How Wet And Late Can It Get?

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I sit in the MR Hotel in downtown Iringa in the Republic of Tanzania. After thirteen hours of riding, the last two and a half in the dark and rain, I’m tired, worn and spent. We over shot the turn off to the center of town twice, finally climbing the hill to this cold nondescript Tanzanian outpost in the mountains. To top things off, all I wanted was a cold beer. The hotel, a selection from Lonely Planet, doesn’t serve beer nor does the restaurant. I’m in Muslim “country” and this will become more common as I head north.

The day started out much better than it ended. Our early start was compromised by breakfast conversations and long goodbyes to our friends at Mzuzu Hotel. Yesterday we tried to fill up with petrol, but all four of the gas stations we checked were dry — no gas. This morning the same story. We moved on.

Once on the road the riding was bliss. Some of the best in weeks. climbing further up and out of Mzuzu the roads were in good condition and traffic light. Passing banana, coffee and vegetable plantations noticing how nicely the villagers created pyramids with the round fruit and vegetables roadside. The road curved and winded around a raging river colored reddish brown from the rich clay soil of the surrounding hills. Bordering the Nyika National Park, a heavily wooded escarpment tumbles down from the Nyika Plateau to the river.

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Roadside truck stop! These guys just buy fish from the locals and shelter from the rain, build a fire and cook lunch before trucking onward.IMG_6948.jpg

The river level was very high and we crossed several bridges like these.

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They wouldn’t let us ride our bikes across this bridge. But it was still an adventure. In the photo above note the tree and you’ll appreciate just how high the river level is.

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Obviously we were traveling in Malawi’s wet season and the force and height of the river were more than enough evidence. We stumbled upon a small village where one enterprising villager has tried to draw tourists on this route to stop and cross the river on a hundred year old suspension bridge, the Zuwulufu in Kandewe, constructed simply of bamboo and rope made from palm fronds. The water rushed under us as we swayed and carefully placed one foot in front of the other over the slippery bamboo poles. The man in his early fifties starts singing African songs as we cross, jumping up and down making the bridge swing above the water. Today the waters was only 2-3 meters from the bottom of the bridge, during the dry season our man tells us it’s more than twenty meters to the bottom of the river. Asked if the local villagers appreciate his attempts to draw visitors, he takes donations to pay for food for those that maintain the bridge, he says half the people appreciate him the other half think he’s crazy.

Traveling through perhaps the most densely populated country in Africa, Malawi can be taxing to the motorcyclists. The roads have no shoulders and the villagers all use the side of the road to get around. On bicycles, donkey carts, walking and in dilapidated vehicles. Rounding one corner along the river Ronnie scares a young girl wearing traditional colorful African full length dress and she falls smack in a huge mud puddle. Getting to here knees by the time I pass her she was following behind her man on a bicycle. As we descended back down to the lake we were treated to breathtaking views of the river winding to the lake and later passed fishing villages where the entire village was on the beach supporting the community fishing effort.

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The river eventually dumps into Lake Malawi.

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Traditional thatched roofs of fishing villages provided a very African backdrop to our ride from Mzuzu to the Tanzania border. Note everyone on the beach waiting to help the community fishing effort.

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In Korongo I was suprised to find a sidewalk. This guy has quite a project as he must re-thatch the roof of his hut this week. Busy times along Lake Malawi.

Because there was no petrol in Mzuzu, and though my tank was nearly full on leaving, I was pushing to make the nearly 200 miles to Koronga. My reserve light popped on just outside of Chilumba where I found some black-market fuel at about 300 Malawian kwacha per liter – this is about double the normal price. Pissing and moaning while calling the roadside entrepreneurs thieves, Ronnie decided he’d risk making the ride to Koronga. His GS has a fancy gauge that tells him how many kilometers till he runs out. Me? I’ve got an amber light and an odometer. And these I’ve become intimate with over the last two and a half years. I bought five liters reasoning that they are buying the fuel at retail and transporting it 70 kilometers from Koronga. If it was me I might even charge more. The few extra bucks is well spent for peace of mind. Later Ronnie rolled in on fumes as his fancy gauge said 0 kilometers rolling into the Koronga filling station.

The border crossing was simple and straightforward on the Malawi side. Having a carnet makes the process much smoother than most borders I crossed in Central and South America. At the Tanzanian post visas were required for both Ronnie and I. Fifty bucks for the South African. One hundred smackaroos for the American. And they only accept US dollars! Ronnie had exchanged South African Rand for dollars at the border in Malawi. I had a fifty dollar bill and barely enough in kwacha to make the hundred bucks. I tried to convince the border cops to let me in at the fifty dollar price. They quoted “reciprocity” stating that for Tanzanians to get a US visa it costs $100. When I pulled out my fifty-dollar bill they looked at it and said they only accept American currency with the “big head”. My “small head” $50 was unacceptable. Calling it old, I pointed to the date on the crisp bill, 1997, and then pulled out a Tanzanian schilling in disrepair asking “now which one looks old to you”?

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Just hanging out waiting for the sun.

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Border stop at Malawi exit post.

At this point a young Canadian from Edmonton got in line behind us. Donning a backpack and having just spent a month in Tanzania and Uganda he was eager to tell us he just finished Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s “Long Way Down” book about their London to Cape Town motorcycle ride a year or so earlier. Dan, the Canadian, happily exchanged my “small head” $50 for a “big head” $50 as he was heading toward South Africa where exchanging these “old” bills would be easier. He also exchanged me his “Long Way Down” book for the copy of Mark Kurlansky’s “Salt” which I had just finished.

Ronnie got caught up in the process of buying mandatory insurance while my home-made ” laminated international insurance card” fooled the insurance people who told me I’d have no problem with the police. Sorry Ronnie!

The first fifty miles of riding through Tanzania winded through rich tropical banana plantations. One village every mode of transport was used for moving massive amounts of bananas. Trucks, cars, donkey and ox cars, and even carts pulled by men. Women balanced entire branches of bananas on their heads while others sat in front of stacks waiting for the next bus. Then the pineapples, balanced like pyramids as we saw in Malawi and Zambia. Adding color were a couple enterprising bicyclists who had full grown pigs strapped to the back of their bikes as they peddled along the side of the road.

But by the time we refueled in Makambaka, still more than 200km from Iringa is when our good luck ran out. Ahead of us large clouds changed from shades of grey to black as we filled our tanks. Kids gathered around our bikes as I zipped in my rain liners. It was just after 4pm. We braced for the rain.

At first it was refreshing, but as the daylight diminished and the rain thundered stronger with flashes of lightning flanking us as we rode into the storm the ride became a chore. Visibility was compromised and the road soon turned into a rolling river. In Tanzania they haven’t learned how to create a slope in the road for drainage. As such, riding becomes dangerous as several times I could feel my bike hydroplane. The rear tire was on its last legs and certainly not a match for these roads.

I was tense. Trying to ride with the visor opened buy my eyes just were pierced by the sharp rain. Closing the visor made it impossible to see. At first the road was a light grey asphalt but soon it turned to pitch black tar – providing no reflection or additional light from my weak headlight. Ronnie zoomed ahead of me as I could only move about 70-km/h and feel somewhat safe. There were no lines on the road and the tall trees just blended in with the pavement. It was hell and reminded me of the ride to Maceió in Brazil last October. About 20 minutes later If found Ronnie sitting roadside in a pool of mud. He’d had a couple close calls. At one point I was happy to find a truck rolling at about my speed. Following closely behind we got a bit of relief from the rain plus its headlights combined with the additional reflection from the back of the truck it was almost like daylight — well not quite.

When we approached Iringa the velocity and volume of the rain increased two-fold. Climbing up the rain just drained down the pavement toward us. It was like a river. As the road plateaued I soon found myself riding through a puddle that was two-feet deep. I thought I was riding a river. But I was on the main road into Iringa. That’s when I saw the frogs. Hundreds of them hopping across the road every which way. Was I in a river?

By the time we arrived at the MR Hotel we were sopped, waterlogged, tired and spent. It also had taken us nearly 5 hours to ride those 200 kilometers. And no beer.

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Ronnie contemplates his next steps. Soon he’ll be in Dar es Salaam marking a milestone in his nearly three month journey.

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Wet parking area of the MR Hotel in Iringa, Tanzania.

Tomorrow. Dar es Salaam. It couldn’t be soon enough.

What Now?

8:47am, Saturday February 9, 2008 Mzuzu Hotel, Mzuzu, Malawi

Sitting down for breakfast here at the Sunbird Mzuzu I pulled out my MoneyClamp and surveyed my cash situation. Wow. I’ve got 370 Kwacha. Feeling pretty good until I realized that it amounted to about $2.66. This certainly wouldn’t take me to the Tanzania border. Even worse, I was delivered another blow yesterday when Peter called and informed me that my tire didn’t make it on to the truck yesterday.

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Currency Conversion: $1.00 = 140 Malawian Kwacha as of February 9, 2008


We had to execute the contingency plan. One of his workers employed at the Mzuzu store who is in Lilongwe will leave tomorrow sometime and bring my tire. This means another night at Mzuzu Hotel. And possibly one more because the ride to Karonga and on to the Tanzania border will likely take two to three hours. If the tire isn’t here by 2 or 3pm we’d risk riding in darkness if we set out much later.

I’m running out of things to do here in Mzuzu and the internet connection is so damn slow I can’t upload any blog posts, access online banking nor make a Skype call or initiate an AIM chat.

10:11am, Saturday February 9, 2008 Mzuzu Hotel, Mzuzu Malawi

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Biding time in the Hotel Mzuzu Ronnie updates his journal.

The Mzuzu DHL office is headquartered here in the hotel. The two DHL employees are interested in our motorcycles. I offer to trade mine for their DHL delivery bike. When that didn’t work, I tried the back up strategy. Since I’m hanging out so long in Mzuzu, perhaps they could offer me a job. After all, I’ve got more than 47,000 miles riding experience and have braved the traffic of Lima, Bogota, La Paz, Quito, Santiago, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and more. I’ve also had at least three DHL packages shipped to me while on this journey. Certainly I have the qualifications.

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I passed the driving test but perhaps failed the protective gear requirement?

The things we do to take up time. I’d suggested riding back to Lake Malawi south of Nkhata Bay. Ronnie wanted none of this. “I don’t go backwards,” was his response. And while I understand the concept of such thinking, we were just biding time and a nice ride along the lake certainly would be better than sitting in this hotel. Then the rain came. Maybe sitting here wasn’t so bad after all.

2:34pm, Saturday February 9, 2008 Mzuzu Hotel, Mzuzu, Malawi

Another blow. Just received an SMS message from Peter. Seems that the tire is still in Zambia at the border town of Chipata. And no courier services operate on Sunday so that means the tire would get on a truck Monday and not be here until Tuesday. An impossible situation. I can’t afford three more nights in this hotel. But what are my options? Few, if any. I think I’m going to have to send it via express courier to Dar es Salaam. DHL? Damn. That’ll probably cost me $200 or more which means the price of this tire is inching toward $500. I’m screwed. And my budget slammed. No matter what I do I’m sinking in time and money. But I can’t sit in Mzuzu any longer. It’s too painful.

5:15pm, Saturday February 9, 2008 Mzuzu Hotel, Mzuzu Malawi

The internet is so slow that I’m wasting more than time here. Paying by the hour for the connection requires buying vouchers. I can finish a beer, take a piss and cajole the staff in the time it takes to send one email, sans attachments. We decide to go with the contingency plan. When Peter receives the tire on Monday he will send it via DHL to Dar es Salaam and hold for pick up.

7:55pm, Saturday February 9, 2008 The Last Supper, Mzuzu Hotel, Mzuzu Malawi

The manager of the hotel tries to get us into the “disco” club after we finish. That will impede on our early departure plans. No. I don’t want to. Promises of cold beer, camaraderie and good looking women don’t convince me. Ronnie second guesses but follows suit. It’s an early night. We gotta make time tomorrow. Iringa in Tanzania is our goal. It’s more than 700km (400 miles) and we’ve got a border stop.

Washed Up and Out In Nkhata Bay.

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Sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Today not only would take us to Nkhata Bay, a tiny hamlet on the northern lake shore, but it would also take us on a seemingly endless (Egyptian) goose chase to find somewhere I could send funds to Ray Wilson in Zambia to cover the cost and transport of my replacement tire. (remember I did buy one and it flew off the back of my bike without me noticing?).

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We came across this on the sandy muddy track from our lodge the next morning. Two days ago this hut’s foundation was washed away by torrential rains. A young girl broke her leg as the bricks came tumbling down when they were sleeping.

We never did find the charm of what was reported to be the most traditional large village in Africa when riding through the dusty byways of Nkhotakota. In typical Malawi fashion a local on a small motorcycle offered to help us find our way through town. At 8:30am he was riding a motorcycle with an open beer. Hoping off the motorcycle he grabbed his beer from its saddle on his handlebars and greeted us road side.

“You want to go to zee bestest place, right?” He was smiling while swirling another sip from his green Carlsberg, thinking we rolled into town looking for accommodation. I was looking for the colorful market as promised by the guidebooks. And I was hoping to find a Western Union. Ray would be sending my tire from Lusaka in Zambia with one of his employees to the town of Ketete just an hour or so from Chipata near the border of Malawi. Here in Chipata, Grant Le Roux from Lilongwe would have one of his trucks pick up the tire from the Dunavent office in Chipata and take it to Peter Kemp who in turn would put it on a truck to meet me in Mzuzu by 8am Saturday morning. But before this complicated rigamarole could happen, Ray needed his cash. I had hoped to leave the money with Peter who could give it Grant’s driver. But with Malawi’s per-capital GNP at just about $170, the $120 for my tire would be too much of a temptation and not a safe nor guaranteed bet.

But there was no Western Union office Nkhotakota and we couldn’t find the Livingstone Tree where Hastings Banda served numerous political speeches in the 60’s nor the tree where Daniel Livingstone convinced Chief Jumbe to end the slave trade in Malawi. We were told we could find Western Union just 50km north in Dwangwa.

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Our friend who was self-described as a motorcycle mechanic was riding and drinking this beer at 8am the morning.

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No sir there is no Western Union in Nkhotakota, but if you ever feel unsafe please stop at the police station and we will tend to you.

Following the signs from the main road down a muddy track toward the Standard Bank in Dwangwa we passed through a gated entrance to the Dwangwa Sugar Estate and then through about 4km of sugar cane fields and down another muddy track to a parking lot where beneath shade trees a tiny office of Standard Bank sat waiting. I couldn’t believe there was a bank in this company town. But I was relieved when I saw the MoneyGram® placard touting “send and receive money anywhere in the world.” At least I would check this task off my day and move on to exploring Lake Malawi and Nkhata Bay.

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Maybe you can’t send a MoneyGram® from Dwangwa, but at least we’ll have a good bottle of wine with dinner tonight. (shot by Ronnie B.)

But the reality was much different than the perception. “No. You can only receive money here. No can send money.” The trainee teller wearing tie that barely reached the middle button of his pressed blue shirt.

I dragged the placard across the floor and showed him the sign, “look!” I pleaded, “it says SEND and RECEIVE money…I want to send money.” I was talking to myself. It was useless. I tried the other bank in town and received the same answer. Only receive. No send. This meant I’d need to head to Mzuzu which is 50km north of Nkhata Bay and about 100km north of where Ronnie and I hoped to enjoy our Malawi Lake Chill Experience. I resigned to the fact I’d be riding an even longer day so that I could get Ray his cash and that I could get my tire.

Blowing pass the lodges along the Chintheche Strip and a quick refueling stop in Nkhata Bay, we motored on to Mzuzu where interestingly enough Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika was visiting causing traffic snarls and curious onlookers as a convoy of military vehicles and the ubiquitous black sedan breezed through town. The Malawi National Bank touting MoneyGram send and receive options wouldn’t let me send money without an account at that bank. Same thing at Standard Bank. My patience was running thin.

Directed to a Western Union office a few blocks away I was told here that the maximum I could send was the equivalent of $87.50. This wouldn’t work. Ray Wilson was expecting $120. So I suggested I send two Western Union cash transfers. Sorry. Only one per sender and one per receiver per week. This was getting out of hand. I convinced them to let Ronnie be one additional senders but they’d have to look the other way as I needed to send this cash to ONE RECEIVER. They agreed. And the money was sent.

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Dealing with complex and beaurocratic tasks such as wiring money abroad can tax one’s patience. Ronnie acted as the second sender in order to get payment for my new tire to Ray Wilson in Zambia.

Ronnie has a predisposed position in travel where he doesn’t like to back track. And I can understand this. But there was no way I wanted to spend three days in Mzuzu waiting for my tire when just 50km south was the tropical-esque hamlet of Nkhata Bay – a small bay where sunrises and sunsets paint beautiful sky pictures and at nighttime fisherman in traditional canoes hang lights over the bay luring fish into nets near the shoreline. Convinced that Mzuzu wasn’t the place to stay we headed toward the bay with our eyes set on Mayoka Village – a budget accommodation highly recommended by other travelers and Lonely Planet.

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Remember all that charcoal I’ve been seeing carting on backs of bikes and along the roadside in Zambia and south of here in Malawi? Well, at a police check point I asked about this sign. In this forested part of Malawi it is illegal to harvest trees and make firewood. Why? The policeman was happy to explain that Malawi must preserve its resources and not cut down trees for fear that one day there will be no more.

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Getting directions from the petrol station to our accommodation in Nkhota Bay. (Ronnie B. photo)

With Ronnie taking lead we wandered through town and made a turn up a muddy dirt track and over a bridge and then up a horribly rutted and rocky road that had been deteriorated by incessant rains over the past week. Then the road made a turn toward Mayoka Village down a slippery and muddy clay track with ruts, rocks and loose sand. We managed but I feared getting out of there–especially if it rained.

Then the other shoe was dropped. There were no rooms and only two bunks in an 8-person dormitory available at Mayoka. Still reeling after last nights disappointment we both agreed that while Mayoka with its keen hillside location where chalets, restaurant and bar tumble down the hill toward the bay, we weren’t prepared to schlep our stuff to spend a night in a crowded dorm room. So we were guided to the Butterfly Lodge just next door.

What a disappointment. While the price was amazingly cheap, the Butterfly Lodge in Nkhata Bay is a perfect example of “you get what you pay for”. Dirty, flea-ridden and poorly laid out in order to get to the bathrooms and shower you had to tromp through reception, the restaurant and the kitchen. And the bar was just beyond that where the bartender cranked music through blown speakers. Dinner was good though feasting on a generous portion of Batata, a local fish found only in Lake Malawi.

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Just like it says. They musta liked Ganja so much they forgot to maintain the bus.

We decided one night at Butterfly would suffice and while we hated to unpack and repack again the next day we’d find accommodation at one of the better lodges closer to town. I just hoped it didn’t rain. Cause with the serious downpours we’d experienced over the last week, the road out of Butterfly Lodge would be practically impassable as the red clay would turn into a slippery ice-like surface. Everyone working at the lodge had horror stories of cars not making it up the hill. I had nightmares of dropping doc and watching it slide down the incline.

The next morning things looked menacing but the clouds appeared off in the distance. My optimism got the best of me and before we were fully packed the rain started pouring. I walked to the hill and and my boot slid nicely and without drag on the clay road. There was a rocky rut made by drainage of the nightly rains but it looked testy and a bit scary. If there was traction to be had, this is where I’d get it. Ronnie and I contemplated our exit strategy. Putting money on the lowest risk we convinced a few of the workers to walk up with us on the bikes providing support should the bike begin to slide out. Ronnie wanted to wait for the rain to stop citing the fact he couldn’t see through his face-shield due to incessant fogging. Plus he hates getting wet. I reasoned and insisted that the more rain the more that road would fall apart and we could be stuck there even longer. He finally canned the silly idea of finding a truck to carry his bike up and down the hill and was willing to give it a try on his beastly GS1200.

I went first and was heavy on the throttle making it nearly impossible for these guys to hold on. I made it up with ease. For Ronnie it was more tenuous and he committed the unwanted sin and stalled mid-slope. He wanted to ride up the slippery clay, but his aides convinced him to follow the route I took. Eventually he made it up. That was part one. The rocky and rutted slope down to the village required intense concentration and careful line planning. End up on the clay and you could slide into a rut and get turned around and sidewise. But we managed.

The next lodge we tried Ronnie nearly got stuck in thick mud surrounded by pampas grass. The rain continued to pelt us. That’s when we decided to cut our losses and just go to Mzuzu and wait out my tire. I suggested that given his schedule and diminishing time that he move on and not wait for me. The tire is my problem. Not his. And I don’t want to hinder his trip nor compromise his experience. But he decided to stick it out and stay with me so we could cross the border into Tanzania and ride to Dar Es Salaam together.

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This photo does nothing to show how steep this incline was nor how slippery the red clay mud was, but you can get the idea. Below Ronnie waits while his “pushing” crew gets ready.

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He almost didn’t make it due to a slip and a stall midway. But success. Glad to be out of there. The rain lasted for two days after this and clearly we would have been stranded if we waited much longer.


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At the top of the muddy mess with our helpers.

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We did try to get to another lodge on level ground while the rain pelted the landscape. But after 500m down this muddy track Ronnie got stuck so we turned his big beast around and headed back to Mzuzu again — 50km north of Nkhata Bay.

After negotiating an amazing rate at the Sunbird Mzuzu we both were happy to get out of our wet gear, get a cold beer and have a bit of internet access where our down time could be spent catching up on our journals.

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Ahhhh. Mzuzu. Who woulda thunk?

Lilongwe to Zomba to Nkhotakota.

Mulling over maps of Malawi and Tanzania, Ronnie and I planned a route that would provide us a good overview of Malawi: its mountains to the south, the beaches on the southern part of the lake, the villages along the lake and the peaceful serenity of the more remote northern lake and onward north to Tanzania. The rain had been slamming Lilongwe for most of the week, but lapsed the day before we took off and looked like it would hold the morning we set out for Zomba, the former parliamentary capital of Malawi.

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Packing up Doc and preparing for our route through Malawi to Tanzania. (photo by Ronnie Borrageiro)

With long goodbyes and more coordination discussions about how I would rendezvous with my tire, Ronnie and I set out about noon. For the most part the ride to Zomba was dry and on good roads passing through rolling green hills with the occasional rock outcroppings framed by scenic villages complete with thatched roofs and workers tending to maize and other plants. Approaching the bigger centers such as Dedza, Ntcheu and Balaka the road became somewhat of an obstacle course as the density of bicycles, many of which were carrying multiple huge sacks of charcoal, pedestrians, of the women most carrying baskets, bottles or food on their heads, and goats increased.

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Hillside villages along the road to Zomba.

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Should we just make a move to Mozambique?

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Stopping for photos of villages.(photo by Ronnie Borrageiro)

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Traditional Malawian villages and the landscape mountainous toward the southeast.

From Dedza and until we wound down out of the mountains toward Ntcheu we flanked the border of Mozambique. With more time riding with me I’ve noticed that Ronnie has learned how to ease up on the accelerator, certainly a tougher task than it sounds given the 1200cc powerplant of his BMW GS1200. Later he admitted that he had some of his best gas mileage of his journey. It’s easy to ride fast on his bike. But for me I like riding at a reasonable pace, not only for better gas mileage, but also to see. I try never to ride too fast that I can’t lock onto the eyes of the pedestrians, villagers or bicycle riders that come into view. Children always wave and its hard not to toot the horn and raise a huge high five or thumbs up when they sit roadside with while smiles and palms raised and waving. It’s part of this trip that makes me smile, gives me energy and delight for my day.

Our late start meant we needed to keep a solid pace and therefore my stops for photography and visiting with the the locals had to be tempered today, but we road into the Ku Chawe Hotel parking lot about an hour before sunset, negotiated a favorable rate on the room and took our place on the veranda sitting on the Zomba Plateau looking down on the valley below. The Zomba Plateau rises more than 2,000 feet above the valley through indigenous forests. On the plateau there are lakes, water falls, hiking trails and forests.

Though our time on the plateau would be limited and the next morning after a casual breakfast and walk around we set for Lake Malawi with planned stops along Monkey Bay. Stopping on our way down the plateau at the Zomba Mulunguzi Dam I noticed a boy carrying a bundle of trees about 18 feet long. The weight of his cargo rested on a red scarf wrapped on top of his head while he used his hands to steady the heavy load as he crossed the dam. Sweat beading on his face and his knees seemingly seconds from buckling I offered to help him across the dam. Not sure where he was headed as English wasn’t his vernacular, but I imagined a little bit would help. The security guard at the damn suggested I give him 50 kwacha for helping but I couldn’t get over the oddity of his suggestion. Ronnie countered suggesting that he pay me the thirty-five cents for helping. In the end I gave him a bottle of water to which the security guard said, “why you give him water. He needs no water, look around there’s plenty of water. He needs the 50 kwacha.” I thought back to the drought areas of Northern Namibia and southern Botswana and just shook my head.

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Stopping atop the Zomba Plateau in Malawi for photos and a break. (photo by Ronnie Borregeiro)IMG_6821_2.jpg

Stopping to help the locals transport firewood. (Ronnie B. photo)

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View into valley from Zomba Plateau in southeastern Malawi.

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The Road To Makakola. (bottom photo in series by Ronnie B)

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Chatting with the locals under the Baobab Tree.

To get to monkey bay we rode a 60km stretch of dirt road that for the most part was in good shape save a few potholes and areas where the sun had yet to dry the red clay. Baobab trees, short trees with huge trunks, lined the road. At one point I decided to take a break and examine one of this natural wonders close up. As usual a gathering of locals appeared. Sitting under the tree I suggested if they were all going to simply hang out and stare, why not just sit down and join me. One old man was on his way to the market to buy a “cake of soap” while another was going home after visiting friends. “What are you doing today?” I quizzed the posse.

“We do nothing,” they answered.

“No school?” I asked.

“No. Today is holiday. No school. We just be with friends.” And today I became one of their friends while we chatted under the shade of a baobab tree.

Later I stopped to examine a couple catfish that young boys were trying to sell roadside. Soon we found the sandy track that led to Club Makakola, a tony five-star resort on the shores of Lake Malawi near Monkey Bay. Complete with tennis and squash courts, a golf course, two swimming pools, a lighted football field, a private white sandy beach and a private gravel aircraft landing strip, Club Makakola is one of the most exclusive destinations in Malawi. Slightly water logged and muddy from the ride down the dirt, Ronnie and I stopped in for a coke and a Rock Shandy — minus the bitters. Way out of our budget for accommodations and too far south on our itinerary we bid the crew at the resort good bye and headed north to Nkhotakota, purportedly to be one of the most traditional villages in all of Africa.

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The smiles, cheerful and friendly Malawians bid us farewell at Club Makakola.

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Fresh catfish for sale from Lake Malawi roadside. (top photo of series by Ronnie B)

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Lake Malawi from the shores of exclusive Club Makokola Resort. (bottom two photos by Ronnie B.)

According to my Lonely Planet guidebook just south of Nkhotakota the Njobvu Safari Lodge offered nice chalets and a good restaurant right on the lake. But before taking the track down toward the lake I needed to purchase credits for my CelTel phone number – I needed to purchase “top up” airtime credits. Just north of Mitanga I spotted a shabby shack with yellow and orange banners indicating “Top Up Here”. I pulled my bike onto the sandy dirt patch in front of hut as dozens of locals surrounded the bike. As I stepped off the bike small children ran twenty feet away, afraid of this alien on a space machine. Through the makeshift window of the hut I asked for “Top Up”. “Sorry. No have. Finished. I didn’t buy more yet.” Inside the hot were small sacks of grain, a few packages of salty snacks, some fruit and vegetables and a stack of paper. Slim pickings.

“But you can go ober dare and day have sum,” waving his finger a hundred feet up the road. At this shack no one was in attendance, but in the home behind where women were grinding root veggies in wooden bowls as young kids gathered around my bike. They had “Top Up” here. But only $2 USD worth. Was I expecting too much? Yes. I shoved the slips of “Top Up” credit into my pocket and moved on.

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I’m not sure the last time, if ever, a white motorcyclists stopped in this village looking to purchase CelTel “Top Up” cellular airtime. These kids followed me everywhere.

Ronnie was waiting for me near the turn off to Njobvu Safari Lodge. But it seems the name has changed since the Lonely Planet book was published. With daylight fading and having logged more than 250 miles to get here we both looked down the muddy track and decided we better get settled before sunset. About 4km through tiny encampments, crossing rivers, through rocky and rutted tracks we rolled into the Nkhotakota Safari Lodge. Looking worn, run down and abandoned we were finally greeted by two gentlemen. One with a horribly bad stutter while the other carried a clipboard with information on the three types of rooms and costs. The stutterer, barefoot and more personable than the other was the cook. The two of them were appointed by someone to run reception. There were no other guests. We were shown to a thatched chalet on the lake that smelled musty, was dirty and the mosquito nets complete with gaping holes. Not the “appealing round chalets with thatched roofs and cane decor” as described in the guide book. At $35 and with no one else on the property, we believed the price to be too high. But these appointees had been given no responsibility and would not negotiate on the rates for fear of losing their job – which they are probably paid less than $1 per day. It was too much to pay, but we were stuck. We’d have to ride that nasty track back to the main road in the diminishing light only to find another sandy track leading to perhaps another dump.

So we gave in and then settled in. So much for a nice hang on the lakefront.

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Parked for the night outside our musty round chalet near Nkhotakota on Lake Malawi.

Lilongwe Malawi.

The Kemp family are legendary. They’ve been hosting old friend Ronnie B., for the past several days and now have let this weary and weathered motorcyclist into their home. And I’m Malawi heaven. With a wireless network, good company, great food and plenty of “Greens” (what they call the locally brewed Carlsberg beer), I couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay in the capital of Malawi.

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Many days, good meals and cold “greens” with the Kemp family, Paul, Carol and Peter. Thanks!

With more than 12 million residents Malawi could be the most densely populated country in Africa. At the turn Kamuzu.jpg of the century the British South Africa Company administered the central highlands of Malawi as British Central Africa and then encompassing the western area around the lake the area became the colony of Nyasaland and ultimately under the banner of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which also included present day Zambia and Zimbabwe. But in the 1960’s as Great Britain loosened its grip on and waned interest in its African Colonies, Malawi became an independent country in 1964. Though for the first 30 years of its independence Malawi was hardly a democratic nation under the autocratic rule of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who declared himself president for life in 1971 and banned foreign press, fixed agricultural prices, banned miniskirts and trousers for women, long hair on men and many other westernized things. Ironically, as a black man he gave support for Apartheid in South Africa and thereby gained the support and aid of the South African government. Famous for imprisoning those who spoke against his regime and controlling national press while imposing a strict night curfew. He even banned many guide books in the mid-1980’s, including a Lonely Planet book that was critical of his rule.

Finally, in 1993 his president for life status was struck a big blow when 80% of Malawi’s eligible voters chose a multiparty democracy over Banda and his dictatorship. So in 1994 under new president Bakili Muluzi, the dress code was repealed, freedom of press reinstated, political prisons closed and the night curfew lifted. But Malawi hit on hard times as inflation soared and international aid, which had been stopped during the final years of the Banda presidency, was slow to resume. Muluzi even tried to pull a Banda by attempting to change the constitution that would have given him presidency for life. You gotta love Africa. This attempt failed and a new president, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharik was elected in 2004. But even his government has been hit hard with corruption, famine and scandal. But in the faces of the people I meet in Malawi it’s difficult to sense its troubled past. People are happy, smiling and genuinely interested. It’s no wonder they call it the “heart of Africa.”

For the Kemps, transplants from South Africa, Malawi represents a slower and easier pace of life than that of the hectic and chaotic mess known as Johannesburg in South Africa. Not that living here is without challenge. Most basic products you’d expect to find in a grocery store can sometimes be very scarce. Especially now just a few weeks after the end of South Africa’s holiday period when shipments from South Africa cease until they commence sometime in late January. While visiting a few of the grocery stores in the capital city it was big news that for the first time since December yoghurt was available and on the shelves.

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In a Malawi supermarket with Ronnie and Carol shopping for the evening’s barbeque. Note the security guard with his hand and palm facing the camera. He ordered me to stop taking photos in the market.

I enjoyed three nights with Ronnie and the Kemp family and there friends enjoying great food, music and plenty of ‘green’ beer. Paul, at 16 years old owns a quad-bike and a 250-cc KTM dirt bike, spending his weekends at the local motocross track. He’s also one of Malawi’s top requested DJs, quite a feat for a sixteen year old. Peter runs a chain of supply stores while Carol teaches craft classes to locals and ex-pats from her home.

Meanwhile, I have been trying to track down another tire for Doc. Rob in South Africa has been helping me find one in Tanzania with minimal success. After several attempts I finally got in touch with Ray Wilson, the KTM dealer I bought the original and lost tire from in Lusaka. He has another tire. But getting from Lusaka to Malawi is going to be a lesson in patience, logistics and prayer. Fortunately, Peter’s friend and neighbor, Grant runs a shipping company. If Ray can get the tire to Chipata near the border of Zambia and Malawi, Grant will get it to Lilongwe. Meanwhile, Ronnie and I don’t won’t to wear out our welcome at the Kemp’s and are eager to see the countryside before crossing the border into Tanzania. With some planning we hope to meet the tire in Mzuzu, Malawi’s fourth biggest city, later this week. My fingers are crossed.

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Grant Le Roux and his daughter Kelsey at a nice Indian restaurant. Grant is helping me get my tire from Chipata to Lilongwe who then will hand it off to Peter who will find a way to get it to Mzuzu where Ronnie and I will wait before making a dash to the Tanzanian border.

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Sipping a cold “green” while displaying the plethora of technology I’m carrying on this journey. Sadly my SonyEricsson phone has now morphed into a cheap Nokia. Missing in the photo is the iPhone. Do I really need all this stuff? Ah, but it’s so much phone… I mean fun.

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I tried the local brew but after a few sips I resorted back to the locally brewed Carlsberg “green”.

Another Major Screw Up.

There are two ways of looking at the present situation. First, after traveling for more than two years and never losing much more than a baseball cap, reading glasses or the occasional loose end – never anything major – that I’ve been lucky. But on the other side of that coin, after traveling successfully for so long with a tried and true system of packing, procedures and protocols that the rhythm of the journey should never skip a beat. But all things must pass. Chalk it up to an interruption of said rhythm by riding once again with someone else. Or perhaps the rain has dampened (soaked?) my spirit and senses and caused haste and mistakes. I just don’t know. But if it couldn’t get worse, it did.

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The Zambia countryside was littered by small traditional villages like this.

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Whenever I stopped I attracted attention and many who were eager to have their photo taken by this motorcycling mzungu (gringo)

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The short ride to the Malawi border this morning took me through small villages where water had drained and carried red clay all over the road and this mornings rain caused tiny little rivers with rushing waters across the road. At the Zambia border the officials wanted proof I paid my carbon tax which was illustrated by a soggy receipt. Slam. Bam. And a few more rubber stamps and I was on the way to the Malawi border. That’s when I ran into Ronnie. A short hour’s ride from Lilongwe he came to escort me to the home of his friends Peter and Carol and their sixteen-year old son Paul. Dressed in his rain gear and with a phone glued to his ear, he explained that he still had more airtime (call credit) on his Zambia pay-as-you-go phone number. I cleared customs and immigration without any fees payable to the government for my bike or my visa for Malawi. I did have to give Prime Insurance Company 2,000 kw (about $16) for liability insurance.

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Welcome to Malawi.

With extra time on my Zambia phone number, I took Ronnie’s lead and tried to make some calls, send SMS and otherwise use up the last of my credit before leaving the Zambia border and its cellular coverage behind. I was mildly successful until the rains came. And they came hard. Fearing damage to my phone, I shoved it into the Sea-to-Summit dry bag I use for such occasions. But this time the phone shared the bag with my small Moleskine notebook – the book I record all of my travel details, expenses, email addresses, contacts and notes for my book and this blog. Then I shoved this into the front pocket of my BMW Rallye II Pro riding jacket. The bag didn’t fit very well but it seemed secure and wedged in tightly.

Big mistake.

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Ronnie and I outside the immigration and customs office at the Malawi border. Note the blue dry bag sticking up in my jacket. I figure when on the bike and in a seated position my thigh pushed under the jacket loosening the bag from the pocket until it dropped without me noticing. Damn.

When we arrived at the Kemp residence I went to retrieve my book and phone. They were gone. I was livid and besides myself. Making a horrible first impression on the family who would host me, feed me and offer warm hospitality for the next three days, I stomped around the house unleashing a barrage of profanity and tearing everything off my bike. Then I wanted to cry. Two days in a row. Two major screw ups. And very costly screw ups. The phone was a SonyEricsson P1i which cost about $500, the tire at $120 and my black Moleskine book? Priceless (my apologies to VISA). It took a couple hours but soon the water was sliding off my back and I was buying a cheap Hungarian manufactured Nokia for about $30. The budget’s been blasted and the bank broken. Damn. Sometimes you just need to move on.

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Even in this picture I’m seen in the doorway and the tiny shade of blue meant after purchasing insurance I still had my phone and Moleskine book. Damn.

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Last known photo of my SonyEricsson P1i that night at Deans Hill View Lodge in Chipata.