As I sipped a cool beverage, the warm colours of a setting sun flickered across the water of the mighty Zambezi, I had some time to reflect and think about possibly the most important journey of my life so far!
Over the next seven days, I was going to cycle through the stunning landscapes of Zambia in an attempt to raise awareness and vital funds for the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s work with Game Rangers International. Joined by my two cousins, Dom and Seb, we planned to link a variety of elephant rescue sites with their rehabilitation facilities in Kafue National Park and Lilayi Game Reserve.
Our first job was to unpack the bikes (kindly flown out by British Airways) and to rebuild them. Dom had the bikes up and running in super quick time, despite some crank issues. With the support vehicle packed, and boosting an excellent banner designed by Seb, we set off on the first leg of our ride. We quickly gained pace, fresh and excited, adrenaline fueled our legs as we meandered our way down to the river.
This area was an important first port of call – a rescue site for two elephants. As we made our way down to the falls, three elephants, that were crossing from Zimbabwe, joined us. Raising their trunks as they moved, they sniffed the air, and it seemed as if they were giving us a wave of good luck! Standing adjacent to the falls I was captivated by a mixture of emotions. Despite having been here numerous times before, they still blow me away as the spray envelopes my skin and the noise fills me with the energy of a thunderstorm. Yet, at the same I also felt very humble and insignificant, compared to the greatness of mother nature. My mind swirled like the river that stuttered and organised itself at the bottom, before continuing towards the ocean. I looked forward to meeting up with her again at the end of the ride.
We left the falls, stopping to allow the passing of the steam train. Within the space of an hour, we had seen the two things that symbolise David Shepherd: elephants and steam trains. I was sure this was a sign of good things to come.
What lay ahead the next day was 130 km of tarmac that had a sneaky uphill-feeling about it. Policeman waved as we passed through our first roadblock, and local cyclists joined us for a chat, as they made their way to work. A happy feeling pulsed through the body and complimented the rich oxygenated blood that was fueling our legs. As we climbed the final hill of the day, we were joined by a Manchester United fan on his bike who tried to manoeuvre his away through the hustle and bustle of afternoon trading. Despite our different bike technology, his natural enjoyment of the heat, and our aversion to it, made sure that neither could outdo the other for speed.
The noise of our 5 am alarm was not a welcoming sound, but it singled the start of the end of tarmac, and our journey into the wilds of Kafue. Dust started to become our second friend in the journey, after uphill had secured its status of first the day before, and it continued the liaison today. However some enjoyable downhill stretches ensured that this was not to be a monogamous relationship.
We made good progress and like a creature of habit, I found myself snoozing under a tree in the heat of the day. I was woken from my slumber by the sound of ringing bells. I had been surrounded by the local herd of cattle, and as I woke, surprised and confused, the bells were joined by the sound of laughter from the local children and my team.
We continued on our peddling way. The afternoon heat was always more draining and fluid intake doubled. With sun beating down, the coolness of the morning air had been lost. As four o’clock approached, a nice downhill section took us into the final destination for the day; the entrance to Kafue National Park.
That night we ate a lovely chicken stew, organised by Sport, and went through safety procedures… one honk on the horn, STOP, one long honk on the horn, STOP, drop the bikes and get on the car fast and hold on!
The plan for the next two days was to travel the 100 km to camp. Although the terrain had flattened out, the challenge of sand had taken its place. It was an exciting ride, the sandy tracks showing the nightly movements of hyenas, lions and leopards. The open plains showed us glimpses of game but it’s hard to combine not slipping in the sand with game viewing, as we found out when we were surprised by a munching warthog. He was equally shocked to see three men in Lycra and rapidly trotted off, tail erect, back into the bush.
We relaxed in the evening light, listening to reports of a pack of wild dogs that had been seen, while enjoying our energy bars. Four years previously I had visited the park, and there has been a dramatic increase in game numbers. What were just single animals are now four or five. It just shows that if you give a place time and protection, nature will do its job. The poaching war is far from won, but victories are occurring and I have great belief in their strategy for a healthy future in Kafue.
The fifth day was to be my hardest. The sand thickened and our pace slowed. However despite its energy sapping nature, the problem was not this. My pain was to come in the shape of a Tsetse fly. I have encountered these little terrors before, but not in such a personal way! Over the next two hours I was bitten about 100 times! No part of my body was left untouched. However my bum seemed to be the most succulent part of my body.
The next day was a much-needed break from cycling. It allowed us to visit the local conservation offices and school. We served up lessons on cycling with students, before looking at the issue of litter. We did this by sharing prizes, donated by the Dental Surgery and the Chapman family, for those who collected the most litter.
Litter and pollution is just one of the topics delivered by the Muzovu Project, which goes to 20 schools and reaches over 3 000 children. Education was the focus of our fund raising, because I am of the firm belief that education is the long term solution to protecting and improving our environment. If you engage children then you have the foundations of a sustainable future.
After our day of rest over, we were back on the bikes and heading out of the park via the lake road. The vastness of Lake Itezhi Tezhi is impressive. As you leave the park you pass the great dam where water tumbles with the energy. It was a bumpy road and thankfully by the afternoon we were back on tarmac as we approached Lusaka and the penultimate stop of Lialyi Game Reserve.
At sunset we arrived at the gates of the reserve. This is the base of the elephant rehabilitation facility which was set up approximately 18 months earlier. It’s great location for the newly rescued elephants before they are moved to the wilderness of Kafue, and their life back in the wild. It was a feeling of pure happiness that swelled from inside as I saw the young elephants again, and met the most recent addition at just six months of age. You cannot help but be captivated and fall in love with these elephants. As we watched the elephants go about their business; learning and playing in the bush, you can overtly see the love and respect shown between the elephants and keepers.
In was now time for our final leg: an off-road race from Lusaka to the banks of the Lower Zambezi. Organised as a fundraiser by Wendy Moolenschot (a keen cyclist and great supporter of the project). The first 40 km were very enjoyable, despite the odd puncture and the epic climb to the top of the escarpment to meet Sport for an ice cold drink. However the final 40 km were to prove eventful. As we slipped and skidded our way down, we all fell. Dom took the biggest tumble at the bottom – so much so that he shattered his chain to an extend that even his skills could not fix it. However, ever determined, he hitched up his bike and began to run! I must add at this point he was dressed in his elephant onsie and temperatures were hitting thirty plus degrees. With Seb and myself at his side, Dom’s determination saw us reach the much needed water stop in about two hours.
This gave us a chance to refuel and come up with a plan. We decided that Seb would go on ahead and finish the race and I would use a rope to tow Dom and his bike to the finish. Thankfully the hills were behind us, and only a dusting of sand and the odd slight incline stood in our way… I am not sure how long the final 15 or so kilometres took, but the effort shown by Dom was something to behold.
That night I reflected on the great efforts made by Dom and Seb, and their fantastic support for a cause I hold dear to my heart. It had been an epic ride and I have so many people to thank: my mum and dad and the rest of our family and friends for their support, Kate – our support vehicle driver and all the other people at Game Rangers International, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation team and our Twitter and Facebook followers as well as all those who donated or provided equipment like Giant Guildford and Power Traveller and finally, Africa Geographic for helping us tell the story – to name just a few…
It was an epic ride and we are still taking donations and trying to raise funds. As part of our fundraising we were kindly donated a signed Coldplay disk as well as signed sporting memorabilia. So if you are interested in owning a signed copy of Coldplay or some memorabilia from team members please visit the website for contact details.