Malawi (Part 1)

I set off riding toward Malawi, my 92nd country. The 40km to the border passed quickly as I descended 1000m, dropping to an elevation of 500m – my lowest in months.

I stopped in the border town to print my PCR result then headed over to the border. The road turned to dirt for the last couple hundred metres.

I was soon stamped out of Tanzania and continued on, crossing a bridge over the Songwe river and entering Malawi.

First up I had to talk to a health official, who checked my PCR online and filled in various details into a form. Next up was immigration, where I handed in my passport and filled in a form with many of the same details.

I waited a while and then was taken to a back room. They had some issue with the QR code of my PCR test – despite my pointing out it was the standard style all Tanzanian PCRs used. At first I thought they were trying to get me to pay $100 for a PCR at the border, but they just wanted me to take a free rapid test. I didn’t mind that, so off I went.

The folks doing the rapid tests took a long time sorting out the documentation for each test, so the queue moved slowly – but at least it was moving. After about an hour it was my turn and they filled in a 3rd form – with all the same information as the previous. A short wait later I got another negative result.

Back at the immigration department the health official berated the immigration officers, telling them my PCR was obviously genuine and was verifiable online – and how ridiculous it was to make someone with a PCR test also do a far less reliable rapid test. So in the end I was processed under my PCR, and the rapid test proved wholly unnecessary. But a short while later a visa was entered into my passport and I was stamped into the country, which was the important thing.

There was a scammer making the rounds at the border, who twice tried to tell me I needed to pay him $50 for the evisa I already had. I was amused by a sign on the wall listing proscribed items – things like “instruments of war” and rice.

About 3 hours after reaching the border, I rode away from it. It was much warmer now – I could definitely feel that I was at lower altitude. The road was flat for about 100km, for the first time in ages.

There was less traffic on the Malawi side. The vehicles I did see were mostly cars, with few buses and trucks – a complete contrast to Tanzania, which seemed to have one of the lowest car ownership rates I’ve seen. Of course there were also lots of motorcycles and bicycles too. Since it was flat there were also some women cycling – in hillier areas it tends to just be men.

About 45km from the border I reached the first town, Karonga. I withdrew some money from the ATM – the one at the border hadn’t worked. The largest note here is worth a little under £2, so my wallet was bulging when I walked on.

Next stop was the Airtel shop for a simcard. They were closed, so I tried one of the roadside kiosks. In most countries foreigners can’t get cards at those – only in service centers in larger towns or cities. Here though it was surprisingly fine, and the guy entered my passport details into a small computer before handing me a sim card.

The higher temperature had got to me slightly while I was standing waiting for the SIM, so I sat down for a minute before continuing on to a supermarket. A Tesco, even! It wasn’t an actual Tesco and it wasn’t particularly well stocked but everything had prices listed, which isn’t common in smaller shops. It was the first supermarket I’ve seen since Kigali.

Tesco! Kind of…

I rode on for a few more hours, mostly parallel to Lake Malawi. Although I was only a few hundred metres away I couldn’t see it for most of the day, as the road was so flat. In the evening there was a short climb and I got some glimpses of it.

I stopped for the day in the town of Uliba. I took a cheaper guesthouse, which I regretted! It had no fan, and the heat was oppressive. At midnight it was 27°C outside, and probably over 30 in the room. I did not get much sleep.

The first couple hours in the morning were flat, and a bit closer to the lake.

Past the village of Chiweta the road climbed away from the lake, gaining about 600m in the next 10km. Just before the climb I stocked up on cold drinks which made a huge difference to my comfort! In the hour the climb took, I drank close to 2 liters and was absolutely soaked in sweat.

The road then descended slightly into a valley, and progressed along it, going gradually uphill. Both my tyres acquired slow leaks and I stopped occasionally to pump them up. I started to get a bit of a headache, and worried it could be dehydration or overheating. I bought the next cold drinks I found, some lime sodas.

Perhaps I drank them too fast, because then I started to get nauseous. I stopped and lay down for a while but wasn’t feeling any better so I went and threw up. Besides water, the only thing I’d consumed recently was those lime sodas, so it was bright green.

I felt a bit better after that, and rode the last 10km into Mzuzu. I checked into a guesthouse. I decided it would be a good idea to have a day off tomorrow. Although it’s about 5°C cooler here as Mzuzu is a higher altitude, that’s still quite warm so in the morning I went and found a place with a fan. I checked in there then went to a supermarket – ShopRite, a chain that is apparently found from here to South Africa.

I’ve had lots of problems with inner tubes recently – the patches and/or glue I have don’t seem to be working well and they often come off. I went to a market and asked around for a bike shop. The first place I was directed to had a couple bike tyres hanging outside, the normal sign for a bike shop. In this case those tyres were there entire stock. Someone was sent to guide me to another place.

I wasn’t optimistic but I wanted to try and buy some tubes with a Presta valve – the local Dunlop/Woods/English valve types won’t fit in my front wheel, and my pump won’t work on them – and the locally available pumps arent great. I was led on a long walk to different shops but no luck. I gave my guide some money and returned to one of the earlier shops and bought a pump to work with the Dunlop tubes. I wanted to buy more patches too, but none of the shops in that area had any. I couldn’t face walking all the way back to the other shops so I decided to just hope my last couple patches will last to Lilongwe.

I got a lot less attention here as a Mzungu, even in the market. Only a few people called out to me. Special mention to the guy in the lumberyard who tried to convince me to buy “just one piece” of the 5-metre planks he was selling.

It was great to have the fan waiting for me in the hotel room when I got back – it made a world of difference to the comfort in the room.

Dec 28: 147 km

Dec 29: 149 km

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