‘If I was a dinosaur I would live here’ – Shane commenting as we passed through green fields highlighted with large granite peaks. Perhaps he was a little tired.
As we entered the country cycling between the lake on our left and foliage covered mountains on the right the only change wasn’t only the tropical difference but also the amount of people occupying the streets whether the were cycling or walking. Assuming due to it being a Sunday and the formal wear most were on their way to church. We learnt over the next few days it was more so due to the lack of petrol in the country after the President banned all imports mainly relating to the country not having any money. Due to a recent political ‘spat’ with England they pulled out their foreign aid, which equated to 60% of Malawi’s total aid. This resulted in people having to walk and allowing them the safety of the now traffic free road as a space for social opportunities. For us it meant the roads were ours with little chance of any interruptions besides those from the locals cycling along.
Before coming to the country protests had been held opposing the staunch control of the government resulting in several civilian deaths. With such a placid nature throughout the country it seemed that most were more content to put up with the Prime Ministers (Bingu wa Mutharika) draconian legislations than risk arrest. He was a man that by law was featured in a hung picture on the walls of each business in Malawi, which seemingly is the traditional by leaders in many African countries. With the next election not scheduled until 2014 it seemed that things weren’t going to change soon although not long after us leaving the country ‘Mutharika’ passed away. It will now be interesting to see the development of the country under new leadership.
A rest day was had on the banks of the dominating lake, a body of freshwater that tempted us on the hot days as we cycled past. Despite the bilharzia (waterborne parasitic worms that aren’t fun) threat I had a quick dip to simply say I have. A trip up the mountains to Livingstonia was also included in the day to see the location of an established mission away from the malaria-ridden lowlands. Being in a car was actually a surreal feeling seeing the world go by so quickly with such little effort. Once we reached the higher elevations and the established community we got to learn about the introduction of the missionaries as evident throughout the strongly religious country. Certainly great examples of humanitarian work in the early colonist development of the country just complicated when outsiders have had the priority of saving souls over saving lives.
Back on the bike we had some short hilly days, which offered opportunities to start sweating within the first 15 minutes. Sweat that would find its way below your sunglasses to sting your eyes and covering your hands making it a task to change gears. Possibly due to these harder days and its physical demands Justin (Juzzy Juz Juz) got ill and so bussed it ahead to meet us in a few days in the capital.
The occasional shorter days of 90kms well short of our approximate overall average of 130km seemed at times to be just as hard. It was the mental side of breaking the day down into rest/food no matter what the required kilometers were. So with lunch coming at the halfway mark you still know you had a while to go. On the plus side it allowed a later start (a sleep in past 6), a engaging lunch or rest and/or an early arrival in a town to discover it outside of the hotel during daylight hours.
With us passing through tiny villages and the outlying tobacco and maize fields (with accompanied pungent drying maize) food options weren’t abundant. A staple diet through many of these central countries is ‘ugali’ (also known as sima/ngima) a maize dish that literally consists of ground and maize with a consistency of hardened mashed potato. Throughout several countries this was a staple at times being served by itself or occasionally with a meat dish. To add some variance/taste/excitement it was a common task to firstly head to the local market to stock up on tomatoes, onions and avocadoes to take with us in the restaurant to then chop up adding into the dish. It tasted much better although I’m not sure this approach would be tolerated in restaurants back home. A highlight of these meals was in a tiny town, which we more so utilized to take cover and escape the torrential rain. The hospitable lady let the three of us take over her kitchen so we could surround the well stoked fire in an attempt to dry ourselves whilst enjoying hot cups of chai as she cooked our lunch around us. We resembled drowned rats as opposed to our normal lycra clad bronzed bodies.
We did manage to stumble into a lodge owned and ran by an English family midway through the country. Although it required us riding off the sealed ride for various kilometers we were soon rewarded with numerous luxuries that we didn’t expect. We enjoyed surprising western foods for dinner and breakfast, a hutted steam room and opposing cold shower and finally a scotch nightcap dressed accordingly in our dressing gowns positioned in front of the fire.
The capital Lilongwe, certainly didn’t resemble the larger towns we had already passed through but more so a purpose built administration capital. The fact we stayed in the ‘expats’ area with supporting supermarkets and chain restaurants probably didn’t assist in seeing the real side of the city. This said we utilized it to our advantage by eating at the international restaurants and simply taking in the large supermarkets with complete rows of chocolates (something we all grew to love whether in bar format or as a drink) along with my new personal favourite required fuel, wine gums. Shane, Gavan and I individually bought necessary collared shirts and collectively hit the local links for a casual round of 9 holes with accompanying cheeky beers. With our required caddies assisting in the club selection we all did surprisingly well which on my behalf was possibly due to a string of controlled flukes. In the end the winner was golf and the inevitable 19th hole.
Our last day involved one of the more threatening situation from a local that we faced on the trip… I was slapped on the ass! I didn’t see it coming as I peacefully cycled through a town with huge crowds lining the streets shouting encouragement one stepped out of line and before I had a chance to swerve his hand had planted itself on my buttocks with a large crisp crack.
Recovering from this ordeal we were soon at the border, which as with many was represented by a piece of very important although normal looking rope. Rather then simply stepping over it we went through the exits and entries of either immigration to add more stamps to our quickly filling passports.
* All images are for sale with half of the money raised going to 'world bicycle relief', an organisation that delivers bikes to villages throughout Africa. Email me for more information. Thanks.