TO THE LAKE OF STARS
Majestic Malawi – on the edge of the world without a bike, but our hearts were singing
Bridget Hilton-Barber and her friend and fellow traveller Hugh Fraser have left Rwanda and are slowly making their way back down south. In this instalment, they reach the edge of the world in majestic Malawi.
‘I’ve had it,” said Hugh, and stopped the car suddenly. After 31 days, eight countries and about 7,000km on the clock, about halfway up the most winding road of our Epic Road Trip, he decided on a whim to abandon his prized mountain bicycle that had been attached to the back of the Subaru Forester since we left home.
He got out, unhitched the bicycle, scrambled a good way down the mountain slope and tied it fiercely to a tree with a chain and lock.
The bicycle had been a, er, delicate issue. “Whatever,” I’d said to Hugh just before we were leaving to go, when he asked if he should take his bicycle.
I’m a learned old thing. Like you never get between a hippo and its mother, you never get between a man and his bicycle, especially if he’s a keen cyclist, has done impressive marathons around the globe and can actually carry off wearing Lycra shorts.
The bicycle was a source of great curiosity right from the word go. Pedestrians stared at it, border guards said they wanted it, kids looked longingly at it, traffic cops used it as an excuse to fine us.
It had come all the way from Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Burundi to Rwanda and back through Tanzania. And Hugh never rode it. Not once. You’ll have to ask him yourself.
To be fair, the bicycle was never the same after the Zambian T2 Great North Road. Driving through its gargantuan potholes had buckled the steering and wheels.
In turn, as if to express its frustration, the bicycle had jiggled constantly about in its bike rack, scratching the car’s paint and making infuriating squeaking noises. Hugh’s pain was palpable every time we hit a bump, and we’d done 7,000km of bumps…
Read more in Daily Maverick: Road-rattled in Tanzania – driving the dirty devil to gin, good coffee and views to soothe the weariest soul
Now we were in Malawi, our eighth country, clambering our way up a dirt track to the small town of Livingstonia, an ascent of 900m featuring more than 20 hairpin bends and astonishing dongas and boulders.
The road was designed by Dr Robert Laws, a Scottish missionary and disciple of explorer Dr Livingstone, a fine feat of engineering for a medical doctor, as they say around here. The car’s satellite navigation screen looked like spaghetti.
We climbed up and up the mountainside, and after an hour or so, minus one bicycle, we arrived at our destination – the incredibly charming ecolodge called The Mushroom Farm. We are on a cliff, said the welcome sign, so please take care. We were indeed on the edge of the world. The Mushroom Farm perched perilously on the mountain top, a series of rustic villas, chalets, dormitories and tents that offered hopelessly romantic views of the forests, rivers, villages and the distant Lake Malawi.
Ah, Malawi, the warm heart of Africa, as it’s dubbed by tourism, split by the Great Rift Valley, origin of the famous lake. The “lake of stars”, as Livingstone called it. It is also known as the calendar lake because it is 365 miles from north to south, one mile for each day of the year.
The drive from Mbeya in southwestern Tanzania to Malawi was the dreamiest part of our trip, a gentle gander along country roads, past fields of potatoes and sweet potatoes, bananas, coffee and tea plantations.
The Songwe border was slow and hot, but we dropped down the edges of the Great Rift Valley and our hearts sang at the first sightings of the lake. We bought tomatoes and onions from a friendly seller at a roadside market and turned right, up the laborious hill towards Livingstonia.
The Mushroom Farm provides a comfortable space for travellers to rest and recharge high in the mountains. Its ethos is based on responsible tourism and it’s all permaculture, solar power, compost toilets and yoga flow. Exactly what two weary old roadtrippers needed.
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We met a lovely mix of young people from Mexico, the US, England, and Australia, all involved in NGOs and volunteering in Malawi, which is one of the world’s poorest countries, and it lent us hope.
The farm had solar panels that kept the music playing, fridges working, lights shining and the charging station going. It had pigs and chickens and showers with views, and a convivial bar with interesting coffee and cocktails. We had great fun.
We went on a guided walk to see the breathtaking Manchewe Falls; we stopped for a beer at a small backpacker’s on the mountain’s edge. Hugh made an excellent tuna pasta in the parking lot of the Mushroom Farm, which we savoured with local beer and lake views. We visited the little town of Livingstonia, founded in 1894 by missionaries from the Free Church of Scotland. The Scottish missionaries built a school, a technical training centre, a hospital, a church, and a university. Livingstonia made an immeasurable contribution to education in Malawi and was one of the first places in the country to have electricity, as early as 1905.
A few days later, we headed back down the winding road again, aiming for the gentle shores of the lake. The bicycle wasn’t there, of course. Neither was the tree to which it had been chained. Hugh had involuntarily donated his bicycle to Malawi.
But Malawi was so beautiful that he didn’t seem to care. We travelled picturesque roads with baobabs and enormous grassy golden boulders. We passed cyclists and goats, men walking their cows, markets and buses and ancient mosques. So far so good, said the sign on the outskirts of Nkhata Bay, a busy little town on the edge of the lake. God bless my enemy, said another sign on a village shop.
By mid-afternoon we were lounging on the lake’s edge at a fabulous boho backpacker’s spot called Butterfly Space, listening to reggae and the sounds of happy young stoners playing pool.
Malawi had the most obvious ganja culture of all the countries we visited, with many Rastas selling reggae paraphernalia to tourists and the occasional sweet-smelling weed cloud that filled the car.
Butterfly Space is a nonprofit ecolodge that supports community initiatives and it had great vibes, pleasant chalets overlooking the lake, and a festive little restaurant called the Mkana Café, which served wholesome meals and excellent vodka cocktails.
By the next evening we were camping solo on the edge of the lake near a town called Senga. The full moon was rising and moonlight glanced gently off the baobab tree that stood guard at the campsite.
We were the only people in the campsite, and ironically it would be the noisiest of our camping nights as the moon churned up the lake and the waters chopped and slapped the beach. We were down to warm box wine and soya mince for dinner. And we didn’t have a bicycle. But it didn’t matter. We had been on the road for just over a month and we would never be the same again. DM
Our Epic Road Trip was sponsored by ClemenGold Gin.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.