The sunrise is beautiful as Lauren, Quentin, and I sit silently in a small dinghy cutting across the calm waters of Nkhata Bay. The first rays of morning light break over the trees, and the sky is all pink and cerulean and thin, wispy clouds. Under different circumstances, this would be a lovely way to begin a day.
But we're glum. Lauren and I are moderately peeved about our lights; our sympathies have now shifted to Quentin and Matthieu, who have fared the Ilala much more unfortunately than us. It's not the laptop they're so bummed about, but those things the laptop contained: the irreplaceable drone footage of them riding their bicycles along the curves of Mozambique's pretty terrain, the precious photographs of their months-long journey north from South Africa. They'd told us just yesterday how excited they were to cut their next video. They'd spent several hours that morning working on it. Now, they've not just lost the digital memories, but the ability to deliver on commitments to their trip sponsors.
Quentin's headed to the police station to file a police report. None of us have any hope the laptop will be recovered, but the paperwork is necessary for insurance claims, that sort of thing. We reach land and bid Quentin farewell. We wish them luck, though none of us feel terribly lucky at the moment.
We get on our bikes and ride a little ways and the drama of dawn slowly shifts into perspective. We're all very fortunate. We still have our bikes and our health, and so do our French friends, and though it's certainly a shame the laptop was taken, we're thankful the thief didn't take more: their drone, their camera, a full lifeboat of our collective dozen panniers and the bikes. Things will be okay.
For us, we have much to look forward to. I'd gotten a message last night, aboard the Ilala, that Teresie was staying in Nkhata Bay. Teresie, the traveling cyclist whom we met and cycled with in Botswana, briefly saw in Lusaka, and caught up with again in Senga. She's at a lodge just a few kilometers out of town, and invited us to wake her up no matter how early we get in.
Teresie's dorm is perched on the rocky edge of a small, cloistered bay. It's a beautiful place, a scattering of chalets and bungalows climbing steeply from the water's edge. The air here feels cool, and the views are gorgeous.
We greet our old friend. She came here to camp but got upgraded to a four-bed dorm with three empty beds. We flop onto two of them and spend a few hours catching up with her. She tells us about the parts of the lake we skipped, and we tell her about malaria and the Ilala and our frenzied morning.
Teresie will be staying in Nkhata Bay today, taking the ferry south in a few days' time. This may very well be the last time we see her before our paths diverge in Tanzania. She asks if we'd like to spend the day with her. Get a little rest before tackling the big climb ahead. We'd intended to pedal north to Mzuzu this morning, but we require little persuasion to give ourselves the day off.
We spend the day chatting and cooking and playing cards. In the late afternoon, Teresie and I borrow a few paddleboards from the lodge and paddle out into the lake. We sit on our boards and watch the sun sink beneath the peaks of Malawi's highlands. We opt to camp, but too get upgraded into Teresie's dorm, and the three of us sleep soundly to the pleasant crash of waves against the jagged shoreline.
In the morning we give Teresie a big hug. We leave Nkhata Bay. We turn away from the lake and head inland, into the mountains.
It's a steep climb. A thousand meters up in fifty kilometers. But the first twenty are fairly flat, so it's really a thousand meters in thirty kilometers. We spend the bulk of the day firmly seated in our lowest gears, inching forward at a walker's pace. It's grueling work.
But we're not complaining. Though it's one of our more challenging days of cycling, and indeed our first day of real riding in quite a few weeks, we're absolutely loving the ride. We climb and the scenery turns lush: verdant valleys, dense patches of forest. It's the most green we've seen since leaving the Cape four months ago. Small, charming villages dot the roadside. The air at elevation is notably cooler, and the kids here aren't even that annoying.
Oh, the kids. I haven't mentioned the kids.
Back in Zambia, the kids were occasionally grating but mostly adorable. Their incessant chants of HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU!HOWAREYOU! could grow tiring, and sure they never really wanted an answer, but at least it was a polite question.
Here in Malawi, the kids don't care how we are. Here, all across Malawi, it's a very different greeting.
Mzungu means foreigner. White person, generally. Person who goes in circles, literally. It's not a derogatory word, but it's not exactly a term of endearment, either. A small child running up to you, pointing, and shouting MZUNGU! is like a person in America rushing up to an immigrant, wagging a finger, and shouting FOREIGNER! Like, it happens, but it isn't really pleasant for the one on the receiving end.
Anyway. We are wazungu (the plural of mzungu) and so we receive shouts of mzungu dozens of times every hour.
Mzungu, give me kwacha! (Kwacha is money.)
Yes, give me a pen.
Give me money. Wazungu, you give me my money.
Give me bottle.
Yes, give me a balloon, mzungu. Yes, you.
Mzungu! WAZUNGU! WAZUNGU!
Bike touring can be hard work from a social standpoint. Cycling across the world is like riding in a poorly attended parade. You move slowly, and people occasionally stand on the sidelines and watch, and you are always expected to wave. To smile and wave and be a friendly person.
And you want to be friendly. You want to give your attention to every last person you pass. You never want to leave someone staring at you pedaling away and thinking wow, they were rude or what, they couldn't even say hello?
Back in the Karoo and the Kalahari, back in South Africa and Namibia and Botswana, we could do this. We would see between zero and one hundred people per day, and we could realistically greet them all. But here, we're literally passing thousands. Many of them are shouting not just greetings as we breeze by, but questions.
Mostly, the questions.
The questions are always the same. The first: where are you coming from. This seems like a simple question, but it is not. It splinters under interpretation. Is this person asking where we are from, as in, where we were born and raised? Or where we last lived? Are they asking where we began our cycling trip? Where we last stepped off a boat or bus or plane? Do they want to know where we began our day today? These answers are varied. California, New York. DC. Cape Town. Nkhata Bay. Oh, a little patch of grass some kilometers down the road.
The second question is equally complex: where are you going. Devoid of context, it's a fractal. Does this person want to know where we're headed today? Another patch of grass up the road, probably. The next town, the next city? Mzuzu, Mbeya. The next country? Tanzania. The next continent? Europe. But we don't have a destination. Europe, Asia, Australia, the Americas. We're not really going anywhere. We are, more or less, going in circles. We are wazungu, don't you know?
Anyway, I've taken to answering both questions in the same way. It's succinct and true, if not terribly accurate. We have come from Very Far, and we are going Very Far.
We arrive in Mzuzu to rain, one of the first real rains on this long, wandering bike ride that began in early July a half-dozen countries from here. We camp in the yard of an auto shop, stock up on groceries the next morning, and then begin our long descent right back to lake level.
We come down an escarpment and lose our recently-gained thousand meters of elevation in two short days. Just getting around a pocket of mountains, really. We are back at the lake, barely two hundred kilometers further north than Nkhata Bay, and it is once again hot and humid. And once again, we must climb right back into the highlands.
This time, it's for a detour. There's a little village up on a plateau, and outside this village is an eco-conscious campground we've been hearing great things about since, well, Botswana. Anyone passing through Malawi has told us that we simply must visit the Mushroom Farm. The views are spectacular and the food, all vegetarian, is delicious. Or so we've been told.
Here's the problem. This time, the thousand-meter climb is just eight kilometers long. Eight kilometers up rocky, unsealed switchbacks, a miserable road really only meant for 4x4s. You must visit the Mushroom Farm, we've been told many times, but seriously, don't try to bike up there.
There are trucks making the journey every few hours. Some private ones, too expensive for us, and then the local shuttles, willing to take us and our bicycles for about five dollars each. After an hour of unsuccessful hitching on the desolate road, we agree to the local shuttle.
It is a painful drive. We climb into the bed of a beaten-down pickup and sit there for an hour as crates of soda, sacks of maize, and baskets of dried fish are loaded in around us. Around us may be too polite a word; rather, on top of us. My leg becomes pinned between two boxes and remains stuck there for half the journey. A dozen Malawians climb into the back of the truck and we're all competing for something to hold onto, for any small parcel of space in which to place a foot or a second butt cheek. Our bicycles are dubiously strapped to metal sheet protruding from the rear of the bed, and when the conditions are adequately miserable, we begin the ride.
The drive along these eight kilometers takes almost ninety minutes. We commence climbing and our woebegotten truck lurches violently forward, slides precariously back, and otherwise rattles with ferocity as it slams against the road's bouldered surface. Road, too, may be an exaggeration. Let's call it a track.
Lauren is crammed in the front-left corner of the bed and I'm wedged, half-standing, somewhere along the left edge. When I eventually free my right foot, I'm able to face forward, and I spend the remaining forty-five minutes of the climb ducking branches. This is still an improvement over my prior position. Finally, mercifully, we arrive at the Mushroom Farm.
The Mushroom Farm does not disappoint. The views really are spectacular. Our campsite is perched right on the edge of a cliff, and from our tent we can watch the sun rise over Lake Malawi three thousand feet below. It's a quiet, peaceful spot. Elsewhere on the grounds are chalets and A-frames, cabins and pre-pitched safari tents. There's a rustic feel to the place. Cozy. The Mushroom Farm's water is supplied by a nearby spring. The electricity is solar. There are composting toilets and, again, that appetizing all-vegetarian menu. Altogether this amounts to a place that feels genuinely eco-conscious, not just another business hopping on the ecotourism bandwagon. We're enamored.
At the center of the grounds is an airy common area overlooking the lake and the lowlands, hovering right at the plateau's edge. We sit down at a table and don't really get up for the next few days, except to sleep and maybe use the loo. We pass many hours reading, and I catch up on some writing, and when we get hungry we sometimes cook, but at least once per day we even order something from the restaurant. This, for us, is a treat. Yet the camping is affordable, the meals inexpensive, and the portions massive, so we splurge a little and get the fixed-menu dinner almost every night.
Wifi in Malawi is either free, uncapped, fast, or working. It is never more than two of these things. The Mushroom Farm nominally offers free, uncapped wifi for two hours per day, which means it is neither fast nor working. This is not a complaint. Rather, the guests at the lodge put down their phones, useless up here, and talk to each other in a way travelers don't really do anymore. We make some great friends—Brits, Swiss, lots and lots of Germans—and each night we all crowd around one communal table and chat for hours over dinner and drinks.
We'd come up the mountain planning to camp a few nights, and we end up staying something like six days. One day Lauren goes for a hike to the nearby village, Livingstonia. Another day, we both trek out to a waterfall, and later we take a tour of the lodge's permaculture farm. On one of our first afternoons the owner, an affable American, asks for help changing his bicycle's chain. I'm happy to lend a hand, and he kindly thanks us by comping two nights of camping off our bill. We really don't want to leave.
We stay, basically, until we must leave. We're about twenty-seven days into our thirty-day visas, and the Tanzanian border is still a hundred and fifty kilometers to our north. That's maybe a two-day ride for us, not including those first eight kilometers from here back to the lake.
There are a few ways to get from Livingstonia back to Lake Malawi. The first is the way we came, crammed with fifteen others in the back of a pickup, legs pinched between crates of Coca-Cola and baskets of dried fish. Waiting on the roadside for hours until a truck passes, then bumping and sliding for seventy-five minutes down the precarious escarpment.
The second is a tad more luxurious. A private cab. There's still the bumping and sliding, sure, and it's likely no quicker than the village shuttles, but at least there's a seat and the comfort of facing forward. Less dried fish, too. But it's also more expensive. Well out of our budget.
The third option is the simplest. We have bikes with wheels and brakes. They are not mountain bikes, and not necessarily intended for roads like this one, but they'll survive the eight kilometers.
And so we leave the Mushroom Farm, after a pleasant and rejuvenating week off, on our bicycles. Alongside our bicycles, I suppose. Our eight-kilometer, two-hour descent is probably equal parts riding and walking, slow and labored and with our hands gripping the brake levers until we've all but lost feeling in our fingers. The road is little more than heaps of rocks scattered on the flattest bit of a cliffside, doubling and tripling back on itself as it steeply winds its way toward the blue lake shimmering below. I take a few photographs but seem to only capture the more manageable sections.
Eventually, we reach it. Tarmac, flat ground, the lake. It's as hot as we'd remembered it, as steamy and oppressive as we'd imagined during our cool nights gazing down at it from the Livingstonia plateau. We get to riding.
We pedal two days to Malawi's northern border. We spend our last night in Malawi the same way we'd spent our first, the same way we've spent most of our nights since Botswana. We pull to the side of the road as the sun sinks toward the horizon and we ask a friendly face if it'd be okay to pitch our tent on their land. We say we don't need anything but a patch of dirt; we have a stove and food and we'll be gone by the morning. This night, and that night, each and every night, really, we're welcomed with warmth and enthusiasm. Our impromptu hosts offer us warm water for bathing, sometimes dinner, and always well wishes for our onward journey. We go to sleep, our last evening in Malawi, to a violent thunderstorm percussing over the lake, to drums beating heavily from a nearby village.
In the morning, we ride for Tanzania.