How far do we cycle each day?

For six months across Africa, we didn't really know. We don't exactly count our kilometers. We aren't traveling with an odometer or cycle computer or live Strava tracker. We just bike, with a very rough sense of how far we've come since morning. And so our answers have always been a little vague. Depends on the roads: up or down, gravel or paved. Depends on the winds: bad, or really bad. You mean in general? Uh, between zero and one hundred kilometers per day?

But no more. Finally, seven months since starting our bike ride, we have a slightly better sense of our pace.

#18 (Iringa, Tanzania - Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)

We learn the story of the TanZam Highway slowly, day by day. Clues present themselves to the observant traveler. Green markings sprayed hastily onto houses. Red Xs blotted onto each and every road sign. There's the Chinese face looking on from beneath a face mask as Tanzanian men hack away at the blackened earth. There's a careful consideration of the name, TanZam, and an answer right on the map, if one knows where to look.

All roads have purpose, and most purpose is conquest. Building a road consumes more than paint and bitumen.

#17 (Songwe, Malawi - Iringa, Tanzania)

Hop on a plane or train or bus, or even into the seat of a car, and you are transported from one distinct place to another distinct place. One of the lovelier aspects of bike touring, then, is exploring these subtle changes in landscape and culture on a continuum. Cycling is (typically) fast enough to not get (too) bored, but generally slow enough to recognize and register these in-between places. It's a wonder to wake each up morning in a slightly different place, to look back a week in time and space and find that things weren't so different, but they weren't just the same, either.

#15 (Nkopola, Malawi - Nkhata Bay, Malawi)

It is noon and I am in the cramped bathroom of a dusty petrol station vomiting my insides into the sink. I haven't eaten very much in days, and so fortunately there is little volume to the upchuck. It's mostly bile, burning at my throat, stinging my eyes. I steady my shivering body against the wall and examine my grey complexion in the cracked mirror. This was a uniquely terrible idea. One should not be riding a bike when one is recovering from malaria.

Giving thanks

Our present life, a life of waking up and riding bicycles and seeing new places, is not without its challenges. But it is a life of our choosing, and for that we are tremendously grateful. We're thankful to be in a position, physically and financially and politically and practically, to be able to travel the world in this fashion. We're privileged to enjoy a freedom of movement some do not have. We're privileged to enjoy it together. These past five months cycling across Africa have been a mostly lovely, mostly joyous adventure, and we're thankful to be here living it. To be here at all.

#14 (Nkopola, Malawi)

I spend Friday night shaking and sweating and unable to regulate my body's temperature. The air conditioner is on full blast and I'm mildly aware that the room cannot be more than 20C, but it feels like a sauna. I feel like I might vomit but do not vomit. A few times during the night, I rise to use the toilet, and walking to the bathroom next door feels like a Herculean effort. 

I toss and turn and feel an ache in my bones. I think about how we sometimes say that we can feel aching in our bones to express how sore we are, but like, right now it really feels like the marrow inside me is boiling. It's not a dull, too-tired sort of ache, but the active, acute, it-hurts-all-over kind.

#13 (Lilongwe, Malawi - Nkopola, Malawi)

Saying goodbye to the people we meet is always hard. We're a long way from home. We're going a long way from wherever we are. And it's pretty certain that for the majority of the people we cross paths with, we won't see them ever again. Saying goodbye to our new friends in Lusaka was especially hard. We'd grown attached to our hosts during our five days there. Though we'd all promised to keep in touch and see each other someday, someday is a very vague, flighty notion. 

So it was a delightful surprise to hear, during our final few days in Zambia, that Sarah and Cassidy were taking the kids for a holiday on Lake Malawi in a few weeks' time. They'd be renting a beach house with Libby and Brian (our terrific hosts in Lilongwe), and invited us along if it was on our way. 

#12 (Kacholola, Zambia - Lilongwe, Malawi)

The cement is hot. Too hot. I am lying on my right side at the bottom of a long hill with a burning sensation running through my skin. I feel pain and dread and anger at myself for being so careless. Slowly, I rise to my feet.

My bike is a few meters behind me. One of the panniers has flown off the rack and landed next to my body. I look down. Its vinyl exterior is coated in a brown ooze that looks not too dissimilar from something that might leak out of a stomach. I lift my shirt to check the state of my organs. They feel intact. I realize that this murky goop is not coming from inside me, but inside my pannier. A kilogram of chunky peanut butter I'd been carrying has exploded, its contents leaking out onto the dusty concrete.

#11 (Livingstone, Zambia - Kacholola, Zambia)

The most we've traveled in a single day since leaving Cape Town has been 114 kilometers. Aided by downhills and the sole run of tailwinds we've had to date, it is one of only a few days we've surpassed the 100-kilometer mark. Our plan for the next five days is to cycle one hundred kilometers, on average, each and every day. This time, we'll be traveling uphill. Into a headwind.

We get started.

#10 (Kazungula, Zambia - Livingstone, Zambia)

There's a tiny dot in the middle of the Zambezi River where the boundaries of four nations come together. It's called a quadripoint, or more precisely the quadripoint, as it's the only place in the world where this happens. For a brief moment, a person floating downs the Zambezi might find their left leg in Zambia, their right leg in Zimbabwe, their left arm in Namibia, and their right arm in Botswana. The moment would be brief partly because the dot is small and the current strong, but also because the river is riddled with crocodiles and someone floating in its waters would lose one of those limbs pretty quickly.

#9 (Gweta, Botswana - Kazungula, Zambia)

We eat more Flavored Maize Snack the next day and get sick again, but we don't eat as much and so we don't get as sick. We decide this spicy maize snack, good a deal as it may be, is not worth the accompanying fevers. We were planning on riding today, but it's hot and a hundred kilometers to the next town, and we decide just to stay here in Gweta and sit in or around the pool instead.

#8 (Sehithwa, Botswana - Gweta, Botswana)

It begins in the Angolan highlands, where the clouds scrape against the peaks of Mount Moco and the Serra da Chella. Rain falls and rain gathers. It collects itself into creeks and streams. It chases gravity through the mountains. It arrives at a plateau, and here one stream joins another. The waterways meld; they become tributaries. The Cuito. The Cubango. They rush forth. There are more rains and more motion and a great confluence where a river is born. The Angolans call it the Kubango. To the Batswana, it's known as the Okavango. For a thousand kilometers the river carves its way through the earth. It crosses Namibia. It enters the Kalahari.

#7 (Gochas, Namibia - Sehithwa, Botswana)

We leave Gochas, after a lovely night of sushi and good company, with sadness, clean clothes, and a touch of dread. We're not particularly eager to get back on the bikes and cycle ever again, but we suppose it's about time to get moving. Muscles no longer ache, wrists and palms have recovered from the relentless pressure of handlebars, and the hotspots of soreness and chafing are mostly healed. So on the seventh day since entering this town's cozy web of human connections, we depart.

 

Tales of human kindness (Koes, Namibia - Gochas, Namibia)

We've now been on the road a little longer than a month. As far as months go, it's been a tough one. Since leaving our wonderful hosts in Cape Town, we've been challenged physically, mentally, and emotionally. We've put ourselves through more isolation, desolation, rough roads, hard days, arduous climbs and stubborn headwinds than we'd bargained for. At times we've been bored, frustrated, and hopeless. But here in the small outposts of the Kalahari, we've forged human connections that have warmed us to the bone.