The Great East Road
Zambia’s Great East Road, which stretches 575 km from Chipata to Lusaka, is one of the real gauntlets that the Tour crosses on its trans-Africa odyssey from Cairo to Cape Town. Every year it tests both riders and staff with long daily distances, limited opportunities to purchase supplies and in some years, like this one, intense heat. Much of this stretch lives up to Zambia’s slogan of being “The Real Africa” with small humble villages, and thick vegetation, alongside a winding scenic road. But after 3 very tough days, and a relatively easy 4th day into Lusaka, the seeming mirage that is the Arcades Mall appears, confronting us with excellent restaurants, an ice cream bar with wireless, an Africana bookstore, clothing and handicraft boutiques, and a Super Spar food store, as rewards for our efforts.
Leaving Chipata the riders faced the tour’s longest day yet – 197 km of modest rollers and potholes. For the racers this is the 6th of 8 “mando” stages and the day was won by race leaders Stuart Briggs and Gisela Gartmair who gained an additional 30 minute time bonus for their Herculean efforts. But this was a victory for all the riders who completed this mentally and physically challenging day, some of whom took as long as 10 ½ hours to reach the welcome sight of our campsite at Mindy village school. There they were treated to Tony and Juliana’s double birthday party, complete with cold beer, wine, punch and home-made Nanaimo bars. Several riders also took advantage of the opportunity to experience a home stay with local villagers and to gain first hand insight into the lives of the people.
At 128 km and more downhill than up, the 2nd day of the gauntlet sounds like a breeze, but with the descent towards the Luangwa river valley came oppressive heat. At camp it was 35 C with a heat index of 40+. Fortunately a hand pump offered brief respite in the form of bucket showers, and we replaced the fluids lost on the ride with cool refreshing water, soup, pasta and boerewors.
The 3rd day, down to the Luangwa river bridge at 26 km, and then a further 122 km of mostly climbing, may have been the toughest of all. It was stunning to see the leading racers pounding up one hill after another with the determination that comes with superb conditioning. At the Jehovah school camp that evening we were honored and privileged to partake in the 3rd bike donation ceremony of the tour. 28 Zambikes and 2 Zambulances were given to dancing and ululating women village care workers who tend to orphans, HIV/AIDS infected persons, and the sick and elderly in the remote villages of this area.
Now we are recovering from the gauntlet and the riders are refueling their energies at the Arcades. While the mall marks the onset of the southern African economy, it is also a sobering reminder of the tremendous disparities in Zambia. From the mall it is less than a kilometer to some of Lusaka’s dismal slums and only an hour or two by car to the remote subsistence villages that characterize the Great East Road. We are indeed blessed to be able to witness and partake in both of these worlds, if only for a few days.