Road to Lilongwe

Road to Lilongwe

The morning came too early for most us as we once again packed the van and trailer – heavy with bags, equipment and refreshments. The road to Lilongwe would be long and the road conditions troublesome so our road captain Wes us up early, packed and ready while the sun was still coming up. The backup van is occupied by myself, Jan Harm, Kevin and Pierre: each with barely enough space to sit and the back of the van piled so high that none of the back windows are visible.

Kevin’s been a machine. He rides up front with Pierre in the backup vehicle, when he’s not taking over from riders and is the resident DJ for the long days in the car. During the evenings when most of us are settling down he’s checking bikes and is in charge of maintenance and repairs where needed. It’s been a gruelling couple of days for him, with many of the bikes starting to feel the strain of the long hot days and – let’s call it: interesting road conditions. We need to find time to do some patchwork, and checkups – but with the schedule either packed with functions and events, or long stretches of road it’s been difficult to say the least.

Once on the road, spirits were lifted. We stopped to take a group photo of the unofficial halfway point. I have no idea what the ‘unofficial’ means, but I’m not going to complain about a chance to stretch my legs and enjoy the scenery.
I had not known what to expect of Malawi – but this stretch of road put a smile on even the most tired of us. It’s beautiful here. The roads cut around low hills in smooth curves, with trees tall and thick on either side. With a gap in the green and brown foliage you look out onto the valley that stretches overgrown to the next hills.

By 10:30 it was already 32 degrees. Kevin had switched with one of the riders so we were missing our chief mechanic, our 80’s music as well as the occasional laugh at his dry sense of humour. It was therefore the perfect time to get a visit from Murphy and his infamous law.

Having been almost pushed off the road by a truck, the van bounced as its right wheels was forced onto the gravel. With a few nervous laughs we assumed that we had gotten through the ordeal. Ten minutes later, when we stopped, we were curiously passed by a rubber ring rolling past like a tumbleweed in a western movie, then wobbling and coming to a standstill a few meters in front of us.

One of the trailer’s wheels had been ripped to shreds – the heat of the day and the heavy load on the trailer to blame – The rim cracked and bent and clearly useless. The jack was unpacked – Jan Harm proved useful again and we were on our way without too much of a hassle. Twenty minutes later another one went. With no more spare wheels we were forced to mount the right rear wheel forward, to replace other shredded mass of rubber. On top of this, there were no other spares with which to cross the remaining distance. We also had to cross the border to make it to our function of the night at 6pm: The launch of the UN Women’s office in Malawi – one of the most prestigious and well planned events of our trip.

With the trailer already taking such a battering, I’m worried what the effects will be if we have to carry a bike as well. The Couches apparently weighing 450kg, two bikes are in question and we’ll have to wait and see on the verdict from Kevin.

Luckily we were completely isolated so there were no objections to the quantity or the volume of the profanities that followed. A slow grind ensued for safety’s sake, with us eventually catching up to the bikers – at this point the backup vehicle has needed more support than the bikes themselves. The riders were having a tough time of it as well, with fuel low and the heat rising – they had been short on water, with very few places able to provide them with more.

Our final obstacle of the day proved to be the border post. While the majority of the backup crew were able to pass through rather quickly – many of the riders were delayed by red tape and the scarcity of helpful staff at the crossing.

Beyond that we made it to the event a bit late – with the help of the Malawi police escort guiding us through traffic. The event itself was fantastic, with moving poetry being performed and quite a few laughs in between the serious topics covered. Jan and I were filming most of it, so were only able to relax once we made it back to the hotel – where food and a cold drink could be arranged.

I think I was asleep as soon as I opened the door to the room, and do not remember plugging in laptops and downloading footage – the process that’s repeated every night in preparation for the next day to come. Thankfully tomorrow will be a bit more relaxed, but we have a long ways yet to go before we’re through. We’re halfway – halfway home – halfway back to our loved ones at home – if only I could say the same of the cause. It seems that an incredible effort is still needed in order to bring about some measure of change. I do not question that we are having an impact, but talking to people it seems to be a mountain to climb and we are only able to reach so many people – the villages we drive by, the faces staring smiling at the bikes as we pass – they only get a glimpse: a loud blur of noise and signage as we speed past. I sincerely hope that those that we reach, those that we talk to are spreading the word further, setting off some sort of snowball.

  1. Fanie Haarhoff 2 December, 2012

    It sounds like it is becoming more & more difficult on the road! That is however what makes the trip and the memories. Is there anything we can do from here to help?
    Please shout, you are not alone!!

    Regards and strength to all!

  2. A personal friend of ours you call “… our road captain, Wes” and I can imagine how he’s enjoying the journey as you all appear to be. VASBYT with the tests/borders/tyre-damage, we know your mettle shows and you will all live to relish the memories of this Ride ON, Speak OUT! cause that you serve so galantly. Great going guys, keep smiling and keep riding!

  3. Henri 4 December, 2012

    Picture of the girl with the basket on the head says a lot.

  4. Vickie 7 December, 2012

    Thank you Chris, I’ve been reading your blog about 10 times now and love it!!! Good luck with the rest of the trip and thanks for the all the info, it is great to get a glimpse of what you guys are experiencing.

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