Last month while riding through the southern countryside we met up with Noel & Lachlan, father & son cycling through Malawi on a 17 day cycle tour covering just over 1250km. Cycle Malawi fortunately caught up with Noel afterwards who was happy to answer a few questions about his bike trip, sharing some intriguing insight from his riding experience and helpful tips for other keen bike enthusiasts considering Malawi as there next cycle destination. Here’s what he had to say. Thanks Noel! Happy cycling….
Noel, you’ve cycled many countries in the world, somewhat of a legendary bike tourer. What led to you deciding on Malawi as a destination and on this particular occasion riding with your son?
In 2017 I did a tour in Rwanda. It was a random choice but very much under the heading of “Africa”. That was quite inspirational, and I resolved afterwards to go to Africa to ride every year from now on. In this context I chose Malawi as the next country. Other candidates were Namibia, Uganda, Ghana and Tanzania.
Obviously, I am from a different generation from my son. It is my view that there are great advantages to be in my generation (born in 1952). We have no allergies. We are not bored without a smartphone. Many of us have a rural background so we know nature. We have had full time secure employment as against the modern often insecure jobs. So, I see it as valuable to help a young person venture away from the city, and from the places like Bali and Disneyland where modern young Australians tend to go for holidays. I see it as needed for the young people, like my son, to be helped into a more physical lifestyle and into circumstances where he will encounter the bare facts about how privileged we are merely by birth. We didn’t earn our advantage just like Malawian youth do not deserve their problems.
Travelling with only your bike for long distances, must take a lot of mental and physical endurance, How does one go bout preparing for such a long journey?
I always say, the number one thing you have to do to prepare for a trip is book the ticket. This entails a decision about which season is best, and which airports. If you can depart from the one you arrive in there is the chance to store the bike cartons there. That’s what we did but the last leg (Lilongwe to Blantyre) we did on a bus as we were out of time.
As I do quite a few bike trips to places I have no familiarity with I have learned a few things.
- At the airport, try to arrive before mid afternoon so you can get installed in daylight. Use the ATM at the airport. (Don’t carry much cash and just get more as needed.)
- Use google maps on a big screen (not a smartphone) to study route options, identifying towns big enough to have lodging and not further apart than you can ride.
- On google maps, use the “walking mode” (in directions) as it gives you the accumulated climb which you should be mindful of.
- Try to arrive by 3pm each day so as to not run out of time as you look for somewhere to stay.
- Carry a sleeping mat and a sleeping bag just in case but with the malaria issue in Malawi you really want to be in a lodge under a mozzie net.
- Before you travel, avoid allowing your body to become overweight as this is just like avoidable luggage that makes mountains harder and makes keeping cool harder.
- Try to use your bike everyday of your life. Your bum stays hard, your cycling muscles stay present. Sure, you will need to ramp these up but “be” a cyclist in normal life.
What bike setup did you use for your trip?
I used Schwalbe Almotion 700 x 40 tyres. Very happy. Hydraulic TRP Hylex brakes. Awesome. Rohloff 14 speed 50 to 19T. Very happy. And drop handlebars. We both had just rear panniers and handlebar bags. Ortlieb on Tubus racks. Both bikes were the Vivente World Randonneur range. Mine a Swabia and Lachlan’s a Deccan.
What were some of your favourite highlights during your ride?
I have a farming background so being able to see the agricultural practices first hand is great for me. I also have in my mind a vast library of farming practices from around the world so I really love seeing anything different.
Arriving in new cities and towns is always fun. Especially after a long day. As you get closer the intensity builds. The number of guys with massive loads of wood and charcoal on their bikes also arriving. The big downhill into Lilongwe from the north was great. Coming into Nkhata Bay, into Mzuzu, into Monkey Bay, into Salima…all great.
Early in the trip we went up the Zomba Plateau and rode out to Emperor’s View (named for Haile Selassie). That was a real treat as was the descent back into Zomba.
The most memorable bit of the whole ride was a 23km backtrack from the M1 across to Mzimba.
Have you travelled by bike with your son before, that must have been quite a bonding experience for you two. What was it like travelling together?
Over the years we have done tours together in Argentina, Germany and Sri Lanka. It has been about 5 years though so it was about time to go together again. We don’t see each other much in Australia due to separate locations and busy lives. So this is a great way for a father and son to get to be together.
Travelling with someone is good in itself as you have company plus you get their observations in addition to your own.
Riding in Malawi is both challenging and rewarding at times with obstacles, which were the ones you were most faced with and how did you overcome them?
We found it quite ok to ride in Malawi. There are so many Malawians riding and we were just two more. Being a bike culture is one of the really appealing things. Of course we have gears and can climb the mountains. But once up there, there are more bikes. Mzuzu for example. Bikes everywhere.
Load-sharing (electricity blackouts) are a daily event and one needs to keep things charged up.
To stay in touch with the world we both got Airtel SIM cards. 15gb for about $25 from memory.
For anyone keen in cycling in Malawi, any words of advice you can share with them?
Keep your eye on the road in front or you’ll wreck your front wheel in a pothole. Have at least one mirror (on the right of the bike). Remember it can be very hot in the land along the lake and quite cold in the highlands. Don’t rely on street food as there is not much. Negotiate with lodges when you arrive about dinner. Ask them to prepare it for you. Don’t expect a menu. Start as early as possible or the day will get away from you. It gets dark early.
Visiting a country on a bicycle allows for closer encounters with its people, landscapes and cultures, While in Malawi what truly stood out for apart from any other country you’ve visited?
I’d have to put poverty at the top of the list of what stood out in Malawi. If asked about Iran I’d say the friendliness. Hungrary..the “standoffishness”. The USA…the proportion of people that are obese.
So for poverty to be such a dominant feature is concerning. Nowhere else have I been asked for money or for help so much. In tourist places, sure that happens and I ignore it. But this is right out in the country where people never see white people. It begs questions about the government of the country. When life is such a struggle the natural environment becomes secondary. The amount of plastic rubbish in the villages was concerning. The number of babies made me wonder if enough was being done for family planning.The number of coffin makers made me wonder why HIV/AIDS can’t be conquered like it has been in the West. Here it is still the biggest killer.
Many people did not want their photo taken. This seemed to be connected to the superstitious belief that a photo steals their soul. Right or wrong, I just lump this in with the fact that lots of kids are not in school. Education is not widespread enough in Malawi and one sees signs of this in superstitious beliefs, stories in the papers about witchdoctors. The backdrop was a high level of “religiosity”. I have never seen so many Christian churches anywhere.
Meanwhile, we felt no danger at all anywhere. Our things were safe. We saw no fighting. People were uncurious about where we were from and where we were going.
Cycling a total distance of 1250km in just under 15 days is an exemplary accomplishment you must be extremely proud of yourself and son. What were the biggest lessons you’ve learnt together after your trip?
It is not really so far. Distances are governed a lot by how far it is between towns big enough to have lodging.Cycling is like any other repetitive exercise. At first you might feel a bit weak and sore but within days your bum hardens up and your necessary muscles get stronger.With hindsight I would have taken arm warmers and ear warmers because we struck rain for 50km in the higher parts of the M1. With a headwind we became very cold and my hands even became numb to the point where I could not feel the handlebars and we stopped for a while.
Overall we were short of food. I rarely eat meat. Lachlan was able to get chicken most days. I found the 200gm packets of Jumbo peanuts and that, along with readily available UHT milk helped me a lot. Rice often contained fine sand particles so we ate carefully.
We tried to stay away from the lodges intended for conventional and rich tourists.
Victories are short lived but never forgotten, are your eyes set already on any other African destination, where to next!?
I am a little embarrassed inside myself that at this stage of my life (nearly 66), I have only started touring in Africa. The continent is missing from most peoples’ itineraries. I am committed to go back every year and have been actively asking people for their suggestions. This year was initially going to be Namibia but one of the riders couldn’t come. That led to a rethink and Malawi.
One country that has been mentioned a lot is Tanzania. It is big and has markedly different climatic zones. Although the most visited areas seem to be Zanzibar, the high mountains and the game parks, my choice will most likely be the central plateau but trying to include multiple vegetation and settlement zones.
Thanks Noel for sharing with Cycle Malawi. Meeting biker alike inspires us and we hope others to continue peddling and discovering Africa from the seat of a bike!. We know we not the only ones and all across Malawi cycle enthusiasts are taking to the countryside, we’ve met many interesting folks along the way, from avid cyclists, bike tourer’s such as Noel and holidaymakers seeking an alternative way to travel not forgetting the countless Malawians cycling commuting everyday. Its only one of the many joys of travelling by bike in a country such as Malawi. With is rural landscapes and contrasting geography of mountain plateaus, lakeside forests , wilderness bush and friendly people, however poverty stricken it may be provides an amazing travel experience & a closer & look into the often overlooked places in Africa .We invite you to take up the challenge enjoy the splendour of cycling and ride in the warm heart of Africa!