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.
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.
Stopping for photos of villages.(photo by Ronnie Borrageiro)
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.
Stopping to help the locals transport firewood. (Ronnie B. photo)
View into valley from Zomba Plateau in southeastern Malawi.
The Road To Makakola. (bottom photo in series by Ronnie B)
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.
The smiles, cheerful and friendly Malawians bid us farewell at Club Makakola.
Fresh catfish for sale from Lake Malawi roadside. (top photo of series by Ronnie B)
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.
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.
Parked for the night outside our musty round chalet near Nkhotakota on Lake Malawi.