As he cycled along the road from Blantyre from Zomba, Ryan Sanderson- Smith looked up and was faced with the sheer rock face of the Zomba plateau, rising steeply to an elevation of 1,200 metres.
His first impulse: turn back. The 26-year-old South African was riding a bicycle loaded with panniers and camping gear. The air, weighed down with the humid pressure of an incoming storm, made every revolution of the wheel feel hotly languid. But the nearest village was kilometres away. He had no choice but to keep going—even after night fell and the rain clouds broke.
“I am glad I had no idea how high or far it was,” he says. “In the end, it was a good challenge. I could only laugh.”
By the standards of your average African adventurer, Sanderson-Smith’s idea of a “good challenge” fringes on lunacy. He has shunned the relative comfort of a 4 x 4 Safari jeep, instead choosing to hit the pavement on a Mountain Trek bicycle bought from a Malawian farmer. Having embarked from Cape Maclear at the bottom tip of Lake Malawi, Sanderson-Smith plans to ride the bicycle to his hometown of Plettenburg Bay—a distance of over 3,000 kilometres.
Not much lies behind his decision to cycle through one of the world’s poorest countries. He has never done cycle touring but wanted to try a kind of travel that would immerse him in a landscape, rather than simply allowing him to view it from behind the bug-smeared glass of a car window.
“I wanted a new challenge, to push my limits, become very fit and experience travelling, inch by inch,” he says. “I pretty much just jumped on a bike spur of the moment. The idea just popped into my head and I grabbed it.”
In part, his journey is an escape from the kind of sedentary life that most people find comforting. Sanderson-Smith has just graduated with an MA from Cambridge University, specializing in the commercialization of science. But the sterile environment of the laboratory bores him and there was much more he wants to experience in the world.
“I could tell that I didn’t want to work in a laboratory forever. So I decided to break the mold and get my PhD from ‘The School of Life,’” he says.
New challenges arise every day: flat tires, intense heat, not to mention pure exhaustion. Unexpected 1,200-metre climbs are enough to make anyone want to throw in the towel.
But by Malawian standards, his daily trek is not that impressive–bicycles are often used in Malawi to transport not just people but firewood, charcoal and even live goats. Sanderson Smith says that seeing the nonchalant endurance of people here inspires him to keep going.
“It’s great fun chatting to other cyclists and it makes me feel less tired to see someone cycle past on a bike with no gears and huge amounts of luggage and another person on the back.”
Nonetheless, jumping on a bicycle and cycling through a foreign country takes a certain amount of daring, though he maintains that anyone can do it, with some basic gear: “cycling shorts, gloves. Just do it,” he says. “Fortune favours the brave.”