Farm Time for Dakaristas

Blog 29 by Mick: Farm Time for Dakaristas

The little village of Mwandi is only a couple kilometres off the main road between Livingstone and the Katima-Malilo Borderpost, however it is a long way off the tourist trail. A loooong way. It is sadly a very poor and undeveloped community, even by Zambian standards. We only knew of it because Mark, our mate we rode with in Botswana, worked at the orphanage and volunteer centre in town supervising overseas volunteers and building huts for local people. Even though he was out of the country at the time, he had suggested we go there and see the village for ourselves.

We got up quite late after our short sleep and long day getting into Zambia. We were both still tired and did consider resting up for another day, but figured we should push through the last 160kms to Livingstone and enjoy some creature comforts. We rode into Mwandi village looking for a shop to buy some water and a bit of food and got swamped by people intrigued by us and the bikes. It was a stark change in culture. In Namibia, people were very friendly if a little shy, and would come up and talk but respected your personal space. That concept didn’t exist here.

While I stayed with the bikes, Tan found some people who knew Mark and where he lived. When she returned with the water though it started to get a little out of control. Rural Zambia has significant problems with cheap alcohol and that was clearly evident even at 11am. Crude millet beer is brewed in the back of water trucks and sold very cheaply by the litre from the truck its brewed in, and cane spirits are commonly distilled. So amongst the half dozen or so polite onlookers, there was another half dozen who were more involved looking at the bikes and asking questions, and then there were a couple clearly drunk guys getting a little too close for comfort. One guy tried to steal a bottle of water straight out of Tanya’s hand just after she pulled it from the shopping bag, and another was right up in my face persistently begging for money. He was very drunk or maybe even high and looked very sick; red eyes, pale skin with many lesions and I’d guess by his huge mouth ulcers he was suffering from advanced AIDS. After that kind of welcoming party, we immediately left for Livingstone. Visiting Mark’s work will have to wait for another time, as will photographs of Mwandi. We got none this time around.


Victoria Falls. Pretty massive and pretty special


We made it to Livingstone no problems and pitched a tent at Jolly Boys Backpackers and rested up with a beer. But it was only after another day of general chilling, reading, a bit of shopping and cooking etc, that we finally made it the tourist attraction for which the town is famous: Victoria Falls “The Smoke that Thunders”. And with an entry fee of USD20 per person for foreigners, the waterfall wasn’t the only thing that thundered. Ouch.


The walkways get very close and the mist off the waterfall is drenching


Some great views of the falls form the Zambian side


1.7km wide and between 61m and 109m tall. MASSIVE!


Vic Falls bridge, 158m wide and 128m high. Rhodes decreed he “should like to see the spray of the water over the carriages”. It was built in England and shipped down to Africa in pieces and put into place. When installed the two middle pieces overlapped by 30mm, however the next morning the overlapping girders had dropped into place after the steel had contracted over night. That’s precision right there! Sadly no points for guessing where the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe is!


“Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” This is a hell of an impressive Scot right here…. Pioneer, missionary, explorer, leading slavery abolitionist, and owner of a cracking moustache. He permanently disabled his left arm fighting a lion, but he wasn’t inhibited when it came to prose. His were the first non-African eyes to see the falls, which he described as “the most wonderful sight I had witnessed in Africa. No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” Well put Dave, well put.


From our friends Beth and Pete in South Africa we had a list of contacts for people to visit in Zambia and Zimbabwe. And with Tanya’s shoulder needing some recovery time, we figured we could just visit people and socialise (our other favourite thing to do) if we couldn’t do any off-road exploring. So from Livingstone we made our way a couple hundred kilometres up the highway to a farm near Mazabuka. We had planned to arrive in the late afternoon, but we suffered a few fortunate and unfortunate delays. We got chatting to a German couple who were very interested in our trip, then a local family who wanted some photos with the bikes, then a intense tropical storm severely slowed our progress, so it was about 20 minutes after sunset that we finally arrived at the farm gates.


At peak flood times in February and March, when we were there, 500 million litres per minute go over the falls!


This is how the Zambian bridge painters know where to stop painting.


Last view of the falls. Time to go.


We spent a couple days on the farm managed by Andrew with his wife Cora and their 4 kids. It was an easy time for us with generous accommodation and good company, learning about farming in Zambia and trials and tribulations that come with it. Visa problems, currency and banking issues, service supply and market interference and other uniquely African problems, on top of the usual farm risks of draught, crop disease and product price fluctuations. It’s an intriguing place.


Many people live on the farm, which has its own school and medical clinic among other facilities. Storm clouds are a brewin’ in the background.


The farm did a combination of soya, wheat and coffee. The man who built the farm was quite the visionary in terms of infrastructure development (the farm had one massive dam with a home-made 42m high dam wall that took 2 years to build working 24 hrs a day and when full could service the farm for 5 years with no rain) and also vertical integration (the farm owned roasting and grinding facilities and owned cafes for the coffee and a flour mill for the wheat). It was more of an agricultural enterprise rather than just a farm.

An interesting fact popped up regarding the farms massive workforce; from the testing they provide they estimate about 80% are HIV positive. Eighty percent! This was due to the coffee production which has a very high seasonal workforce of about 1500 on top of the 250 or so permanent staff who work the other crops and in the mill. Coffee workers come in during the harvest and then move on to other farms needing seasonal work, like fruit, vegetables or tobacco. We were perplexed as to how the hell this HIV infection rate could be true even with such a high itinerant workforce, but Andrew went on to explain.


Andrew’s trusty old Tojo after the storm.


You see, Southern Africans can be…. ahhhh…. Free and easy? Open and accessible? Ahhhh I’ll cut to the chase – having multiple sexual partners here is pretty common. Some locals later suggested to us that there has been research done here which shows that the average Zambian adult, married or not, at any one time is in contact with approximately 7 people due to concurrent sexual partners (CSPs), ie overlapping sexual relationships create a network of about 7 interconnected people. Now a disclaimer, we haven’t found any research to support that number of 7, however there is plenty of research around suggesting that CSPs are common and that it is a significant factor in HIV transmission. So the issue is real, but take that number with a grain of salt.

This prevalence for “coveting thy neighbour’s wife” is actually pretty common throughout all of Southern Africa. Throw in the fact that condoms are not culturally accepted due to the stigma of disease and infedility and it becomes obvious just how easily it would be for a sexually transmitted disease to infect 80% of the workforce. Thankfully, recent research suggests that use of condoms is becoming more accepted as younger generations realise that unprotected sex is essentially Russian routlette, but with odds in some urban adult demographics’ more like having 2 rounds in the 6 shooter rather than just the traditional one.


Some bush bashing around the farm. These old cruisers are fantastic.


I should note that the 80% figure is an estimate only applicable to Andrew’s coffee farm; the HIV rate for the general Zambian population is significantly lower. Every NGO has its own figure and accurate figures are disputed by everyone with a vested interest, however the World Health Organisation estimates it is upwards of 20%, as opposed to the official rate published by the government of 12.7%. Locals suggest it is probably more like 30% or maybe even more. The official rates for most of Sub-Saharan Africa (Botswana is generally excluded) are considered underestimated due to the stigma associated with the disease. People who die of AIDS commonly have their cause of death recorded on their death certificates as flu or pneumonia, or whatever ailment ultimately kicked the bucket and not the virus which devastated their immune system and made them defenseless in the first place. Some country’s simply put “cause unknown” to save face.

The WHO did a study on the misclassification of AIDS related deaths in South Africa, the most developed nation on the continent, and suggested that 94% of AIDS deaths were incorrectly reported as non-AIDS related and that 48% of all deaths were due to HIV/AIDS. That is the scale of denial we are talking of here. It is not just a little bit of “turning the other cheek” denial, it is wholesale “head in the sand, hands over ears screaming LALALALA!” whole ‘nother stratosphere level of denial. It’s a monumental issue that is ravaging the continent. It just rams home how hard it is for these countries to develop when their productive people die just a few years after they are educated? Zambia’s Ministry of Health estimate the life expectancy in Zambia is about 43 years (once again, every NGO has its own figure), up from as low as 33 in 2003 before HIV, TB, and Malaria treatment programmes were rolled out.


Inside the flour mill. Never been in one these before and it was pretty interesting.


Andrew explained that most of his workers wouldn’t admit to the disease, they would just get very thin and sick and then not turn up to work one day. A day or two later a colleague would explain that they had died. This was very common to work right to the end and then have death come very quickly. Thankfully anti-retro-virals are getting cheaper and more accessible in all of Africa and make an enormous difference. If a sufferer gets on the drugs early enough they can live an essentially normal life. It also virtually eliminates the transmission from pregnant mother to infant child. So the death sentence that was being born to a HIV positive mother is now thankfully no longer the case.


Flour from the mill ready to go. They supply most of Zambia and their product is sort after as the product quality is consistent from their Swedish made mill, which includes a test bakery for QAQC. Andrew told us they had to sack a mill foreman after it was found he was running a massive bread racket out of the test bakery. Classic Africa story.


Another thing we learned was that the white Zambian community is very small and everyone knows everyone it seems. This was of great benefit to us in the end, as nearby neighbours of Cora and Andrew was David Reeve, a local farmer who also just happens to be the only Zambian person to complete the Dakar Rally. Cora offered to phone ahead and check if we could go over and say hello and we thought that was a bloody great idea.

We were all set to go and then it rained… a lot. Like 80mm in 30mins “a lot”. It hammered down like only a proper tropical thunderstorm can. It then continued to rain lightly throughout the day and even the following two mornings it rained. David lived at the end of a red clay road, which was now impassible for anything but 4wd tractors and tanks. Oh well, that will have to be for another time then.


Saying goodbyes to Andrew and Cora and their family after some warm and welcoming Zambian hospitality.


We said our goodbyes to Cora and Andrew and rode onto our next contact, Doug and Donna, who live on a farm north of Lusaka. This meant we had to drive through the capital with all its apparent reckless driving and other craziness. We were warned of it and braced for it, but were pleasantly surprised in the end. While Lusaka was very busy with a lot of the bumper to bumper traffic and general lane pushing that comes with that, we didn’t find it too crazy.


The ride into Sable Farms. Nice ride.


Plenty of Impala and Kudu to see on the way in. We were off to a good start.


We were welcomed with Indian food and beers (always a good combination) and settled in for some hearty, if not a little rigorous, conversation. The farm was built from basically nothing by Doug’s father, Dave, and he proved to be a highly enthusiastic and well practiced orator in addition to a pioneering farmer.


Tobacco. This is what it looks like when it’s not in a cigarette.


And a reasonable quality tobacco leaf. Consistent yellow colour and maximum mass.


Waterbuck. Lovely to look at but known to be not be very tasty. Sad, looked tasty.


The farm produced a combination of beef, soya, millet, wheat and tobacco, which was a very labour intensive yet valuable cash crop. Areas not being cultivated or used for pasture were left for game, and they had some Sable, and antelope which we hadn’t heard of before which he was very proud of. And understandably so, they were beautiful animals. Sadly we couldn’t get any good photos of them in the scrub through the game fence.


The farm had iron age smelter workings which were interesting. This is some slag, and there was pieces of magnetite which had been brought down from the mountains.


These are blowpipes used to get oxygen into the furnace.


Checking out some impala on our drive around.


Drying tobacco. If done right, the farmers can make some good money.


After a 2 day stay and general chill out getting to know Donna and Doug we figured we best move on again, and headed south. Donna put us in touch with her sister who lived in Lusaka whom we planned on dropping by for an evening while we sourced some supplies in the big smoke. We have realised on this trip that when introduced to friends or family of friends, in all likelihood we are going to get along well and we found that to again be the case here. Our quick re-supply stop quickly expanded to a couple days.


Looking at the quality difference between the farm tobacco (yellow) and cigarette tobacco (brown). Zambian and Zimbabwean Tobacco is used to blend up other lesser tobaccos apparently.


A kudu and 2 impala shot to give to a local police meeting and another government get together. Greasing the wheels is how Africa works…..


Sunflowers grown for stock feed


Saying goodbyes to Donna and Doug and their family. The have since added to the family, the baby bump is now a little girl called Darcie


We really enjoyed Lusaka it must be said. While it’s a chaotic and polluted African city, it is growing rapidly and has a definite buzz of opportunity about it. It was a good thing to see as there is a lot more to Africa than dancers leaping to tribal music, wild animals eating each other, Malaria, AIDS and corruption. It is also a place of growth, and in some ways decline…. But that’s the price of progress as they say. And now it is Zambia’s time in the sun.


The drive down to Lusaka


This is a local farm water supply dam. There are crocodiles in it!


There is construction and expansion going on, with large malls and business towers being built in town and informal settlements popping up on the outskirts. Informal business is everywhere, in markets and on footpaths and vendors splitting lanes selling everything from pre-paid phone credit to drinks and fruit to traffic cones, nail clippers and hair brushes. Don’t have a business shirt cleaned and ironed for work tomorrow? Don’t stress, pick one up while waiting at the traffic lights on the way to the office. Phone flat? No dramas, grab a charger, or a new battery, or even a whole new phone direct from Shenzhen via the mobile market place that is Cairo Road, the city’s main street.


We went to an elephant orphanage which raised baby elephants orphaned by poachers. After killing the mothers and stealing the ivorry, the babies are left for dead. This little fella was still sporting an injured foot from his ordeal.


The loved to play and cool off.


Big things are happening here, in comparison to sleepy Windhoek or Gaberone. You can see it is still only the beginning, but it is happening. It’s in the newspapers and on the lips of the locals and you can kind of smell it, the excitement of business being done and money being generated. But because its Africa with that smell comes dust and litter, smoke from charcoal fires, and soot and stinking fumes from ancient trucks running on bush diesel, a mix of stolen diesel from long-haul trucks diluted with whatever else can be stolen or, at the very least, bought cheap and will burn. Often its kerosene, but judging by the smell of some trucks sometimes it is definitely old oil.


The handlers got very attached to the animals. They all wore those green jackets that were rarely washed so they smelt of elephant. The orphanage didn’t want the elephants to grow up thinking all humans were nice, only the ones who smelt of elephant should be trusted. Seemed clever.


With massive daily traffic jams it seemed obvious that the rapid growth was being constrained by the ad hock and outdated infrastructure, which in turn was putting significant pressure on a slow-acting and questionably competent government who didn’t see or even look to see any of this coming. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed the frenetic vibe of the place and could see ourselves living here and working in the mines of Zambia’s copper belt for a few years once this trip is all over.


These two young elephants had some play fights.


One massive environmental problem though is the charcoaling. As Zambia still has a large amount of forests and also an overwhelming number of its 14 million inhabitants don’t have access to power, charcoal is the fuel of choice for cooking. Hell, when you’ve got basically nothing it’s the only bloody choice. Its produced by setting alight a large pile of rough forest timber, say 3m by 3m by 2m tall, and once well lit, it is covered over and starved of oxygen until it burns its self out. The heat evaporates the excess moisture and oxidises all the smoke producing volatiles leaving charcoal, essentially just the carbon, behind.


Tash’s kids had a little track which they rode a little electric bike around. It wasn’t quite finished yet so we added a bit to it. Digging was a good way to burn off some of those extra beers.


The main berm we built linking one section of the track to another pretty much finished. It will need some chainsaw work to cut back some of the logs and more soil after it rains but the kids seemed to enjoy it.


Away from the cities you see these charcoaling stalls lining the highway every couple hundred metres in areas where there is easy access to the forests. Trees are cut down and brought to the roadside, reduced to charcoal, and then sold by the bag to passing traffic. Generally its long-haul trucks that no-matter how full, the drivers always find room for at least a few bags of charcoal to bring to the cities to sell for a profit. In areas where the charcoalers have been established for a while, the virgin forest can be as far as 3 to 5 kilometers from the roadside. And as the demand for fuel increases with population and the easily accessed timber is utilised, charcoalers are moving further and further north and west into wild country. Unchecked, the devastation will be massive.


Taking rides round the back yard on the DR-osaurus.


We finally clawed ourselves away from Tash’s house, grabbed a few bike things including some oil for upcoming service, and headed south. The weather had been dry and sunny for the last few days and David Reeve’s access road had dried out. This was our chance, so we rode back towards Mazabuka and got to David’s Farm in the mid afternoon. He welcomed us complete and utter strangers with some tea and regaled us with stories of his past Dakar attempts and ultimate completion.


Tash and her kids. We had a great time with these guys.


It was incredibly interesting discussing David’s training, his first 2 attempts that ended in broken bones, and his last successful attempt where he finished a very very solid 32nd. That’s bloody impressive considering he competed as a privateer and he entered his first Dakar as a rally novice. David comes from an enduro background, having been Zambia’s national enduro champ since Noah was a boy, and the Dakar was his first ever navigational rally.


David Reeve, Zambia’s first ever Dakar competitor and finished 32nd this year. Bloody impressive…..


We got the inside goss on some of these years biggest controversies, like the Salar de Iyuni stage, which the competitors on the ground assumed only went ahead to placate the Bolivian politicians and to create some great tv footage and publicity. That the salt knocked out so many competitors was acceptable collateral damage. The KTM spare parts truck ran out of wiring looms that night, but thankfully because David was competing on a bike hire arrangement from KTM the factory mechanics built him a loom from scratch. The factory bikes all received frame-up rebuilds that night.

It also seems the performance of Toby Price completely blew away some of the KTM top brass. Word on the street was that he was told to back off just a whisker as Coma had to be the KTM rider who won the race; some Dakar rookie rally novice who was completely unheard of outside of Australia wasn’t allowed to spoil the party. Some people suggested that’s why he made a few little “nav errors” that knocked a few minutes onto some critical stage times. Dave is of the opinion that it really is just a matter of time until he wins the whole thing, he just has too much speed on the ground. The second last stage where he blitzed the field and rammed home is advantage over Quintenilla to cement 3rd place is potentially a sign of what’s to come when KTM let him off the leash. How he slots back in alongside the factory rally team guys at next year’s event will be interesting to see, but I can hardly see KTM will let that yellow Elite #3 plate adorn an unsponsored satellite bike like he was on this year.


This is Dave’s 2013 bike, which is now his training bike. It was impressively light.


Anyway, back at Dave’s it was now late afternoon and Dave had some serious “only in Africa” type work to do. Dave runs game in addition to his crops, and constantly struggles with poachers. He has had people shoot at his house and was forced to fire back from his verandah; that is how much he struggles. Tonight was no exception. His workers received a tip off that poachers were coming, and he just received word from one of his workers that he had sent out scouting that the poachers had arrived. He grabbed his rifle and bid us farewell, but not before a few photos.


Dave’s Nav tower.


With the sun not far off setting, we lobbed in unannounced on Andrew and Cora hoping for a place to stay after struggling to find a secure looking local guesthouse. They were super accommodating. We rolled out the next morning heading for the Zimbabwe. We had a date with a gold miner.

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