The Rumphi Road

30 Jan

Auke’s directions to Rumphi were simple. ‘Keep going straight, in 50km there’s a left turn, when you see it, go straight.’ So I pushed Dervla* up Lukwe’s steep driveway and followed the winding dirt road up and down over hills, following the lay of the valleys and peaks through thick farmland and forest. I strapped on my helmet, aware that the mud gripping me into in my clip-on pedals made falling over on the slow and slippy climbs uphill just as likely as when skidding down the descents.

From the far side of valleys, from the top of mango trees, from behind grasses and hidden in the shade of huts, children shout ‘HOW ARE YOU!’ like William Wallace shouts ‘FREEDOM!’

At junctions where ‘going straight’ seemed an unlikely possibility (to put it midly), I searched for someone to ask for directions. Confusing conversations were the name of the game today, here’s one example (lot’s of elaborate gesturing from us both throughout):

Me – (Hello, how are you etc.) I am going to Rumphi. Which road to Rumphi? This one (point at tiny path up the side of a cliff)) to Rumphi?

Godknows** – Yes.

Me – (double checking, pointing in the opposite direction) and this to Rumphi?

Godknows – Yes.

Me – Ok, how far to Rumphi? How many kilometers?

Godknows – Rumphi is 800km.

Me – No, 800km is too far. 800km is like the whole length of Malawi.

Godknows – Oh. Then it is 300km.

Me – (Having cycled for 3 hours from Livingstonia) OK. How many km is it to Livingstonia from here?

Godknows – Livingstonia to here is 300km.

Me – Then it is the same? From Livingstonia to here is the same as from here to Rumphi?

Godknows – No! Rumphi is very far.

Me – OK, how long will it take me on my bicycle?

Godknows – 7 hours.

Me – Ok, better get going then

Godknows – Yes. Continue your journey.


The road dissolved into thick sticky mud on several occasions, clogging up the brakes and mudguards until I slipslided to a halt. I excavated my bike from these quagmires using my hands and bamboo sticks 3 or 4 times throughout the day.

It was a fun and scenic ride. Epic natural beauty such as the fast running Rumphi river rapids (rock-solid white water rafting potential here) crash through unusual rocky scarps and remain unexploited, unmentioned.

At around 6pm, I was still ‘going straight’ as I entered Rumphi. I found a room at the Rumphi conference center for 700KW and took a shower with Dervla (we’re getting very close). And I also found a working ATM***. I spent the evening in Malawi’s answer to Nortons watching Birmingham vs. Wolves. Tomorrow – back on the tarmac road to Mzuzu.

*The bike’s name is Dervla. Dervla Murphy wrote The Ukimwi Road when cycling a similar route to me in 1993 at the age of 60.
**Can’t remember the name of this cowherder, but Godknows is a genuine (and my favourite) Malawian name!
***Because I’ve been withdrawing cash instead of changing foreign currency on the black market, I’ve been getting 165KW to the US$ rather than 250KW to the US$. I’ve been cursing the ATMs and the banks terrible exchange rate but when there’s only one ATM in 60 miles and they have a 1in5 chance of working, you end up feeling like kissing every blessed damned note (the biggest is 500KW and Malawi’s printing new ones like crazy) that it deigns to allow you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: