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Tea Plantations

Stage 49 (30): Mbeya to Karonga Beach

It rained fairly heavily most of the night, I think; when I stuck my head out the door just after 5:00, everything was certainly dripping. I was very happy to have taken a room and not have to deal with packing up a sopping wet tent, etc.

It was always going to be a long day, so I was ready to depart a little before 7:00. The first 30+ minutes was Mbeya City morning rush hour pandemonium; tuk-tuks competing with taxi buses, large buses and heavy trucks belching diesel fumes, normal vehicles and pedestrians plus some local cycling commuters. Chaos but I think the whole group got thru unscathed. Escapes thru these towns in the morning rush is always a sphincter tightening experience.

After about 12-14 km, the road starts upward, and the traffic thins significantly. The weather is cool; high overcast, no noticeable wind. I take my jacket off as we start climbing and perhaps not surprisingly we’re soon cycling into mist wafting down from the nearby hills. I leave my jacket off and just spin upward. The rest day sure helped my legs.  Even with the scattered mist, the scenery is lovely: everything so green. Small holdings of bananas and maize, and then as we gain some altitude, plots of tea appear.

At some point I pass this decrepit (which might be tautological) Landrover. The thought occurs that it might be our ‘blue bitch’ from Botswana days, but no; it could only have reached this far north on a flatbed, and even that seems far-fetched. Oddly, I see 2-3 similar Landrover pickups on this climb, all parked or abandoned by the road side.

It might have been the isolation-inducing mist, but time moved quickly and I’m over the top in under 2 hours. I only start down a little ways before stopping to pull on the jacket; the air is decidedly cool up at this altitude and I’d worked up a reasonable ‘glow’ on the climb. The descent is long and fast on good tarmac, I’m constantly touching the rear brake lever to keep some control. We were warned about some vicious speed bumps, and sure enough, they demand a crawling pace to get over.

Tea plantations appear; large fields of vibrant green leaves imposed on the rolling hills. Then another climb, not so bad, and I’m at the lunch stop. I’d passed a group of cyclists on this second climb hauling major gear; panniers and bedrolls, etc. When mentioned at lunch, the TDA crew had already been alerted; this is a family of 4 (two young boys and the parents) making their way from Belgium to Cape Town. They pitch up soon enough and join us for lunch. I eye the amount of gear they’re packing, and am very impressed. They even cycled through northern Ethiopia as far as Addis Ababa before having to bus it to the Ethiopia-Kenya border. I think the boys were 10 and 14?

Some minor climbing after lunch break (it takes a bit to get back into some sort of rhythm after these stops), and then I’m into almost all downhill for the remainder of the day. Best day riding for me yet on this trip.

The Malawi border crossing is the usual hurry and wait, even with printed e-visa in hand. But we’re released to continue after only 90 minutes or so, and follow the Mother Truck through the last barriers. As a point of information, we’re not allowed by TDA to continue in any event until such time as the mother truck and TDA crew are similarly cleared, as it’s holding all our tents and gear, as well as the all-important food, of course.

At this point, we’ve dropped down to approx. 500 m altitude; the heat and the humidity have soared. It’s a relief to get moving again and get a breeze. The road surface is now excellent, with a wide shoulder. Traffic is negligible and the speed bumps almost (but on a few instances, not quite) minor. We’re following Lake Malawi’s shoreline, but set back by a kilometre or more. I thought briefly that it was the sugar rush from that coke I had at the border crossing that was driving my pace, but in reality, it was a minor tailwind. Still, nice to have these illusions of power.

I make Karonga in very good time and find the camp down by the beach, accessed by a somewhat muddy dirt track. Unloading of the truck is still underway so I pitch in; some of these duffels are heavy!

Mufwa Camp has seen better days, I suspect, but it’s still nice. The showers are a relief after the long day in the saddle. The bar is doing a roaring business with locals; turns out it’s Martyrs Day in Malawi, so cause for celebration this afternoon and night. They shut down the music about 8:30; I’ve actually been enjoying it for the past hour or so while writing up todays account. Afro-Beat with what I’m sure are joining in singing by at least several people. I’d have preferred them to continue for a while, in fact.

Pre- riders meeting and dinner I got a motorcycle ride into town and back: objective was to find an ATM for local currency and also a SIM card. Successful on the first, but struck out on the second (forgot to bring my passport). Oh well, I’ll try the AirTel shop in the morning on the way back thru and then out of Karonga town.

Well, now the bar has continued its audio effects for northern Malawi but not quite so nice to my ears. The bar patrons seem appreciative, however.

Thunder rolls in the distance, maybe I’ll get hit with rain overnight. There are fireflies here, too.

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