07June 2023 – Day Eleven of the Old Legs Zanzibar Tour – From Metangula to Cobue, Mozambiquepop iii
Distance – 78 kilometers
Total ascent – 600 meters.
Time – 9 hours 17 minutes
Av heart rate – 104 bpm
Max heart rate – 153 bpm
Max temp – 32 degrees.
I am blogging to you from Nkwichi Lodge on Lake Malawi in the Manda Wilderness, an hour’s slow boat ride south of Cobue, which is in the middle of nowhere, Mozambique, about 40 kilometers south of the Tanzanian border. Nkwichi Lodge is absolutely idyllic, the sort of place Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie might honeymoon in, albeit separately these days.
Today was the first day we properly rode off grid. To avoid deep sand on the main road, the plan was the riders would ride unsupported, apart from backpacks full of sausages and boiled eggs, via a lakeshore track for 40 kms before cutting inland over a massive mountain to meet up with the support vehicles for lunch.
The mountain loomed large and ominous. Our day’s track had been plotted for us by Cole Myers back in Harare, so we named the climb ahead of us Cole’s Big Bloody Wall.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, the support vehicles would route via the main Metangula – Cobue highway, which even had a number assigned to it. We knew we would be without cellphone signal for most of the day, but had backup plans in place using satellite communicators, What could possibly go wrong? Most everything is the answer to that question, including Al’s bicycle, but more of that later.
First there was the sand. Sand is a 4-letter-word on a mountain bike. Sand can turn 20 kms into an all day affair. Falling off your bike in sand is relatively simple. I am reasonably proficient.
First up, the sand grabs hold of your front wheel and rips you violently off course towards the rider next to you. You wrestle with your handlebars to grab back control, you fail, and then you crash, generally right in front of the rider behind, who takes evasive action by crashing into the rider next to him, and so on, and so on. 4-letter words abound, but empathy not so much.
To avoid all of the above, we routed along the lakeshore. Turns out though that the sand in Mozambique is not exclusive to main roads. Turns out it also happens to be on lakeside roads. It also turns out that Kim is likewise a natural at falling off in sand. Every time I looked round, she was power napping in the sand. N.B. Kim was in good company. Most every other rider also belly flopped in the sand, including Pete who managed to lose his iPhone in the process.
Thankfully we are slightly more proficient at crossing rivers than we are at crossing sand. There were many rivers to cross, some more than wheel deep, some very wide and shallow.
It was exactly in such a river that the soft underbelly of Al Watermeyer’s preventative maintenance was exposed. His derailleur broke mid-stream. And small wonder it broke. Cedric the ride medic who is also more than passably good at fixing bikes found Al’s chain to not only be 10 links too long, but it was also threaded through his derailleur wrong, under instead of over. NB Al was very quick to blame his bike’s condition on his brother and bike mechanic, Laurie, but asked me not to mention that, so please disregard.
If Al’s bike was a horse, we would have shot it. Despite the best efforts of Cedric, Al’s bike remained stubbornly buggered. We were 40 kilometers from our rendezvous point up the creek without a paddle, with a giant mountain in front of us, and on a track that had not seen vehicle traffic since the slave traders, apart from motor bikes.
Motor bikes pass for public transport in this part of the world, 150 c.c. Made in China street bikes, pimped to the max with slightly ape- hanger handle bars and a decorative soft toy, and a booming sound system.
We were able to hire 2 motorbikes complete with kamikaze motor-bikers, 1 for Al and 1 for his bike. One of my enduring memories of the Zanzibar Tour will be the sight of Al roaring off into the bush on the back of his rented motorbike with his slightly worried look verging on fully panicked firmly in place. The look turned out to be fully justified. Al’s motorbike kamikaze pilot almost lost control shortly after take off blasting through a sandy river bed before fully losing control by crashing into a tree.
Because the track was less than obvious, we rode as a group, and at a pace set by the slowest rider, namely moi. The first half of the ride at my speed was super chilled and explains my average heart rate of just 108 bpm.
We rode past some rice, very little maize, lots of cassava, but zero irrigation, despite all the water in the world right there. The lake delivers up daily protein in the form of fish, but the people along the lakeside are properly poor in one of the most remote parts of Africa. And the people are not set to get any richer going forward. We saw just one school in 40 kilometers.
At the risk of sounding like Rolf Harris, the kids in Mozambique are very sweet. They are quite shy and reserved but have the most delightful smiles.
The title of the worst job in the world went to rock crushers we saw, who were tasked with converting huge boulders into 1/2 inch aggregate for building by hand with a two-pound hammer. I tried to help the one old guy and failed. But at least they don’t give the job to 5 year-old kids like they do in Uganda.
The 2nd half of the ride was less chilled, and even slower, courtesy of Cole’s Big Bloody Wall and lots of technical single track, treacherous drops and climbs and deep gullies in the road. Single track requires focus, so straight away, I am disadvantaged. My shallow perception, i.e. the opposite of depth, helps not a lot either.I briefly see rocks clearly and then I hit them. I hate technical, single track.
Clem however loves single track, the more technical the better. There is a little boy on a BMX inside Clem dying to get out, itching to ride fast and ramp ramps, and broadside around corners. Clem volunteered to ride at the front of the group and so enjoyed himself.
And then we hit Cole’s Big Bloody Wall. It was everything bad, hellish steep with gradients of 15 percent and more, loose gravel underfoot interspersed with big, bloody boulders, deep gullies, bits of soft sand thrown in every now and then, all against the backdrop of the most incredible views of Lake Malawi far below. I walked most of the way, using my bike like a Zimmerframe.
We rode through 15 kilometers of the most beautifully pristine Miombo forrest, as yet unravaged by the bloody charcoal makers, to reach our rendezvous point. It was beautiful. It was also bloody treacherous under wheel, with the track deeply rutted.
Incredibly, somewhere in the forest near the top, we bumped into technicians installing fiber optics in the middle of nowhere. We thought they were mad and they thought likewise.
Rafe rated his day in the saddle as his hardest, technical ride ever.
Completely knackered, overheating badly, and fantasizing about cold cokes, I celebrated the rendezvous point, until I realized the vehicles weren’t there, only Al and his broken bike. So I ceased celebrations and commenced stressing.
To get to the rendezvous, the vehicles only had to drive 115km. It was 12.30 and still no vehicles. Something must have gone wrong. I had silent money on Jenny and Vicky being lost and on their way back to Malawi. We got busy on the Garmin InReaches, reaching out to Gary and Brian in the support vehicles, but no joy.
At 13.30 we decided the riders would push on the last 27 km to Cobue, while Al and I would remain at the rendezvous point to wait for the vehicles and the spare bike for Al. And if Al and I didn’t make Cobue by 16.00, then Angus would send motorbikes to fetch us.
For the first hour, mostly Al and I watched a kid doing cartwheels. We also watched some chickens. We agreed that one of the chickens was the prettiest chicken we’d ever seen.
We jumped up when we heard a vehicle, but it was an ambulance going the wrong way. At 14.30 I fell fast asleep in the middle of an Alastair story.
Finally at 15.30, the black Isuzu arrived with Jenny and Gary, followed shortly by the silver Isuzu and Christopher. Incredibly, 115 km on a numbered national road had taken the support vehicles 9 hours to negotiate. Brian told me they had done epic in spades, fighting with broken bridges, missing sections of road and swollen rivers. Apparently much of the damage was due to Cyclone Freddy, but some of it looked to be more dated than that.
Crazy place Mozambique, pretty soon you’ll be able to enjoy 4G in the middle of nowhere, but you certainly won’t be able to get there by car.
But all is well that ends well. We have enjoyed our best ever and badly needed rest day at the beautiful Nkwichi Lodge. Some of us practiced paddled on kayaks. I was appalled by my performance. I was even more appalled that I couldn’t pull the boat out of the water after aborting. I was hugely relieved when I found out afterwards that my boat had sprung a leak and was full of water.
Lake Malawi is beautiful with crystal clear waters below and fish eagles above, but I wish there were also hippos and crocodiles. Without hippos and crocodiles, it doesn’t seem like proper Africa.
Apologies for a blog longer than our Tour. We are riding to raise money and awareness for Zimbabwe’s pensioners. Back home I am told that our Medical Fund has been overwhelmed with appeals, including from a 65-year old lady with a broken leg, a broken ankle and no income. Life for our pensioners has got twice as tough with the Zollar halving in value in the last 2 weeks. Please help us help them by following the donate prompts on www.oldlegstour.com.
Until my next blog as we continue our very slow race to Zanzibar – Eric Chicken Legs de Jong
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