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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by Underboning, Aug 16, 2011.
Keep it coming, can't wait for more. Ride safe
After a surprisingly good night's sleep in the yard behind the bar at Shoestring Backpacker, we spent a lazy morning of internet surfing and travel planning. Around 11:00 am, we headed out for the 1.5 mile walk to the Falls. On the way, we stopped at the local Spar grocery store for picnic provisions. We were surprised at the lack of food in the store and the high cost for what they did have. Food prices here are higher than they are in the US and anywhere else we've been in Africa so far. Boxes of Kellogg's cereal range in price from 6USD to 9USD. We purchased some locally made peanut butter, cheese, and crackers.
From there we continued on to Victoria Falls and ran the gauntlet of souvenir salesmen. Due to Zimbabwe's meteoric inflation a few years ago, they recently changed their official currency to the US dollar. The souvenir salesmen have wads of the now out of circulation Zimbabwe dollar. The note we were most commonly offered was the 50 trillion dollar one! Dollarization has had two primary effects in Zimbabwe: that food and fuel are now generally available, but the price of everything has increased. I guess that's why admission to Victoria Falls has gone from 20USD to 30USD in the past year. As we paid the 60 bucks to get in, we hoped it would be worth it, especially since we were here during the dry season. And it was.
We spent the next couple of hours walking between viewing points and marveling at the beauty of the Falls. Along the way we ate our picnic lunch and chatted with other visitors.
After the Falls, we walked back into town with the plan of stopping at the grocery store again for the makings of dinner. What we hadn't realized was that today was Sunday and the store closed at 1 pm. Fortunately, we found the local handy mart, which was open. From their odd selection of foodstuffs, we were able to buy some frozen ground beef, 3 packages of ramen noodles (mushroom flavored), and half of a basketball sized head of cabbage. I was skeptical, but Re promised she could make something out of these ingredients. Back at the guesthouse, we spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening working on RRs and blog posts. Re disappeared into the kitchen and came back a while later with ramen, meatball, and cabbage soup, which was actually better that it sounds. While she was cooking, one of the guesthouse employees was also fixing dinner for the other employees. Re admired the curried sausages and mealie pap he was making, as he looked enviously at the huge amount of ground beef that she was making for just two people. Since there was no way we could eat all the cabbage ourselves, she offered the half she didn't cook to her fellow chef, which he gratefully accepted. Later, she offered him the soup that was left in the pot, and he was again happy to have it. Times here seem to be very hard for people in Zimbabwe, with low wages and high costs. After dinner, we ran into Sue again and were entertained by the traditional dancing and singing (?) by a local troupe. A few beers later it was bed time, so back to the tent we went.
After another good night's sleep in the tent, we used up the last of our wifi credit over our breakfast of peanut butter and crackers and apples. Since the only ingredient in the peanut butter was peanuts, we were unsure how it would survive unrefrigerated. Re offered the third of a jar to her fellow chef from last evening and he responded with a God bless you. The tourism industry has dried up in Zimbabwe over the past few years and this has compounded the difficulties for the local people. After striking camp and looking over the bikes, we began our long ride to Bulawayo.
Today's ride was boring, dry, and dusty. We fueled up in Vic Falls before leaving town but were looking for fuel by the time we reached Hwanke. There was no petrol at the first two fuel stations in town, but I was directed to another fuel station a few kilometers farther. The taxi drivers laughed when they pointed me to this station, and when I arrived, I could see why. It was a very dodgy looking place, and I silently hoped that the gasoline being dispensed into our bikes didn't have any extra additives. Back out on the main road, our bikes didn't seem to enjoy this load of fuel much at all, but they kept running. Once past Hwanke, there were no towns of any size before Bulawayo.
Since it was a long, hot ride, we were both longing for a cold drink. We eventually spied the Coca Cola logo on the side of a building at a dusty, wide spot in the road. We wheeled in past the surprised faces of the local villagers, who were sitting around, watching the world go by. We walked into the store, found the ice chest (there was no electricity) and selected our beverages. We sat on the front porch and drank our Cokes under the solemn, watchful gazes of the shopkeeper's three young sons. About 10 miles shy of Bulawayo, we were stopped at another police checkpoint. After pleasantries were exchanged, we were on our way again. Being a police officer in Zimbabwe must be a good job, as they were universally the friendliest and happiest people we met in Zimbabwe. After we cleared the checkpoint, the land turned green almost instantly.
Once into Bulawayo, we searched in vain for any road signs and finally asked for street names when we stopped for a much needed splash of fuel. We eventually found our guesthouse, as recommended by Lonely Planet, and were (again) disappointed. The price had doubled, there was no camping, and of course, the internet didn't work, and the woman at reception was unpleasant. Since the sun had set and we had no other options, we reluctantly decided to stay. As Bulawayo is not safe to walk around at night, we went next door to the Bulawayo Athletic Club for dinner. I opted for the fish and chips, and Re enjoyed a local meal of sadza (mealie pap) and beef, accompanied by the thumping soundtrack of African hiphop videos. A strange day indeed.
294 miles in about 9 hours. The bikes were a little unhappy, maybe the fuel, maybe the altitude.
Bulawayo is a big, ugly, decaying city made up of a mix of colonial buildings and Soviet era concrete architecture. Our reason for being here was to visit the Matobo National Park (Matopos), which is a Unesco World Heritage site made of a game park and a recreational park. It's about 25 miles south of Bulawayo and was our destination for the day. Most notably for us, it is the burial place of Cecil John Rhodes, an important colonial businessman that my father claims some relation to. It's also the home to some of the last white rhinos in the wild. Before heading there, we stopped in town to find a working ATM and a grocery store. I eventually found the only working ATM while Re picked up lunch.
Tasks accomplished, we turned our bikes south for Matopos. The 25 miles or so passed quickly, through an interesting landscape full of large, granite boulders. We pulled up to the gate, hopped off the bikes, and walked to the office to purchase our entry tickets for the park. The guard, who was busy texting on his phone, only looked up after we asked how much it was, and he informed us, no motorcycles in the park, and went back to texting. When we asked why, he simply replied, animals. Re assured him that we promised not to get eaten, but he never looked back up. It would have been nice if the motorcycle ban had been mentioned anywhere in the literature we consulted, but no.
Discouraged, we rode back to Bulawayo and our crappy guesthouse. Since it was after 10am, we wouldn't have been able to make it all the way to Harare today, so we decided to make the best of it in Bulawayo. After a brunch of more apples, peanut butter, and crackers, we sat on the bed and caught up on ride reports and blog posts. In the middle of the afternoon, we walked into town, found a local internet cafe, and posted our work. Walking back to the guesthouse, we stopped at Mr Chips for dinner. Five USD procured us two orders of greasy chips and three large Russians, (a sausage sort of like kielbasa). We then stopped at the grocery store for fruit, a rock bun (which lived up to its name), and some Castle milk stouts to round out the Dinner of Champions. We arrived back at our guesthouse and found Sue, the Australian we met in Vic Falls, and that the power was out. With assurances that the power would be back on by 9 (am or pm, the grumpy lady at reception didn't say), we sat on the bed and enjoyed a candlelight dinner. Shortly after we ingested more than our recommended daily allowance of grease and stout, the power came on in time for us to go to bed.
51 pointless miles.
Since we'd already spent more time in Bulawayo than anyone really should, we were anxious to get on the road early today. Re and I had initially planned to go to Great Zimbabwe, an archaeological site near Masvingo, but decided instead, to make a beeline for Malawi and, hopefully, for greener pastures. The shortest route to Malawi took us through Harare, so that was our goal for the day. The ride to Harare looked like it would be around 300 miles, so we wanted to be on the road by 8:00 am.
Around 7:30, I walked out to check on the bikes and soon found that Re's rear tire was flat. This was the tube that was wrinkled and had already been patched once. When I installed the new rear tires in Vic Falls, I opted to reuse the old tubes. Since the easiest way to remove the rear tire is with two people, I went in search of Re. I found her getting out of the shower and while she greeted me wearing nothing but a smile, it soon disappeared. So much for our early start. Out to the parking lot, off with the wheel and tire, and I soon discovered another hole where one of the wrinkles had been. I pulled out one of our new tubes and we very carefully (no wrinkles this time!) installed it. Since the tools were out and we were dirty, we decided it would be a good time to adjust both chains and check some fasteners. Back to the showers to get cleaned up.
We finally hit the road around 9:00 am and settles in for another long, boring, dry, dusty ride. While we did encounter some headwind today, at least it was a comfortable temperature all day. One feature of Zimbabwe is the large number of police checkpoints and frequent tollbooths. One good thing about being on a motorbike in Zimbabwe is that you pay no tolls. Another good thing is that the police don't seem to bother you. So by the end of the day, we copied the locals and blew through the tollbooths and checkpoints. Shortly after midday we reached the town of Gweru and stopped for fuel and groceries. While Re was in the grocery store, I sat and waited with the bikes. I enjoy people watching and was interested to note that we were apparently the only white faces in town. Zimbabwe is different from the rest of Africa in this respect, as usually, there are at least tourists in town. While I was watching people do what they do, a man came up and introduced himself. He had noted our American license plates, knew of Oregon, and we had a nice chat for about 5 minutes. He was interested in how Zimbabwe compared to the rest of Africa and to the US.
For the rest of the ride to Harare, fuel availability was spotty, and again, the bikes seemed to hesitate at partial throttle but were fine WFO. We neared the outskirts of Harare around 5:00 pm, and once again, the landscape changed from dry and dusty to green and interesting. We rode through a section of large, granite boulders, some of them balanced precariously on top of each other, and then encountered Harare rush hour. Harare seems to be powered by crazy shared minibus taxis that, without rhyme, reason, or signaling, pull off the shoulder of the road. Dodging taxis the entire way, we made it into the center of Harare and again found very few road signs. Navigating from the tiny Lonely Planet map wasn't working out well for us as I was sure we passed our turn. Sitting at a light, I noticed the occupants of the vehicle to our right looking at our bikes and talking to each other and then saw the police chaplain sticker on their door. I motioned for them to roll down the window and asked for directions. They were able to direct us to the right neighborhood, but we cruised around for more than 20 minutes but could not find our destination. Sun nearly down, we pulled into the parking lot of the local grocery store, thinking that we would ask for directions. On a whim, I typed the address of the guesthouse into my GPS and it told me we were 0.4 miles away. We followed the directions to the gate. Originally, I wasn't going to bring a GPS on this trip and was going to rely on paper maps. I can't count the number of times I've been glad I changed my mind. We beeped the horn at the front gate and waited to be disappointed once again. The guard unlocked the gate and we rode into what must be the nicest guesthouse in Zimbabwe. And, they had a room! And internet! And a clean pool! And a lovely restaurant serving good, cheap food! We unloaded the bikes, schlepped our stuff to the room, and ordered a delicious dinner. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and chatting with other travelers.
302 miles in about 8 hours. Bikes were hesitating - maybe altitude, maybe fuel.
Since our guesthouse was such a pleasant surprise after a couple of no fun days, we decided to take the day off. While touring the grounds of the guesthouse, Re had spied a laundry sink out back, complete with washboard. As there were no signs saying that you couldn't do your own laundry, Re decided this was a perfect opportunity to de-crustify some of our clothes. While she played charwoman, I sat down with the GPS, map, and guidebook and plotted our route through Mozambique and Malawi.
Mid-morning, Re rode to the grocery store, where she found a much wider selection than we had in western Zimbabwe. We had heard, almost bitterly, from some Zimbabweans, that people in Harare have it better, and that seemed to be true. Tired of grease and peanut butter, Re returned with a ton of fresh fruit, a big tub of yogurt, some muesli, a liter of 100% fruit juice. For lunch we had yogurt with fruit salad and muesli on top, with large glasses of juice on the side. While it was delicious, I was secretly afraid of how my body would react to that much nutrition all at once. Fortunately, she also brought donuts, which helped to restore the delicate grease balance my body has developed since arriving in Africa.
After lunch we jumped on the bikes and headed for the Bally Vaughn animal sanctuary. Located about 35 miles east of Harare, Bally Vaughn is an organization that rescues injured or abandoned animals. While we were there, we saw lions, a leopard, zebras, a civet, a caracal, assorted other small animals and birds, and a whisky barrel on legs, named Kylie, that used to be a hyena.
Also visiting the sanctuary was a group of high school students from a local, rural school. We understood after speaking to their teacher, that this trip was reward for having done very well in a national drama competition. While we sat drinking a Coke at a table outside the cafe, five of the female students sat at our table and began chatting with us. We spent about an hour talking with them about a wide variety of subjects while we walked and watched the large carnivores being fed from the wheelbarrow of gruesome (and flies). Their teacher thanked us for spending time with his kids and said what a treat it was for them to talk with Americans. I think we had as much fun as they did, and Re developed quite a bond with several of the young women. I also had the opportunity to speak with the woman who runs the sanctuary and was impressed with their commitment to the animals. If you ever find yourself in Harare, we both recommend a trip here.
We arrived back at the guesthouse at around 6 pm and pulled in next to the DR800 we had seen at the border. It was a reunion day of sorts, as we also found Sue sitting in the lounge. Later that evening we ran into Stephan and Nicole, the DR800 riders from Germany, and spent the evening chatting with them and Sue. Stephan and Nicole seem like a neat couple who have ridden that DR all over the world. We had another delicious dinner at the guesthouse, and I used the rest of our internet credit to upload all the photos we'd taken through Victoria Falls.
63 miles in about 2 hours. Lots of laughs.
Today our goal was Tete, Mozambique, which is located approximately halfway across the strip of Mozambique that separates Malawi from Zimbabwe. Since today's ride would be about 240 miles plus an international border crossing, our plan (once again) was to get on the road promptly. We woke early, had a breakfast of leftover fruit salad and muesli, but sadly, found that the rest of our juice had disappeared from the refrigerator overnight. While Re packed up some things in the room, I checked on the bikes and was confused by our tire pressures. For the third day in a row, they seem to be all over the place, some higher, and yesterday some lower. I'm beginning to suspect that the dust has gotten to my tire gauge, because I can come up with no other explanation. After saying goodbye to Sue once again, we headed out to the bikes by 8:30 am. Here we ran into Stephan and Nicole and spent 30 minutes more chatting with them. So much for our early start (again).
The ride leaving Harare was pretty, with the rocks, hills, and flowering trees, but as we approached the Mozambique border, it turned brown again. Proof once again, that it is a small world: we stopped to refuel our bikes from the jerrycans at a dirt road somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Harare and Mozambique, and a pickup truck came up the dirt road to the main road. The passenger rolled down the window, and told us that he was from Portland, Oregon. Having traveled in southeast Asia and run into lots of scams, I was suspicious and asked what neighborhood he was from. I was pleasantly surprised when he identified a small neighborhood near the Lloyd Center. Benny Brown was his name, and it sounds like he's led quite a life. He appeared to be in his late 50s and told us of his travels through Europe before settling in Zimbabwe in 1994. He's now working as a solar energy consultant and dabbles in some sort of mining. We had a nice 15 minute chat before we said our goodbyes. Cue the singing robots from Disneyworld.
We arrived at the border around 1:00 pm and were immediately approached by an insurance tout/border helper. Despite our repeated, and repeated, and repeated objections, he would not leave our side. Other than him, the border process leaving Zimbabwe was quick and professional. As we rode off, our border helper assured us he didn't want any money, he just wanted us to buy liability insurance for Mozambique from his company. As soon as we crossed into Mozambique, we were swarmed by money changers and insurance salesmen. Because it was so poorly signed and surrounded by insurance agent offices, we rode past Immigration and parked next to Customs. The shortest of the insurance salesmen also turned out to be the fastest as he made it to us first as we got off the bikes, and we again had an unwanted border helper. He followed us into Customs and waited while our Carnet was stamped. I had heard from other overland travelers that our insurance should be about 25 bucks and was only available from third party vendors, so when our insurance salesman told us it would be 23 bucks a bike, I thought that was close enough. He assisted us with the Immigration and visa forms that were written in Portuguese and sort of translated into English. We presented our completed forms to a rather stern official, who took our money and told us to wait outside, apparently the air-conditioning belongs to him, and he's not sharing. While Re waited for our visas, I went next door to the insurance office and waited while our insurance was issued. While waiting for change, I had an interesting chat with another gentleman who walked into the office about the United States and its relationship with Israel. We discussed the prospects for peace in the Middle East and both agreed that it seemed unlikely. Change made, I went and found Re, who was now in possession of our shiny, new Mozambique visas.
We hopped back on the bikes and rode into Mozambique. I must admit that I was a little disappointed how similar Mozambique was to Zimbabwe. I'm not sure what I expected, but I thought the Portuguese influence would extend beyond the language. We made for Tete and arrived near sundown. After a few wrong turns, we found our way to the center of town and a guesthouse recommended by Lonely Planet (when will we ever learn?). While Re headed inside to find out about accommodations, I waited on the rather dirty and poorly lit street and spent my time chasing off three little urchins who were grabbing at items on Re's bike. Fortunately everything was securely attached. Re returned with that look on her face... wait for it... the 35USD room was now actually...95USD. Re noted that it was air-conditioned, but apparently the drain exited into the wall as evidenced by the mold farm in the room.
Our only other option was a campsite that was listed as very basic in the Losers' Planet. We rode across the suspension bridge to the north side of Tete and tried to follow the signs to the campground. We knew that it was supposed to be river side and initially headed west. There were no street lights at all, and our jerrycans block most of our headlights. We rode up and down that road a couple of times, then went back to the bridge and rode east from the bridge. Here we entered a lovely neighborhood that I wouldn't ride into during daylight hours in the US. It did not appear to be a safe area, but we were out of choices. We eventually spied the sign for the campground, beeped our horns, and were once again, disappointed. I'm not sure very basic even begins to describe our accommodations for the evening. Since it was well after dark, we set up the tent by flashlight and proceeded to lock everything to everything else. The bathrooms were rustic, or rusty, or filthy. The wood-fired water heater only added to the charm. Once again, I was glad to be a boy, since I didn't have to touch anything. And all this for only 22USD per night. After our big breakfast, we skipped lunch, and in our search for accommodations, also missed dinner. Of course, the campground had no food, and we were not going to venture out on foot, so we had handfuls of muesli and water for dinner before crawling into the tent and hoping for a better day tomorrow.
263 miles in about 9 hours, including a frustrating international border crossing.
In a preview of coming attractions, we are now in Malawi where there is no fuel. The gas stations have been mostly dry for 6 days now. We just paid $60 for 5 gallons of gas (I hope) and are keeping it inside our room tonight. People say maybe there will be petrol tomorrow. We have over 550 miles to Tanzania and 250 miles worth of fuel... Wish us luck!
sounds like the adventure is really happening now...
Hang in there guys. Really enjoying your adventures from the land o' plenty (Portland, Or. Hillsdale in SW, to be specific). Been cold here and the dark winter is coming fast, so enjoy your journey's in the sun.
hope you guys are doing well, love the RR it's the first one i read. can't wait to hear how you get to Tanzania.
Hi Colin and Re,
Thanks for all the information and the report. Lots of useful and interesting stuff. I am planning to do a Cape Town - Sicily trip one day and I appreciate everything.
One question though, what maps are you using? How do you like them?
What about the GPS? what maps are you using for that? Tracks4Africa?
Thanks a lot and ride safe!
have you guys gotten to malawi yet? nice place to camp on the lake is at Chinteche Inn lovely couple managing the joint last time we were there! Loving your RR! My wife and myself and inspired to do something like this because of you guys!\\
Im in Africa at the moment myself, im using the Garmin maps for Southern Africa but Tracks4africa are definately the go,when you get further up. Make sure you get your Mapsource program with your Garmin product, you will need it to upload the T4A maps to your Gps. If you decide to brush Egypt Lybia etc you can go to Port Sudan and get a boat to Italy.
Hope you get here its certainly amazing riding in Africa and I hope everything is ok with you Colin and Rae, im still in Windhoek chillaxing been here 11 days now. Sorry for hijacking your thread but thought i'd help out with info.
Cheers .... Sheldon
Just picked up a Yamaha Vino 125 for the neighbor, she needed someone to drive it back from New Mexico to El Paso, now the wife wants me to get her one this summer – I have a TW200 so I am looking forward to some mini road trips on the little bikes this summer – looks like a good adventure you two have going there.
Its been a few days since your last post. Hope all is well.
For maps we are using the Michelin Southern Africa map and, while it shows the roads, cities and distances, it doesn't list any route numbers. It's nice to know the road goes there, but it would be handy to know its name as well. I priced the Tracks4Africa option and it was beyond our budget (you still need the Africa base map from Garmin, etc. even with T4A) so I went with the freebies from OpenStreetMaps.nl. They have been pretty good but are missing a few roads in Tanzania and Zimbabwe, so a paper map is also essential. We've also been using the maps in Loser's Planet for the cities (just don't use them in Namibia...)
After a bad night of sleep, we awoke not to the gentle marimba of the iPhone, but to the sounds of muffler-less vehicles crawling down the bombed out road that ran in front of the campground. By the light of day, the compound was even more crapulous than it was at night. The predominant decorating theme seemed to be rust, crumbling cement and 10-year old woven reed mats. Whereas the previous evening the bathrooms seemed filthy, better illumination revealed them to be disgusting. And the log in the water heater had burned out overnight. In a repeat of last night's dinner, we sat on a crumbling step and ate dry cereal for breakfast, but at least we made coffee this morning. We did chat with some of our fellow travelers, including a couple in an overland truck that they had shipped from Germany and a Belgian couple who decided to ship their black, 4-door, 2.8 liter diesel Jeep Wrangler to Africa as well. They were both headed to Malawi but were unaware of the fuel situation. I told them I had read on HUBB that while petrol was no problem, diesel was scarce and that they should fuel up before getting there.
Around 7:00am our camp host unchained the front gate to let the shittiest looking overland safari truck that we've seen out onto the street. (It looked as if someone had seen a safari truck in the distance, drew a picture of it and then gave said picture to some guys to build out of scrap wood). Unfortunately, he did not close it after they left. In came somewhere between 7 and 10 street urchins who proceeded to try to help all of the remaining campers in exchange for pleas for money. The Belgian gentleman was trying to refuel his vehicle from a jerrycan, and I helped him retrieve the jerrycan from the kids who were holding it for ransom. Later, I came back from taking a cold shower and saw several of the younger ones crowded around Re, who was packing up one of our bags, apparently blocking her view of one of the older boys who had sidled over to our bikes and was looking at our daypacks when I chased him off. After Re showered, she came back laughing and grabbed the camera to snap a couple of pictures of the rabbits who apparently live in the women's side of the ablution block. It's still hard to believe that this only cost us 22USD a night.
Back on the road, we were on the hunt for food and fuel. We never saw anything that looked like a grocery store or a market, but everything is written in Portuguese, and neither of us read it. We did, however, find a gas station before leaving Tete and spent 400 of our remaining meticals filling up the jerrycans. My plan was to spend our remaining 350 meticals on another load of fuel before we exited Mozambique, but we never saw another fuel station in the 70 or so miles to the border.
We made it there before noon and were immediately swarmed by at least 10 money changers. As we tried to weave our way through them, they kept trying to step in front of our bikes to stop us. We ran the gauntlet and headed for the Immigration building, all the while being chased by the pack. We were immediately surrounded again when we stopped at the Immigration building and were only saved by a border guard who actually gestured with his AK-47 to chase the money changers back. He told us it was okay to park the bikes there and that he would keep an eye on them. Undaunted, the money changers retreated about 10 feet from the bikes, all the while shouting to us like dogs baying at a treed raccoon. The border formalities were taken care of quickly and professionally, and then we were back in it. As we got back to our bikes, the guard was called away and disappeared around the corner of the building. The official exchange rate for the US dollar to Malawi kwacha is approximately 165 to 1. The money changers were offering us 125 to 1. I laughed and hopped on my bike, but Re had to physically muscle her way past the money changers to get on hers. We rode for the gate and were through.
We immediately noticed there was no Malawi Immigration building on the other side of the gate as is customary. After riding for 2 km or so, we passed a sign that said something about being in Malawi, but still no Customs or Immigration buildings. We stopped and consulted the book, but it was no help. We reluctantly rode back towards the Mozambique Immigration building to ask for direction, but this had the unfortunate effect of apparently making the money changers that we had changed our minds and really did want to get in on some of that horrible exchange rate action. Re hung back while I braved the gauntlet again and found out that the Malawi Immigration post is 10 km inside of Malawi. We wheeled around and soon found ourselves there. Here we were greeted by a similar swarm of insurance salesmen/touts. Unfortunately no one came to our rescue and we had to fend them off ourselves. Once we reached the Immigration building, again with the pack nipping at our heels, we were approached by the local pen salesman/vehicle guard, who offered to guard our bikes for a fee. Since we had to park quite a distance from the building, we reluctantly agreed to his services. Insurance in Malawi is only available from third party vendors, and we did need it, so I began discussing our options. In addition to liability insurance, our new best friends were also border helpers (no charge if we buy their insurance) and money changers. While Re filled out the Immigration forms for both of us, I negotiated our insurance down from 36USD to 25USD per bike and also exchanged 100USD at a good rate of 170 kwacha per 1USD. Passports stamped, the six of us now headed for Customs, where the officer mis-stamped one of our Carnet documents. After I caught this, he re-stamped it and drew an arrow with a note. We returned to our bikes, paid off our guard, and were through the gate and into Malawi.
Our destination for the night was the town of Monkey Bay on Lake Malawi, but we needed more fuel to get there. We spied the first BP station after the border and swung in to find that there had been no petrol in the area for 4 days, and they weren't expecting any anytime soon. Huh. The attendant went on to tell us that there was no petrol anywhere in the area, but maybe in Blantyre, a big city in southern Malawi. We had enough fuel to reach Blantyre but had no other reason to go there. Our other option was a town called Liwonde, which at least has a national park with some animals, but probably no fuel. We discussed our options, came to no decision and rode north towards the junction where we'd have to make a decision. We stopped at the junction and reluctantly decided that Blantyre was the safe option, so we turned east. We rode about 15 km down the road to Blantyre, and lo and behold, there was a gas station with a scrum of cars, minibuses, and people carrying jerrycans, all crushed in around the two pumps. We pulled in line behind several cars and I jumped off with our jerrycans. As I made for the pumps, I met the town drunk. He grabbed the cans from me, bulled his way to the front of the line, and incessantly called for the two women who were in charge of the station. Thanks to his persistence and my pleas that we only needed 15 liters, we were able to cut in line. The elation I felt when the fuel nozzle went into our jerrycans soon turned to sadness when the numbers on the pump stopped spinning after 7.2 liters, and a collective groan was heard from all in attendance. That was it. No more petrol. Happy to have scored at least 7 liters, I paid the ladies and tipped our helper approximately 1.15USD for all his help.
This gave us barely enough fuel to make it to Lake Malawi, but it was going to be a race against not only empty tanks, but also the sun. As it was now 3 in the afternoon and the GPS said Monkey Bay was 110 miles away, we each had approximately 125 miles worth of fuel, and the sun would go down at 6pm, we headed north once again and were surprised when the GPS indicated a right turn off the paved road and onto a graded dirt road. Thinking this must be wrong, we continued on the paved road, and when the GPS recalculated the distance, suddenly 20 miles was added. We didn't have enough fuel to go an extra 20 miles, so we made a u-turn and followed the directions onto the dirt road. The GPS indicated that we would be doing 20 miles on this road before rejoining the paved road. Fortunately, this road lacked serious corrugation and was in pretty good shape in general. But the going was slow, as our average speed was reduced to about 25 mph. As we passed through small villages and farms under the gaze of surprised looking locals, the sun continued to sink to the horizon. We finally made it back to the paved road as the sun slid behind the mountains to the west. Crap. So much for not riding at night in Africa.
During the brief twilight, we made it closer to the turn off to Monkey Bay but soon found ourselves in the full dark. The Symba headlights are weak to begin with and are even less useful when partially obscured by jerrycans. Somehow, I spied the sign for our intended guesthouse, and we turned off the paved road. The guidebook said it would be about 1.5 km to the guesthouse and it turned out to be the longest 1.5 km of our lives. The first half km was undulating, hard-packed dirt punctuated by the occasional pot hole. The final km, however, was the real challenge. It turned out to be soft sand. It seemed like forever, but it probably took us 30 minutes or so to go the final km. In sections, the sand was at least 6 inches deep, and our bikes just sank in and bogged. At one point, I actually got off my bike and walked next to it while it ground along in first gear. I am happy to say that both Re and I remained upright the whole time, but I have no idea how. After duck-walking our bikes that long, our hips and lungs were burning by the time we made it to the front gate.
We found this guesthouse through Lonely Planet (you would think I would have learned by now) and were once again, disappointed. They had no private rooms, only dorm beds. As it turns out this weekend is a holiday weekend. It was Mother's Day on Monday, and a large group of Malawians had come to celebrate. The woman at reception cryptically said there was room in the dorm but she would need to negotiate with the other occupants, and we should have dinner in the restaurant while we wait. While we waited for dinner we had a couple of cold Diet Cokes, which were delicious after such a hard ride. Dinner was unremarkable and finally our room was ready. We got to our room to find no one else in it. Our hostess said they had left. Huh? The room was very basic- uncomfortable foam mattresses under mosquito nets and no fan. The bathrooms were again, rustic, and the whole experience was a big disappointment. Maybe tomorrow will be better.
270 miles in about 10 hours, including an international border crossing and 20 miles of dirt road. No visa or other fees at border, only liability insurance at 25USD per bike. 29 days in Africa so far averaging 95USD per day.
After an extremely hot and sweaty night's sleep (remember mosquito nets and no fan), I woke to find little flying bugs in my face and hair and covering the bed inside the net. I was relieved to see that they weren't mosquitoes but appeared to be something more like fruit flies. Looking at the net, I could see they covered the outside of the net and could actually crawl through the mesh. More effective than any alarm, I was wide awake. A few minutes later, Re woke up and noted that not only were she and her bed in a similar state of bug coverage, but the entire wall next to her bed was covered with the same. Yay.
Determined to find a new place for tonight, I went out in search of petrol. Both our bikes were nearly empty, and we only had about 3 liters remaining in one jerrycan. I poured 1 liter into my bike and headed back into the sand and town. On my way to the BP station, I spied an ATM but had neglected to bring my card. I made my way to the BP station, only to find that they had not had fuel of any kind in the past 3 days, and the earliest they might get any would be Tuesday, but they weren't very hopeful about that. They suggested I try the petrol station back towards Cape Maclear, so I headed south. After about 5 miles I came upon the other station and was told a similar story. They expected to get a small quantity of diesel that day, but no petrol any time soon. Crap. I fought the sand back to the guesthouse and gave Re the good news. One of the guesthouse employees, who assured us that his real name in fact was, Cheeseandtoast, said he may have a solution to our problem. He had a neighbor who was a fisherman who had some black market petrol that he might be willing to sell for 425 kwacha per liter. At this point, we could carry about 20 liters, so while Cheeseandtoast went in search of his neighbor, Re volunteered to walk into town to hit the ATM for some much needed cash. Twenty minutes later, Cheeseandtoast returned with the news: apparently his neighbor had already sold his fuel, but Cheesandtoast just happened to meet another guy who had 20 liters but wanted 520 kwacha per liter. I quickly did the math and realized that at 170 kwacha per USD, this is 12 dollars a gallon (the official rate for petrol in Malawi is 290 kwacha per liter, which means that 1 gallon is already 7 USD per gallon). Highway robbery, but what other choice did we have? I didn't have enough kwacha to pay him at that point, but Re soon returned with a fistful of notes. We did the deal, filled the bikes and jerrycans, and headed back into the sand, hoping for greener pastures once again.
My earlier ride in and out was much easier due to the lack of luggage, but now we were fully loaded. While the daylight allowed us to pick some better lines through the sand, it was still an arduous 1 km back to solid ground. I again found myself walking next to the bike for a particularly deep stretch of sand, but Re simply powered her way through. When we made it back to the paved road, both panting heavily, we stopped for a water break and brief rest. This was one of the few times on this trip that we both wished for bigger (or at least more powerful) bikes. Or maybe just sand ladders. We rode the few miles of paved road to the turnoff for Cape Maclear, where the road turned to dirt again. We had spoken with a couple at the place in Monkey Bay who said that at least on four wheels, the road wasn't bad at all (this couple was also in a bind, but not due to fuel. They had rented a truck in Lusaka, Zambia and driven to Malawi, where the transmission broke. Their flight left Lusaka in two days, and they were waiting for a ride that was coming from Lusaka, almost 600 miles away, in order to make their flight).
The first 50 feet or so wasn't too bad, but the rest of it was horrible. Heavy, heavy corrugation in the center of the road and loose, fluffy dust at the edges. At least it was only 12.5 miles to Cape Maclear. We alternated riding very slowly in the center of the road, where the corrugation was the least, and the edges of the road when the center was too rough. In Africa, we've resorted to following the tracks left by the local bicyclists, as they seem to know the smoothest way. In one particularly rough section while we were riding near the edge, I glanced in my rear view mirror in time to see Re get bounced out of the corrugation and into the fluff on the side of the road. In this section of the road, the edge fell away quickly and I was yelling in my helmet for her to stay on the gas. Unfortunately, she couldn't hear me and instead, closed the throttle. She was nearly stopped but the inevitable came to pass. As I ran back to help her pick up her bike, I couldn't help but laugh at her singsong chant of, fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK. Unlike her oopsie in Namibia, she didn't appear to be the slightest bit phased by this one and was just angry. As she was nearly stopped, there was no damage to her or the bike, and we didn't even spill a drop of our precious fuel. While we were talking about what happened, we both wondered aloud how anyone could have described this road as not bad. I said at the time that if any driver of a 4-wheel vehicle ever tells us that an unpaved road is good or not bad, I am going to immediately, without warning, punch him or her in the teeth out of general principle. We got the bike dusted off and continued towards Cape Maclear. Fortunately about 1.5 miles of the road was paved through the hilliest section. We were glad that it was because of the steepness of the hills. At one point, I had to shift into first gear to make it up one of the hills.
We eventually made it into town, where the road turned to sand. We found a place to stay that while basic, appeared to be much cleaner, friendlier and less buggy than the previous. To go 16 miles, it took us more than an hour and a half, and we were exhausted, both physically and mentally, by the time we got there. We parked the bikes, dropped our stuff in our room, and grabbed the bread that Re picked up on her walk to the ATM and headed for the beach chairs. The bar was fresh out of Diet Cokes but did have plenty of Carlsbergs. We normally don't drink in the middle of the day but decided to make an exception. We sat with our toes in the sand, munching on our bread, and drinking our beers, looking over beautiful Lake Malawi. We decided to take the rest of the day off and do exactly nothing. Lake Malawi really is beautiful, with white sand, clear blue water, and many islands dotting the horizon. But for the lack of salt in the air, you'd swear it was the ocean. We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging and reading and chasing off the various guides and trinket sellers who smelled fresh meat.
Later that evening, we wandered down to a local restaurant and enjoyed fish from the lake while we watched the sunset from their second story deck. Shortly before dinner arrived, the power in the area went out, and we ate by kerosene lantern before walking back to our guesthouse in the very dark night as we had forgotten to bring our flashlights.
Back at the guesthouse, it was a lively scene at the beach bar and many westerners who were volunteering in Malawi had come to the beach for the long, holiday weekend. Before we joined the festivities, we wanted to refill our water bags from the local safe drinking water tap. The water in the bathrooms comes directly from the lake and is therefore unsafe to drink, so some western NGO has installed water taps at half km intervals along the road. I grabbed my flashlight and the water bags and headed out the gate to the nearest one. Since the power was out, it was pitch black on the main road, and I noted one of the very few cars in the area had started its engine maybe a hundred feet down the road from me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the reverse lights come on, which handily illuminated my path. Suddenly, the driver seemed to floor the accelerator and flew in reverse towards the building behind him. He turned the wheel at the last second and clipped the side of the building. Now he was coming straight at me at full speed in reverse. I ran back towards our guesthouse and missed getting hit by about 10 feet as he careened in reverse through 3 fences before eventually coming to a stop, half inside an unoccupied curio shop. Thinking the driver may be in distress, I pointed my flashlight inside the vehicle and saw a rather startled looking local. When he saw the light, he threw the vehicle into gear and tried to drive off, striking another fence. At this point, several locals came up, shouting for him to stop, and he made two more attempts at driving away. I quickly read his license plate number aloud for anyone to hear, and he came to a stop. By this time, there was a crowd of 30 or more local people, including the owner of the building he'd backed through. A couple of the local men yanked him from his vehicle and brought him in front of the woman whose building he'd damaged. At this point in time, I stepped in to give my account of what happened and left them to sort out the details. I filled up the water bags and headed back inside the compound.
Happy to have not been run over by a car in Malawi, I decided to celebrate my good fortune at the beach bar. There were 15 to 20 people already there, a mix of westerners and local guides and beach boys. (beach boys are local men who hope to entertain wealthy, western women. Their main skills seem to be dressing well, excellent grooming, and playing the drums.) There was already a large fire burning in the fire pit, which seemed kind of redundant as it was around 85 degrees, but we grabbed some beers and found a doublewide chaise near the activity. We had our backs to the fire and the drummers but enjoyed the scene nonetheless. The stress of the past couple of days, coupled with the heat and cold beers, made us kind of punchy, and we laughed and had a good time. At one point, the wind picked up, fanning the fire, and the drumming seemed to grow especially loud. As the light of the flames danced on the blowing leaves overhead, I had the strange feeling that the next thing I would see was an ax coming down to lop off the buffalo's head. A strange night indeed.
18 miles in an hour and a half. Re's bike survived yet another nap unscathed.
After another hot night's sleep, we woke to another beautiful, clear morning. Somebody really needs to bring ceiling fans to Malawi. We walked down to the beach and looked at the water while we woke up. We had decided that another easy day was the plan. Wifi is available here, but the place that sells access cards for it is 2 km farther up the beach. We decided to head there early in the morning when it's at least a little cooler. The walk was uneventful and ended at a very nice guesthouse and campground. After walking in through the front gate, Re went to look for a wifi card while I headed for the large, overland truck I spotted in the campground.
The Green Monster is hard to miss, as it is one of the biggest private overland trucks we've seen and is painted an interesting shade of green. As I walked around admiring the setup, the owners came down the steps. While I chatted with them, Re joined us and we spent more than an hour talking about our travels and traveling. The couple to whom the truck belonged (I wish I could remember their names) have been everywhere in the Monster. The highlight of the conversation, however, was when we commented on the difficulties we'd had driving in. They also remarked how bad the road was for them. Re and I have always assumed that those roads would be a breeze in a big truck with big tires, but apparently no, the washboarding shakes them as much as it shakes us and is damaging to the contents of their rigs. But our biggest laugh was when the driver told us how they were also told that the road was fine, and he said if he ever met them again, he would...and gestured as if he were strangling someone. I then told him what I'd said yesterday about punching people in the mouth, and we all had a good laugh.
After they gave us several recommendations for campsites along our route, we said goodbye, bought our wifi card, and headed out for breakfast. We stopped at the same restaurant as last night for coffee and fruit pancakes before heading back to our guesthouse for another lazy afternoon at the beach. We did spend some time catching up on RRs and blogposts and were able to post them when the wifi finally started working sometime after dark.
As the weekend was over, we were the only people staying there. Around 7pm we went out in search of dinner, but many of the nearby places seemed to be closed. We happened across a small restaurant with a good sounding menu out front and were invited in by the waiter. As we took a seat, I started to have second thoughts about the place but didn't listen to my better judgment. Re had a local fish with lemongrass and mashed potatoes with onions and coriander, which was very tasty. I had chicken curry with nsima (the local version of mealie pap or sadza) which was also quite tasty. After dinner, we went back to our guesthouse for a drink at the beach bar and a low key evening. As we headed to bed, I was concerned by how much my stomach was grumbling. Oh no.
4 km, but all on foot. Hopefully the bad fuel I put in my tank won't result in an exhaust problem.