Dar Es Salaam to Blantyre, Malawi (July 2002)

Dar Es Salaam to Blantyre, Malawi

On being asked what was her favourite international cuisine:

“I love going to new countries and trying out the McDonald’s”
– Mandy Moore (singer)

I apologise to all my loyal readers for the delay in publishing this update (a lack of computer access). You have both been very patient….

An Englishman’s lot is a depressingly predictable one. The land of dashed hopes and glorious failures. My departure from Dar Es Salaam was delayed for two days by the euphoric post-Argentina match revelry and consequent recovery. Now I sit alone in a deserted hostel in Malawi, too disappointed and regretful (i.e. English) to watch the World Cup final with everyone else.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. The road from Tanzania to Malawi has been unusually relaxed and light-hearted [thanks in a large part to the novelty of having music: thanks, Al Horrocks, for the MiniDisc and the selection of your extremely cheesy music collection!]. The Southern Highlands were a joy – giant baobab trees shading small clusters of tiny homes, the road winding precariously upwards towards a forested horizon. In shaded glades beneath the trees ladies walk tall with heavy bundles on their heads, small dirty children stand and stare and men languidly loaf around in contorted postures of intense relaxation. Sleeping in wheelbarrows is a much favoured technique!

It feels good to be free. I am lucky to be free, to lie in the roadside dust and watch huge clouds overhead metamorphosing just for me, the sky a blueprint for eternity, to watch ants sharing my leftover breadcrumbs, to listen to the wind in the yellowing grass and to feel the breeze cool on my sweat.

A huge snake lies decapitated on the road. I lie my bike beside it for scale and take several steps back to fit the whole beast into my camera’s viewfinder. With clear mimes a Masai guy warns me of all the different dangerous animals that I am likely to encounter during my 50km ride through the Mikumi National Park. To reassure him I mime back that I will cycle very fast. His reply is that lions are very, very fast.

I left wilderness behind when I left the Sudan. In sub-Saharan Africa the population is growing at such an absurd and ill-fated rate that farmland, huts and children are everywhere. Glorious wilderness campsites have long gone. This made finding a remote hideaway beside the Ruaha river all the more special (I could have wandered around naked should the inclination have struck me; though a sunburned-bottom would be a little uncomfortable on the bicycle). I swam and then lit a fire: a pinprick of light to ward off the awesome blackness of the night. My supper – a small can of tuna, two slices of bread, half a banana and a spoonful of peanut butter – honestly tasted better than any restaurant’s fare. My philosophical fireside contemplation involved considering starting to eat dog food as a money-saving scheme.

The next morning I ate breakfast with a magnificent Masai man, his spear lying across our feet. Because his tea was too hot he slurped it lustily from his saucer in an uncanny imitation of my mad Latin teacher at school. From the seat of a bicycle the World feels painfully large and yet the more of it I see the more I am amazed at its smallness.

Two of my less cerebral pastimes are coming on well, mindless distractions from the long, long road: The first is an enthusiastic distribution of the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture to everyone I pass. Much loved by Tanzanians, the ‘thumbs-up’ was last performed by me in England circa 1985 before I learned of more entertaining signals to flash at lorry drivers out of the back window of the school bus. The other pastime, target spitting, received a huge boost as I struck (and grounded!) a flying locust with David Beckham precision whilst pedalling along.

People in these highlands often say to me that they would like to invite me to their homes but that they do not have any food that a white man would be able to eat. Yet a treat for me is a meal of ugali (a maize or cassava mashed potato type stodge) and beans. So I find their perception of ‘the white man’ partly amusing, but also upsetting and worrying that there is such an ‘us and them’ attitude. Black and white – it’s as clear as that out here.

My back wheel is disintegrating fast. I’m a very long way from a suitable replacement but I’m not concerned because I’m carrying the right tool for the job. I feel good about my organisation. I heave and heave on the spanner but nothing happens until – crack! The damn tool breaks! Now it is a serious problem. How can I be expected to finish this expedition if my tools are not up to the task? After wasting half a day, taking an unwelcome detour to a town and spending a month’s living costs ($35) on an infuriatingly bad replacement wheel I am extremely angry. As if things aren’t hard enough for me without shoddy tools. Pathetic, ridiculous, etc. etc.

I climbed a huge mountain pass towards the Malawi border. The daylight was fading and I still had a long way to go. I raged up that mountain, an hour long ‘suffer-fest’, lactic acid frying my legs; come on Humphreys – taste the pain! I was so angry. Then ‘ping!’: the light bulb above my head lit up in a rare flash of inspiration. I had been turning the spanner the wrong way! No wonder the tool did not work! What a prat I am.

Far down below me I saw Lake Malawi – it signalled time to leave T.Z. Tanzania was fun – a gentle, pleasant and amusing country and people: a country that calls roundabouts “keepy-a-lefty’s”. Malawi also started well, or so I thought. For the first time in the history of international border crossings I managed to rip off one of the dodgy black market money dealers. I felt I had out-Heroded Herod! Ha! Delighted with my cunning and ingenuity I replayed my inspired mathematical calculations over once more inside my head….. oh oh, wait a minute: they got me! What a prat I am.

Progress has been haphazard recently – either loitering around a television waiting for a football match to start or pedalling like fury to make it to a TV in time for a big game. The prospect of missing the England – Brazil game provided me with quite a challenge: 150km days, riding deep into the dark nights, lying beside my bike for a few hours sleep in the rocky bush then up at 4am and here we go again, riding into the dawn. (How many sunrises was I ever conscious to relish when I was back home, I wonder?) If England failed to beat Brazil, it certainly was not going to be because of a lack of commitment by me.

After 10 months I finally hit the backpacker trail. Menus of pizzas, milkshakes and of course banana pancakes surely merited a celebration! I celebrated with yet more jam sandwiches beside the lake; cycling round the world demands the odd culinary compromise. Gary and Katherine generously provided free accommodation in Nkhata Bay at the wonderful Mayoka Village lodge. Beautiful views, great music, parties, atmosphere and BBQ’s. The place is like Alcatraz though – it is full of people trying, but failing, to leave. At Mayoka they wake each morning with a new feeble excuse designed to prolong their stay! It is a very, very good place.

A girl aged about 14 walks alongside me with a huge pile of sugarcane resting effortlessly on her head. Taking the pile from her I manage to stagger a few paces before collapsing in exhaustion and pain whilst she falls about with laughter.

A combination of factors, including a corrupt government selling the nation’s emergency food stockpiles, means that Malawi is now trapped in a spiralling famine. I visited a feeding programme established by an English couple whose funding wisely bypasses all the usual greedy, corrupt, government channels. Consequently the programme is a great success, providing food and medical assistance to wide-eyed staring babies and their young mothers wondering how they can ever escape from the nightmare. As Evelyn Waugh wrote: “most of the time I spent thinking about how awful the next day would be”. (For more information on Medic Malawi e-mail mac-dotforsyth@supanet.com).

I also visited the village school. Gesturing over at lessons being taught beneath trees, sans classrooms, sans materials, sans everything, the headmaster smiled and told me, “Our problems are self-explanatory!”. But instead of depressing me, I left the ‘school’ uplifted. Everyone was so enthusiastic about what they did have and very positive about their future. I did not say anything to them, but I decided that I would ask around to see whether anyone could help provide the school with a football kit and a better ball than a bundle of plastic bags tied up with string. If you would like to help with that then please, please do e-mail me.

I am now in Blantyre, bound for Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The next stage should be a good one as I have some company now. Arno has flown out from England to ride with me for seven weeks and, despite being French, he should provide some good comedy and much-needed company. I like to think of myself as a very interesting person, but 10 months of my own company is a little too much even for me!

Many, many thanks for the massive morale boosts from those who have sent me inspirational MiniDiscs. You deserve a mention….
Alex and Dunc (London) for Oasis and more, Rob (Oxford) for Blackadder, Shannon (Dar Es Salaam) for Vivaldi, Brindos for cheese, FatBoy Slim from Leah and Simon and Brendon (South Africa) for ‘cursing the day I ever came across your website!’