• Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza. Part 2 March 11th, 2015

    The boat left Mbamba Bay just before sunset. It was a scenic time to be out on the lake. The sky was clear, the water calm, and my bicycle safely wedged between a few large sacks of cassava and second-hand clothes. It felt good to be breaking the tour up with a boat journey – a peaceful continuation of slow travel without the physical exertion of the lung-bursting climbs I’d been experiencing on the road.

    Other than the captain and two crewmen, a young woman and several of what I guessed were her children, the boat had plenty of space to pick up more passengers and cargo, which I suspected would be the case. We were headed south towards the Mozambican shores of Lake Malawi, although with no visa I hoped African officialdom, should there be any, would be kind on me.

    Here are a few photos from that journey, along with those from the road in Malawi and western Tanzania. The photos in this blog post, as with the last, were shot with either a Nikon D90 or Samsung S4 phone, then edited a little in Lightroom and Snapseed respectively. Those without my watermark were taken by Anselm Nathanael who appears in this photo blog story. This is the first real time I have done much post-production. Comments and recommendations are welcome.

    Beach in Chiwindi

    After several hours of motoring south from Mbamba bay we arrived in the village of Chimate, a short distance from the border with Mozambique. It was dark, but there seemed to be a hive of activity along the beach as young men prepared to head out onto the lake in their dugout canoes, each one rigged up with bright lights to attract fish. December, I had been told, was a popular time for catching dagaa, a small minnow-sized fish that is typically dried on the beach for a few days then transported inland in large sacks. Apparently it’s a profitable business. Like many fishermen with money to spend in a place with not much to do, excessive alcohol consumption seemed to be the most popular activity. I found a warm beer in a makeshift shack, which had a generator rigged up outside so that football could be shown, but retreated to the beach shortly afterwards and slept alongside the crew right at the very spot where this picture was taken just before sunrise.

    Dawn departure on Lake Malawi

    It wasn’t long before we were motoring off and headed south towards Mozambique. I’m rarely awake and travelling so early, but that dawn serenity is usually the best time of the day in Africa.

    Boat to Likoma Island

    Early morning sunlight and a few extra passengers onboard as we head into Mozambican waters. The village of Chiwindi appears to be the official border between Tanzania and Mozambique – another line drawn across a map by Europeans who probably never came to this part of Africa. Two Mozambican policemen, familiar to the captain, board the boat and pick up a few bags. It seems to be customary that there will be a small exchange of money – enough for them to feed themselves and have a few drinks for a day or two I suppose. Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, is many days of travel away and this is about as distant a post to be stationed at as possible.

    Mozambican beach on Lake Niassa

    The boat stops at a number of remote beaches along the Mozambican shore of Lake Malawi. For most people living here it’s boats like this that provide the only means by which to sell their produce. Likoma Island, which is part of Malawi, is only a short distance away and provides the closest market for trade.

    Boys in Lake Malawi

    How else would you spend your days if you grew up in a remote village along the shores of a crystal clear lake in Africa.

    Ilala replacement in Likoma

    Likoma Island ought to be part of Mozambique seeming that the mainland is only 7km away, but the founding on the island in 1880 of the Anglican Mission to Central Africa meant it remained within what is now Malawi. On arrival I was accosted by two plain-clothed policeman on the beach who demanded an inspection of my panniers. This doesn’t happen very frequently, but they clearly had nothing better to do. Neither did the small crowd of local islanders who were very interested to see what I had inside my bike bags. In one of the front panniers I carry a small tupperware box that contains cooking ingredients – salt, pepper, cooking oil, mixed herbs. Well the latter clearly got the attention of the police and crowd seeming that it looked just like marijuana. It took a little time before I convinced them that it was no more than a mixture of dried mint, oregano, basil etc. I stayed on the island, which I first visited 14 years ago, a few nights, waiting for another boat to transport me onwards to Nkhata Bay on the Malawian mainland. The boat that took me there is pictured here, a replacement for the MV Illala, which appears in the photo below.

    MV Ilala arriving in Likoma

    Built in Scotland in 1949, the Ilala has been operating on Lake Malawi since 1951. I’ve travelled on it before, but had heard it was being repaired this time round so prepared to take the boat in the previous picture. Just as we were about to leave the Ilala made a surprise appearance – the first time it had arrived on the island in months.

    Mango stop

    The last time I was in Malawi it was also December, so I knew mangoes would be in season. I spent my first two nights on the Malawian mainland at the ever-popular Nkhata Bay. Just like last time I came here it was full of American Peace-Corp volunteers on holiday. Away from the humid lakeside shore the road climbs to Mzuzu, a route I’ve cycled before and from where this picture was taken. Just like 3 years previously, most roads in Malawi are blissfully free of traffic.

    Coke stop with new friends

    Days were hot in Malawi, but I was fortunate to avoid the heavy rain that made international headlines a few weeks later with parts of the country flooded. Coke stops and random roadside exchanges were a familiar feature as always.

    Malawian hospitality

    It’s always a great experience to be invited to stay with a local family. The evening before this picture was taken I’d stopped to buy mangoes on the roadside nearby. When asked where I would be sleeping, to which I didn’t have a definite reply (I guessed I would just camp as there were no towns) I was soon welcomed to stay. I left the next morning with panniers full of mangoes.

    Descent to Lake Malawi

    Having climbed away from the lake after leaving Nkhata Bay, the road north through Malawi descends again, offering great views across to Tanzania.

    Japanese cyclist on a recumbent

    Malawi is so small and cycle friendly that there’s always a good chance of meeting other cyclists on the road. Lu, from Japan, had started his trip over a year ago and had recently flown to Tanzania then cycled into Malawi. Recumbents look a lot more comfortable in many respects than normal bicycles, but on rough roads with steep gradients I’m not sure how well they would handle.  

    Road to Chitipa

    It was another of those new and smooth Chinese roads, the kind which seem to be getting more and more popular in Africa. This one connected the lakeside town of Karonga in northern Malawi, with Chitipa, which lies close to the borders of Tanzania and Zambia. It was Christmas day and there was barely another vehicle on the road. I had hoped the dark clouds a few kilometres up ahead would empty their load on me. Short intense rain-showers are very welcome in equatorial Africa, but unfortunately it stayed dry all day.

    Anselm the German

    Anselm and I first met in Nkhata Bay, then started cycling together from Chitipa. He’d been on the road in Africa for eight months before I met him, slowly moving north from Cape Town with no specific route or time plan to return home to Germany. We continued to cycle together through western Tanzania and into Burundi, his rear bicycle wheel suffering from a number of broken spokes during this time. Riding a bicycle with 28″ wheels in Africa makes it harder to find spare parts, but he claimed he was too tall to ride a standard 26″ wheel bike.

    Towards the Tanzania border

    From Chitipa a small dirt track branched off towards the border with Tanzania. At one stage I’d planned to cross into Zambia from Malawi, then head north to Lake Tanganyika and use the ferry service across the Lake, but there were rumours that this boat was also out of service. Besides, I’d taken this boat when I first travelled in Africa and was now quite looking forward to exploring western Tanzania by road.

    Tanzanian Immigration in Isongole

    The Tanzanian immigration office in the small town of Isongole probably doesn’t see many foreigners passing through. With a residency permit it means I don’t have to hand out $50 for the standard 90-day tourist visa.

    Old bridge south from Tunduma

    First day back in Tanzania and the weather and scenery is great. From Isongole a quiet dirt track leads towards Tunduma. Narrow bridges like the one pictured here aren’t so common in Tanzania these days.

    Rural Africa

    Same bridge as above. Bicycles are a more common form of transport on small roads like this than motorised transport.

    Perfect camping

    Great spot to pitch the tent in for the first night back in Tanzania. The mountains in the background form the border with Malawi.

    On the Tazara Line

    There aren’t many trains operating in Tanzania these days. This is the Tazara line railway, which connects Tanzania with Zambia. It was paid for and built by the Chinese in the early 1970’s – a time when Tanzania and China were particularly good friends. Now the Chinese have switched their attention to road-building. A bi-weekly passenger train still runs along here, but you need plenty of patience for the journey.

    Dark skies and smooth roads

    A few years ago, or less, this would have been an unpaved road in western Tanzania. Little used then, it remains that way, mostly because the population density out here is low. Thank you again China. At the time of riding (Dec 2014) the road from Tunduma north to Sumbawanga is beautifully paved, and remains so for about another 50km.

    Truck surfing

    I took Anselm’s cue for a few minutes one day and saved my legs. Whenever there was a passing truck on a hill Anselm would be sure to be holding on. His luggage weighed far more than mine, on account of lugging a 3-person tent, two cooking stoves and various other gear which probably weren’t necessary in Tanzania, but might have been elsewhere.

    Mango stop

    Rare was there a day when I didn’t stop for mangoes. The small variety as pictured here are more or less given away – pocket money for kids.

    Random village stop

    Villages in western Tanzania don’t see many foreign faces so a fair amount of curiosity is created when stopping at a shop. For some random reason the woman holding a bucket to my right demanded to be given my underpants that were drying on the camping bag on my rear rack.

    North from Sumbawanga

    Another great camp spot – this one just north from Sumbawanga where the tarmac stopped.

    Mud attack

    When the tarmac stopped north of Sumbawanga the mud started. Fortunately it was only for a short stretch. With mudguards on my bike there isn’t a whole of clearance.

    Green mamba?

    Sizeable and about to disappear into the dense bush on the road north from Sumbawanga. A green mamba perhaps?

    Impressive horns

    The Ankole longhorn cow is native to Africa and has horns that can apparently reach 2.4metres long. Not sure what people do with the horns when they are killed. Anyhow, such impressive beasts are a common sight in west Tanzania.

    New Years Eve Camp

    Not a bad place to pitch the tent on 31st December. It was a long day on the road and I was asleep by 9pm.

    Sign in Katavi National Park

     A sign like this is pretty useless unless you have someone enforcing such rules. A public road cuts through Katavi National Park, so game viewing is almost guaranteed, particularly if you follow some of the tracks that run parallel to the main road. Visiting the park as a normal tourist on an organised tour would, like most safaris in Tanzania, cost a lot. First there is the $50 per day National Park fees and then there is the vehicle and driver to pay. Very few tourists visit Katavi National Park, which makes the experience of travelling through it all the more special.

    Giraffes up close: Katavi National Park

    Unlike some other large animals in Katavi National Park, there is little sense of danger when up close with Giraffes. Most of them run away long before you get anywhere near them. These two paused for a short time before deciding which way to run. A great moment!

    Buffalo stand-off

    He was still some distance away, but very much aware of my presence – stopping for several minutes before deciding which way to move. Katavi National Park reportedly has large herds of Buffalo, but when alone they are apparently more dangerous (I read this afterwards fortunately).

    Hippo watching

    In the water hippos look lazy and disinterested – sensibly keeping cool unlike those on bicycles watching them.

    Hippo on the move

    Best given plenty of space when out of water and aware of your presence. He soon disappeared.

    Katavi National Park

    What this photo doesn’t show are the hundreds of Tsetse flies attached to my front and rear panniers. I attempted to out-cycle them, which proved futile. Nasty bites and mosquito repellent were also completely ineffective. Other than that this was a very pleasant track in the National Park, running parallel to the main road nearby.

    Mobile market

    A market on two wheels – not an uncommon sight in rural Africa. This young chap seemed to take great pride in his work – donning a shirt and bow-tie as he cycled between villages on the outskirts of Mpanda. The tarmac lasted about 30km before returning to dirt.

    Highway Guest House Mpanda

    I rested here a few nights on a heavy dose of antibiotics. Many days of continued cycling had caused a rather unpleasant boil to develop on my backside; an occupational hazard of sorts. Highway Guest House was a slightly misleading name as Mpanda is a long way from anywhere. Highway would therefore be referring to the dirt track that heads either to Tabora in one direction or Kigoma, where I was going, in the other.

    Lunch in Mpanda

    Lunch in Mpanda: Pilau (spiced rice) fried fresh fish from Lake Tanganyika, chilli relish, beans and salad – £1.20 well spent.

    Grilled chicken

    Having watched this chicken being killed only minutes before, at least I knew it was fresh. It was soon cut into £0.40 pence pieces, (wings, legs, neck etc) which were skewered on wooden sticks and sold on the roadside.

    Painting of Julias Nyerere

    This painting wasn’t finished, but the artist had a long way to go before making his depiction of Tanzania’s first President look anywhere near decent. 

    East German African coin.

    German East African coin: From 1885-1919 what is now Tanzania was then part of German East Africa. In a small village close to Kigoma a young child showed me this coin, perhaps found in the dirt. He was more than happy to exchange it for a few sweets.

    German East African colonial coin

    I later researched the coin, on the off chance it might be worth something to a collector. A coin such as this in mint condition (never in circulation) is estimated to be worth around 50 Euros. Anything else is worth very little, so it remains a nice souvenir.

    Burundian Consulate in Kigoma

    Very convenient for onward travel to Burundi. A 7-day visa for Burundi can be issued on the same day for $40 in Kigoma.

    Kigoma Train Station

    Kigoma’s most prominent building is its German built train station, where a twice-weekly train leaves for Dar es Salaam. It’s a journey I’ve made before, and one that takes at least two days. Kigoma is the first place I ever visited in Tanzania, arriving by boat after a three day journey across Lake Tanganyika from Zambia.

    Pineapple man

    Heading to the market, downhill fortunately, with 100 or so pineapples (small ones £0.20 large ones £0.40). This was taken on the smooth, Chinese-built road that climbs from Kigoma to the Burundian border post.

    Pineapple stop

    It’s amazing how the pineapples are stacked and balanced. Dozens of bicycles, equally as heavily laden with pineapples, passed me by so after a while I stopped to buy one – kind of foolish as I was climbing all day!

    Leaf umbrellas

    Young Tanzanian boys on the road to the Burundi border.

    Camping in no-mans land.

    Pitched in no-mans land between Tanzanian and Burundian immigration posts. A lovely spot to sleep before crossing into Burundi the next day, where this photo blog story will continue.

  • Old roads and new: Mbeya-Mwanza. Part 1 February 26th, 2015

    The flights were booked well in advance. Mwanza-Dar-es-Salaam, then Dar-es-Salaam-Mbeya. Less than £90 in total, including the extra luggage allowance for the bike in a box.

    The tour had been on my mind for months – around about the same time I booked the flights I guess. Beyond a rough route, which would bring me back to Mwanza by bike, I had little specifically planned for what ended up being 7 weeks on the road.

    The Southern Highlands of Tanzania would be first up, an area of the country I’d yet to cycle through. Then I’d cross Lake Niassa to Malawi and ride north, possibly heading into Zambia and connecting with the ferry service across Lake Tanganyika to Kigoma in Western Tanzania. If there was time I’d revisit Burundi and Rwanda, dip into Uganda and then return to Tanzania. One thing I was sure I wouldn’t do, unless absolutely necessary, was subject my bicycle and bottom to the discomfort of an African bus.

    The journey wouldn’t be short of climbs given that most of my intended route would pass through the Rift Valley. In fact there were very few flat days on the tour, as evidenced by the elevation chart below. In total I rode just under 3200km, in 38 days, and accumulated 36,458m of altitude, according to my GPS unit.

    It was a great tour – both on and off the bike, riding a mixture of paved and unpaved roads and revisiting a few places I’d been before. I’ll do my best to share it here with pictures and descriptions over a series of blog posts.

    Climbing away from Mbeya.

    It’s a perfect day and a perfect road to roll out of Mbeya on. Starting at 1700m the air is cool and it’s uphill all day – 25km on smooth tarmac then 25km on a dirt track towards Kitulo National Park. I’m in relatively good fitness, but 20kg of luggage, plus water, feels like a serious work out.

    Service with a smile: Fruit and veg seller

    Buying local fruit and veg on the roadside has to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of cycling in Africa. People try to flog you an entire bucket of whatever is in season, unaware that carrying 5kg of carrots or tomatoes in your panniers isn’t sensible. And so you offer some small change and pick a handful, which is usually OK. I stopped to buy plums here, rare in Tanzania. Also nice to get service with a smile.

    Room for the night

    Room for the first night in a village called Kikondo. Pretty basic and pretty grim, but clean enough and at £1.80 per night I couldn’t really complain. It was the only Guest House in Kikondo (unsigned) – 10 tiny rooms or so behind a bar. I could have camped, but wimped out under dark skies. Kikondo is at about 2800m altitude so I asked the receptionist/bar girl to prepare some hot water for a shower. I turned in for the night early, happy the village’s limited power supply meant all was quiet by 10pm. Tanzania is one of Africa’s easiest countries to find cheap accommodation in. Naturally the choice, quality and price go with the size of the place.

    View over Kitulo National Park

    On the second day I entered Kitulo National Park. It’s one of Tanzania’s lesser known parks (no big animals here) and is mostly situated at over 2000m in altitude. Between Jan-Feb wild flowers cover many of the slopes, so I was a month or so early.

    Road to Makete

    Road through Kitulo National Park. Why does a Giraffe and Lion reside on my handlebars? No particular reason other than they were being sold off cheap on an online store when I was purchasing various other gear, and felt like pimping the bike up with some random mascots. Just a kid at heart really. Front light is also a new edition, wired up to the dynamo hub, although I rarely used it and found the placement right on the front of the rack to be too susceptible to the occasional knock. Will have to rethink that one.

    South from Kitale National Park

    Almost no traffic on this track heading to Makete in the Southern Highlands. I had read that December was the wet season, so was perhaps lucky that almost no rain fell during the first week. On some of the tracks, wet weather would have made the going very hard.

    Which way to go

    There were many tracks in the Southern Highlands and it wasn’t always obvious which one to take. I had download a GPS app on my phone, which showed hundreds of interconnecting tracks. I usually just followed my instinct and took whichever was going in the right direction.

    Hot chips and coke

    Food options were fairly limited in the Southern Highlands, but surrounded by fields of potatoes it wasn’t hard to find a plate of fresh chips. And coke, well coca-cola is never that hard to find in Africa.

    Shit road and steep gradients

    The scenery was superb, but the gradients on this track through the Southern Highlands were amongst the steepest I have ever cycled on (typically 12-18%+). Down one valley side and up another – all day. In the lowest gear I would usually cycle for a few hundred metres at 4-5km/hr, rest and drink water, then continue. Pushing the bike (about 45kg) on loose surfaces meant it was impossible to get any grip. Had there been rain such roads would have become very difficult to ride. This was the third day of riding on the tour and I managed 35km in about 6 hours, climbing 1200m. When I arrived mid-afternoon in the small village of Lupila I was told I had taken the short-cut, which probably meant the track people walk on.

    All up and down here!

    This photo was taken about 2 hours after the previous, and probably only about 10km later. You can see the road snaking around to the right of the picture. The reward for such a sweaty workout were the stunning views over the Livingstone Mountains.

    Leaning hut

    Nice to find some shady spots on this track to Lupira.

    View from Lupira

    The views around the remote mission station of Lupira were really quite dramatic. The road I should have arrived on cuts into the mountainside on the top right of this picture. This picture is looking north.

    Screen shot from Tanroads online maps

    Tanzania’s National Roads Authority (TANROADS) website has a surprisingly good database of maps detailing the network of roads in the country. I took a series of screenshots of the road network in the Southern Highlands on my phone, which turned out to be very useful and accurate as the names used here are those in existence. GPS devices and paper maps occasionally use inaccurate names. Lupila, which really felt like the middle of nowhere due to the difficulty in reaching it, doesn’t actually appear on most maps.

    South to Mlangali

    The weather and scenery continues to keep me happy as I head south from Lupira on day 4.

    View over the Southern Highlands

    Few people live in a region that’s probably one of the most fertile in the country. The population of Tanzania is growing rapidly, but it’s towns where people want to live – the same throughout most of Africa. Tanzania as a whole remains sparsely populated and in the areas where roads are poor and mobile network non existent, such as this one, that isn’t likely to change too quickly.

    Southern Highlands

    Looking westwards towards the Livingstone Mountains, the other side of which lies Lake Malawi.

    Road under construction

    Without much notice the road to Mlangali (day 4) suddenly came to an end at the bottom of a valley, where a small team of workers were constructing a bridge. With a little assistance I was able to push my bike across the other side and continue, something which reminded me of the simplicity of being on a bicycle.

    Road to Ludewa

    After several hard days since leaving Mbeya, the road, at least for a short distance, followed a valley floor as I continued south to the town of Ludewa. This photo was taken in the late afternoon and I soon realised that in such scenic surroundings with no sizeable villages or towns in cycling distance, it would make for a good place to camp

    First night in the new tent

    Always exciting to spend your first night in a new tent. This is the MSR Nook, a relatively new tent from the same manufacturer that makes the very popular, and excellent, Hubba Hubba, which I had used for many years previously. I still have the Hubba Hubba, but the rain-sheet has lost most of its waterproofness after 400+ nights in it. I expected this tour to be wet at times, which it wasn’t, and so felt it was time for a new tent. MSR have supported me before with their gear, but at the time of starting this journey the new MSR Hubba Hubba NX was out of stock. I was offered a good price on the Nook, which has a tunnel design and is more compact and slightly lighter than the Hubba Hubba, so decided to give it a go. I’ll write in more detail about it elsewhere, but this was a nice spot to pitch up in – surrounded by Miombo woodland and a backdrop of mountains on either side of the valley.

    Mountains around Ludewa

    Great mountain scenery and views of Ludewa District at about 2000m altitude here.

    Manda Bay

    At the end of a hot and dusty road on the shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi) lies Manda Bay. After 5 hard days on the road it was great to swim here, although I soon missed the comparatively cool mountain air.

    Biography of David Livingstone

    I packed a few books with me for the tour, one of which being a biography of David Livingstone. Turns out the much feted hero of African exploration wasn’t such the saint many have held him up to be, ultimately failing in his endeavours to convert Africans to Christianity and in finding the source of the Nile. Having said that, his accomplishments in terms of how much of the continent he explored remain impressive, although no mention is made in the book of the Kipengere Moutain Range, which rise up from the north eastern shores of Lake Malawi and are commonly now called the Livingstone Mountains.

    Lakeshore Mission

    Livingstone may have failed in his direct objectives, but his legacy and that of other missionaries who followed in his wake have remained a strong influence in many parts of Africa. The population in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania are predominantly Christian and many old churches, such as this one pictured here a few kilometres south of Manda Bay, are a common sight. Remote and scenic places seem to be common denominators for the location of missions, although living next to Lake Malawi was never a very sensible decision for European missionaries. Malaria remains prevalent and it’s bloody hot.

    Ruhuhu River

    A short distance south from Manda Bay the Ruhusu River drains into Lake Malawi. There is no bridge so small boats transport passengers across. ‘Any crocs?’ I asked the young boy paddling me across. ‘Over there’, he points  to a bank of dense reeds upstream.

    Heading south beside Lake Niassa

    Heading south along the shores of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi). The cool blueness of the lake and sky provided little relief to the relentless heat. This dirt track, highly scenic as it was, also followed the rule that no gradient is too steep.

    Smile for the selfie

    Never hard to find a smile in Tanzania, most of Africa for that matter. Villages are full of children. 45% of Tanzanians are under 15 years old, 65% under 24. The statistics, shocking as they sound, are easy to believe. This was taken in a village along the shores of the Lake where I stopped for a warm coke.

    New born baby with mother

    A gaggle of women standing on the road ahead caused me to stop. The excitement was for the new born baby – just 2 days old, swaddled in a blanket within his teenage mother’s arms. ‘Give a gift for the new born’ they all shouted. A handed over a small sum of money. There were then cheers and I asked for a picture, thinking as I took it that this would have made a better gift. But I was a long way from anywhere with electricity, let alone a photo printing shop.

    Mbamba Bay

    Arriving in Mbamba Bay. I first visited this quiet backwater 14 years ago when backpacking around east and southern Africa. Like other places I have revisited since, it hasn’t changed other than the appearance of several mobile telephone masts. There is still no electricity and the roads leading here remain unpaved. Places like this, far far away from the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, are mostly forgotten about.

    Lake transport in Mbamba Bay

    Mbamba bay is about as far south as one can go in Tanzania before crossing into Mozambique, which wasn’t the plan. Fourteen years ago I took a memorable boat from here, travelling north and docking at many of the Tanzanian lakeside villages through which I’d just cycled. This time I wanted to go directly across the lake to Nkhata Bay in Malawi, but there was no official schedule. I was in no particular rush to travel, but didn’t have endless time to wait for a ride. Fortunately it was only a few days before I met the owner of the large boat pictured here. Yes he would be going to Malawi, but not Nkhata Bay. Likoma Island was his destination, a Malawian Island close to the Mozambican mainland. It sounded like an adventure. We agreed a price (about £10) and I was told to return the following evening. I thought about asking if there were life vests onboard, but already knew what the answer would be.

  • The Ilala to Nkata Bay January 8th, 2012

    “This is the reason I’m not doing what you’re doing. Fancy one?” It was shortly after sunrise and I was being offered another beer by my neighbours. They’d arrived in a mud-splattered 4×4 the previous evening and set up camp next to me. I wasn’t sure then if the red face that had first greeted me with a cold can had forgotten to apply sun-cream or was just drinking an excessive amount of alcohol. As I sat beside my tent and waited for the water to boil on my Primus stove for morning tea I decided on the latter.

    He loves his beer. Packed eight crates for the trip”, boasted the blonde girlfriend, emerging from the roof of their vehicle where they’d slept the night. “How long are you travelling for?” I asked. Just 10 days. Drove up from Joburg with these guys.

    Parked close by was a similar vehicle owned by another Afrikaans speaking couple. With two young kids and a whole catalogue-ful of what looked like new camping equipment to unpack they made my sun-faded tent look somewhat inferior. “That’s seen better days”, remarked the red-faced beer drinker. “But it’s a hubba hubba. A lakka tent.” When several more 4x4s arrived later in the day with Afrikaans being shouted back and forth across the campsite I realised that Cape Maclear, on the southern shores of Lake Malawi, was going to be busy with South Africans for Christmas.

    Christmas day for me on the other hand began onboard the Ilala, Malawi’s most distinguished colonial survivor. In continual service since 1951, shortly after it had been transported in parts from the Mozambican coast to be assembled beside the lake, the MV Ilala services a dozen or so ports on Africa’s third largest lake. It chugs its way north once a week from Monkey Bay, the southern most terminus, and one of only two ports with a dock. This mattered to me. Transporting bike and bags from shore to boat is never easy when alone. The bike needs to be lifted awkwardly, bags often get separated and it’s hard to keep a watchful eye on ones belongings, particularly when it’s dark

    .

    Leaving the Ilala

    Experience with boat travel in other parts of Africa had me prepared for a chaotic, heavily delayed and potentially dangerous journey. Part of me wishes to say it was thankfully none of these. The Ilala was altogether the most civilised and uneventful boat I’ve used to travel on in Africa. Second and third class passengers sat calmly on the lower deck and those with a mostly paler complexion occupied the upper deck. It was very colonial. There was no shouting or drama. Where were the arguments about seating arrangements, the livestock falling overboard, the collisions, break-downs and overcrowding? – basically all what one expects from boat travel in Africa. On almost every other boat I’ve used in Africa I’ve been the only foreign face. On the Ilala there seemed to be as many foreigners getting onboard at Monkey Bay as there were local Malawians.

    Onboard the Ilala

    The biggest drama might well have been that a passenger with an economy ticket spent most of his time on the first class deck. I used the well-stocked bar and the white faces up here as an excuse. They had all paid several times what I had and were entitled to be sitting where they were. I occasionally popped down to the lower deck to eat (rice, beans and beef) and greet those I should have been sitting and sleeping alongside, but there was far more room and fresh-air up above. It was wrong and I knew it. At first I had the idea that I’d settle things the African way by buying the ticket inspectors a few beers, but it never came to that after I got talking to them on a friendly basis. After hearing I was alone and not married, one of the ticket inspectors took it upon himself to find me a wife on board.

    The Ilala took on more passengers and cargo as she docked at new ports and headed north, but where I had expected local boats and dug-out canoes to paddle out with produce for sale, I found none. The Ilala even had its own passenger boat with engine to transport people ashore

    Docking at Metangulu, Mozambique

    The other foreigners onboard were a range of ages and nationalities and the open-air bar area made for a lively scene much of the day. There was a time on this journey where foreign faces were so rare that conversation would usually occur when you met someone clearly as far away from home shores as yourself . Now mzungus, as we continue to be known, are so common at times that a mere nod of the head seems to suffice. At least this ensures one doesn’t have to answer and ask the same ‘where are you from’? and ‘where are going’? kind of questions. Most foreigners disembarked at Likoma island, which is actually within Mozambican waters on the lake, but I continued to Nkata bay, arriving in good time to find a goat being barbecued on the beach for Christmas day lunch.

    Xmas company by Lake Malawi

    Like many other foreigners who pass this way I eased myself into the relaxed lake-side atmosphere. The camping was scenic and cheap and the company an eclectic mix of characters. With the inevitable talk of New Year parties it became easy to stay for a week. And when the hangover cleared, people started leaving and I found myself feeling restless I did what I’ve done so many times over the past few years– pack the panniers, load up the bike and start spinning those pedals.

    Camping by Lake Malawi