A Travellerspoint blog



Prologue! - Apologies no photos – camera got stolen... read on to find out more!

sunny 36 °C

Waiting on the beach for the others, guarding the luggage as the Ilala (the Lake Malawi ferry) filled up a couple approached and offered to help me get everything back onto the boat. They were cyclists themselves just off the boat to stretch their legs whilst the island had its weekly re-stock. The trip from Likoma Island to Nkhata Bay was PACKED. Even the top deck felt quite full. We eventually pulled out at about 7pm only to stop at the next, tiny island for a few more hours - what happened during those hours I have not a clue! Fifty odd years post-colonialism it is still white people who make up about ninety five percent of the first class passengers. Down below on the other decks there was not even room to move. 99.9% of the people on the lower decks were black – with Narada, Brad and Tye making up the missing percentage. Narada and Tye bobbed down to 2nd after a brief sojourn on the top deck to save their pennies and Brad, who got on at the second stop presumably never made it past the sacks of fish pinning him down in the 3rd class squallor. He later relayed that the only part of his body not in contact with fish was his backside planted firmly on his rucksack!! We got to Nkhata Bay 5hours late which suited us well as we arrived at 6am instead of 1am refreshed by a full nights sleep in our tent on the deck!! The delay was not appreciated so much by Narada huddled in his corner down below as every time he opened his eyes from his fragmented sleep it was to cockroaches scuttling across his “pillow”. Disembarking was MANIC. The rules for getting off were PUSH and PUSH EVERYONE ELSE and if you're not pushing you don't deserve to get off . The laws of physics and logic did not apply. Massive heavy boxes were pushed through incomprehensibly tiny gaps. As I neared the opening loaded with bags a crowd of people just as big as the one on the boat trying to get off bustled on the jetty trying equally hard to get on. I surged back and forth a few times before stretching my hand out through a gap towards the gang plank where Rob grabbed it and forcibly pulled me out the crowd!! We looked up at the sea of people on the front deck of the boat bubbling and boiling between us and our bikes, not to mention the tonne of cargo, mostly boxes of fish, blocking them in. I stayed with our things while Rob made his way forward. No sooner had he reached up to grab the edge of the ferry than the crowd below had thrust him up onto the deck. Battling through it took him a while to reach the bikes all the while goods were flowing on and off over the sides – boxes of fish, sacks of potatoes, bundles of clothes. A box dropped splitting as it landed spewing thousands of capenta (tiny silver fish) onto the slimy brown deck. A massive argument ensued. People shouted and gestured and soon everyone was involved. The jetty was piling up with boxes and bustling people shouting. Looking back to the boat I saw Rob inching towards the edge with one of the bikes held high over his head. I went forward until I was right at the edge as close to the boat as I could get and held up my arms. Rob began to lower the bike and I caught hold of the tire. A muscly young man came to my aid and together we guided the bike down the 5metre drop. Rob turned back in quest of the other bike and I carefully wheeled mine away from the edge, stacking it against a dirty cardboard box.

After receiving the second bike I stacked it next to the first wondering how long it would be before Rob broke through the agitated mob, still debating who was responsible for dropping the box of fish, and made it to the jetty. Not long. I looked back to see him standing on the edge of the front deck balancing high above the crowd with one hand on the thick wires running from the loading crane. The next moment he had lowered himself down and was swinging from the edge of the boat. There was only a second for me to wonder if he would make it before he had swung across the gap over the fishy water onto the jetty.

From Nkhata Bay we headed for Mzuzu. It's a hilly much travelled route and in the heat of the day not even the spectacular scenery could save us from the frustration we felt at the exhausting interactions with the many children along the way. The in greeting with the youth seems to be “umZungu Givememoney” sometimes “Givemeyourmoney” or “Givememymoney” the politer ones try to fit in the formalities but when your target is a cyclist you have to be fast: “mZungu hello. HowareyouI'mfineGivememoney”. But it doesn't have to be money. There's an alternative greeting which goes “mZungu givemeeeeeee .......” followed by a pause while your whole being is scanned for a suitable handout. It was up a particularly long hill that this really got to Rob and he finally lost it. Pedalling past 3 young boys 6 or 7 years old one of them offered him the customary greeting “mZungu givemeeeee shirt”. Rob stopped and started ripping off his sweaty t-shirt shouting at the boys; “Is this what you want? You want my shirt? Do you think I'm here to give you clothes? You want my shirt? What will I wear? How many shirts do you think I'm carrying? Come on then take it!” The point however was lost, blocked by the barrier of a language in which only a phrase or two was known and obscured by the mixed messages received from previous responses to the demand. The slightly bemused child looked up at the crazy bare-chested foreigner. His dark brown eyes were dazzled by the whitest skin he'd ever seen as they flitted over the spectacular wally tan. He meekly reached out his hand to take the shirt! “No you can't have my shirt” sobbed Rob in desperation “What will I wear?”. As he put it back on and turned to pedal again the tentative voice of the child was heard; “Give me money??”.

By the time we reached Mzuzu we were hot and tired. We cycled around the town in search of some food and were re-energised by delicious bread and cold juice from the bakery. After stocking up on clementines from the red plastic tub atop the head of a passing woman we found our way to the market. Passing down the thin sandy footpaths between the covered wooden stalls bounteous goods were seen for sale. The people were friendly and the happy, positive vibe went some way to soothing the frustrations of the day. We headed on to the guest house where we'd planned to camp but ended up taking one of the spacious, clean, cheap rooms instead. We did our laundry, ate tasty beans, rice and veg for a pittance in the restaurant and went to sleep to the sound of the first rain of our trip hammering down on the roof. We were very pleased to be inside snug and dry.

We packed up quickly in the morning ready for a long day. It wasn't til all the bags were closed and firmly attached to the bikes that we realised we hadn't seen the camera since supper the night before. Not wanting to jeopardise our early start we pressed on, after searching the guest house, under the assumption we had unintentionally bundled the camera into one or other of the bags. We sailed out of Mzuzu past the shops, the market and the multitude of extravagantly decorated “taxi bikes” with their colourful padded rear pannier racks – some topped with a passenger, some empty and touting for business. A strong tail wind and smooth smooth tar had us racing along in the early morning cool and we reached “Rumphi” much quicker than anticipated. As we drew near the town we bought the smallest of a selection of Pawpaws displayed on a bench by the road next to a cluster of tall spindly Papaya trees. We ate the delicious fruit sitting on a fallen tree which served as the bus stop and debated which of two possibles routes we would take from there.

Opting for the more adventurous road we left the tar and pedalled west away from the Lake before veering north again parallel to the hidden water along a sandy gravel road. The sand thickened and we deflated our tyres – just as effective a trick on bicycles as in cars. The track led us along a flat plain between two sets of mountains – those that form the Nyika National Park and the escarpment that borders the Lake. The people we passed were more surprised to see us than those living along the tar road and waved welcomingly as we went by. About 50kms later we dropped down into a valley as the mountains closed in on us and the road followed the path of a babbling brook. The brook grew into a stream and bananas, tomatoes and aubergines were cultivated in the flats next to its banks. A few resourceful homes channelled the water so that it irrigated their crops before rejoining the main body. The scenery was so stunning all the way along that we were very regretful we didn't have a camera to hand though this probably helped us cover the extra mileage on what became the longest day yet of our trip. In the late afternoon we tore past the turning to the Livingstonia mission station – an old colonial town translocated high up on the hill safe from the malarial strangle-hold that had crippled the young missionaries on the shore of the Lake and we set up our tent at the top of a high cliff with a breathtaking view towards the water just 4km away but about 600m down.

The next day held for us a much anticipated downhill. After visiting Livingstonia complete with guided tour of the hospital we began the exhilarating descent taking care not to drop off the end of any of the 20 odd hairpin bends zigzagging down the cliff as we dodged the ambulance and a few backies loaded with supplies on their way up. It was awesome! The gravel road had been hacked into the cliff by a 22yr old British Engineer at the end of the 19th Century. Reaching the bottom we made our way to a campsite at the Lakeshore and stowed away our bikes. We planned to hitch a ride back to Mzuzu as it was now apparent our camera was not in one of our bags but had been stolen..

Back in Mzuzu the camera had not turned up at the guest house. We did a circuit of the many shops selling electronics in the hope they might be re-selling our camera. It was in vain as we learnt you don't sell hot property in the town you nicked it. If it's for sale in Mzuzu it was probably got in Nkhata Bay and vice versa. Ironically we had a picture on the camera of the place it probably ended up in Nkhata Bay. At the time the shop writing advertising “Fairly used electronics, reasonable price” had amused us a lot.

However all was not lost. The camera was insured and we headed down to the Police Headquarters to report the incident. The police were very helpful and we were escorted into the CID office to make a statement. The room was plastered wall to wall with mugshots of wanted persons, a word or two underneath detailing their crimes. There were a lot of TRICKERS and a lot of BREAKERS, a few HOUSE BREAKERS and one HOME BREAKER. There was one BEAKER and one DANGEROUS BEAKER! There was a picture of a man “FOUND IN POSSESSION OF 31 COBS OF INDIAN HEMP at Nkhata Bay” These were laid out on the table infront of him and he was looking quite proud. There was also one MURDERER – KILLED MAMA – BIG MAMA, we guessed he was significantly more dangerious than a villian who killed a normal sized mama!

Police report in hand we boarded the bus and made the 5 hour journey back to our bikes, standing room only. We learnt that travelling by bicycle is not such a slow way to travel after all. Re-united with our luggage we pressed on and the following day blitzed across the border to Tanzania and up the many hills that followed as we climbed out of the depression holding Lake Malawi. Unfortunately we were unable to change money at the border so went 48hrs with no local currency – the only benefit of which was that we have now eaten the horrible packets of soup carried 4000km from SA!

The climate changed as we climbed and we were very soon surrounded by lush vegetation and the neat rows of numerous tea plantations. We camped under the protection of a Tanzanian family and joined the 18yr old daughter of the house for church the following morning before cycling on to the town of Mbeya in the afternoon. Mbeya is a big town and we found an ATM, stocked up on supplies. We also got a new camera which we managed to find at the end of the day in a petrol station. Consequently next week there will be more pictures and a lot less writing!!

Posted by robandpol 00:12 Archived in Malawi Comments (5)

Idling on the Island

A week on Likoma (16-23 August) Lilongwe-Likoma

sunny 29 °C

Janet very kindly offered to give us a lift to the ferry which meant that we had an extra day enjoying their hospitality.. however even with 24hrs extra to pack I was still rushing around 5 minutes before we were due to leave and walked straight into their glass patio door and smashed it – janet handled the situation with limitless grace... and we headed off in the Landrover after a final cup of tea on their beautiful balcony watching the Sunbirds and Lilac Breaseted Rollers.

The ride to the ferry port was without incident until a rather bewildered goat wandered into the road and then when she saw us panicked and ran straight into our path – the little goat was no match for the new Landrover and came off significantly worse (ie dead!)

Catching the ferry was rather a civilised affair – especially as we had been told to be at the port at 12 noon and the ferry didn't leave until 4pm!


We decided to go 1st class – which meant that we got to sit on the top deck with a beautiful view of sunset.


2nd class looked a lot less comfortable with people, goats, chickens, veg and huge sacks and boxes of very smelly dried fish stacked in every available corner..


We pitched the tent on deck and awoke in the morning to a blustery force 6-7 and unable to see land in any direction but with an amazing view of the most beautiful sunrise. We were very glad to have spent the extra few kwatcha as the guys in second class were getting soaked by the waves!


Rob had a quick go at steering in the gale!

After 24hrs we sighted the beautiful pair of islands - Likoma and Chizimulu.. surrounded by small fishing boats, sandy beaches and dotted with baobabs and mango trees.


Disembarking was a lot less civilised than boarding – there was a huge scrum for the shaky ladder down to the little boats that would ferry us to shore... manoeuvring the bikes down into the dinghies proved relatively easy for the locals - used to handling 50kg sacks of maize.

Cycling across the island to the backpackers we came across Jo who we had met 4 weeks ago in Livingstone. He was looking panicked and asking directions to the hospital. We pointed him in vaguely the right direction and asked if he needed the assistance of a Dr – the answer was an emphatic “YES!” His girlfriend had just been plucked from the stormy waters after their canoe had sunk – she couldn't swim and had very nearly drowned – he said she had breathed in a lot of water and was hypothermic.

Arriving at the hospital we found her – cold and shaken up but well.. some med students had had a listen to her chest and hedged their bets saying they'd heard 'a few crackles' however I found her chest was clear so was able to reassure her... although I didn't actually have to do anything of note they found me reassuring – especially as I was the only Dr on the island (with a population of 8000 and a 50 bed hospital with fully equipped pharmacy and operating theatre!).

We got chatting to the 'clinical assistant – Aubery who invited us back the following day to help him figure out what to do with a box of drugs that had been donated from Germany.

The following day was Sunday so we went to the beautiful brick cathedral – which we found crammed full with African worshippers. I found it very moving to hear such beautiful singing and enthusiasm from the congregation after all the sacrifices that had been made by the Scottish missionaries over 100yrs ago – when 1 in 4 of the young men and women who came from 'that green and pleasant land' died of malaria and dysentery.


After church we went to see Aubery who had prepared lunch for us.. Rob went through the box of German drugs – a completely random selection of opened packets. I threw away about 2/3rds as they were out of date or utterly useless in a rural African context.


Aubery gave us a conducted tour of the hospital which seemed well equipped and clean but obviously lacking a Dr. Highlighting Malawi's lack of health professionals. South Africa has 70drs per 100,000 where Malawi has 1 per 100,000! However the Clinical Officers did seem to be doing quite a good job after having just 2 yrs training since leaving high school, however one of them may soon be going to Med school on the mainland funded by a local charity.

We are forced to stay here for a full week as the ferry only visits once/week.




What a hardship!


We have been reading, swimming in the crystal clear freshwater lake full of colourful fish.


Exercise has consisted of occasional volley ball and trips into the village to buy bread and tomatoes.


The locals go fishing at night with powerful lights and come ashore in the mornings with hoards of little fish which get dried in the sun and sent to the mainland.


The nets drying on the beach make colourful patterns


Walking around the island you encounter innumerable friendly children, we are frequently asked 'will you be my friend?'


Baobabs provide some valuable shade

We've buddied up with some other guys at the backpackers, a crazy, hyperactive canadian - Tye and a thoughtful American - Narada, to share the cooking – saving us quite a bit of money and resulting in very sociable evening meals.

Knees and bums are now fully recovered and we are looking forward to getting back onto the bikes. The next section will be very hilly with our next port of call being the town of Livingstonia – built in memory of the famous missionary and explorer who was the first European to set eyes on many of the wonderful sights we are experiencing.

Posted by robandpol 06:49 Archived in Malawi Comments (2)

The Long Way to Lilongwe : Part 2

Zooming through Zambia

sunny 30 °C

The burgers did the trick. Fully revived we stormed up out from the river Luangwa and enjoyed incredible scenery. There were few villages and those we passed through were small, most without even a market

The corner shop!

However fish could be found in all of them if you looked hard enough.

We caused much excitement as we passed through these small villages – even the cockerels seemed to crow “Aba Zuuuungu, Aba Zuuuuuungu” (White people)

A beautiful spot by a stream in the middle of vast woodland that we passed through about 40km into the day would have been the perfect place to set up camp but since it was only about 10am we made do with replenishing our water and enjoying a peaceful break. We knew we would be in the bush that night as there would be nowhere for miles.

By the time we did start looking for a place to stop the villages were larger and more frequent. We carried on nearly until sunset and left the road unspotted heading for a small mango orchard. The trees provided good cover and we washed and set up camp. We had bought plenty of tomatoes and onions and were sat preparing a sauce for our spaghetti when out of the darkness we heard a cough. We saw 3 or 4 men approaching from the other side of the tent. They hadn't seen us but with the fire burning and our things scattered around it was inevitable that they would. We greeted them and they approached towering over us with their pangas (machetes) and the heavy smell of alcohol lingering in the air around them. We rose quickly to our feet feeling pretty nervous. There were more voices and looking to our left we saw a group of maybe a dozen more men coming from the direction of the road all of them brandishing clubs, hoes or more pangas.

It seemed as though all the men from the village had turned out. And they had! But not as we feared it might be to clear out the abazungu. They were in search of the cow thief! Apparently someone had been through the village during the day and taken a cow and must now be hiding out somewhere on the outskirts. The alarm was raised and the fighting aged men gathered. They were sweeping through the area when our torch was spotted from the road. The men were coming to retrieve the cow and deal out justice. But we were OK. They were very friendly and assured us we were safe, taking pains to put us at our ease. We chatted for a while and then off they went to complete their errand. As the quiet returned we sat down to eat our meal under the mangos. Our thoughts turned to the cow thief hiding out in the bush. We did not envy him in the slightest.

We slept well. Packed up early and headed on. We never heard any more about the cow, or the thief. The remnants of the steep hills we had defeated over the last couple of days stretched themselves out over the next 20km until they became very manageable undulating waves. We covered good distances and re-fuelled frequently at the markets and roadside stalls on plump tomatoes, sugar-coated dough balls, freshly baked bread, bananas and convenient sized packets of home grown peanuts roasted, salted, bagged and sold outside peoples huts. We compared techniques for carrying loads on bicycles amongst the cycling fraternity...



We were quite confused to hear a plaintive bleat from the back of this bike! It crescendoed into a panicked cry whenever we got too close behind.

The original “people mover” - We saw another guy with his wife on the pannier rack carrying a child on her back and their son sitting on the cross bar – 4 on 1 bike!

and we bought tomatoes from the cutest tomato vendor in Zambia.


Initially gathered around the table waving to us her friends scattered when we stopped and drew near. She was quite overwhelmed and there was a long silence when we asked her how she was but then the shock subsided and she answered with the most beautiful clarity in her voice “I'm very well thank you and how are you?” Perfect English. It was however her only English and we did have a little trouble negotiating our change – in the most innocent way possible.

We enjoyed more stunning scenery...


Looking South to Mozambique


... and we terrified a little girl who came across us as we were taking a break in a banana plantation. She was only about 4 and she didn't notice us until she was very close. When she did see us she just screamed hysterically and then turned and fled screaming all the way.


Before we knew it we were through the town of Chipata ascending towards the Zambia – Malawi border which runs along the watershed of the Zambezi and Shire Rivers – the Shire River flowing out of the South of Lake Malawi.

Malawi is instantly distinct from Zambia. The most obvious difference is the housing. Small brick houses replace the toadstoolesque grass huts and every village has at least one homestead where bricks are being made.


But there are more subtle differences too. There is a greater variety of freshly grown veg available along the sides of the road and people are busy cutting potatoes and cooking chips and goats meat at the markets. The people seem industrious. Metal buckets outside peoples houses overflowing with peanuts replace the small packets bought in Zambia. A cup sits in the bucket and the nuts are bought by the scoopfull. Rob heroically saved one of these buckets from a cheeky group of goats by charging them at full speed as the villagers shouted and clapped. They quickly scattered.

We snacked on goats meat and chips

As we pedalled along we were puzzled by mats spread out in the villages covered in something bright and white, dazzling us in the sunlight. It turned out to be maize meal. The women work hard getting flour from their maize. It's a lengthy process. They wash the corn broken off the cobs and then crush it. Some villages have an electric mill where the corn is crushed but those who live further away do it themselves in giant wooden pestle and mortars. Then the powder is washed again and spread out on reed mats to dry in the sun before being packed away in sacks until it's needed. It forms the staple diet, being made into a porridge called “paap” or “sheema” which looks a bit like mash potato.

We camped once in Malawi under the cover of some banana palms and a termite mound before reaching Lilongwe. Rob didn't sleep too well since his larium kicked in and he heard a psychopath screaming menacingly in the night!


An early start got us to Lilongwe by lunch time where we were given the most wonderful welcome by the Taylors. We spent several days relaxing, enjoying Janet and Dons company and hospitality feeling pleased at the completion of another leg of our journey and looking forward to our trip on the boat up Lake Malawi.


Posted by robandpol 05:00 Archived in Malawi Tagged bicycle Comments (7)

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