After cycling into Mbeya shortly before sundown yesterday, we are determined to get away early and hit the road.
Lorries and minibuses clog the hills out of Mbeya, drivers sounding their horns like ocean liners so that we swerve out of the way as they are about to overtake us. Fifteen kilometres out of town and we are able to leave the Tanzan Highway and turn right (due south) towards Malawi. The road points upwards in the general direction of the heavens.
After the heat and humidity of Dar es Salaam and the East Africa coast the big drop in temperature comes as a relief. Heavy rain is also initially welcome. Welcome until you are completely soaked, your clothes clinging to your skin like an unwitting contestant in a wet T-shirt competition, and it begins to feel like you are cycling up the side of a huge Welsh mountain in November.
By lunchtime we have climbed to around 2,000 metres above sea level and rest for a while at Isongole, a small town where most of the local men sit around hoping a job will pop up that will earn them enough for a meal.
Then the rain turns into a torrent. We take shelter in a wooden hut that doubles up as the village bar. Bjorn does the sensible thing by changing out of his wet clothes and getting forty winks. I think it is cool to keep my wet clothes on, sit and watch the town turn into a river.
After 90 minutes of torrential rain we have no option but to set off again. I am wet, cold and shivering. Little did we know but the town marks the highest part of the mountain road. It is all downhill from here. We cycle through cloud, fog, near horizontal rain as my brake pads show serious signs of fatigue. I am slowing Bjorn down but it is too risky to take the hill at full speed.
We had hoped to reach Tukuyu but after hours of awful weather it is clear we need to find a bed for the night before it gets dark. One rule we have kept to in Kenya and Tanzania is to never cycle after sunset - the roads are unlit and it just isn’t safe to venture out alone in the darkness.
There cannot be many roads in the world that descend so steeply and for so many kilometres as this one. With it already gone 5pm we cycle at double speed to ensure we get a hotel in the fading light. As if by magic there is a hotel compound on the edge of the last sizeable town we reckon we will see before Tukuyu.
I cycle ahead to see if they have rooms.
Having received positive news I turn to see Bjorn being chased down the middle of the town by the local witch doctor. He is shouting out all kinds of mumbo jumbo and is hitting the back of Bjorn’s cycle trailer with a red mallet.
After the epic day we have had we are not about to get intimidated by an African witch doctor, however mad he might be:
He has eyes wilder than Liam Gallagher on a night out, no front teeth and a voice so deep and scary that it appears there is indeed an evil spirit dwelling deep inside his voice box. But, like I said, after the day we have had we are not about to get intimidated by his demands for money in return for his blessing. In fact, his mumbo jumbo routine has Bjorn and I bursting into a fit of giggles. What does the good doctor do? He starts laughing as well…and then he is gone.
Over our usual customary post-cycle evening beer it does appear however that the witch doctor has had some kind of effect on Bjorn. Two ‘ladies of the night’ sat nearby suddenly swipe at a swarm of insects-cum-moths attracted to the electric bulb above the food and drinks. Placing their catch on the table they begin to eat the insects. Bjorn puts down his bottle of Kilimanjaro, picks up an insect and puts it in his mouth. It has been a very long day.