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Bearing North

Bearing North

Nov 2017

By Douglas Drake

Seven months into my zigzagging journey, I’d already pedalled into a number of adventures. The latest was a beautiful ride (with help from a few boats) along the remote northeastern shore of Lake Malawi: from northern Mozambique to Mbeya, Tanzania.

A crystal-clear view across a glistening Lake Malawi, and just the right amount of cloud—it was going to be another beautiful lake sunset. The MV Chambo, chugging into the distance, had dropped me at its last stop—Wikihi, Mozambique—on the wild and remote northeastern shores of Lago Niassa (its name changes in each country).

Perhaps 200 locals—fisherman, wives and children—had been waiting for their weekly delivery from the outside world. Clipping the panniers on my bike, I could feel all 400 eyes on me. I had no pre-planned route, just a bearing to head north, keeping the great lake on my left and the intimidating Livingstone Mountains on my right, inspired by David Livingstone himself (though he actually went south around the lake due to violent tribes in the northeast) and more recent tales of the area’s rugged beauty.

Having been stationary and too comfortable for a few months, it was surreal to suddenly be dropped off alone in such a remote location. Finding somewhere quiet to pitch my tent for the night would be tricky. 

“Mzungu [white man], what are you doing here?” I heard in broken English. Turning around, I saw a middle-aged man with a beaming smile. His name was Joseph, in Wikihi on business: buying shoes on the Malawi mainland and selling them to remote villagers in Mozambique. He had a sister who lived just through the maize fields, and would host me for the night. Perfect.

The next morning after a quick coffee, while various villagers took my bike for a spin, we started the 10km walk to the Tanzanian border, pushing, pulling and lifting the bike through rough and narrow tracks. To my astonishment, Joseph said there was a Mozambican officer at the border—which would be an issue, given I was coming from Malawi and didn’t have a Mozambique visa. But apparently, he ‘liked money’. Reluctantly, I approached a well-dressed man (Ralph Lauren shirt, strong smell of aftershave), wondering whom he must’ve annoyed to be located there. Joseph did the talking, concluding with: “Douglas, this officer wants to help you, and 200 meticais [about $3] will help him do that.” Problem solved. 

Less than 10m into Tanzania, I had the wind in my hair, riding on a good laterite track, cruising through the 50km to Mamba Bay. The contrast between Tanzania and Mozambique is stark. In Mozambique there’s no road whatsoever, and immediately in Tanzania a reasonable one. First job in Mamba Bay was to get my visa sorted; judging by the four immigration officers in varying degrees of consciousness, slouched in hammocks, it wasn’t a busy place.  

Local knowledge was vital for the route; no map I’d found showed a road along the lakeshore. So hearing “My strong advice would be not to go that way” from a well-spoken man in Mamba Bay wasn’t music to my ears. It did convince me to buy some extra bread and water, though.

By first light the next morning, I was up and on the road, riding through villages as they woke; cockerels going full bore; women preparing the morning fire; men assessing fishing nets… You could see a beautiful simplicity in life.

After a swift 30km of flat road amid beautiful landscapes, there was an issue with the bike’s chain. Luckily, there was a gem of a town (Liuli) just around the corner, the sort of place that makes travelling special; not yet discovered, not yet destroyed. Entering the sole guesthouse there, before I could even mumble Swahili greetings I had a cup of very sweet tea in my hand and was digging into a communal bowl of rice and fish.   

A metal file and a fair degree of ignorance concluded a bodge job on the bike. The next day was tough, but the chain held up. The rainy season was out in full force, with mud so slippery that you could barely walk, and the Livingstone Mountains more involved than I’d have wished. Views to die for were a constant companion, and kept the legs pumping.

With 74km (and myself) done for the day, and with a nod to Livingstone, I tried my luck staying at a Christian Mission in Lundu. Two very bemused priests sized up one very dirty, wet and smelly white man and decided to let me stay (sympathy, presumably). A guided tour of the Mission concluded in the dining room with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label which, once dealt with, the good Father felt should be followed by my baptism in Tanzanian beers, so off to the local bar we went.

The Ruhuhu River is the largest tributary into Lake Nyasa (Tanzanian name now) and was blocking my route north. Fortunately—for my head, but not my nerves—the Ruhuhu had burst its banks and no boats were risking it the next day. So I spent another night at the Mission, with its stunning 360-degree views of the lake, the Livingstone Mountains and a spewing river.

When the waters had calmed, crammed between boxes of soap and bags of maize, and my bicycle perched in front of me, three oarsmen tentatively pushed us into the fast-flowing river. We were heading downstream, and the journey was smooth enough. Manda was the next village and I would need some traveller’s luck; from there, by road, it would be a large inland detour or with a boat sporadically taking cargo north up the lake.

Manda is an area rich in minerals, and legend has it that some Englishman hid a valuable stash there in the colonial days. I only discovered this when five undercover army officers got me acquainted with the police station for a few hours. Eventually, with a quick call to my new friends, Father Johnnie Walker, the confusion was resolved: I really was “just a crazy white man” cycling through.

Lady Luck was on my side the next day, however, with a boat that was heading north. The captain’s view on cargo was that when water was lapping at the boat’s edges, it was about full. I positioned myself up front with a chicken for company—as well as the local salesman of Pilsner lager. Luck, indeed.

The voyage was crazy and brilliant: fish eagles soaring in the mountain thermals; dense broccoli forests clinging to the mountains; vervet monkeys playing on deserted beaches; people falling overboard; incredibly skilful men in dugout canoes collecting and dropping off passengers; hundreds of tiny villages wedged between the steeply sloping shores and even steeper mountains… The lake is life for the villagers, providing food, water and a transport link to the outside world.

After 10 hours on the water, we anchored for the evening at Lupingu, which gives the wonderful impression of being a pirate bay—with cheap alcohol, drunken boatmen, open fires providing light, and ladies lurking in the shadows. 

A change of boat saw the previous day’s 10m vessel upgraded to a 20m version; still wooden, leaking, overloaded and utterly charming. The only real difference was that the seating—planks laid across the boat—was about 1.5m above the hull, making it feel like a floating birdcage (again I had a chicken for company). On both voyages, we lost the tarpaulin roof to the winds.

Lunch stops were great fun. The captain would shout “chakula!” (kiSwahili for ‘food’) and all 50-odd passengers (myself included) would charge, swing and crawl through the cargo-laden birdcage to go ashore where ladies were selling meals in plastic bags.

Matema Beach is at the northern tip of Lake Nyasa—and looking south, it could easily be an ocean in front of you. As the sun was setting, we arrived in stormy conditions, the boat loosely anchored; with each swell, people were bounced from the stern toward shore. It’s no wonder Livingstone had two nicknames for this water mass: Lake of Stars (upon observing lights from the lanterns of the fishermen on their boats) and Lake of Storms (after experiencing, like us, the unpredictable and extremely violent gales that sweep through the area).

With my kit safely offloaded, there was only one thing to do: cycle north and find a camping spot to view from up high the lake and mountains through which I’d just travelled.  

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer