Rain accompanied the climb out of Nkata bay. About an 800m vertical ascent in 40km, said the American with a backpack. “Good luck buddy”, were the final words I heard him mutter before disappearing with half a dozen other Peace Corp volunteers.

I think Nkata bay’s foreigner head-count probably doubled over Xmas and New Year with all the young Americans here. It’s a good enough guess that if you meet an American in Africa who isn’t working for an NGO or spreading the word of God then he or she will be a Peace Corp. I’ve met them in many other countries deemed ‘stable’ enough for young college graduates with fresh ideas about solving Africa’s woes to live in for 2 years. Most seem to live as frugal an existence as possible during their time in the ‘bush’, and then blow their stipend in a few weeks of travel and partying.

African philosophy

The altitude calculation was fairly accurate; nothing like starting a new year with a good climb to digest from the saddle. As for the rain, well the country and its crops have been waiting so long for it that I knew it was only a matter of time before I got wet.

A long time ago I possessed a pair of waterproof trousers and a jacket. They remained squashed in the bottom of a front pannier for so many months that when a Ghanaian immigration official waived the fact that I’d over-stayed my visa I decided to part with them. The only other time I’ve really felt I needed them were when it rained coming through the rift valley in Kenya. Rain at altitude in Africa is cold and dispiriting. In places like the Congo I was quite happy to get soaked and wait for the sun to come out.

Smiles in the rain

Here in Malawi I’m back in the rift valley. When I arrived in Mzuzu (1250m) I decided it was time to find a waterproof jacket. Like most other sub-Saharan African towns Mzuzu has a second hand clothes market, where for 500 Kwatcha (£2) I bought an anorak with ‘Acer’ written on the back.

As far as I know Acer make laptops and not rain jackets. Was an Acer employee somewhere in the World given a company jacket to hand out leaflets in the rain I wonder? If so he would have come to the same conclusion about the jacket as I did shortly after leaving Mzuzu – that it was not fully waterproof.

Well I kind of knew what to expect. It’s more of a shower jacket/wind breaker. When it seriously rains in this part of the World I don’t think any waterproof clothing will keep you dry for very long. Buying a gore-tex jacket is surely a waste of money for much of sub-saharan Africa?

Cycling through a rainy season in Africa has its good and bad points. OK you get wet, and depending on the intensity and duration of the rain, as well as the altitude, cold, but more often than not it provides a refreshing change from the normal heat. A splash of water from a passing vehicle is more pleasant than a mouthful of dust, and the scenery is so much greener.

The maize farmers must be happy. That means about 80% of the population. Whereas some countries in Africa blanket their cultivatable land with cassava, here in Malawi maize is the food staple. Sure enough there are fields of tobacco, sweet potato, groundnuts, and also cassava, but it’s maize one sees everywhere. I’m sat writing this in the country’s capital, Lilongwe, and rather than being surrounded by blocks of concrete you can guess what’s growing amongst the litter on the other side of the cane fence?

Heading north

Devla Murphy, in her depressing analysis of this part of the World when she cycled through 20 years ago (her book The Ukimwi Road focussed on the Aids epidemic), wrote that “Few places in the World can rival the beauty of the Nyika plateau”. For someone as well travelled as that I was naturally inclined to follow in her cycle-tracks.

The trouble with reaching the Nyika National Park is that there are no easy ways to get there. With an average altitude above 2000 metres the Park hugs the border with Zambia in the northwest of Malawi. It was kind of off-route, but having already come north from Blantyre I decided a little more of a detour in Malawi to take in its best sites before heading to Zambia was worth it.

I never made it in the end. I was equally as interested in re-visiting Livingstonia, a town founded by Scottish missionaries and named after you know who, but what my map showed as a track connecting the park with the place was a mountain path, at least according to the locals, which in the rainy season wasn’t worth continuing to investigate.

As it was I followed a terrible road north from a place called Rumphi. Terrible because when it rained I took the road with me. Mud quickly jammed between wheel and mudguards, bringing me to a steady halt. This has only happened in a few other places in Africa (Congo, Morocco), but this particular consistency of mud was enough for me to decide that removing the rear mudguard, which sits closer to the tyre, was a sensible move to make.

Pushing towards Livingstonia

Stuck

David Livingstone never came to Livingstonia, despite a local resident assuring me that he did. Malaria finally got the better of Africa’s most famous Victorian explorer and he died in 1873. That was 24 years before Livingstonia, at its present site, was founded. Initially Scottish missionaries had chosen the lake shore by Cape Maclear as a place to create and name a mission in honour of their famous forefather, but when malaria claimed lives there they moved it, first to another lake-shore location, and then finally way up on an escarpment, some 900 metres or so above the lake.

Church at Livingstonia

Livingstonia is about as un-African a place in climate and character that I’ve visited on the continent. Firstly it has a noticeably cool climate and is surrounded by pine trees and secondly all the buildings look like they have been transported from a Victorian village film-set.

My bike was in a mess when I arrived, and the mud-covered panniers soon made a mess of the wooden floorboards in Stone House. I stayed here on Christmas Day some 11 years ago and remembered the sweeping view down to the lake to be just as dramatic. This photo doesn’t really do it justice.

View to Lake Malawi from Livingstonia

The descent down ws equally dramatic. Now this would have been a lung-burster of a climb had I been approaching Livingstonia from the lake. Something like 22 steep switchbacks on a rocky track wind their way up an almost vertical escarpment from the lake. Granny-gear stuff all the way.

Going down it was fingers on brakes, until the road straightened out in view of the lake. Now I was back on tarmac and finally heading south again – the placid surface of the lake on my left and verdant green cloud-topped hillsides to my right.

Descending towards Lake Malawi

Descending from Livingstonia

Towards the lake

Lake Malawi near Chitimba

Water fetchers

The road soon climbed again, as I knew it would, and when dark clouds rolled in and blanketed my last views of the lake, I knew I’d get wet.

Camping outside in the rainy season is best avoided in Africa, unless you want to test out how waterproof or not your tent is. And even if you do stay dry after an all-night deluge, packing a wet tent away in the morning, which is now double in weight, doesn’t make for a good start to the day.

The answer is naturally to look for a building, but probably not someone’s house as it will often be too small to accommodate a drenched mzungu, who also doesn’t want to feel like he is inconveniencing a total stranger by asking to sleep there. Well thanks to Livingstone’s tribe, one doesn’t need to go that far in rural Africa to find a Church or School, preferably one with a roof. I’ve slept in countless over the last few years. There’s almost always someone close by to ask permission, which is important, and plenty of space on the benches, tables, chairs or pews, to dry out what is wet. You also don’t feel like you are ‘getting in the way’ or disrupting whatever domestic scene you might have stumbled upon. Occasionally someone who wants to take responsibility for this unannounced stranger arriving will step forward to complicate matters, but this is usually in the form of an invitation to sleep in a house, and depending on the circumstances one can decide which is better.

There have been many moments during my time in Africa where I’ve been left thinking ‘now what if this was the other way round’? What if this African who is helping me out here had arrived in a small village in rural England and parked his bike next to the Primary School and asked the head-teacher ‘Is it possible to sleep here as it’s getting late and I won’t arrive in the next town? I don’t cycle at night because it’s dangerous and now it’s raining so I’m looking for somewhere dry to pitch my tent’. I’d like to think that the head-teacher would show some interest and sympathy in this stranger, and maybe find an outhouse or somewhere else dry, but know more likely the response would be something along the lines of ‘Afraid not – I think there’s a campsite or a B&B a few miles down the road’. Africa would be a lot more of a challenging place to travel by bicycle if I was met with that response on a regular basis.

Whilst I had enjoyed a dry night listening to rain pummelling down on the tin roof of a Primary school, I think Fabio had taken the bush camp option. We met early the next morning. It was easy to guess he was Italian by the colour of his bike – sprayed red, green and white. He’d recently entered Malawi by way of the ferry service that connects the Tanzanian lake-side village of Mbamba bay with Nkata Bay.

Fabio the Italian

Fabio had cycled from Dar es Salaam, where he said he lived working as a sailor. I never quite got to know what he meant by this. With the ear and eye piercing, and bandana holding back his unkempt blonde hair he made a better job of looking like a pirate.

He was heading back to Tanzania because he had to return to Italy next month, but asked about my trip, took particular interest in my chain guard, then paused a moment before throwing his arms out in front of him and declaring ‘This, this is what I want’. I turn 40 next year and want to mark it with a big trip. Five years around the World. It changes you yes? I don’t think you can ever go back like before”.

I nodded in agreement. “You’re probably right”, I said as the rain started to fall and we exchanged contacts before parting ways.

I returned to Mzuzu and stayed in the same shoe-box sized room I’d been in the week before. “Please place your condoms in the bin after use” read a notice on the back of the door. I imagined the poor cleaner having to go round emptying the bins each morning. The 3ft high speakers blasting music out of the nearby pool bars drowned out any other nocturnal vocals.

Morning in my cheapie

From Mzuzu I cycled on the M1 to Lilongwe. Like the M1 in the UK, Malawi’s M1 is also the country’s main highway, but there is a major difference. Here the M1 has even less traffic than a farm track in deepest Dorset. Malawi’s fuel shortage continues to wreck havoc for motorists, but makes its beautifully well-paved highways a dream to cycle on.

On the main highway

South from Mzuzu

There were a lot of pine trees at the roadside to begin with, and it was only on the second day of cycling through the Viphya Forest Reserve that I found the page in my Bradt guidebook that said this was the largest artificial forest in Africa. It would be much larger if half the trees hadn’t been felled.

Through Viphya forest

Heavy load!

Out here there were few villages on the roadside, but children still seemed to run out from nowhere – the call of Mzungu quickly followed by a ‘give me money’. At one time this used to irritate me. Whether I’ve grown so used to expect it or the that fact that it’s said in mock-seriousness amongst giggles here in Malawi, I don’t seem to care all that much now.

Young girls with their maize

School girls on the way to Livingstonia

Big smiles

Roadside posers

When the forest stopped and the road began to flatten out the maize fields started again. I stopped frequently in small towns where women sell steamed maize cobs at the roadside and the men take charge of the roasted ones. There is a scarcity of street food in this country so one makes do with what is on offer. Maize cobs and cold coke make for a good 20 minute break, with a mango or two of course, whilst lunch is frequently nsima (maize flour mixed with water and tasting as bland on its own as it sounds) with beef and pumpkin/potato leaves. Fresh chili helps liven things up a bit – a killer for sunburnt lips though!

Local Restaurant

Mango seller

Young mango seller

I have no doubt that maize was probably growing beside the international airport’s runway when I realised I was about to enter the country’s capital. I think there were two sets of traffic lights on the way in. Far too easy and uneventful.

At first appearance Lilongwe looks like it has about as much character as Blantyre. It was going to be my end point here in Malawi. The plan had been to head west to Zambia, but I don’t have US $ to pay for an expensive visa at the border and I merely wanted to transit the country to enter Zimbabwe. A cheaper and possibly better option is to head back through Mozambique for a few days, which will also bring me to Zimbabwe. I’m off on my bike in a minute down to the embassy.

One more thing if you’ve bothered to read this entire 2500 word post. There is a massive distribution of mosquito nets taking place in Malawi right now, which is being carried out by the NGO Concern Universal. Some of these nets have been funded by those of you kind enough to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation through my journey. I’m planning to travel down to Ntcheu, where the distribution is taking place, later this week. Any donations that are made now obviously aren’t going to fund nets being handed out here, but it seems a timely opportunity to remind people that your contributions are widely appreciated. $5 or £3 guarantees that a mosquito net gets distributed to someone in need here. And bed-nets really are the best means of malaria prevention. I was happy to read a few months back that the Against Malaria Foundation was rated top charity by the watchdog organisation ‘givewell’ for what it does.