• 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.

  • Show me the money January 30th, 2012

    I just missed him apparently. Back in 2006,  somewhere within Kathmandu’s narrow maze of streets, I met a Romanian cyclist called Cornell. Nepal’s capital is, or at least was then, something of a hub for touring cyclists in the Indian subcontinent. Some like me had crossed the border from Tibet, whilst others had entered from India or Bangladesh. Well there had been a group of us exchanging tales and I remember him telling me he would be cycling Cairo-Cape Town in the future. He left me with his e-mail address, but never replied when I later contacted him.

    Fast forward some years later and here he was, or just had been, in Lilongwe. “He go yesterday”. “We cycle together”, said Tokuru, a  tiny Japanese man about to pedal off somewhere into the city. “I need to find new tyre”, he said showing me the ripped rubber on the walls of his front tyre.

    I later thought back to my time in Kathmandu. That Romanian cyclist, who I was never going to forget on account of the fact that he spent his week in Kathmandu having a trailor made to transport an enormous wooden scuplture,  had given me a spare tyre. For the last 15,000km in Africa I’ve been carrying two!

    I returned the following day and gave Tokuru one of two Schwalbe XR folding tyres. “Sugoi desu” ’ (It’s amazing) came the reply. Well I hope the tyres I’m running and the one remaining are enough to take me the 5000+ kilometres that I estimate to be left on this journey.

    Japanese cyclist in Lilongwe

    The plan from Lilongwe had been to head towards Zambia, but for several reasons I’m now in possession of a Mozambican transit visa and about to return there en-route to Zimbabwe.

    One reason is that the Mozambican visa, short as it is, (3 days) was cheaper and could be paid for in Kwatcha and picked up the same day from the embassy in Lilongwe (Zambian visas reportedly have to be paid for in US $, which I don’t, or didn’t at the time possess). The second reason was that the mosquito net distribution using nets funded by people supporting the Against Malaria Foundation through the Big Africa Cycle, was taking place south of Lilongwe on the way towards the Mozambique border. I had also heard from other cyclists that the road I into Zambia was pretty dull to cycle.

    I didn’t see Tokuru again. We weren’t staying at the same place and he hadn’t made his mind up about which way he was going, although told me he knew of seven Japanese cyclists touring Africa, including Hiromu.

    For the first time since passing through Kampala I visited an International School in Lilongwe. The welcome and reception were tremendous. Over 400 Primary School children came specially dressed in colours representing the Malawian national flag to hear me talk about The Big Africa Cycle. Two days later I returned to speak to the Senior School and was given a generous bundle of Kwatcha, which had been fundraised by the School for the Against Malaria Foundation.

    Centre of the flag

    Talking at Bishop Mackenzie School Lilongwe

    Unfortunately Malawian Kwatcha is not one of Africa’s strongest currencies. Outside of Malawi the only person who’d take it off you might be a Malawian, and even within Malawi changing it into a hard currency like US $ or South African Rands is near impossible. Following the departure of the British Ambassador last year there is far less foreign aid coming into Malawi (the UK made up most of the foreign aid coming to Malawi). This subsequently means far less foreign currency, which in turn explains the lack of fuel. This is my understanding anyhow. Everyone wants $ so no-one is really willing to sell them. Banks will only change the money if you have an account with them. I only discovered this latter part on the morning I was leaving Lilongwe with the uncomfortably think wad of notes in my front pannier.

    They stayed there, with the pannier never far from sight, for the next two days as I followed the main road south from Lilongwe. “If only the roads were as clear as the network”, read a billboard advertising one of Malawi’s mobile telecommunication companies on the way out of Lilongwe. Not sure Airtel had Malawi in mind when they thought this one up. The road was typically free of motorised traffic and as well-paved and scenic to cycle as most of the others in Malawi.

    Main road in Lilongwe

    Road to Ntcheu

    Green green Malawi

    In Ntcheu I found the Concern Universal Office and spent the following two days helping to distribute a fraction of the 250,000 mosquito nets which are being handed out here. During the rainy season malaria is particularly prevalent with the surface water that provides a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Over 1500 of these nets had been funded by people who’ve donated to the Against Malaria Foundation through this website, so being involved in the distribution was important for me.

    Bed-net distribution

    The logistics of distributing such a vast sum of nets requires a great deal of time and labour. Each village and every household had been registered in a census by district health officials with the number of sleeping spaces in each household determining how many bed-nets were given out. People assembled at a designated distribution point and waited for their names to be called out, before coming forward and placing a thumb-print next to their name when they had received a net. Even with over one thousand nets being given out to several villages at a time I found the name lists and the number of nets almost matched exactly with those who were present to receive them. In order to prevent anyone from re-packaging and possibly selling the nets the plastic wrappers were collected and burnt at the end of the distribution – not great for the environment, but it seemed the best solution.

    Bed-net queue

    Opening the bales

    Recording the distribution

    In 6 months time district health officials will conduct a post-distribution follow-up to see how these nets are being used, and review the incidence rate of malaria as recorded at district health clinics since the distribution.

    This is the third and possibly last bed-net distribution I will be involved with, but your continued support for the Against Malaria Foundation is much appreciated. I’d like to hit £20,000 as a fundraising total, so there is some way to go.

    Fortunately I managed to dispense with the bundle of kwatcha in Ntcheu by handing it over to Concern Universal. They will pay it into the local bank from where the $700+ will be transferred to Against Malaria in the coming weeks.

    Tomorrow I will cross back into Mozambique, albeit very briefly. There is a about 200km separating me from the border with Zimbabwe. South Africa is getting closer…

  • 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

    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.

  • And the winner goes to: Reflections from 2011 January 3rd, 2012

    Another year passes by on the roads of Africa; this one spent between the mountains of northern Cameroon and the tranquil shores of Lake Malawi. I managed a modest 12,000km of cycling –  about the same as last year, and crossed through 8 countries.

    There were jungles and big rivers, endless palm-fringed beaches, bribe-demanding immigration officers and chaotic urban traffic. Last year I wrote a post summing up some of the memorable places and experiences of 2010, so here is a similar list of random highlights and lowlights from 2011. Feel free to comment and add a category. And a belated Happy New Year to all those who’ve followed the journey, whether it be from the beginning  or more recently.

    Destination I’d most like to return to: Zanzibar. The famous spice island of the Indian Ocean is popular with tourists for a good reason. It might not be wild, untamed and adventurous Africa, but the authentic Swahili culture and food, beautiful white sand beaches and fascinating history all compacted together make this one great place to cycle.

    Stone town back street

    Most interesting week of the year: The one where I travelled by boat up the mighty Congo river. This was/is the Africa of boyhood imagination. A Conradian journey through the equatorial jungle, and one that very few westerners have taken in recent decades.

    Sunrise on the Congo

    Worst day of the year: 5th July. I returned to what had been the locked room of a Guest House in Kenya to find it open and most of my valuables missing.

    Best new piece of equipment: In light of the above I bought a key-hole blocker. This small piece of metal jams into a keyhole and prevents someone with a spare key from entering a locked room.

    Key-hole blocker

    Most scenic country: Rwanda. I only spent 1 week here, but would have happily spent longer. Wonderfully green, clean, peaceful and challenging to cycle.

    Hardest day on the road: Northern Mozambique: 90km of hot sandy tracks, including two bridge/boat-less river crossing and a lot of mangrove swamps. I pushed the bike for half the day and finished it by falling into the Indian Ocean completely exhausted.

    After the mangroves

    Most expensive/over-priced country: Mozambique. Not quite sure why one of Africa’s poorest countries is also, at least in terms of accommodation, probably one of the most expensive. Paying $10+ per night to pitch a tent in Africa isn’t budget travel.

    Most Awkward moment: Being told by my long-term Japanese cycling companion that he’d read my website and found out what I’d been writing about him.

    Hardest border crossing: Exiting Central African Republic (CAR) for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The CAR immigration officials demanded money to have my passport stamped and returned to me. After an hour or so I settled for buying them beers before crossing the Ubangui River to DRC where a similar experience awaited me.

    Most water consumed in one day: 11 litres. Brutally hot weather on the road south from Dar es Salaam in Tanzania had me continually stopping to drink water with no toilet stops to show for it. The 11 litres doesn’t include the coca-cola stops.

    Country I think about returning to the most: DRC. Every day was an adventure in this huge country. All those unexplored rivers and roads and the villages where foreign faces have never been seen before made this the most exciting of travel destinations.

    Pole man and fish

    Best beer award: Primus in the DRC. There was something distinctly African about drinking one of the continent’s most famous beers with Congolese music playing in the background. I was also a fan of the 720ml bottle size.

    Primus

    Worst beer award: Carlsberg in Malawi. Am as unimpressed by the size of the bottle (the first country in Africa where beer comes in bottles smaller than 500ml) as I am by the taste and lack of alternative beers

    Most unexpected telephone call: Tim Butcher, author of Blood River, calling me from South Africa when I was in Kisangani to ask if I could give a copy of his book to one of the characters in it who helped him organise boat transport on the Congo River.

    Busiest road: Mombasa Highway in Kenya. One constant stream of trucks taking goods from the coast to half a dozen countries. Fortunately I was only on it for 50km.

    Most noiticeable difference when crossing a border: Crossing from DRC to Rwanda. Whilst the former was chaotic, poor and massively underdeveloped, the latter was calm, clean and much more advanced in terms of infrastructure and general development.

    Most worthwhile detour: Cycling around the base of Mt Kilimanjaro. The ride took me from arid Massai-dwelling villages to deeply forested woodlands, all the time with Africa’s highest mountain looming in the background.

    Below Kilimanjaro

    Friendliest country to spend time in: Uganda and Malawi. These two anglophone countries are full of smiling faces and eager to get-to-know-you English speakers.

    Colourful characters: Ugandan school children

    African language I learnt the most of: Swahili. Starting from as far back as eastern Congo, Swahili was spoken in parts of Rwanda and Uganda and then more seriously in Kenya, and particularly Tanzania. I was even able to use it for the first few weeks in northern Mozambique. I learnt and spoke the most during my time in Tanzania.

    Biggest made to feel like an idiot moment: Counting my Malawian money that I’d received in exchange for Mocambican metacais on the the black market and realising that I’d been cheated.

    Best food award: Tanzania: I never seemed to get tired of chappatis, the fried street food, fresh fish on the coast, spicy biriyani and pilau and the road-side fruit and nut sellers.

    Most restless night of sleep: In a maternal clinic in the DRC. During the night someone died and another gave birth a few metres from my tent. It was pitched black and all I can remember was a lot of screaming, crying, the sound of drums outside and rain lashing on the corrugated roof.

    Most over-heard song at the roadside: Nwa baby I don’t think there is a country in sub-Saharan Africa where this Nigerian song has not been played to death during 2011.

  • 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.

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    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.

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    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

  • Border games: Another survival tip December 14th, 2011

    “And when it’s time for leaving Mozambique

    Just say goodbye to sand and sea

    You turn around to take a final peek

    And you see why it’s so unique to be

    Among the lovely people living free

    Upon the beach of sunny Mozambique”

    (Bob Dylan)

    Three on a bike

    Remember that post I wrote not so long go about tips for surviving Africa? Well here is another one. When changing money at a border crossing make sure it is YOU who is the last one to count it. Sounds obvious I know. Commonsense surely? Maybe an explanation will salvage some of my stupidity. It was a swift and slick operation; one done many times before I’m sure.

    First let me go back to the Indian Ocean, albeit very briefly because once I crossed the narrow bridge connecting Mozambique Island and the mainland I was looking over my shoulder somewhat sadly at the turquoise shallows and rustling palm trees for the last time. They’ve been a comforting companion on the skyline over the past several months, but in reality the sand and heat have been more of a feature. A cycle-tour of the east African coastline would be much more suitable if you strapped your bicycle to the mast of a dhow and let the trade winds carry you between the coral islands and mangrove shallows.

    Well I’ve definitely made use of dhow transport, but salt and sand don’t go well with moving bike parts. The landscape has been mostly flat of late, which after a while becomes more of a mental fatigue to cycle through than the physical tiredness one experiences from mountainous surroundings.

    Mangoes, Cashew nuts and enormous granite boulders dominated my attention as I rolled over smooth tarmac on a blissfully quiet road heading away from the ocean. Let me start with the mangoes.

    There are probably a number of places in Africa that could quite easily host a mango festival. Imagine a village where metre-high triangular mounds of them lie piled at the roadside like some feature of a children’s play-park. One wants to dive in there and emerge throwing them up in the air. Well there was one particular village a short way from the coast that had me thinking this. These mounds consisted of the small yellow variety that kids spent their time sucking on for half the day – more a worthless windfall variety in the height of the mango season. If they ever made it to a UK supermarket they’d still sell for at least a pound a piece though.

    Much more of interest are the large green ones with dew-drop like nipples at the bottom. Their fleshy orange interior doesn’t leave you picking strings out of your teeth for the rest of the day. These mangoes will be found in smaller piles and sold to passing motorists. The trouble is that there are far more mangoes than there are passing motorists. If rural Africa had power I’m sure a few enterprising individuals would buy a blender and sell mango smoothies at the roadside. They would be a hit I’m sure. Just one feature of the international mango festival I had in my mind.

    At the same time as the mango festival there could be a cashew nut festival. It seems Cashew nut trees are a defining feature of former Portuguese colonies. Guinea Bissau, that small west-African country I passed through last year, was covered in them and I venture to guess parts of Angola might be too? Cape Verde? Sao Tome and Principle? I believe the origin of the Cashew nut can be traced to Brazil, from where it found its way to Goa and then the shores of Africa. The Portuguese clearly had a thing for them. Well there weren’t so much as metre-high mounds of cashew nuts at the roadside (now that would be really impressive) but village after village of stalls where young boys leaned out into the road waving bowlfuls of them when a vehicle came into view.

    Cashew nut sellers

    I would have happily filled my panniers with kilos of them. Cashew nuts can travel whereas fresh mangoes can’t. The problem was a lack of cash, so I ended up trading tinned sardines for a bowlful of nuts. Both parties were happy. Tinned sardines are like caviar in rural Africa, but I’ve eaten hundreds of them on this journey and felt it was me who was getting the better deal.

    Whilst Mozambique Island and its inhabitants left me with the impression that nothing had really changed from when I was last there 10 years ago, the city of Nampula had clearly expanded. New buildings of the tin-roofed, cheap-concrete and fast-to-construct variety one sees everywhere on the rural/urban fringe of Africa flanked the roadside as I navigated my way to an ATM machine and made my way out soon after.

    The road had been gradually climbing and the scenery improving as I headed westwards. Once the mango and cashew trees sadly dwindled in popularity, the occurrence of these granite boulders, more scientifically known as inselbergs, increased in number. And this same road, which from a glance at the map looked like it should be carrying a lot of traffic (one of those red highways that are always less appealing than the yellow and white secondary roads) became even quieter. It was far more scenic and easy-going than many of those coastal stretches had been.

    Towards Nampula

    Road to Alto Molocue

    Road to Gurue

    Mountains around Gurue

    After greeting people in the local language, which changed from Makua to Lomwe as I left Nampula province for that of Zambezia, I soon reverted to speaking in English. In a Portuguese speaking country this doesn’t get one all that far, but with Anglophone Africa just over the border in Malawi I had little motivation to progress from the survival phrases (Tay comidas? – do you have food, Tay cerveja? – do you have beer? tenyo cansado – I’m tired) that one should muster in every country. In actual fact I haven’t consumed much beer at all in Mozambique. It’s usually not available when one pitches a tent in local villages, as I’ve been doing a lot of in recent weeks.

    Roadside attention

    In the small town of Alto Molocue I rested from the midday heat by eating ice-cream. This seemed as incongruous a feature of a place that nobody visits as the large cinema that dominates the main road in nearby Gurue. At least the latter attracts a smattering of tourists, scenically located as it is amidst rolling hills of tea plantations and backed by Mt Namuli, Mozambique’s second highest peak at 2419m.

    Gurue town

    The young Austrian manager of the town’s only Guest House here didn’t agree with me when I suggested that $12 to pitch my tent in what was effectively the car-park out the back was somewhat expensive. In the end he gave me a room for the same price and later muttered something about it being too dangerous to camp as there were bandits in the town and they were out killing at night. When I asked what all this was about and tried to ascertain the moties of these ‘bandits’ whom no-one else had made mention of, he merely pinched my skin and said ‘you are white, they kill for nothing’. I never got a more coherent answer and concluded that either I was missing something or that this chap had not been long in Africa.

    My rest day in Gurue was well timed. It rained for the entire day, during which I never saw that Austrian, and I naturally expected when I departed the following morning that it would be a wet and muddy road to the Malawian border. Instead the skies were a beautifully washed out shade of blue and the mountain slopes as lusciously green as nature could allow; certainly the most scenic landscape that Mozambique had offered.

    Landscape near Gurue

    And this brings me up to the border and that money-changing incident I began writing about at the beginning of this blog.

    It was all very simple. I had casually asked around in shops and market stalls in the border town of Milange to know what the Mozambican metacais was worth against the Malawian Kwatcha. Rates varied wildly, with 1 Metacais equalling anything between 5-9 Kwatcha. So when one of the many moneychangers close to the market gave me the best rate I decided it was time to change. I had 2400 metacais remaining (£55). A quick calculation with the calculator meant I should be receiving 21800 Kwatcha.

    By this time another man appeared holding a wad of what are possibly Africa’s largest bank notes – in size that is. I produced my crisp Metacais and was handed a thick bundle of 500 Kwatcha notes. I stood counting them out one by one. There was only 20500 Kwatcha. I counted it again and arrived at the same figure. The moneychanger looked perplexed. “Let me count it” he demanded with the manner of someone who could possibly not have been correct the first time. The bundle passed back and I watched him count it slowly again. Yes, there was only 20500 and therefore 1300 Kwatcha missing.

    Another moneychanger was now called over from nearby and arrived with his own wad of Kwatcha. An extra 1000 Kwatcha was added to the main bundle, which I had kept a watch of. “And the 300 please”, I said not wanting to be outdone. Three 100 Kwatcha notes were added to the bundle to complete the 21800 total.I then took the thick wad and quickly buried it deep in my trouser pocket, walking away feeling smug that I’d got a good deal and not been cheated.

    A short distance around the corner I found a quiet bar with some plastic tables and chairs outside. It was time to enjoy the last few Mozambican beers as I watched the evening street life and the sun setting just over the border in Malawi. I would cross the next morning.

    The beer was ice cold and I ordered a second, but this was not before I pulled that wad out of my pocket and had a closer look at these large new African bank notes. I started counting again with the notes just under the table above my lap: 500, 1000, 1500, 2000…

    It was when I got to around 4000 that I noticed this wad was too thin. I counted the rest of the notes quickly, finishing with the three 100 bills added at the end. I looked up then drained the rest of my beer. My first instinct was to run back to the market and look for the moneychangers, but they would have been long gone within minutes of me walking away. And so I signalled to the barman to bring me another beer.

    It brought a smile to my face at first. Here I was feeling that 2 years on the African continent had brought me an accumulated level of street wisdom, and now I’d just fallen victim to possibly one of the oldest tricks in the book. Whilst I was thinking I’d got the upper hand by showing the amount was wrong, this was merely part of the ploy to cheat me out of even more!

    I drank the second beer slowly and tried to piece together what had actually taken place. How was this wad now short by more than a third of the notes? I had watched this guy count it out after I had counted it. And then I’d watched him whist his friend handed him the missing remainder. Had I turned my head for a spilt second at some point? Had there been a two-way exchange of notes when the final 300 was passed over?

    Nothing was completely clear. This had been a smooth operation. Part of me wanted to go back and actually congratulate the guys. “Well done chaps. You pulled a fine one off there. Now give me the rest of the money”. But ultimately I was angrier with myself. I just needed to count it one final time. Had there been any foul-play or suspicion in my mind I would have done. The time between watching the money counted out in front of me and the remainder being added before receiving the bundle was so very short that I took it and walked away. The difference in thickness from what was already a very thick bundle of notes I had never handled before was not sufficient for me to sense something wasn’t right.

    I finished the second beer and tried to find excuses to vent my anger. It wasn’t a huge amount of money. The visa for Malawi was free and now I was just paying an unofficial entry fee. It was like dropping a £20 note on the street. I’d get over it soon enough. And besides, what I now had was closer to what I would have received had I changed the money in a bank. I could keep finding excuses all night. But the fact remained that it should have been ME who was the final one to count the money. I imagined the moneychangers giving each other high-fives as they spilt the winnings. I returned to my overpriced Guest House, drank another beer and looked at the map of Malawi.

  • Old faces in forgotton places November 29th, 2011

    “For people who must live from day to day, past and future have small relevance, and their grasp of it is fleeting; they live in the moment, a very precious gift that we have lost.”(Peter Matthiessen)

    Some people said the island had changed since I first came here 10 years ago. Not the place it once was and all that. Back then I spent several weeks here: charmed, captivated and entranced by the atmosphere of this colonial treasure-chest.

    Well the charm remains. Nothing has ‘really’ changed about Ilha de Mozambique (Mozambique Island). It’s that kind of forgotten place where change happens slowly. The crumbling villas, imposing white-washed churches and crowded squalor of the Macuti (palm-thatch) town where most of the island’s population live continue to leave the visitor with the same impression. This is a must-visit place in Africa, and one which probably sees far less visitors than it deserves.

    Boys on the beach

    I’m staying in the same place I did before, although the family had trouble remembering me. “I think you were fatter before?” asked Luis, the owner. “And you were slimmer” I replied laughing.

    A 3km-long bridge connects what was once the capital of Mozambique with the mainland, but I arrived more fittingly by dhow, slowly tacking back and forth over the turquoise shallows as I watched the island’s features take form.

    DSC_0870

    Home-made boat

    Approaching Mozambique Island

    Mosque on Mozambique Island

    Palace Museum Mozambique Island

    Fort on Mozambique Island

    My journey up to here had continued along the coast, leaving Pemba’s tarmac on another dirt track towards Mecufi and the River Lurio. No bridges or boats again, but fortunately very little water as I followed bicycle-tyre tracks across a dry sandy riverbed to leave one province and enter another. I had now reached the limits of Swahili-speaking territory. Macua is the dominant local language spoken from now on.

    DSC_0796

    The heat has been oppressive again – a daily furnace from about 7am and only saved by the occasional breeze. Colourless mud-hut villages have the shade of mango trees as a refuge. Here I frequently stopped to rest, and with mangoes now in season bought them whenever I could. They were one of the few things available at the roadside. In larger settlements bread is sometimes available. The options are minimal.

    DSC_0818

    Rural Mozambique

    Mangoes for sale

    Bread on Mozambique Island

    Rural infrastructure in Mozambique is comparable to what it was in the DRC. There is no accommodation and very little food. Village camping is by now a very familiar procedure for me in Africa, where most of the inhabitants of a place that may never have had a white face stop by in take great delight in observing how the unexpected foreigner constructs his home for the night, then prepares a meal of spaghetti and most often tinned sardines fried with onion and garlic. I rarely ever self-catered or camped in east Africa – street food and basic lodgings were cheap and easily available in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. In Mozambique they’re not. In one town I was directed to a Pensao (Guest House) where the Portuguese owner showed me a tiny room with an unmade bed. The heat inside was suffocating. He shrugged his shoulders when I replied that $12 was expensive, so I pedalled to the edge of the town and pitched my tent next to the mosque. I’m camping almost the whole time here.

    Village camp

    DSC_0784

    Part of me could happily spend longer here on Mozambique Island, but my 30-day visa expires in 10 days and the cost/wait to extend it doesn’t feel worth the effort. Mozambique is the most expensive country I have come through on this journey.

    After having followed the coast this far south I’m turning inland from here and bidding farewell to salt and sand. Looks like land-locked Malawi for Christmas.

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    Mozambique Island

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    Football at sunset