Malawi and Mozambique
August 20, 2010 GMT
I didn't get very far after leaving Chimoio. I had a recommendation to stay at Chicamba Lake, about halfway to the Zimbabwean border and only about one hour away.
So I stayed there three days not doing much again. It's one of those dangerous places - very easy to stay there for too long. I should have changed the air filter, the time has arrived, but I didn't have the equipment. That is, a container to wash the dirty ones in (usually a large plastic water bottle cut in half lengthways) and bottles in which to dispose of the petrol used for cleaning (more water bottles). And in this place, designed for doing nothing, I couldn't be bothered to go looking for some.
And still no internet. It turns out that this part of Mozambique, in the west, doesn't have much of that commodity, which may be a good thing.
The lake is formed by the Chicamba hydroelectric dam and is a magnet for anglers. The walls around the bar here are decorated with a wide selection of photos of huge perch and bass, and the anglers who caught them. But it's out of season at the moment so the place is nice and empty - almost.
The lake's not particularly scenic, the water level dependant on electricity demand and pretty low at the moment (it's winter I keep being reminded).
But some photos anyway:
This is just one small arm of this huge lake area, where eight separate rivers converge into one, on which the dam sits. So there's a huge area of interconnecting lakes, inlets, headlands and bays, ideal I suppose for all sorts of fish to thrive in. And this lodge/campsite I'm staying in is very quiet, very well looked after and an ideal place in which to forget about the passage of time.
Quite a few of these spend the days pecking around the tents and huts.
Being an angling campsite there was a lot of fish on the menu, so I suppose these chaps are fairly safe unless the fish stocks in the freezer run out before the start of the next season.
They get protection from the busy chief of the flock, who seemed to have two up-and-coming rivals for the position.
Then it was off to the border and Mutare beyond, and maybe the Great Zimbabwe Monument. But that's more than a day away I think.
Little update - I've arrived in Masvingo, an hour away from Great Zimbabwe. Not much internet here, just one place, and long periods with no power. So I've posted these last four entries and will now set off for the Monument for a couple of days.
Will do a posting about the journey to Masvingo when I return here.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 08:46 AM
More From Chimoio
To make sense of these last three postings, I'll mention that I'm compiling them as I go along, more or less, but have no means of putting them on this website.
I'm still in Chimoio, for three days probably, leaving tomorrow (Sunday 15th).
And like Tete, there's no internet.
But it's a nice place, different to other smallish towns, and a bit ragged in a well-worn sort of way. The best I can manage is to say it's like a place that lives its life out on the streets. And it has some atmosphere.
The people in the hotel here don't know any internet places in town. Yesterday I tried the main hotel in the town square, they told me there's no internet in Chimoio.
But then, one block back and on the other side of the road I noticed a large computer services shop and looked inside. There were two rows of tables with PCs on them, definitely an internet cafe I thought.
Yes it was, but no internet because there's no power.
"There'll be internet tomorrow," they said.
Outside I walked almost straight into an electricity linesman preparing to climb up a pole on the pavement. I thought maybe I'd mention that I used to do a similar thing for a living about forty five years ago, but so few people here speak any English and I certainly don't speak any Portuguese.
I did a similar thing outside the campsite in Khartoum one morning where a group of telephone technicians were testing lines at a cabinet by the gate and down below in a manhole next to it. They seemed to understand English and gave me a little welcome.
Anyway, this linesman, who had collected a couple of spectators, was wrestling with his climbing irons which were huge steel things, clunking about and attached to his boots, designed to wedge into the open spaces in the lattice concrete pole he was about to ascend. It looked a bit tricky and interruptions would not be welcomed I thought. So I continued on my way thinking that maybe power will return to the shop by the end of the day.
Well, the next day the power was back in the shop, but still no internet.
"The lines are down, should be back by Monday." And I learned that the Portuguese for Sunday was Domingo, as in Spanish, but Monday is called "the second day."
If all goes well, I'll be in Mutare, Zimbabwe on Monday, and will post all this stuff there if possible.
If there was internet here I'd be researching the recent history of this area a little.
When I first thought of reaching Zimbabwe through Tete, I remembered that this area was the centre of a guerrilla war for independence in the last century. Then I saw a car with a Frelimo banner and coat of arms on the back and remembered that Frelimo were the guerrilla terrorists in those days.
And here, on arriving in Chimoio, I found a tall office building signed as the Frelimo Central Office, and a large compound, maybe a school, on the edge of town also part of the Frelimo organisation.
So what were once "terrorists" are now an active political party with a hand in running their own country.
History never seems to teach anything.
With that in mind I tend to hope that all the wealth being generated by the mining boom around Tete will stay in Mozambique, but something about our modern times tells me that is perhaps unlikely. It would be interesting to find out what Frelimo's view is of so much land being used to grow bio-fuels.
But it explains something of the atmosphere of this place. Unlike Tete which was neat and tidy and well looked-after, it's a bit ragged here. The roads are generally repaired but fair-sized craters still exist in the wide concrete pavements in the centre. Some buildings show signs of extensive repairs. Remnants of the past I suppose.
And like Kigale, Rwanda, there are many men of a certain age getting about in wheelchairs, some with helpers. There were fewer in Tete, but it explains now why I saw in the suburbs a man amongst the kiosks, completely limbless, going about his business with the help of two comrades.
So all this gives the place a certain atmosphere, one of everyone looking out for everyone else to keep the peace alive and maintain the relative prosperity. And a sense of optimism everywhere.
I'm not the only white face here, there are a few others, and UNICEF have an operation here.
Everyone has a mobile phone and there are hundreds of motorbikes on the streets, old and new, well out-numbering the bicycles. Even the wild and remote road to here from Tete had mobile phone masts all along its length.
There are nearly always queues at the many ATMs in town (I assume that's a sign of prosperity, or is it?) and unlike other countries, not all of them have armed guards alongside them.
There are lots of boys selling mobile phone top-up cards on the streets, and SIMs, and they laugh when they realise I don't have a phone. Maybe they think it's funny that these white foreigners don't have phones. (Well, I do, but no local SIM. I'll buy one when I reach Zimbabwe).
In a cafe I saw a slogan on the back of a jacket worn by a young girl out with a friend. It sort of sums things up here:
"What Remains Is Future."
That could convey almost any philosophical theme you like but it's not difficult to imagine the message it's intended to convey here.
There are a few gems like that nailed up on the small wooden roadside kiosks and workshops you see along the roadsides, attracting the attention of passers-by. One such, near the campsite in Lilongwe, proudly announced the presence of "The Great Welding Doctor." One to visit with a bad bout of flu maybe.
Update - later that day........... I got advice that there's a very nice campsite/lodge on a lake between here and the Zimbabwe border. I even have the GPS reference! As I still have plenty of visa/insurance time to use up in Mozambique I'll visit it and maybe stay if it's as good as I'm told.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 08:45 AM
August 19, 2010 GMT
Steering By Bradshaw
Well, he said his name was Matthew. But as he was Dutch, he's unlikely to be Matthew Bradshaw I suppose.
"Isn't it cold!" he said, standing next to his 650 BMW, three-quarters of his way around Africa, from Holland via Spain and Morroco, down the African west coast, Cape Town, now returning up the east coast to Egypt and Europe.
I'd just arrived in Tete, Mozambique, crossed the Zambezi River on its famous triple-span suspension bridge, and stopped in the middle of a group of hotels where I saw his bike. It was a sort-of TIA (this is Africa) moment.
After turning right towards Tete that morning (instead of left to Blantyre), I was again straying away from the "East Africa main route," and expected to see no more travellers for a while. And here at my first stop since, was a rider doing a complete circumnavigation of the continent. And he'd only stopped for a quick coffee outside a cafe, having left Chimoio that morning and heading for Blantyre before nightfall. Another rider travelling at twice the speed of me.
We shared route information and he noted the motel I had just stayed in, which would save him having to go into Blantyre and then back-tracking to get on the road for Lilongwe.
And he had also visited the Great Zimbabwe Monument.
"Why don't you follow the route I've just used, instead of going through Harare?" he suggested.
"Just before the Zimbabwe border take the road to Chimoio. It's a nice ride through wild country, no traffic. Then go through the Vumba forest and mountains, cross into Zimbabwe at Mutare, then it's a brilliant ride to the Monument with no capital cities in the way! And all tarmac."
Well, that seemed a pretty good suggestion, particularly as I'd just paid for thirty days traffic insurance and ditto visa and might otherwise spend only two days in the country. I'd also heard that Mutare is a good place to visit.
"As I came down into Tete it looked as though the weather is heading towards Malawi. What's it been like?"
I told him about the rain on the other side of the border. And about the chaos on the approach to Tete's suspension bridge. Both the bridge, and some of the chaos, visible from our parking spot.
"Oh dear, better get going!" And off he went towards the bridge.
When I approached it earlier from the other side, a queue of lorries commenced about two miles beforehand. It was a bit odd, as though approaching a border crossing. But that was out in the countryside so the lorries were on the shoulder not blocking other traffic. At the bridge was the cause of the queue, it was undergoing serious repairs. Only one lane was open, all the other space taken up with machines, compressors, lifting platforms and all the other paraphenalia of a major civil engineering job.
And only one direction of traffic could cross at a time. Twenty minutes for westbound traffic, then twenty for eastbound. Cars were fighting to get to the head of the queue using all the road and pavement space available. But this is Africa, and in a strange way, the fighting was very polite. Although there were cars everywhere on the approach, including places where they shouldn't be like the other side of the road, the wrong side of the approach dual-carriageways, and the pavements, everyone was courteously giving way to everyone else. And I managed to get to the front with no trouble where I found it was the turn of westbound traffic to proceed.
So I did and crossed with hardly a delay. But if you time it wrongly, it could be a half-hour wait, a lot more if you're in a car.
The trucks sit in their queues all day until the bridge is closed at 6pm. Then one or two trucks at a time can proceed, in one direction only, all night, until it's the time for ordinary traffic again at 6am.
It seems as though the bridge has the same problems as the Forth Bridge in Edinburgh that I learned about a few years ago. The main support cables are giving cause for concern.
These had been stripped of all covering in many places, exposing all the individual steel wires underneath, and engineers with all sorts of gadgets and electronics were inspecting and measuring, high up on the lifting plaforms. It was noticeable that these engineers were white Europeans. Maybe the bridge was built by the Portuguese and they've returned to check it out.
Some of the huge vertical support ties had been removed and replaced with temporary structures and much detailed work was happening on the bare support cables where those vertical ties once were. This bridge has three suspension spans across the river so I hope it's all safe, not that I'm planning to return this way at the moment.
On the city side of the bridge there's less road room for the lorries to queue so they're marshalled in side streets, on waste land and anywhere out of the way with the police trying to keep the city-centre streets clear. Like Lilongwe, it's not a big place.
There are the usual warnings about using a camera but I took a couple of snaps alongside the queuing trucks, not daring to point the camera the other way, towards the bridge, with all the police nearby conducting the traffic.
The Mighty Zambezi, upriver towards the Kariba Dam and Zambia.
A tiny section of hundreds of waiting trucks.
I spent the night in Tete, ventured to use a cash machine, and gained some useful information from a South African mining engineer at the hotel.
He was looking over my bike, wanting to know the usual stuff about my journey. Then his mining training must have kicked in.
"What's this? Something not right here!"
He had found another of those empty holes where a bolt should be. This time, the other bolt that holds the exhaust on. And this one carries a lot more weight than the one that disappeared a week ago.
"It looks as though it's just recently fallen out." More mining experience I suppose. He'd noticed, as I had, that the surrounds of the empty hole were still shiny and clean, so after the morning's rain it had probably fallen out that afternoon, which was good news as the silencer joint would snap with that bolt missing for any length of time.
I asked him if he knew why the town seemed so busy with people, noticeably lots of whites, and with not many vacant hotel rooms.
"There's a boom in the mining industry here," he told me. "It's really taken off. Lot's of us up from South Africa for the work, but from many other countries as well."
That seems to be a common theme across East Africa, the boom in mining activities.
The following morning I departed on Matthew's suggested route.
But my map is a bit sparse on detail in that area, and there was no internet in Tete that day. "It's been bad for a week!" they told me. Maybe the cables go across the bridge.
So I had little information from my maps, and no GPS data or maps from the internet. Nor a guide book.
And I've become a bit reliant on my faithful GPS since Nairobi and Caroline's departure back home. Before that, she was the main navigator and map reader, I just followed along waving at people. And I've since found the internet provides an excellent source of GPS data for logging routes.
(My GPS is an oldie and a goodie. It doesn't connect to a computer, has no maps stored in it, so has to be manually loaded with route data obtained elsewhere).
Also, the East African railway network doesn't reach this region, so Steering by Bradshaw isn't an option either. But never mind, Matthew said it was a simple route and my map at least seems to confirm that.
So I took the Chimoio road at Changara just before the Zimbabwe border and headed south.
The road was indeed devoid of traffic and in excellent condition, across wild empty savannah countryside.
It was all very neat. Little laybys every few miles (the first I've seen in Africa) signposted as picnic places, and a constant stream of very neat little villages. These looked the epitomy of Africa, collections of round mud huts with voluminous conical straw thatch roofs, often so big that additional vertical wooden pillars surounded the huts to support the eaves. Groups of villagers huddled around wood fires in the cold weather.
The usual goats and chickens strutted around and crossed the road, and a new addition - herds of pigs, of many different types, rummaging along the road verges and in the undergrowth. I never saw one on the road though, maybe they somehow know not to, or maybe tarmac just isn't their thing.
Each village was neatly announced by an 80kph sign, then a neat name sign, and sometimes, for bigger villages, a 60kph sign. Followed by a 100kph sign at the exit.
So the road went on and on, getting colder and colder, lots of cheery people waving, until three things happened.
I decided it was too cold to go any further without wearing all my rain gear again, and I also seriously wondered if there was anywhere on this road to stop overnight. The owner of the hotel in Tete where I stayed assured me there were lots of nice hotels along the way, but there had been none, and we'd passed through villages that were marked on my map as large dots rather than tiny small ones. Even those places had no buildings at all except the little mud huts of the villagers. It was a long way to Chimoio and I had it in mind to stay somewhere on the way, even though Matthew had done it in a morning. (How, I don't know!)
Through the medium of the internet I would have checked out the road before departure. A service called Tracks4Africa logs just about every imaginable overnight stopping place in east and southern Africa, all shown on detailed maps with all the GPS data you could need. (Yes, it makes it too easy!) But never mind, I have a tent if Chimoio does prove to be too far.
Then I suddenly realised an even more important need I had of the internet and its mapping information.
I had absolutely no idea how much petrol I had, nor where the next fuel station was. And GPS positions for just about all filling stations in this part of Africa are also on the internet.
I had filled up in Tete that morning, but when I replaced the cap I saw that the attendant hadn't actually filled up my tank. But I didn't look more closely to see how full (or empty) it was. He'd gone off to get my change so I decided it would be a simple matter to fill up again on the outskirts of town or at Changara. No problem.
But of course I forgot all about that, until I stopped just then for more layers of clothes.
Oh dear, that's a bit of a double whammy, not knowing how much fuel you've got, nor where the next petrol station is. And no towns of any significance shown on my map.
Talk about Steering by Bradshaw.
All I could do was continue and hope for the best.
If only it wasn't so cold!
Well, the road continued very pleasantly, so that was some consolation, and with my large petrol tank I knew I'd have quite a bit of warning before running completely dry, about fifty miles or so, when I have to switch to the first reserve supply. There are two reserves on this tank. And someone in these villages probably has petrol for some reason or other, if not only to sell to passers by.
And then, what do you know? Two cyclists appeared pedalling in the other direction! (But not carrying petrol of course).
Tim and Bella from England were cycling from Cape Town to Spain, slowly, having been on the road for many many months (I forget how many).
We exchanged the usual information about routes, and once again I'm the bearer of bad news about Ethiopian visas in Nairobi. But would you know it? They too are planning to go around Lake Victoria, Rwanda and Uganda, the route that I thought only I would take. So like Pete back in Lilongwe they decided it'll be a long time before they reach Nairobi so things could change. And they are grateful when I tell them that there are plenty of grocery shops in Changara as they are getting low on provisions.
So I venture to ask about petrol.
"Yes," says Tim, "There's a big filling station about sixty kms back." And I know I have at least that amount in the tank.
So that's alright then.
They wanted to know all about the ferry across Lake Nasser to Egypt, and the 'dreaded road' to the Ethiopian border. So we chatted for quite a while, and a large group of children and a few adults gathered to listen. It's easy to forget that these villagers rarely, if ever, have a chance to listen to a foreign language. And I learned in the rural parts of Tanzania that local people find the English language incredibly funny to listen to. Strange!
So with petrol ahead, and probably just enough daylight left to reach Chimoio, the rest of the journey was a bit more relaxed.
Although a little less relaxed on the approach to the city. The villages disappeared, traffic increased as you'd expect, and huge enclosed cultivated farmlands appeared alongside the road stretching away into the distance.
Prominent signboards proclaimed that these were new agricultural projects for the large-scale growing of bio-fuels. So there you have it. In the land of hungry children, the motor car and bike (ironically, seeing my little recent uncertainty about petrol) will be well provided for.
Here in Chimoio it's been oil-change time yet again, in a very convenient hotel with a handy little yard in which to do the work.
There aren't many hotels here and this one had only one room left. So for less than I paid for one night in Tete I get an apartment in an annex for two nights and my own personal night guard on the gate. (Well, almost, there's one other apartment occupied here).
I don't know about all the guards that hotels and campsites employ. I suppose it may be necessary but mostly, in these small towns, things seem pretty safe, even at night walking back from a restaurant.
The money here in Mozambique is a bit more manageable as there are notes up to about ten pounds in value. But still you only get a maximum of about eighty pounds from an ATM. Here, these display a sign saying you can have two goes if you need more.
But there's a neat addition. They work in the normal way, except at the appropriate moment the sound of a trumpeting elephant comes from a little loudspeaker next to the delivery jaws, to warn you to have your hand ready to grab your cash.
It reminded me of cash machines in New Zealand. I think it was around December or perhaps May, many years ago. After inserting your card, the screen displayed the message, with flashing coloured stars and patterns surrounding it, "Before you enter your pin, we'd like to wish HRH The Queen Mother a Very Happy Birthday."
Maybe one day British ATMs will be as entertaining.
And finally....... just to explain....... the thought "Steering by Bradshaw" entered my head on the road here, while wondering about petrol and filling stations and places to stay. Some readers may need an explanation (as if this entry isn't long enough already).
In the early days of airplanes, pilots had very little means to navigate. Everything was new and strange and very basic - no maps for flying by, no radio, no radar. So a neat way to navigate was to follow railway lines, whilst looking up the latest copy of Bradshaw.
Bradshaw had the monopoly on publishing all of British Railways' timetables. So by consulting a complete copy, with maps, and looking out for the thousands of railway lines that existed in those days (far more than nowadays), pilots could easily follow any route almost anywhere in the country. And by looking out for the trains as well, the pilot could tell what time it was if his watch was broken. It all came to be known as "Steering by Bradshaw," a euphemism for not really knowing where you are.
(Bradshaw's 1907 map of the entire British Railways network can still be purchased on Amazon).
Posted by Ken Thomas at 11:07 AM
They're Biscuits, Jim, But Not As We Know Them
I stayed a week in Lilongwe. There was no work to do on the bike so I did very little, except research the route ahead to Harare in Zimbabwe via Tete in Mozambique, and thence to the Great Zimbabwe Monument. I gathered a list of places to stay from the internet and details of the route, all main tarmac roads.
You see, I have no guide book now. The last one I had was for "East Africa" that Caroline left me in Nairobi. It lasted until Tanzania. Now I'm relying on the internet where it's available, word of mouth, and my maps. And maps of Africa are a movable feast to say the least.
Anyway, I was camped at a popular backpackers' place close to the city centre, such that it was. For a capital city it's quite tiny, but then Malawi is a pretty small country anyway.
So it was quick and easy to get into town to get away from the sometimes frenetic activities back at the campsite as the gap-year students organised their day and the charity workers organised theirs.
And in town I noticed that the popular digestive biscuits have all but disappeared from the shops. They've been replaced by a range of biscuits that are occupying more and more shelf space as I go south. They must be best-sellers now judging from the stacks of them in the aisles.
They come from a bakery in South Africa, in distinctive red and white square boxes, and in three varieties (so far):
Eet Sum Mor, Munch A Lot, and Hav Sum Mor.
Each name preceeded by "The Original".
Well, I wouldn't disagree with that!
In the supermarket in Lilongwe it's not unusual to see shoppers pondering in earnest discussion over the stacks on the shelves, deciding which to buy for afternoon tea. All in Swahili, so I don't know what on earth they are saying. But you can't mistake the child's vote for "....... Eet Sum Mor!"
The evening before departure I was packing things up when one of those lone African birds crash-landed from the tree next to my tent, or so it seemed, and hopped around pecking at the ground. So here are yet more bird photos, from an old camera with a dim flash.
It noticed the flash, and hopped a bit closer to it each time it went off.
Bright orange with blue wings and doing a good impression of a badger.
The seventh day saw me set off south towards Blantyre, to either stay there or somewhere close to the Mozambique border. I had decided that going all the way to Tete was too much for one day. There's a crossroads near the border, left to Blantyre, right to Mozambique, and a little village with a little basic motel. So I stopped there for the night.
Up until that moment, the weather since longer than I can remember had been impeccable. Wall to wall sun and perfect temperatures (except for rain in the night in Nkhota Bay).
But the following morning it was freezing and dark. Black clouds billowed and rolled about, almost low enough to touch, blocking out all the light, although adding a touch more drama to the ever-changing mountain scenery. Halfway to the border the rain started, hardly any really, but the freezing temperature made me stop to put on all my rain gear.
That helped a little, but at the border the first job was to dig out the winter lining for my riding jacket, buried since Syria and often nearly jettisoned along the way. Then the heavens opened but fortuitously I was in the dry by then, going through the paperwork in the customs and immigration building on the Mozambique side.
The rain stopped when I rode onto the Mozambique roads headed for Tete.
The road was all downhill more or less, leading to the mighty Zambezi river. So, I thought, dropping about two thousand feet, it must warm up.
No, it didn't.
The idea "Hurry A Lot" and "Wear Sum Mor" sprung to mind.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 10:51 AM
August 06, 2010 GMT
Very European in nature, Lilongwe is a fairly compact capital city with the sort of traffic jams that come as quite a surprise after following the lakeside road all the way from Rumphi and the beach-resort town of Nkhata Bay to the north. That road was all tarmac, with hardly another vehicle for miles and miles and miles between the villages.
Except for two massive 'sugar cane trains' that came trundling the other way during the day. These comprise a big open truck pulling two equally big trailers piled high and wide with cane. They seem to use the same technique to load these as when making straw thatch roofs. The cane overhangs the truck and trailers like the massive over-hanging eaves of big thatched houses. The trucks are already wider than standard trucks, so the whole lot takes up the entire width of the two-lane road, but at least each one is accompanied by a preceeding warning van with flashing light. So there's time to get out of the way.
These things are probably the only road vehicles in Africa that have any priority over the buses.
After Rumphi I spent a nice four days at a beach-front camp and lodge in Nkhata Bay where I met a German rider on an Africa Twin coming to the end of a four-year around-the-world journey. He was now taking a fairly direct route north, even considering a new ferry he'd heard of from Alexandria direct to Italy. And after Pakistan, the Karakorum Highway, south-east Asia and the Australian outback, the Moyale road held no worries for him.
And, "The cheapest shipping I found for a motorbike to South Africa was a sea freight route from Vancouver to Cape Town." Well, that must be one of the longest sea routes in the world - but what a thought!
"Take the lakeside road south from here," he told me. "It doesn't go up and down any mountains, nor follows the lakeside very much, but it was a very enjoyable ride, all tarmac and no traffic."
So I did. And he was right.
But not until we had quite a bit of rain in Nkhata. Two nights running, and pretty heavy the second night with one of the thatched huts leaking and guests a bit wet.
However, I was the bearer of bad news for our German friend.
"Do you know if Ethiopian visas are being issued in Nairobi now?" he asked.
I told him the most recent news I'd heard was no. He checked by phone with Jungle Junction and found that was still the case.
"What were travellers doing to get visas?" he asked.
I told him about Gareth's success getting help from his South African consulate, and all others having to post their passports home for the visa. He whisked off emails to German and Ethiopian consulates near and far, loaded up his bike, gave me some bike shop business cards from Cape Town that may be handy, and headed off north. I went south.
There were two bridges like this south from Nkhata. I just about had room to park at this, the second one, for photos.
They're constructed as an open steel lattice affair. There are scaffold planks where your front wheel should go, and a view of the river below where it shouldn't.
Without a doubt, back in colonial times, the Brits brought over too many railway bridges, someone must have added an extra zero. To cover up the error they used the surplus, with planks added, as road bridges. As they say, "All comedy comes from real life."
This road goes all the way to Senga Bay at the southern end of the lake, where it branches one way to Cape Maclear and the other way the short distance to Lilongwe.
At Senga Bay I found a motel with cheap rooms and planned to look around the general stores and hardware shops for a good strong brush to clean H.M. The Bike.
In Africa, and Malawi in particular, dirty vehicles are never seen on the roads. Whether cars, lorries, buses, or two-wheel taxis with or without engines. Car and lorry cleaning is a big business.
Every evening in campsites and hotel compounds all the cars are washed, either by the drivers or the hotel cleaners. I'd become quite conscious of the state of my bike after all the Tanzanian dirt roads (and the Kenyan ones before that) and had been asked a few times, "Clean your motorcycle, mister?"
But The Bike has all sorts of things attached to it by all sorts of means, and I'd seen the enthusiasm the car washers put into their work, especially when vigorously rinsing all the dirt from everything that a car has hidden behind the wheels and under the wheel arches. So I was a bit wary about letting a car washer near my bike and decided to look for a decent brush myself.
And all campsites and hotels have buckets available for the very purpose of ensuring that Africa's roads are free of dirty cars, lorries and buses.
The final decider was at one or two of the many permanent police check points on Malawi's roads.
As elsewhere in Africa these are friendly and cheerful affairs (at least for us tourists) and when you answer the question about where you're from, there's a big grin, another shake of the hand and they want to know all about your journey.
But a couple of times a remark something like, "Well, your bike has certainly collected lots of red African dirt!" was, I think, a hint that it needs a wash!
Well, in the motel compound at Senga Bay the keen hotel cleaner, Ishmael, seemed as though he'd do a good job for a good price so I let him get on with it, saying I'd help him as well. He didn't speak much English and thought he'd best leave the panniers alone, probably thinking the water would get inside. So I attacked them, with not much effect. Some of the dirt came off, but they now have a permanent ochre-red tinge over the black canvas. Quite appropriate really.
When Ishmael was satisfied with his work, after two bucket-fulls of soapy water, H.M. The Bike certainly did look a lot more presentable, and had probably lost quite a few pounds in weight.
But, as they say, "This Is Africa!" (usually abbreviated to "T I A!") and there was more to come.
That night I left the bike right outside my bedroom window, and woke early in the morning to the sound of water sloshing about all over the place. With a discreet bit of curtain twitching I looked outside to see the two cars parked either side being thoroughly washed.
But then, after a lull, the sloshing sounds definitely seemed to be right outside my window. I checked again, to find Ishmael having an enthusiastic second go at my bike!
And sure enough, when I finally emerged to look for some breakfast, there was my bike, even cleaner than the evening before. Tyres and all! And he never even told me he'd had a second go.
That, I think, is the true face of Africa!
Another feature of Malawi is the money.
It's more expensive here than anywhere else on our route so far, part of the "things cost more the further south you go" dictum.
But, to repeat, "T I A!" as they say.
Thus, the ATMs in Malawi will only give you a maximum of eighty-five UK pounds-worth at a go. Elsewhere it's been close to two hundred.
And the reason I now find is very practical.
The largest note here is about the equivalent of two pounds 20 pence. And the notes themselves are large, getting on for A5 size. - Well, larger than any UK note and anything else I've seen on this journey. And printed on thick paper as well. It becomes a real problem carrying it all around on your person.
The result: eighty five pounds, unsquashed, is about half an inch thick, squeezing to about three-eighths.
And, I now see, that's the maximum size of those ATM security jaws that deliver the cash into your hands!
QED, as they say.
I don't know what you do when you buy a car here. You'd need a big car to carry all the cash to the car showroom to collect the car you're buying ........
As I departed Senga Bay I had a short chat with a local who wanted to know how long I'd been in Malawi and where.
"Make sure you spend plenty of time on the lake," he insisted. "After all, Malawi IS the lake!"
And I think that sums up the attitude around here. It's central to their lives.
The two-hour ride to Lilongwe winds over another mountain ridge above the Lilongwe River with big African savannah views from the top. Little photos can't hold these big scenes but here's a few anyway.
The change from Tanzania to Malawi (with its holiday-resort lake the length of the country) is similar to that between Kenya and Uganda - us 'overlanders' are crowded out by gap-year students on adventure travels. But never mind, I get confirmation here in Lilongwe that ATMs in Zimbabwe do hand out US dollars, so I don't have to avoid spending mine at border crossings.
I also met a Spanish couple here who are travelling around by bus for two months, just before they left the campsite to catch their bus to Tete in Mozambique. And it was about 9:30 am when they left. So it can't take all that long to get all the way to Tete from here, instead of staying in Blantyre. So we'll see - mustn't forget that although Malawian buses are about the slowest so far in Africa, even sticking to the 50kph speed limit in Lilongwe, they are still faster than me on the open road.
Just after writing that, Pete from New Zealand arrived by bicycle, cycling from Cape Town to Copenhagen.
For anyone reading this who was in Khartoum at the same time as us, and met the Polish cyclists there retracing the steps of the celebrated Polish bicycle explorer Kazimierz Nowak, they had a successful tour through Sudan and Pete met them at the Victoria Falls in Zambia about a month ago. So they are in front of me now, but going to Namibia after South Africa, so maybe I'll catch up with them there.
But I was the bad news bearer again. Pete asked if it was easy obtaining visas for Sudan and Ethiopia on our route. Well, it was for us, but I told him about the lack of Ethiopian visas in Nairobi. He hadn't heard about that.
"Well, it'll be a long time before I reach Nairobi so maybe it'll change. I'm taking the road west from the Tanzanian border to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, then taking the ferry up the lake to Kigoma."
"Then round Lake Victoria through Uganda to Nairobi."
So it seems more and more travellers I meet are doing that route, and we had a long chat about it and the ferry's history.
Then Axel and Sarah arrived on an Africa Twin, from Germany, heading to Cape Town at a fair rate of knots, twice my speed (again). They reported that they met Scott, the Canadian on his way to Europe via Saudi Arabia, and who had had an entertaining time in Nairobi while we were there, obtaining his visa for Eritrea. They had crossed paths in Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Scott hadn't been able to follow his Eritrea - Saudi route. His Saudi visa took so long to acquire that his Eritrean visa expired and he couldn't get it extended at all. Consequently he was stuck with the standard Egypt - Middle East route.
So news filters steadily along the grape vine about travellers met on past occasions.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 06:39 PM
July 28, 2010 GMT
Another simple border crossing, and here we are, in Rumphi, Malawi. And zero cost, no visa, no road tax etc. There was even an ATM next to the Malawian immigration window.
Before crossing into Malawi I spent a few days in Tukuyu, and changed the engine oil and air filter. The air filter that I removed looked like deep-pile carpet on the outside, cocoa-coloured of course.
Then we rode another roller-coaster of a road. (That's the "royal We." Lots of travellers seem to give their vehicles names, so I thought mine should be "His Majesty the Bike," as its needs must always come first, it seems.)
Tukuyu is in the middle of banana plantation country. And there, the harvest is carted around in the back of big wagons. Whatever happened to those banana bicycle boys further north? That was far more colourful. Didn't see any around Tukuyu. Not many bicycles at all actually, it's far too hilly.
The route from Tukuyu plunged down to 1500ft and the Songwe River, marking the border between Tanzania and Malawi. Then a further slight drop to Lake Nyasa and some pretty warm weather.
There are still lots of mountains around, and the scenery is much more tropical here than back in Tanzania. Masses of broad-leaved trees and bushes of unknown name, ditto with needle-leaves, and the more recognisable ordinary palms.
And the banana bicycles have returned, between the villages along the flat lakeside road.
Flat until Chimpamba, where another climb up mountain ranges starts, taking us up above the lake. This is the usual switchback road, narrow, with tarmac disintegrating along the edges, tight hairpin bends and plenty of pot holes.
It climbed up above 5000ft, with lots of huge signs about sharp bends, slow down, "Arrive Alive", but still the wreckage of a truck-trailer being cleared up at the roadside.
Then the reason for all the pot holes and disintegrating tarmac.
These are coal mining mountains. The road winds through the middle of one mining area, tight bends, big heavy trucks, a new type of dust, and "Stopping On The Road Is An Offence" signs. Pretty dangerous thing to do anyway, as this road is narrow with no watertight guarantee that the coal lorries, with trailers, could stop if suddenly confronted by a parked car on a bend. And the road is all bends, no straight bits.
Lake Nyasa (or Lake Malawi) from the climb up towards the coal mines.
We passed another mining area before opening out onto a plateau which led to the sandy and windy crossroads town of Rumphi, home to a charity running an orphanage with camping and nice rooms as usual.
But not cheap now. Malawi seems to be known for being expensive, and its accommodation and petrol certainly is. Petrol is around one pound twenty per litre, pretty expensive for Africa.
Beer, though, is still under a pound. Fifteen shillings for a half-litre.
Sorry - seventy five pence. (After three months in East Africa, you get used to shillings again after years of decimalisation!)
So now it's map-reading time again. There are two possibilities southwards from here, the lakeside road to Lilongwe, shown as being a minor dirt road in places, and not actually on the lakeside, or the main tarmac road that goes up and down over more mountains on its way to Lilongwe. There are many beach resorts a little way down the lakeside road which most travellers seem to visit before back-tracking to the main road which is described as much more interesting.
Then at Lilongwe there are again two possibilities for the onward route to Zimbabwe.
Through Mozambique or through Zambia. As I'm still considering heading all the way over to Namibia, quite a distance, I'll probably take the shorter Mozambique route.
All subject to change, of course.
Posted by Ken Thomas at 04:02 PM