in town, which was about 750m up a dirt road from the main street. On arrival I was shown to a room in a block across the road from the principle building that housed the reception, restaurant and bar. I think the local council runs the guesthouse; it definitely had the feel of a government run place rather than a private enterprise. Just down the road was a school that had one of the best mottos on a sign that I had ever seen during my travels in Africa; the motto read 'Suffer the present, enjoy the future'.

There is one very good reason for coming to visit this small town way out in the bush in the Northern Province and that is the Moto Moto museum. Moto Moto in the local language translates as fire, fire, the nickname given to Bishop Joseph Dupont who pioneered missionary work in the area with the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the White Fathers. Bishop Dupont smoked and always asked the locals for fire to light his pipe and hence he gained his nickname, moto moto. The museum was named in his honour. The history of the collection at the museum dates back to the 1940's when a catholic priest Father Jean Jacques Corbeil came from Montreal, Canada as a White Father to do missionary work. During his years as a missionary he collected artefacts from the local tribes, the Lala, Bisa and Bemba with the view of preserving these cultures of the Zambian people for future generations.

The collections were stored at the Mulilansolo Mission until 1964, when they were moved to Serenje in 1970. In 1973 Father Corbeil moved to Isoka and the Diocese of Mbala donated a plot of land with a disused carpentry and bricklaying workshop on at St Paul's, Mbala to serve as a museum, which opened in 1974. The museum is 4km out of town, I asked for directions at the Grasshopper Inn. It took just over an hour to walk heading northeast out of town, turning left at the police station, where there was a bright sign pointing the way to the Moto Moto and onto a dirt road that went past the local prison. It was a nice afternoon for a walk, not as hot as it was in Mpulungu, with scattered cloud giving patches of shade from the bright sunshine. The road went straight as far as the eye could see, lined by high grass, small villages and cultivated fields. The museum is in a small park just past the Lucheche Stream, where the locals were enjoying the clear, fast flowing water that flows out of the nearby Lake Chila. Hidden away in the tall grass I could hear kids screaming and splashing in the water.

I was the third visitor of the day and had the museum to myself. The main hall housed Stone Age implements found at the nearby Kalambo Falls, 40km north of Mbala where the earliest evidence of fire in sub-Saharan Africa has been found. There is a section on history covering the early European explorers and missionaries as well as history on the tribal groups in the area and the struggle for independence. A lot of the artefacts are traditional everyday items from the tribes covering most aspects of daily life like, agriculture, hunting, fishing, medicine and household items. These items will soon be forgotten as local people more and more adopt a western style of life and abandon their traditional way of life. There was also an interesting collection of pickled snakes curled up in old jars; I didn't realise that one of Heinz's 57 varieties was pickled snake. After a couple of hours I had seen most of the exhibits and walked back to town, the skies now overcast, with rain falling on the horizon.

I returned back to the Grasshopper without getting wet and dined at their restaurant and bar that evening. The dining room was an empty, echoing concrete room with a large stone fireplace painted red that looked very much out of place. I noticed that the clock on the wall was showing the wrong time, it was an hour slow. I laughed to myself thinking how typically African it was to have a clock showing the wrong time. While I was eating my beef, cabbage, beans and chips I began thinking that it was strange that the sun had set so late this evening, at just past 19.00. That is when it suddenly clicked, I had been in the country for two days and I hadn't realised that I had gone through a time zone from Tanzania. I checked with the chef who confirmed that there was an hour's difference between the two countries. Suddenly my rush down to the museum that afternoon seemed pointless and also explained why a family came to visit the museum supposedly half an hour before it was due to close. Everything began to make sense including the rather late sunset.

The following day I planned to visit Kalambo Falls, 40km north of Mbala on the border with Tanzania. They are the second highest single vertical drop waterfall in Africa, the highest allegedly being Tugela Falls in the Drakensberg in South Africa. My immediate problem was how to get there as the falls are in the middle of nowhere and there is no public transport. Hiring a car and driver would be too expensive so instead I decided to rent a bicycle. I had thought about it overnight and guessed that I was fit enough to cycle the 80km round trip. Back home I used to cycle 48 miles in under three hours, but that was with a lightweight bike and on good tarred roads; with this trip I had all day and figured that it would be possible. I talked to the staff at the reception and the chef went off and came back ten minutes later with his friend and a mountain bike. We agreed on US$15 to hire the bike for the day.

I went back to my room in a rush to pack my daypack with the essentials I would need for a days cycling through the bush. Unfortunately I was in too much of a rush and was not thinking straight and left one vital piece of equipment behind, my water pump and filter. I had a two-litre bottle of water and thought that that would be enough for the journey. In hindsight it was a stupid assumption to make as it didn't make any allowances for emergencies and little did I know at the time that I would end up in an emergency later that afternoon.

I took directions from the staff at the Grasshopper and at half past nine set off on my journey, stopping at the BP petrol station to borrow a spanner to adjust the height of the saddle. The bike was not bad considering where I was, the gears didn't work and the brakes only slowed me down rather than stopping me. In order to change gear I would stop the bike and with a stick moved the chain on the front gear sprockets. I followed the road northeast out of town again, passing the police station and continuing down the hill where the tarred road crumbled away to a dusty dirt road. I went through the police checkpoint at the edge of town and passed Lake Chila to the left of the road. There were no motor vehicles driving down this road, only bicycles and pedestrians. I cycled with a local man and chatted briefly until the turn off to Kalambo Falls, marked by a small concrete block wall, about 7km out of Mbala.

The road became a track, tall grass growing either side and sometimes in the middle of the track, it was 33km from the turnoff to the falls. I was making fast progress. The road seemed to have a slight downhill gradient that made cycling fairly easy, although I had to watch out for soft sandy stretches that bogged me down slowing my progress. I passed through small villages, mud huts with conical thatched roofs dotted amongst the fields alongside the track. Women were doing their washing in the streams that flowed across the track and children bathed and played in the water. At every village I would end up with a band of energetic children running behind me screaming and shouting with excitement at seeing a white man on a bicycle riding past. After an hour, when I reached an uphill stretch, I stopped to rest and drink. Sweat was pouring from me and I decided to tie my daypack to the rear luggage rack of the bike to stop my back becoming drenched in sweat. The sun shone fiercely in the cloudless sky and even the short trees beside the track didn't provide much shade from the sun.

The track seemed to go on forever, after a couple of hours I could glimpse a view through the trees of Lake Tanganyika. I was cycling along the plateau at the edge of the Great Rift Valley escarpment on the eastern shores of the lake. When I stopped to rest the views were stunning looking across the deep blue lake and to the escarpment on the far shores. The track became increasingly rough and rocky, even the downhill stretches I had to walk as the brakes were not good enough to stop me and the rocks were getting too large. Finally, when I thought that this track would go on forever I reached a junction; a sign was nailed to a tree pointing to the track on the right saying, 'Kalambo Falls 1.5km'; I was nearly there. The track wound it's way down the hill steeply to the valley where I could clearly see the Kalambo River lazily flowing past, forming the border with Tanzania to the north. Three hours after setting off from Mbala I finally reached the falls, where in a clearing amongst the trees was a man sitting under a thatched shelter selling entrance tickets; I was the first visitor of the day.

The falls were spectacular and suddenly all the effort to get here seemed worthwhile. The Kalambo River plummets deep into a densely forested valley that cuts its way through the escarpment, the swirling waters of the river disappearing to Lake Tanganyika. The viewpoints around the falls are dramatic and it is hard to see the plunge pool at the bottom through the spray generated by the falling water. I sat under a shady tree to cool down, have a drink and eat the pack of biscuits I had brought for lunch. I was very thirsty after my three hour ride here and I couldn't stop sipping at my water; I had already drunk over half of it and it was then that I realised that I may have a problem unless I could find something else to quench my thirst. I walked back up to the shelter where the man selling tickets was resting listening to religious music on a badly tuned radio. I asked him if there was anywhere in the local villages that I could get a drink; he suggested the large village across the river in Tanzania. I sent him with some money to buy as much soda or bottled water he could with ZK5,000. About forty minutes later, while I rested, he returned and to my disappointment presented me with a bottle of concentrated Ribena; it was all the shop in the village had. I thanked him anyway, the Ribena was useless as the problem was the water to dilute it with.

The journey back was going to be a lot harder, most of it would be uphill, I was tired from the journey out here and I had less than a litre of water left with me. I left the falls at 13.30 and began walking back up the hill, the road immediately from the falls was far too steep to cycle. At least the sky had clouded over and it was now a lot cooler than earlier with even the odd drop of refreshing rain falling between the trees. I tied my T-shirt and hat to the handlebars and plodded on up the hill, sweating under the exertion. I soon realised that it would take a long time to get back to Mbala, even when the track looked flat the gradient was just slightly uphill and I could only cycle slowly.

Disaster struck when I reached my first long downhill stretch, about 10km back from the falls. I still had my daypack strapped to the rear luggage carrier of the bike and I had a drinking tube, with a valve on the end, poking out of my bag. As I careered down the hill, the track was very rough and bumpy, my daypack slipped off the luggage carrier and the tube from my water bottle got caught in the spokes, knocking off the valve. By the time I reached the bottom of the hill and had realised what had happened, all my remaining water had drained out of my bottle. My first thoughts were, bugger; suddenly the day became challenging. I just wished I had packed my water filter before I set out this morning, it would have solved my problems. There was nothing much I could do except carry on, so I climbed back on the bike and steadily pedalled on down the road. I decided that if things were getting desperate I could always stop at a village along the way and ask for some tea, this would be safe to drink as the water would have been boiled.

The journey back to Mbala, as well as being a physical battle, now became a mental battle too as I became more and more thirsty with every kilometre I pedalled. I tried to keep my mind focused thinking about every pedal revolution that brought me that little bit nearer to Mbala. I was surprised at how well my return journey was going, considering the circumstances I was making fairly good progress. I never reached that hallucinating stage that a lack of water can bring on, although I did begin to gaze intently at the passing fields looking to see if there were any fruit trees growing, laden down with large thirst quenching fruit; of course there weren't. It was late afternoon when I stopped on one of my many breaks, in the distance I could see a line of electricity pylons that followed the main road out of Mbala, I was slowly getting there. While I sat beside the track to rest I heard a car coming along in the distance, this was the first car to pass me all day. I flagged the car down and it stopped in a cloud of dust; I was hoping to hitch a ride the rest of the way back, but the car was full. I explained my situation and asked them if they had any water to spare, they did and handed me a bottle of water. They left me by the side of the road holding this bottle as if it was made of gold, I couldn't believe my luck, I knew now that I would be able to reach Mbala.

The water was just enough to see me through the last painful 10km of my journey. I slowly pedalled along the main road to Mbala as the sun was setting. It was one of the most fantastic sunsets I had seen for a long time, the skies above ablaze in an orange and pink glow. I was too tired though to stop and take some photos, my mind was still battling to get me home. It was almost a 360-degree sunset, the western horizon was bright red and this reflected across the clouds above me all the way to the eastern horizon. It was dark by the time I reached the police checkpoint, it was deserted and I carried on into town unnoticed, walking up the hill where the tarred road began and stopped at the first shop I saw open. I staggered in and saw a fridge full of cold soda. Between drinking three bottles I told the shopkeeper and the other customers who began to gather around me about my adventures to Kalambo Falls. Most of them couldn't believe that I had cycled all that way and back again in one day. One of the customers in the shop even confessed that he had never seen the falls, I recommended the trip to him. Cold soda had never tasted so good and I walked happy, though tired, through the dark for the last kilometre to the Grasshopper Inn. It had taken me four and a half hours to cycle back from the falls and I was completely exhausted and collasped onto my bed.

The following morning I felt a lot better than I expected and decided after breakfast to travel to Kasama where I planned to catch a train to Kapiri Moshi, about 200km north of Lusaka. I met the man whose bicycle I had borrowed yesterday over breakfast; he refused to take any money from me because he said that many people borrow his bike and no one else pays. I had to force him to take five dollars as a gift to thank him.

Continue reading this journey: By train from Kasama to Lusaka