Robbie Powel loves going to Zambia. The wildlife, friendly people and of course the mighty Zambezi River make this country a fantastic holiday spot. So when he got the email invite to the inaugural FNB 1Zambia MTB, three day stage race, he jumped at the opportunity.
Knowing that the course designers and event directors Owen Green and Jesper Lublinkhof were seasoned MTB riders meant I knew we were in for some fantastic riding. Both Owen and Jesper have done numerous Cape Epics and Jesper represented Zambia in various MTB events worldwide. I’ve had the opportunity to ride in many countries around the world and within Africa, so I was eagerly anticipating the event.
Billed as one of the most spectacular three day MTB stage races in Africa, the course covered 230km of wildly remote forests, fantastic mountain terrain and the best single tracks Africa had to offer. Added to this everyone was looking forward to the finish on the banks of the mighty Zambezi River at the end of three tough days.
The event is a marker free route, meaning the riders would have to use GPS computers to navigate the route, as GPS course routes were provided by the organizers and downloaded onto each rider’s GPS the night before each stage.
This was a first for me, as all the events I had competed in previously have been marked. Having said that, it was fantastic not having markers on the course as it felt like a true adventure following the GPS and flying down the unmarked trails. The first two days took the riders down the escarpment and back around Lilayi Lodge, with the final day taking the riders to the finish on the banks of the Zambezi and a night at Kiambi Lodge.
Arriving at Lilayi Lodge, 45 minutes’ drive from Lusaka, was like finding an oasis in the desert. Beautiful flowing lawns and five star accommodations awaited the riders, the food was fantastic and there was plenty of it.
The first day covered 68km of mostly singletracks and jeep tracks with only a small segment of district road, climbing was chalked down to be 1400m. Owen described the route as “The wake-up call”.
The course was fantastic, taking the riders down the escarpment and back up again. Flowing single tracks and long descents with names like Rabbit nose drop in and technical climbs (Profanity Hill) were the order of the day. The views were out of this world, Owen and Jesper really went out of their way to show off the best of the area. Water points were great with the right food, lots of water and the hugely popular and refreshing Twizza drinks. Riding through the tribal areas was a pleasure with lots of friendly people and kids along the route all asking “How are you?” to anyone who would listen and providing friendly encouragement.
Day two started at Lilayi Lodge again and once again we descended the escarpment covering 70km with around 1200m of climbing. Billed as an easier day than the first, the single tracks and jeep tracks were sublime, flowing and technical as well as exhilarating and super-fast. The main climb of the day was on a district road which was a great opportunity for the stronger teams to wind up the pace. Sadly my GPS gave up the ghost on day two.
After my GPS failed we were left to track the riders ahead; which was really funny and frustrating at the same time. The last descent of the day was a dusi, in all my riding I have never come across a singletrack like this. Super-fast, steep, littered with rocks and drops and it went on for what seems like forever! Sadly we experienced a cut tyre and thanks to some of the teams, we received assistance with extra tubes and a gator.
Day three dawned and we were all sorry to say goodbye to Lilayi Lodge and their fantastic hospitality, but at the same time we were also super excited to embark on the journey to the banks of the Zambezi and the finish at Kiambi Lodge.
The route ahead promised 108km of singletracks, 1300m of steep technical climbs and more beautiful vistas. The stage started 30 minutes earlier than normal in order to account for the increased temperatures in the Zambezi Valley and yes, we did need the early start.
The first 46km consisted mostly of singletracks, footpaths and a few jeep tracks; but the highlights were the kilometres of hidden forests we rode through. Untouched old growth forests which gave us an indication on just how far off the beaten track we had come. Trails with names like Flow Rider, Solo-man’s crossing and Spot the goat were navigated and etched into the psyche of all the riders. Looming ahead was the much talked about and dreaded climb out of the valley and over the escarpment before dropping into the Zambezi Valley. Aptly named the “mother in law”, the climb had even the most experienced riders pushing. Steep and unrelenting, it wound its way over the top and when you almost had enough the view opened up to reveal the Zambezi Valley.
Dropping down into the valley was an experience few will forget, the trail to jeep track was technical and fast to super-fast. The lower we got, the more the increase in temperature became apparent. Rolling into Kiambi Lodge, on the banks of the Zambezi, was exhilarating and sad at the same time. Knowing that the event was over and it was time to go back to reality.
Prize giving took place on an island in the middle of the Zambezi, the podium was an overturned dugout canoe and the audience were elephants, hippos, fish eagles and crocs… and a few tired riders and supporters.
What an amazing experience.
Where are we?
The beauty of visiting Zambia is that it’s a SADEC country so all you need is a valid passport and a Yellow Fever shot. Lilayi Lodge is situated in the Lusaka South Forest Reserve just south of the Zambian capital city Lusaka. Kiambi Lodge is situated in the Lower Zambezi National Park to the east of the capital where the Zambian boarder meets that of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Robbie Powel began his career in the bicycle industry in 1988 and hasn’t looked back since. What began as a part time job turned into an international passion and lifestyle. Over the course of 26 years that Robbie has worked in the bicycle industry he has been involved in retail, wholesale and manufacturing and is currently heading up his own product development company with his long-time friend, Brandon Els.