KARMA SAVED CORDELIA: THE PHOENIX STAGE PART 2
The “PHOENIX STAGE” was certainly an ambitious undertaking, and kudos to everyone who participated, not only for making further contributions to our bike donations, but also for attempting to ride one of these tanks. They weigh slightly less than your average anvil and having no gears and a prehistoric braking system, their ability to accelerate or stop is pretty minimal. Should you ever be in a position where you need to purchase a fleet of African bicycles you should note that having them assembled does not mean they are tuned and ready to ride. It just means they have put the pedals on. A big thanks goes out to Alex and his crew of wrenches who spent the good part of a day building our bikes. Without their efforts the event would not have been possible. Modern bike tools are relatively useless for adjusting the components of these bikes. To tune them properly you need the precision offered by instruments such as rocks or crow bars. Several of us volunteered to be used as guinea pigs to test these bikes on the road. I cruised for 20km on one (5km of dirt). This terrain doesn’t present many challenging hills and the bike holds its momentum well on shallow slopes. I strapped my riding pack to the rear rack with my iPod speaker on the outside serenading me as I rolled through the villages. The locals just glared in confusion. I wasn’t setting any land speed records but I probably could have gone faster if I wasn’t smiling so hard. However, we realized that our goal to pedal 151km was unrealistic.
The decision was made to ride the bikes from lunch to camp instead of the entire stage; otherwise we would have never made it on time to the ceremony to donate the bikes. I am not a morning person. On the morning of the “PHOENIX STAGE”, the first person to speak to me after I climbed out of my tent informed me that two bikes had gone missing during the night. Shortly thereafter I realized the count should be three and that my girl had also vanished. Cordelia is my favorite travel mate; she is a great listener, always wants to go where I want to go and has never let me down. Together we have pedaled over 65,000km crossing 32 different countries in the last 8 years. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time I boarded a plane without her. During our rest in Livingstone, I had intended on rebuilding her (yet again), new bearings, cables, bar tape and drive train, just to keep her in optimal condition. I was also quite fond of her latest accessory, the “Tokolosh”, a carving of the Malawian boogeyman mounted to the handlebars, which I was sure would protect her from all evil…
The Tokolosh is my favorite African myth. Unlike the boogeyman of the western world the Tokolosh does not prey on children while they sleep, the target is male adults. And most grown men are petrified. Instead of hiding under your bed or in your closet, if you get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night you will come back to find the Tokolosh in bed with your wife. Then he uses his hands to tear his jaw open, grabs you with his serpentine tongue and swallows you whole to be slowly digested in his giant belly. But there is not just one Tokolosh, there are thousands. Each one represents the soul of a dead child. They are seeking vengeance against the adult population who could not provide for them or keep them safe. In a region that suffers from a high infant mortality rate this urban legend actually enforces a social responsibility.
I followed the standard protocol for any theft while travelling in Africa. I spoke to all the locals and offered a generous reward for the return of our stolen goods. These rural communities are small and when something like this goes down people know about it. And as much as I’d like to think that people want to help you out of general good will, the truth is they really just want a cut of the reward. I pursued the official channels as well and filed a police report in the nearby town of Kalomo. The detectives from the criminal investigations department didn’t have their own vehicle so I had to drive them back to the scene of the crime. Within moments of our arrival the detectives had discovered the footprints of what must have been our burglars. They were satisfied with their investigation and asked me to take them home. After persuading them to investigate a bit further they contacted their local informants to assist in locating our bikes. A third option was posed by Noah, our Zimbabwean kitchen truck driver. He put me in touch with a witch doctor who wanted no money for his services, only a brand new bicycle inner tube and a pump. His intensions were to use black magic to place a curse on the thieves and as he inflated the inner tube the stomachs of the bike snatchers would begin to bloat. They would continue to expand until they explode. The only relief would be to return our bikes. Not sure which of the three approaches I had the most faith in.
While battling my frustrations with CSI Africa, the “PHOENIX STAGE” pressed on. In the bakkie I overtook the brave cyclists late in the stage as they were approaching Livingstone. Few of them were actually pedaling, most were the side of the road trying to figure out how to put a chain back on or fix a flat, but they all gave me thumbs up and ear to ear grins. To get into the spirit many of the riders wore normal clothes instead of the typical neon spandex. Our fastest riders were those who managed to ride the distance without any mechanical issues. But the competition for the most impressive cargo was intense. A couple of our ladies transformed their bike into a mobile bouquet of wildflowers, others strapped suitcases or cases of beer to their rear racks, some even rode in true African style with their partner on the rear rack. I am not sure which is more strenuous, pedaling or being the passenger.
Arriving at the Zambezi Waterfront our incredible hosts had coordinated a ceremony that included speeches from local political figures, a traditional song performed by a blind guitarist, stories from two of last years’ bike recipients, a skit performed by school children, media coverage and snacks and refreshments for all spectators. But what was most unexpected was the plethora of prizes given to our riders – bungee jumping, helicopter and micro light rides, elephant back safaris, lion encounters and even a few bottles of wine. All been generously donated by local sponsors. Victoria Falls is the adrenalin capital of Africa and this was the perfect way to arrive and set the tone for three days of much deserved time out of the saddle.
The event was a huge success. I couldn’t have been more pleased with how it turned out. But at the end of the day I couldn’t help but to have a sour taste in my mouth. How could we go to so much effort to try and provide bikes for Zambians only to have ours stolen by the same people. I know HG would say that if you travel enough eventually you have to pay travel tax. And he is right. But it still didn’t make me feel any better about my tragic loss. On the first rest day I attended the sunset riverboat booze cruise to numb the pain. On the second rest day I was informed that the police had recovered one of the bikes. Hope! On our third rest day I returned the police station in Kalomo to find out which bike they had found, only to learn that it was still in the possession of their local informants. Before we could go collect it I was told I needed to wait. After ninety minutes in the local cop shop my patience was spent and finally the true story was revealed. We were waiting for reinforcements. They were expecting resistance when we went to collect the bike. Hmmm? By the end of the next hour the Hilux was full of cops all yielding AK47’s and we were ready to go.
Our arrival was anticipated by the residents of Mukwela and we quickly drew a crowd. I was standing amongst the agitated locals who were all demanding thousands of kwacha for the bike. The detective said nothing and the dudes with the guns never even got out of the truck. There was an elaborate story of hiring a car and travelling more than 100 km’s to find the bike and a high speed pursuit where one of my heroes jumped from the moving car to tackle the thief from the bike. Although they managed to get the bike they were unable to ascertain the criminal as he drew a machete to fend off his pursuers. The money was just to cover the costs of the recovery. But if they could go to such great lengths to retrieve the bike how could they not manage to take it the extra 10 km to the police station? I still hadn’t seen the bike and my mind I couldn’t help to think that the culprits with whom I was negotiating were the ones who stole the bike. I agreed to pay nothing until I could see the bike, assess its condition and at least make sure it was one of ours that went missing.
The crowd retracted in front of me as I saw Cordelia approaching, I felt a sense of relief come over me, then a fit of rage hit me as I wanted to tackle her rider and knock the smirk off his face, then a feeling of guilt for finding my bike and not my clients’. The tokolosh was gone, as was my camera and water bottle, there was a new scar on her top tube and her bar tape was torn and dangling. Upon completing my assessment of her condition I took the bike, put it in the back of the truck and locked her in. This is not how you make friends. The crowd got quite ornery. The armed guards watched on from the safety of the back seat. The detective finally found his tongue and suggested we all return to the police station to settle the matter. Now I have to transport the criminals too. I immediately bypassed the pencil pushing front desk cops and walked straight into the office of the chief. Only just learning of the situation, he was livid, enraged, he was like a rabid bulldog in a uniform. The informant who was demanding payment took the brunt of it. The chief threw this man behind bars, slammed the door and continued to scream at him for possession of stolen property and holding it for ransom. Justice? Almost.
The “PHOENIX STAGE” was a great experiment. It demanded teamwork to succeed, provided a very unique experience and re-enforced the comradery amongst our spirited riders. We added 15 bikes to the donation for a total of 65. By providing sustainable transportation solutions to Africans, we promote the health, environment, economy and future of this eclectic continent that we explore.
I’m glad to get out Zambia. It never brings me good fortune. Last time I was there I nearly wrote off a truck and got thrown in jail for attempted murder (all charges dropped, of course). We are now in Namibia but crossing any African border is never straight forward. Take the crossing from Zambia into Botswana. Try it with 50 people, 4 trucks and a ferry in the middle. Then just for fun, bust the spring blades on your trailer and have the boat break down. Then for the next few stages we needed to worry about dodging elephants. Never a dull moment…