Meandering through Mangos in Malawi

The border crossing into Malawi was, thankfully, uneventful. Immediately, it became apparent that the few bicycles we’d started seeing in southern Tanzania were probably evidence of the Malawian influence, because the roads were suddenly full of people riding along on anything from old penny farthings (OK, I exaggerate, but they were very clapped-out looking old bikes) to newer mountain bikes with knobbly tyres. We’ve had one or two close encounters of the unwanted kind with these bicycle riders. As Glyn puts it: ‘Lots of bicycles, not a lot of balance!’ One young chap was riding along, hands folded over his chest, clearly miles away and deep in thought. I reckon it was the sound of the bike that stirred him from his revery, and when it did, he got the fright of his life. First he swerved left, then right, then he did a wiggle that I can’t describe; all while Glyn tried to respond accordingly and aim his motorbike where the bicycle wasn’t. It was a close call, but he made it, and I was there to see the boy’s face which, if he’d have been white, would have been ashen as the driven snow!

Another of the hazards on the road has been the copious amounts of mangoes which are grown, sold and consumed in this country. Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ripe mango. I’m particularly partial to dried mango, as colleagues back home probably know. But I prefer my mango on a plate, or in my hand. Not all over the road. It’s amazingly slippery stuff, so we have both been riding with eyes on stalks here, trying to avoid both the unripe green ones which lie, whole, on the road, and the pips and skins that are discarded near to the stalls where people throng to buy and sell them.

Coffin Makers in MalawiAnother feature of riding through Malawi are the number of indicators that the country is experiencing an AIDS pandemic. It’s not been noticeable in any other country that we’ve ridden through so far, but here there are signs everywhere, if you care to notice them. Firstly, there’re the many orphanages signposted along the road. Then there are the signs for carpenters and joiners whose first choice of product to advertise is the coffin! I find this really weird. But we see them everywhere. And some have names that make you want to laugh even as you’re feeling deeply moved inside by the implication of the proliferation of these roadside vendors. Signs like ‘Comfort Coffin Carpentry’ and ‘Heaven Bound Coffin Makers’ I find both funny and poignant in the extreme.

Aid agencies, not working in the health sector, also clearly abound here. I’ve seen more than 20 signs for a Farm Income Diversification Programme, acronymised to FIDP, which is being supported (presumably funded) by the EU. It’s the EU flag that catches my eye every time. Cynically, I have to wonder how much the signs all cost and whether or not the money couldn’t be put to better use on the actual project; but I guess I’d never have known about it if they weren’t there. More cynically, I really want to know what motive the EU has for encouraging Malawians to have piggeries! I may be looking for devils where there are none, but after hearing that the Japs sponsored the Valley of the Kings visitors’ centre in Egypt just to get the Egyptian vote for whaling, and asking myself why the Chinese are being so kind as to build Ethiopia’s roads, I just can’t help myself. It’s a fascinating world we live in, that’s for sure!

Lake Malawi activitiesOn the plus side, we made it to Lake Malawi! This has been one of my must-sees for a while now, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It helped that we stayed a whole day longer than planned, in a lovely lakeside beach hut which would not pass any kind of health and safety inspection in the UK, but was perfectly adequate for our needs. The gaps in the reeds which made up the walls and roof were actually quite welcome, as the midday heat is quite intense and they allowed what little breeze there was to come through into the room.

That was at Nkhata Bay, in the north of the country. We also stayed in the south, at Senga Bay, where we opted to sleep in the tent. It was equally as hot here though, which probably contributed to the build up of a terrific thunderstorm which hit that evening. Accompanied by bright flashes and very loud thunderclaps, some of which made you jump involuntarily, the deluge was something to behold. Sadly, the little tent has seen better days, and it leaked a bit, which didn’t help us settle in for the night. But as with many African thunderstorms, almost as soon as it started it was over and we finally got to sleep with the sound of water dripping off the branches of the tree above us and plopping onto the canvas.

As you might imagine, we have enjoyed a number of lovely beach walks. What I’ve particularly enjoyed has been seeing the locals carrying on with their daily business on the lake shore – fishing with lines and nets, cleaning pots and pans with the sand from the beach, sitting atop some of the rocky islands offshore and washing clothes in the natural cavities there; all of these have been intriguing to watch from a distance and savour as examples of Africans using the resources to hand as a means of existence. Also, as Glyn always reminds me, it always feels more relaxing to be at rest when someone else is working. He’s usually referring to hearing a lawn mower or people playing cricket while you laze on the grass on a hot summer’s afternoon; but I had the same sensation here and have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Bee stings, baboons and baobabs

We left the comfort of our home from home in Arusha a full five days ago now, and have been gently making our way south.

The ride out from Arusha took us within sight of Kilimanjaro, where we stopped for the obligatory (but not very successful) photo of mountain with bikes in the foreground. Not far from here, we reached a junction where we then turned south, and for quite for a while I was riding with Kilimanjaro in my rear view mirror, conscious of the symbolic relevance of its receding icecap for climate change. I also felt peculiarly aware that the concept was highly unlikely to feature in the minds of the Masai to whom we were waving on the side of the road, despite the fact that it is people like them who will probably bear the brunt of this global phenomenon as it becomes a reality, if they haven’t already.

Putting these thoughts out of my mind was pretty easy when we got close to the border with Malawi. Southern Tanzania much resembles the southern section of Ethiopia, where everything is lush and green, banana trees grow in abundance and where fruit and blossom abound. It must have been this that accounts for the fact that I got my first ever bee-sting on this section of road. The little critter flew right up my right sleeve and, sadly for it, released its poison into my forearm. It was excruciatingly painful, and I pulled Glyn over pretty sharpish to have a look and apply the insect-sting gel that we had with us. You wouldn’t believe it, but the same thing happened the next day, only on the other side of the same arm. The result was a very swollen and itchy arm for a couple of days. At one stage Glyn rolled on the floor with laughter at me because I wondered out loud if my skin could cope with two stings either side – he said he couldn’t contain himself at the mental image that my arm was going to peel like a banana!

The road to Malawi also saw us pass through what is known as Baobab Valley. The area is absolutely brimming with these huge, exotic looking trees, which look like they’ve got root systems for branches, hence the local mythology that they were planted upside down by God in anger. I can’t remember the full tale, but it’s something like that anyway. Well, they were all in leaf, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, and a few were even flowering, which Glyn stopped to take a photograph of as we’d neither of us seen this either.

The area was also teeming with baboons, most of which seemed to take fright at the sound of the motorbikes, although a couple looked on nonchalantly, not moving from their roadside perches. One even looked for all the world like an old man, perched on the side of the road as he was, elbows on knees, watching the traffic go this way and that with a look on his face that seemed to suggest he was thinking ‘OK, so what’s new? I’ve seen this all before!’

Visit to Ol Doinyo Lengai

Being friends with people who work in the safari industry certainly has its benefits! This weekend we drove north of Arusha and out into the bush to visit one of the most unusual Ol Doinyo Lengai - the volcano called Mountain of Godvolcanoes in the world: Ol Doinyo Lengai, which means ‘Mountain of God’ in Massai. The volcano, which has been spewing ash and smoke for a few months now, is a pretty awesome sight, and as we approached the luxury tented camp where we were to stay for the night it coughed a plume of blackish-grey smoke! Apparently, it is the only volcano on earth which has a a carbonate lava flow instead of a silicate one (for more on this volcano’s amazing uniqueness, click here).

We were very fortunate to be able to stay within sight of the mountain, at a bushcamp which is owned and run by the company for which our friend works. Beautifully decorated, and with all the luxuries of hot water and refrigeration which you might not expect in such a remote setting, it really was a little piece of heaven on earth. We on the wooden deck which overlooks the vast valley floor and mountains in the background, sipping our sundowners and savouring the splendid scenery. After a lovely picnic meal of Relaxing at campcold chicken, potato salad, carrot and pineapple salad and, of course, chocolate cake for desert, we retired to the lounge area to continue the good company and conversation. The wind had picked up, and by the time we got to bed our very large, permanently erected tents were creaking and flapping under the strain of it all, making sleep rather difficult until the wee hours when it finally died down and we could get some proper rest.

In the morning, the tinkling bells of Masai cattle could be heard in the valley below, reminding me of our trip to Ngorongoro crater, now also visible as a ridge in the far distance behind the closer mountains. According to our guide, the crater’s name is actually taken from the Masai word for this tinkling sound, hence the rhythmic repetition of the sounds. After gobbling down a huge breakfast of Mexican omelettes, courtesy of Glyn’s culinary skills, we departed back down the hill and proceeded, as we had done on the way in, to get covered in dust as we bounced along the dirt track road. I was pretty pleased not to have to have done it on the bikes, as it would rate right up there with the worst of them, as it had both a lot of sand and a lot of rocks, both of which can easily see me going sideways!