26 July 2021 – The Third World as Seen From the Saddle.
Day 12 of the Old Legs Silverback Tour – From the middle of nowhere to a Bush camp on the Luangwa River.
Distance- 85 km
Climb – 151m
Time – 7 hr 23min
Ave Heart Rate – 107 bpm
Max Heart Rate – 160 bpm
This blog is coming to you from the east bank of the Luangwa River, instead of the west bank as per our original plan. Sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men get thwarted by swollen rivers running too fast, too deep and with crocodiles on tap. Thwarted is a fancy way of saying all buggered up.Alas.
But first details of our ride from the middle of nowhere. As per usual, the morning session was the same old eclectic mix of absolutely pristine bush, as mentioned in previous blogs, and ribbons of communal land habitation, full of happy friendly kids excited to see us and cheer us on, blah, blah as written about in previous blogs. I think the process of cutting and pasting was invented in Eastern Zambia. The bush is huge, all good, and it goes on for days on end. It is hard to avoid using the word stunning, a word flogged to death on those crappy Home Channel D.I.Y. shows that Jenny makes me watch so I can find new ways to feel inadequate. Put another way, the morning’s ride was why you rushed out to buy a mountain bike in the first place.
Stand out in the morning session was the shoebill stork spoor that Rob Clifford says I might have seen in one of the river beds I rode through but only just. I have been badgering Rob non-stop to please show me a shoebill and today he came through for me, albeit with tracks 2 million years old. But I’m taking them as a positive, that I’m on track to see the birds. Adam says I’m gullible and will believe any old bullshit when it comes to shoebills.
But as always, the afternoon session after lunch sucked with sand and tsetse flies.
Those last kilometers are always punctuated by steep little dongas filled with soft sand that continue to take their toll on the Old Legs peloton. Invariably someone in the front stutters, falters, stops, causing those behind to fall, if not like dominos, then like shot giraffes.
There are single track options around the soft sand that would have you wizzing along, twisting and turning and darting through the mopane, unless you have depth of perception problems, in which case you twist, turn and dart straight into trees, as opposed to through. I hate single track more than I hate sand.
And the last kilometers of every ride especially seem to drag on for miles and miles, unless Laurie has been busy finding shortcuts, in which case they drag on for even further.
So we were very pleased to finally reach the river and the night pit stop for the leg . But first a quick river crossing before setting up camp. And then we saw the swollen river complete with crocodiles. I don’t know who looked more panicked, Laurie who had planned the route, or the designated drivers frantically revising the Golden Rules learnt and the training videos watched on our 4 x 4 Training course that seems a life time ago.
Always walk the riverbed first the cocky Aussie instructor had told us in the training video, to gauge the firmness of the crossing underwater, and the depth, and the strength of flow, unless of course there are crocodiles involved, mate. Then never, ever walk the riverbed he told us. Bugger. The Luangwa looked to be full of bloody crocodiles, cruising, waiting, hungry. Hungry is a permanent state of being for crocodiles apparently, according to the Aussie instructor.
Never drive through the river crossing if the water is deeper than the door of your car,mate, unless it is fitted with a snorkel, conveniently priced at the Australian’s 4×4 shop. Bugger. We did’t have snorkels fitted. And without snorkels we ran the risk of drowning engines and electronics.
And especially don’t drive the river if the water is flowing too strongly, mate. Bugger. After a better than average rainy season, the water in the Luangwa looked to be running strong.
Plan A was looking about as dead as we would be looking if we attempted the crossing with the Isuzu D-maxes and the heavy trailers, especially if the flotilla of attendant crocodiles got in amongst us.
Two locals whiling away the afternoon seated on the bank were determined we attempt the crossing, especially when they saw the 4 X 4 on the sides of our Isuzu D-max trucks. I think they were either short of entertainment or looking to make money guiding us across the river. They showed us the impossibly steep looking entry point into river used the whole time by safari vehicles and the equally steep looking exit point a kilometer downstream. No problem at all they told us, especially with 4 x 4 stickers on the sides of your cars.
We told them we worried the river was too deep and would damage the electronics on the cars. Not to worry said the locals, the water was no more than knee deep, provided you had the services of expert guides who knew exactly where the underwater causeway was. And then to prove their expertise, they promptly plunged into the river, up to chest deep water. Crap. Someone had moved the underwater causeway. They then proceeded to run up and down the river, often chest deep, looking for the causeway, completely unconcerned about the crocodiles. I was forced to watch through my fingers.
When our nearly-drowned guides re-emerged unscathed, they were bitterly disappointed that we’d decided against attempting the crossing.
So back to the drawing board.
Plan B was a 300 kilometer maybe more, detour north on the A-105 via Chama and then back down to Kapisyha on the Great North Road, and pick up the ride from there.
Or Plan C – 63 km back down the A-105, turn right onto the less developed A-106, with even less tar, traffic, cellphone coverage, Internet coverage, road signs, towns, fuel stations, sea views, rural business centers like we get in Zim, and all the other stuff you don’t get on the A105 either, and then back down to the river to find a pontoon station, load the vehicles and trailers on the pontoon one by one, followed by an all-day drive through the North Luangwa National Park to the Mano Gate and pick up the ride from there.
Alastair can see into the future. When he and Laurie first started planning the route months and months ago, Al said we would end up crossing swollen rivers complete with crocodiles and hippos on homemade pontoons. And so it came to pass.
Our river crossing took 3 hours. The pontoon was just big enough for a single vehicle. The entry slipway was steep, and also made of skinny, rickety poles, and we had to winch the trailers down one by one. And the flotilla of watching, hungry crocodiles remained ever present, just waiting for On your marks, Get set, Go.
The crossing was Bear Grylls meets Indiana Jones. The next time either Jeff Bezos or that Richard the Virgin are looking for adventure, no need to spend millions and billions going into space, instead they can just cross the Luangwa on a pontoon,
complete with rickety mopane pole bridges and slipways.
Laurie and Adam especially were excited like little boys. Me not too much. The rickety bridge looked like something I might have built at Allan Wilson, ditto the pontoon. I watched through my fingers for 3 hours.
Coming from California, Billy Prentice is in charge of Tour Health and Safety audits. He frowned down upon our river crossing from start to finish: no life jackets, no railings, no beware of the crocodile signage, no fire exits or extinguishers, no nothing.
As it turned out, all is well that ends well. Our pontoon river crossing was epic, spelled with a capital E ,up there with most epic days ever on Tour, and one which even my legs and bottom enjoyed.
Then we had the unexpected bonus of a 3 hour drive through the iconic North Luangwa National Park, complete with sightings of elephants, puku, impala and roan antelope for the second time only in my life.
Huge thanks to Robbie Clifford from Robin Pope Safaris for sharing his Luangwa Valley with us, and for guiding us, and for saving us more than once.
Tomorrow we ride from Mano Community Gate to Kapishya Hot Springs for our next rest day, although it won’t be a proper rest day because we’ll have to start making up the 87 kilometers and 1000 m of climb we were supposed ride on Day 13.
Until my next blog, stay safe, enjoy and beware of crocodiles whilst crossing swollen rivers – Eric Chicken Legs de Jong