A ferry and more mountains to cycle over
Trip Start Feb 21, 2007
18Trip End Jul 09, 2007
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At 5:20 Owen woke me; initiating a frenzied packing that took a record 20 minutes. Fortunately our ride was late, so we were just in time to load everything (including the bike) onto the pick-up. There was lots of other luggage and a few other people; but despite being full we circled the village for the following hour cramming more people and boxes into the small space.
The ridiculous had morphed into the absurd before we finally left Cape Maclear (Chembe village) for the mountains. The terrible road left us aching and bruised by the time we were finally dumped outside ‘Malawi Lake Services’ in Monkey Bay from where the M.V. Ilala has sailed most Friday since the 1960′s.
A couple of hours wait had us stocking up on nibbly supplies from a mini supermarket before we were finally allowed to board. It wasn’t as hectic as I’d imagined. I just rolled down to the docks and sat with my bike waiting for further instructions. When they didn’t come some touts from on board helped carry my bike to the bow where I locked it to the railings; and my luggage to the 1st class deck – one I’d be calling home until Sunday morning.
The day was lazy and quiet with lots of waiting and disappointment when no pancakes appeared on the menu. The edible choices that fitted within my dietary parameters were either rice or chips with either veg or fish. I listened to an audio book – Bill Clinton’s autobiography – that Joey had given me from his laptop. Apart from the strangeness of listening to this story of high flying success, academic scholarships and political campaigning on this calm and beautiful lake; little of interest happened. A stunning sunset signalled dinner – the fish this time – in the saloon below.
After eating the drunk and keeling man at the bar bought me a drink and declared himself captain. He carried on showering me with beer as the evening progressed and he geared himself up for a night at the helm. I listened to the BBC news on the ships SW radio and listened to the captain tell his life’s tale. He’d studied at some institute; a high school twinned with Eaton that I should have heard of. Having learnt Greek, Latin, English, Geography and Physics he studied Geography further before working for MLS. He’s the 7th captain of the Ilala and has held the position for 13 years. The ship was built in Glasgow in 1959 and was the ferry for the Outer Hebrides before it was condemned soon afterwards. It somehow made it to lake Malawi where it’s been the main passenger ferry ever since.
I was taken on a full tour by the pissed captain who was kept jolly by my constant questions. 2 Perkins Diesel engines were growling at 1100rpm down below – their throb resounding through the ship with no insulation. 425bhp each and a 3rd engine as a generator drank 4500-6000l of diesel a voyage (a week). The ladder into the engine room had beautifully worn and greasy rails; the quality and build of everything was to a Victorian standard. Giant hands pointed on brightly painted dials to ‘full fuel’ and ‘full speed ahead’. Weld marks in the thick steel plate above were scars from various engine removals of the last almost 50 years. The captains quarters we spacious if messy – signs of the depressed alcoholic captain who longed, like everyone for another job in England. GPS and radar gave me little comfort as I tried to sleep; tucked into my sleeping bag on deck under the blanket of the milky way.
Owen woke me again. And again I was thankful. This time rain had started and the ship was getting tossed about in a bit of a storm. I dragged my mat under some shelter before somehow sleeping again – weird dreams of home followed before a violent list slid me from my thermarest onto the deck.
Awake from that time on; I was looking forward to choosing from the breakfast menu that never came. We stopped a few times outside small villages with no quay. Small boats were lowered to exchange passengers, luggage and bags of food for market.
When we descended for lunch a pile of cardboard boxes contained thousands of small chicks squawking constantly like a shrill buzzer. A repetition of yesterdays vegetable dish sufficed and the afternoon was spent completing Bill Clintons autobiography. A white guy called Chris appeared on deck in the afternoon, but he was soon sent below for having a second class ticket. I followed him for a chat that turned out to be most interesting.
He’s worked in Malawi and Mozambique for 3 years setting up charity projects for other organisations; then his own. We talked of what does and doesn’t work; the infuriating and self defeating Malawian psyche that feels it’s owed aid. Peoples inability to help themselves or be accountable for personal funds or responsibilities. How in India irrigation schemes 400 years old provided reliable harvests but here – next to the 3rd largest body of fresh water in the world – crops are failing for lack of irrigation infrastructure.
How roads built with Europe’s money are being lost to nature; with people walking daily across croc infested rivers because no one will repair the bridge. It’s as I thought before I’d spoken to anyone: Money from tourists and foreign powers is wrecking this country. Chris tried a micro-finance scheme in his village, lending 3,000MK (£12) to each of 3 widows to start a business. He did so on the understanding that once the business existed and the money had been repaid he’d lend them 5,000MK to expand the business. Sums of 8,000 and 15,000 (£60) were then promised to follow. None of the women returned the 3,000MK.
Boats sink every year in every village killing their occupants who can’t swim. Minibusses are packed with 60 people for the drivers profit before they’re driven in poor repair at rediculous speeds endangering everyone on board (and killing hundreds each year). To get locals to realise it doesn’t have to be like this is to try and move a mountain with a rope. People don’t think what’s best for the community – and if they do, they want outside help to change it. No one protests that everyone’s safety is being compromised when another passenger squeezes on; although it’s only the driver who’s benefiting. Chris was pretty exhausted by this defeatist, conformist and reliant attitude. And after only 10 days in the country, I’m pretty depressed by it.
Chris got off at another Mozambique port. Our first of 3 long stops in quick succession that lasted most of the night. At Likoma island we anchored for 5 hours as tiny boats bobbed dangerously beside us in the frightening swell; loading and unloading 50kg sacks. Those guys, fortunately tipsy enough to perform, would make millions on those rodeo horses at fair grounds. Soldiers, sailors and dhow rowers hopped aboard for a few drinks before we finally chugged off to our last stop past midnight. I talked technology with Owen all evening. He studied engineering in Ireland (when university meant 40 hours a week) before working near S’hampton. He did structural analysis of satellite components before working for Airbus, designing fuel pumps for the A380.
My eyes opened to the horizon bobbing beyond the ships railing. The first spec of orange grew into the sun; giant and striking rising from the horizon into the dark ominous clouds. Moments later large drops of rain prompted me to wake Owen and Charley. We snoozed and sheltered as the rain past and the shore neared. Hustle, bustle and tension grew as the intimidation of another hectic dock approached. Thanks to Owen and Charley we managed to get off with someone keeping an eye on our luggage as I bundled back on board to lower my bike off the side of the ship. We loaded up a small boat with Mioka village written on the side and buzzed off across the bay.
Passing stuff from the bobbing boat we hauled everything up to the sitting area above the lake. Over a hefty pancake we shed our raincoats and looked out over the sullen oceanic lake. After pitching camp on a narrow shelf of cliff, I got to know the other travellers. A couple of stunning Dutch dental hygiene students were on a break from working at a dentists in Mzuzu. They headed off on a mini bus to be replaced by another couple of pretty Dutch girls. These 2 were medical students on an exchange program with a university hospital in Blantyre. Tom, their English escort is a lovely guy. A qualified young doctor from Cambridge, he has fantastic people skills. A manner I admire because he makes everyone feel valued and interesting. He’s learning the local language and has a great repoir with the locals. He’s here until August and plans to take part in the mount Mulanje porters race in July.
He’ll then return to the UK when he hopes to work in Manchester. I started an amazing book in the evening – one that an abundance of pages and a lack of time means I’m destined to leave unfinished. ‘A sense of the world’ tells the story of a sailor born in the 1770′s who looses his sight at around 25 years old. He then explores the world as a blind man; fighting the slave trade in Africa and getting imprisoned in Siberia among other adventures… I’ll have to finish it at home.
In the evening I over-did the eating thing… A delicious and copious buffet meal was too tempting for my eyes. I simply stuffed myself until the point that I couldn’t eat any more. Food backing up my gullet and bubbles from sprite left me teetering on the edge of containment for almost an hour. After a delicate time sitting very still I braved movement and retired to the tent.
My final days holiday for a while was spent chilling with the doctors. We wondered into town where we ordered pancakes in a local restaurant. After a while a string of people brought flower, eggs and bananas. Smoke then emanate from the shack and after an hour and a half; pancakes arrived. Tom cooed at a 6 week old baby clad in a bright yellow knitted outfit. The pancakes were over 1″ thick and quite a feed.
We sauntered on to the dive centre where we booked a dive for the afternoon and I checked emails. I’d hoped Sebastian might join me in Kampala; but that turned out to be a misunderstanding. Mum wrote from Italy and dad from home - fantastic to hear from them both. The BBC’s correspondent in Kinshasa didn’t give me the email address of their man in Eastern DRC; but warned instead: ‘Go careful as there’s lots of fighting around there’. A baguette lunch at the backpackers geared me up for the dive. We were given a descent pre-dive talk about the fish.. Cachlets, swim-through’s, catfish and mouthbrooders were all explained before we kitted up and motored out into the bay. The visibility was great and the water warm. The rocks weren’t too deep so we swam for over 40 minutes before running low on air. We saw everything we’d been warned of including the mouthbrooders which are pretty weird. Cichlets eat one another; so as a safety measure these weird creatures hatch their eggs in their mouths. The little fish then swim out feeding until hungry predators pass by. The mother then opens her mouth and the little fish zoom in, as though sucked. The mother defends off the others before releasing the littlens for more feeding.
Back on dry land we ate a preliminary dinner of rice and fish in a local restaurant. Then the docs headed for Likoma island on the returning MV Ilala and I walked back to the lodge. A final meal of home made soup with a chocorula (hot chocolate and amarula) capped the day off nicely. I got chatting to the brigade of foreign volunteers who’re staying at backpackers in Nkhata bay. One Dutch girl climbed the active volcano in Eastern DRC near Goma – and highly recommends it.
Packing the tent and carrying everything up the Mioka village cliff face was an ample mornings workout. An inch thick pancake followed as I settled the bill and swapped an unread Terry Pratchet (donated by Charley) with ‘A sense of the world’ which I’m thoroughly into.
So it was well past 8am when I finally rolled off; or I should rather say struggled up the terrible track into town. There I found the tarmac – the only road out of Nkhata bay – heading for Mzuzu. The hill lasted all day; climbing from 400m to 1400m as the morning past. Thick cloud threatened rain and sliced the top from the surrounding mountains. The cover also meant cooler air; though the humidity was oppressive in expectation of a storm that never came. By the time I reached the hidden peaks, the clouds had lifted and the sun was keen on making up for lost time. I found a little shade around midday and read while scoffing biscuits.
The climb was particularly tough after my 10 days of lazy over consumption. I felt sick, exhausted, dilapidated and weak in equal measure. So instead of pressing on towards Rumphi I decided to stop early in Mzuzu for the night. I found a rest house where the landlady helped me in with my gear; my bike once again tucked safely in my room. As I emerged a pretty young lady was chatting to the landlady. When I asked directions to an internet cafe, she offered to take me there. Lucy escorted me around the city all afternoon. Her twin sister’s in London with an English husband she met in Malawi. Lucy has a 6 month old boy, ‘Hope’ who’s Spanish father returned home without even knowing of his existence. Lucy hasn’t been able to contact him.
In my inbox a note from Brendan gave expected dates for our possible reunion in Uganda or Kenya. Lucy gave me a descent tour of Mzuzu; the first city I’ve seen since PE (I’ve passed through only Jo’burg and Tete since). She then insisted on showing me her mothers house in a lively and vibrant residential area. We arrived in style on 2 bicycle taxis – padded carriers on the backs of ancient bikes with indestructible pilots… it was nice to be exempt from peddling. Lucy’s mother shook my hand and thanked me for visiting. Hope, the half caste little boy was placed on my lap where he peacefully played with my beard and uttered a disconcerting ‘dada’!
After a drawn out Malawian tea ritual we departed on another pair of bike taxis to my rest house. Lucy side saddle as be bounced along the mud road in the evening light. I then made excuses, gave Lucy my email address and vanished inside alone to cook dinner. Owen (actual spelled Eoghan) and Charley gave me their kitchen of numerous sauces and spices plus 1kg of macaroni – so after 10 days of being fed, my bulging panniers dictate it’s time for me to cook again.
After a couple of hours sleep a persistent rapping on my door woke me at 9pm. It was Lucy, keen to try her luck once more. I ensured her I was too tired for anything but sleep; so she soon left, rather disappointed. Although I find many African women beautiful, gracious and even stunning; it’s probably a blessing to my longevity that they don’t really do it for me.
A 5am start had me on the road before 6 – the stunning sunrise through thick clouds cast light beams through the morning mist. Blues and purples of the mountainous surroundings stayed as the mist cleared. The chill of the morning was the coldest yet here at 1400m.
The world service blaring loud and clear once more as I peddled against the wind down towards Rhumphi. Achy legs reconfirmed my contentment at cutting yesterday short. The morning was surprisingly hard considering I was predominantly descending to a gap between the mountains. I then turned off the main road to Livingstonia, heading West in the direction of Zambia. In Rhumphi I had chips and an omelette for a 10:30 brunch before stocking up with biscuits, bread and sweets for the dirt ahead. No sooner had I left the forgotten little town and the tarmac stopped. An unwelcome replacement of deep sand and bumpy potholes rattled me uphill for the afternoon. The sun broke through, reminding me that once again I’m another leg nearer the equator than before. I found another audio book on my mp3 player. This collection donated by American Joey of Monkey Bay. Today it was the turn of Don Quixote – again it felt bizaar to be transported to another world while peddling through remote villages. Cokes, music, Taiwanese and EU flags have made it this far; the last 2 attached to bore holes, roads and schools.
Bikes, motorbikes and overcrowded pickups occasionally pass on the road. Flags are flying at half mast because Malawi’s first lady died yesterday; prompting 30 days of mourning. National radio is playing back to back sombre music – and it threatens to so for the next month! Around 4pm tiredness had got the better of me. I was also undecided about my route and as the turning’s 6kms away; I pitched camp for the night. The rest of the macaroni and tomato sauce tasted delicious; even though I had to boost the sauce up with a little tomato ketchup! The bushcamp is a little close tothe road and others’ houses for my liking – I also got a puncture on the way in, which is waiting for tomorrow.
Another disturbed evening deserves recounting. This time I was still awake and listening to the radio when a truck stopped near my camp ground. Numerous voices got out and loudly walked around for 5 minutes or so. Fortunately too tired to be petrified, I decided to turn off the radio and sit it out. Sometime later they left. Phew!
Another sleep in had me achieving my 10 hours beauty sleep before stirring at 5am. By 6 I was about to mend last nights puncture; but the thorn was happier to snap off than to be removed – as no air escaped I was happy to live and let live. Loading up the bike I noticed time and bumps had taken their toll simultaneously on various bits of my gear. My handlebars bottle cage had cracked, snapped and would have to wait for a new tube of superglue as the last one had dried up. And one of the hooks on my rear left (kitchen) pannier had broken clean off. This slightly more worrisome decay revealed the hard board in the pannier was fairly useless; so a full repair including 6 bolts, a drill and some board would have to wait. I bodged it on, tying the pannier handle to the rack with some string.
After 1km the junction I’d been promised appeared and it was time to go with my resolution – to turn right. Going on would mean crossing early into Zambia and taking a superior parallel road North. Turning right meant round 2 of ‘Daniel v Mountains’. Or to be more accurate ‘Daniel, Sasquatch and 50kgs of luggage and water v 2500m mountains, atrocious tracks, little chance of help and no chance of water… all day’.
So 9km of struggling later I was reconsidering. The surface had been vision-bluringly bumpy; loose rocks alternated with deep sand. My progress was frequently halted by wheel spinning in the former and sinking in the latter. And as though that weren’t enough reason to recoil; the road was steeper than anything I’ve seen before. In 1st it’s impossible to fight gravity, so painfully pushing up the hills and tentatively braking down them became the theme of the day.
The Nyika National Park gate barred the road and a small sleepy village existed round it. Realising this was the last village for 60 unpredictable kms, I went about filling my 10l bag with water from a robust tap 1km’s walk from the road. A young lady gave me a scrap of paper with a stamp, authorising me to enter the park. She said 5 cars had passed through yesterday; only 1 of which in my direction. So things didn’t look too bad if I had troubles; but pretty dire if I needed a lift.
The next 20kms took over 5 hours. The road only worsened, steepend and clambered upwards from the gate at 1678m to the ‘plateaux’ at around 2300m. The last thing I read about the Nyika plateaux was that it wasn’t flat. In fact pictures showed rolling hills of tall pastures that reminded me of West Dorset. So there was no real marker to aim for regarding a possible reduction of hardship other than the other park gate 60kms on. The steepening road made the notion of ‘progress’ laughable. I pushed and sweated and had to stop every few metres, just to get my breath back.
Because pushing a reluctant 70kg bike up such steep slopes on such bad surfaces aint easy. Sometimes we’d stop because although my feet were moving, their lack of grip meant we weren’t going anywhere. And if I wasn’t going forward the bike was sure to take the chance to roll backwards until I reached for the brakes.
After 5kms of this bizarre, exhausting and ridiculous travel I was enjoying a brief spurt above 15kph when my back tyre hissed and flattened promptly in protest. 2 huge gashes in the tube were easily repaired; as no less than 13 monkeys looked on from both ends of the road. It was around this time that the BBC faded from reception, leaving me with only my nearly flat mp3 player for company. Resolved to make the battery last as long as possible, I continued with Don Quixote; reaching disk 7 (of 34) by the end of the day. A sweet break on the endless hill brought the nearing hum of a vehicle. The Chilunde lodge landrover was going the other way. But I decided then to stop the next vehicle going my way to ask for a lift to the top. When one finally past, my pride had returned and besides; the EU labelled landcruiser wouldn’t have stopped. By 2pm, after a total of 33kms and 8 hours on the road; the track levelled off and presented me with a new challenge… puddles!
Although the book says the rainy season ended a couple of weeks ago, nature’s rarely a reader and therefore doesn’t always comply. These puddles; small at first soon crossed the entire track, as they would at the end of the wet season. A couple of turns later and a lorry sat solitary and half buried in one of these lakes; up beyond its diff in mud. Its 3 giant occupants were wearily digging out rocks with a heavy dibber. Joshua, their spokesman was friendly if thoroughly pissed off at having been stuck there for nearly 24 hours. Their only real hope was to wait for the sun, which was hiding behind heavy clouds. So they were trying to lay rocks, use jacks and brick the axel out from the mud. Their load of tobacco bails had spilled yesterday; which was why they returned to retrieve them, ultimately on their way to market in Mzuzu.
They gave good news of the road ahead for me; which I was very grateful for at this slightly precarious hour. I gave them water and biscuits (though unlike most, they had the manners and reserve not to ask for anything). We wished each other well as I waded through their puddle and peddled off with thick clods of mud clinging to my tyres. These ultimately clogged up my chaingear and fouled my mudguard and brakes. Before drying a little and splattering themselves over me and my luggage…a real mountain biker? The road’s ups shallowed and shortened meaning pushing was rare and progress averaged for once over 10kph. After around an hour of this I emerged at last on the plateaux.
Meadows rolled in hills on mountains, their tall grasses hiding (according to the book) elephant and lion as well as other African animals. All I spotted was a small impala and numerous snake tracks (or possibly wobbly unicycle tracks). With Zambia on the left verge and Malawi on the right, I reached my first marker in 50kms – the entrance to Chilundu lodge. 2 guys were sewing the walls of their bike tyre at the entrance to the 18km driveway. Horse riding, pony trekking and the like are offered at this $150US/night establishment; where patrons arrive at the landing strip to save themselves the discomfort of a jolty ride in a air con’d 4×4. The lodge even has it’s own plane with pickups from Mzuzu ($200) or Lilongwe ($1200) as well as any other nearby strip in Zambia or Tanzania.
Having passed the turning the road fell away. The edge of the plateaux showed the track snaking below, descending steeply into a landscape of mountains and valleys: Greens and blues under thunderous (and at this stage pouring) skies. The track became slippery with the rain, which added to its other faults to restrict me to 20kph most of the way down. At one stage a sign labelled waterfalls pointed to where the earth had split apart where a road used to be. I heard, then saw the waterfalls later; thundering down the opposite side of the valley from my vantage.
The sun slid underneath the clouds, creating a photo-able rainbow. Then the rain stopped and the sun dried my jacket before I hid in the shadows of the mountains. The track snaked downwards, where after 12kms of steep descent it finally fell upon the promised KaperekeziNP gate. Presumably looking like a mud splattered, drowned and exhausted rat, I grinned to the attendants who were thoroughly engaged in a hand carved board game involving the strategic movement of pebbles. They supplied me with a celebratory coke before agreeing that I could camp nearby. I was very grateful as this small area was the first I’d seen with a flat enough area for camping since the top of the plateaux.
I ensured the friendly attendant that I was very fast at erecting my tent, even though the sun was barely higher than the horizon. A 3rd dinner of pasta went down a treat; despite a lack of veg meaning the only flavouring was ketchup and soya sauces. No BBC on the radio and few inquisitive villagers as company, so I happily and efficiently cleared up alone. (Before spending 1.5h catching up with this). The waterfall thundered in the background as the full moon rose over the plateaux…. What a day!
1/06/05 80km (ish)
4:40 start. Breakfast of cereal in the tent before a quick read and packing everything away. The gatekeeper’s son brought me water, which I filtered before leaving a little after 6am. The first 10kms were fast – less than an hour, which is far better progress than I’m used to. The surface had greatly improved and to begin with at least; the hills were smaller. Unfortunately although diminished in individual size; the road tackled the corrugations of valleys head on. This meant numerous long and steep descents, followed by their inevitable matching ascents – meaning I generally gained little ground. After 10km I passed a broken down landrover nearly blocking a bridge at the bottom of a hill. I was called back by a young man who told me to wait for an older and more padded gentleman to give me a message.
He gave me some names of people in his construction company and where to find them… Another 15kms further on. It was 1.5 hours before I arrived carrying the message that would send help to the 8 or so stranded folks. Mobile phones might be useful in big cities, but out here it’s laughable. I haven’t seen mains electricity since Mzuzu – 3 days ago (which means my battery situation is getting a little dire.)
So behind the post office, as promised I found a Mr. Khowoya of beziuyea construction; who gratefully received my message and sent a growling tow truck on it’s way. Seeing civilisation for the first time in a while, I decided to take advantage of a local restaurant. The proprietor laid on scones (stale buns), tea and a sorrowful looking fried egg. The tea here is marvellous; with or without the pricey powered milk. I got to know the 2 other diners, who’re working for a microfinance NGO. Both Malawians from Chitipa; they’d travelled together on a rickety motorbike for the 3 day trip inspecting local project groups. They brought up the subject of Malawians lack of individual thinking, accountability and responsibility. Last year the maize harvest failed; so most of the 2000 or so beneficiaries of the scheme couldn’t repay. That meant the NGO couldn’t repay government loans and so it goes on.
After this second breakfast and first break of the day I resumed along the track. At this point it was so deep with sand that both peddling and pushing proved barely possible. Soon after leaving this trading junction the hills resumed yesterdays height. The road hardened, but worsened still and the gradients became laughable. 1:3 – 1:5 the whole day… bloody impossible to pedal and even to push for more than 5m at a time. So many stops were needed for me to regain my breath, pedestrians overtook me up the mountains. I stood panting like a greyhound as the wind either pretended to help or hinder me up each leg. Then concentrating on a large boulder or other landmark, I chewed on my newly acquired moustache, wedged my arm between my stomach and the handlebars, leant at a painful angle and… let off the brake. If I was lucky we’d move forward. The shapes of the valleys and the roads winding bends meant keeping a sense of direction or concluding the winds intentions, were impossible. Another day spent hauling furniture up stairs, or maybe up a downwards escalator!
After a particularly long climb of over an hour, I found some shade in which to rest, read and gobble my dwindling supplies. The midday sun had burned straight through the factor 20; leaving my arms both aching from pushing and stinging from burns. In the shade on top of the world I caught up with the blind traveller in my book – leaving behind Don Quixote on the mp3 player to save batteries.
At 2pm after prising myself from the ground where I lay collapsed; I peddled around a bend. And there before me stood another bloody mountain half as tall again – which became my burden for the next 2 hours. Only 1 thing is known for certain on such demoralising stretches. If there is a hill to climb; there will first be a descent and then many more hidden from view before the top of the mountain is reached. Guaranteeing that by the time you’ve found the summit, you’ve climbed every metre twice. Finlandia, Land of Hope and Glory and the hyme from ‘Jupiter’ attempted to raise my spirits as I raised the bike. One of Holst’s planets sounded strangely familiar, so I stopped my pushing to learn it’s name. Saturn; the bringer of old age… how apt. It was down a rickety descent that I noticed my speedo optimistically displaying over 100kph. Having seen nothing move that fast since Mozambique; I’m glad that my computer has cracked before me. Though actually rather pissed off; as this little gadget gives me targets and markers, numbers and statistics – as well as vital information needed for navigation. (Like where I might start looking for a tracks entrance hidden in a hedge).
Once I’d concluded it’s bonkersness; I resorted to asking locals the distance to Chitipa (my optimistic aim for the day) and Chesenga; which according to the flight recorder I should have passed 20kms ago. ‘Chesenga’, a local told me was ’20kms away; but Chitipa must be over 300′… My map ensured me they were only 42kms apart – so I thanked the old codger and continued. My next advisor was more likely, having not only been to both places but also recently. He was also about to drive his 3 cattle to market in Rhumphi along the road I had ridden. 5 days of walking and 3 days resting is how it’s done - bloody amazing.
Although finally descending from this latest contradiction to the name ‘Great rift valley’ (which I’d imagined to be like cycling along the smooth rim of a gutter) there was another mountain ahead. This one sat like a wall of solid rock on the horizon – and I actually found myself preying I wouldn’t have to cross it. Luckily Chesenga lay in it’s shadow and although I had to pedal through deep sand all the way to it; I arrived bang on 5pm… another 11 hours on the road.I first pulled up to a small shack, white washed with ‘Bakery’ written on it’s wall. Inside I bought some warm buns and promised to return after finding the rest house they assured me the village hosted. A local guy with no English but a once smart jacket brought me to the councils establishment where I was told the ‘bossman’s out. Back any time’. Fortunately that time came soon and I found myself unloading Sasquatch and rolling her into the biggest double room you’ve ever seen – costing £1. A small troop of mzungu spotting children clad in rags of football shirts held Sasquatch as she was being relieved of her burden.
Back in the village I sat down to more buns and Malawian tea at the bakery. My fanclub of children took turns peering through the window before laughing and running off. Afterwards I spent the valuable final minutes of light searching the stores for superglue – which none of them had. One restaurant wouldn’t cook because it was the Sabath; the next was by prior arrangement only. So I bought some tomatoes and cooked myself my 4th pasta/tomato meal in a row.
Exhausted in the evening, I pawed over my map only to realise I’m still in the middle of a mountain range and shouldn’t expect to see any tarmac on the rest of this 10 day leg. In fact my slower than expected progress means I daren’t have a day off as it’s less than a week before the ferry leaves Mpulungu, 380 (hilly, sandy and unpredictable) kms away. Note to self: ‘next time get a map with contours’. The only person I’d met who’d been to the Nyika plateaux said it was amazing. But they then added ‘the road would be impossible by bike’. That’s why I’d turned right yesterday.
I’ve been thinking about this road a lot. I felt hard done by peddling it; But I can’t help thinking of the sorry bastards that must have built it. Chiselling a road out from a maze of mountains must have been killing. Probably done under British rule, I doubt many Brits did the digging. But with 5 vehicles a day it will never make economic sense to maintain it. My guide book, already 5 years out of date says they’re about to re-do the road. But it wouldn’t make sense; other than to make Chalinda lodge more accessable to more budget minded travellers; who wont bring in any money compared to their flying friends. In fact the whole road makes no sense at all; other than to the cow herder (who’d do just as well on footpaths) and the tobacco selling lorry driver – who’ll probably take another road next time.
2/06/07 106km (ish)
If you’ve made it this far through my gloomy tales of hardship, you’ll be glad to know it gets easier. I certainly was! The rest house proprietor slept next door to me in a single room as there’s no watchman for the premises. First the cockerels stirred, then him and finally me. Reluctantly prizing myself from bed after a fitful sleep, I was unbelievably achy. My arms, legs and neck have all taken on the irritating and worrying habit of locking into spasm given the first opportunity. And a cross between white finger and carple tunnel have left 2 sections of my right ring finger permanently numb. But still the promise of taking things easier got me going; so I began by cooking up some instant noodles (donated by Owen and Charley). The hot breakfast filled a gap that 8 hours of sleeping digestion had extended. On a pre-dawn visit to the grass hut sheltering the long drop; I baid good morning to the proprietor who was tending a fire. Soon after he knocked at my door to announce the readiness of the bathing water I’d asked for the previous night. He must have been heating it on the fire, for it was perfectly warm and splendid. To have a wash after 3 days hard toil is pleasant; but to have it as the sun rises through the washroom window, with hot water on aching limbs is bittersweet heaven. Shampoo and soap were liberally applied, before I cupped my hands into the large bucket of hot water to rinse the suds off… such is showering in rural Africa!
I filled up my bag with water from a standpipe, not bothering to filter it as the mountain water I’d been told and had tasted ‘is perfect’. Eventually on the road at 7am, I got as far as the police station before I remembered my speedo’s befuddlement. I tried the spare computer and magnet; but neither helped. At one stage I had a brainwave and moved my large headphones from the pannier beside the sensor, thinking the magnetic field could be the cause of confusion. But that did little good; so I think it must be the cable, which is probably shorting onto itself or the frame somewhere.
The police let me pass after the usual questions, which I answered as they held my bike and I fiddled with the speedo mountings. The road considerably flatter than yesterday, snaked predominantly downwards into a large valley that had been hidden from the top. The road deepened, if such a thing is possible; with white sand submerging my tyres and rims making progress challenging in the morning cool. Luckily these sections never lasted too long and many cyclists on the stretch showed me the best ways through.
Inevitably we’d stall, collapse off, laugh and pick ourselves up for a push to the end. The valley was beautiful, with the morning sideways light throwing long shadows on the snowy sand. Eagles swooped above, looking through the thick bush to their meals scurrying oblivious below. Around 10am I arrived in Chitipa, having covered – according to the map – 42kms. I found my friends from yesterdays breakfast, who’d made it back late last night swerving through the sand in the dark on the motorbike. One of them gave me a tour of the town on foot. Written in the smallest print on my map, this place not only has electricity but is also the centre of the province. The Chitipa province in which over 25 local languages are spoken! We found a phone
bureaux from which I paid £2 for a 50 second call to give mum my number. Luckily she not only had a pen and paper but was in and could ring back for a descent natter. The phone queue grew as I updated her on my adventures and briefly heard about her holiday to Florence. Twas wonderful to talk especially after the last few days of intense punishment.
I lunched at a restaurant on rice, beans, spinach and meat (only a little, Barny) before finding 1l of petrol for my stove, superglue, batteries and a spoke. I also restocked on coconut cookies and sweets. My preferred sweets are big orange balls of sugar who’s closest English relatives are sugar mice. They come wholesale in bags of 50 for 80p and have been responsible for my crossing the Nyika plateaux (as well as numerous likely cavities which the NHS can repair once I’m officially a student again).
Having done what I could to reduce my ‘to do’ list, I climbed out of the town to where I hoped to find Zambia waiting behind a couple of barriers. Uniformed officials were happy to see me arrive, though it meant breaking off their board game to ask questions like ‘Are you sure you came over the plateaux?’ I filled in a form and gave them my passport and yellow fever vaccination certificate (only the 2nd time I’ve been asked for it). They then gave me directions to continue to Nekonde (94kms away) where I’d be stamped into Zambia… Wow – that’s quite a lot of ‘no mans land’! It turned out the Zambian border post had been deserted, so Nekonde is the closest practical place.
The afternoon flew by with me flying with it. A good gravel surface and a firm tail wind kept me whizzing along in the big ring – something I haven’t done since my first day in Mozambique. My first stop was at a bottle store smaller than our tumble drier shed where I was glad to hear they accept Malawian Kwacha. These friendly and inquisitive folk had a more Zimbabwean air about them. North Rhodesia I guess. A couple of unplanned stops later and I wasn’t so sure. The first guy waved me down to ask me for dollars, clothes or beer – the last of which he was unlikely short of. The next pair were even more paralytic and they just clung to my bike for support until I fluffed myself up, mounted my bike and rode off; leaving them with each other for both financial and structural support.
Again the scenery was stunning. Scraggy bush of hardy short trees and miles of them; no doubt home to many people as well as terrifying animals. As you can imagine traffic has been light for some days. Less than 5 cars over Nyika, less than 10 the next day and few more today. After the ‘border’ there was barely any traffic other than the usual women with huge head mounted loads (children in tow with burdens to scale) and men on bikes. So I’d gone 2 hours before the first truck passed me; with a small community of people clinging to the back. They stopped for the driver to take considerable time and effort to offer me a lift. ‘But these people see you struggling’ he said ‘And that’s not right because you’re from America or Germany or somewhere’. I’d never thought of it in those terms before and was a little taken a back. (Like when the Xhosa man asked me whether I believed not in God, but in ancestors; or when the Nigerian thanked me for giving him independence)
The sun extended my swiftly propelled shadow into the bush until 4pm when at a corner I stopped to ask some dwellers the distance to town. They couldn’t tell me, but were most happy to give me a jug of water and to giggle when I commented on one ladies hair the other was cutting. I managed to leave soon after but doing so with my locks in tact was harder than I imagined. 100m down the road a man who was probably connected with the hair cutting, giggling women stopped me for a chat. He warned of bandits on the road after dark ‘As it’s an international road’. A teacher at the school, he told me his name and that of a friend who lives in the next village 10km further on; with whom he thought I could stay.
Glad of the contact I did just that and arriving in the sleepy little village I surprised my welcoming committee by asking for Mr. Kalabar by name. I was directed to a clinic where I found sights I’d rather not see; but no Mr. Kalabar. I eventually tracked him down in his brick house, making full use of the ostentatious satellite dish outside, by watching the football. I explained myself before a packed living room of viewers and was shown to some flat ground outside. I then donned a clean white shirt before inviting myself inside to watch the footy. England drew with Brazil, having led the until the 92nd minute; but more importantly Zambia were thrashing Congo (Braz) 3-0 by the end. The picture, pitch and commentary quality were inversely proportional to the quality of the matches and the fans… Guess which way round that one goes!
As the games ended and the sun dragged the daylight behind it, I set up camp and cooked some spaghetti with a very close audience of chattering and inquisitive children. Keeping them far enough from my lethal stove was a mission, but the camping itself was incredibly quick and efficient. One of them drew water from a well with a creaky handle before I filtered it ready for tomorrow. I then took advantage of the Mr. Kalabars generator by giving him some batteries to charge. What a wonderful end to a wonderful day – even if I am camping in no mans land.