Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Getting the He## Outta Malawi

Northern Malawi

Somewhere, anywhere out of Malawi was our destination for today. Actually, it was Mbeya, Tanzania, which is located approximately 260 miles away. To cover that many miles and an international border crossing was an optimistic goal, so our plan was to get an early start. But once again, my plans and Africa collided. We woke to find no power. Perversely, that meant that the shower only had scalding hot water and no cold water. Huh? In Africa, it somehow makes sense. Re braved the heat and got a shower, but by the time I tried, it was too hot for me and my sunburn. Re went to inquire about the water situation and order the included breakfast while I started to pack up. She returned with the news that there might be a tiny bit of cold water soon and that they were cooking breakfast on a gas stove in the courtyard, so it might be a few minutes. I tried the shower again, and sure enough, there was a trickle of cold water, but the hot water had run out. I took a quick shower and we headed for breakfast. We rolled out the front gate around 8:00 am and went in search of petrol. Mzuzu has at least 5 petrol stations, and every one of them had the same non-moving line as last night. We tried several stations, and at each one, the men with the huge jerrycans directed us to the next. After striking out several times, we found the BP station, where we were offered petrol for the low, low price of 1000 kwacha per liter (6 USD). Figuring there had to be cheaper fuel than 24 USD per gallon, we pressed on. We circled the central market and spied two guys carrying the ubiquitous yellow plastic jerrycan and 5 liter measuring jug. We flagged them down and found out that their rate was 700 kwacha per liter. Better, but still a lot of money. They refused to negotiate and walked away. We were then approached by two other guys who said they had 20 liters for 11000 kwacha. They agreed to sell 10 liters for 5500 kwacha, and we agreed. The ringleader jumped on the back of a bicycle taxi and motioned us to follow him. We turned off the main road into what can be politely described as a shanty town. The buildings that line the dirt roads are made out of corrugated metal and sticks. He led us down several streets before stopping in front of a stick building. The further we rode into this area, the more paranoid I got. He hopped off the back of the bicycle taxi and motioned for me to follow him through the fence and into the backyard, all the time, smiling broadly. My momma didn't raise no fool. I refused to get off the bike and told him to bring the fuel to the road. He stopped smiling and walked through the fence. I instructed Re to turn her bike around, heading from whence we came and to keep it running and in first gear. I figured that if things went pear-shaped this would give us the best chance of escape, however, given the leisurely pace with which our bikes accelerate, it would require that our pursuers either twist their ankles or step on nails while they chase us. As I watched through the gap in the fence, I saw the ringleader's head peek around the corner, followed shortly by he and another guy peeking around the corner, and then I saw a third guy peek around the corner. At this point in time, I told Re to hit it, and we “zoomed” our way back to the main road. I don't know what was going on, but I did not like it. So we rode back to the market where yet another helpful salesman directed us to the land of 700 kwacha petrol. In the back of the BP station there is a “store” full of large jerrycans, and I was able to negotiate 10 liters for 6500 kwacha. That works out to be 16 USD per gallon! Ouch. But it should be enough to get us to Tanzania, the land of milk and petrol.

Charcoal kiln and local "ninjas" in northern Malawi
Loaded with petrol and wallets lighter, we headed north. The ride today was beautiful. Mzuzu is in a mountainous area, and we wound our way through the relatively cool air and green trees before again descending to the shores of Lake Malawi. We rode along the lake. The elevation of today's ride began around 4500 feet, descended to 1600 feet, before climbing back over 7500 feet in Tanzania. While we were wiggling our way through the mountains, I signaled for Re to pull over so we could take a picture of another milestone: the 10,000 mile mark. We reached the border sometime after 1:00 pm and breezed through the Malawi side. The Tanzania side was another story. The guides we had consulted said the visa fee would be 50 USD, but it turned out that it had changed and was now 100 USD per person. We also met the local insurance salesmen and dealt with them in time. Approximately 1.5 hours later, we left with visas, 3 months of liability insurance, and another hole in our wallets where 270 USD used to be. Double ouch. But we were through. 

The scenery in Tanzania was beautiful and mountainous. We rode through pine forests and rubber plantations and had plenty of time to appreciate them as we chugged slowly up the hills. The good news was that we picked up an hour of afternoon daylight when we crossed into Tanzania, but the bad news was that our progress was slow. Earlier at the border, we again ran into Marc and Katie, and they told us of a campground in a town approximately 40 miles shy of Mbeya. This was starting to look like a good idea, as we were tired and sore. We were sore chiefly due to the roads in Tanzania. Every small town has multiple sets of speed bumps that required us to come virtually to a stop and crawl over them. Any faster than a snail's pace, and our bikes bottomed out. If you've seen the topes in Mexico, you know what I'm talking about. The road surface was also potholed, patched, and undulating, all conspiring to jolt our spines and beat our butts. We made it to Tukuyu, the town with the campground, where we easily found an ATM and a couple of petrol stations, WITH PETROL! After stocking up, we made for the campground, where we met Marc and Katie. As we were so high up in the mountains, it was chilly enough for Re to actually put on her polarfleece while we set up camp. Because we hadn't seen a grocery store along the way, we ordered dinner from reception, and it was eventually delivered by motorcycle. There are a lot of small bikes in Tanzania, and we've even seen a couple of CT-90s and CT-110s. We enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner before heading to bed.

Crossing into Tanzania was similar to Dorothy entering the land of Oz. Almost immediately after we left the border, we started to climb higher and higher, and as we did, the landscape became more and more lush. There is so much agriculture here- gigantic tea and banana plantations, every other crop you can imagine, all set against a beautiful mountain backdrop. I said to Colin that it's like they can actually afford to buy green in this country, and they did purchase every shade of green from the biggest box of Crayola crayons! 

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