Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Magical Malawi

The final day's cycle in Tanzania was a 158km ride, but one of the most beautiful scenic roues on tour so far. It's always a little sad leaving a magnificent place like Tanzania, but at the same time the feeling of excitement of a new country, new challenges and one more country closer to home quickly takes over that sadness.

This day of endless rolling green forested hills seemed the most appropriate way to say farewell to the green lush landscapes of Tanzania. With a mighty descent, we rode through the humid environment and reached the Malawi border at 115km in no time. After the border crossing we immediately stopped to enjoy a relatively cold coke and meet some Malawi locals.

On a sugar high from the coke stop, we decided to push hard and get to camp fast because the amazing Lake Malawi was waiting for us. Luckily, the road was paved and had a relatively flat gradient, so working together against the wind got us into camp quickly. I set up my tent and went for a long walk on the beach of Lake Malawi and enjoyed the feeling of being close to the water again.

The following day we had a short distance of only 92km to cycle into Karanga where, at the Chitimba campsite, we would spend our rest day on the water's edge.

This rest day truly made us feel like we were on a luxury holiday. Even the view from my tent was very pleasant.

View from my tent

We spent much time playing in the water, tanning on the beach and, of course, tasting plenty of the local foods.

Having dinner at a local's house around the corner from camp.
On the actual rest day, a few friends and I wandered into the small fishing village to find food and drink. The camp where we were staying was obviously overwhelmed by the large number of hungry cyclists, so to get food and get food fast it's always best to head away from the crowded camp and explore the local village. We stumbled across a very warm, cheap, cheerful and welcoming restaurant that provided us hungry TdA riders with all the local foods we wanted and each one of us was perfectly satisfied. We even took take aways and were welcomed into the kitchen to meet the chef. To follow was some innocent food art with the left overs.

The Kitchen

TdA 2013

Lizzy and Freek's TdA 2013 food art...
The following morning we awoke to the down pour of Malawi's greatest rainfall. Basically, the campsite was completely flooded by the time breakfast was being served.

Everything we owned was soaking wet and we had a serious mountain to climb first thing in the morning. This is never fun in miserable weather, however the view from the top over Lake Malawi made one forget the cold and the wet and that there lay about another 100km ahead to cycle that day.

The next few days in Malawi were much of the same wet, rainy weather. At this point, due to sleeping in a wet tent and waking up to wet weather, my cold and flu was getting worse and worse. With a rundown, exhausted system, I hit a low point, feeling ill and homesick. Our campsites were very basic, the usual soccer fields and no warm showers waiting after a long day on the bike.

But socializing around the camp fire at night did help lift people's spirits and in the afternoon the sun did appear just long enough to dry our tents, before the night time rains showers came down.

It was not long before we had our rest day in the Malawi capital, Lilongwe. There was not much to do, which is the best kind of rest day, because you actually recover better. I wasn't feeling very well during this time, so my rest day was spent doing my blog, sleeping and maybe going out for pizza, but besides that my aim was to get better and have no cold for the day's cycle to come. The campsite in Lilongwe had many youngster traveling through Africa, mostly overlanders, but each of whom had fantastic and interesting stories to share, yet another reason why I possibly didn't leave camp. So many interesting people to enjoy. There were also a few solo travelers who were trekking through Africa by motorbike. One in particular was very interesting. He had been on the road for more than seven years and had seen it all. This made me think, I might want to do more after this Cairo to Cape Town experience is over... The travel bug has bitten and it has bitten me bad!!!!

Monday, 29 April 2013

Tanzania - The heart of the rainy season!!!

After a wonderful mini holiday with my dad it was time to say the very sad and emotional good bye. Our safari guide, Peter, dropped me at the TdA camp site en route to the airport in Arusha. It was time to do the final exchange of goods, meaning that I gave my dad a bunch of clothes, shoes and extra things I had no use for on the rest of the trip, thus making space for more important things like bicycle spares and my renewed stock of Herbalife products

Impressively, I held it together very well while saying farewell to my dad, but I won't deny that the feeling of nervousness and anxiety did set in fast as I saw the car drive away. However, the normal routine of TdA brought me straight back to reality and then everything was okay. I set up my tent, organized my locker and went around doing my usual bike maintenance.

The first day's cycle out of Arusha made the mini holiday with my dad feel like it never happened. Everything was back to biking, biking and some more biking. It was a good day's cycle, with rolling hills and the magnificent views making each climb worthwhile and rewarding.

We camped alongside the road at a bush camp, with no village or town nearby. Just a few local farmers were inquisitive enough to come investigate the commotion caused by us colourful TdA riders. After an afternoon nap under a nearby tree, it was time to change my tires as we made our way into the off road section of Tanzania. 

I was very pleased to have finished my tire changes earlier in the day despite it being boiling hot. After diner, when it finally cooled down, everyone began their tire changes but at the same time the heavens opened and a massive thunderstorm rolled in. I took cover in my tent after helping pack most of camp away. So there I was, cozy and warm in my tent while an enormous thunderstorm raged outside. With my headlamp and book in hand I enjoyed an early night, finally falling asleep to nature's winter music.


The next morning was not fun, waking up to realise it had rained all night and was still raining. I packed away a soaking wet tent, and the morning kick started cold, wet and perfectly miserable. The day ahead was half paved, 
but on arriving at lunch it was still raining and I was dreading the 60 km muddy road cycle to camp. So, after lunch, we set off onto the off road and with the consistent rainfall overnight, this meant only one thing… seriously muddy dirt roads for the second half of the day. 

About 5km into the cycle I was totally soaked and covered in sticky mud. However, once I accepted there was no way I was going to remain mud- or dirt- free, I actually enjoyed the muddy mess. We cycled like maniacs, at times aiming for a muddy pool hoping to spray your cycling buddy just for the fun of it. We stopped in a small village for a quick drink and the stares we received from locals were very funny. Not only was it strange to find foreigners in the area, but foreigners on bicycles covered in mud must have been quite the sight, so I could understand why they would point and laugh as we cycled on. Everywhere we go it feels as though locals cannot grasp what it is we are doing or why we would cycle from Cairo to Cape Town. It just doesn't make any sense to them and their responses are always very comical, which I find very entertaining.

Arriving at camp, I couldn't wait to get out of my muddy, wet cycling clothes and begin warming up. There were no warm showers waiting which, as always, is wishful thinking, but there were some locals selling buckets of cold water so one could at least run off into the bush for privacy and wash off the worst of the mud. After washing my body and trying my best to get the mud out of my hair, I used the remaining water to rinse the mud out of my cycling clothes. As I finished hanging up my clothes, and setting up my tent to dry off, the rain came pouring down again. It felt like I was fighting a losing battle as I ran to take my clothes off the line and once again spend the evening hiding in my tent from the cold, wet outdoors.

The following morning was much the same, rainy and cold with a messy muddy road ahead. This was the day renowned for TdA vehicles getting stuck. I set off and, in the distance, came across a pile up of vehicles seriously stuck on a sticky, slippery, deep muddy road. The TdA trucks arrived at that point and I was fascinated to see how they would overcome this obstacle. Well, the only solution was to take a shovel and remove the top layer of mud which causes the wheels to spin, and then dig deeper to form a trench where the dirt is dry, thus allowing the trucks to grip the road better. Then slowly, slowly we make our way through the muddy stretch without sliding into the ditch either side of the road, because once you're in that with such a heavy truck it's a serious problem getting out using manpower. For an entire 4km stretch the mud was terrible and the pile up of stuck vehicles made it very difficult to get going. I remained with the TdA vehicles to help dig and shovel mud away, because they needed the extra hands and besides, I found the whole "trucks stuck in the mud in the middle of Tanzania" very exciting, a bit like a rescue mission. Armed with my shovel and a pick axe, we dug away at the road and basically built a new road that was layered with branches cut down from the roadside bushes for extra grip. 

Finally, with a great team effort, we were able to edge past stuck vehicles blocking the road and gain momentum. We were finally free. The riders got to camp before the truck, which was expected, but luckily the truck made it to camp and wasn't stuck overnight. That would have been a major disaster, especially since the rain came pouring down once again that night.

We packed up our soccer field camp in the morning rain and I mentally got prepared for yet another messy, muddy cycle. However, this was to be the worst of the muddy off road days. The rain showered down hard from the start and, together with the icy cold wind, it was very unpleasant on the bike. I arrived at lunch perfectly miserable, cold and wet, but once I looked around and saw others in the exact same state as me, I felt great knowing I wasn't alone in this. Besides, it's only mud and everyone was covered in it, head to toe, front and back, so best one can do is laugh it off.

Camp that evening was once again a soccer field within a small village, which meant we had the luxury of bucket showers to wash off the muddy morning. Luckily it had warmed up that afternoon and I could dry out my wet tent in order to avoid it smelling damp and mouldy. After sleeping numerous nights in a wet, cold environment I started to feel the symptoms of cold and flu coming on. So I doubled my dose of vitamins to avoid it getting worse.

The next day's off road was finally a pleasant day's cycle, which had much to do with the fact that we finally had clear skies.

I enjoyed the greenery immensely and it was great relief arriving at camp warm and dry. Roughing it as usual, we camped on a dirt soccer pitch of a small town's school yard with a crowd of onlookers growing every minute.

That evening I securely locked my bike and made sure I kept all my valuable belongings in the truck, because without security keeping local kids at bay, it would be easy for things to quickly go missing… as two people on Tour learnt the hard way, when they woke up the next morning to find their bicycles missing. Besides of course serious injury or illness, if anything, your bike getting stolen while doing a cross-continental cycle tour from Cairo to Cape Town is the worse thing that could possibly happen. So the final day off road cycle into Mbeya kick-started with police reports and investigations as to who stole the bicycles and how we could get them back. 

The cycle into Mbeya definitely counts as one of my top five most difficult days on the bike.

We had only 111km to cycle, but on terrible dusty, gravel, stony roads it's a hell of a long way, especially when there is over 1200m of climbing in the second half of the day.

The morning wasn't an easy ride, but the first 60km of off road is usually bearable when you've woken up feeling relatively fresh. When the sun begins to beat down on you and you're unable to get into a good cycling rhythm because the roads are too bad, then it becomes unbearable, frustrating and people start to lose their cool. I kept a level head through the day and was prepared for this to be difficult and a very long day. It also helped to know that reaching Mbeya meant we had reached our rest day destination, so I kind of trick myself into looking at that as a reward. I tell myself, "If you push hard today and get to Mbeya safely then you get yourself a hotel for the night and sleep the entire rest day, but for now you need to cycle through the pain and frustrations"... And it works!!! I trick myself into being mentally strong and if I succeed I am rewarded.

When we reached the highest point, I was almost brought to tears with happiness, because everything hurts after eight grueling days on the bike with all the bad weather and road conditions thrown at you.

Standing at the highest point also meant that it was all downhill into Mbeya. 25 km to go and it was all downhill. Little did I know that bad conditions, and gravel roads on a downhill were worse and more dangerous then uphill. After only 10km down the descent into Mbeya, my hands started to cramp from squeezing my brakes so hard.

I think I might have been faster on the uphill than the down, because free wheeling down or going fast was just too scary. With trucks zooming past without warning it is just too easy to lose control of the bike or hit a large rock at an angle. That would mean broken bones, stitches and the end of one's trip. So as always, safety first meant I took it very slow, did regular stops and took some time to enjoy the views overlooking Mbeya.

In the end, I arrived at the TdA camp/hotel after 17h00 which meant I had been cycling for just over ten hours and I could feel the effects on my body. Immediately, I checked into a hotel, showered, crawled into bed, no dinner, no nothing... By 18h00 I was asleep from pure exhaustion. However at about 03h00 I woke up starving. With no food available at that time of night, I was extremely grateful to have a Herbalife Vanilla meal shake to fill the gap until morning.

My hotel treat!!! Feeling and looking much better after a good nights rest in a comfy bed....