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Cycling the Winter Series 2017 Mountain Bike Challenge

Zomba Plateau, Sunbird Kuchawe Inn,

Mountain bike enthusiast Raman Thakrar, a good standing 6 years pedalling behind the wheel, share’s his experience of last year’s thrilling Winter Series Mountain Bike Challenge in the woodlands of Zomba Plateau.

Race day: 16th September 2016

We packed our MTB’s in my Nissan Double cab. Vasudev, Raman and three of Malawi’s Champion Cyclists: Misi, Nazombe and Nkhwame, decided to leave Blantyre at 06h00, eventually left at 06h30 for Zomba Town. We drove through winding road to the Plateau, arrived at Kuchawe Inn. The car park was full, there were many cyclist who were getting ready for the Challenge. We assembled our bikes, got registration done for the race. The organisers gave 71 participants free t-shirts, who took part in the rally. The weather was pleasant, nice and sunny. I met Graham Procter who was in Malawi, a cycling enthusiast, returned from South Africa especially for this event, to take part in Tour De Zomba Mountain. I was very happy to meet him. Graham Danny noticed Vasudev’s rear tyre had a slow puncture. Caroline his wife brought tubes, after testing, third tube worked well.

There were two routes, short 35 km easier and long 55 km rather difficult. We opted for shorter route. The race started at about 10h00 hours. All cyclist start-ed pedalling vigorously. I was riding down the slope over the rocky area, sud-denly my chain snapped. It fell down. I stopped aside, near the stables. There were German tourists cheering the cyclists and they gave me a helping hand. I called Paul Kennedy, he asked me to return. As I walked back I saw Vasudev, who started late after fixing his tyre. He stopped and said we should be togeth-er as we were late. We both returned back reaching the starting point. No body had tools to fix the chain, there were extra bicycles parked. Paul said pick one bike and go for the challenge. Benjamin from Africycle pulled one bike, and gave it to me. I was thankful to him for his generosity .It was an old MTB, got on it and started pedalling. The bicycle was moving perfectly well. I said to myself “this oldie bike is good, doing a fabulous job

Registration Table at Kuchawe Inn
Registration Table at Kuchawe Inn
Vasudev left, Raman right. Kuchawe Inn
Vasudev left, Raman right. Kuchawe Inn

Trails and Tribulations

We crossed Mulunguzi Dam from the barrier. I saw the picnic spot where we normally occupy and enjoy the day. It was looking wonderful. We were trotting uphill cycling towards a few of the Zomba hills and mountains from the Plateau. We passed the famous William Falls. The river water was gushing through the rocks. I just had a glimpse. I realised my water bottle was not removed from my broken bike. I mentioned to Vasudev, that we will be short of water. He said “we will share from his camel back water tank.” We were both worried as it was not enough. We rode for almost one and half hours, at times riding on the edge of the cliff, which was tough pedalling up with beautiful scenic views. This was a long stretch of gruel-ling climb for almost two hours, we almost turned around 280 degrees. We both were sipping water every 30 minutes or so to quench our thirst. Vasudev had sweets. We sucked two each, got some energy and relief. Brain and Maggie greeted us and gave us water to us when we were up climbing the rock,

Upward through the pine slopes...

We ran out of water completely. “We will be thirsty on our way,” I thought as it was becoming very hot. Tension will grow high when we are likely to get thirsty. We came to a rocky area with a gorge and a dried river bed. We had to come out with our bikes and walk down across the sandy bed and up on a huge rock, lifting the bikes. We met with Maggie and Brain Otoole who came from behind and greeted us. Both husband and wife are very fit and fast cyclists. Vasudev asked Brain for water if he had extra as we were running out. He almost emptied his bottle willingly. It was a very kind ges-ture on his part. Great relief we just got water in time. We reached one of the most beautiful spots, Emperor’s and Queens View. The sun was behind the clouds, light blue mist covered the scene. We could hardly see the Zomba Town. We could not take a photo, but it was still looking very beau-tiful. We were still travelling mostly uphill pedalling hard. We stopped under the trees for rest and to quench our thirst.

On the last mountain, I felt we almost circled 360 degrees. We were just below the peak. My instinct said we are about to descend. I rolled my bicycle on a gradual slope of about 1 km, then turned right over a hair pin bend. The next slope was a distance of 750 metres, with a couple of hair pin bends zig zagging going down. The last drop was a short distance of about 200 meters. Surely we must have covered more than about half of the mountain down-hill slope from the peak, riding over stones, drainage and avoiding rocks. We never realised that we were speeding at about 20 km per hour without any effort of pedalling.

From far we saw an arrow pointing left on the ground. We slowed down turned into a narrow lane. Oh gosh! The momentum of my speed on the straight path pointing downwards was indeed faster. There were matured plantation of pine trees on both sides of the trail. Suddenly it became dark as the pines had covered the sky, it became cool, with cold breezes making us feel total-ly relaxed. Wow a chill ran up my spine! We continued cycling using brakes to reduce speed, running over dead twigs, wood clip-pings and roots riding humps and bumps. I was standing high on pedals, thinking scary ” hope I won’t tumble over”. I had to in-crease my concentration in order to avoid crashing on a tree trunk.

Zomba Plateau Trails View 1
The second plateau above the Ku Chawe Inn. It was dry, but beautiful.

I was ahead of Vasudev. From far I saw children and ladies obstructing our path. They saw us speeding. The sound of my clattering chain made them alert, they got up and stood out of our way. I stopped my bike. The ladies and children started laughing, I grasped my breath and said, “we would have run all over you, if you hadn’t moved away ” in Chichewa. They smiled and burst into laughter. I gave a baby K500 cash, the mother was happy and thanked us. Took a snap of inspiration and we were off.
We continued our journey. The last few hundred metres down the path developed into a deeper slope; presumably our rhythm of speed was torn apart. We didn’t realise as we reached the foot of the Plateau speedily. We stopped, both smiled and laughed. We were excited as this was absolutely thrilling, I felt ac-accelerated as if I was paragliding. In reality it must have taken about 20 minutes, a distance of less than 7 km. This was the highlight of our cycling spree.

     “Yeah ! We felt we conquered the world.”

I struggled to pedal as my rear wheel was entangled with grass into the drainage. Unfortunately I fell down. My hands became dirty with red soil. I got up and peddled down hill, passed a wooden bridge. Suddenly the chain came off the freewheel. I stopped and placed the chain in its correct position and rode off. We were nearing the end of our marathon. We came to the finishing point, Kuchawe Inn. We rushed to the presentation ceremony as were late. We carried winners from Blantyre to Zomba and back. First: Misi; Second: Nazombe; Third: Nkhwame There was round of applause from the participants and spectators. Congratulations to Paul Kennedy and his team for navigating us in this superb route.

Zomba Plateau and the mountains are all in wilderness, that’s the beauty of Malawi. At this time of the year the winter had just ended end of August therefore the mountains were dry, the surrounding trees and pine plantations were green. The only people we met were loggers who were cutting trees, using diesel engines to cut planks of wood.

Raman and Vasudev thank organization committee – Paul and Staci Kennedy, Omar Patel, Jonathan Tengani and the rest of the crew for hard work and all efforts in making this event successful.

Winter Series Mountain Bike Challenge 2018 Malawi
Winter Series Mountain Bike Challenge 2018 Malawi

The winter series for cycling will continue this year with seven race events across Malawi. For more information visit www.wsmtb.org

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