Traveling “Alone” Through Malawi

May 2, 2016

Today I unintentionally set a new personal record for miles ridden in a day on this trip.

I had checked Google Maps last night in Chipata, Zambia, and I knew that the route I wanted to take was different than the one my GPS would select for me. I knew I needed to head towards the capitol of Malawi, Lilongwe, and then north on the M1 road towards Mzuzu. So while I did that, it turns out I missed a couple of “shortcuts” that would have reduced the miles but possibly added hours due to conditions. 

In the end, my route took me 387 miles, or around 626 kilometers, which is about 3 miles more than my previous longest day in South America. 

The border crossing into Malawi is smooth and simple. It would have been quicker but Immigration has trouble finding change for my visa payment, which has to be made in US dollars. It takes about 30 minutes for them to come up with the change. Malawi has just recently changed their visa policy, but there is still some confusion between what the country’s website says is required and what is actually requested at this border crossing. I had printed out the visa application form previously and filled it out last night, but when I arrive the immigration officer hands me one to fill out, so I didn’t really need to have it in advance. That form, and the $75 visa fee, is all they require. No copies, no additional photos or information. I am also required to purchase insurance for my motorcycle, which runs $13 for a 30-day policy (the shortest time frame available). 

As I walk back to my bike, a security officer approaches me with a very friendly greeting. 

“Hallo! All of your paperwork is done? Where are you coming from?” he asks.

“Today, or originally?” I’m never quite sure what they are asking when I get this question. “Today, Chipata. Originally, the United States.”

“Are you traveling alone?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Huh?. I haven’t been asked this question before. I don’t have a prepared response, like I do for almost everything else I’ve been asked hundreds of times, and I prefer not to spend time exploring my past with a border guard turned psychologist.

“Um, because I like it?”

“No, seriously. Are your friends ahead of you or behind you?”

“No, no. It’s just me.”

“Why? Where are your friends?”

“At home. They all think I’m crazy.”

He slowly nods, seemingly in agreement. “Hmmmm. Well, safe journey.”

I head towards Lilongwe, then take the M1 north towards Mzuzu. I had expected a real highway with a name like “M1”, but I should have known better by now. Just another two-lane road, filled with potholes, goats and cattle. And people on bicycles. The small houses in Zambia, made of branches and sometimes mud, have been replaced in Malawi by red brick. Just slightly larger than their Zambian counterparts, the homes still have a thatched roof, and are often in groups of ten to twenty. There seem to be more personal cars, but bicycles and pedestrians still dominate the road.

This is actually the norm in Zambia and Malawi. If it’s not a huge load of cargo, it’s often the wife or girlfriend on the rear rack.

Today is a holiday, and the small villages are filled with people. Large markets are set up. I see mostly vegetables, clothing, bicycles and bicycle parts for sale. This is definitely not a market that caters to tourists, and it’s obvious by the stares I get all along the road that I am a very rare sight here.

Market Days, Malawi style.

 

One thing I’ve noticed in Africa is that unlike South America, or South Africa, people don’t just approach me when I stop. Quite the opposite: I sense fear from many of them. I’m sure they are uncertain of the tall white guy in the weird suit on the loaded motorbike. Once I approach them, they tend to open up, but the initial reaction when I ride up is mild panic. Always remember to lift the front of the helmet up and smile big when approaching. (That usually makes them even more wary, actually, as now I look like a crazed tall white guy in a weird suit on a loaded motorbike.)

I pass through several police checkpoints, which are usually a few 55 gallon drums and a couple of orange traffic cones strung across the road. Almost always, the officers just wave me through; they seem to focus more on the large trucks. But a couple of times I’m stopped and asked to show my driver’s license and proof of insurance. 

At a checkpoint just outside Kasungu, the officer simply asks “Where are you coming from?”

“Chipata”, I reply.

“And where are you going?”

“Mzuzu.”

“Are you traveling alone?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

Oh, man, I have got to work on an answer to this.

Instead, I just say, “Is that unusual?”

“Very.”

Further north, things are getting green. I realize I’ve been climbing for a while, and I find myself in a forest. I check the gps, and it says I’m at just under 6,000 feet (1800m) elevation. It begins to drizzle, and the fog and clouds settle in. 

I just happened to stop at this point to zip up my vents in my riding gear because it was getting cold. Then I saw the sign for the lodge. I had made a note of this place as a possible stopping point in case the day got too long. In hindsight, I should have taken it. I actually turned the heated grips on today. Who would’ve thought I’d need those in Africa?!

I ride along through dense forest and even denser fog for over an hour. Rain falls intermittently. Occasionally there are patches of thick, slick red mud washed across the road, which is unsettling in the limited visibility. Eventually I begin to descend and the fog and rain clear.

Mzuzu is not as large as I had expected, but I have no time to explore. I still have an hour to go and it’s nearing sunset. The road out of Mzuzu towards the shoreline of Lake Malawi turns out to be just barely more than one lane wide, and although there are a lot of people walking on the road, the traffic, while fairly rare, is moving very fast. Cars approach me at 50mph, seemingly aiming directly for me, leaving me barely more than a tire’s width of pavement to avoid a head-on collision. This is perhaps the most frightening traffic since northern Peru. I have to get to my destination before dark.

The road widens a bit and painted stripes return — a welcome sight — although few drivers obey them. Usually their wheels are well across the center stripe into my lane. I pick up the pace and race the sun, but I lose. By the time I find my turn-off, it is dark. At first, I’m unsure this is actually it. Yes, there is a sign that says “Kande Beach”, with an arrow pointing down the path, but it is hard to believe that cars go this way. It’s barely more than a footpath between two buildings and through the jungle. I start down the path and see a young boy, no more than 8 or 9 years old. He points ahead and nods, seemingly knowing what I am going to ask. 

It’s a long two miles down this sand path in total darkness. My headlight illuminates the way, but there are forks in the road, and I’m left to guess which one is correct. In the daylight I’m sure it’s much more obvious. I’m thankful for the earlier rains, which have made the sand easier to negotiate, but the rain has also caused some puddles that I’m unsure of their depth.

I arrive at a large steel gate. The guard on the other side hears the bike, opens the gate to let me in and shows me the way to “reception”, which closed about 30 minutes earlier, so he has to go in search of someone to help me. I can hear waves on the lake, but I can’t see it. As wet as it is from the rains, I decide to take a tiny “cabin” instead of a campsite. The cabin is nothing more than a twin bed and a chair with just enough room to walk beside one side of the bed, for $14 a night. On my way to the cabin, I have to walk across what looks like nice beach sand, and past two small catamaran sailboats, so I’m pretty sure the lake is right here. 

During the night I awaken to heavy downpours, and am glad I’m not in the tent tonight.

 

Lake Malawi in the morning light.

 

 

In the morning, I find this sign, posted on the inside of the bathroom stall door. Not in my room, or reception, or anywhere more noticeable. Glad I didn’t go looking for the beach last night. But it does make me wonder even more about the path I rode in on in total darkness.

11 thoughts on “Traveling “Alone” Through Malawi

  1. Maybe Malawi is full of extroverts, and they can’t understand why you would ever be by yourself?

  2. I’ve been told by many to wear a ring on my left hand as if I am married. They say that when I am asked the question, “are you alone”, I should say, “No, my husband is behind and on his way.” This is supposed to protect me somehow being a female solo rider.

  3. Yeah, I’ve heard that before too. Lois Pryce did that on her trip through Africa, and actually used that line once to get out of a situation. I’ll have to try it…”No, my wife is right behind me, and she’s reaaaaalllly big and mean”.

    • Scott, I think being a “Crazy Gringo” is all they need to see. Next time, start screaming with your hands up in the air!!! I’ll look for a future post to for the results with their reaction.

  4. Knocking Africa out. Where are you shipping out of? Kenya?

  5. Seriously, Kenya or Tanzania. Which will be your exit out of Africa. If you know me at all, I don’t need to say another word. You are not a tourist. You are a target.

  6. I’d want to be at least a country away from Somalia 🙂

  7. LOL, you are a very good writer. Your blog reads like a adventure story but you are living it. I look forward to read about your travels daily. Ride safe, hope to ride with you again.

  8. u only got two straps holdin ur bag n gas tank down ? Da heavy rains has to be from da lake proximity ?

    • Actually, the fuel can (and water can under it) are locked onto the rear rack using a Roto-Pax mounting system.The two straps only hold the camping gear duffel bag onto the top of the can. And I can say the Rok-Straps I use on both that bag and the smaller ones on the bags on top of my panniers have been excellent. I wouldn’t use anything else!

      • Rock straps, got it, I just remembered one of da guys I took to galeana last October had some n they seem to work way better than da normal bungees, thanks, I’m getting some

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