#12. Iringa to Lilongwe - Some inside realities and maybe a different perspective...

Beyond the Saddle ....Cairo to Cape Town
Howard Fairbank
Fri 6 Apr 2007 12:12
13:59.279S  33:46.067E
   Issue #12

Iringa to Lilongwe 


Some inside realities 
and maybe a different perspective...



This is the Tanzanian part of Lake Malawi right at Mtema Beach. 
The Livingstone Mountains are in the background, 
and heavy downpour followed an hour after this shot.


Lilongwe, 5 April 2007.


From this side of ‘Beyond the Saddle’, the time and kilometers seem to just fly by…. With my arrival in Lilongwe, albeit nursing my bike (more below), Section 5 of 1124 km is now completed. I have left Tanzania and with now just one day left in Malawi, Zambia is beckoning! Knowing that I am travelling by bicycle, it’s probably hard to believe that I feel like we are travelling too quickly! Particularly the last few days of this section have felt like we are on the ‘main highway’ from Cairo to Cape Town, and trying to keep up with the motorised overlanders. The road I have been riding on in Malawi is even called the M1!  Seeing an opportunity to go explore some dirt road back routes, I had another interesting experience away from the group, which is detailed later.  


Last newsletter was from Iringa where I spent 4 full days, so knew the place pretty well by the time we left. Even have my ‘favourite’ hairdresser there, who gave me an African hairstyle like I haven’t ever had before! 


Essentially from Iringa I spent the next few days on the southern Tanzanian Highlands, before the spectacular descent that connected me back to the Rift Valley floor, most noticeably marked by Lake Malawi. From there I followed the western shore of the lake before climbing back out of the valley and into the central Malawian Highlands, before descending to the 1000m high plateau where Lilongwe lies.


I have setout to try and give you ‘the story’ of my adventure as I see it, from within, both the positives and the negatives. It would be misleading of me to not share with you the current phase I am going through:


With three quarters of the trip now complete, the time on the road is definitely challenging the mind and body! I equate it to the sort of Wednesday feeling…not the beginning of the week, nor the end, but somewhere in between where one needs resolve and clarity of purpose to help drive through the routine activities of Thursday and Friday! Up to now it hasn’t felt like ‘routine activities, and every day has been exciting and stimulating. I have had to ask myself why does it feel like that now…? Well…..:


For a start, the scenery, in this section from Iringa to Lilongwe has not had any real highlights other than Lake Malawi, and has lacked the richness of experience that previous sections encompassed. This richness being linked to the four aspects of interesting people / culture, rich wild life (or the anticipation of it), truly spectacular terrain, and challenging road conditions.


Secondly, Africa is hard work! The pictures one is presented with everyday are essentially ones that point to one’s own ‘luck’ - in having such a privileged and prosperous upbringing in contrast to the struggling, and apparent visionless societies who look to one for the ‘magic money’ solution to their dilemma. I have referred to this before, but in the context of this newsletter, this hardship and lack of any real 1st world experiences over such a long time starts wearing on one. Initially it was a novelty, and with some of the more exotic cultures further north, the uniqueness of the experience made up for the lack of ‘quality’. In this ‘Wednesday mindset’ patch, the hardships are less easily tolerated and become further exposed.


Thirdly, the group dynamics continue to challenge me. With all the personality misfits being exposed, and the small talk phase fully exhausted, an increasing number of individuals are following my path of isolation, looking inwardly for solitude and re-connection with their mind and soul.


This phase certainly tests one’s clarity of purpose, and in this regard I am happy I spent so much time prior to setting off on this adventure clarifying my objectives. At the highest level I aim to cycle ‘every kilometer’ of the route from Cairo to Cape Town, without any assistance from a fellow group rider (drafting, medical aid etc) and at a pace that would not ‘embarrass’ me with the racers. Being one of only 8 of the group who have cycled every kilometer since Cairo, at this point I remain on target and highly committed to this goal, but there are there still many kilometers and challenges that lie ahead. I guess while the external stimulation factors (people, wildlife, scenery, and roads) are high, everyday pursuit of the goal is fun and short term rewarding, but we are now in the ‘dig deeper’ phase.


I am also aware that Ruth’s arrival and participation has definitely had some impact on my mindset, and as I sit here in the pleasant open air coffee bar of our hotel in Lilongwe, I can feel the positive side to her being with me. It’s not been easy for her joining the group of fit cyclists with finely tuned daily routines, and being asked to wake up at 4h15 virtually every day, and reel out 130km cycling day in unknown terrain. They have been long hard days for her, and I have given my support (see photo!) as best I can, and am proud to say that yesterday she also completed ‘every kilometer of Stage 5.   


I hope you find the above interesting, as I expose the true emotions of what I am REALLY going through, and don’t see it as negative, wavering or whinging! When signing up for this adventure I knew I would face some challenges like this, and bizarrely, almost need them, to make it feel like a significant venture and all worthwhile!  


After all the above there have been some real special times on this section and the specifics follow:


A Two day adventure on my own….


Having investigated the attractions from Mbeya to Lake Malawi, I decided to combine some walking with dirt road cycling taking a different route to the group. The first part of my adventure involved leaving the main tar road and cycling 5 km through a dense rain forest (see photo), with huge wild banana trees, to get to the start of a 5km walk to the top of Ngosi Crater, and splendid views of the crater lake. I hid my bike in the dense vegetation, but with no signs of others around I wasn’t too worried. It was quite a strenuous but enjoyable walk to the top of the crater rim, thick overgrowth pointing to a little used walking path….so typical of many of the offbeat African natural attractions. The crater lake was surprisingly large, but unfortunately I was not afforded the privilege of seeing its renowned emerald green waters as the clouded sky had ‘turned off the lights’. Two hours later I was back on my bike and dealing with the fact that ‘the group’ were already at the lunch stop and I would be having a ‘village lunch’…this being anything from a packet of tea biscuits, to egg and chips omelet, to ‘just bananas, depending on the type of village.


Ngosi Crater Lake, after my forest cycle and walk.


The next part of my diversion adventure involved taking a dirt road from Tukuru to the prized and fairly isolated town of Mtema Beach on the north eastern tip and Tanzanian side of Lake Malawi. Tukuru being a largish town on the south lip of the southern highlands escarpment before the mountains sharply fall away into the Rift Valley floor and Lake Malawi. (The group was sticking to the tar road being the direct route to the Malawian border, some 80 km away.) I was hopeful that there would be a small road connecting Mtema Beach with the Malawian road, and I would be back with the group (Ruth!) that night.


The 70km ride down the escarpment to the valley floor, and eventually the Lake Malawi shore was absolutely wonderful. This appeared to be the ‘Real Wealth’ farming area of Tanzania. Tea, Palm (for palm oil), and Banana plantations, in amongst lush green thick tropical rainforest complete with bamboo trees, and larger strongly flowing muddy rivers, set against the background of the rippling Livingstone mountains. These mountains rising more than 2500m directly out of Lake Malawi, and providing a very effective barrier to lake access for much of the Tanzanian side lakeshore.


I say ‘Real Wealth’, because for the first time in rural East Africa, I sensed the locals were content and were moving their lives forward, upgrading their lifestyles and engaged in more than just basic subsistence activities. The amount of expansion of homes taking place was extraordinary. Almost every third thatch roof mud hut, had a ‘modern’ extension either added or being developed. (See photo). One farmhouse I went by even had a relaxation area complete with pagoda, hammock, and rope swing. The school kids I saw coming home from school all had identical uniforms, looked clean and neat, and greeted me politely, without the standard ‘Give me money’ follow up call!


An example of the ‘wealth’ I refer to in the text. A traditional home, with the upgraded modern expansion along side it. This would be a typical house of a tea, banana and palm oil farmer, hidden in thick jungle-like greenery.


Well after the exhilarating escarpment descent and then 27km of very rocky road on the valley floor I arrived at 5pm at the remote Mtema Beach, and my first view of a Lake Malawi beach. Realising the group were already through into Malawi and at their overnight campsite, and I was at best 40km away, it was apparent that I wouldn’t be sharing a tent with Ruth that night!  Hard to believe it, (for her too!) but the trip was worth it.


I then had to deal with the news that the ‘short cut’ road I was hoping for didn’t exist and I would have to essentially retrace 40 kilometers to get back to the connection with the road to Malawi. This was not good news, and with 120km planned for the group the next day, I would be in for a huge 220km day to be with them the following night! The ‘manager’ of the Lutheran Church accommodation where I stayed then provided a valuable piece of information…there was a bus that leaves at 5am ‘sharp’ that would take me along the 40km ‘retrace’ route. There was no electricity in Mtema Beach (planned for next year), and I was treated to a ‘romantic’ candle light dinner for one, also being the only customer, in the church dining room.


Committed to the 5am bus, and the emphasis on ‘sharp’ I was up at 4am, a long story of struggle and begging, at 6h15 I was finally leaving on the bus with the ‘problematic passenger’ my bike! Worse still I had to use all the Tanzania money I had to pay for the unwanted passenger, and had no money for much needed water and food for the 60km ride to the Malawian border! With a total of 185km ahead for the day, there was to be no crying now though! 


I crossed the border with relative ease and then had to deal with the prospect of another 120km of flat road and headwind in this new country. The reward of a lake side setting rest day and seeing Ruth again, motivated me to complete the tough, but interesting day around 5pm.


The lakeside rest day setting ended up exceeding expectations, as we found this wonderful secluded boutique hotel right on the lake with its own private beach. (See photos of Sangilo Sanctuary). This location was perfect for spending one and half days ‘just doing nothing’. (Yes, I must have progressed in life, because I can now sit still for a day and a half!)   


Lake Malawi, Malawian side. Sangilo Sanctuary, 
the boutique hotel with the private beach, where we stayed for two nights. 
A view from the lake, taken from behind the surprisingly large shore break.. By lunchtime the wind dropped, and the lake became a mirror.


A serious bike problem…but solved with a band aid!


On the last day into Lilongwe, my bike developed a strange creaking noise that I thought was coming from the drive chain, but searched everywhere and couldn’t find the cause. Then about 35km from Lilongwe the rear wheel rim started rubbing on the brake pads, and before long the friction caused me to stop. On inspection, to my dismay, I found that the rear rim had a 6cm circumferential split in the aluminum on the lip that holds the tyre in place. With the pressure of the tyre, the split had been opened up to a 3mm crack. I immediately de-pressured the tyre and the crack closed up. I managed to limp into Lilongwe with the back brake caliper disconnected, and me riding out of the saddle with my weight mainly on the front wheel. All the time my mind racing as to how I am going to solve the problem, given that the rim was not repairable.


On arriving in Lilongwe I searched the city for a bicycle shop, and after visiting two, realised what I was looking for did not exist in the city. Fortunately, George, a Malawian cyclist from Lilongwe who joined us the previous day was close at hand to assist. He produced a spare aluminum hub from his old parts collection, and then pointed me in the direction of Lilongwe’s best wheel builder. To my surprise, the wheel builder was a busy bicycle mechanic who worked from a pavement workshop off the main road through Lilongwe. Given the number of bikes he was working on I did get the impression he was a man of some good reputation! He soon pointed out the George’s rim was a 36 spoke one, and my hub was 32 spoke, but confidently said in one hour he could build a new wheel using my hub, and George’s rim, that would last me to Cape Town! I returned two hours later to see him and his helpers washing down my now repaired bike ready for return to me. I was still unsure of how good the new wheel was, but after a test ride, I am happy that I have a wheel that will at least see me through to the point where I can access a brand new replacement.


And Finally Lilongwe…..This is how the world used to be……!


Lilongwe has turned out to be a more interesting place than I had expected, but still not one to set one’s heart on fire!


Ruth and I are staying in a wonderful boutique hotel in downtown Lilongwe. There are huge sculptured wood chameleons everywhere, including on the bed headboard, and the staff are the friendliest and biggest ‘smilers’ I have ever met. Last night we headed out for dinner, and after walking some distance we arrived at the recommended Italian restaurant but then realised that together we wouldn’t have enough money to pay the bill. Rather than walk the long distance back I asked the owner if it would be ok if we paid the next day? Sure enough she said ‘No problem, just meet me at 11am tomorrow’. Being probably the best restaurant I had eaten in since Addis Ababa, we clocked up a bill of over US$40, and the owner didn’t blink an eyelid. Keen for a chocolate, we stopped at a late night supermarket on the way back, and once again struck an IOU deal for US$7 with the owner there. I repaid both IOU’s today, and once again marvelled at the level of trust and belief in fellow humans that these people had shown. Not many places the size of Lilongwe would that happen today!!


That’s all for this newsletter, next time you hear from me I will be 50 years old, and in Zambia!


I still welcome any feedback on these newsletters, and/or any questions you may have. Just email it off to africa {DOT} cycle {DOT} trip {CHANGE TO AT} mweb {DOT} co {DOT} za


Take care


The Progress So Far
  • Current Section:
    Iringa to Lilongwe

  • Hours cycled since last newsletter:

  • Distance cycled since last newsletter:
    1124 km

  • Distance cycled so far:
    7354 km

  • Km to go to Cape Town:

Busy with....Section Five: 
Iringa to Lilongwe

This section of the tour highlights the small country of Malawi, a luscious country that sits beside the huge expanse of Lake Malawi surrounded by beautiful mountains. After setting off from Iringa, it will still take a few days to get to Malawi, but the cycle through southern Tanzania will be rewarding as it passes through undulating verdant hills that are teeming with banana and tea plantations. The scenery is breath taking, the small towns lively, and the people incredibly friendly.


After three days from Iringa, the border of Malawi is crossed to enter one of the friendliest countries on the trip. Over the next week, the route hugs Lake Malawi, and there is a stopover in Chitimba, a town near Livingstonia, which commands one of the most spectacular views of the Lake. Continuing from here the route leaves the lake to move into the mountains and heads for the capital city of Lilongwe. This involves several days of riding in the beautiful mountains of Malawi through small villages as well as bustling towns such as Mzuzu, Jenda and Kuzungu. There will be opportunities to sample some of the Malawi Gin, before this section then ends in the lively capital of Lilongwe.


Section Dates:
16 March to 4 April


Many of you have asked for one,  so here it is: 

A photo of the ‘thin’ Howard relaxing at Sangilo Sanctuary.


Immediately after our relaxing days at Sangilo, there was a steep, energy sapping 9km climb from Lake Malawi out of the Rift Valley.

I left this message on the road to help inspire Ruth to reach the top unassisted!  

She was so focused on doing it, she didn’t see the message, which was seen by virtually everyone else in the group! Anyway, I had this photo to show her!


You have seen the views from the saddle with desert-like horizons, well this was the view from the saddle on the forest ride to the start of the walk up to Ngosi Crater Lake!  

(The scenery has certainly closed in!)

Tea plantations and pickers in the Southern Highlands area, just before descending to Lake Malawi.

Banana country…. Tanzania, typical roadside stall in the Southern Highlands, so one is never short of cycling food!

A joyful bunch of Tanzanian school kids at the top of a huge climb in the Southern Highlands.

They went hysterical when I showed them this photo on my camera’s LCD screen.

Typical scenery along the road in the Tanzanian Southern Highlands.


Coming up....Next Section:
Iringa to Victoria Falls


This section starts in the capital city of Malawi but quickly moves into Zambia, a country named after the fabled Zambezi River. Right now, Zambia is a country that has huge wilderness parks and very little tourism. (How long will that be so?) ‘The Zone’ as it’s named, can't be beaten, for few tourists, fantastic scenery, lots of quality cycling and friendly people. The first days of cycling in ‘The Zone’ will pass along the Great East Road through some fabulous scenery. Eventually the route leads through the Lower Zambezi National Park, a park that is increasingly becoming renowned for its natural splendour and wildlife. After the park, the route heads straight to the bustling and vibrant capital city of Zambia, Lusaka. But this isn't the end yet.


Several more days of cycling through incredible scenery, the end of ‘The Zone’ approaches the town of Livingstone and the natural wonder of Victoria Falls, where one can also enjoy bungee jumping, white water rafting, and many other activities arranged by the campsite.


The Complete Route


  • Total Distance Cairo to Cape Town: 
    11 884 Km

  • Countries through which the route passes:
    Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa

  • Sections:  
    1. Cairo to Khartoum  
    2. Khartoum to Addis
        Ababa (Sudan/Ethiopia)
    3. Addis Ababa to Nairobi
    4. Nairobi to Iringa
    5. Iringa to Lilongwe
    6. Lilongwe to Victoria
        Falls. (Malawi/Zambia)
    7. Victoria Falls to
        Windhoek (Zambia/
    8. Windhoek to Cape Town  
        (Namibia/South Africa)

  • Expected arrival in Cape Town:  
    12 May 2007

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