A Travellerspoint blog

Malawi

Magnificent Lake Malawi

The world’s fourth-largest lake is an excellent source for fantastic panoramas, gorgeous sunsets, lovely drinking holes (both for me and the animals), and my last beach-time before I reach South Africa’s north-eastern coastline.

sunny 28 °C
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Diving Lake Malawi

Diving Lake Malawi

As I roll backwards over the side of the boat, I let gravity pull me and all my extra kilos of equipment into the dark blue depths. I’ve so perplexed that I forget to give the OK sign to the dive boat when I’m pushed to the surface. Typically, the “James Bond entry roll” plunges me into salty ocean waters, but Lake Malawi’s water is (obviously) freshwater. It’s a wonderfully fresh experience – as far as I remember my last freshwater dive was in 2013.

Typical hiking view

Typical hiking view

Diving in Lake Malawi is like jumping in an enormous aquarium tank. The water is fantastically bright, and I’m surrounded by thousands of small colourful cichlids endemic to the lake. The aquarium comparison is in no way an overestimation, as 50 to 80 percent for all aquarium fish are cichlids. Just visit your local pet shop, and then imagine the aquarium being 580 km long and 75 km wide.
And it’s not only underwater Lake Malawi has charm. Soft, sandy beaches cover its shoreline in white and yellow colours, and hikes and drives on the mountains surrounding the lake offer stunning scenery of the green landscape around the deep blue lake. I know that this blog entry has begun to sound like a commercial by Visit Malawi (I’m not even sure such an outfit exists), but I’m genuinely excited about what Malawi and its lake have to offer. There has been a decent amount of visitors, but nowhere near what the country deserves. People are lovely and helpful, it’s cheap, and the only reason not to go is that too many people have no idea about what (and where) Malawi is—and maybe that it can be a little tricky to find international flights.

Lake Malawi sunset

Lake Malawi sunset

Malawi is one of those hidden gems that is rare to fall over in this globalised world of mass tourism, guidebooks and the internet. But somehow, even with my meticulous pre-trip research, I failed to realise how awesome the country was until I was actually here. It’s not just the quality of the few things you can do around the lake. Hell, here’s eco-lodges tucked away on mountainsides, excellent hiking opportunities all over the country and even a couple of decent game parks for the safari-people.

On the road again

On the road again

I cannot completely rule out that the excitement of being back on the road again for a long trip, influences my choice here, but from talking to other travellers, everybody seems to agree. Malawi is one of those few places (like Colombia, Iran or Cape Town) that everybody who has ever visited unanimously agrees are fantastic destinations to visit.
Regardless, there are new places to see and new people to meet; thus, my twelve-day jaunt, 1,000 km through Malawi must come to an end, and I must move on. Not that I’m complaining, I love travelling, in the sense that I enjoy moving from A to B almost more than the actually hanging about in place A and B. So next up will be a short few days’ transit through Mozambique to Zimbabwe – a land best known for its terrible economy and even worse ex-dictator. I’m sure I will have a blast!

Posted by askgudmundsen 11:35 Archived in Malawi Tagged beaches hiking travel overland lake africa safari malawi backpacking tourism motorbike southern_africa Comments (2)

Views Through the Visor

Flying through the African landscape, with its hills, plantations and villages, is a great but somewhat detached form of travel. Especially compared to my old backpacking days.

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Backpacks and wheels

Backpacks and wheels

I’m basically a backpacker with my own wheels. I have no spare parts, no camping gear, no big plans for my bike once the trip is over. I am, in other words, a terrible overlander (the people who drive their motorbike, jeep or truck across continents). They will happily spend days at a time driving, camp out in small secret coves and live directly out of their vehicle, which they will undoubtedly repair themselves when they have a problem. They have often also built or modified their machine themselves.
Instead, I travel as light as possible, rough it in the hostels and sometimes cockroach-filled local and hook up with fellow travellers for all the silly side trips that people travelling without their own wheels tend to go on. And I know absolutely nothing about motorbikes, relying entirely on mechanics when an issue arises on my bike. In that sense, I’m kind of trapped between two different styles of travel. But as long as I don’t get dragged into conversations about the specs of my bike with real overlanders, I should be fine.

Cows crossing

Cows crossing

However, there are a few differences between the two ways of getting around. Having my own wheels do require a lot of extra planning. Which roads are sealed, how far is there between gas stations, and where to I sleep if I can’t reach my next destination in a day’s drive. I can’t just rock up at the bus station, tell them where I would like to go and then expect a driver to drive through the night to get me to my destination if necessary.
Don’t get me wrong; I like the extra planning. People who have travelled with me will know how happy I am for travel planning. But I do miss out by doing the driving myself. The proper overlanders I have met (on every continent I have ever travelled) seem to care more about their vehicle than the country they are in—to the degree that the continent they are driving through doesn’t matter much. Cairo to Cape Town, across Asia, or America north to south. Any of the above would be fine as long as they can drive their beloved machine.

Public Transport

Public Transport

It is, however, much more enjoyable to observe the African landscape and its peoples through the window of a bus or shared taxi. It’s tough to do when the bulk of my attention must be surrendered to watching out for potholes, crossing animals and minibuses going down the wrong lane. But there is no greater loss by driving myself then the lack of contact with the locals. Taking public modes of transportation – all insanely overcrowded – is unavoidably a direct way to immerse oneself into the local culture. Sharing peoples’ uncomfortable day-to-days way of getting from A to B leads to conversations, home-stays or, as a minimum, a change for observing people, their behaviour and culture from up close and for hours at a time. On the bike, the closest interaction I have with people around me is waving at the kids as I fly by or by having a quick chat with the men and women crewing the gas stations.
The bike does make travelling both more accessible and cheaper. No more waiting around for hours for the minibuses and taxies to fill up; no more expensive private hire of taxis or motorbike to take me to the weird, far-flung attractions and destinations, I inevitable insist of visiting; and no more dragging my luggage around with me. And of course, the exciting challenge to see if I can actually manage to drive a glorified scooter all the way to Cape Town. Maybe I do have an overlander hidden somewhere within me.

Posted by askgudmundsen 01:18 Archived in Malawi Tagged travel overland africa malawi backpacking motorbike southern_africa differences Comments (2)

A Mountain Climbing Scooter

I made it to Malawi and climbed a mountain with the glorified scooter—though not wholly without casualties.

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Typical Malawian road

Typical Malawian road

“You want to ride that thing up the mountain?” The local motor-taxi guys clearly weren’t impressed with my scooter. “I’ll promise, I’ll come back down, if it can’t make it,” I replied. Then I took off, up a mountain.
Initially, this blog should have been about the border crossing between Tanzania and Malawi. It’s my 22nd land crossing in Africa, but the first time I’m driving my own vehicle across, and I expected all kind of hectic shenanigans that would have been fun to write about. But my negative expectations were put completely to shame. Apart for the usual bunch of guys insisting that I needed their sim card/insurance/forex services, everything went smooth, and I had crossed into Malawi in a little over an hour. Country no. 103: check. Boring.

Mountain climbing scooter

Mountain climbing scooter

Luckily, it’s easily for dumb people to find adventures. My first stop in Malawi was a town built around an old Scottish missionary station; Livingstonia. There are two ways to get to the town, which is placed on an escarpment 1,150 metres about Lake Malawi. The long way around on a gravel road that is currently being paved, or the direct route up, 15 km on what is essentially a washed out riverbed, with no less than 20 switchbacks, no railing and a long fall of I went over the side. Of course, the route described as “4x4 only, and not in rainy season” is obviously my choice with a small commuter scooter. What could go possibly wrong?
The first thing I did after leaving the motor-taxi drivers in disbelief was almost falling over in the soft sand that lined the lower part of the track. “Hopefully nobody saw that”, I lied to myself. But to be honest, this was a first for me, and I had no idea if this might be entirely out of my league.

View from the top

View from the top

Regardless, the bike did well. Surprisingly well for a commuter bike that isn’t supposed to leave the big city. Up we went. Slowly and shakenly. Honestly, I was amazed of how many times I saw a big stone lying in the way and thought ‘I better not hit that’ just to steer my bike straight over said rock with a bump — making it even harder to control the bike. Something relatively important when there is a 300-metre drop-off about 60 cm to my left.
But the bike trotted on. With my arms getting sorer and sorer from (trying to) control the bike’s path across the rocks. To my delight, we managed the small scooter and me. In glorious tandem, we rode up the side of a mountain. 1,150 height-metres in just forty minutes. I was absolutely jubilant when I rolled the bike into eco-camp on the top.

Broken shock absorber

Broken shock absorber

Obviously it wasn’t going to be that easy. As I duly checked my bike after the long fight uphill for any unfamiliarities, I noticed that one of the rear shock absorbers had been knocked loose. No surprise after that ride, really. This could mean one of two things. Either, I had snapped a bolt – no biggie. Or I had broken the brand new suspension that I had instilled pretty much as the last thing before I left Dar es Salaam. There was no way to tell. The damage had been done behind the chassis, and I didn’t have the tools (a simple screwdriver) to remove it and check. I hadn’t been able to fix the problem anyway – regardless of what it was.

Hiking views

Hiking views

Instead, I left the bike for a day and went hiking. Once done with that, I had 150 km to the nearest town with a dedicated motorbike mechanic – 40 of those on a dirt road (avoiding the way I came up) – where I just had to rely on the one shock absorber I had left. It turned out that I had snapped clean the bolt-eye connecting the shocker to the chasse. Luckily, the shock absorber mechanism itself wasn’t damaged, and with the help of a talented welder, the scooter will live to see another day on the road.

Posted by askgudmundsen 00:39 Archived in Malawi Tagged mountains hiking travel overland tanzania hike motorbike southern_africa repair problems livingstonia mechanics Comments (0)

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