Off the beaten track in Zambia – cycling the Old Petauke Road

Their bodies were bullet shaped and when they landed they folded their wings on top of their abdomen, one wing on top of the other so that the shape remained. They buzzed manically around our heads looking for a chance to land on us and bite. Riding became quite dangerous as, in a panic, our hands would leave the handlebars to stop them getting to us. We were totally surrounded by them and even though it was very hot we had to resort to head nets. Tse tse flies were everywhere in the Old Petauke Road.

Keeping the tse tse flies away from my face (thanks to Karen for the photo)
I got off lightly but the tse tse flies really went for Karen!

Karen was coming from the UK to cycle with me in Zambia and in spite of warnings from the locals that the many elephants in the area made it a dangerous place to go, we had decided to ride this very remote dirt road that follows the Luangwa River, instead of taking the main road to Lusaka.

The only reason that would stop us from taking this route would be the rain, as in the wet the road would be impassable. At one point it was touch and go as furious thunderstorms hit the South Luangwa National Park. One night I laid in my tent in awe, waiting for the thunder to arrive as huge lightenings made the night become day. When the sound came, it was so powerful that I could feel the ground under me shake and my stomach vibrate. The sound went in one direction and then turned around and came back the other way. I was being treated to nature’s surround sound. Luckily the tent weathered the storm and I was safe and dry.

The day after the storm the sunrise was spectacular

I had been at Croc Valley Farm for 12 days waiting for Karen. In that time elephants had come to visit, people overlanding on big trucks had come and go, I made some lovely new friends, spent a day with Asier, another basque cyclist that I’d first met in Kenya and twice in Malawi, got a surprise visit from Dakin with whom I’d sailed on Lake Tanganika and every night the hippos sang not-so-gentle-lullabies to help me go to sleep.

Elephants coming for a visit
After so long the monkeys felt at home on my bike
The hippos were particularly noisy at night!!

Karen arrived full of smiles, friendship and precious goodies impossible to get in this part of the continent, Xmas had arrived early. As I teared open plastic bags exposing tyres, filter bottle and spare parts for my panniers and stove, I let out shrieks of excitement. Finally I could repair my ailing panniers and be sure I had enough kit to make it to South Africa where I whould be able to get any parts I may need.

It was wonderful to see Karen again!

We didn’t delay and soon left  the safety of Croc Valley and took to the road amongst the persistent warnings from the locals about the dangers of wild life on the Old Petauke Road, in particular elephants. Asier was ahead of us and had sent us the location of places where we could get water and find a safe place to sleep. He had done the whole 176 Km in two days but we knew it would take us much longer.

Leaving Croc Valley Farm

We were really excited when we hit the beginning of the road: this was it, we were entering the Old Petauke Road! Ahead of us were a few days of adventure.

Leaving the main road (thanks to Karen for the photo)

It was hot, extremely hot, waves of heat could be seen on the path ahead of us. Very quickly we had the feeling that we were somewhere very remote, the sandy road, the low thorny vegetation, the absence of villages. Scattered dung and trees and shrubs stripped bare told us that there were plenty of elephants around. We constantly looked right and left for their presence, we didn’t want to be caught by surprise.

Bare trees means there are elephants around!

We were excited and euphoric and to start with the heat didn’t seem to matter but after 40 Km of cycling I began to get terrible leg cramps, my ears were buzzing, light spots appeared in front of my eyes and waves of nausea came and went. I had to stop every few hundred meters and rest on my handlebars before I could continue. According to the coordinates Asier had sent us, we had five Km to go before we reached the first settlement where we could spend the night and there was no option but to carry on. I was thrilled Karen was with me, lovingly supportive. I didn’t feel at all well and it would have been a scarier experience if I had been on my own.

A happy Karen on our first day in the Old Petauke Road

The place in the map was a Conservation College. They welcomed us and after pitching our tents, one staff member escorted us to the bore hole which was a couple of Km away. The principal was worried that we may come across elephants and didn’t want us to go on our own. Pushing Roberts, Karen’s bike, we walked through thorny bushes, crossed dry river beds and finally arrived at the pump. With Roberts loaded with 10 liters of water we went back to our tents, this time a different way through the bush. Everything had thorns and we had to be careful to avoid fallen branches that would have resulted in a puncture.

Sometimes the best way to carry water was taking the bikes to the pump

Back at the camp we had a shower under the stars in a grass enclosure with a pipe pumping water directly from the river. It was bliss to let the water run over me and get rid of the salt covering my body.

Once again the road had provided what we needed and the following day it even had a gift in store for us. Very early on the day, a herd of jirafes crossed the path in front of us. The light was beautiful and they were beautiful and majestic. We stopped to admire them and more and more kept appearing, big and small, we counted around 30.

The magic of the road! (thanks to Karen for the photo)

And the road continued to provide, throughout the day,  we foraged the fruit of wild mangoe trees to create a delicious chick pea and mangoe coconut curry that evening that we consumed under an incredible starred sky in a village chief’s compound.

The third day on the Old Petauke Road was the hardest, the gradients became steeper and the surface of the road more difficult with big rocks, sand and loose stones. A fair amount of pushing took place. I love Foxtrot but she’s not easy to push uphill. Push, brake, rest, push, brake, rest. At times like this I go inside myself, all my energy focused on the next five steps, it was a question of mind over matter and I knew I had plenty of energy left because I could still appreciate the beauty of what was around us.

Push, brake, rest! (thanks to Karen for the photo)

We still had the hardest hill to climb when a couple in a 4×4 stopped and after telling us we must be mad tackling a road like this, they offered us a cold drink. A COLD DRINK!!!!! That cold coke was pure nectar after three days of tepid water. I love this spontaneous encounters with other travellers on the road.

Spontaneous encounters on the road

As we approached the ‘main road’ the distance between villages got less and we were able to buy some radioactive looking drinks. They were still tepid as the villages didn’t have electricity but they provided some sugar and a break from the tasteless water.

We consumed a few of these radiocrive drinks!!!! (thanks to Karen for the photo)

It was in one of these villages that we stopped on our last night,   this time we camped next to the water pump and the madrasa with dozens of children watching our every move.

Children in the villages were always curious about us

One more day and we would be in Petauke where we would find tarmac again. It had taken us four days to cover the 176 Km of the Old Petauke Road.

After the Old Petauke Road, Karen and I had more wonderful days cycling together. We went up and down hills, stayed with newly made friends, met Blanca and Oscar also cycling the length of Africa, got thrilled at finding stalls on the road to buy ingredients for our dinners, enjoyed ‘homely’ guesthouses with lovely landladies and laughed at my first ever clipper hair cut.

Always a treat to meet cyclists on the road but meeting Blanca and Oscar was extra special
Something to cook with tonight – YES!!!
With our lovely landlady in Kalomo

I do enjoy my own company but sometimes I miss someone to share my experiences with and being with Karen was a real treat.

Sitting having dinner in Livingstone the day before she left, we talked about our time together on the road and when and where we would be cycling together again. At that moment, our encounter with  the tse tse flies faded in the distance and was almost forgotten.

45 thoughts on “Off the beaten track in Zambia – cycling the Old Petauke Road”

  1. Blanca,

    Your posts always bring happiness into my day, and this one was no exception. Though I love travelling by bike, after many weeks on the road I find loneliness the hardest thing to cope with. Especially after setting up my tent late in the day and having some time off the bicycle. It’s always nice when you meet new people underway, and I can appreciate how wonderful it must’ve been to have a dear friend join you for a while.

    I hope you have a wonderful holiday. Being on the road, I’m certain it’ll be one you’ll never forget.

    Happy holidays and safe journeys,

    1. Hi Mike. No plans. I’ll probably be in Botswana near the South African border, somewhere with Internet to be able to talk to my daughters.
      Have a fabulous Xmas

  2. Beautiful photographs. Looks hard work. But inspired me, feeling down with a cold, to make an effort to go out this afternoon. Blue sky and tomorrow rain promised, Cumbria, England. Getting fed up of being soaked (in waterproof jacket).
    Regards, David

    1. Thanks David. Hope your cold gets better. I’m not a fan of cycling in the rain so I don’t blame you for wanting to stay indoors!!!

  3. Blanca, do you get sick of people like me saying you are my hero. I cannot believe your encounters. words like brave and amazing just aren’t enough. I love living precariously through your tales. All i wish for is a definite point or a place that you know you will be at in the hope that i could send stuff to you….
    Keep on keeping on and when you hang up your theoretical bike clips I think you will have a long career as a writer of a series of books

    1. Thanks Maureen. It’s always so lovely to get your comments and so sweet of you to want to send me stuff. I have an idea, What about we go for a meal when I get back!? Have a fabulous Xmas
      Blanca xx

  4. Dear Blanca
    So lovely to know that you were in Luwangwa. We were there too 19 years ago. Fantastic photos. Thanks again for sharing them with us. If riverboarding is still available at the Victoria falls it’s well worth it! Sending you lots if hugs and happy Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere xxxxxx

    1. Hi women!
      I loved Luangwa. The falls were nearly dry as I got there at the end of the dry season, however seeing that wall of rock and imagining what it must be like with water was pretty spectacular.
      Much love to you both xx

  5. I felt courageous cycling across a bit of France by myself…never mind Zambia! But your exploits show what is possible. I have a colleague from Zambia – I’ll enjoy sharing your post with him. Travel safely and have a lovely Christmas

    1. Thanks Rachel
      Travelling by yourself always requires a bit of courage regardless of the place. It’s just a question of slowly pushing the boundary of what’s comfortable and before you know it…
      Have a fantastic Xmas and New year

  6. Great post – interesting and informative.
    The temperature would do me in I’m sure but the scenery and wildlife would keep me going! Not the insects though!

  7. Hi Blanca
    I follow your travels assiduously and always open the blog as soon as it arrives! Like everyone else I love to live vicariously through your encounters knowing that I could not travel like this myself. But it is the small encounters that make travel such a joy.
    I went to Kyrgyzstan and China along the old silk roads with a small group in the autumn. I re-read your blog as we travelled up to Tash Rabat and crossed the border over the Tien Shan mountains into China. It was comforting somehow to know that you had been nearby once!
    Enjoy Vic Falls when you get there. It is as epic as people say it is.
    Look after yourself and I will toast your continuing good health on Christmas Day.
    Love Elaine

    1. Thanks Elaine

      I feel privileged to be able to see so many places and live so many experiences. It sounds like you are also having a fair share of travel. How fabulous!

      Have a great Xmas and I wish you all the best for 2019

      Big love xxx

  8. Hello Blanca, and just to say how much I enjoy reading your blog. And to wish you a very happy Xmas and an even more amazing New Year xxx

  9. Oh Blanca, your adventures, and your telling of them, gets better and better. How amazing to be part of a landscape with such wildlife.
    I hope that wherever you are, you manage to speak with your family over the holidays. I’ll toast you with an ice cold can of Coca Cola – having read your post, I’ll not take it for granted!
    Looking forward to more tales of your travels.
    Take care, love from Maureen x

    1. It’s always so nice to hear from you Maureen

      Have a fabulous Xmas with your loved ones and I wish you all the best for 2019

      Loads of love

      Blanca xxx

  10. dearest magician, I’m forever amazed by how you manage to turn the most dire or scary or horrible moments into yet another fantastic adventure. So glad you get such rewards of wonderful people and fabulous wildlife along the way.
    much love xxxx

  11. Hi Blanca ,thanks for sharing your latest experiences. You really bring your travels to life. Absolutely loved your photo of the giraffes. Take care my friend. I hope you have a memorable Christmas and get to speak with your girls. All good wishes and big hugs .

    1. Hi Heather
      Thanks for your lovely message. I am hoping to talk to the girls on Xmas Eve Internet willing. I wish you a very happy Xmas and all the best in 2019.

      Big hugs to you all

  12. Dear Blanca,
    Thanks for sharing all this. I love reading about your adventures – and that giraffe photo is glorious.
    Have a very merry Christmas.
    Sarah x

  13. Querida Blanca;
    Qué gozada ver tus comentarios y las fotos. Sigue disfrutando mujer maravillosa y nosotros con tu blog.
    Mil besos,

  14. Good morning Blanca
    It’s interesting now being home and reading about our shared adventure.
    Thank you for allowing me share a small part of your African journey. We had such an amazing time.
    When I returned home I was asked was I ever scared. I was surprised at the question – because it had never occurred to me to feel scared – despite the continuous warnings about wildlife. EXCEPT the morning I woke up with all the bites – that was quite scary – knowing I absolutely must not touch them.

    It is such a huge challenge cycling and camping every day. Enjoy your rest over Christmas and recharge for the next part of your journey.

    Hope to meet up and join you again at some point. Xx

  15. Hola Blanca,
    Una vez mas impresionante tu aventura!!! Estamos volviendo de Hondarribia despues de pasar la Navidad con los padres de Ane.

    Besos de parte de todos

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