A Travellerspoint blog

Malawi

A couple of my brother, Ewan’s, friends, Mariana and Drew, live in Blantyre in southern Malawi and I had set my sights of getting to them before the day was out. Other than a quick ATM visit in Lilongwe, the capital, and a fierce, heavy downpour half way through my journey, it was a pretty and uneventful journey to their house, although I had managed around 700 km, my longest day. The last hour or so was in the dark, but thanks to the exemplary directions provided to me by Mariana, I found their palatial home with no difficulty, and provides testimony to why one should never make sweeping generalisations, like 'Women are terrible at giving directions'. Having said this, you may find that this ‘journal’ is brimming with sweeping generalisations. I find them to be a useful tool in painting a picture, so long as all parties know that there can be many exceptions. Whilst on the topic, I should warn you that I use a lot of what I call ‘pub knowledge’ – I will give pieces of information I have weaned along the way, by word of mouth from people I have met. This is not always reliable so I wouldn’t quote anything I say here as factual, I have seldom researched and proven one way or the other the voracity of what I have learned.

Speaking earlier of sudden downpours I would like to mention this in a bit more detail. I always feel a little hard done by when the heavens open, but in reality I would guess there have been just as many times when I was certain that I was in for a soaking, seeing the rain falling all around me, when I’ve by some miracle come through it all into sunny weather without a drop falling on me. Before I left South Africa I had used a can of waterproofing spray that promised to waterproof whatever fabric it was sprayed onto. My motorcycle suit is a tough fabric material, but provides no waterproofing whatsoever. It has protective armour in the shoulders, elbows, spine and knees, and although leather is by far the best choice for when you’re sliding down tarmac at high speed, it is incredibly hot, less flexible, less breathable, more expensive, bulkier and heavier than the fabric alternative. Plus, at the more sedate pace that I had always planned to travel at, a cooler fabric suit was the obvious choice. Plus I got it on Ebay for $50. The first rain shower I encountered was on the way to Blantyre, and within five minutes it was obvious that the waterproofing can had done absolutely nothing to improve the situation, and if anything might have made it worse. When confronted with menacing-looking dark clouds in my path I’ve found so far along this trip that the best thing to do is to just plough on, especially if you can see lighter clouds in the distance beyond them. If you’re lucky you might get through unscathed, and if unlucky, it will end if you just keep going – unless you’re particularly unlucky and the raincloud above you is moving at the same speed and in the same direction that you are. I have a small visor on the front of my bike and if I dip my head down so that my chin is resting on my tank bag, I find that I get a few square inches in my chest that stay dry for a little bit longer, and my view is ever so slightly less impaired than it would be otherwise. My hands stay fairly dry from the plastic hand guards infront of them, and my boots are pretty waterproof, so my feet stay dry. My crotch seems to be the delta at which the majority of the rain collects, but if the rain is hard enough, there’s very little that will stay dry. This is one of the unavoidable downsides to riding a motorcycle. Oh – I should mention that I do actually have a set of bright yellow waterproof overs that are strapped to the right and left engine guards close to my knees, but I have yet to use these once, whilst riding, mainly due to the faff of getting them out, the even greater faff of trying to squeeze them back into their pockets again, and the general (and often misplaced) optimism that it’s just a light shower and I’ll be through to the other side in no time at all.

It turned out to be a Thursday prior to the Easter weekend and I had arrived just in time for a big foreign NGO-worker, charity-volunteer, foreign doctor etc. party. After a couple of 'Greens' with Drew (Carlsberg came to Malawi many years ago and decided that the local beer simply wasn't up to scratch, so returned a little while later and built an enormous brewery that supplies almost all the beer-swilling demand throughout the country), we headed to a wonderful party where I not only got well fed on three different types of curry, but met a whole bunch of people with whom I'd be crossing paths with over the next few days. Drew and Mariana were heading off at 5 a.m. for an easter holiday at Cape Maclear on the southern shores of Lake Malawi and I decided to head to Mount Mulanje, Malawi's highest mountain, about an hour's ride southeast of Blantyre. Luggage space on my bike being at a premium my selection of footwear was limited to my large, bulky, protective riding boots, and a pair of flip-flops. Drew had given express warning that it was a fairly tough climb and very kindly provided me with a pair of trainers for the hike. After a pleasant and dry ride to the start of the hike (there are various starting points all around Mulanje, which essentially resembles a crown with a steep and long climb up to a plateau, of sorts, from which various peaks arise) I set off swifty with the hope of catching up with some of the folks I'd met at the party. I had to negotiate a price for a mandatory guide, and after ninety minutes of steep climbing, against a tide of women of all ages, carrying at least half their body weight in freshly felled timber atop their heads, my guide was delighted when we caught up with Maxi and Adam and he was able to about-turn with a full day's pay in his pocket. The three of us along with their two guides (main guide plus trainee) had a very pleasant and beautiful climb up to the first hutted accommodation along the route, Chambe, from where I continued alone up to the final hut at the base of the summit climb. Here I bumped into a number of the guests from Thursday's party, whilst we cooled off our feet in a very welcome, very cold, mountain stream. The expat community here in Malawi, of whom there are a very great number, appear to all know one another and socialise well together. The hut was full with sixteen of us huddled together on the floor, with only a few of us being tourists, and not a single local Malawian. Clearly hiking isn't a popular pastime in Malawi, or they just know to keep away on holidays when it's packed. The second day was far more tiring, heading up to the summit and then all the way back to the bike. The descending fatigues my legs faster than the climbing, but suffice it to say it was a stunning climb up to the summit, far more beautiful than I had expected, and a fair bit tougher. I then had a beautiful, somewhat detoured (I missed a turning) ride home through vibrant green fields of tea plantation all around me. The detour turned out to be a blessing.

I should probably mention Jack and Ed. Just as I neared the bottom of Mt Mulanje I saw a familiar pair of faces, looking a little red and sweaty already, making their way up. Jack and Ed are the only other overlanders I've met doing a similar trip to me, albeit in a Landrover Defender, and we first met at the hostel we were all staying at in Bulawayo. Ed's a Kiwi and Jack an Aussie, but I refer to them as the Kiwi boys for simplicity; since Bulawayo I've had the good fortune of running into them time and again, all the way north. In fact, it's largely due to them that I didn't turn south in Kenya, but continued heading northwards. They will crop up again in this journal. And again...

The following day's ride took me to Zomba, the old capital city of Malawi, which takes you by surprise when you hear it, as there's really nothing about Zomba that suggests in any way that it was once the national capital - only that it's a tiny town of mostly dirt streets, a school and a market. However, on my way there I was flagged down by the Malawian traffic police for speeding. I believe I was perhaps doing around 60 kph in a 50 zone out of a small town. They had me banged to rights, they even had it on camera - a video camera filmed the small screen of the speed trap, and I appreciate they were only doing their job. But I also have to do my job, and that includes trying everything I can do to avoid paying unnecessary fines. I had a lengthy 'conversation' with the three officers that was at times quite energetic and theatrical. Initially they weren't accepting any of my arguments, but it became more jovial and relaxed. On stating that in the UK the police are required to calibrate their equipment on a daily basis or else the evidence can be thrown out of court, they very proudly showed me the sticker on their machine to prove that theirs had also been calibrated. This can only be done in South Africa, the equipment having to be sent down there and back again, so the sticker was over three month old. At this point I didn't want to belittle their efforts, which they were obviously pleased with, but the conversation had turned into laughter and they let me go with a warning to ride slowly through towns, for my own safety. To be perfectly honest though, this is something I had already taken to heart from the outset of the journey. Mostly for safety, but also due to fuel economy, my average speed was often sitting around 70-80 kph. For anyone interested in nerdy fuel economy things: for the previous three years riding this bike around South Africa, I had for the large part discovered that the bike would get around 400 km before having to twist the nozzle on the pipe leaving the fuel tank, putting me into my reserve, and I might get another 70-80 km. If I was doing higher speeds of 120+ kph this would drop drastically to maybe 340 km plus 45 in the reserve. So as I adjusted to the new weight on the bike that all my luggage added (I shall discuss all my luggage at length at a later date - bet you can't wait), and I rode fairly slowly over the first few days, I was amazed to discover that not only was I still getting 400 km before switching to the reserve, but was actually surpassing it. As I continued to get used to southern African roads strewn with animals, humans, gravel, sand and pot holes, it seemed prudent to keep the speed to a sedentary 70-80 kph, I was often getting 440 km from the main tank, and on one occasion 486. Just went to show that the weight and aerodynamics of the bike has far less to do with its fuel economy than the speed I was travelling at. Since fuel would be the largest expenditure on this trip a 10-20 % change in fuel economy can make a pretty big difference on the wallet, and the conservative speed certainly saved my bacon on many occasions as I rounded a corner to Planet of The Goats, or a small girl ran out into the street from behind a bus.

A good bit of fortune coming as a result of something that at the time seems bad has happened to me many times on this trip, or perhaps it's just how one looks at it. As I walked back to the bike from the traffic police, I noticed some liquid underneath the bike that I didn't remember being there when I stopped. I couldn't see any liquid coming from the bike, but I had my suspicions that there might be a coolant leak, and so was on my guard as I set off again. Perhaps if I hadn't been made aware of this problem I wouldn't have noticed that my temperature guage was rising rapidly and above where it normally tends to sit. Suffice to say there was certainly a leak somewhere and my radiator needed regular topping up, until I managed to limp into Zomba, thankfully free of any permanent damage to my engine or gaskets. I had to hunt around a number of small hardware stores that sold a tiny selection of auto bits and bobs, and found a radiator 'sealant' that very much resembled a tube of sawdust mixed with black pepper. I've actually since been told that in a really tight spot, black pepper does work really well, and perhaps this actually was black pepper in the tube. Finally I found a shop closer resembling an auto spares store, that offered the choice of the same mixed tube, or a triple the price imported American liquid sealant. By this time I had stripped away the engine faring and radiator guard and after running the engine for ten minutes, at about the time the fan kicked on, the pressure inside the radiator reached the point at which the leak became apparent. In the form of three high-pressure jets that shot out, the points of damage within a milimetre of each other. Clearly a stone had been thrown up at just the right angle and location to pass through the guard and hit one of the miniscule vertical radiator pipes. I'd experienced radiator leaks before with cars I've owned, and these have always sealed quickly and efficiently with some radiator sealant, so I had high expectations of the pricier imported sealant, once I had haggled the price down to something slightly more reasonable. Cutting a long story short, after numerous attempts, and using up the entire bottle, designed for the proportions of a much larger car radiator, the leak had still not gone away (always: looks great initially, but leaving the engine running until it gets really hot, and the jets leap forth once more!) An external sealant was then used, a stick of flexible putty that hardens with air, heat and time, and again, no joy. Finally, the owner of the shop, perhaps out of a small sense of guilt for flogging me the most expensive sealant, along with every assurance under the sun that it would do the job, came up with a plan. He was heading back to Lilongwe early the next morning, and if I could remove the radiator, he would take it with him, get it welded, and bring it back later the same day - this being a more permanent and reliable solution than the options we'd tried thus far. So it was that a night in Zomba was forced upon me, and this turned out to be an extremely exciting night, when a shop fire broke out a few hours after dark, and what had seemed like a fairly empty, dusty little town, became a sea of a few thousand locals rushing back and forth to gawk and gasp at the inferno (plus one traveller). At one point a 'fire engine' of sorts arrived, trying to push through the crowds, but quite by surprise the crowd as one turned against it, throwing stones and smashing the windscreen, forcing the truck to reverse as fast as it dared through the crowd it had already parted once, this time forcing people to throw themselves out of its path. On enquiry I was told that the crowd was probably displeased that the fire department had taken so long to arrive. I was just amazed that such a little town in Malawi even had a fire department. To chase away the only group of fire-fighting professionals from an on-going shop-fire, located in the middle of a line of equally flammable shops, purely because they were a little late, is surely a fine example of cutting your nose off to spite your face. By this point the fire was spreading to the neighbouring shops, but the group of closest men at the front of the fire had started to do what they could to slow it's progress. Metal awnings were being attacked and pulled down, and men on top of neighbouring awnings were being passed full buckets of water and were emptying them through the collapsed roof next door. It was a little like being at Bonfire Night, everyone was enjoying the entertainment, other than the shop owner, I imagine, and it was really interesting to see how the local Zombians reacted and interacted, and came together to fight the fire's progress.

The following day, early afternoon, my radiator made a healthy reappearance. With no coolant to hand I had to reassemble the bike and fill it just with water, until such time as I could find a proper radiator coolant. The shop owner, and his assistant, who would insist on helping me with everything, were extremely friendly and helpful and I was much in their debt. I didn't really pay much of that debt off when the total bill came to around $7. Despite the late start, a lovely ride northwards brought me up to Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi. I spent a night here, and a second night 25 km west around the lake at Cape Maclear. These two spots are often raved about by tourists as stunning examples of lake-side holiday destinations on Lake Malawi, so my expectations were high, and then were sadly deflated. Actually, the backpackers I stayed at in Monkey Bay was pretty nice, and the water was pretty clean (Mufasa Rustic Camp), but at Cape Maclear, I couldn't help but notice the sad and often inevitable pollution that comes along when more locals move to an area popular with tourists, in the hope of finding work. I can imagine Cape Maclear has expanded rapidly in the last 5-10 years - one of those places where you'll hear old-timers exclaiming how it was a thousand times better twenty years ago. But my experience was one of litter, non-biodegradeable materials, everywhere, a small scratch below the surface. Twenty metres back from the beach front, or sticking a mask on your face when in the water, there was plastic and metal cans, sheet plastic, bottle caps - you name it, everywhere and in quite dense concentration. The beach is also full of locals in the evening washing their motorcycles and maybe doing a quick oil-change. Being a motorcycle enthusiast I don't like to winge about that, but as an amateur environmentalist I can't help but notice. It's also sad to say that it's actually not the tourists responsible for this (the litter, that is, not the motorcycle cleaning) - the vast majority of tourists are pretty conscientious these days. It's generally the local population, or an unavoidable consequence of a non-existant waste and refuse management strategy. I don't mean to be all Bah-Humbug, there are still lovely views, nice places to swim, without a mask, and boat trips out to nearby islands to snorkel with the fish, hopefully where the plastic hasn't yet been washed to. I should say Malawi is not alone here - responsible waste management is a common problem, throughout Africa, and particularly in the touristy spots. It was not so long ago that plastic wrappers and bottles didn't exist here, but natural and renewable wrappings. Drinks were, and still are to a smaller extent, sold in fully reusable glass bottles, the way milk used to be when I was a child. On the plus side, I once again ran into the Kiwi Boys, and I let my guard down for a little while and joined them for a few Frothies!

My next destination was a marked improvement, a couple of hundred kilometres up the coast, camped next to the water at Steps campsite in Senga. After chatting with the barman for an hour, he decided to be my chaperone in the adjacent Village-proper after his shift ended. We jumped on the bike and our first stop was a local restaurant where I ate a pleasant rice and meat dish for less than a dollar, followed by a lean-to bar down a backstreet, a short and convoluted ride further on. The locals were all extremely friendly, and most could speak English reasonably well. It's worth mentioning that I normally like to learn a smattering of the local languages wherever I travel, partly out of politeness, partly as I find you can barter a much better deal if it's done in the native tongue. I guess they might just be inclined to give you something closer approximating a local price in return for you making the effort to speak a few words in their language. On this trip I've had to sadly neglect this tradition since I'm on the move every day, and with the variety of languages from country to country, and even more so the tribal dialects within each country, I would need to learn a new language every day, and my mind is not the dry, ready to absorb sponge it once was (que - old teacher's hysterical laughing, falling off chairs). The locals were tending to drink small bottles of Malawian gin or vodka, at around two dollars a bottle, and I stuck to the Greens. My chaperone was keen to take me on to another venue, I believe with dancing, but I called it a night and headed home after dropping him off. Once again I was awoken by magically appearing rainclouds at 4 a.m., and quickly threw on the flysheet, before bedding down again in a somewhat more sodden environment.

Throughout much of Africa I've said to myself, ah, the Bicycle is King here, or the Cheap Chinese/Indian Motorcycle is King here, as these modes of transport dominate the roads, not just in the cities, but really far out in the rural areas. Bicycle taxis, which despite recent construction in China, resemble bicycles from the 1950's, even use rod brakes instead of cables. Local welders will have attached a robust-looking pannier rack on the rear, along with two foot pegs, and the owner will furnish the seat with some padding and cloth if the customer is lucky. It's then not uncommon to see the rider struggling up a gradient with two or even more (think mother and two children) squeezed onto the back seat, or scarily freewheeling down a hill, putting far too much trust in that very old braking technology, and their invariably extremely bald tyres. And it really is no exaggeration to say that these are everywhere, so far on my trip. In Malawi, however, despite the presence of these two wheeled transportation devices, I was saying to myself, Ah, the Foot is King here. The road sides (no pavements/sidewalks) are busy thoroughfares between every town and its nearby villages, for workers getting to and from their jobs, or off for another day job-hunting. It was explained to me that despite putting in a full day's work, 5-6-7 days a week, many of the Malawians still can't afford to take a bus to or from their place of work, their pay being so meagre (and these combi-buses are not expensive) and the greater importance of housing, feeding and clothing their families. More so than in any other country did I notice this in Malawi. It got to the point where I couldn't stop for a pee on the side of the road - I'd be riding for over half an hour trying to find a quiet spot with nobody walking past and eventually have to capitulate and join the local men in peeing wherever the urge takes you, for fear I was going to damage my kidneys.

My route up Lake Malawi took me next to Nkhata Bay, a well established touristy town in a small but bustling fishing and ferry community. I opted to stay in a pleasant, small, wooden hut dorm, since the weather was inclement, and it was only $3 at the Butterfly Centre, a backpackers-come volunteer centre. This place actually did seem to have a strong social conscience: every day they were providing education and support to the locals, and on my departure day I saw a large gathering, conference even, of the town's women, of all ages, for what purpose I couldn't be entirely sure, but I imagine something along the lines of encouraging independence, education for women, and taking control of the purse-strings. I met a variety of foreign volunteers, who after three months stay were on their way home, and a couple of English girls, newly arrived for their three months. Free internet was also provided for any locals wishing to use the computers, only banning Facebook during this time. All in all I was quite impressed with what they had succeeded in doing, and sadly was an exception to the general picture I had so far seen of Malawi. Now that my bother Ewan has left his NGO job in Rwanda, I don't feel any disloyalty in mentioning the depressing state that Malawi has been left in after decades of handouts from Governments, charities and NGOs. The negative impact that giving has had on Africa is only slowly coming to light, but it's a strong and growing consensus that it has done far more harm than good, and my time throughout Africa, but particularly in Malawi, really brought this home to me. Malawi seems to have the biggest NGO presence so far on my travels, and yet despite all of the help it has received it is probably the least developed country that I have been through. The opinion of many that I have spoken to is that the NGOs all have their own agenda, their small area, project that they are working on, but the different NGOs aren't working together. The left hand and the right hand aren't communicating. And the left hand and the right hand are still giving fishes, rather than teaching fishing. Or perhaps teaching fishing to one person who isn't passing this knowledge on. Anyway, I shouldn't get too wrapped up in this, this forum isn't the place for too much African politics. They always say that religion and politics are the two things you shouldn't talk about, nevertheless these are without doubt the two topics that have cropt up in conversation with the greatest frequency throughout this trip. But let's be honest, it's because they are the most interesting and divisive topics! Throughout Africa, but more so in Africa, there is a legacy of children of all ages that you pass on the street, on the road, on a hiking trail, that have their hands out and they know the three words "Give Me Money". Although I have heard several variations that included "Give Me Monday". It's not just children, some adults too. It has been identified as a result of a generation or two who have grown up with the strong social idea that they can get whatever they want if they put their hands out, and it is reported to have led to a complete apathy within the population, of not just Malawi, but many African countries, to work, to be industrious, to be entrepreneurial (and I acknowledge many of you will be thinking, who am I to point the finger at other people...) For decades many countries have put their hands out, and 'The West' has provided whatever they needed, from Governments, through NGOs and from charities. And the saddest thing is that when you look at where the billions of dollars have gone and what good it has done, there is very little to show for it. I do believe that far more will come out about this, and I think it will influence the way that aid to Africa continues. Anyway, enough.

I'd been hearing some worrying murmers from other guests about the inability to withdraw any cash from ATMs over the last day due to some international banking communication breakdown, and on my arrival in the nearest town to the north, Mzuzu, I discovered that it was true. It was one of those times to make use of the emergency dollars all travellers carry with them. During the preparation months (realistically though, let's call them years) I had exchanged some savings into dollars, which were to be secretly stashed away in various bundles, in various locations, within my luggage, and secreted away in hiding places within the bike. I won't go into too much detail about these, just in case I ever do a ride like this again, and someone who's read this blog finds my bike. The general idea, stolen from other overlanders, is to stash your money away in various nooks and crannies, such that if the worst does happen, and you get robbed, there's a good chance that at least one of your stashes will remain untouched, enough at least to get food, fuel, accommodation, and a means to contact your banks and cancel all your cards. Since it's not one of my stash locations, I'll give the example of one I read where a rider had rolled up his dollars and shoved them up the tube that is his side-stand, with a cork to keep everything in place. In a similar vein, I also keep a spare key for the motorbike secreted away in the bike, such that if needs be, I'm always able to get the bike started, and roll away, no matter what else might have happened. It's not that I don't trust you, but I'll keep that location to myself too. Predicting how long I would still be in Malawi and my daily expenditure, I exchanged some dollars, filled up the tank, and headed off again, very thankful to have these dollars, but also hoping that these instances wouldn't cause me to exhaust them too quickly.

There's a campsite further up the Lake Malawi coast called Mushroom Farm, that's pretty well known and has great reviews online, and this was to be my last night in Malawi, prior to entering Tanzania. Sadly, it's not an active mushroom farm, and appears to never have been. I propose that someone had eaten some mushrooms sat on the side of this hill when they came up with the name. Nevertheless, it is perched very high up on the side of an enormous hill, just near to Livingstonia, and has breathtaking views over the lake. It also has a thoroughly enjoyable, off-road, 9km ride up to it, and back in the morning. Slightly more testing if it has rained all night and the mud has turned into a quagmire. Funnily enough, it also had the Kiwis, along with their latest passenger, another Kiwi, Mike. By now we'd come to realise that we were more or less heading in the same direction, so perhaps we should liaise a little and that it might be nice to rendezvous every so often. Particularly for me, travelling on my own. It was at the Mushroom Farm that I also ran into a very pleasant South African couple, travelling with their young daughter in a Land Rover Defender, who had heard about me often, and had wondered if I'd ever arrived in South Luangwa National Park. It turns out that they had acquainted Dan during his long and lonely wait for me, and they had often wondered if the Pom had ever met his other Pom-mate. When they had seen my bike and tent, squeezed onto the plot that had previously parked their Defender (I had thought it was an empty plot, and the paraphernalia strewn around drying was owned by the Kiwis), their first thought was that it perhaps belonged to the erstwhile Max. These poor guys had made it initially into northern Botswana, a river crossing from Namibia and Zimbabwe, and had been awoken and robbed at gun-point of all their small items of value (i.e. the most valuable stuff), including passports, by a small group of good swimmers. They'd only recently returned from a hurried round trip to South Africa to replace everything, and commendably, undaunted, were persevering with their Southern Africa tour.

Posted by igotlostagain 03:46 Archived in Malawi

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