Day 77, stage 59, 135km
Start, Chitimba Beach, Hakuna Matata Camp
A miserable day. It had rained most of the night and was still raining as we packed up and headed over to Chitimba to rejoin the Group. We huddled under what cover we could, ate a little breakfast and tried to find the motivation to get on our bikes. My guts were also roiling. Things had loosened the day before and I was up in the night. It was my turn. Chitimba tummy. But after one last trip to the ablutions block the inevitable could not be avoided.
It was cold; it was dark; it was wet. And as if this were not enough, the day started with a 26km individual time trial. Bob headed off and I started a couple of minutes later. After about 15km of gentle climb we turned and headed up the steep switchbacks of the hills surrounding Lake Malawi. We had to get up and over these hills to head towards Lilongwe. It was a 10km uninterrupted climb with grades reaching 12%. You can’t have much more fun in the rain. Bob did it in 1h37m and placed well. I did it in 1h47m, not too bad given the fact that I am not a great hill climber. The rest of the day was a real slog for me. I wasn’t feeling well. My head wasn’t in it. I was flat.
I usually divert my mind from the pain that sometimes accompanies a difficult ride by doing endless calculations in my mind and giving myself small achievable goals. Today my mind would have none of this. It got into this dreadful loop – ‘you are not having fun; you are not feeling good, I will not do your silly calculations’ and on and on, over and over. Fortunately it stayed in the loop and didn’t slide into ‘so why are you doing this anyway? Get off your bike! Get in the truck!’ I got into Mzuzu. Very late. I found the toilet block. I took in lots of fluids. I tried to eat a little. I set up and crawled into my tent. It rained again. All in all, a lovely day on Tour.
Day 76, Rest day, Hakuna Matata Camp
Hakuna Matata Camp is run by an old South African eccentric called Willie. It is right next door to the larger Chitimba Camp, which is more professionally run by a Dutch couple. Chitimba has a couple of dozen cabins, lots of space to camp, a large bard and restaurant area and a great beach. But it is not cheap. A coke, which costs 100 kwacha at any shop on the road, costs 300 kwacha at Chitimba camp. Willie has had Hakuna Matata Camp for about three years. His signboard outside, right next to the Chitimba signboard, says ‘Twice as nice for half the price’. Almost. The cokes are 200 kwacha. Hakuna has two rooms, a double and a bunkroom. It also has a dozen of so campsites and a bar restaurant overlooking the beach.
While Chitimba is all about Dutch efficiency and order, Hakuna is all about Willie’s folly. Three years in the kitchen is still an outdoor camp kitchen with a thatch cover and a wood fire. Willie spends a lot of his time at the table in the kitchen enclosure sitting on an upturned dugout canoe, smoking cigarettes. He is short and wiry, about 5’6” and no more than 60kg. He wears wire frame glasses, has wispy reddish sandy hair and a thin beard, covering a skeletal face, that would embarrass a 16 year old. He wears a pair of long, light khaki shorts that are too big for him, a pair of leather sandals and no shirt. Willie is full of stories. He spent sometime in the 90s, after the end of the conflict in Mozambique trying to import prawns into South Africa. He bought an old refrigerated army truck, drove to the coast, filled it with prawns and ice and headed to Johannesburg. After doing this half a dozen times he had lost so much money in bribes and rotten prawns that he gave it up. He then worked in Israel for a couple of years. Don’t ask too many questions. Most recently he had spent a couple of years buying building supplies in Malawi and taking then into Mozambique. This was more successful. He wanted to buy a filling station in Malawi but it was too expensive so he got the beachfront camp on Lake Malawi. Now he is looking for the easy life. But his wife has asthma and has gone back to South Africa for treatment and his cook has gone back to Zimbabwe for two months and his ‘do everything’ guy currently has malaria. So Willie is doing everything.
A friend of Willie’s named Ray is also there – seems to have been there for a while. Ray is a Londoner who has lived in Southern Africa for over 30 years. He was in plastics but now rides his big Windjammer motorcycle endlessly around Southern Africa. He has been doing this for about six years now. When I asked him where he was going he said he has no fixed plans he just travels around visiting friends like Willie. ‘Do you have a home base?’ ‘No’. He has a tent, an air mattress and a motorcycle. He doesn’t wear a shirt either. But Ray likes his beer as well as his cigarettes and has an adequate belly and shorts that strain to stay buttoned. His beard is fuller and more Hemingway-like – in fact his whole appearance is Hemingway-like. Perhaps he is Hemingway. Ray is also full of stories and advice.
I spent a pleasant day chatting with Willie and Ray and resting my eyes in a hammock. Bob was trying to heal his guts and slept a fair bit. Willie produced a large dinner of chicken and rice and then we had an early night.
Day 75, stage 58, 92km
Start, Karonga, Summit Annex Guest House
Finish, Chitimba Beach, Hakuna Matata Camp
Today was supposed to be a short day – and flat – only 92km along the lake to a beach camp at Chatimba. It was a bit of a confused start. Malawi is 1 hr behind Tanzania. So we changed out watched and clocks. But then we were told that we would still follow the Tanzania schedule but using Malawi times. This meant we left an hour later than we usually did, so lots of milling around. Then I still needed to get a Malawi SIM card and to visit a bank to get some more money (worried about scammers I had only changed enough at the border for a couple of days). So after clocking in at the start I spent a half hour wandering around Karonga doing chores.
But finally we were on the road. Bob and I hooked up with Danish Claus and Kiwi Phil and set out in a peloton at a good clip – well over 30kmh. It was faster than I usually ride and went against my strategy of pacing but I felt good and Bob seemed to be going well. At about 35km Bob started to fall back a bit. I stayed with the peloton for a while but then noticed Bob was not making his way back to it. So I slowed down and at about 45km found a coke stop. I stopped, bought some cold cokes and waited for Bob. We took a rest and got some fluids in us.
Lunch was only another 15km so we set off again. It soon became clear that Bob suffering a bit. So I let him find a pace that suited and went off to lunch. At the lunch truck I got some ORS for him and waited for him to arrive. He was obviously tired when he got there. I asked the medic to have a look at him. I said I would head out and try to get to the next camp early – only another 35km to go – to try to get one of the available rooms at the camp. When you are exhausted, a room with a bed is so much better than a tent in the rain. So I blasted off and got to camp in good time – but not early enough. I got there just as the last room was given out.
But all was not lost. There was another camp next door called ‘Hakuna Matata’. I was the first person to go their. They only had two rooms so I quickly took one. Somebody else arrived and took the second room before I could go fetch my bags. We were good.
Bob finally arrived a couple of hours later. He had been dehydrated, lost his appetite and had trouble getting an ORS down. He had taken a nap in the medic’s truck at lunch and then set off and did the final 35km to camp. And it was not an easy 35 km as it turned out. About an hour after we left in the morning a strong head wind came up. It stayed with us for the rest of the day. The wind was strong enough to steal 8 or 9 kmh from you. So pedaling 92km actually used up as much energy as pedaling 130km without a headwind. A tough couple of days to start with.
Once in camp we made sure Bob took in more ORS and plenty of fluids. Nine of us had dinner in the beachfront bar at Hakuna Matata and were in bed by 8pm. Bob managed to eat some dinner. He had definitely earned a rest day.
Day 74, stage 57, 162km
Start, Mbeya, Mbeya Hotel
Finish, Karonga Malawi, Summit Annex Guest House
It was in at the deep end – a century (100 miles) with about 1500metres of climb – pretty tough for a first day, jet lagged and a longest previous ride of just over 100km. We also had a border to cross.
The day into Mbeya had been a tough climb over the mountains. But once over the mountains we had made a magnificent descent into the Rift Valley. Leaving Mbeya for Malawi meant climbing back out the other side of the Rift Valley. From the hotel we climbed for about 30km and then had a fast bobsled ride down the other side for about another 30km. I thought it would then be down hill all the way to Lake Milawi. But it wasn’t. We slogged up another 12 or 14 km through a secondary range of mountains before we started down again. We stopped for lunch at just over 80 km. Bob had gone out strong and arrived at the lunch stop about an hour before I did. I had simply maintained my normal pace and had not tried to keep up. Bob even beat the racers into lunch. He waited for me and we set of together after lunch.
The border was another 35km away. We cycled at a decent pace and arrived in good time. We decided to stop at a roadside bar for a cold coke a coupe of hundred metres before the border post. Some money changer sat down with us and tried to get us to change some money. We haggled for a bit but then decided not to do it. By this time Bridget has shown up and joined us. She got into negotiations with the money change and agreed a deal. After money had changed hands – Bridget had her Kwacha, the money changer had his $150 – the wheels started to come off. The guy said he now didn’t want to do the deal. He would lose money at the rate he had agreed. So in the end in frustration Bridget decided to call it off, gave the guy his money back and got hers back. At the border crossing we stopped at a more legitimate bureau de change. The rates were much lower but it seemed a saner place to do business. The guy looked at the $100 bill Bridget gave him and refused to change it. It was counterfeit. They guy in the bar down the road had done a switch – very smooth, very slick. Perfect psychology. Lesson learned. I tried to give Bridget $100 because I felt guilty for having introduced her to the guy in the bar. She wouldn’t take it. But in the end she took $50.
It was another 45km or more from the border crossing to Karonga and out camp for the night. My legs were accustomed to these distances and I felt strong. Understandably, Bob was beginning to tire a bit. So I went off and he followed on a more relaxed pace. I have found that pacing yourself and making sure you always have some energy in reserve is important. Bob had gone out fast I the morning and paid for it a bit after the border. But as a hockey player I could see that his performance ethos had nothing to do with geriatric pacing (as mine did) his was all about jump over the boards, sprint like a mad dog for two minute, go back to the bench with lungs heaving for air and then repeating the whole thing.
The camp turned out to have rooms so I got one. For about $20 we had a chalet with lounge, twin beds and bathroom (only cold shower – it’s not all caviar and blintzes) . Not bad. We were glad for it too because it rained heavily in the night and we didn’t have to pack up wet tens in the morning.