bicycle

PANAFRICAN CYCLE PROJECT

Malawi: Can we have our cake and eat it?

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07/05/2011 MBEYA, TANZANIA TO LILONGWE, MALAWI (Hannah)

- Distance cycled: 934km
- Cycling days: 10 (number of half days = 4 - counted as 2 whole days)
- Average distance per full cycling day: 93.4km
- Total distance since London: 10102km

“Tomorrow. It will be here tomorrow morning. I promise…”

Tomorrow is now today, and soon yesterday, but we are still here, still waiting. It’s a long week spent in Mbeya. The first few days are restful; we even enjoy the rain from the shelter of our hotel room. It’s a soothing reminder of home, a cup of milky tea cradled in our hands. We tick through the rest-stop duties, write home. Enjoy evenings “in town”, a couple of beers, watch Tottenham loose against Real Madrid in the Champions League. We start to become twitchy: it’s time to leave… We’re expecting a DHL parcel from London, in it, a new rim for Reza’s front wheel. It reached Dar Es Salaam (7500km from London) in 3 days but takes another 6 to travel the remaining 700km to Mbeya. This is Africa!

We finally leave on the Sunday at 4pm. The two remaining hours of sunlight are enough time to cycle out of the city and up the steep hill towards Tukuyu, on the road to Malawi. That night we camp in an M’zee’s (old man’s) courtyard and eat our dinner in the light of his front porch. His is the only lit house in the village: it seems to take a lifetime to finally acquire electricity here. The next morning his grandson arrives and they share their tea and doughnuts with us before we set off. After our first break we see a strange shape up ahead of us on the road, it looks like… us! We get nearer and make out the bright yellow Ortlieb panniers and a trailer pulled by a bike. We meet its rider, Andrea, and commence a fragmented mobile conversation from the saddles of our bikes. Andrea is 38, Italian, and has left his home in Sharm El-Sheik and his job as a diving instructor for an impromptu solo trip across Africa by bicycle. Andrea doesn’t like the rain, and there is plenty of it today. We eventually decide to cut the day short, get dry in a rest house in Tukuyu and share stories over a few drinks at the one surprisingly hip bar in town.

The next day’s cycling carries us down the stunning rolling hills of the Southern Tanzanian highlands, through tea fields and banana plantations. The spectacular views stretch out for miles in front of us and we catch a first glimpse of Lake Malawi. Our altitude drops rapidly as we delight in 40km of downhill bliss: from 2300m we eventually reach 700m at the Malawian border. With no visa required on our EU passports, the border crossing takes minutes. There is no culture shock here like there once was further north. Except for change of language and currency, the culture seems, to us anyway, similar – at least on the most obvious points. Dress style hasn’t altered, people still eat Ugali (though they call it Nsima here) for every meal and most folk are super friendly and smiley.

For our first night in Malawi we try to get as close to the lake as possible. Satisfyingly, we make it to Karonga and set up camp for the night at an eerily quiet lakeshore campsite. We cook our usual pasta with tomato sauce and tuna (and I’m sure every traveller in Africa will recognize this popular combo), but somehow, Andrea manages to put an Italian twist to it and even the burnt petrol flakes that make their way into the concoction can’t spoil it.

We enjoy the relative flatness of the land we’re following down the Western shore of the lake. Although it takes us another day and a half to get within sight of the water again, this time it is much more striking. We turn a bend and come down a hill towards a small lakeside village. Between the road and the shore is a 200 metre strip of land, and on that strip is a collection of small, square, thatch-roofed mud huts, interspersed with rows of wooden makeshift stalls where the day’s catch of fish lies. The shore itself is a sandy beach, and everything is pristinely clean. Children run up to us, keen to have their picture taken; they’ve become less and less camera-shy the further south we’ve got on the continent. The whole scene feels kind of paradisiacal, and when we come across a small lodge a few kilometres further on, we decide to make a day of it and enjoy our first session on the beach. Our host, Charles, greets us by shouting out from the water where he’s taking a bath. He wears a huge grin and little else when he eventually comes out, dripping, to shake our hand. We strike a deal on the cost of camping with full board and ease in to the luxury of our beautiful surroundings. Charles has got 2 tree-beds and 5 round huts to make up his lodge. Across the central courtyard and behind a modest bamboo screen, a bucket hangs from a tree, with a shower head attached. Further on is an interesting eco-toilet, made of a wooden box with a toilet-bowl-shaped hole lined with cushions for comfort. However hygienic it may or may not have been, it provided quite a pleasant toilet experience. We go for a quick dip in the lake, and we come back out, Charles informs us that we must hurry up and get dressed for the ceremony. We don’t have time to ask him what kind of ceremony; he mumbles something about singing and flowers so we do as we told, happy to have the chance to partake in a local cultural event. Little do we know that we are about to sit through an afternoon’s worth of speeches at a funeral! Unfortunately for us, it is considered an honour to have a Mzungu (white person) at such an event, and we’ve been dragged along as prizes. We do stay awhile out of respect, but are happy when the chance presents itself to escape back to our lakeside sanctuary. The rest of the afternoon is spent lazing on the beach, photographing fishermen, reading books, and in the evening, we build a massive bonfire where our new friend John (who is deaf but communicates with remarkable body language) pulls some impressive firelit shapes.

From Chiweta, the road curves back away from the lake and up the mountain towards the Nyika highlands. It’s a steep ascent, but at the top we are awarded with yet more fantastic views of the lake. We cycle atop the plateau for a day and a half, camping on school grounds on the way, until we reach Mzuzu, capital of the North. After a late lunch here we decide to stretch our cycling day’s distance to the optimistic destination of Nkhata bay; luckily, 25 of the 47km are downhill and we get there at nightfall. We are met there by Mike, a “tourist guide”. He convinces us to check out a guesthouse which, he promises, is not far at all. Now this is not a smart thing to tell three exhausted cyclists on heavy bikes, after sunset, if it isn’t actually true. Deceived by the first 200m of smooth road, we then find ourselves hauling our 60kg bikes by hand over uneven rocks up a hill, for 20 minutes. When we arrive we find that the lodge has been built on a near vertical slope, with steps so steep it is impossible to bring our bikes down. The humour should be there but it is difficult to find in our present state, and Andrea doesn’t hold back in giving Mike a piece of his mind. The Italian lilt, I’m sure, helps soften the real meaning of his words. It is, nonetheless, a beautifully built lodge in a stunning location, which we fully enjoy over the next two days, and is the perfect location to celebrate my 26th birthday.

Back on the road, up and down another hill, we make our way down the lakeshore. It is some of the most enjoyable cycling of the trip: the roads are perfect, with smooth unblemished tarmac, and thanks to the current lack of petrol in North Malawi (available only on the black market), are virtually traffic-free. At regular intervals we find alluring beach lodges which too often tempt us into staying longer than we can. Many of them are run by expats, British, South African or Dutch, are lovingly done up, and make an indulgent dent in our slim budget. It is worth it though. It’s important to get a break from rice and beans and general grime sometimes.

Our map confuses us one day into cycling towards a “town” which never materialises, possibly because it is actually a small hamlet that we simply didn’t notice. In any case, we have cycled on and on. Night comes to us when we are in between villages, and as fate would have it, on the edge of another game reserve. It’s nowhere near as eerie as the last time though, and we persevere in the darkness with our dim lights illuminating only a small patch some 2 metres ahead of us, so that we are cycling more by feel than by actual sight. We eventually register the presence of houses and human-shaped shadows around us, which make way to more houses with a handful of oil burners out front. We ask around for our safest bet, the head teacher, and once again find refuge with another trusty fellow. Firewood is brought to us by kind, faceless figures, and in the morning, the teacher offers us home-grown bananas and monkey nuts. There really are good people everywhere.

Our last comfort stop is just south of Nkhotakota at a “pottery lodge”, where you can, as the name suggests, make your own pottery. Our gung-ho resolve to head straight to Lilongwe was easily broken and we extended our stay there by a day, enjoying the wild beach and remaking the world over a bottle of wine with Andrea and Gordon and Ann, two retired Canadians volunteering here through VSO. It makes us think how great it would be if more retired people from the West swapped a few potentially bored years back home for some constructive and exciting years abroad. We also happen to have previously witnessed how it can be easier for people here to listen to foreigners who sport a grey beard and balding head rather than shades and tattoos.

From Nkhotakota, we head back inland to Salima, where we stop only to sleep (and where we hit the 10000 km mark from London!) before heading West towards Lilongwe. We knew we were going to be faced with more hills, Salima being at 600m and Lilongwe at 1100m above sea level. For some reason though, it is a particularly tough day – 95km of relentless ups and downs on painfully low energy reserves. We spot roadside food stalls and make a bee-line to them every time, stuffing our faces with local bananas or just-fried chips before hitting the next hill. Lilongwe eventually appears in the distance, and we blow a sigh of relief to see it lying low in a plain. We make it to the city by late afternoon and find our couchsurfing host, Jeff, in his residential area on the outskirts. We are just it time: my sister Megan is to fly into Lilongwe international airport tomorrow for 10 days of fun off the bikes!

Find Megan's own section in the blog shortly...

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