Africa Cycle Tour – Malawi

We started our Malawi cycle leg in Lilongwe, having come across by bus from Chipata on the Zambian side. On reflection, we should have just cycled, as the bus took even longer than cycling would have. As usual in Africa, everything takes forever and we had to wait for about three hours at the border for the security guards to check the vehicle. It was dark by the time we were dropped off at Lilongwe bus depot, so we hassled to get our stuff out the bus while taxi drivers constantly haggled us. Getting luggage on and off these buses is a notoriously bad way to get your stuff stolen – and it’s twice as likely when it’s dark and you also have a bike to worry about.

Fortunately, we sorted everything, put our lights and head torches on and made our way towards a nearby hostel and campsite. We arrived safely at the campsite and checked in before setting up our tents and then cooking a quick dinner. There weren’t really any other guests and the hostel didn’t even have wifi so, with little else to do, we got to bed early.

Lilongwe to Salima

I awoke early and went to draw some cash so we could pay our bill while Romi made coffee. Then we got going as soon as we could, knowing there was a fair amount of uphill to Salima. We stopped on the way at an Airtel shop to buy simcards and mobile data which turned into a long nightmare of a mission. After the rigorous process of registering our sims against our passports, we tried to buy data but the Airtel guy was busy so we went to a shop next door where they only had airtime vouchers for 500 kwacha. I needed to buy a 6GB data package which cost 10,000 kwacha and I wasn’t going to individually scratch and enter 20 different codes.

We decided to get some food and wait until the Airtel guy was available. Eventually, we got sorted but by now it was already quite late and we were hoping to get to Chipoka, the town just after Salima where the ferry stopped, to see if we could catch it the following day to Monkey Bay. That meant we would need to do about 120 kms.

We pushed on through the day and luckily had good weather – no rain but enough clouds that it wasn’t hot. By mid-afternoon, we reached the escarpment overlooking Lake Malawi and started on the downhill towards Salima. After talking to some other ‘mzungus’ at a gas station we decided we could get a cheap guesthouse here and hopefully make it to Chipoka for the ferry in the morning. We stopped at a little place that agreed to let us camp for cheap under the cover of its outdoor conference area.

Salima to Monkey Bay

In the morning we set off early and soon bumped into two Swiss cyclists coming in the opposite direction. Like us, they too were members of the Cairo to Cape cycle Whatsapp group and we stopped to chat for a while. They were also heading north but along the coastal road, while we planned to take the ferry from Monkey Bay just for the experience of it. We exchanged contacts and hoped to meet up again somewhere further along the road.

Arriving at the port we were quickly informed that the ferry no longer departs from there and even if it did we would have missed it. That meant we would have to cycle the long route around to Monkey Bay – a total of 135 kms if we wanted to arrive today. Our friends Jeff and Ash from Zambia were expecting us at Monkey Bay and were leaving on the morning ferry so we needed to make it if we were to see them.

We put our heads down and pushed on hard – so hard that I missed a crucial turnoff and we ended up going 5 kms in the wrong direction! Now our daily total would have to be 145 kms! I quickly discovered why I missed the turnoff – despite being marked as a national road on Google Maps it was actually just an unmarked dirt road. We had no choice but to follow it into the bushes and it turned out to be quite a fun ride although a bit bumpy at times. We weaved through some towns with bemused villagers until eventually reconnecting with a tarred road.

Eventually, after our longest and hardest day in the saddle so far, we arrived at Monkey Bay as the sun was setting. We met Ash and Jeff at a lovely, secluded beach backpackers called Mufasa Eco Lodge and after a quick beer, I enjoyed my first swim in Lake Malawi. That night we all had an expensive but very decent dinner with the other guests and then joined some locals playing bongo drums around a beach fire.

Two weeks of relaxing

Ash and Jeff decided to delay their boat trip for another week so we all went to the nearby beach resort of Cape McClear and spent a week relaxing there. It’s a beautiful location for scuba diving and snorkeling, although we spent most of the time eating, drinking and playing the local African board game Bawo. While there we met a Dutch volunteer named Jonna and a real, genuine Afghan princess named Shiwa. She was an image of such extravagant beauty that I instantly declared my undying love for her, but alas she was already sworn to a prince back home.

Eventually, it was time to catch the ferry which we initially intended to take to Nkhotakota but the hostel owners at Mufasa explained there is no jetty at Nkhotakota. This means we would have to go to shore by a small boat and walk through the water with all our luggage and bikes – an improbable feat. We decided instead to go all the way to the next stop, Nkhata Bay, with Ash and Jeff.

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The ferry took two days and one night which is just about enough time to enjoy it without getting bored. To save money we slept on the deck but Ash and Jeff kindly let us keep our valuables in their room. The ferry has a really good restaurant and stops at a few islands along the way which you have time to explore while it loads and unloads goods. In Nkhata Bay we spent another week off the bikes exploring the surrounding area and hanging out with Ash, Jeff, Jonna, Princess Shiwa and a few other travelers.

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Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu

Our extended holiday finally had to come to an end, so we bid our friends farewell and begun the long cycle inland up the escarpment to Mzuzu. This was the steepest incline I had attempted with my six gear bicycle and it proved a bit too much for it in places. For the first time on the trip, I was forced to get off and push the bike uphill.

In the end, it took us about seven hours to cover the short 50 kms up to Mzuzu and we arrived hot and exhausted at a rather fancy campsite someone had recommended. The cost of camping itself wasn’t expensive but the cost of food and drink was similar to that of a fancy European restaurant. We could have explored somewhere nearby instead but we were too tired and ended up just having their cheapest pasta dish.

Mzuzu to Rhumphi

After leaving Mzuzu the steep hills died out a bit and we got to enjoy some winding, curving roads into the mountains of northern Malawi. The first stop along the route was a tiny village called Rumphi that only had one small campsite and very little else but it was in a beautiful valley. Although it was early and we had only done a short distance we decided to stop for the day and relax here. I think their highly recommended Italian style pizza had a big influence on that decision.

I spent most of the afternoon working and then in the evening lightning and thunder crashed across the sky as the heavens opened up and poured down upon us. Fortunately, our tents were under a small wooden cover because I assume this was a minor off-shoot of the cyclone that had ravaged the southeast of Malawi recently.

Rumphi to Livingstonia

By sunrise, the rain had fortunately died down, so we had a quick coffee, packed up our wet tents and got going. The road that day followed a winding stream that took us along an exceptionally beautiful route through a long valley towards Livingstonia. We hoped to take a different, dirt road up to Livingstonia from the south but the rains the night before meant it would surely be washed out.

Instead, we stuck on the tar road that went down to the coast and decided to see if we could get a lift up to Livingstonia from there. The Swiss cyclists from before had been in touch and informed us that the ride down the north road from Livingstonia is quite enjoyable but riding up would be impossible. For this reason, we decided to take our bikes up on the back of a truck. This turned out to be a rather disastrous mission, with about five guys arguing about how to tie Romain’s bike on the back. Eventually, we got going but the bike fell off twice on-route before they eventually managed to attach it successfully.

After a very long and bumpy ride, they dropped us at the top of a long dirt path that led down to Lukwe Lodge which the Swiss couple had recommended. On arrival we discovered it to be a very expensive boutique lodge and not really a backpacker campsite at all. Most of the food and drink on offer was twice the usual price we were accustomed to but luckily the camping cost wasn’t too extreme. Since we had our own food and were now all the way down the hill we decided to stay. That night we saw an incredible lightning storm over Lake Malawi.

Livingstonia and Mushroom Farm

The following day I joined three Dutch girls on their drive up to Livingstonia town so I could get phone signal and do some work. They explored the local markets while I finished two articles and then we headed back down to Lukwe. As we had decided to take a day off and chill here, I decided to go visit the Mushroom Farm backpackers down the road. It’s not actually a mushroom farm and doesn’t appear to have any mushrooms so I don’t know where the name came from but it made good food and was far cheaper than Lukwe.

As a result, I chose to move for our second night to Mushroom Farm but Romain was not feeling motivated to pack up the tent and do the long journey over. After visiting some nearby waterfalls I packed up and moved over. Unfortunately, my decision turned out to be a bad one as Mushroom Farm has no fridge to keep the beer cold.

Downhill to Hakuna Matata

In the morning we reconvened at Mushroom Farm and had some coffee and breakfast before starting the cycle down the bumpy dirt road to the coast. It turned out to be somewhat easier than expected, although we did have to take it quite slow. The views were spectacular though and I highly recommend it if you are cycling in the area.

Back at the bottom we bumped into an Isreali couple we had met in Monkey Bay and they told us they were staying at a nearby campsite called Hakuna Matata. We followed them there and decided to spend the night, although they were leaving that evening to head up to Livingstonia. Still, we spent a really nice afternoon chilling together and then later I got very drunk and annoyed some overlanders at the fancy lodge next door.

FloJa Campsite

We were up early and after some breakfast and a chat with Willy, the campsite owner and a fellow South African, we were back on the road. Although we could have cycled all the way to the Tanzanian border today, we still had a few days on our visas so we didn’t rush. Instead, we stopped around lunchtime at a very nice campsite called FloJa which is run by a Dutch couple.

We chilled the afternoon and then in the evening bought some fish from a local fisherman and some vegetables from the campsite owners. Then I threw together a fire from some dry branches lying around and we had a makeshift fish braai with salad for dinner.

To the Tanzania border

Finally, it was time to say our sad farewells to Malawi and head into Tanzania. The day was long but fairly quiet and uneventful and we arrived at the border post around 4pm. We didn’t have any hassles this time and got through in about 15 minutes. I took this ridiculous selfie while cycling across the bridge into Tanzania:

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