We caught a ride with a truck on our first day cycling south from Zambia into northern Zimbabwe. The why and how, here (1,500 words).
I was the last to leave Zimbabwe’s Chirundu Border Post on the southern bank of the Zambezi River, swollen with slate-coloured waters in the rainy season. Evan and his Mom were travelling on South African passports and didn’t need visas, but I did. So I waited, trying not to stare too obviously at the “Wanted Person” notices papered over the officer’s booth. They included “Suspected British Intelligence Agent,” many Congolese and Ugandans, a few Israelis, and one Canadian.
The officer’s pen malfunctioned, so she had to double back over all the information she had written in my visa to get it nice and clear. As she did this, she said “You’re not going to ride here are you? There are lions.” If that had been a surprise, my stomach would have sank and I would have tried to milk her for more information before she dismissed me. Or, I would have waltzed out with false bravado and tried my luck cycling south from the border through this bit of northern Zimbabwe.
But this time we’d already done our homework, and had made a decision before we left neighbouring Zambia. Visa in hand, I emerged and spotted Evan waiting in the parking lot astride his bicycle. The second he saw me he began to pedal as the skies opened up with yet more rain, shouting “hurry up, we’ve found a ride!”
Gloria Origgi writes that we’ve left behind the information age for the reputation age: there’s too much information, so we decide who to trust to filter, digest and interpret more direct sources for us. We decide based on their reputation.
We do this almost every day as we decide where to cycle, when, and how. And we’d do even more reputation-judgement if we didn’t try to maintain some sort of low-information diet. Otherwise there’d be endless Facebook Groups and fora and Crazy Guy On A Bike blogs to consult, in addition to the people we ask, the maps we look at, and the occasional first-person account.
Often we think more about the source of the information than the information itself. What’s their agenda, their bias, their goal? Towards the ridicule and disregard end of the spectrum are maybe 90% of whoever writes 1-star reviews on Trip Advisor. Somewhere near the other end, you have a series of excellent Bikepacking.com articles. In them, Logan shares experiences and advice from bike-packing with his wife through many of the same places we’re now riding in.
In their post about Zimbabwe, they recount dramatic stories that locals told them about cyclists being eaten by lions in Hurungwe Safari Area, stretching the first hundred kilometres south from the Chirundu Border Post. Prior to reaching my eyes, this information would have undoubtedly gone through a variety of filters and moldings, Zimbabwean to Zimbabwean to Zimbabwean…and at some point, to and through Logan. By this time I’d read several of his posts, and had decided we had similar agendas: learn from the people we meet, cycle in remote areas where possible.
We took it with a grain of salt that he acted on the cautions and hitched a ride through Hurungwe Safari Area, but it was a small grain.
Next time you meet a bicycle traveller, try this for a laugh: ask them if they’ve ever taken a ride. It’s pretty rare to find one—including us—that won’t preface distance covered by train, truck, bus, boat, taxi or the ultimate travesty—flights—with some sort of justification, however nonchalantly.
I think Logan included the lion stories in order to write something useful for other bike travellers, but maybe there was a little bit of justification in there too. Certainly, this is how we framed our own truck ride through the lion’s den (alleged) when we later spoke of it with other Zimbabweans or foreigners. We’d say things like “we took a ride because of the lions,” or “we rode seven days and took a truck one day,” or sometimes simply “we rode down here from Lusaka, Zambia.”
The other day Evan told me he regretted this truck ride, because it broke up a stretch of our journey that had been achieved purely by bicycle (and plenty of walking our bicycles). I was bewildered by his stance, and told him it was a stupid one. I think he was kidding with his comment, and now in publishing this post I’m sure I’ll get the truth out of him. Regardless, I’m very glad I covered those hundred kilometres in a fast-moving vehicle. But that doesn’t mean the ride was fun.
SOUTH FROM CHIRUNDU
Like Logan, we also experienced a pervasive fear of lions eating cyclists among residents of this region. No-one questioned our desire to get a ride from Chirundu to Vuti, and the rumours likely made it easier to find a ride in the first place.
These theoretical lions are especially problematic in the wet season, when grasses engorge themselves with moisture to grow so high and thick as if to swallow the road on both sides. Regardless of the season, the A1 Highway that passes through has a woeful shoulder, where it has any shoulder. Any sort of pedestrian traffic would be forced by the trucks plying the route to press themselves against the wet grasses as they travelled, unable to see any big animals nearby. That is, if the pedestrian wasn’t first hit by a truck. Subsequent days pedalling along the A1 felt stressful.
It is disconcerting to get a ride on a road after a long time without. Bike travel suddenly seems completely reckless, because you’re moving much faster than you’re accustomed to, and the mirrors and bodies of the oncoming vehicles seem to be on a collision course with yours. Anything on the shoulder seems so pathetic and vulnerable. I don’t recommend taking a truck ride in preparation for a bike trip, unless you were planning to cycle with headphones in, in which case the ride will perhaps convince you not to.
Maybe I was looking for confirmations, but Hurungwe Safari Area seemed deadly as viewed from the back of our flat bed truck hurtling along. There were those grasses squeezing the road, hiding something or nothing. The trucks exploded the puddles of potholes into mist that would have made seeing ahead or behind difficult. There were also long stretches without any people or settlements to speak of, and progress south would have been slow for us, as the road winds its way up the Zambezi Escarpment in this direction.
Though the ride also seemed deadly. We had nothing but each other to hold onto, and soon realized that if the truck hit a large bump or swerved we may well be launched into the grasses. The occasional rusted-out wreck reminded us of this, as did the enthusiasm of the trucks and buses for overtaking.
It poured rain. We grew cold, wet and hungry. We didn’t talk much to each other, hugging ourselves and watching the bush zoom by, a blur of so many greens beneath a mottled grey sky. In the first two or three minutes when it was still novel, I remarked to Evan “this is kind of relaxing, just watching the world go by!” Then I shut up.
After two hours it was all done. We judged ourselves out of harm’s way (for lions, anyways) by the small corn fields and our location beyond the green on Google Maps. We thumped on the back of the cab to get the driver to pull over, as we’d earlier agreed with him. We dismounted and pulled all our things off the bed of the truck, making wet, droopy piles on the roadside. Before he pulled away I ran to the cab and gave the surprised driver fifteen dollars in appreciation. Then we were left alone to figure out how to warm up and dry off on our first day in Zimbabwe.
Like Logan’s post helped us make an informed decision, I hope this post helps other bicycle travellers decide for themselves about cycling along this stretch of Zimbabwe’s A1 Highway between Chirundu and Vuti, or Makuti.
If you’re not faced with this decision, I hope you enjoyed learning about how we decide whether or not to take a ride, and how we still think we need a good reason for doing so!