Update from Mike Coo – Lilongwe
Riding sweep on the TDA is an important job and a big responsibility. You have to carry a satellite phone, a first aid kit, and stay behind the last rider, making sure everyone gets to camp safely and on time. As some of our cyclists tend to bike at a more relaxed pace, being at the back can allow you the freedom to do a little exploring.
The first day’s cycle out of Chitimba Beach features a 1000m climb up from the sandy shores of Lake Malawi into the Viphya Mountains. The first 26kms is also a challenging time trial for the 2013 TDA racers. This year, as morning sweep, I was driven up in the pouring rain to man the finish line at the end of the race and then I would ride behind the cyclists until they reached the lunch truck.
Once the racers and other cyclists passed by, I hopped on my bike and headed off along the winding South Rukuru River; passing small villages where women sold bundles of charcoal, children carried baskets of bananas on their heads and farmers displayed their tomatoes & potatoes, piled neatly on small wooden tables beside the road.
While cycling the TDA in 2006, I had seen a sign along this stretch mentioning something about a Bamboo bridge but at that time pedaled past without stopping. This time I was a little more relaxed and, as sweep, had some time and decided to check it out with Anne Cook, a Kiwi rider who also liked to stop and explore at every opportunity. So we turned off onto a dirt path through the cornfields and followed it down to the river. And there we found this amazing bridge.
Built by an enthusiastic but untrained local, Godwin WaNyanga Mkandawire, in 1904 of bamboo poles tied up with bark strings from the local trees, the bridge was designed to connect the village of Chigona Bweka and some ancestral shines and hot springs on the far side of the river to the main village. Each year the locals would work together to maintain the link, replacing the bamboo as required from local forests. Ironically, due to agricultural development and deforestation, the bridge is now at risk as there is no local bamboo with which to replace the worn out sections. An attempt was made years ago to develop the spot into a tourist destination but the hotel and shops are now shuttered and overgrown.
I rode on, stopping to visit a local Tobacco farmer and enjoying a visit to a grinding mill, noisily turning corn into flour. Not to mention a cheerful woman carrying the freshly detached head of a goat.
Lunch was drawing ever closer but as I spun along I noticed another cyclist in a helmet. Now, nobody in Malawi wears a helmet except our riders and as I drew alongside I noticed that he was a local. We got to chatting and it turned out he lived in a nearby village and, having seen the faster riders pass through, decided to join us for a few kms. I invited him to lunch where he introduced himself as Osbor Moothali from Rumphi. As TDA encourages local riders to join us where possible for a few days, we exchanged contact info and next year, as the TDA pedals through this beautiful part of Malawi, we will be joined by Osbor and, hopefully, a couple of his friends for a few days.