The 5th section of the Tour d’Afrique began after a rest day in Mbeya, Tanzania. The scenery was breath-taking as we descended into the Rift Valley with Lake Malawi visible in the distance between sprawling banana and tea plantations. We did not let the rising temperature and humidity interfere with our enjoyment of one of the most scenic stretches on our Capetown quest to date.
We checked out of Tanzania and cleared Malawi customs without any surprises – country, currency (kwachas), SIM card and Lonely Planet download number 6. Still, the combination of bureaucracy and steamy temps finally got to us and likely tempered our 1st impressions of this new country. Vast rice paddies and usipa (a small sardine-like fish) laden drying platforms lined the shoreline of Lake Malawi. Enthusiastic children running carelessly onto the road ahead of us were, this time only, an irritant as we peddled to the village of Karonga on the shores of Lake Malawi.
We don’t often associate fresh water with this continent but the African Great Lakes actually contain more water by volume than our own Great Lakes. The largest by surface area (3rd in the world) is Lake Victoria, followed by Lake Tanjanyika (2nd largest by volume and depth). Lake Malawi ranks 3rd in Africa by surface area and accounts for almost a 1/3 of the surface area of the country. It has more fish species than any other inland body of water in the world. Sadly, the risk of bilharzia kept us from swimming in it. A few among our ranks took the plunge, but they will need to take preventative medicines upon their return home and undergo blood tests for parasitic flatworms that can cause liver failure. We’ve reserved that role for alcohol.
Malawi is a poor country. We could see it in the houses with roofs of straw and walls of roughly hewn bricks set among the rice paddies as soon as we entered the country. Because english is widely spoken here, we could understand when told as much by just about everyone we talked to: an idle young man in Karonga lamented that there are no jobs to be had, an elementary school teacher we engaged in conversation while cycling who pointed to his bicycle as evidence of his lack of means, an entrepreneurial sort on the beach at Chitimba who was counting on jobs promised by candidates in upcoming elections, and most disturbingly from young women cooking nsima (the staple of the Malawi diet – a thick paste made from ground white maize flour) over open fires in an unventilated, repurposed classroom at the Liviri School where our TDA travelling show set up camp for a night.
Despite all this everyone is friendly. The jobless young man in Karonga considered himself fortunate to have recently married and is looking forward to god blessing him with a child. The biking teacher was accurate in linking his means of transportation to economic hardship insofar as fuel shortages have beset Malawi, but he considers himself fortunate to have work at all. The hustler on the beach in Chitimba offered to take us fishing, weaved a “Malawi” bracelet right in front of us as we spoke, and tempted us with his teak wood carvings (which, unfortunately, we had no hope of carrying home). Somehow, people find contentment and a way to get what they need. This must be why Malawi has a reputation as being “The Warm Heart of Africa”.
What is easy enough to see in real life is confirmed in Lonely Planet download number 6: this is a country grappling with political corruption, unsustainable population growth, and one of the world’s highest HIV/ AIDS rates. Sadly, more than one person we spoke to said they would not be voting in upcoming elections, including the well spoken owner of a cafe and art gallery we happened upon in Lilongwe. She seemed resigned to the fact that corruption on all levels is an incorrigible way of life in the country. As an aside, we asked her if the modern, completely out of sync parliament buildings we had come across were a misappropriation of government funds. Nope. They were a “gift” from China.
We had a day off the bikes at Chitimba Beach on Lake Malawi. A kindred spirit (and Dutchman to boot) and his wife have built up an impressive compound with a camping area, comfortable cabins and a restaurant. The place is a real find for TDA. Liquor flows freely and we are responsible for our own meals on off days, so business was good. He is doing well with overland tours originating in Nairobi or coming up from Victoria Falls, but he is dismayed by the fact that this can bring in 60 young people laying about, staring at their phones and complaining when amenities don’t meet 1st world standards. The place is for sale. If you are looking for a lifestyle change we can hook you up with a motivated seller.
Leaving the lake the route headed south and west, climbing up the escarpment into the Rumphi Valley, part of the central plateau of Malawi. We had our 1st real rain and a welcome dip in temperature with the elevation gain. The 4 day stretch on the bikes started out on the challenging side with 2 of the biggest climbing days of the entire tour, then eased.up as we reached the capital city of Lilongwe. The scenery was lush, but Malawi has issues with deforestation, so it was good to see plantings of large tracts of fast growing, non endemic eucalyptus and pine trees . We wondered out loud if the high percentage of cropped land is the reason for the comparatively few numbers of cattle and goat herds which we have been dodging in every other country on this trip, but apparently it comes down to cost and unsuitable grasses for grazing.
We are over the 6000 km mark. Jen, the tour doc, says it is normal to be feeling fatigued at this stage, but the drivetrains, mechanical and flesh, are hanging in there. The desert seems like a lifetime ago. Every day, clipping in to the pedals and making those 1st rotations of the legs is a reset, the beginning of another adventure, a fresh canvas and a 1000 faces to discover. The roughly cut video below captures a single day’s ride and a little bit of fun recently in Tanzania.
Thanks for your donations to Suitcases For Africa for the project we have committed to. If you have not had a chance and would like to contribute, please specify “Shamoni Community Well” and do so here:
Thanks for reading.