• Malawi in the rainy season January 17th, 2012

    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


    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.

  • Into Africa’s warm heart December 22nd, 2011

    Poor countries with well-paved roads and high fuel prices make good news for foreign cyclists. Welcome to little land-locked Malawi, which surely has the highest fuel costs on the continent? It’s something you probaby didn’t know, unless you were unfortunate to be living and driving a car here.

    A litre of petrol when available here costs 380 Kwatcha (£1.50) from a fuel pump, and more like £2-3 on the black market from roadside jerry cans. Only the very rich can afford to have a car and run it  – true throughout much of Africa, but more so in Malawi.

    Malawi’s fuel crisis just seems to be one of many problems currently facing the country. There is also the lack of rains ruining the vital maize crop, the fall in the price of the country’s biggest cash-crop earner – tobacco, massive increases in the price of foodstuffs due to fuel costs, and then foriegn aid which the country so depends upon being affected by the departure of the British ambassador. He was kicked out of the country earlier this year for calling the President an autocrat.

    One wonders how Malawians still smile, for the warm heart of Africa, as the country gets dubbed in tourist literature, remains just that.


    Small road near Mt Mulanje

    Small cafe in Malawi

    Besides the smiles, Malawi greeted me on arrival with a free 30-day stay and a mountain to climb. At first I had no intention to scale Mt Mulanje. Besides lacking a backpack, waterproof clothes or having any information about the mountain, I naturally assumed there would be some irritating complications like permits to apply for and entry fees. Fortunately there were none of these and the cost of a guide was about as cheap as I could have hoped for. It might not have been Kilimanjaro, but hardly anyone seems to hike up onto the Mulanje massif and the views below to tea plantations and waterfalls were well worth the steep ascent.

    On the Mulanje massif

    Descending the Mulnje massif

    Mt Mulanje landscape

    Almost everyone seems to speak English and use a bicycle in Malawi, if not to transport goods, then as a taxi service. This makes for great on-the-road company. Part of me feels sorry for those whose livelihood depends on the fuel situation (which in truth is almost everyone) but the sound and sight of bicycles dominating a national highway might make Malawi one of the best countries to cycle through in Africa.


    Mulanje kids

    It was on one such bicycle-dominated highway that I left the scenic surroundings of the Mulanje massif and headed to the country’s commercial capital – Blantyre. At first I wondered if I’d arrived during a national holiday. The centre seemed to be about as alive as the person whose name the city was named in honour of. David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland. Anywhere else would be abuzz with motorbike taxis and bustling street stalls. Surely people should have been out on the street deploring the economic situation and the fuel crisis?

    Roadkill: Monitor lizard

    I stayed with the Country Director of a large NGO here. Having married a Ghanian and lived and worked there and in Nigeria he agreed that Blantyre and Malawi was lacking the West African vibe. “Great place if you want the quiet life with family” Pretty dull otherwise.

    From Blantyre I’ve moved north. Totally the wrong direction, but seeming that Malawi is so small and scenic (I came here 11 years ago) I decided it was worth to see more of the country. Particularly Lake Malawi, Africa’s 3rd largest body of fresh water, which is where I await a journey on the MV Illala.

    More mangoes for sale

    Lake Malawi at sunset

  • Never die: The Bagamoyo boat October 11th, 2011

    It would have been simpler, needless to say a whole lot safer to leave Zanzibar on one of the regular high-speed ferries that shuttle back and forth to Dar es Salaam. The moment one approaches the port there is no shortage of commission-hungry touts waiting to escort you to one of many ticket offices. Here the ticket price will be quoted in US dollars (double or several times the local resident price) and you will be whisked away in air-conditioned comfort on a boat that maintains a schedule. Travel in places where there are lots of tourists is sometimes just too easy.

    Taking a dhow on the other hand is something foreigners generally only do at sunset – one of the listed ‘things to do’ in many guidebooks to the island I’m sure. Great if you’re romancing a girl on your holidays, less so if you’re not. Yet for centuries this is how everyone arrived on or departed from the island.

    Coming from the mainland most would have started their journey in Bagamoyo – at one time the capital of German East Africa, and before that a terminus for thousands of slaves who’d been marched eastwards out of Central Africa. Those that survived the journey dubbed the town ‘Bwagamoyo’ – meaning ‘crush your heart’. Here they awaited a sea voyage, first to nearby Zanzibar, and then across the Arabian Sea towards their final destination somewhere in the Gulf.

    It’s also where all those 19th Century explorers arrived on the continent and set off into the interior with their enormous entourage of porters. Stanley, Grant, Burton, Speke, and most famously David Livingstone all came here. For the latter it was where he would end his time in Africa – he arrived dead having been carried 1500 miles by his porters from Lake Bangweulu in Zambia.

    Bagamoyo has long since been replaced by Dar es Salaam, 70 km further south, as the centre of commercial activity along the Tanzanian coast, but it remains the shortest sea route between island and mainland (just 20 nautical miles), and that obviously favoured by boats which rely on sail power.

    Well it was a sail-powered boat to the mainland that I was interested in, but there was no ticket office advertising the journey. That is probably because there aren’t tickets for dhows plying the Zanzibar-Bagamoyo route on a daily basis. These are essentially cargo-boats, as they always have been, transporting anything from charcoal and cement, to tomatoes, salt, used-clothes and scrap metal. Passengers, if there any, sit on top. There is no time-table. Boats go when sufficiently loaded (very often overloaded) and the captain decides.

    Before leaving Zanzibar a large veiled woman at the immigration office made me write my own declaration – stating something to the effect that the captain of the boat would bear no responsibility for any eventuality on his boat. This was tempting fate. Moments before I’d stopped beside some graffiti that made me contemplate whether taking a dhow back to the mainland was a wise thing to do.  The graffiti read: Never die.

    Stone Town Graffiti

    The dhow that was to take me contained half a dozen or more freezers and refrigerators, plus a lot of old car tyres. Besides me there were 12 other people aboard: 10 crew, a man carrying several DVD players he said he was going to sell in Dar (how could these have possibly been cheaper on Zanzibar I have no idea) and a teenage boy who spent half of the 4-hour crossing vomiting over the side.

    Dhow port: Stone Town

    Before getting underway I lashed my bike with bungee cords up against the wooden mast at the front of the boat. It wasn’t going to move, but within minutes of clearing Stone Town, colliding with a partially submerged small tanker on the way, it was soaked. Very soon after so was I. But what I feared to be a boat too heavily-laden actually seemed to act in her favour. She rode over the 2-3 metre waves most of the time, but we were too close to what was a choppy sea and the southerly wind was strong enough (Force 5?) to ensure this would not be a dry journey. Had the dhow been empty however we would have rolled all over the place.

    Bike onboard

    It was dangerous journey in many respects, (there were no life jackets, I didn’t know the captain’s experience, the weather could have suddenly changed) but sitting at the stern with a jovial crew eager to hear my limited Swahili as I watched them steering this age-old vessel to shore was one of those journeys you don’t forget.

    Sleeping crew

    Dhow crewman

    I almost lost a pannier on arriving at Bagamoyo. The dhow ran aground several hundred metres from shore and we would need to take a small paddle boat to reach dry land. The problem was it was dark, and moving a bicycle with 6 bags when you are alone means you either leave things out of your sight for some minutes or you hope someone nearby will aid you. Well a mzungu in such a situation is usually always aided in Africa. Once I paid the Captain 10,000tsh ($6) for the journey (a sum that hadn’t been discussed before we left Zanzibar, but I knew was close to what a passenger should pay) I was lifting bike from one boat to another and being paddled towards the shore.

    Arriving alone in unfamiliar African towns in the dark is always best avoided. As I started to re-attach panniers to the bike – having had them carried by the boat porter as we waded through the shallows to the beach, (I carried my bike) I realised one of the front panniers was missing. I turned round and the boat porter had disappeared back into the darkness. Great.

    For the next 20 minutes I stood on the beach next to the crumbling remains of Bagamoyo’s old Customs Office assessing what my losses were. The pannier was still in the small paddle boat surely, but I couldn’t just leave my bike and bags and go back in search of it.

    Old Customs House: Bagamoyo

    The passenger carrying the DVD players came to the rescue. He spoke more English than I do Swahili. Guarding his ‘Simsung’ DVD players he disappeared back into the shallows and emerged triumphant with the missing bag. Hurrah. I had made it to Bagamoyo – body, bike and bags intact. Now I just had to find a place to watch the Rugby – not so easy in this part of the World.

    Bagamoyo beach

    Waiting women

    Dhows in Bagamoyo

    Fish fryer on Bagamoyo beach