32 – 14th February 2006 – Lilongwe, Malawi.

Distance Cycled : 24,233km

We’ll be leaving Lilongwe tomorrow, after a four week sojourn in Malawi – it seems to have flown by!  We’ve actually only cycled 800km since leaving Mbeya on 19th January…having spent quite a bit of time off the bikes spotting hippos and snorkelling in Lake Malawi with our friends Chris and Julie who flew out to be scorched by the tropical sun for a fortnight…

We were sad to leave Tanzania, as we’d grown quite attached to the place – especially the chip omelettes and the fact that we could hold a basic conversation in KiSwahili by the end of Our stay!  The landscape didn’t disappoint for our last day – clouds were scudding across a clear blue sky, propelled by a strong and almost-nippy breeze.  As we climbed up into the hills a patchwork of neat fields spread itself out in the lower valleys, dark soil contrasting with the bright green of peas, beans and tomatoes.  Piles of canes lined the road and the traffic was limited to heavy wooden carts, trundling uphill with an excruciating lack of speed or whizzing downhill at a terrifying pace – no oxen are shackled to these carts, they are propelled entirely by human power!  The “driver” (I’m not sure he had much control) lifting himself up on the two forward-projecting logs at the front of the cart on the downhill sections, occasionally using his flip-flopped feet as rudimentary brakes.  What happens to them at the bottom of the hill??  The women were involved in less kamikaze tasks – although chopping logs, lugging babies and wielding hoes for hours and hours probably doesn’t increase your life expectancy too much either.  It was reminiscent of Ethiopia in terms of the clear light and the lush, hilly scenery, but there was a noticeable difference in the reaction of the locals – friendly smiles and greetings rather than scowls and demands for money.  Tiny children waved at us, momentarily forgetting their cows or goats which were lazing and grazing on the grassy banks.  Younger toddlers emerged from ditches filled with dahlias, pinks and yellow flowers or popped out from the “hedge” of mouldy looking hydrangeas that ringed ever homestead.  Obviously the school year has recently begun in Tanzania – the uniforms are still crisp and clean, the jumpers unstained and the shorts not yet ripped.  Itinerant vendors carrying boards on their backs were selling stripy school socks as well as the usual assortment of plastic combs, umbrellas, radios (do they work?) and elastic bands.  It seemed sad to think that many of these eager little pupils won’t make it through the year – lack of money, the need for domestic and farm labour, and illness cause a lot of kids to drop out of school.  Education is so interrupted that it’s not unusual for a Tanzanian to be in their thirties before they complete their education – and that’s if they are lucky enough to complete it at all.

The day after leaving Mbeya (where there was still a nip in the air, as I said) we found ourselves sweltering on the shores of Lake Malawi – two vertical kilometres below the fields where the Tanzanian ladies wielded their hoes.  The lake was a breathtaking sight from above – dark blue mountains hemmed the water in on the Mozambican side, and the reflected sunlight gave the water the silvery sheen of mercury.  Tiny vessels were just visible, bobbing on the surface of the water, which fills a mighty cleft in the landscape created by the upheavals that formed the Rift Valley – in places Lake Malawi is 700 metres deep.  We negotiated the border crossing without any problems, although the moneychangers were out in force and mobbed us with the skill of a cloud of mosquitoes – just as annoying and difficult to swat.  We adopted our usual tactic of splitting up – Anna staying with the bikes and Luke luring the rabble away with a wad of banknotes.  Their usual ruses for diddling foreigners were met with tired smiles from Luke, and in the end they must have decided he was a worthy opponent (dozens of border crossings have their uses) and gave us a rate better than the official bank rate…  Our well-travelled and weather-beaten look was rather less useful once inside the office at the border post, however.  The official regarded Luke with something approaching suspicion and demanded to know how much money we had – perhaps we have pushed it too far and now look too dishevelled and impecunious!  Luke invented a figure of 300 dollars and this seemed to satisfy the be-uniformed one.  We sweltered through the rest of the day, passing soft-leaved teak trees and tethered goats wilting in the heat.  By the time we reached Karonga Anna was in need of shade and water.  We pulled into the car park of a guesthouse and the landlady took one look, said “eh, sister, you are hot” and propelled Anna into a room, switched on the fan and commanded her to stay there while she bustled off for water.  It’s often almost imperceptible when you cross a border in Africa – boundaries are often arbitrary and the landscape and the people usually differ little on either side.  Leaving Karonga for our first full day in Malawi, though, we both remarked how un-Tanzanian it seemed.  The lake is a dominant feature – fishing and watery crops like rice are an important part of the economy and the beaches and watersports draw tourists too.  The villages were rather sorry affairs, though the houses were usually built of brick rather than being mud-and-stick constructions.  What we noticed most, though, was the almost constant demands for money, pens, books, kwacha, something…anything.  Give me, give me.  We laughed at the rate of inflation – a girl asked for one tambala (0.005 pence) and one kiometre along the road a boy demanded 100 kwacha, a 10,000-fold increase – but mostly we were depressed that day, thinking that we had stumbled on another African country where the sight of a foreigner is associated with a handout and not with the usual kindness and hospitality.  Not that there was any aggression – just an unrelenting stream of demands.  We hurried on, heads down, keen to escape this onslaught and worried about the dark band of clouds split occasionally by lightning that was advancing from the Mozambican shore.  We reached the small village of Chitimba, where there was a convenient campsite.  By the time the light began to fade, four overland trucks were also installed.  The view was spectacular – the distant mountains formed a snaggletoothed barrier on the far shore and the 50km of water separating us from Mozambique varied in colour from inky black, through emerald, pea-green and turquoise, to pale blue, finally ending up with a band of silt-laden brown as the Chitimba River emptied into the lake next to the camp.  We could happily have gazed at this watery scene for hours, but no-one else in the bar seemed to have noticed the viw.  Increasingly, I am beginning to wonder whether many of these overlanders realised that the view from the bar is in fact different to the dramatic wallpaper on your desktop at home.  It is a little hard to understand why they bother coming to Africa at all – sure, the beer is more affordable but surely not so cheap that it offsets the 2000 quid or so that a 10-week truck trip costs?  I overheard a girl asking if anyone needed anything from their truck – she was off to get some HP sauce and malt vinegar (no doubt from an onboard cabinet labelled “Culinary First Aid for Brits Abroad”) to doctor her chips, lest they should taste vaguely Malawian, presumably.  We went to bed before it all became too much.  A cracking thunderstorm broke in the early hours, which freshened the air a bit but did little to dispel the more deep-seated gloom which seemed to be plaguing us.

Things began to look up over the next few days.  The road was certainly determined to give us a literal lift.  We began to climb up the Rift Valley escarpment (surely it’s got to leave us alone soon, we’ve been crawling up and swooshing down it since Ethiopia!) the next morning, leaving the leaden lake and the brown waves thwocking the shore, and entering a
colourful and quiet woodland.  The road wound up and up and up, our lowest gears were brought into action and our knees protested.  The overland trucks, with their cargo of full English breakfasters, passed us one by one but otherwise there was little traffic – a few locals on foot, the odd lorry and great flutterings of butterflies our only other companions.  Sweat poured off us and we’d drunk three litres of water each by the time we neared the top, so it was a relief that the road then swooped downhill, conveniently passing a farmhouse with a water pump.  Malawi appears rather more low-tech than other East African countries – mobile phones, internet access and ATMs are rather less common here than they were in Kenya, Uganda or Tanzania and rather more basically, running water is absent from many homes.  This is actually good news for cyclists – it’s much easier to pause and fill your bottles from a roadside pump than a tap in a house!  Given that we knew about two words of Chitumbuka – the local language – and that the old lady sitting near the pump was blind, it was a little tricky to make our request understood.  Still, we filled our bottles and washed out her basin to rid it of sticky cassava dough before filling it (hard work in the heat even for Luke) and received a almost completely toothless beaming smile in return, so we reckoned that was a fair exchange!  Barely a kilometre down the road, an excitable trio of young men on (brakeless and gearless) bikes stopped us and explained they were on a fact-finding mission to a nearby waterfall, which they hoped to develop for tourism.  It wasn’t entirely clear what they were planning to do…but if enthusiasm is enough, they will clearly achieve it.  Meanwhile, they urged us to stop at the “basket bridge” a little way along the road and told us that a fellow cyclist had stayed with them a few days ago.  Locals always assume we will be acquainted with other cyclists as though we all live in one big European bicycle commune, but for once they were right – we recognised the mispronounced name as none other than Lorenzo, a cyclist from the Basque country we had met in Addis Ababa!  We called in at the basket bridge – which was, well, impressive in a baskety sort of way, and then continued along the upward-tending road, a chocolate-brown river to our right and steep boulder-strewn slopes on both sides.  Late in the afternoon, we arrived in the small town of Rumphi, off the main road in a beautiful green valley which looked especially attractive in the golden sunlight.  The market yielded potatoes, onions and tomatoes so we peeled spuds in the dark and ended the day with a huge pile of bangers and mash.  Well, minus the bangers, unless you count the rumbling thunder.

We finally crossed paths with Lorenzo the next day, as we approached Mzuzu in the driving rain.  The three of us sought shelter in a tea house and compared cycling notes – we were slightly perplexed to hear Lorenzo had left Addis two months after us and had somehow caught us up…but when we learned his route had been more direct we felt a little less deflated!  We agreed to rendezvous at Nkhata Bay the next day, Lorenzo was spending the night in Mzuzu but we decided there was enough daylight to reach this lakeside town the same day – after all, it was all downhill again!  The rain stopped and the road plummeted pleasingly through damp little villages of shaggy-roofed houses, errant chickens and stalls selling bamboo matting, mammoth plantains and puny mangoes.  Even the youngest children were familiar with some English, although perhaps their understanding of what they were saying wasn’t great.  A sample conversation with a toddler went something like:

Toddler: “Hello, how are you?”
Us: “I am fine, how are you?”
Toddler: “I am fine, how are you?”
Us: “Fine, how are you?”
Toddler: “I am fine, how are you?”

And so on…with the toddler running down the road “Madame, madame, how are you, how are youuuuuuuu?” in an anguished voice as we cycled out of sight…as if we hadn’t told him already.  Rather cruel on our part, I suppose, but amusing nonetheless.  Despite this downhill finish, we were tired when we reached the lake that evening after seven soggy hours in the saddle.We spent three very lazy days at a place called Mayoka Village, where the food and the friendly atmosphere tempted us to stay longer.  We read our way through a chunk of the book collection and Luke put his new diving qualification to good use, enjoying a morning of watery exploration among colourful  cichlid fishes and twisting rock formations.  We left Nkhata Bay as a trio, Lorenzo having decided to ride with us for a while.  We enjoyed the company and the landscape that day – it was a good job we weren’t going too far as the sun was out in force and the heat was unrelenting.  Gloomy rubber plantations, with their silent ranks of trees scarred by years of rubber tapping, provided some cooling shade and the opportunity to buy bouncy balls – sold by local boys and made from strips of latex from the plantations.  Light and bouncy, they’d make perfect volleyballs but sadly they are hardly practical to lug about on a bike…although perhaps we are just unimaginative on the luggage front – Lorenzo told us about a cycling couple he’d met who had guitars strapped to their racks!

We knew it was going to be the rainy season in Malawi, but we’ve been surprised by the ferocity of the storms.  On our first night in Nkhata Bay, we were reading peacefully when a huge thunderclap akin to an avalanche rumbled overhead, the lightbulb shot out of the lamp and shattered and a smell of burning pervaded the omniously black post-impact night.  Dawn revealed that the lightning had struck a little higher up the hillside and all the electrics had blown, so a painstaking rewiring job was in order.  Everyone looked liked they’d had little sleep that night!  A few nights later, we were startled around midnight by the tent collapsing – a branch had fallen off a mango tree in a nocturnal storm and landed on us – miraculously there was no damage.  Later the same night we awoke to find the groundsheet of our tent feeling like a waterbed – the rain was so heavy that a torrent was rushing across the campsite towards the lake and our tent was mid-river!  We relocated to higher ground, and crawled back into the tent, sodden and sandy.  There was much drying out and de-sanding to be done the next day, so we stayed put for 24 hours, making a mental note not to pitch camp in hollows ever again!  All this rain makes for a lush landscape, though, with tall reedbeds, floating waterlilies on sedge-fringed pools and a mass of birdlife building nests and scopping up insects.  Swallows swoop and weavers weave, and bright flashes of scarlet dart across the road – these are amazing, fluorescent little birds called red bishops.  The rain is good news for maize farmers in particular, following a failed crop after a drought last season.  Rice and cassava are grown down near the lake, the latter planted in pleasingly rounded mounds, which make it look a little like a mole has been busy cultivating the landscape.  These crops cope well with the vagaries of the Malawian climate, whereas maize, encouraged during the colonial era, copes less well with a lack of water.  The result?  Good crops when the rains come, nothing to eat when they fail.  In turn this has led to a great deal of food aid being distributed in the country, which really addresses the short-term problem of famine without solving the underlying issue.  Some farmers are so confident that they will receive food aid in times of need, that they by-pass the maize (or other subsistence crop) altogether and grow tobacco as a cash crop!  It seems ridiculous to see the floppy-leaved fields and drying-racks all over the place – tobacco is a good source of money but not much good for feeding the hungry.

After a few days spent following the lake shore southwards, we arrived at a pottery workshop just south of the village of Nkhotakota, where Anna planned to try her hand at making and decorating some pots.  Luke, meanwhile, was happy to relax on the beautiful beach with a good book and take a few photos!  It would have been easy to linger, but with Julie and Chris landing in a few days time we soon pressed on southwards, and after an overnight stop in Salima, we reached Lilongwe on the 2nd of February, almost a month after leaving Dar es Salaam – and just in time to check up on the visa situation for Zambia (we can get them at the border, albeit at an extortionate US$60 for Brits!) and give the bikes a quick clean before meeting our friends on the 4th.


With only a week to spare, we’d decided not to try to pack too much in – there would undoubtedly be plenty to talk about and we didn’t want to spend all our time on buses!  To that end, we headed back down the escarpment (sans bikes this time) to Liwonde, where we were picked up by motorboat and whisked up the Shire River to Central African Wilderness Safaris’ very pleasant Mvuu Camp.

Mvuu means hippo in the local Chewa language, and the place is aptly named as the river is teeming with them, as well as some absolutely enormous crocs.  Over the next few days (between eating huge breakfasts, lunches and dinners), we went on game drives, boat trips on the river, and bush walks with an armed ranger, and saw a huge variety of game – including at least five species we hadn’t seen before even in Kenya and Tanzania’s famous game reserves.  One of the highlights were the game drives after dark, with a spotlight, which allowed us to see normally elusive animals like genets and nocturnal mongooses.  An added bonus was the fact that we had the place to ourselves – few visitors come in what the tourist industry euphemistically calls the “Green Season” although the rain barely disrupted our plans.

  From there, another long day of minibus-taxi travel, capped off with a somewhat exciting ride down a twisting dirt road in the back of an open pickup, brought us to Cape Maclear, where we spent our last few days together swimming, snorkelling and kayaking.  A local fishing boat was the next mode of transport, as we avoided the roads altogether on our way across the lake to Senga Bay, where we caught transport back to Lilongwe while Julie and Chris headed north, along the road we’d earlier cycled down, to Nhkotakota and Nkhata Bay.

So here we are, back in Lilongwe, contemplating the final two months and 4000-odd kilometres of the trip.  We’re going to have to pick up the pace a little, but it’s nearly all tarmac from here and frankly we both prefer cycling after the discomfort and hassle of travelling in Africa by public transport… wish us luck!

(Incidentally, as internet cafes cost a fortune here in Malawi, we’re very grateful to the staff at Kiboko Camp for letting us sit and type this update at their PC this morning!  Zikomo!)


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