We cruised into Malawi with no issues, fresh from a morning of descending amongst beautiful tea plantations in the wonderful sunshine. It felt so good to be alive and out of that hotel room and pedalling into a new country.
Our route took us down towards Lake Malawi and it felt much like many other places we’d been in Africa. People were friendly, waving and smiling, children were mildly annoying (the occasional shout for money) and wares were sold by the side of the road, often near a cluster of huts.
Oh and there were amusing signs.
By the time we reached the shores of lake Malawi it was getting late, and as the sun began to fade from the sky, we didn’t have the energy to find a place to wild camp. Instead we opted for the easier ioverlander (travelling app we’ve been using a bit in Africa) option and soon found ourselves at a seemingly semi deserted resort by the lake. It was a little run down and old school and exuded a charm that instantly resonated with us. The men running the place were super friendly, we were able to camp and they kindly let us store the bikes in an empty room and even use the shower (which we didn’t actually use as we have a high tolerance to mild fest. And are possibly lazy).
Before too long we were sat by the lake, admiring the changing colours and sipping a beer. Life was pretty perfect. Some locals came to talk to us and they were lovely and we all had a nice chat before they headed off home and we went to cook our dinner. Malawi felt friendly and safe, like most of the places we’d been.
The following day we meandered along with the lake on our left, sometimes in sight, sometimes not. We stopped off in Karonga, a larger town, to stock up on some supplies and the inevitable painful and time consuming simcard activation (I still don’t know why it is always so hard). In the afternoon we passed small villages where people sold tiny dried fish from the lake, tomatoes, onions, eggs and not much else. Men on bikes were slightly annoying, trying to race us (failing) and watching us have lunch. It wasn’t threatening, but we were glad to turn off to the sanctuary of Floja Foundation camping and lodge. This Dutch supported social enterprise helps children with extra educational opportunities who would normally fall through the cracks. Next to the school was a rather idyllic campsite on the lake. After a couple of weeks of wild camping in Tanzania and the odd dingy hotel, this was paradise. We tried out all the hammocks and best chillout spots and debated far too long the exact perfect place to put our tent.
Needless to say we spent two restful and peaceful days at Floja. We meditated at sunrise and even snuck in a swim after hearing the risk of Bilharzia was minimal. The water felt delicious. Pauline and Andre were wonderful hosts and we treated ourselves to some freshly baked bread and a glass of wine or two. Simple but very luxurious items for us.
After Floja it was time to leave the shimmering beauty of lake Malawi and climb up onto the escarpment and the hilly interior of Malawi. Judging by the severe wiggly lines on our mapping app, we surmised it would be a fairly challenging feat. At the turn off we were met by a host of men who told us we couldn’t possibly cycle up the hill. I rolled my eyes and was ready to just ignore them, but Astrid is much more patient. She humoured them and let one show her the first part of the road. When she indicated it would be fine, he changed his story that she would be robbed by bandits. So she asked about why Malawians would rob tourists and he retorted that it was people from other countries. It all sounded a little far fetched. No doubt a tourist or tourists have been mugged on the road at some point. However, it smelt heavily of cash making opportunism to me. And look, if they’d offered a reasonable price, to save our legs and support some locals, we would have paid. However the price they asked for was about 5 times us much as locals paid and well beyond our budget. So we opted to cycle.
And gosh, I am so glad we did. It was a beautiful ride. No one mugged us. People just waved and beeped in encouragement as they passed us panting up the hill. The road was rough in parts but the hairpin bends actually made the gradient mostly rideable. We only pushed a few times. The 10km did take us about 3 hours, but it was worth every pedal stroke. The views from the top were spectacular, as was Mushroom Farm, a guest house built on the edge of a cliff.
This place is one of my favourite places I’ve ever stayed. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves and add that the food is amazing and the associated permaculture garden a wonderful example of what is possible. We stayed longer than we had planned because the atmosphere and surrounds just suited us so much. While we were there we did some walks and made onward plans for southern Africa. We even started talking vaguely about logistics for Namibia and South Africa. Shit is getting real!
By the time we left Mushroom Farm we had completely changed our plan for Malawi. We were now headed high up to the Nyika Plateau. A local had told us about how beautiful it was, then added how we’d never be able to make it up there on bikes. Challenge accepted.
It took us a day to get within striking distance which included spending the night camped by a school, our one visa card getting eaten by an ATM machine and us cycling up some of the steepest, gnarliest roads (where at times we were pushing) on the trip so far (well, not quite as bad as cycling up a river bed in Kyrgyzstan). By the time we reached the national park gate we were pretty exhausted. The guards who manned the gate were super kind, quite used to the odd cycle tourist making it up here, and introduced themselves and then unlocked the toilet for us. Again, we felt very cared for and safe.
The ride further up onto the plateau was hard, even though it was only 40km. After a day of seriously steep riding, we were tired. Some more seriously steep riding on slippery, stony dirt roads was challenging. Plus, there was the obvious threat of animals – nothing too menacing but elephants were a distinct possibility. We climbed and climbed and climbed. A few locals passed us in trucks, and one 4X4 with foreigners. Mostly though, we were alone with just the African bush, steep roads and sweeping views (of more steep roads).
By the time we reached the campsite on the Nyika Plateau, the sun was fading from the sky and the air was cold and damp. We were high up now, and the landscape was all rolling treeless hills, mist and crisp air. In many ways it reminded us of the Scottish highlands, instead of sheep we had various antelope, including my favourite the Eland. While hugely overpriced, the Chilinda campsite was rather lovely and came complete with a man who seemed to be employed solely to light our campfire and keep the fire for our (very hot, amazing) shower lit. Aside from the hot shower and the fire lighter (kind of my dream job), the campsite was super basic, but exactly what we didn’t know we had needed. Oh and it also came with two very nice NHS doctors who handed us beers on our arrival.
Aside from the cold beers, friendly doctors and deliciously hot showers, Nyika gave us space to breathe and be still. While Africa is full of wild places, it is also full of people. And this is exactly what makes this continent so wonderful; it’s friendly, hospitable humans. The nature of the way that we travel ensures that we have dozens of small interactions a day, from chats at the water pump, to kids giggling at the funny mzungu on bikes, to buying food in small villages and asking about where we can put our tent for the night (when we can’t wild camp). We’re an understandable curiosity wherever we go, sometimes this means we unknowingly (or knowingly) crave the quiet places.
Well the Nyika Plateau gave us that. We sat by the fire, went for misty morning walks, made flat bread and read our books. It was so quiet and so peaceful, sometimes zebra and antelope would come and graze in around our campsite. If it hadn’t been for the hefty price we would have stayed longer. However, our budget meant that after two wonderful days we needed to retrace our steps back to the park gate.
Of course this time it was all mostly down hill and much easier. We stayed again at the gate with the friendly guard lady and made tracks the following day. It was a steep descent, the one where your hands get tired from braking and you can’t quite believe you cycled up those hills. We needed food for the next few days and stopped at several small villages to try and stock up. Malawi is one of the poorest counties in Africa and there is certainly a lack of a variety of food to buy. I enjoyed the challenge of it. It felt very real and much more adventurous than heading into a supermarket and buying exactly what you want. We bought flour to make bread, rice, tomatoes, eggs, soya chunks and red onion. With some imagination we made some pretty delicious meals.
Chasing down the last of our supplies we took a slight detour up a dusty road, hoping we’d find a stall selling tomatoes and some cold beers. We found these and also a small bar, the type you find all over Africa and the kind I feel most foreigners probably don’t see. They’re usually simple wooden shacks, with a home made bar from where someone sells beers from an ancient fridge. Men will be crowded inside, often drinking and shouting above the blaring TV which will be streaming music videos. It’s always a lively place and we’ve always been treated with respect and genuine kindness. People seem happy to see us, even in these kinds of bars and every effort was made to make us feel welcome. After several funny conversations and exchanging of phone numbers (everyone wants our number and it often leads to a few weeks of exchanging texts before people inevitably grow bored of us) we left the bar and went back out into the bright African sunshine. We now had everything we needed for the next spot of relaxation.
Vwaza Marshes national park was a short ride down the road and here we found more idyllic living. While, like everywhere in Africa, the national park fees were steep, they weren’t as steep as other places (Malawi has some of the most affordable fees so far for us). A guard then led us to simple shack, which overlooked a lake. Half an hour later we were sitting on our porch, drinking a beer and watching an elephant herd walk by. Life couldn’t get much better. While elephants came down to drink, hippos lounged in the shallows and the occasional nervous warthog family would make an appearance. It was simply one of the best places we’d been and the simplicity and beauty resonated deeply.
After two days enjoying the tranquility of the lake, the bellowing hippos (they really are very loud), elephant families and the beauty of watching the colours change over the landscape we left to hit more back roads towards Zambia.
We biked along small dirt roads where not many tourists go. Children were polite and friendly (unlike other parts of Malawi where they beg quite a lot), adults bought us lunch, or helped us shop at the market just out of kindness and we genuinely felt welcomed and not like wallets on wheels. Pen wielding tourists have not yet found their way to this part of Malawi. Not that we had found it too bad at all, even in the more touristy places we’d been. However, many friends had reported they’d found the children in Malawi particularly tough.
By the time we neared the Zambian border we felt not like leaving, but like staying to explore more. For us Malawi being the “warm heart of Africa” had rung true. People had been warm and welcoming, the scenery diverse and beautiful and we were certainly inspired to return someday. It remains one of our favourite countries in Africa.