Day 45 – I Made it to Malawi

My mornings seem to be getting earlier and earlier and especially now that I have gotten into the swing of camping again so by 5am I’m am ready to start the slow if not slightly confused process of packing up my bags knowing that sleep will be hard to find from here on out.  Not I might add that I don’t feel tired but rather that my body has had its fill of tossing and turning on the uncomfortable ground and can stand it no longer so it would rather rise and get going than suffer any more discomfort. It’s not always uncomfortable I might add but just so far, I’m sure tonight I will find a lovely cushioned floor and will sleep as soundly as ever!

All was still dark in the forest this morning as I was making the final adjustments to my bike and when I was ready to set off I took great delight in using my super bright front light that had been quite redundant thus far.  It was so good, better than I expected in fact, and although I hadn’t charged it since leaving home it still seemed very powerful and not ready to give up anytime soon lighting up the whole forest in front of me.  Oh how I had suffered without a good light on my last trip, silly James!

Near Mbeya

I made my way back to the road easily enough and resumed the long climb that I had begun late yesterday evening. I started to amble my way up the road using the bumpy hard shoulder rather than the preferred smooth main lane, due to the already rising number of large lorries that were passing this morning.  They came up and down fairly constantly being that we were now very close to the principal city of the area Mbeya, and when they passed one another they barely had enough clearance between them and having me in the mix was only going to cause an accident one way or another, and probably my way let’s face it, so I decided on the safer if not slightly uncomfortable potholed side bit, attempting but failing miserably at being a hard shoulder.

The Best Sunrise So Far

Not long after my lorry dodging had begun the most beautiful sunrise unfolded before my eyes, well slightly to the left actually, but it really was glorious and i think the best of the trip so far.  When the road plateaued slightly I stopped to take off my warm clothes that were already unneeded and sat for a while to enjoy the view, it really was quite something and my body tingled with goosebumps as I was filled with the awe and spirit of this African adventure! I think this is why, well for me at least, the camping is a really important part of this kind of trip, the waking up in a dark forest, the layer of grime that only a proper wash can remove, the sunrises that are so easily missed when you are in a cosy bed, the smell of lorry fumes….oh ok not that last one but you get the idea. Sure it’s tough when the hardships are great and the rewards few but the sight in front of me was nothing short of spectacular and although I was perched on the side of this road that was far busier than it should have been at this time of the morning, here I was watching the most beautiful sunrise, right in the middle of Africa, the motherland, all alone and feeling lucky to be alive!

Best Sunrise so far - Tanzania
Best Sunrise so far, lucky to be alive – Tanzania

Uyole

I continued climbing for 10 miles until I arrived at Uyole where the road again levelled off temporarily as it passed through the centre of town. The junction to the T10 which was the road I was about to turn onto, and the T1 which is the road I had been riding down, was busy, overcrowded, noisy, with cars beeping, people shouting and various wafts of smoke and food being cooked floating through the air, this place had all of the attributes of the crazy African-ness that I had become accustomed to and was beginning to love.  I merrily dodged mini busses as they pulled in front of me, lorries as they passed by all too closely, and people as they skitted and ran across the road getting on with their own days, this place was a hive of activity today and I was enjoying every minute of it. Those that caught sight of me, which were many, started to shout, whistle and do as much as they could to get my attention, and I waved and smiled to as many as I could without crashing into something or someone and as I turned onto my new road that would take me all the way to the border and beyond, I decided that some breakfast was needed especially if I was to make it over the mountain that lay ahead looming ever closer and looked to me like another climb was unavoidable.

Breakfast in a Plastic Chair

I spotted the trademark pots and pans steaming away on the side of the road and my favoured plastic garden furniture so I darted across  to have a look at what the nice lady was preparing.  No beans unfortunately but my now second favourite meat water was available, and the universal or Afriversal tea to go with it. I’m not sure why coffee hadn’t caught on over here as much as the tea? Maybe the cost? I do find a good coffee in the morning is much better for that instant caffeine injection though, a mile crunching buzz would be great to help me up this mountain right now but if tea was the only option then tea is what I’ll have! My meaty soup was a rather good one today and although the chunk of animal that was swimming around in a pool of its own juices was as much fat as meat I eagerly scoffed it back leaving my fingers and chin covered in a film of greasy tastiness, yummmmm! Cleaning myself in my usual manor which was shorts for hands and shirt for face, I thanked the culinarily talented lady with my very best “asante sana”, and seeing as she had a little shop just behind her cooking station out on the street I purchased a few packets of biscuits and some apples before  paying up and getting on my way.

The level road lasted for only a mile or two before resuming its rather steep gradient and now as the day was well underway, and due to the altitude, the wind had arrived in force.  The road wound around the mountain and was certainly very pretty, but what with the wind and the gradient, I arrived at the 20 mile mark by 11am having taken over 4hrs to achieve what should normally be done by 2 and with a very average pace at that.  I was feeling good no matter how slow the progress had been this morning as the scenery was absolutely lovely, green fertile lands with rolling mountains to keep me company so I plodded up the windy, windy road to just over 2200 metres smiling and waving at all of the native mountain dwellers that I passed. The road was also much quieter now that I had turned away from the main route to Mbeya and I was able to enjoy the smoother tarmac that I had missed on my way into Uyole this morning.  I stopped just before the town with no name to grab some lovely looking carrots that were on sale but passed up the mountain of cabbages that were piled up at regular intervals all the way up the mountain road. I took a stop at this town with no name that turned out to be the highest point of the day and rewarded myself with a tea and a carrot before coasting down my first descent of the day, whoopieeee!!

Downhill to Kiwira

The downhill lasted all the way to the next town called Kiwira which was almost 10 miles further on and there I stopped for quite possibly the best rice and bean lunch of the whole trip. It also came with a accompaniment of some kind of green vegetable and some chopped beef, all presented beautifully on a platter that reminded me of being back at school.  The food and a coke came to 3500 shillings so only a little over a pound and I just hoped that the food in Malawi would continue to be as tasty and as cheap as it was here in Tanzania.

The next section was an almost even mix of ups and downs but if anything the scenery just got better and better providing a very happy James with lots of mountain views and even some vibrant tea plantations that I had not seen in Africa up until this point and very a vivid, vibrant green that added to the beauty I was already experiencing.

Piston Legs

My legs turned into mountain crushing monsters this afternoon as I was now flying up the hills with speed and ease and absolutely loving it, was I finally finding the fitness that I remember having on my last trip. Stand up pedalling all the way over long ascents now seemed strangely easy and I began to test just how much my body was capable of? I would have loved to have seen myself at this point as I must have looked like a crazed cycling robot powering up the steep gradients and destroying all hills and leaving all fellow cyclists in his wake. I was even flying past the heavy vehicles that were forced to use their low gears to get up and over the mountains and I know that they aren’t exactly fast but until now I was used to them passing me rather than the other way around so it did nothing but egg me on to go even faster every time I caught up and passed them.

All of this excitement however could only lead to something giving way and that unfortunately turned out to be my left leg, that is what I would say is my favoured of the two and had obviously been doing more work than its counterpart and by the feel of it I had torn a muscle or two, one near the shin and another just above the knee on the inside of my thigh.  My mind, lungs, and right leg though weren’t having any of it and continued to keep the psychotic pace that I had developed during the afternoons riding.

Border Town – Kasumulu

I arrived at the border town, Kasumulu, faster than I had expected, but it was still quite late in the afternoon by now and the likelihood of me getting many miles done when I entered Malawi was slim.  Rather than camping on the Tanzanian side for a night though, as I had expected during my extremely slow start this morning, I decided to clear immigration and find a camp ground somewhere not far from the border.

I decided to take a last food stop before crossing over to Malawi which turned out to be a bit of a downer as the lady did her best to rip me off, attempting to keep all of my 10,000 shilling note that I had used to pay for a meal that would cost no more than 3,000 at the most expensive of places. Although it was only a small amount of money the principal had me getting angry at her and after I prompted her for my change that she had purposefully overlooked she then attempted to only give me 3,000 shillings rather than the fair return of 7,000 shillings so I voiced my annoyance and even gave it a overdramatised and cliche “is it because I am white?” for all to hear. The locals probably thought that I was being a prat, the rich white man making a fuss over a few shillings, but fair is fair in my book and if anyone of these fine people came into our business in England, and any shop or establishment for that matter they would be treated the same as any other person be them native or foreign, cheeky cow!

The Border Crossing to Malawi

As I made my way to the immigration office a large line of kids were shouting at me for money which took me back to the slightly darker times of riding through Ethiopia and only really brought on from my minor altercation with the silly lady in the food place but that my friends was not the end of my annoyances for today…

I cleared the Tanzanian border with no problems and then used the official exchange bureau to swap my remaining Shillings for Malawian Kwacha which was all fine and I casually cycled on through the gates and over the bridge that separated the two countries passing a throng of people along the way and arrived promptly outside of the Malawian immigration office.  I entered, filled out my appropriate forms, and took them to the man dressed in a white official uniform and looking like he was meant to be in the navy rather than a guy working in a crappy looking office on the border of Malawi. He was, well you could say, uhhhh…. an arsehole, yes that will do for now. I find that you often come across an uppity power lover in these places no matter where you are in the world, and here my friends I had gotten one right off of the bat.  Let’s call him Richard or Dick for short just for arguments sake shall we?  So I approach the interrogation table with my very best smile and a polite hello and little dicky boy here says nothing in return but gives me a disapproving look up and down instead.  Seeing that I am made immediately aware of the calibre of man in dealing with here I simply present my paperwork and passport for his perusal without any further polite small talk.  His response to this was an almost angry “you are aware that you need to pay aren’t you?” and of course I was aware of this and had to pay at every border until now, so I reply with a simple “yes” all the while keeping my smile and trying to be as nice as my already growing annoyance would allow.  He then accepted another piece of paper from a guy who had come up alongside of me and completely ignoring me for the next minute or so dealt with this line skipper before turning back to me with a demanding tone “seventy five dollars!”.

Watch out for Countefeits

So, not only was his tone getting right up my nose, I was surprised at the figure as all of the other borders had been no more than fifty dollars up until now and as an involuntary response I asked him if he was absolutely sure as that was far too expensive? I’m not totally sure what I was hoping to achieve by this line of questioning and Richard being the epitome of a true Malawian gentleman angrily repeated “seventy five dollars!” and I supposed to myself that he really was sure that this was the correct amount.  I slowly and deliberately counted out my crisp new American dollars in front of him stopping at 80 and asking in a polite manor if he had five dollars to return to me in change?  He then waved me off with a “yes yes we have change” and told me to take a seat next to the other people waiting for their visas to be approved.  Now here is where the warning comes to all that are crossing into Malawi no matter if you are coming from the north or the south as I have since been told. It’s IMPORTANT to mark all of your money that is passed over to the officials at Malawian immigration, or better record the serial number on each bank note because the trick that was about to be pulled on me is supposedly rife over here. So, after about ten minutes of waiting Mr Happy returns with a ten dollar note marked with a black line across the top indicating that it was a counterfeit and they could not accept it. Well I have to say I was confused in that exact moment and the desk was busy with other people all fighting for their entry into the country and so slightly bewildered I hand over another ten dollars and am left with this slightly old counterfeit note in my hand. Well I’m blaming the late hour, my full day of riding, and the distraction of all the other people being the culprit of my slow brain but after only a moment longer it occurred to me that I was being had. I made a comment to the other official who was working and looking either over stressed or under skilled he told me to wait a moment and we would take up the matter when he was free.  Well I knew that all of my notes were fresh off the press from the post office in my town in England and were nothing more that 100% genuine and more to the point they were new crispy beauties not slightly old wrinklers so I felt that I had a good case here and with the remaining new notes I had in my wallet as proof I was ready to pose the question. I have to point out that I was very close to getting angry here and had I been in any other continent I would have already been up in arms, but Africa was proving to be a little different from all other places I had been to so far so I decided to approach this situation with a little more caution. I took a seat for a further ten minutes before the guy returned with my five dollars change and my passport and began to write the details on the visa sticker that was soon to be in my passport allowing my entry into the country that I was already having my doubts if I really wanted to enter?! I held myself back from opening my gob until the visa had been completed and I had my passport in my hand before firmly stating that they had ripped me off and this fake note was certainly not one that I had handed over during our transaction.  The guy looked at me in such a shocked way expressing disbelief that would have earned him an Oscar had he been an actor, which of course he was, and with my increasing volume and now open annoyance at this silly little man, and the whole corrupt fucking system for that matter, I showed him all of my other notes and the dirty crinkled one I had been given in return as if the evidence was completely conclusive and my money should be returned immediately. This of course was completely pointless and after repeating myself three or four times and waving my dollars all over the place I could see that I was attracting attention from more people than was necessary and the few armed guys in military uniforms were also becoming interested in the scene that was playing out in the immigration office this afternoon. I thought to myself that there was nothing that I was able to do at this point other than to possibly get arrested, and for ten bucks it was far from worth the looming consequence of my protestations so I gave him a parting “stick it up your bum” and marched out having been done over officially by the government of Malawi, what a wonderful introduction I thought to myself! I later concluded though that of the large number of border crossings I had passed in my life I had never once been ripped off contrary to hearing about all of the various scams that were in operation all over the world and if a lost of ten dollars was all I had suffered for the many crossings I had completed during my career of travelling then I had done pretty well and I ought to be glad I had gotten away so lightly.  From that point I forgot all about today’s experience and returned to my normal happy state and having faith in the good people of the world that we are all surrounded by once more.

First impressions of Malawi were that it was definitely poorer than Tanzania and reminded me much of Ethiopia already. Life was certainly harder here and the people were in abundance, leaving little to no ground uninhabited (except the farmland) which of course makes finding a suitable camp spot much more difficult. I rode on anyway optimistic that I would find something suitable soon enough, dodging the many potholes as I went. The local children were paying particular attention to me here in Malawi and would run from their meagre houses dropping what they were doing in an instant to see the strange white cyclist as he passed by.  They generally came in groups all shouting frantically “Mzungu, mzungu” and “Money, money, give me money!”, and a couple of them had the cheek to attempt water thievery when I didn’t hand over the hard cash, but being that I was now experienced in the art of deterring these little blighters I warded them off easily enough.

On a positive note though the lumpy, potholed road that I had found myself on had turned completely flat and as I looked out across the land there were large expanses of farmland on either side.  I must admit that in the rapidly fading light of the afternoon it all looked rather pretty too.

After a few more miles and with the volume of people and houses as plentiful as when I had crossed the border I could feel that it was going to go right down to the wire tonight. The light continued to fade until I could hardly see the road for the potholes and so I decided to just take a bit of a leap of faith and camp out on some of this fine looking farmland regardless of who was watching. I coasted down the steep right hand bank of the road and spied a little spot close to some trees that divided two plots of farmed field, waiting for a few moments in a hope that everyone would continue about their business not worrying about little old me which to my surprise they did! Maybe because it was now almost dark and they couldn’t see me properly? I then waited a little while longer until the passing people cleared so I could make a dash for it, but when they just kept coming and coming I decided that I would just traipse across the field anyway to get to my spot. I was again a little shocked that nobody seemed to care what I was doing and I soon arrived at my slightly knobbly camp spot and put up my tent in the virtual pitch black, bundling all of my stuff inside as quickly as I could and taking my well earned rest after what had been a big day out here in the wilds of Africa! Ahhhh lovely and as I drifted off to sleep I had a happy thought that this time tomorrow I would have made it to a place I had been recommended to stay at and would have the comfort of a nice bed, how lovely!

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