Tears, tantrums, sunstroke, diarrhoea, cuts, bruises, and a fractured arm – and it was only day two of a week's pedalling along the shores of Lake Malawi
"It looks like Scotland,” shouted someone. “Reminds me of Wales,” I responded, voice quivering and shuddering from the impact of ruts and pot holes on the larynx. Suddenly, mindless landscape comparisons turned to profanities as an unexpected and undignified separation from the saddle brought me closer to this country than was strictly necessary. Already exhausted, I was both hot and bothered, covered in mud and, as one of a group of 10 inexperienced cyclists, had just taken a taste of sub-Saharan dirt amongst a intertwined heap of limbs and bicycle parts.
Having left the capital Lilongwe on the plateau region some 5000ft (1500m) above sea level we plunged (literally for me) over pitted dirt tracks through deciduous woodland to the fertile and lovely Shire Valley and Lake Malawi below.
Riding the sometimes unpredictable hybrid mountain bike northwards, the day had begun early in the morning to avoid the barbaric heat and humidity. Every couple of hours it was necessary to re-apply sun cream over filthy and sweat-soaked skin, snack, drink and perform any maintenance needed on bike and body. People passed by, many stopped to stare. Men wanted to practise their English while the women remained silent, coy and prone to the occasional pointing and giggling at my quite wretched state. Past experience had taught me that the sight of my unwashed, wheezing, overweight and abused body always brought crowds of the curious and amused out.
That evening was spent at the Nkotakhota Pottery Lodge, the first of the overnight pit stops by the lake shore before we continued our journey up the middle third of the lake. Across the water to the east were the mountains of Mozambique and Tanzania. Hovering over the lake in between, like smoke plumes from burning tyres, dense clouds of lake flies, known locally as kungu, congregated over the surface. Godfrey, our guide, told me they were caught in nets, crushed to a pulp and then eaten. I instead spent the week content to eat a steady, bland, but always welcome diet of chicken and rice, followed by liberal applications of deep heat and the rather good local, mosquito-deterring gin and tonic.
At sunset, wallowing in the warm lake water that gently lapped an idyllic, pristine, white sandy beach was further relief for complaining muscles. The therapy was short-lived. While I dried myself off, Godfrey decided to warn me of the potential dangers from all local aquatic creatures great and small. Clusters of reed beds scattered along the banks of the water can be colonised with snails infected with bilharzia - a nasty, squirm-inducing parasite that will enter the body through any orifice available, whether you’re clothed or not. It may be worth — he also suggested rather too calmly and belatedly — staying out of the water between 6pm and 6am to avoid rare but potential attacks from hippo and crocodile. However, having witnessed the Keystone Cop nature of my own and my group's cycling ability and our sloth-like characteristics when it came to getting started in the mornings, it was almost surprising he was still around to give any advice at all.
Continuing north, the following days were spent cycling the undulating, almost traffic-free, two-lane M5 highway, past smallholdings of fruit and vegetables and larger fields of cotton and tobacco, from which decorated shaman sometimes emerged after exorcising the evil spirits amongst the crops. Through villages and past remote thatched homes the constant shouts from children in Chichewa of “Azungo [foreigner], give me money,” were, like the heat, relentless.
Peeling off the tarmac onto the dirt track for Njaya Lodge, I met up with immaculately presented children on their way home from school. Saddlesore, but happy to be approaching the next gin and tonic, I got off and started walking with them. Within seconds I had surrendered my bike and, too tired to care, watched as it carried on ahead wobbling dangerously under a giggling hijacker less than half my size. The remaining children then took turns to lead me by both hands wearing my crash helmet, their small heads completely disappearing inside its oversized, sweaty interior.
Later reunited with my bike, my feelings of disquiet towards nature returned when I had to share my lakeside bamboo hut with more creatures of the night than you could shake that gargantuan stick insect lounging on my bed at. But the fire-red sunrise across the water and distracting antics of vervet monkeys in the neighbouring trees was worth the uneasy penultimate night by the lake.
Just round the rocky coast, the small town of Nkhata Bay busily dedicated itself to fishing, ferrying across the lake and separating its few visitors from hard currency. A hectic street market was selling everything from postcards to coffins (a tragically thriving industry in these days of high HIV infection), while bars blasted reggae music into the warm late afternoon. There was hustling but it was half-hearted and certainly not persistent or aggressive.
Back at my lodge, local entrepreneurs came to sell jewellery, boat trips and wooden crafts or to watch European football on the bar’s television and with business concluded, they were then quite happy to sit and chat. Joseph, a very polite and animated Arsenal shirt-wearing 14-year-old, told me he was simply trying to earn enough to pay for his education. He must be making money – his English was excellent.
For those who have never been to Central Africa, Malawi is the perfect introduction and often said to have the friendliest people and most diverse countryside on the continent. Don’t go expecting to cycle across vast plains covered in big game. Malawi has little in comparison to its bordering countries. Do go for winning smiles and a genuinely warm welcome from just about everyone, grand and varied vistas, lovely beaches, cycling, hiking, water sports and some very effective, cheap gin.
How to get there
Kenya Airways flies to the capital Lilongwe via Nairobi from London Heathrow.
Ethiopian Airlines flies from London Heathrow via Addis Ababa.
British Airways flies to Johannesburg, Nairobi or Lusaka from London Heathrow.
Virgin Atlantic flies to Nairobi and Johannesburg from London Heathrow.
Air Malawi flies internally and to a number of southern African destinations.