In true Cycling For Rangers fashion, the sun started to set behind the vast expanse of mountains on our left and we were stuck 50km from our intended destination. It was our first day in Malawi!
Luckily for us the rumours of Malawian kindness held up and a family offered to take us in for the night. Waddi and I were lead into to the darkness to meet the village chief, an obligatory custom that can take anywhere from ten minutes to four hours. Although we were both accustomed to such situations, never before had an army of kids joined the ceremony. Walking through the almost dark evening, 400 kids surrounded us, intrigued by the two “Mazungu’s” and their tightly padded shorts. As we sat on a small wooden bench, listening to the humbling tone of the Chichewa language, we were both filled with a profound sense of honour. The chief welcomed us into his village and gave us his blessing in front of hundreds of small-bewildered faces before we returned to our home for the evening.
The family refused to let us camp and after some reshuffling, our four small mattresses were inflated in their sitting room. Although it was nice to be out of our tents for the evening, we would quickly vacate back to their safety the following day due to the infestation of mice and bugs that decided to clamber all over us and join us in our sleeping bags. I’m not sure what amazes me more, the endless generosity that we have experienced throughout this trip or that we have cycled 3000km through six countries and Waddi still has his front tyre on backwards. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that Malawi instantly won us over and Waddi is the only one not to have a flat tyre.
The following day took us to the gate of the Nkhotakota National Park. Having cycled three and a half thousand kilometres completely unaided, we were devastated to find out that the 20km strip through the park was prohibited for cyclists. After much debate and the sun behind the hills, we were forced to camp. Luckily for us, the Ranger manning the gate invited us to join him for dinner and what could have been a stressful evening turned out to be one full of epic tails of the life of a ranger. Unfortunately for him he had to experience one of the latest introductions to the team dynamic, "Come Dine With Me Bush Style," a cooking competition that incorporates four of the worst cooks, a bag of pasta and anything from peanut butter to tinned tuna and mayonnaise.
-- Lake Malawi
It was quite disconcerting catching sight of Lake Malawi for the first time. For a brief moment I felt that we had taken a wrong turn somewhere and were looking out at the Indian Ocean. The huge body of water carries as far as the eye can see, until you loose it with the curvature of the earth and you’re convinced you’re at the seaside. From the long sandy beaches to the crashing sound of waves, the sparse dry landscape of Zambia seemed long behind us.
After speaking to some locals we were redirected to the Shtima Inn, a small hotel on the waterfront straight from a Wes Anderson film. With the tents pitched, we began to consume the habitual quantity of food that has become the norm just in time for the Malawian Times to rock up for a full interview. Having confused the timing of the interview, the FCO had kindly set up for us, our interviewer had to grab a pew and watch four philistines consume three burgers each before commencing his interview. Luckily this didn’t appear in the article!
We spent the next few days enjoying the lake, cycling from beach to beach and spending our evenings in the water, a luxury that we had completely forgotten, especially in the form of a shower. On arrival in Nkhata bay we instantly realised that we had discovered a hidden gem and decided to take our first day off in weeks.
As with all days off, Charlie decided to go seeking further adventure in the nearby town of Mzuzu. Trying to locate one of his many herbal remedies that take up the vast majority of his panniers, he went looking for a taxi. With previous experiences in mind, waiting for a local shuttle bus wasn’t an option so, to the driver’s bewilderment, he rented the whole bus (for a surprisingly small sum)! With intent in his eyes and thinking his nifty trick would buy him some more quality “time in the sun later,” he began the 1500m climb to Mzuzu, one that we would come to know very well a few days after. Unfortunately his dreams of being the first Mazungu shuttle bus driver in Nkhata Bay were short lived due to a petrol shortage and the whole bus came to a standstill half way up the ascent. Catching a lift on the back of a locals moped, he scampered into town and brought a jug to fill with petrol. Regrettably, after his genius plan was put into action, the moped driver was pulled over and arrested for not having a licence and Charlie was forced to walk back down the mountain to his vessel. It’s fair to say this wasn’t one of Charlie’s happiest days off on the trip.
The crossover into Tanzania was fairly straight forward and with the stunning shores of Lake Malawi behind us; we set off into the hills. This trip has thrown constant mental and physical challenges at us but our climb to Mbeya was the pinnacle for me. A 7500ft climb over two days in the baking heat. With the air thinning inch by inch, the four of us were completely lost for breath and struggled to hold a conversation. Even Waddi, who’s bike it transpires weighs less than the rest of ours, struggled to get to the top.
One of the many realisations I have come to learn on this trip is that the low moments are absolutely key in emphasising the high ones. Descending down that vast mountain, the sun beaming in my face with three of my best friends completely outweighed the previous two days of brutality. However, like with all good things, it came to an end!
With the stunning backdrop of coffee fields and tea plantations, we decided to launch the drone for a tracking shot. Once up in the air, the four of us started to meander down the winding road but inopportunely, around the first corner was a police roadblock! With the drone laws in Tanzania a “grey area” Waddi cleverly sent the drone 120m into the air whilst Johno, Charlie and myself tried to distract the police officers from looking up. After a five-minute discussion, the drone battery running critically low and several failed attempts to leave, we finally broke the chains and raced around the next corner. The controller was now beeping uncontrollably and with the drone so far away we had completely lost signal. With a blank screen and four panicked faces at the loss of their second drone in two months, there was complete silence….
A brief blink on the screen showed a crowd of kids surrounding the drone and then the dreaded words appeared, battery dead. With Charlie thinking on his feet, he directed himself one way and myself the other to try and spot a commotion. With legs like lead I peddled for my life past the confused police officers and to my utter amazement, 2km later I came across the “alien space helicopter” being safely guarded by ten baffled local kids.
The last few weeks have been some of the most challenging and rewarding of my life. Johno’s been reduced to decanting a new tube of toothpaste into an old one because “he had become sentimental with it,” and Charlie to kicking his bike at the fourth puncture of the day. It’s fair to say that we have all been tested in various ways and with the largest and toughest section of the trip so far, it’s now time to put our heads down even further and tackle the beast that is Tanzania!