The Lake, The People And The Gin

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7 September 2015 by Justine


Cycling in Malawi – December 2014

And so we left beloved Sumbawanga (say it again, just for fun) in Tanzania, thinking that we would soon feel the hot sand of Malawi Lake. How much time to reach the lake through Zambia? 6 days? 7 days? … Fare from it. We got there three weeks later, completely exhausted, after endless dirt roads, irrational detours and painful mountain crossings – thanks to a VERY shitty map. If there is ONE route, coming from Tanzania and going Lake Malawi that is NOT touristic, it is the one that we took – which is a good thing after all, since we experienced pure Malawian culture, and made the first dip in Lake Malawi even more magical.

Still not suspecting for a second that our map was complete poo-poo, we followed a route up to Nyika Plateau National Park, which is by far one of the most beautiful park we have seen. We first crossed the dry rolling valleys of Chitipa district for two days. The fields were ready for some crops, with their mounts tiddly aligned by hand for some days now. Only one missing element: rain. The seedlings of corn, pumpkin, cassava and potato were ready, waiting in a tight square aside– the only green part of the landscape, but couldn’t be transferred in the field without water – they would dry within hours. All villages we cycled through were occupying their time the same way… Before noon, the women would freshly rebuild the mounds, ready to go, and starting from one o’clock, the men would start drinking their toxic bagged alcohol. Sold in two to five once a bag for about ten cents, that alcohol could strip ten layers of thick paint on an old coffee table. We also almost got lost on that road. With only one intersection to care about in two days, we managed to miss it. And so we were, cycling like tourists (…) in direction of Zambia, literally coming back on our steps. That afternoon, a very funny farmer also on stand-by for rain (…) strongly recommended us to take a short cut instead of going back to the intersection we had missed. The road was nice… Gorgeous. Getting narrower and narrower… So intimate! … Until we met locals that informed us, in a very limited English that we were – again – on our way to Zambia: “there (pointing the direction we were taking), Zambia, no border. Go straight, and then, go back Malawi, no problem!” Having big enough doubts on the whole exiting-and-reinterring-illegally-a-country-on-unofficial-border-posts thing (those doubts will disappear five weeks later in the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, but that’s another story :P), we finally decided to come back on our steps. Warmly welcomed by the district’s primary school director himself, we got to sleep at THE intersection we had missed, also called Chisenga. The director seen us cycle by, few hours earlier… “You looked like people who knew where you were going! But don’t worry… Tourists miss that intersection all the time”.

Three day after leaving Chitipa, at nearly two o’clock in the afternoon, we got to Nyika Plateau National Park’s northern gate, the Kaperekezi entrance. An impressive 4km pass with a 500m elevation climb was waiting for us there, a smile to its ears. The sun was as hot and the road as steep, as they could be. We got on the top at four o’clock soaking wet, with only two hours of brightness left to cycle 25km to the camp… Evaluating the eventuality of setting-up camp in the bush for the night, we are wondering… “What animals is there, in here?” “Zebras, roans, all sorts of antelopes, elephants, hyenas and… leopards” “Leopards aren’t that big of a deal, right?” (…)

But we did reach Chelinda camp. Like warriors, with head lamps, in the dark of the night, chased by zebras, roans and dozens of scary eye reflections, we scared the shit out the night guard. He pointed us the direction to take to go to the main camp: “You go down that road, and then straight up, up, up behind the trees, and you should see the lights of the building” “How fare is it?” “5” “5KM?!?!?” “500” “…” “500 meters” “…” Distances are a very sensitive subject after a long day of cycling.

Two minutes later, we were talking with the camp manager. We wanted to take the way straight East showed on our map and hit the Lake the next day. We thought of a bad joke when he informed us of the inexistence of that road. “There are two entrances to this park: Kaperekezi and Thazima gates. Either you go back where you came from or you go Thazima, and then Rumphi”. Hopelessly dropping our despondence on the dinner table, the manager did have an option for us. With a big smile, he agrees on arranging for us the crossing of the mountains and we would actually follow our map’s imaginary road (which is in reality a walking path)… On the condition of paying for a ranger and a guide provided by the camp, of course. We wondered: “Is there anyone else who has done this by bicycle?” “No, you’re the first!” “Will we be able to cycle a bit of it?” “Definitely!” “Ok! Let’s go!”

After one rest day of cycling in the park (rest day?!), we left beautiful Chelinda with our new companions, Allam and Noel. Singing with the birds, picking up hundreds and hundreds of flowers and running down the hills (…) we had absolute no clue of how deeply shitty our journey was going to be. Those two days were a nightmare. I thought tree-planting in the Canadian bush with blackflies and black bears for three months was demanding – no. I thought crossing Kyzyl-Art pass in Tajikistan at more than 4000 meter elevation in a snow storm on a folding bike was tough – NO. Try, as a 54kg person, to push a 50kg bicycle on a one-foot wide and one-foot deep walking path, yourself walking on uneven bushy/rocky ground, at first up and down very pretty green rolling hills full of flowers, and then, through some dense bushes, over little creeks, and then down and up rocky steep cliffs, in and out of a dense forest, under the burning sun. That trek would have been a-ma-zing on foot – and was NO place for a fully leaded bicycle.

On the first night, we set-up our camp where hikers who walk this path normally sleep on the first night. We attached our paniers together with ropes and carried them, along with our bike, on our shoulders down and up those endless steep rolling hills. Yes, holding our bikes on our back was the easiest way of going forward. I can count on the fingers of my right hand (on the left for the left-handers) the times that I have seen JP out of energy in the five years I have known him – that night is one of them. He was completely out of service, probably from pushing his loaded bike, attached to my loaded bike (that I was pushing myself, I swear) uphill for few hundred of meters. My heart was beating in my ears, my shorten breath was making the noise of squeaking old desk chair, my throat seemed smaller and I had tears in my eyes. In other words, I had some kind of asthmatic attack. Anyways, that’s basically what the guide said: “Christina (that’s me), it’s the noise of a very sick animal. Don’t worry, we are almost there. You see that hill over there (pointing far far away), we go a bit further, and then we are done for the day” (…)

On the second night, I discreetly showered in the ice cold river and made Bolognese pasta with soya pieces – the first of many to come after the discovery of that brilliant vegetarian alternative to sardines. The whole day, we gave water to our guide and ranger who only carried a 300ml bottle for the day while we filled two of our six-liter MSR dromedary bags and carried them on our back.

On the third day, we surprisingly made it in one piece to the first village on the other side of the mountains where the dirt road starts – and so did our bicycles, with only bruised paniers and legs. As soon as we got back on the road, our bicycles were so happy to finally fulfill their duty that we didn’t stop – not for tea, not to pee. We were so thrilled to reach the lake and forget about the two past days that we missed the historical church of Livingstonia and two neat hostels with crazy views (Mushroom Farm and Lukwe). The right side of my body and my two knees hurt so badly by holding on and up my heavy bicycle on the trail. The way down to the lake is a steep rocky dirt road with tight bends. I had to stop after each curve to relax my hands from holding on the breaks. I had no more grip, no more power, but I could see the blue water – and JP’s eagerness. “Just a little bit more…” and there it was, the junction for the M1. We took a left for 2km to reach Chitimba, where we relaxed for two well deserved rest days before realizing our big mistake.

Some wood carvers had set their settlement in front of the gate of the two main hostels of Chitimba (Hakuna Matata and Chitimba Camps, where we stayed). They were pretty insisting and were letting no one leave the camps before the end of their pitch. Attacked by five of them, we panicked and acted like poor snob westerners. Too exhausted, too hot, too many people, too close. “TIA” said one of them – this is Africa. It was our trip’s 60th day and very first touristic spot on African soil.

The little door in the huge gate finally opened and we escaped from the wood carvers – with whom we chilled the next day. A big central hut with a bar, restaurant and relaxing lounge were waiting for us, and so was the white sand beach. We shamelessly took off our smelly clothes and revealed our sexy under/bathing wear… The right side of my body is a bruise from my knee up to my armpit from holding back my bike for it not to fall off the cliffs on that trail. But who cares! We had arrived… Until another guest questioned my battle wounds: “We crossed the mountains from Nyika Plateau to here on a walking path with our 50kg bicycles” “Nyika Plateau? You probably met my brother! He’s the camp manager!” “Is he? Well you can tell him we’ve made it. But please… Tell him one thing: Never. Let. Cyclists. Cross. Again… Oh, and Merry Christmas!”

We were back on our feet, full of energy and ready to hit the road. The owner of Chitimba Camps, a huge blond Dutch Viking named Teddy, asked us where we were going… “We are following the lakeshore down to Monkey Bay!” “Show me your map” “…” “Yeah that map is shit. There’s no road that follows the lake. You need to go inland through Mzuzu.” “Nnnnnnnoooooooo!!!!!!!!”

Only one thing on our mind at that moment: we crossed through the mountains for nothing. There was a dirt road going from Chelinda to Mzuzu through Rumphi. We didn’t take it to be able to follow the lakeshore all the way down. With only one way to go south now, we’ll have to go back up. This is a huge and painful (all meanings) detour. Only comfort: our way up will be on tar. Wuhu! There is the option of taking a sandy track past the M1 and jump on local passenger boats along the shore, from villages to villages (good idea for bike rafting! Wink! Wink!). But we decide to take the highway for this part and aim for a party place on Christmas. First party place: Nkhata Bay.

Nkhata Bay took us by surprise. We lodged at the very well recommended lodge called Makoka Village, and so did few dozens of Peace Corps based in the neighbour countries (Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia), happy to be spending their holidays in such paradise (clear water + good westerner food + cocktails + wifi + snorkling). Surrounded by Americans, we almost felt like home (…). Another big surprise was waiting for us there, but first, let me tell you about the very first fellow tourers we met on our way.

It happened close to Rumphi, on our way to Mzuzu. Often, we would see local cyclists coming our way, with water jugs strapped to the side and they would, at far distance, strangely look like a cyclist with big luggage. We would then get all excited, until we realize the truth: we’re the tourists here. That day, we thought it was another false alarm when we saw two heavily loaded cyclists coming towards us… But not. They were Japanese. They weren’t too chatty since their English wasn’t fluent, but very curious to check our set-up, and so did we. One was quite heavily loaded. He had a huge pile of dry noodles packages, strapped to his back pannier: “Japanese people, eat, Japanese food!” They laughed pretty hard when they saw a long piece of Duck tape on our frame, for us not to damage the paint as we jump over our bike twenty times a day: “you, not, flexible?” We could easily imagine them doing some crazy martial art in the bush after and before their cycling day (and probably on their bicycle) to keep in good shape. Especially the noodle guy, who had an interesting kit consisting of a spandex athletic top and weird white pants that shaped his crouch like a jockstrap. Some local ladies witnessed our cycling reunion and for once, we were not the center of the attention. The ladies we all about the Japanese guys… Pointing their fingers at them, pocking them, and laughing so hard they would hold their stomach. Being good sports, the Japanese guys laughed back, and took pictures with us, and with them. Ten minutes later, the ladies continued their way, and so did we. We thought we had a long way to go… Those guys cycled from Canada to Argentina, took a plane to Cape Town, and were now on their way back to Japan, for a total trip of 75 000-ish kilometers – nothing more, nothing less.

Note on those Japonese tourers : We will see those guy’s footprints in Bolivia when we will cross the Uyuni salt desert in February 2016, in the guest book of the Incahuasi island hostel where they signed (in 2013) and left the same card they gave us… One year and a half later, they are in Malawi… And three years later, we are in Bolivia… That’s how small the cycling community is…

Then, on our amazing way down from Mzuzu to Nkhata Bay (elevation of 471m), a drop of 783 meter of elevation on a 46km distance, we met two more tourers: Anselm and Ralf from Germany. No surprise, since there is only one main way in Malawi. They were full of motivation and just starting climbing up to Mzuzu when we met them. We stopped under a tree for over an hour, making coffee, sharing nuts – and stories. Anselm was on the road for many months already. He had started in South-East Asia, had flown to Cape Town, toured around, and just had decided to head for Mongolia (…). Ralf, on the other hand, was just starting his trip. He was in his first week on African soil. He knew that we knew that he knew that a crazy adventure was just starting… He wanted to loop around Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa and make it for the Burn. We got along pretty well and promised to meet again and party African style – and maybe cycle, which we did… Four months later (…)

While our new friends Anselm and Ralf were suffering as they were cycling up, up, up to Mzuzu under the big heat, we were shopping for booze in Nkhata Bay. When we eventually got to Mayoka village, we parked our bikes along with another touring bike. As we were checking it out, we noticed a sticker “Big Africa Cycle”. That’s Peter Gostelow’s blog, one of our main source of information for this trip. The guy is from the UK and basically cycled all of the African continent – oh, and Asian and European too. Solo. “That’s weird. That guy is just… Making for Peter’s website?” “Unless that bike belongs to….” No time to finish our sentence, its owner walks to us: “Hey! Where ‘you guys touring to?” Having a hard time hiding my surprise, I offer my hand as I calmly introduce myself (with absolute no temptation of imitating his British accent): “Hi-Peter-I’m-Justine-I-wrote-you-an-email-last-week-you-didn’t-answer-but-don’t-worry-about-it” (…) Following someone’s blog is one thing; getting to know a total stranger through the virtual world of his personal blog is another – and randomly meeting the guy on the other side of the globe is complete magic. To sum up, it was pretty cool to talk about cycling routes with Peter over a beer… Merry Christmas to you all!

The day after Christmas, we decided to camp on the beach. Good news: the water was less than a kilometer from the road. It was now or never, since the next day, we would cycle inland in direction of Lilongwe, the capital. We were hoping to get a quiet spot, but it turned out to be an active fishing camp. That shouldn’t be a problem, right? We parked the bikes and went for a swim. It felt soooo good after cycling all day under 30-35oC…. Back on the beach, we were now surrounded with few dozens of kids. JP grabbed his camera and as he was filming the kids, some were running away to hide, and others were pulling faces for the occasion. We played a bit with them, and then we went relax under the shade of a mango tree on our dearest chairs. The kids, surrounding us, sat nicely and the less shy tried to practice his English. That wonderful moment lasted about sixty seconds. And then, just like if they were hit by lightning or bit by some bizarre insect, they went C-R-A-Z-Y. Some were fighting, pulling each other’s hair and clothes, some were throwing sand in the air, while others were digging the sand under the legs of our chairs to make us fall. JP were using his big voice and scary looks to scare them off – and it worked. They all sat quietly, across a line we had drawn in the sand. About ten seconds later, one of the kid pulled a little bird from its pocket. The poor chick was on leash and clearly had a broken wing. The kid was throwing the bird at us, and pulling it back. The kid probably thought we were scared of the bird from the weird face we both had and continued his game, but we were simply shocked and truly disgusted by this barbaric art. Then, the fighting started back.

We looked for adults around to use a bit of their authority. About ten fisherman were laying their daily catch on grids for the fish to dry. One of them felt sorry for us and stopped his work to help us out, African style. He broke a branch out of the mango tree and started hitting the kids (…). That very delicate method worked at first, then amplified the craziness. As a final weapon, a very old man came to greet us. Usually kids are scared of old man, right? That could be it! Those beach kids grabbed the poor man by his arms and clothes and tried to make him fall… These kids were out of control! Completely powerless, we were witnessing this scene, part of the audience. We wondered… Should we pack our stuff and find another spot? No need… Darkness was coming. In thirty minutes tops, all we would see would be the light of few cellphones, and later on, of the stars. We waited for every little monster to be gone home before turning on our head lamp. What a relief… With the kids and the sun gone, the freshness came. We enjoyed a ten-egg vegetable omelet with eight grilled pieces of bread, and all was good. […] The kids are just kids, right? How could we be mad at kids…

There is one thing about cycling in Malawi that made us scream of pain. We were so thrilled to cycle along Lake Malawi and have the chance to go for a swim here and there in its fresh water. Unlike cycling along the Adriatic Sea in Croatia (our 2013 cycling trip) or later on along the coast of Mozambique and South Africa, there would be no need to shower after swimming, right? So there we were, swimming and cycling, without bother in changing our under/swimwear. While we were naively cycling for five to eight hour a day, every day, between Nkhata Bay and Lilongwe (except for one rest day in Kande Beach for Christmas day because I insisted), some tiny microcrystals contained in the water covered our skin and clothes.

The results? Paired with the constant movement on our leather saddle and the sweat under the 35oC African sun, the crystals put our baby bum to a dramatic state. In other words, we got to Lilongwe on a bloody ass (literally). I then remembered the cream of zinc that I had bought for the trip, left behind with other stuff that didn’t make the cut – 60g of butt cream? Too much. What about that silicon penis for me to pee while standing like a boy? Sooo worth it!!!! (…) I have been packing for long trips for few years now… And still. I make strange decisions. Fortunately, those bad cycling rashes go away pretty fast with baby zinc cream (when you have some) and we were good to hit the road after one rest day in Malawi’s capital that we spent on getting our Mozambican double entry visa and renewing with more modern services. Indeed, I remember Lilongwe as being the first time we shopped in a clean, air-conditioned and relatively well organized supermarket on African soil. It was just before getting to the Mozambican embassy and we got carried away, buying two little plastic bags of chocolate milk each (oh!!!) and a disgusting sausage roll (also known as the cyclist’s cravings for fluffy greasy salty stuff). Few hours later, with our visa in hands and ready to go, we stopped again at the supermarket and shopped for the next days… Bottle of South African wine (for 4$), chickpeas, ice cream cones, chakalaka, curry powder, coconut milk, coconut shreds, rice… Life’s good – and guess what we ate that night?

Next stop: Mozambique !

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