Battling FOMO and the Black Lung

Blog 36 by Tan: Battling FOMO and the Black Lung


After saying our goodbyes to Mark we rode north in the attempt to make it to Nkhata Bay but only got as far as Kande Beach before the light started to leave us. We had heard Kande Beach Campground was a good place (Ewan and Charlie even went there), so we followed the sandy track ignoring our instinct to just get a cheap local place in town. While it was a great looking place with good views and facilities it was a bit of an exclusive foreigner compound with expensive camping and food and drinks.

Don’t get me wrong – it was a nice place with nice people, we were just frustrated we fell into the same mental trap that has gotten us a few times now. It is almost like a feeling of obligation to do something that you don’t necessarily feel like doing. As a person travelling through, you sometimes feel like “I can’t possibly leave (insert country here) without seeing (insert attraction here)” or “we have to stay at (insert accommodation here), (insert referee here) recommended it to us”. So you end up wearing yourself out and blowing money on something you didn’t really want to do in the first place.

In this case, it was late in the day, we were tired and just wanted to park up and sleep.   But then this voice comes into your head “Oh but we really should stay on the lake. It is Malawi after all. Malawi is famous for the lake. We can’t not stay on the lake. And this place was recommended to us, it is supposed to be great.” Then you get there and fork out almost $14 for camping and have to share a too small for two pizza for dinner which still costs $10 and all you want to do is go to bed. Then your brain switches arguments and is like “why ever did you come here? – look how much money you spent – you should spend the next few hours thinking about it.” Anyway, a silly winge but worthy of mentioning.


Kande Beach – a nice looking place


Anyone who does a trip like this will find themselves suffering from FOMO – ‘fear of missing out’. I learnt of this condition from a RTW biker’s trip report who is incidentally, a doctor ( FOMO manifests itself by leading you to travel vaster distances than planned, spend way more money than intended and will lock you into a constant unwinnable battle of trying to do everything or at least trying to know what is worth doing and what is not. We have no advice for how to mitigate against FOMO as we are both chronic sufferers of it. As the cool kids these days like to say ‘the struggle is real.’

From Kande Beach we headed the short distance to Mzuzu where we intended to stay for the sole purpose of eating Korean food. As lovers of South Korean food I couldn’t help but notice an advertisement in the last backpackers for a place called Joy’s Place and Korean kitchen. We tracked down the place like a couple of bloodhounds on the scent and liked it instantly. It is more of a house than a traditional backpackers and is immaculately clean and comfortable with amazing food on offer. It is run by an American-South Korean couple and is worth visiting if only for the food. We only intended to stay one night but we hadn’t eaten every item on the Korean menu yet so extended our stay. The food was that good that we tolerated sleeping in a full dorm – our least favourite thing in the world with the exception of camping next to army of noisy teenagers.


Didn’t expect to get authentic Korean food in little ol’ Malawi


We finally tore ourselves away from the place and set about leaving town. First up was a trip to the petrol station where we experienced our trip’s first-ever significant rip-off-the-foreigner moment (that we were aware of anyway). We always fill our bikes up together and pay just the once. We asked to do the usual fill both together but one of the cheeky lady attendants tried to get one over us by filling the one bike then hanging up the fuel hose and picking it up again before we could see the total. She then informed us how much to give her. Cheeky, very cheeky.

However she didn’t know Mick tracks our fuel consumption like a supermodel tracks calories. She tried to say that Mick’s bike took what worked out to be 29L while my bike took 21L. We explained that that is simply not possible as the bikes travel exactly the same distance and use the same amount of fuel (in truth I tend to use ever so slightly more). She protested hard but she saw Mick was supremely confident and he suggested that we would only pay twice the amount of fuel my bike took – truth be told he actually only said that after threatening to only pay my bike’s fuel and just riding away, to strong protests of course.

She started to get nervous and in the end we figured it wasn’t worth fighting too long over and negotiated a sum that was about $2, about a litre, more than it probably should have been. So we were probably still ripped off but called her on the scam and made it an unpleasant $2 for her to have earned. It was clear the two ladies had the system down pat at that busy station. It is the first and only time we’ve had something like that happen. Usually the station attendants are really good and excited to fill and check out such foreign looking bikes. Africa is, after all, in the throws of an epic love affair with motorbikes.


The first Europeans who went there pointed to the lake and asked what it was called to which a no doubt confused local told them “Nyasa”. The lake then on became known as Lake Nyasa until someone figured out ‘nyasa’ means lake. Lake Lake was then changed to Lake Malawi.


From Mzuzu we headed to the famed Mushroom Farm in Livingstonia. The road on the way north from Mzuzu to Livingstonia is very scenic and affords a great view of the lake from on high. On our way down we noticed some signs for some small underground coal mines and I remarked to Mick on the intercom ‘Jeez imagine what an underground coal mine in Malawi would be like.’ Little did we know at the time that we’d soon find out. On the way down the winding range we came across our third person cycling through Africa. We love these guys – they are bloody nuts and in comparison make what we are doing seem highly sensible. This guy was from Denmark and was cycling from Copenhagen to Cape Town and it was slightly embarrassing (and supremely impressive) that he was making faster progress through Africa than we were.

He was travelling very light on and his heavy tan and thin frame reminded me of a stringy piece of biltong. He was only part of the way up the huge mountain and I rather absent mindedly became that jerk (you know the one) that says to you when you are battling up a hill ‘whoa – dude you’ve got so far to go still’. Whoops. Sorry for being that guy, I was just stunned by how far he had come. We offered to give him a tow to the top but he resisted saying he wanted to do the whole way on his own.


Why doesn’t your bike have a motor, bro?


He told us how he had contracted typhoid in Sudan (he believed from the free jugs of water available all throughout the country). He vividly described the fall out of typhoid and we couldn’t believe it. He said how he was so… errrm… out of control of his….errrm toilet functions that he was going all over himself, all the time. There was blood. It was wrong. It was so bad he was at one point lying completely naked, outside his hotel entrance, too unwell to feel ashamed. No one would take him in their cab to the hospital. In the end he got on his bike naked and in that state cycled about 50km to the hospital, fouling his bike in the process. Once there he responded instantly to treatment and was soon good to go again.

I hope that wasn’t a private conversation as I just showed his picture and told the world he shit himself. Moral to the story – this Dane is tough, be wary of ALL water, and be clear to me if I am not to share your stories. We showed our solidarity to a fellow two wheeled traveller by giving him some rehydration sachets and a small tube of mosquito repellent before parting ways and wishing him well. But man, he had sooooo far up the range to go still.


One the track up to the famed Mushroom Farm


The view. It was nice


The road from the highway up to the Mushroom Farm is a rocky, winding track up a mountainside. It was most excellent and a very good introduction to the place. The Mushroom Farm has such a lofty reputation you had to wonder if it could live up to it. We were happy to report that it did. It is owned by a brother and sister in their late 20s/early 30s from America who purchased the place as they were after something different to occupy their lives with. Bravo I say. The place has views and food to die for and is almost confusingly reasonably priced. Anyone planning to go should budget to eat every meal there. The food is that good.


It was just awful staying here


Our campsite – not suitable for sleep walkers


In between meals we managed to get some bike chores done such as changing my worn front tyre, and front brake pads. While changing the pads we noticed for the first time that the caliper had gotten out of alignment and that the holes that locate the slide pins that hold the caliper to the caliper mount had become badly worn, to the point the pads got so out of alignment the brake pad pin got bent. It was a shitty Chinese caliper adaptor plate to fit the supermoto 320mm rotor so we shouldn’t have been too surprised really. Mick greased the slide pins to slow the wear and swapped out the bent brake pad pin with one from the caliper rebuild kit he was carrying (see, spares for everything!) and we hoped that would help things in the short term. Longer term it looked like we were going to have to get a replacement caliper mount. We had a parcel of stuff we planed to send to Nairobi and a new caliper mount looked like it would be making the journey too.


It was a day ending in ‘y’ so naturally there were bike chores to do


We try and be pretty vigilant in the upkeep of our bikes and aim to never let our gear get to in too bad a state. You’ll never see us posing proudly with metal fibres showing on overworn tyres. For us this was pushing things. For others they’d squeeze another 1000km – each to his own.


Mick then spent a bunch of time cleaning out his tool bag which was full of spilled engine and filter oil. Ahhh, the joys of bike travel.   We also got a nasty surprise when we discovered that our spare Funnelweb air filters had been destroyed beyond resurrection. In the panniers the constant vibration and rubbing had lead them to near disintegrate. In retrospect they would have gone better in the top bag, where they had successfully stayed until a recent reorganisation and repacking. Oh well – you live you learn – you drink beer and forget the loss.


One of Mick’s ‘hidey holes’ for the storing of his seeming endless supply of spares (both necessary and obscure). This is the ‘tool/spares box’ that the right hand side pannier straps to.   All packed in tighter than a hipster in skinny jeans.


That night at dinner we met an interesting couple from Zimbabwe named Nick and Dawn who lived nearby. We discovered that, like us, they were mining people. Nick was running a small underground coal mine about 20km away. He told us we should go and check it out the next day. We simply couldn’t pass up on an offer like that. The next morning we packed up and took the fun little dirt and mud track from the Mushroom Farm to the coal mine to answer my earlier question of what an underground Malawi coal mine is actually like.


The fun little track to the mine


Michael and I both have underground mining backgrounds but have never worked in coal. Underground coal is something innately risky, and to some, a little scary, even for people used to working hundreds of meters below surface. I had actually said that I would never enter an underground coal mine for fear of gas and explosion potential. Nick was adamant their mine was gas free and assured us the ground conditions are very good. With these two key risk areas out of the equation it was looking like more of an okay thing to do. Additionally all the mining is handheld with electric jackhammers and the only hauling equipment is wheelbarrows. With no heavy equipment to speak of it seemed safer again. However Nick did tell us ‘One thing hey, this is Africa – no safety here, hey.’


Pondering how clever it was to be going into an underground coal mine in a developing country


The mine visit was incredibly interesting and we wished like anything that we owned the show. While it was small scale and rudimentary compared to what we were used to it was HIGHLY profitable based on the unbelievably low inputs. I mean seriously, if you are paying a few hundred dollars a day for the couple hundred workers you have… how can you not do well out of a commodity? And despite only mining about 100t per day (less than 2 truck’s worth from the mines with used to work at) it was clear the owner must have been absolutely raking it in and was NOWHERE near its money making potential.


Black gold – riddled with arsnopyrite


Where ladies were removing the rocks and ash by hand.


The coal is in fact pretty shitty in quality on the whole and although it did have some nice bituminous stuff there was a lot that was full of sulphides and some significant stone bands. In Australia no one would probably mine the stuff as operating costs would be high due to the thinness of the seam and constant fault offsetting, and they’d incur large penalties due to the high ash and sulphide content. Here in Malawi though, you can simply pay a bunch of ladies to hand pick out every chunk of rock and high sulphide coal and remove it from the good stuff.  And that is what we saw. It was a total mind bender for us to see this type of mining which is by far the global ‘norm’ of mining – not the high capital cost, high technical input, high volume, highly mechanised stuff we were used to. Shit, I’d never known it was possible for a miner to move a single rock if he didn’t have a speed boat in his garage, a time share in Bali and an unlimited supply of free meatpies on hand.


Adits into the mine


Pay dirt – Notice the timber sets (the timber props and bearers used as ground support) showing no signs of weight bearing. It was like that all through the mine. Very nice. Mick commented that compared to the handheld timbersetting he had seen in underground mines in China, this work was quite nicely done.


Mick checking out the gear. There was some nice vitreous coal near the roof


The happy looking guy in the foreground was one of Nick’s supervisors named Happy, and he referred to the mine as ‘his house’. He had been working in coal mines for 15 years and was very proud to be a coal miner. He knew his business inside and out despite a lack of education he seemed a master of his trade.


The mine itself was shallow with all of it well less than 100m, so stress was negligible, and there were no need for shafts as access was from adits, i.e. tunnels straight into the mountain side. The other benefit of the seams daylighting from the mountain side was that the gas had leaked out eons ago. Nice. Geologically it was more interesting than the average large scale coal operation that we see back home. While overall the ground conditions were fantastic and stresses negligible there were reasonably frequent faults with offsets of a couple metres to keep things interesting. Ventilation was ok but Mick suggested Nick install some plastic vent walls to easily and cheaply improve airflow to the face, something Nick had previously considered. The ground support was very good and from cursory inspection even looked like a bit of overkill with very few of the wooden ground support showing any signs of load.


At the coalface – literally. The guys were discussing how this was a nice seam of good coal but was offset by a fault so Nick was still deciding how they were going to go about accessing and extracting it.


Back out in the real world. Happy was still happy. His mum named him well


I think Mick has been missing the challenge of work based on the way he went into full mine manager mode – crossed arms, wide stance. I’ve observed that the wideness in the stance of a miner is directly proportional to the level of interest/concern/anger at what was in front of them. Mick was busy identifying bottlenecks, costs reduction opportunities and areas for optimisation despite himself. Nick was full of knowledge and ideas but had an owner and boss set in his ways – that old chestnut. I think Nick appreciated someone who understood things to talk with.


The owner of the mine was a German and he had imported a few old Mercedes G-Class as mine cars


The gate and turbine controls for the mine’s small hydroelectric plant, it was only a little one but it supplied all the power needed for the operation and for basically zero operating cost. Schweet.


The plant has no voltage regulator to control the voltage output, the operators just come and check the voltage and then open the gate a bit if it is below 400V, or close the gate a bit if it is above 430V.


High Voltage Rock and Roll. Generator to run the crusher in times of drought


Mick describing a really good hamburger he once ate….. actually he says he was racking his brain from uni 15 years ago to describe the mechanisms for spontaneous combustion. Nick had lots of coal fines with high sulphide content laying around his crushing circuit, not an ideal scenario.


Part of the separation plant. The stones sink to the bottom and the coal floats (or more accurately, doesn’t sink as fast)


Feeding the crushing circuit that had a far higher capacity than the washing plant, and bottlenecked the entire operation. There was also no surge capacity after the crusher, so when washing the crusher had to be on, even though it crushed far more than could be washed. It wasn’t ideal by any stretch, and Nick was scratching his head to try and make the best of a bad hand


Controlling the flow of crushed product off the screen into the washing plant. This bloke had to stand there and open and close the gate as needed


Wash wash wash


Typical surveyors… Same all over the world it seems. At least these ones knew how to use crayons


We parted ways with Nick and Dawn; we were really happy for having met them and had to opportunity to see the operation. The mining industry is a small one so we couldn’t help but wonder and hope that we’d get a chance to meet again on some mine site in Africa. We told them if we ever came across 3-5 million bucks (our 2 minute back of the envelope valuation) we’d buy the mine from his boss and come work with them.


Riding out. Lots of dirt tracks


We found this sign next to a school which we thought was great


A fun little ride indeed


Mud…..not a fan


We had been chasing some non-tar riding and had identified a bit through the Nyika National Park following very close to the Zambian Border. When we first had this idea I was of the mind we should do either Livingstonia and the Mushroom Farm OR the dirt roads of the park. Mick was pushing to do both. In the end we both decided to be time conscious for once on the trip and get moving to Tanzania as we had done some scheduling and realised we were at serious risk of not making it to Sudan in time to use our Sudan visas. When you are on an open ended trip such as ours it is easy to convince yourself we have so much time and forget about visas expiring for future countries, especially when you don’t even know what day it is in your current country.


We had planned to leave my old tyre with Nick and Dawn at the mine as it was better than most tryes getting about in these parts, but forgot. In the end we asked this fella if he wanted it.


He did and was extremely happy – he’d be able to on sell it for a decent price…eventually


On the way down the track that leads to the Mushroom Farm and Livingstonia


Some fun little switch backs


Malawi – its been swell albeit lazy time – Now onwards to Tanzania for a bit of action, hey!


We’d been having such a good time we sort of forgot we had places to be and deserts to cross before the height of summer. We resolved to pull our finger out and pass on the no doubt lovely area of north-western Malawi. It was time to cross to our next country Tanzania. This represented a significant milestone in our FOMO battle. We chose NOT to do BOTH things we wanted to do. We did ONLY ONE thing. And while we would have loved to have done the off-road routes through the parks we made a decision to leave it for another time… and survived.

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