Mbeya to Iringa
Mbeya to Chimala 68km
We decided to get up and out early to see how the day would develop. We brewed breakfast up in the bathroom on the Trangia, and were out of the door by sun up.
It was very cool and we added an extra layer and started slogging into a strong headwind.
At first the TanZam was crazy-busy, and on the badly deformed road, options to dodge speeding trucks, buses, and lorries were pretty limited. On one occasion, I watched Annette disappear into the distance as I bounced right off the road after a close pass from a truck. I lost a water bottle in that one, as I bounced along like a rodeo clown with no bones, hanging on to the bike like…well, like a terrified man on a bike.
After a couple of hours, the wind became more civilised, the scenery changed, and we settled down for a new phase of hot, dry, undulating riding. As I sucked on a couple of boiled sweets I liberated from the hotel, I spent ages thinking how much they were like Werther’s Originals. Yes, that’s the sort of thing your brain does on the road!
The next few days are very tricky to work out, with accommodation, availability of food and water, and distances, all sketchy. We decided that we had to have a short day someday in order to make it work, so we decided to take the short day tomorrow and spend the night at Chimala, where there is a choice of rest houses.
We met a local guy outside the rest house, and bought him lunch in exchange for information. All of the information turned out to be wildly inaccurate, but lunch was agreeable anyway. It was oddly pleasant to be eating surrounded by Masai on motorbikes, in traditional dress.
We managed to buy some food for the evening, and settled in to the room. Unfortunately, we heard about three Policemen who had been killed in the unrest back in Lilongwe. I thought about our friend Fanny, a policewoman in Lilongwe, and feel sad that although we are having a good time travelling, others are still struggling to get on with their lives because of politics. Neither the people killed, nor the people doing the killing, are at the heart of the problems. It is the self-serving actions of politicians that set brothers and sisters against each other. This is not only the case in Malawi, but all over the world.
The TV in the room is welded to the wall in a steel cage. So that's the sort of place this is!
Chimala to Igawa 45 km
This sounds like an easy day, but it felt like a much bigger day. In hindsight, it was the start of a set of conditions that was to be with us for some time.
There was no food at the guesthouse, so we got the Trangia fired up in the bathroom and ate some bread and drank some Mzuzu coffee. We set off into a fierce headwind, which sometimes stalled us even on the flat.
It was a generally hilly and slow day and we spent a lot of it in single figures on a badly broken road. When we managed to raise our chins from our chests, the view was breath taking. Endless savannah as far as our imaginations could reach. The view was like geological time, you know the numbers, but you can't quite wrap your small mind around what it means; kind of like infinity. We can all spell it, but we can't quite imagine it.
Apart from the wind, it was hot, but a different flavour of hot to Malawi; it was totally dry, and somehow more comfortable.
We slogged into Igawa like two wrung out dishcloths, and checked in to what is world renowned as the best hotel in Igawa. Of course it also holds the title of the only hotel in Igawa; both lofty achievements are well deserved, as both the staff and the hotel, were tip-top!
As is sometimes the way with money that has too many zeros on the notes, we had miscalculated our bank withdrawals, by a factor of ten. We spent some of the evening counting banknotes, adding up items on the menu to see if we could afford them, scratching our heads, and finding out where the nearest ATM was.
We were led to believe it would be Makambako…phew!
Igawa to Makambako 64 km
After a very good breakfast (eggs, toast, banana stew), we set off on a good road to Makambako. It was basically uphill all day, and again, against a strong headwind.
Although the scenery was at times breathtaking, it was difficult to disconnect from how much we were suffering, to take it all in. The focus was more often than not, on the two metres of blacktop in front of my front wheel. It was one of those days where you get off to check every once in a while to see if your brakes aren’t binding… because it seems impossible for it to be so hard to maintain walking pace on the flat.
The 64 kms we pedalled today was right up there with much longer days we have had in terms of effort, but although we suffered a bit, it was thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.
Makambako didn't have a particularly good feel, and it was the first time we’ve been hassled in Tanzania, although a daily occurrence travelling in Malawi. We managed to find some manky black bananas, some popcorn, and some unfamiliar snacks that turned out to taste like deep fried carpet.
We struggled to find a billet for the night, and eventually found one without food, the Rolex. Initially, we weren’t happy, but the manager of the lodge walked us through some fields and houses where we got 2 egg chipsys, and a further 2 to take-away.
Exhausted by now, we went to the room and watched a terrific storm break over us. It was worrying considering the weather forecast, and a much longer day in store tomorrow.
Makambako to Mafinga 84 km
We awoke at 4.30, nervous about the day. 40kph winds were forecast with heavy rain, and another day uphill. At 4.30, the storm was still in full swing. After a Trangia breakfast, we set off at first light, clad in thermals and waterproofs.
The first 30km went in fairly well, and then the wind increased. It was starting to get too difficult to stay safe and eventually we were reduced to pushing the bikes. This was not good news.
The road was surprisingly, quite excellent apart from really irritating rumble strips. Almost always in places where there was no good reason for them, they slowed us down massively - rattling our aging teeth within our aging jawbones, but affecting cars and trucks not a bit. We can only assume that as the road was Chinese built, they must have a problem with speeding bicycles cutting around their highways at speeds dangerous to people and wildlife. And they need to put a stop to it...now!
We stumbled across a team of Chinese road engineers poring over technical instruments, some of which looked very much like mobile phones. Annette found it irresistible to stop and mention the rumble strips, and make a few very helpful engineering suggestions on how they could construct their roads in a much better way in future. I pedalled away feeling confident that all Chinese roads built in the future will probably incorporate Annette’s suggestions into them.
I felt sure she had done a great service to cyclists all over the world.
Eventually, into Mafinga, a large and bustling city, we struggled to find our lodge, the Vamos Lodge. The lodge was really nice, very reasonable, and everyone was friendly and helpful.
We paid particular attention to the weather forecast for the following day.
Mafinga to Iringa 80 km
On the road again by 6.30, the weather and (most importantly), the headwind continued. We still had a 40kph Easterly. The road was good and we made as reasonable progress as we could expect to Ifunda where we fuelled up on egg chipsys and masala tea in a local bar.
The wind seemed to calm slightly and we toiled our way to Iringa. The way into Iringa Boma, where all of the accommodation is, was via a steep ramp, a couple of kms long. It was seriously steep in places after a long slog, and it was touch and go a couple of times with trucks logjammed and belching diesel fumes into our faces.
Annette was a good bit ahead of me, and missed what was probably the photo opportunity of the trip; getting a shot of me toiling up the hill wearing my lungs on the outside, pulling a face like a dog chewing a wasp. Never mind.
The place that we e-mailed for a room, hadn't responded yet, probably because they didn't have a room, and would have wasted several valuable seconds typing a response telling us not to bother coming.
We didn't have a plan B, and ended up paying far too much, for far too little.
Luckily, the place gave us an opportunity to develop our ability to manage frustration, as we refrained from complaining at every disappointment in service or facilities, and learned to smile convincingly when we were crying inside.
We weren’t sure about the next few days…