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No more excuses: Lessons from cycling in Malawi

It was hard to say where the horizon ended and the inky black night sky began. Thousands of lights glinted off the lake’s water, mirroring the starry sky. The lights on the lake were from dugout canoes, decked out like the headlights of a boy racer’s car, which the fishermen used to lure fish into their nets.

“Thousands of lights glinted off the lake’s water, mirroring the starry sky.”

We watched the spectacle from the terrace. It was BBQ night, and all you can eat. Like vultures on a fresh kill we were soon distracted from the lights on the Lake. I don’t think they made any money out of the BBQ that night as 12 overland cyclists ate their body weight in meat. The hostel had an excellent reputation which was what had caused so many cyclists to flock here, spending a couple of days resting at this idyllic spot. I had been cycling alone and it was a pleasant interlude from the solitary life on the road to chat to other cyclists.

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Up to then I had not seen another foreign cyclist, plenty of locals though whose main mode of transport is by bicycle, and who were particularly bemused to meet a solo western woman pedalling along the open road. I’d met many people and even, bizarrely, seen the Malawian president, Joyce Banda, drive past. But no other foreigners until now.

“My approach couldn’t have been more different.”

As we sat around the table gorging on ribs and pasta salad, whilst waitresses floated from table to table with trays of condiments balanced on their heads, I listened to everyone’s amazing stories of adventure. Whilst listening it occurred to me that I had gone about my journey very differently. Every single other person there was cycling (or planning to cycle) the length of Africa, yes taking different routes, but all taking years to navigate the length of this diverse continent. They had trained and saved, sold all their worldly possessions, researched and bought all the right kit. Their journeys were incredible feats of human endurance, both mentally and physically. My approach couldn’t have been more different.

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I, on the other hand, had three weeks to travel, no specialist kit (not even a bike before coming to Malawi) and virtually no money, not even to afford a flight. So, how was I there? Enjoying the same rich experiences of exploring this beautiful country and meeting it’s smiley people.

Essentially, it due to being unfazed by this predicament and confident enough that I would be able to get everything I needed on the road, combined with a determination to explore as well as being an opportunist of my circumstances. My circumstances were that, as an expedition leader, I work all over the world (yes, it’s a great job), I had just worked with a group in Zambia and Botswana and was able to extend my flights to stay in Africa and have my own trip as a solo female cyclist. Getting there sorted.

“cycling is great pace to see any country”

Now, for the small problem of not having a bike for my planned cycling adventure, and here I had done a little research before leaving the UK. Using online forums I had established that it would be possible to buy a bike in Lilongwe and people had given advice on how to best go about this. I had already set my heart on cycling in Malawi and it was a happy coincidence that Malawi is an extremely cycle friendly country. Much of the local population cycles so it is simple to purchase a bike and easy and cheap to get it fixed and serviced. Distances between villages are short, so I never needed to plan to carry much water or supplies. And, most of all, people were friendly and accepting of cyclists, it was a wonderful way to meet local people and cycling is a great pace to see any country.

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It took a day to find a suitable bike in Lilongwe, barter on the price and, finally, buy it. Then it was the simple matter of taking it across the road to one of the street bicycle fixers and get the pannier rack fitted, new brakes and chain together with a full service. The next morning I was on the road.

Malawi adventure by bike

As I travelled along the quiet, windy roads and tracks of rural Malawi I found some advantages to this more ad hoc mode than the trans-continent and round-the-world cyclists. I didn’t have a deadline and didn’t have to rush, I could explore the side roads and tracks, rather than sticking to the fastest main roads. I had a limited budget and time but had no fixed plan or destination. I had also been careful to not be over ambitious with the time I had, sticking to exploring just the shores of Lake Malawi.

Malawi adventure by bike

We are bombarded with stories of people on epic trips, and I also take great inspiration from these people and their journeys. We are also bombarded with companies who try to convince us to spend a small fortunate on specialist stuff for such adventures without which we would not manage to travel safely. The problem is that many of us do not, and will never, be able to take 2 years off work, and our financial priorities are such that we can’t spend thousands on kit. The mindset is that it is not possible to have a true adventure until that mystical moment in life when both time and money are plentiful. The sooner that we realise that these are two mutually exclusive states the sooner we can start making plans reality. It takes a paradigm shift in adventuring to move away from the concept that an expedition needs to be a long and expensive venture in some far away land, to fight the commercialism which slides into our subconscious. Yes, you will have less to brag about when you get home from this sort of trip, but I can guarantee you will still have plenty of stories to tell and, what’s more, you will actually have been on an adventure, whilst the rest are forever assigned to their armchairs.

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