In Tandem with Africa and Asia
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Stage 5: Malawi's Lake of Stars & cycle touring, the French way...
Stage 5: Dedza to Nkhata Bay, Malawi. 650km, 12 days Sept 28th - October 11th
My stay in Malawi will forever be associated with music. As well as experiencing my first African festival, I was lucky enough to bump into Jeremie et Claire, an eccentric French couple cycling around Africa with 2 accordions, a clarinet and a didgeridoo...
The spectacular scenery on the ride down to the lake of stars made up for the fact that I was going South and further away from London, my final destination. Having climbed 1000m of vertical with Sindiwe the previous day, Shayne and I enjoyed some breath-taking views as we dropped down from the Dedza escarpment, taking care on the alpine-esque hairpins but enjoying speeds above 60km/h where the road allowed.
Alpine type descents from Dedza Morning light at Mua Mission
Neils, a German cyclist making his way from Addis Ababa to Durban, would later tell me that it was the best descent he had ridden on his journey in Africa, which had included the highlands of Ethiopia & Kenya. As the we lost metres, so we gained Fahrenheit and were glad to arrive at Mua Mission without having to suffer too much of the midday heat or annoy a band of witchdoctors that we encountered en route (photo below). The mission is one of Malawi's oldest, founded in 1902 by the Catholic church and we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon out of the heat before getting an early night, in an attempt to beat the sun for the following day's ride to the lake.
Fancy dress for the music festival?
A fairly straightforward 70km, combining both tar and dirt, would take us to the turn off for Cape Maclear where we had booked to stay the night before the festival. There we would be meeting up with the rest of the team from Lusaka. Arriving at the turnoff at 11am, the heat was already picking up but we decided it would be worth to push through the last 18km of dirt, rather than waiting for the cool of the late afternoon. Washboard, some deep sand and 20% inclines made for a very tough finish to the day and we dragged ourselves into the village, relieved to know we wouldn't be cycling the following day.
Shayne had invited me to join the group when I met her in Cranleigh back in June. I would be the 11th addition to the party, a fun crew of 'white Africans', from Zimbabwe, South Africa & Kenya along with a token American, Andrew Dassori who was on secondment from CSFB to Equity Bank in Nairobi. It turned out that one of the Zimbabweans, Sean Davies, has also been a pupil at my school (Cheltenham College) in the UK. Although 7 years younger, we enjoyed a chat about some of the teachers we had shared. It was interesting to get his international perspective on the state of Africa, something that he took more interest in than some of the other whites I had met on my journey so far.
Sunset from Cape Maclear
Having been the main decision maker on the trip so far, it was great to take a back seat and go with the flow - a welcome holiday after a busy 10 weeks on the road. The lake of stars is a festival 'powered by volunteers' and is in its 5th year. I had met the organisers at Mabuya Camp, my base in Lilongwe. Tom & Jannie, Mabuya's owners would also be running the main bar at the festival. Alongside the fact that the majority of the people that I had be-friended in Lilongwe were there, I felt like somewhat of a local and enjoyed catching up with most of them over the 3 days. A few cyclists that I had met on the road also showed up including Alex Van Cause Beech, who had been riding his Chinese mountain bike around the globe for the last four years. He is an interesting guy, born in Niger but of European descent. He had an engineering degree and a brief career in IT/finance before deciding to travel the world. He enjoyed playing to the image of an 'international man of mystery', refusing to tell me which country he was from. "My bike is now my home & I'm not proud of my 'mother' country", he told me. I speculated but he didn't budge! We were travelling the same way so we made loose plans to hook up in Kenya in December.
Lake of Stars Alex had been on the bike for four years...
The music was generally pretty chilled with some talented artists, mostly small scale African and UK bands although South Africa's Freshly Ground were headlining. After 3 fairly heavy nights of partying, with the Sunday night thankfully cut short by cashflow problems, I said goodbye to the group before hitching a lift back to Cape Maclear to be re-united with Thandie where we would spend a couple of days recovering on the beach.
Main stage at the lake of stars...
Two days of chilling at Cape Maclear in a beautiful campsite on the beach were enough and I was ready to get back on the road and start heading North. I hitched another lift to Salima, due east of Lilongwe, figuring it wasn't worth doing the same road twice just for the sake if it. At Salima, I would be picking up Olivia (Liv) de Rougemont, a doctor friend from the UK who was working in Tanzania and would also meet up with Jeremie & Claire, the above-mentioned French couple that had got in touch on email.
another average view from the tent on lake malawi Fresh herbs grown from the bike...
Jeremie & Clare (the 'frenchies') had been on the road from their home in Lyon for more than a year, heading South through West Africa before heading East from Namibia. They were now on their way home, following a similar route to me. Talented artists, Claire was a music teacher back home whilst Jeremie was a relatively well known Sculptor. The decision to cycle around Africa had been refreshingly spontaneous, materialising a couple of months after they started going out. Their shared passion was music and would play their various instruments most days. They were also recording the sounds of Africa as they travelled. In true French fashion, they cared much about food, with their very own spice rack and were growing fresh herbs on their panniers!! Alongside the tandem that virtually no one outside of South Africa had ever seen, our group caused plenty of bemusement along the road.
we attracted plenty of attention whenever we stopped
WIth Liv half French and their English a similar level to my French, we spent most of the next week conversing in French. Claire was a natural teacher and it was great to spend a few days being forced to improve my own French, something I had wanted to do at some stage during the year.
In contrasts to the cycle into Malawi through Zambia's Eastern Province, the cycling conditions up the lakeshore were a pleasure: the first proper tailwind of the trip allowed us to cruise up the flat tarmac, with cloud-cover protecting us from the sun and the esclating fuel crisis reducing the traffic noticeably. The fuel crisis was a symptom of the broadening economic crsis, sadly enveloping Malawi. Although there were a number of causes, the expulsion of the British high commissioner in the Spring pushed William Hague & other international bodies to suspend aid, contributing to a even greater shortage of foreign exchange. With limited FX, importing fuel from other countries was becoming harder. In turn, this was pushing up food prices, which had fed the social unrest culminating in the July riots where untrained police had shot dead around 20 protestors, unheard of in recent times in what is generally seen as a very peaceful nation. Whilst the socil tension seemed to have subsided, there was little sign of an improvment in the economic situation, other than for trade carried out on two wheels!
most of the traffic was two wheeled...
With the rugby world cup entering the knock out stages on our first weekend together, my priority was to find a place with DSTV that would be showing 'le crunch' quarter final. Stima Inn, a quirky lodge run by an Afrikaan couple with a great view of the ramshackle harbour in Nkhotakota would therefore be our first destination, 120km north of Salima. I apologised to Liv for a relatively long first day but comparisons with the 160km warm up that Richard Humes had to endure made her feel better!
We camped outside and had just finished our dinner of rice with fresh vegetables with Papaya & Bananas for dessert when Stima's owner Francois entered our camping area and sternly told us that it wouldn't be safe camping here. He and his night watchman had just found a baby croc a few metres from our tent (we had wondered what the commotion had been). He offered us a bed inside which we gratefully accepted. Meeting the mother might not have been much fun.
A french concert in Malawi
After enjoying some accordion music in the bar, we retired early, looking forward to the rugby the following morning. "An Englishman, Scotmans & Irishmen would be in a bar the following weekend.... watching a France Wales Semi-Final". The lazy morning watching rugby meant we had to cycle in the heat of the day. we knocked out 30 kms before finding a nice shady spot for some lunch and a siesta. An engaging local teacher Crispin had welcomed us to take the spot, on the roadside next to his parents' home. At 4.30, we carried on and planned to camp at whichever village we were nearest to at dusk. The Frenchies had stopped with villagers for most of their trip in Africa and I therefore trusted them to pick an appropriate place to stop and request a camping spot. With less than 30 mins of daylight, I suggested that we should probably be stopping soon. 'I am an artist, you an economist' came the reply from Jerermie, ' I stop when it feels right!'. Our first attempt proved unsuccessful as the village headman was in town and it was custom for any visitors to seek permission from him before being allowed to stay. It was only the 4th time in a year that the Frenchies had been refused a spot. With darkness quickly descending, thankfully we were welcomed into the next village and, by stopping so close to dusk, we attracted less attention than otherwise would be the case. We pitched our tent under a beautiful mango tree next to Felix's house, a 29 year old man who lived there with his wife and 2 kids. His English was excellent and we enjoyed chatting to him and his children before hitting the sack after cooking some more rice to go with some samosas we had bought on the side of the road earlier in the afternoon.
Liv with Felix, our host for the night
We separated from the Frenchies the following morning so that we could catch the SA v Australia game at a posh lakeside lodge, 25km north. We treated ourselves to a superb breakfast and planned to hook up with Jeremie & Claire for lunch. As it turned out, we misinterpreted their directions and thus didn't catch up with them till the following morning. We camped the night at Kandi Beach, famous for its white sand and overland truck camping spot. The 2 kms of deep sand to reach the campsite was typically hard work, however, thanks especially to several dense clouds of flies that we were forced to cycle through. We had seen these on the horizon from Stima Inn and joked that it wouldn't be much fun to encounter them at close quarters. It wasn't but Watching local women busily trying to catch them for food quickly halted any self-pity that was brewing.
Kandi beach was indeed busy with 3 overland trucks, taking a rest day and enjoying some 'organised fun' on the beach. I joined in for a game of touch rugby and was surprised how unfit I felt - a stark reminder that plodding along with a low heart rate isn't great preparation the stop-start nature of beach rugby. Chatting to some of the backpackers in the bar that evening reinforced my decision to travel independently. Being able to choose when and where you stop is one of the joys of undertaking such a journey. I was glad that I hadn't planned my route much beyond Malawi for that very reason.
We caught up with the Frenchies early the next morning and enjoyed a smooth ride to Nkhata Bay, where we would be taking a rest day at Makoya Village, a camp beautifully perched on the rocky headland just south of the main bay. It was run by Katherine & Gary, a very welcoming couple who had started it as mud huts 15 years ago. Katherine grew up in Hereford and had kindly offered to let me stay for free as their sponsorship towards to the trip. It transpired that Al Humprheys had stayed here for 2 weeks, 6 months into his mammoth round the world trip back in 2001. They spoke fondly of nursing him back to health - he had endured a tough month cycling down through Tanzania and was struggling when he arrived at the lake. I updated them on his progress and current endeavours as an adventurer, motivational speaker & blogger. Al has been a big inspiration for my own trip as well as offering some sound advice during the planning stages. Earlier this year, he had delivered an excellent lecture to my own students at Cranleigh School.
Mayoka proved to be the perfect place to relax and we enjoyed 24 hours of swimming in the lake, taking a boat trip up the coast to see the Fish Eagles and mixing with other travellers, some of which I had met in Cape Maclear. THe Frenchies were camping next door, entertaining other backpackers with their music concerts each night.
Probably the most graceful fisherman on the lake...
Nkhata Bay and Makoya Village in particular is a place that is very difficult to leave. I calculated that I could afford an extra day there and still make the border before my visa expired. As it was, Liv caught a bus back to Lilongwe from there with Nena, a Canadian nurse we had met. I enjoyed another day's relaxing before hooking up with the Frenchies to tackle the steep climb to Mzuzu. From here, I had no-one signed up to join me on Thanide but was looking forward to a bit of solo riding into Tanzania. With the fuel crisis meaning virtually no petrol in the country, I was sure there would be plenty of hitchhikers keen for ride...