Chitimba Camp is pretty much the last place to stay north along the lake. So we decided to cycle out toward the border with Tanzania as far as we could go. This would reduce the cycling distance to the border on ‘crossing’ day. But with the first tail wind on our journey, we positively flew over the tar, tyres singing as we went. The Lord blessed us with a cool, cloudy day and we could really ride our bikes. Swapping every hour or so, we’d make it to within a few kilometres from the border, further than we ever dreamed of going that day. We just as well could’ve crossed into Tanzania right there and then, but the tent was still standing in Chitimba Camp. So with the smell of the border on the air, we loaded our bikes and returned to Chitimba.
Malawi was officially finished. We’d made it. All be it with a few gaps here and there due to crumbling roads, roadworks and an early rainy season … But we still love Malawi, even though the deterioration over the past two years since our last visit, is blatantly obvious. It was sad to hear of protests flaring up in all the major centers. In fact, we were so very blessed to pass through Lilongwe only one day after the end of protest action. And the threatened action in Mzuzu never happened. We’re sure it rained out that morning we left the city. But Malawi is Africa, and unfortunately Africa and its leaders are rife with corruption. The locals are just plain ‘fed-up’ with their government and what with the same president being ‘voted’ in during their recent elections, they’ve all had enough of irregularities and, in their own words, suffering … And suffer they do. The towns and villages are overcrowded and dirty. When you’re on a bicycle, moving slowly, you get to see and smell so much more. Most villages are hung about by a pervasive smell of rot … a sweet smell of rotting fruit and sour milk, while others stink of fish steadily turning in the sun. The children run and call after us, but its no longer innocent requests of a sweet, a pen, or even socks like we got two years ago … now its just ‘give me money’. So sad to see the dirty rags and blue plastic bags blowing in the wind and children hanging about listlessly in villages centers, manning lean-to stalls selling what God grows naturally instead of going to school. But there are myriad schools where each class is under a big tree, blackboard leaned against the stem with all the kids sitting in the shade of its branches while the teacher talks up front.
Malawi may’ve changed for the worse, but it’ll always have a special place in our hearts though. We would cross the border hoping that Tanzania would turn out to be better than before. Last time round Tanzania just got us all down. I include an excerpt from the previous trip diary …
Crossing the border into Tanzania is like going back in time to an era before supermarkets, traffic lights, dual lane bridges, highways, filling stations with toilets, credit cards, etc. etc.
There is no sense of order, no rule of law, just nothing but toppled over mud brick houses, shanties and lean-to’s.
Men lounge around lazily hanging over motorbikes or resignedly peddling along on their ancient sit-up-and-beg bicycles, eyes staring dazedly out ahead like dead fish. Here and there women trudge along tracks carrying ancient hoes, making their way deep into the bush to try and hack an existence from a patch of earth they call their garden. Children stare from blackened doorways of houses that seem to be condemned but remain inhabited even though an entire wall has fallen in already.
You’re not quite sure if the homes are in the process of being built up or broken down. Windows are square holes without frames or panes, some filled in again with haphazardly packed bricks. Doorways are covered by ragged pieces of cloth separating the hard baked earth outside from that within.
Remnants of shops and storefronts remain but the paint has long since faded and peeled off together with large slabs of plaster. The dirt appears ingrained in the mud-splattered walls, smoothed over with the grime of endless numbers of dirty hands being run over them.
Gross neglect abounds but the people seem resigned to it, their souls deadened to the loss of a lush, fertile country. The tea plantations stand green but there are massive patches where the trees have died out. Not much cultivation appears to be carried on and the people rely on what nature offers up of its own, a few bananas to sell from the back of ramshackle bicycles.
The larger the town the dirtier and more dilapidated things appear and the more aggressive the people’s stares become. The traffic police women in their black bobby socks and the men in their long white coats like butchers, randomly stand along the remnants of roads, pulling over the myriad trucks and then standing in the middle of the road checking their papers. When you get waved along it’s into the face of oncoming traffic and if you hesitate bobby socks gets aggressive, banging on your window and yelling ‘go on’. If you are unfortunate enough to be stopped by these corrupt cops you are barked at rather than spoken to. They accuse you willy-nilly of speeding without any proof there-of and then you have to pay 30 000 shillings on the spot. You never get a receipt so guess where all the money goes. People advise you to insist on things like receipts and written-out fines but when you’re faced with an angry, aggressive cop on the side of the road who refuses to go to the trouble of writing and who now holds your driver’s licence in his grubby hands, you are left with no choice but to pay.
While so-called speeding is a sin in Tanzania, you are obviously allowed to do just about everything else that flies in the face of general road rules and common sense or reason. Busses overtake strings of trucks on corners and blind rises with no way to see if there is any oncoming traffic. They just keep hooting as they fly by and in the unfortunate case of an oncoming vehicle this person just has to swerve onto the gravel verge or end up in a head-on collision. And this doesn’t only happen during the day, these busses of death drive even more recklessly after dark.
Where the hard-baked earthen tracks have been tarred over by the newest batch of Chinese road-workers, the police have set up road blocks every few kilometres and town relentlessly follows town where the speed limit is 50km/h and then you begin to encounter the bumps, or humps as they’re called in Tanzania. The beautiful tar road stretches out ahead of you but you daren’t go faster than 80km/h.
Signboards shout out thanks to the American people for funding the roads, schools, clinics, electrification projects, etc. but at night you see no lights. The locals don’t have cars to use the on the new roads but just cycle along the verge while you crawl passed.
The concrete side stones lining bus stops and making pavements have already been hacked at for brake blocks behind the wheels of the myriad broken-down trucks. You have to have triangles and reflective vests in your car but these people just hack off a few tree branches and pack these along the road as a warning that something has broken down ahead. And when the truck is moving again they don’t remove the branches. These just dry out and finally either blow away or are driven to bits by the wheels of even more trucks and of course, the death busses with their psycho drivers that don’t seem to recognize danger.
Tanzania makes you so tired, frustrates you endlessly and finally breaks you totally. You just feel like taking the people by the shoulders and shaking them, crying ‘ don’t you realise that you can have a better life than this!’ It seems so as if these people don’t have freedom of speech, like if they say something in criticism of the government they’ll summarily be locked up. Tanzania makes you realise how the marches and demonstrations by the South African people really help to keep the government on their toes. The Tanzanians seem so resigned, so feeble and fatalistic, as if they truly believe they deserve no better than the squalor and neglect that abounds.
I weep for Tanzania, I moan and gnash my teeth, I feel like pulling my hair out of my head, but the Tanzanians just carry on. I can’t wrap my head around it. I’m tired, dog-tired of being nervous every minute of every day lest someone stop me, harass me, accuse me, chase me. My spirit is broken, there’s a hole in my soul!
What gives you the idea that I was not looking forward to Tanzania! But I was pleasantly surprised to see massive tea plantations covering the rolling hills and village after village with, guess what, built structures … houses with windows that actually have glass panes in them … glass panes and floral curtains … Every garden is rich with banana trees and paw-paws here and there. Everything looked tropical and green, and even the road didn’t seem as bad. The big towns were far cleaner than I remember, surely thanks to the ban on plastic bags since June 2019. But we still had a few with us … oops! Anyway, we weren’t planning to drop them by the side of the road though, so I guess that’s OK.
Though the south of the country pleasantly surprised me, what was not so pleasant was the discovery of the fact that our first port of call, the Blue Canoe, was temporarily closed. Still with that certain amount of tingling elation that you actually survived the border, we were in high spirits as we threaded our way through the myriad shops and stalls and what-not just outside the boom gate of the border. The Tanzanian border is probably the most organised of the borders we’d crossed thus far. No hawkers, money-changers, etc. are allowed on the border itself and there is clear space to park your vehicle. The immigration officials are super friendly and helpful, even allowing me to ‘jump’ the queue in order to rectify a date they’d filled in incorrectly in my and mom’s passport. They were awfully apologetic and thanked us again and again for checking before leaving. The insurance agent helping us across the border took us to the bank to draw our shillings so we didn’t need to use the money changers that still take their chances outside the gate. He was such a nice guy and was so hesitant in naming his price for helping us across. He initially wanted only the money for the insurance but finally accepted TSH10000 for his efforts, a pittance for all his help.
But I digress. As I said, it was with shock and horror that we spied the ‘temporarily closed’ sign hanging below the signboard indicating the turnoff to the Blue Canoe. The only other alternative we had was to drive through to the Utengule Coffee Lodge just outside the city of Mbeya. This would mean no cycling though. But when we started to climb and the hills came thick and fast, steep as the Wild Coast’s just tarred, we knew they’d have had us beat anyway.
By the time we got to the Coffee Lodge the thunder clouds were building. The distant rumble of thunder got louder and louder as the storm approached and it wasn’t a hundred years before the rain came down. Thank goodness we’d decided to take a room in the lodge and not attempt to pitch the tent in their campground a.k.a the helipad. It positively bucketed down as we sat under the protective roof of the colonial style restaurant and ate our fillet steak and veg.
That night we’d sleep in soft, warm beds with mozzie nets and the comforting orange glow of bed lights reflecting off the heavy wooden furniture and crisp white linen. It was such a great experience, we were hesitant to leave in the morning but we had to go, the room was booked for the night … aaahhh!
Getting going after a big breakfast was rather a sluggish exercise. But we had much hope for the road since one of the lodge’s employees had assured us that it was in a good condition, newly built in fact, in parts. She was also adamant in letting us know that the rain is definitely early this year. In fact, she and most other locals were totally surprised by it. The farmers were not ready yet and now are scrambling to prep fields. We also heard that the night before we’d arrived, Mbeya had quite the cloud burst. This young lady relayed the ordeal to us, telling us that she nearly died of fright, pulling the covers over her head, so hard the rain was drumming down on the roof. All the little streams became rivers and everything ran red with mud. Even a bridge washed away with a taxi load of people. Apparently it was raining in Dar Es Salaam as well, according to her brother. She just kept saying, ‘no-one knows what’s going on with the weather’, while the other lodge employee kept trying to make light of her catastrophizing, probably trying not to scare us. He, in his turn, assured us that the rains wouldn’t last. Early rains are about a week or so in duration, then the heavens dry up until December. We sure hoped so since the sky looked threatening again …