• 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.

  • A twist in the road March 14th, 2012

    Before the operation I wasn’t planning to write this blog post. Better to keep what had happened secret I thought – save myself the embarrassment and ridicule. As I lay on my back watching clouds passing by outside the hospital window I tried to digest what the Doctor had told me that morning. I’d never heard of this condition before. How had it had happened to me? ‘Very rare for a man your age,’ he’d said. Well that day of cycling was no different from hundreds of others on the road. No twists, turns, falls or knocks. Were all those thousands of hours I’ve spent on a saddle building up to this? I’m still puzzled as to how it happened.

    I was in Mozambique when the pain started. In fact I’d only entered the country the previous day on a 3-day transit visa from Malawi. I had 250km to cover in that time, so needed to make steady progress in order to reach the Zimbabwean border before facing an overstay fine. There was no need to push myself though. The ‘Tete corridor’, as the road is often dubbed, links Malawi with Zimbabwe and passes through a western branch of Mozambique. There were no big climbs and the road was pretty well paved.

    The night before I’d memorably camped on the banks of the River Zambezi as it passes through the city of Tete. Lights lit up the city skyline and the enormous suspension bridge spanning the river. With the Cahora Bassa dam not far upstream, responsible for powering most of Mozambique and a number of other countries, it was no surprise that this was probably one of the most well-lit cities I’ve been in on the continent.

    The next night was very different though. There had been a gradual climb out of the Zambezi valley earlier that day, passing small mud-hut villages selling bags of charcoal on the roadside, and the heat had been of an intensity I’m now familiar with. The rains I’d been cycling through in Malawi had now been replaced by blue skies, and once I’d seen the condition of the budget rooms available in the last Mozambican town before the border I decided I’d camp again.

    Most nights in my tent in Africa are spent beside a village school, Church or within the compound of the village chief, but it was clear from my surroundings that on this night I would be wild camping. I filled my water bottles plus a 10-litre water bladder before leaving the last town on a gradual climb towards the border, recording this video as I went.

    It was whilst showering under an acacia tree that I first felt the pain. It started with a stitch in my lower right abdomen, then moved to what I felt was my bladder. By this time I’d abandoned plans to cook pasta and lay down in my tent hoping the pain would subside. But it continued to intensify. Was it my appendix I wondered? But which side was my appendix? Maybe it was those two beers I’d taken mid-afternoon? I never drink alcohol in the middle of a cycling day, but I was leaving Mozambique and this was going to be one of the last opportunities to drink Manica, a far superior beer to the Carslberg I’d been drinking in Malawi. Perhaps that litre of beer in my system was causing the stitch and pain in my bladder?

    I found my first-aid kit, swallowed 2 Paracetamol, then started drinking water in the belief that peeing was going to flush this pain and alcohol out of my system. It didn’t. I took another 2 Paracetamol and continued to drink, but the water just seemed to sit in my stomach, and before long I was vomiting it back up. Lying down was more painful than standing up, and I spent most of the night pacing around my tent in agony. The road was several hundred metres away, but what little traffic had been on it during the daytime had now almost ceased, apart from a very occasional truck. Of all the places I could have been this was one of the worst. There was no-one around and my cries of pain were lost in the surrounding bush. I took another 2 Paracetamol and finally managed to produce a trickle of urine before sleeping for perhaps an hour.

    The intensity of pain had subsided a little when I started to pack up my tent early the next morning. The sun quickly rose and energetic flies buzzed irritatingly around my face as I went about repairing a puncture on my rear tyre before wheeling the bike onto the road. I cycled slowly. The border was only 30km away and I was there well before midday.

    I had little appetite, but hadn’t eaten the night before nor taken any breakfast so used my remaining Mozambican metacais on a plate of chicken and rice. I only managed to finish half of it before lying down in the shade outside to wait for the worst of the midday heat to pass. What had been agony in my bladder during the night was now a dull pain.

    Border crossing formalities passed without incident. Too many white faces had come this way before to make my presence be of any particular significance. A Zimbabwean official gave me a 30-day visa in exchange for $55, although there was some disbelief when I said I’d cycled from Malawi and was proceeding to Harare, about 240km away. “All that way, by bicycle?”  

    It was only later that night that I noticed the swelling. I’d pitched my tent on the veranda of a Primary School, then taken a shower under a nearby tree. My right testicle was hard, raised and swollen. No pain unless I moved or touched it, but this wasn’t normal. Surely it had something to do with that stitch and pain in my bladder?

    Well I slept like a log that night, hoping the swelling would go down by the morning. It didn’t. I cycled on slowly, greeting school children with what little enthusiasm I had to be on the road, but the discomfort and pain was increasing.

    It needs a really good reason for me to abandon ship, quit as it were and take motorised transport to reach my destination. Well by mid-morning I decided to throw the towel in; it was time to flag a lift to Harare.

    I waited some 40 minutes under the shade of an acacia tree before a mini-bus with a trailer passed by. Sitting squeezed in the back amongst vociferous Zimbabweans was no more comfortable than being on the bike, and what would have been a 2 hour journey in a private vehicle took more like 4 hours with the never-ending police check-posts.

    In downtown Harare I wheeled my bike around looking for a bank that would accept an international visa card. I had no map or information about the city. People seemed busy going places. I felt lost and had no idea where to stay that night. I had the contact number of a friend of a friend who lived somewhere in or on the outskirts of Harare, but that number was buried in an old facebook message. Why hadn’t I written it down? More than anything else I needed to see a Doctor, but I didn’t know who to ask.

    In the end a travel agent directed, then decided to escort me to a nearby clinic. “I want to be a good Samaritan. We Africans have a duty to help.”

    The Doctor was female and at first I wanted to ask if she had a male colleague before dropping my pants. “Don’t worry, I’ve seen everything here in Zimbabwe” she remarked puling on some surgical gloves.

    She took the right testicle in her hand and looked up at me gravely. “This is serious and you need urgent medical assistance. This looks like testicular torsion.

    I’d never heard of testicular torsion before, and explained that the pain was never really in my testicle, but my lower abdomen. She put her fists together then twisted them as she explained how the testes, the right one in my case, had twisted upon itself and cut blood supply to the testicle.

    The Congolese Urologist confirmed what the female GP had said, but was surprised that a man of 33 was experiencing torsion. “It’s usually young boys and teenagers who I see this with. Unless it’s Orchitis (an infection) this testicle is now dead”

    Dead!? I exclaimed in shock. I later did what research I could with limited Internet access, and read what the Urologist had said. Unless operated upon within 6 hours from the onset of pain the testicle dies from lack of blood supply and soon goes gangrenous.

    Coming to terms with the news that you are going to lose a testicle isn’t an easy thing for any man to deal with, particularly when you are alone in a hospital in a foreign country. I should have acted quicker, but there was no way I could have got to hospital within 6 hours.

    I did a lot of crying in the hours before being taken to theatre. “Don’t worry. You can still have 20 children”, said the Urologist. “It’s a simple operation and I’ll fix the left testicle so it can never become twisted”. The nurse smiled at me. “God gave you two and you only need one to function.” But one testicle I thought to myself. Hitler had one testicle didn’t he? What was it going to look like? How was it going to feel? When could I ride my bike again? Was it going to affect getting an erection and performing? How was I going to tell people? Maybe I should keep it a secret? Girls would think I’m abnormal and have no sex drive. Why had this happened to me now and not when I first started cycle touring years ago? Was it even connected to the cycling? The Doctor had said this could suddenly happen. “A bump or pothole in the road is all it needs sometimes.”

    A scan some hours before going under the knife confirmed that it was torsion and not orchitis and that the left testicle was still healthy. By this time I’d made contact with those friends of friends, who asked why the hell I hadn’t called them when I first arrived, and probably shuddered when I said I was in the government hospital.

    I panicked when I came round from the anaesthetic. “Where is my bike and bags?” I asked the theatre nurse. They were in fact still with that travel agent. I expected to be in some pain as I looked down at a large bundle of bandaging around my scrotum, and the tube which was draining out from where I guessed there to be a number of stitches. It was that numb discomfort again though. The cocktail of antibiotics and painkillers I’d been on before the operation were no doubt at work.

    I was discharged from hospital 2 days later, wheeled out on a wheelchair that used a white plastic garden chair as the seating component. How resourceful Africans can be I thought. “This hospital has changed a lot in the last few years”, remarked my hosts. “You wouldn’t want to have been here in the real crisis years”.

     At first the Urologist had said no cycling for 3 months, but when I revisited his consultation room several days later and questioned him on this whilst the bandaging was removed he said at least 1 month, 2 would be better** (see below). I guessed he’d never operated on a guy who was cycling across the continent. Apart from 6 ugly looking stitches and a little bit of loose skin my manhood looks no different from before. The stitches will fall out within a week or two I’m told.

    And so here I am recovering in one of Harare’s leafy suburbs, wondering when to get back on the bike, at least for a casual ride around the shady jacaranda lined streets?

    Other than the fact that it makes for an interesting, if somewhat wincing read, I decided to blog about this experience for two reasons. Firstly I want to hear from readers, cyclists or non-cyclists, as to what they know or don’t know about testicular torsion and the recovery from such an operation. Were all those hours I’ve spent on the bicycle leading up to this happening? Perhaps it was the heat that day and the added load I was carrying for the last 10km? Did the beer in my system have an affect?  Can I blame my brooks saddle even though I’ve done 30,000km on it now? I’m basically asking whether testicular torsion is an occupational hazard for cycle tourers?

    In my mind I’d like to be heading out of Harare in about 1 month, but I clearly don’t want to end up again in a hospital bed in Zimbabwe, or somewhere else between here and Cape Town.

    The second reason I decided to announce that I now only have one testicle is to pre-warn my cycling brethren, particularly those younger than me. I don’t think many people know what testicular torsion is, and I wonder how many guys have found themselves climbing a mountain, sailing an ocean or possibly wild camping after a day on the bicycle and thought to themselves, as I did, let me see how this pain feels tomorrow. Maybe it will go away. Well the next day is unfortunately too late in the case of testicular torsion. The moment you feel any kind of unusual pain or discomfort in any region of your lower abdomen or genital area don’t hesitate to get yourself, if you can, to the nearest hospital. When I think of all the places I’ve cycled and camped, unfortunately 6 hours would never have been long enough. But to ignore the pain and continue with the discomfort, which the Doctor said would also pass over time, is even more dangerous. That dead testicle will infect the other. Well if I’d lost both testicles I really don’t think I’d have easily found the balls to tell you this.

    ** I am as of now back on the road, cycling out of Harare some 32 days the operation date. I wrote this blog post about 1 week after the operation, but delayed posting it for reasons I’ll write about in a forthcoming post.

  • 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.

  • 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.

    DSC_0069

    Mozambique Island

    DSC_0025

    Football at sunset

  • The Mambo Vipi test: Into Mozambique November 19th, 2011

    “Of the wide range of surface defects available in Africa, corrugations are, for the cyclist, the most uncomfortable though not the most tiring”. (Devla Murphy)

    There was no shortage of willing oarsmen waiting at the riverbank. This was the end of the road in Tanzania. Ahead lay the Ruvuma River, and beyond that Mozambique. Like many large African rivers it was difficult to see where the far side was. Islands of reeds, tall grasses and tidal sand bars made what was a massive waterway seem less dramatic. Seen from the air it would have been more impressive.

    I wasn’t paddled, but reassuringly punted across. Had the small rowing boat capsized I would at least have been able to stand up with head and shoulders above the surface. The thought always goes through my mind when taking a boat in Africa. What would happen if this thing sinks? I imagine trying to tread water holding onto all 50kg of my bike and luggage. I’d end up going down with it. Fortunately it was a peaceful crossing – at least once the fuss over who was going to take me had been settled.

    I paid around $5, which was what I had left in Tanzanian shillings. My punter was more ripped than a cover model of Men’s health magazine, but I still held my ground when he and his teenage mate demanded extra. I know I’d paid them more than enough for 30 minutes of their time, although the Slovenian motorcyclist I’d met near Lindi had paid $50, and I’d read of overlanders in 4x4s paying upwards of $250. Well life is always simpler and cheaper on a bicycle.

    I spent my first night in Mozambique camping outside the immigration post -something I’ve done at a number of remote African border crossings (Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya). There is usually never a problem, but bored immigration officials usually like to drink, and perhaps see some kind of trade-off that if you’re camping on their turf you won’t mind getting the drinks in. Best to yawn early and disappear inside one’s tent.

    Mural in Mocimboa

    Now that I’d entered a former Portuguese colony I assumed the Swahili I’d got used to speaking in the previous several months would be of no use. Fortunately not. Being at heart a coastal language, Swahili is probably equally as well understood on the shores of Somalia as it is here in northern Mozambique.

    One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning and speaking Swahili is the multitude of words used as a form of greeting, or as a reply to a greeting. Jambo, the first word a tourist might learn in east Africa, is rarely used in Tanzania. It is the informal ‘Mambo Vipi’ (‘how’s it going?’) that one hears commonly on the street. The most popular reply to which is ‘Poa’ (fine)) or any number of other words (nzima, shwari, muzuka, bomba, fresh, safi, kawaida, kabisa – I think that’s most of them?) Young children respectfully greet those older than them with a ‘Shikamou’, to which the reply is Marhaba, and then there is the widespread Islamic ‘Salama Aleikum’ should you wish to please/surprise one of the skull-capped men sitting in the village shade. Well they still apply, to a weaker degree, in northern Mozambique, and so my calling out of ‘Mambo Vipi’ continues to receive replies, albeit less so as I’ve come south.

    The roads, for the most part, have been terrible, although that is partly my own choosing. If corrugated roads, as Devla Murphy points out, are the most uncomfortable of surfaces in Africa, sandy roads are definitely the most tiring. Northern Mozambique has plenty of these. Whether cycling on a semi-compact surface or off the bike and pushing it through deep trenches of the stuff, the experience is a draining one. Throw 40 degree+ temperatures and a constant swarm of energetic flies trailing your back and dive bombing your ears into the mix and the experience becomes even less pleasant.

    Northern Mozambique

    Struggling in the sand

    What is it with flies in this part of Africa? They’re worse than anywhere I can remember. Worst of all are the tsetse flies, possibly the most annoying and curse-raging of all Africa’s cornucopia of flying insects. Tsetse flies (horse flies) don’t buzz. They just silently land on you and then bite – sometimes quite painfully. Historically it is the presence of tsetse flies that left many parts of the African bush undeveloped. My black panniers don’t help matters. Apparently tsetse flies prefer dark surfaces. Their presence on the small sandy tracks in the north of Mozambique is a reflection of how undeveloped this part of the country is. I could also say wild, for there was a fair amount of elephant shit to weave around on the tracks, which perhaps explained why some of the brave souls living in huts along the roadside had fortified their small compound with 10ft high poles of wood dug into the ground – the first time I have seen this in Africa. The elephants are probably sensible enough to stay inactive and rest in the shade during the day. I haven’t seen any.

    Pre-warning

    The first town of any significance one reaches coming south from the Tanzanian border is Mocimboa Da Praia, which boasts a non-functioning ATM machine and an Internet connection costing more than $1 for 15 minutes. There are a number of Portuguese-era buildings lining the orderly grid of roads, and socialist-style monuments to the country’s independence. Reasons to stay appeared short and I had a feeling there wasn’t much in the way of budget accommodation, an irony for a place that looked like it should have been brimming with it. I recall Mozambique being more expensive than the rest of southern and east Africa from when I travelled here 10 years ago. I don’t think things have changed. Western prices with African standards is what I read somewhere.

    Independence monument in Mocimboa

    I continued south from Mocimboa on the road my map was labelling as the 247. This was a continuation of the same road that had brought me from the Tanzanian border. I knew it was a dirt track, but the fact it bore a number gave me the impression that it was a ‘designated’ road. Perhaps at one stage in the past it was, but what began as a graded track soon gave way to sand and then a narrow track ending in a mangrove swamp. Fantastic. This was not in the plan.

    After the mangroves

    “You will have to cross two rivers” had said a perplexed teenager in the nearby village of Marare as I sipped sweet tea and dunked it with bread (chapattis alas are no more, but hurrah for the return of good bread!). His mate was beside himself in hysterics when I showed my surprise that there was no bridge or ferry.

    The wheel arches of my bike were jammed with soft sticky mangrove mud when I made it to the first river. To begin with it seemed a good idea to wash the mud off, but the water was brackish and I’ve had enough salt getting into the bike as it is in the past few months. As I had been warned there was no bridge, no boat and not a soul around to call for help. Going back would have been a serious detour, so I lay the bike on the sandy riverbank and waded across. If salt water crocodiles exist in Mozambique this looked like a great place for them to hang out.

    River criosing

    My first attempt at wading across the river was unsuccessful. I stepped into a deep channel and the water rose above my shoulders. I walked/swam out and pushed the bike upriver to where I could see an emerging sand bank. With the tide on the way out time was in my favour. This time round I made it across(60 metres to the sand bank and a further 15 metres to the far bank) with the river below waist-height most of the way. I transported the bags and bike in 4 journeys, careful not to lose my footing on the muddy riverbed. At high tide this would have been harder, and in the rainy season with a much stronger current I’d have probably detoured and gone back to Mocimboa, where a paved road runs inland and south.

    After reassembling the bike and cycling through harvested fields of rice I had to repeat the process again – more mangroves, mud and another river. As far as I could tell there was never a bridge across either of the rivers. Which foolish cartographer/planner had given this road a number? It would be inaccessible to any motorised transport.

    I spent the following 2 nights sleeping beneath palm trees on a stunning stretch of coastline. My host Ismail told me the village name was Nfunzi. The plan had been to reach Pangane, some 6km further on, where I remembered reading something about a campsite in a Lonely Planet guidebook. I never made it owing to all that sand again. When I saw the sea up close I stopped. A nearby woman laughed at me struggling. I asked in Swahili if I could sleep where I was and she led me to Ismail’s home.

    Like everywhere else in Africa I arrived unannounced. Ismail and his family spoke Kimwani, which is closely related to Swahili. On one side of their palm-thatched shack lay rice fields and on the other the turquoise shallows of the Indian Ocean. Carbohydrates from one source and protein from another. Life couldn’t have been simpler.

    Young fisherman

    Girl in Nfunzi village

    Beach at Nfunzi

    My surroundings were unexpectedly replaced with a dose of luxury when I continued south on yet another sandy track. “We’ve just come from Guludu Beach Lodge. You should go and say hi. There are some English people working there”. The news came through the window of a 4×4 transporting 4 white faces. They’d passed me several days earlier on a similarly terrible stretch of road and probably thought it time to stop and greet the crazy cyclist.

    I duly headed towards Guludu Beach Lodge and met another white face driving towards me in a land rover. “Just going to collect some sand. I’m Harry by the way”. I thought this was a joke on my behalf. Why anyone in this part of Mozambique would need to go anywhere to collect sand I’m not sure. “Isn’t it everywhere”? I suggested. “There’s a particularly sandy stretch up ahead. Go and meet my girlfriend and I’ll be back shortly”.

    Down at the beach I met 4 other young foreigners working at Guludu Beach Lodge – a simple, eco-friendly, beautiful and way-out-of-my-budget resort. There are lots of places like this in Africa, but Mozambique seems to specialise in luxury resorts – the type that appear in the Sunday Times travel section where you can experience the beauty of Africa and the Indian Ocean for the bargain price of something like £2500 for 10 days, excluding flights. It is another World from life on the road.

    The plan had just been to say hi and possibly get some information about the road ahead, but a very generous discount on a room had me content to pretend that I too could have booked my holiday through the Sunday Times. I’m not sure when the last time was that I slept on a bed with a proper mattress.

    Guludu Beach Lodge

    Harry and his girlfriend Caitlin had found jobs at Guludu through a website called escapethecity.com, and their surroundings were definitely a change of scenery from sitting at an office desk from 9-5.

    I would have stayed a second night had the local employees not told me that if I wanted to reach Quissanga and the road south to Pemba then I would have to take a boat leaving very early in the morning. There definitely was no road ahead, despite my map depicting one.

    And so the Guludu team waved me off the next afternoon before I rejoined the sand track for another 15km, bringing me to the village of Darumba/Mipange. Here the road really did end. I pitched the tent in a school teacher’s compound and set my alarm for 3.45am the next morning on learning that a boat would sail to Quissanga starting after 4am. Sure enough it did, with surprisingly few passengers – a peaceful journey between the mainland and the Quirimba islands.

    Dhow between the Quirimba islands

    Dhow to Quissanga

    Road to Pemba

    The following day I rolled into Pemba, where I sit now in a campsite/lodge I first came to 10 years ago. It’s a lot busier than I remember it to be. Down the road there is some American-financed mission with hundreds of young missionary volunteers. A group of them were having a discussion last night about whether there is a sushi restaurant in Mozambique. Apparently Maputo has one. I haven’t spoken to any of them. It would be interesting to hear what their impressions are of Mozambique and Africa. My tent resides under a cashew tree away from the bar and my stove for the first time in many months is getting frequent use again. In Tanzania or Kenya I could just pop out onto the street to find cheap eats. Not here it seems.

    For the first time in weeks my bike is now free of sand and salt. It’s tempting to finally use the paved road to take me further south, but I seem to be drawn to small roads that end at bridgeless rivers. There is another one between here and Nacala.

    Young Mozambican girl