Still here in Malawi, this time writing from the top of a mountain overlooking nearby Tanzania and Lake Malawi – only about 4km away from the historic city of Livingstonia, a town that seems quite out of sorts for the other places in Africa I’ve traveled to. Getting up here was a challenge – and likely some of the toughest riding conditions I’ve seen in Africa, but well worth it at the top.
I left you all last in Senga Bay where I was nursing my (re) broken wrist, moving north on the lake hoping to find some R&R only a day and a half north, only once I arrived in Nkotakota that it wasn’t really where I wanted to spend some days opting to move forward on the tar highway through some fairly hot days where riding anytime after 1pm sapped any sort of energy or motivation from me scrambling to find places to stay at clinics, hospitals and churches.
Unfortunately one night while sleeping at a church I felt an itch, soon to realize there were thousands of ants inside my tent, somehow sneaking in from the holes and zippers – The pastor heard me making a fuss outside trying to pack my clothes and tent and put me in his sons room for a night, thankful for that as traveling in the dark really isn’t my thing especially when being woken abruptly as such.
Life on the beach is quite relaxed with the farms running alongside of them blustering with oranges, passion fruit and guavas, and some avocados that look similarly to bowling balls. Rest however couldn’t have come at a better time when I struggled the last 50km up winding hills on the way to Nkhata Bay passing by more elegantly placed tea fields that wrapped around the many hills and passing through a forest of rubber trees, each with with a hole nailed into them dripping a white liquid into a steel pot every 2 seconds. It didn’t dawn on me until hours later when I saw many people standing at the side of the road bouncing balls that they were made of thousands of elastic bands.
I couldn’t help but stop at the first lodge that I noticed in Nkhata Bay, the Blue Star which offered free internet – after a quick check on my phone to confirm it was still through I rolled down setting up camp in a quiet grassy landscape where not so much beach was available for sleeping on, and a somber group of employees that seemed to be just manning the fort while the owner took care of business back in the UK. In fact the remainder of the day was spent that way while I walked down to the market weaving in and out of streets, deflecting the sellers intent on pushing wood carvings and other trinkets at me before spending a quiet evening with a few other guests that had arrived before retiring. The final two guests appeared at 10pm after a hectic 15 hour bus ride from the south of the lake intent on having a beer and relaxing, but sadly the staff had closed everything down – I spent an hour sitting and talking with the two boys Rory and Rob from South Africa who seem to be making their way up to Ethiopia for an hour. In the morning we decided to go for a walk and see what we could find for street food – where we were greeted by 3 other girls who had just joined up similarly searching for things to do – immediately calling for a forming of a group even though we were staying at different places. It didn’t take longer than an hour to realize that we were all good company and headed back to one of the other lodges in an attempt to beat a challenge in return for a free nights stay at lively Myoko Lodge.
Basically the premise is simple – two people sit inside an undersized boat, and try to paddle around a small island without tipping over or getting your feet in the water. Determined we all gave it a go, with some not making it more than 10 feet, and some making it a bit further before getting dunked in the water causing some serious amounts of laughter and further forging the friendship – It became apparent to us boys that a bit of livelihood was what we were after and decided at dark to go pack up our gear and move on over to the other side of the town where all out madness ensued for the next 3 days as we managed to grow our group of revelry to 10 strong heading out on the town for some very late nights, storytelling and even commandeering a boat to take us to a nearby island while attempting to feed fish eagles, cliff diving and snorkeling. You could tell we had all been traveling for a long time and needed the opportunity to let our hair down – no drama, no weirdness and we could all just be ourselves without any worries or care knowing that we’d be soon on our way somewhere in the near future – Good times were had by all, until we realized that on the night before leaving that our shared rooms where we were all staying had been gone into and all the small electronics (telephones, mp3 players) and cash had been removed from the locked rooms putting a serious damper on the evening, but we all left it to be optimistic that it would be returned. I think I came out lucky, perhaps my bicycle was too confusing with all of its bags to be rummaged through in a short time and came out with everything in tact. The lodge owners were sympathetic and wiped any accommodation fees off the (rather large) tabs and promised to take our Police report further and get back to us wanting to maintain their high standard and reputation of the lodge.
Some went south, but most were headed north, interested in seeing The Mushroom Farm lodge I had been speaking about to them for days on end passing me in a minibus on the way out of town to Mzuzu on one of the climbs I hadn’t been looking forward to for about 3 weeks. Climbing nearly 900 metres on some fairly steep hills had me tired, frustrated and sleepy by the time I arrived staying with someone I had been in contact with via email for the past month. It was a short meeting, as I decided that I would try to push forward and see if I could see my new group of friends one last time before they went north to catch a train hoping for a Tuesday night arrival. It wasn’t until 9am that I left a quite busy and erratic Mzuzu heading north on the tar highway planning on stopping at the 100km mark before giving the last 30 or 40km to get to the top of the Gorode hill on the way to Livingstonia. With two options to take once approaching nearby city Rumphi I was faced with quite the conundrum – Travel an extra 10 km and deal with a 700 metre climb up a dirt road with 23 switchbacks with a total of 2000 some odd metres climbed, or opt for a shorter distance on a dirt road ending the ride with only 1300m climbed. I made the choice to take the dirt road after traveling 60km in 3 hours thanks to a heavy tailwind propelling me on the tar roads before reaching Rumphi. In fact the dirt road I chose wasn’t so bad, no traffic as is common in most of Malawi and very nice scenery along the way. Northern Malawi also has the bonus of not so many children screaming “Azungu!” at the top of their lungs as you pass and when I stopped for lunch a group of 10+ children politely sat across from me gazing at me up and down with no problems whatsoever. I had made such a great distance that I figured that I would take advantage of the days gains and make the 131km in one days travel, thinking I’d arrive well before dark.
That was until the 97km mark hit and the massive climbs occurred, energy had faded – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches just aren’t working like they used to as I struggled to climb up the steep 13% grade hills even pushing my bicycle (I can count on one hand how many times I’ve pushed in my life, but now I need an extra set of hands after this). As I passed by coffee fields, Guava trees and even catching a whiff of what’s known as Malawi Gold – the Marijuana that grows in the farms before being cut down – wrapped in banana leaves and buried underground for 6 weeks before being taken out wrapped on sticks and placed inside corn husks to be buried for another 2 weeks before being sold at prices under $5 an ounce to the locals and almost certainly for export sneakily brought out of the country wedged in between tobacco exports.
30km usually takes me about 2 hours, in fact it took 4 hours and I found myself sweating profusely once the sun went down only to be left soaking wet causing chills all the way into my bones. It must have been the rapid shift in temperature which knocked me down and had me unconscious for an unknown amount of time before being shook awake luckily by an ambulance driver who had to stop enroute to pickup a passenger to get me off of this steep rocky road in the pitch black, telling me he would return for me on the way back, telling me I was about 14km away from where I needed to be. I mustered up the strength to open up a can of jam, drank the whole thing and commenced riding up the hills again in the dark dead set on getting to my destination before the ambulance returned, tried to put my bicycle on its roof before giving up after it being too heavy and the back of the ambulance being way too full for any other cargo before flagging down the village chief to come and take me into a safe place for the night. I refused any sort of help in terms of food and pitched my tent outside the house and went straight to sleep, not before receiving a text message from my friends anxious to see me in the next day, to which I told them of the story – They had a few in my honour but at the end we were all able to reconnect for a few hours before part of the group headed onwards, and two of the ladies who had just completed medical school stayed back and spent a nice relaxing day with me without any of the nonsense and troubles we had put ourselves into the days before. Saying goodbye has to be one of the worst parts of travel, especially when you run into a good group of people where you feel entirely comfortable with, no drama, feeling like you’ve known them all your life. I’m sure we’ll all be knowing each other a very long time all making plans to meet up down the road, some even coming along for rides in South America, Denmark, and England. I should know better to push myself hard, but somehow found myself in the trap of thinking of the destination rather than what was best for my body and health, eventually getting burned at the very end, just going to show that I still haven’t mastered mind control quite yet in these sorts of situations.
With such a short time left in Malawi I soon have to scramble to get to the Tanzania border, hopefully where more services like gas and food is in more abundance. I spent an awful lot of money during my stay in Malawi, but have no regrets whatsoever, needing a good stopover of therapy with friendly faces, other travelers and letting go a bit after becoming injured and riding so hard. We’ll see what Tanzania holds in the near future, but I can tell for certain that it won’t be what anyone expects, as I’ve got no expectations myself and quite enjoying the chaotic misadventures that have been coming to me as of late. Will miss this country – taking the #1 spot away from my previously favoured country Zambia. Malawi has some wonderful exports, The coffee is fantastic, their hot sauce (Nali) is enough to set your face on fire, and surprisingly their Gin ranks up there as something I’d even recommend to even the most discerning Gin drinkers. I’d come back here in a flash, and maybe I will… Something about Central Africa has a magnet which makes me think I’m going to be in this region for some time now. Could this be a potential new home?