The Warm Heart of Africa

Blog 35 by Tan: The Warm Heart of Africa

I woke up the next morning having slept poorly. I had a number vivid dreams about our bikes being stolen from the enclosed courtyard of the hotel. The dream was so real I had to get up and physically check the bikes were still there. After returning to bed I went straight back into another dream of the same vein. However this time thieves had stolen just one bike but all the luggage off the other. Once again I got up and checked the bikes were still there. I must say Mick was disappointingly unappreciative of all my efforts to protect our bikes from the marauding bike thieves of my subconscious mind. While we do constantly worry about the security of the bikes – this was just ridiculous.

I can’t really put my finger on why I was so worried but suspected it was because of a mounting belief that we had been so lucky on the trip so far – too lucky even. It was a rather morbid frame of mind I found myself in over the next few weeks where I was trying to ensure against the calamity I felt we were owed. For all our time in Africa, we have had very few troubles at all. I was glad, but suspicious. And while I would hesitate to say things were easy, they were certainly not as difficult as we anticipated. Having said that if someone overly naïve and inattentive to travel like us in Africa they’d be chewed up and spat out in no time flat. Eventually I chilled out and accepted that our standard level of vigilance was working for us and I might as well get some sleep.

Knock, knock! Who’s there? Village…all the village

The awesomely named ‘Not Me But Allah Is Great’ Guesthouse

It seemed foreigners were rare in these parts of Malawi. The next morning we found what must have been the majority of the village in front of our hotel waiting to feast their eyes on the foreign bikers who made their village their home for the night. We were keen to see what Malawi had to offer but first had to deal with the paperwork issues of the day before. We headed back to the border post to see if the senior customs man was there. It wasn’t too much of an inconvenience and I sympathised with the junior customs guy as I recognised he was just trying to make sure he didn’t stuff up. I know the look – it’s the one I sported for the first couple years of my professional career. Boss man just wanted to sight our carnet de passage documents as it seemed he’d not seen one before and soon enough we were on our way. We just needed to get to the next sizable town to purchase road insurance and that was the bureaucracy done with for a couple of weeks.

Formalities sorted and on our way north


Malawi takeaway = chips with tomato and cabbage

We were treated to some nice dirt tracks before hitting the tar which we were largely unable to avoid for the rest of our time in Malawi. Malawi represented a bit of a mental holiday for us. The riding was straightforward and with it being such a small country we didn’t feel the need to jump on Google Earth and find a remote tiny dirt track to explore.

Mikey and Markey

Mick decided it was time to try Mark’s KLR out for size and grant Mark the “thrill” of riding the DR. Mick found the KLR setup to be far from comfortable compared to our customised DRs. While he likes the KLR for what it is, he found the factory ergoes pretty crappy, the pegs appalling, and the suspension terrible. Over years of using our DRs we have got them set up to near personal perfection and have perhaps gotten a bit precious in terms of comfort expectations. I mean we have Airhawk cushions…. how precious is that! But seriously, if anyone was to steal our airhawks the trip would be over for me. Our bikes are basically the motorbike equivalent of one of those LayZ Boy recliners. Ever tried to get someone to give up their LayZ Boy?

An accumulation of kiddies come to gawk at the bikers

When it was time to swap bikes again Mick attempted to dismount the KLR in the same manner he usually does with the DR – that is, to standup on the left-hand footpeg and swing the right leg over the luggage on the back of the bike. However the KLR has a short little sidestand and Mark’s luggage is packed up quite high so what resulted was Mick’s leg hitting the luggage, the bike overbalancing, and a rather hilarious double somersault into a steep ditch on the side of the road. Now I have had some really silly falls before but I reckon that one took the cake. I kept this thought to myself until now. Hahahahahaha.

Buying our obligatory third party insurance. Fortunately Malawi’s was pretty modestly priced.


Soon afterward we had our first run in with Malawi’s police that left us in a positive frame of mind for our future travels in the tiny country. Having not yet reached the town where we could buy insurance we were a little worried as we waved to the side of the road; police in Africa don’t exactly have sterling reputations. The lone copper asked where we were from and then asked if Mick had a driver’s licence for the motorcycle. Mick said ‘yes, I do’ and went to retrieve it but the policeman said ‘No, I only asked you if you have a licence. I did not ask to see it.’ Mick then said ‘Ahh ok, yes we have licenses, would you like to see them?’ To which he replied ‘No, that is ok, I believe you.’ It was pretty funny and after a couple more polite questions, plenty of smiles and shaking of hands we were on our way again.

A taste of things to come

We managed to find the insurance place with the help of some friendly locals and with that quickly sorted, were soon on our way towards Blantyre. Our GPS informed us that there was a KFC in town and we all decided a bit of ‘Dirty Bird’ (Aussie slang for KFC) would go down nicely indeed. When the Dirty Bird refused to show itself (it had closed or moved) we stumbled across an Ethiopian restaurant that looked like a good idea. It was the first Ethiopian food any of us had eaten before and it got Mick and I excited for future travels north. Mark, upset at missing out on the fun, forbid us to talk of such things.

Checking out the Foundations for Farming project

Izak, a biker we met way back when we rode though Baviaanskloof in South Africa contacted us and told us that we should drop in on his brother’s mission project just outside Blantyre. Izak’s brother and sister-in-law run a project that teaches farming techniques to people who then go on and spread the knowledge back in their home villages. We have never been the type to pass up on seeing something interesting and when he mentioned they make cheese there… well…. the deal was sealed. Unfortunately with our limited time we were unable to catch up with Izak’s brother who was stuck in meetings for the day but he kindly arranged for us to be shown around.

We were impressed by the enterprise which along with farming practices was promoting appropriate technologies such as bio-toilets, and water heating using black hose encased in used plastic coke bottles on roof tops and hoses run through mounds of compost. It was all interesting stuff. The highlight for us however was the cheese making. We had been without access to good cheese since leaving Zambia, admittedly not all that long ago, but the craving for the yellow stuff was significant. After inspecting their cheese HQ we walked away with a bunch of gouda and cheddar which we thought would be the only cheese that would tolerate unrefrigerated transport in a pannier bag.

They also made cheese! My favourite

We could only purchase the bike friendly variety

We headed towards our destination of Monkey Bay, which had been recommended to us by a bunch of different people. Riding in Malawi is slow going due to the shear amount of people walking and riding Chinese pushbikes on the road. It is a remarkably friendly country with people genuinely happy to see you and very cordial, the reason why Malawi is referred to as “the warm heart of Africa”, but it is very poor and heavily populated. 90% of Malawians live on less that US$2 per day. Until recently, Malawi was the poorest country on the continent on a GDP per capita basis; that shit-sandwich eating competition was recently won by the DRC who are always at the pointy end of the field.

The high population density means on some roads there is scarcely a break between towns so we were slowing down and speeding up constantly doing nothing good for fuel efficiency in this remarkably fuel expensive country, nearly US$2 per litre. We were quite surprised by the large numbers of mosques we had seen since entering the country from the south. They seemed to outnumber churches at least 2 maybe even 3 to 1. The CIA handbook says Muslims make up 12.5% of the entire population but it must be multitudes higher in the south.

The boys

The ride from the highway to Monkey Bay was a good fun winding dirt road and before we knew it we were at Fat Monkeys – a backpacker/campground just as the sun was going down. It really is a beautiful spot. First on the agenda was beer and sunset watching, next the chicken curry, then at about 10pm we finally got to putting up the tent. We found out the hard way that the beer at Fat Monkeys was really expensive so Mick and Mark decided that spirits and soft drinks sourced from the village was the way to go from now on.

The view we were greeted with on arrival

Not too shabby at all

With nothing to do but laze on the lake Mick and Mark set about drinking copious amounts of cheap brandy and cane spirit. The next day’s hangovers were to prove rather more challenging that previously expected when a literal busload of teenagers from an International high school showed up for a school camp. In one fell swoop paradise became purgatory as we were assaulted with the high enthusiasm and decibel levels of these school kids. What made the experience all the more unpleasant was that it served as both a reminder that we were once that obnoxious and a realisation that were are definitely crabby old bastards now. Why a cashed up International school would choose to accommodate their pupils at a backpacker/overland camp famous for drinking and the smoking of odd smelling cigarettes is a mystery to me. But one thing was clear – our private campsite was now riddled with noisy teens.

Dugout drag race

Our plans for a civilised wine and cheese night were laid to waste by prohibitively expense wine. We did a ghetto cheese night instead – Doritos, cheese and Power’s Brandy mixed with soft drinks

A not so refined affair

After a couple of days of putting up with them things came to a head in a humorous, almost inevitable, fashion. Mick and Mark felt (rather erroneously, I thought) that the only way to weather the onslaught was to drink more booze. Fine in the evening – less so in the morning. Sure enough on the kids last days the ‘cool group’ went full rebel and got up very early in the morning to sit on the lake, listen to music and squeal away the early hours. They made the mistake of doing this outside Mark’s dorm.

Lake at sundown

So, at 5:30am they invited upon themselves some unexpected schooling. Mark walked out of the dorm and asked them what time it was. One replied ‘5:30, did we wake you up?’ to which he replied ‘What do you think?’ Then one of the less cool kids said sorry and told the others to also say sorry. A bunch of them did but then a more cool girl with attitude said a very sarcastic ‘sorry’ and then laughed. Mark swiftly picked up their fancy little bluetooth speaker and threw it far out into the lake saying a highly sarcastic ‘sorry’ before walking back to bed.

The kids were utterly shocked and in quite the bind now. If they wanted to complain to the teachers they had to admit to breaking the rules and annoying the other residents which they had continually been warned against. Mark went back to the room and slept well as the ‘cool’ kids were acting decidedly less cool and trying to find their mates speaker in the bottom of the lake. We should mention that Mark played schoolboy baseball for Australia so I assumed it was quite the throw therefore quite the search area.

The warm heart of Africa

The best part of it all was that when one of the kids got the courage to tell the teacher what happened (no doubt expecting sympathy and for her to demand payment for the lost speaker) she made them go up and apologise to Mark for their behavior. One of the kids said a good apology and told Mark that ‘he had learned a valuable lesson.’ Then Mark told them that he accepted their apology and that ‘they were just lucky that they dealt with him and not someone else.’ He told them ‘every day of their life you have to be considerate of others around you otherwise one day you’ll upset the wrong person and they will really sort you out.’ Mark didn’t apologise for the speaker at all. The kids went and spent 1000 kwacha, about USD2.50, to hire a mask and snorkel to find it, which they did. Exactly how they thought they were going to fix it was beyond me.

Things were far from civilized in the campground when Mick and I were woken up that morning by girls YELLING at 6am. They weren’t upset, they were just yelling. I am a feral individual at 6am and not anyone you would want to interact with. Fortunately for them I am also gutless so my fury at being woken up in such a manner manifested in a rather pathetic semi-yelling of ‘SSSShhhhhhhhhh’. Anyway we survived but may not be having children ever.

Behold my new fairing in all its glory

My morning improved substantially when George, the local artist I had hired, returned with my beautified front fairing. After being brutalised by off-road routes in Kaokoland and a kamikaze donkey it was looking pretty beaten up. I figured a facelift was in order. I was very happy with the result.

Malawi is known for its artists. Here is a motorbike carving purchased by some other travellers. The really good guys can do even more intricate carvings

Leaving the campsite we first needed to return our used bottles to the local store

A cute little girl trying my bike on for size

Mark looking every bit the ‘dodgy bastard’

A cute little kid

It was time to leave and find another bit of lake to do precisely nothing on. We planned to make it to Senga Bay but first we had to try see about getting a replacement phone for Mark. He was clearly tiring of our conversation and had been missing his bevy of Tinder girlfriends so we had to try to get him a new lifeline to the world lest he throw some more peoples’ stuff into the lake. Unfortunately we’d arrived in the capital of Lilongwe on Sunday so there was no luck there. To add to his woes he then went and snapped his clutch cable. Fortunately Mark was considerate enough to do this in a shopping centre carpark that housed a take-away chicken joint and an ice-cream shop. After feeding our faces and teasing Mark for a while we broke out the tow rope and dragged his phoneless, clutch cableless arse to the nearby Mubuyu Camp.

We found out from a local that the bus had burned to a crisp a few days previously. Everyone escaped unharmed. No plans to move the charred carcass from the main road just yet.

Getting some ware on the spare tyre

A capital city is not the place you want to be towing a bike but the streets were largely empty on the Sunday and we got to the nearby campground without trouble.

Mark doing the walk of shame

The next day the boys went out to source clutch cable, first trying the Yamaha dealer, where they had no luck, then the local China bike shops where they also struck out. In the end their sourced a front brake cable for a small Honda that, back at Mubuyu Camp, they were able to modify to do the job. As far as we know that modified brake cable got him all the way through Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and back to Zambia. Well done backyard fix!

Senga Bay is a big fishing centre

In the village

Goats reign

The next place we’d been recommended to visit was a campsite called Cool Runnings in Senga Bay. This was probably our favourite place we stayed on the lake. It wasn’t as beautiful as Monkey Bay/Cape Maclear but it was more of an authentic little village. It was extremely poor but the people were open and friendly. They don’t call Malawi the ‘warm heart of Africa’ for nothing. We sourced lunch from the local market – chips with cabbage and tomato which is available everywhere. While on a daily chip run to the village a woman running a simple restaurant next door told me that we should come there for dinner. She had such a way about her and beautiful English that I couldn’t refuse. We had the best meal we had had in a long time with her and it cost us a few dollars, drinks included.

At our local restaurant. She apologised for the plastic cups and plates and said ‘I hope they aren’t a problem…this is Africa after all.’

People in the village were eating fish and hoarding grain


The next morning she arranged to open shop early so that she could make breakfast for us. Once again it was great and she was so happy for the business. It was the most simple of places, just a dirt floor, a sort-of roof and no walls but it was immaculate. They worked non-stop, and scrapped by on so little that the oil they used was purchased in tiny 50ml plastic bags on an as need basis. Imagine having so little in the way of profit that one of your key consumables cannot be purchased in a proper container so as to save money.   We enjoyed our meals with her and were happy to give her some business.

They worked non-stop

We were sad to discover that despite things appearing normal and in spite of the cheery disposition shown by the locals, Malawi was veering head on into a looming famine. A few months before we arrived there had been devastating floods that had taken out bridges and roads throughout the south of Malawi and into Mozambique. A famine has an insidious slow burn quality about it. On the surface everything looked fine but the floods had disrupted a crucial farming period that people were predicting would soon devastate the country. There were subtle signs of it already visible to the initiated and informed, namely in the rising food prices and the reports of stockpiling of food supplies.

The government were doing little to prepare for the oncoming calamity and are instead adopting the tried and tested ‘wait until it is at its worst then roll over and show your belly’ method of crisis mitigation. You can’t blame them really. It is hard to get money for people that are starving, but considerably harder to get money for people who are not yet starving. The money only comes in response to a watershed number of deaths and a certain level of conscious inducing footage having gotten out. Then by the time the money comes it is too late to do anything preemptive. Generally it is often too late to do anything reactive even. By the time the money is raised and released and the logistics of emergency food provision underway the famine has largely wreaked its havoc, leaving in its wake a slightly lower population of people used to riding this wave to start over again.

Malawi after all, gets an unfair amount of practice with weathering famine. Agriculture is Malawi economic backbone, propping up 3 out of 4 Malawians in the good times yet rendering 3 in 4 unable to function in the bad times. With only 3 percent of the county’s farming area under irrigation they live (and die) at the whims of mother nation. And like just about every bloody impoverished nation on this continent they are further afflicted with having a money grubbing autocratic president in charge of their wellbeing. This guy saw nothing inappropriate about hiring his brother as foreign minister (now the current president) or with purchasing a $20 million long-range presidential airplane in the wake of yet another famine in 2002 (their worst in history).

As long as I live I will never understand how these people can engage in such audacious corruption while generations of their countrymen are relegated to an utterly impoverished existence. It fits with my long held view that anyone wanting to be a politician should be banned from such a pursuit. In the face of such knowledge, we could do little but find excuses to spread a little bit of wealth in the local run businesses and hope somehow things would be different this time.

Lunch of chips and coke at a local servo

This fellow biker carried a megaphone and happily obliged our request for a personalised megaphone message

Our stay in Senga Bay involved very little beyond chilling and socialising. It was time to head north but we were putting it off. You see, here is where we were ditching our buddy and riding companion Mark as we headed up Africa and he ventured southward. It had been great having him around even though he was nothing but trouble, was teaching Mick bad habits and rode a Kawasaki. We tried our best to convince him to sell his house in Oz and become a permanent irresponsible hobo and blat up Africa with us. All to no avail.   If anyone sees an Aussie guy with a bad haircut picking on teenagers and charming good looking backpackers like a man possessed, buy him a drink. He’s one of the good guys.

‘I’ll get one more day out of it (riding shirt), it stinks but not vomit stink, it’s bad but I’m not gagging’ – Markey Boy, 2015

4 Comments on “The Warm Heart of Africa

    • Hi pat, good to hear from you. Hope all is well, and ride that Cagiva Elephant hard!

  1. Where are You, and when are you coming to Switzerland?Looking foreward seeing you. Hope everything is going well.
    Love Regula (Opuwo Hotel)

    • Hi Regula
      Sorry we’ve been out of touch. We are still in Africa (Kenya) and will be extending our time here as we’ve ben enjoying it so much. The new plan is to travel up the west coast of Africa and arrive in Europe in January. Not a good time for riding but we will be doing bike work and getting new gear from the Central Asian/Russian leg of the trip. We will definitely drop in on you in Switzerland but I would say we will take the train over these chilly Swiss passes rather than the bikes. Looking forward to catching up and hearing how you bike adventure From Findland to St Petersberg went.
      Take care
      Tanya and Mick

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