Malawi is weirdly fantastic, it takes 3 hours to cross the latitude of the entire country which is then essentially all “coastline” as you head South. We were having a great time in the car when only 5 mins past the capital, Lilongwe, we were pulled over by the police. The old “wave and keep driving” was not going to work this time and soon Frank was on the side of the road with the other fish wriggling around in the net. I had to head over to the car full of officials where I was told that speeding is actually illegal in Malawi and being clocked at at 68 in a 50 zone they issued us with a fine. Getting out of this one was going to be near impossible thanks to the video evidence that was proudly played back for me. After accepting the inevitable, the officers wrote out what I thought was a ticket but turns out it was a receipt and handed it over. They seemed unhappy after I let them know that we only had 2500 Kwacha (about a third of the fine) and couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the fact that they had written me a receipt for the full amount. Eventually they let us go after a bit of huffing and puffing and deciding we were not worth the effort so off we went with our discounted but “paid in full” fine, the first fine we have had to pay in 5 months in Africa. Our first real stop was Senga bay where we snuck in a few Malawian beers by the lakeside and it was perfect.
The following morning saw us depart for the world famous Cape McClear and a drive through the never ending rows of villages that line all Malawian roads. It turns out Malawi is in competition with China for its use of bicycles for everything. Bikes are everywhere and used as all forms of transport from taxis to chickens to clay pots, trees, fish, auto spares, other bikes, you name it, they’ll find a way to stick it on the back of a bike. What cant be carried on a bike can most defiantly be found spilling over the windscreen of a truck or pick-up that always seems to be grinding on the tar at some very strange angles.
This combination made driving incredibly hazardous as the bicyclists weaved in and out constantly wobbling their way along, trying to avoid spilling their precious cargo or getting impaled by oncoming bikes with ten foot poles sticking out in front like jousting knights. Finally we reached Monkey Bay, just outside of Cape McClear, where we needed to draw cash, refuel and stock up on groceries.
The fuel station didn’t take Visa, the grocery store had no fresh produce and the ATM only had 20,000 kwacha ($25.60), there we stood with our $25.60 wondering how we were going to pay for food, beers, accommodation and fuel and in which order. A quick refuel from the emergency tanks and a dry bread roll each later we moved off hoping to find a free camping spot and an open bar. Clearly we had our priorities right.
After some deliberation and a few trips up and down the single dirt road we decided on our camping spot, under the shade of a huge wild mango tree, right in front of the lake.
After all the food and beers our new neighbours slowly rolled in, on one side were 2 guys from Belgium who had travelled up from Southern Mozambique and on the other, a group of 3 guys and a girl who had just come from the Northern Islands of Mozambique on part of their ‘Trippin Africa’ tour, (a group of roughly 30 people moving through southern Africa as a ‘tribe’ finding places to create sci-trance parties, and meet like minded people). A colourful group of raging hippies that in my mind were worthy of a TV show. They travelled light, no plates, not much cutlery and clothes that doubled as pillows. They were saving weight for the enormous generator, tarps and lighting for these epic trance gigs. The tires on their car were different sizes, they almost dropped the leg of pork off of the braai 5 times because they didn’t have tongs (that later we found out was goat), one had a wound on his foot that had started looking a little dicey and was protected from the elements by a sock, the starter motor blew on their 27hour journey to Malawi because they couldn’t extend their visa in Mozambique and had to drive 24/7 to make the border so they were now push starting the 4×4 on sand every-time it had to be moved. I won’t, but I could go on for hours. I have fleeting thoughts every now and again that a news report will come though detailing their exploits and untimely demise. I joke but I have such admiration for what these guys were doing, the old adage of “when life gives you lemons just be like, fuck the lemons and bail “ rang true and they just got in the car and left knowing that they were in for an epic adventure. All said and done the guys were genuinely lovely and without doubt the best people we have met so far. They are all truly talented, don’t have a bad bone in their body and are having the time of their life. I must admit there were times when I thought the kool-aid looked quite good and that we should just abandon our journey and join in because it looked like an absolute blast.
The lake itself is stunning with incredible views but the combination of Bilharzia and people washing their pots, pans, clothes, children and themselves on the shores made it slightly less enticing to swim, and so we just enjoyed the scenery, relaxed, and chatted to all the different people milling around. We asked Jolles and Aton, a dutch couple, as many questions as humanly possible about their time in Mozambique and met Graham, a guy travelling Mozambique on a bike along with his son, who spent a whole day looking for us in Cape McClear under the advise of Rinus and Helga, who thought we might still be in the area.
Sad to leave our many newfound friends, 2 days later than expected, we pushed forward to Zomba, a plateau perched high in the South of Malawi, here the weather was much kinder and we were lucky enough to stumble across Rossa’s places, a lovely Italtian lady with an amazing restaurant. As we made this our base we set about exploring the town. Tash had a newfound confidence haggling for produce in the local markets whist I scoured the hardware stores for items to fix the never ending list on the car.
A trip to the top of the plateau revealed guys on the side of the road selling fresh strawberries, raspberries and blackberries, (all much to Tash’s delight) and several kilos of fruit later we managed to push on. The further we got up the steep incline we started to come across women carrying huge bundles of wood on their heads, extremely impressive till we saw the guys on bikes carrying more than we could fit in Frank. It was genuinely astonishing how these guys did it and more so that they didn’t come hurtling down the side of the mountain due to the weight.
We got to the top of the plateau and came across a stunning little dam, that funnily enough is featured on one of the new bank notes. We decided to take a lovely walk around where we came across the trout farm and a myriad of little water falls and creeks carrying cool fresh water down to the dam.
Setting off for Blantyre we found a distinct lack of campsites. Only one in fact, seemingly in the back of someones garden that looked less than legit, we decided we weren’t keen to end up as the idea for a horror movie and tried to chance it somewhere else. After dropping into restaurants and hotels alike to ask if we could park in the car park for the night we finally found a lovely restauranteur at House 5 that eventually agreed to allow us to camp in her car park. There we had our couscous special overlooking the city of Blantyre. We decided that nothing else in this town needed to be done and after nocking over the shopping and helping a poor guy using a foot pump to pump up his car tyre in a suit in the parking lot we moved through to Mt Mulanje, the second highest peak in Southern Africa.
When we finally found “base camp” we drove around a bit getting our bearings before deciding to set up camp. We chatted to Eric, again, who along with his mate Jeffrey had now been following us around for the better part of an hour offering to guide us up the mountain. After saying “thank you for the offer, if we want a guide we will come find you” or “thank you but no thank you” (which seemed to have zero effect) for the tenth time I had now moved onto ignoring the 5 strong team that had decided to find some shade near our camp site and sit and watch us till they saw the slightest bit of movement which would then bring on the next wave of offers. My patience was now nearing its tethered end and I eventually pulled Eric aside and said that if they didn’t harass and literally watch our every movement that I might have considered getting them to guide us but I was now going to the official office and hiring one of the guides there to take us up the mountain. After what I thought was a good job explaining that their persistence was hindering their opportunities and that people don’t like being constantly watched, I was greeted with “okay” and as I turned around it was followed by “but I can do better prices”. My heart sank and blood boiled to the point that Tash had to come intervene before I well and truly threw all my toys out the cot. We climbed the following morning and it was fantastic, the going was tough as we hadn’t exactly done much exercise the last couple of months but it was stunning the whole way through. We eventually reached the plateau where we turned around instead of heading for the summit as we were only doing a day trip and were now going to find the waterfalls and pools to have a swim.
That is exactly what we did and what a glorious swim it was, cool fresh mountain water kept topping up the clear, deep, blue pools.
We finished off passing a few fires till we got back to camp where Tash and I were a little worse for wear but content with our day on Mt Mulanji. We spent the night in recovery and camping at the only other place to camp in the town, the golf course, to be treated the next morning by a torrential downpour. The first time we had seen rain since leaving France and a cloud since leaving South Africa. The smell of the storm clearing the dust off the adjacent tea plantations was mesmerising and a perfect opportunity for coffee in bed and crack open the book for a couple of hours before heading for the Border.
We had no idea what to expect, people had said they couldn’t get visas at the border and that they had been turned away, others said there was no problem, so with a contingency plan in place we decided to chance it. I went through on my SA passport that didn’t require a visa or payment and left Tash and Frank on the Malawian side while I went to check if we could in fact get a visa for Tash in Mozams. Turns out we were in the most efficient border post in Africa and within 10 minutes Tash had her fingerprints in the system and a photo printed visa in her passport. We were Indian Ocean bound and couldn’t wait to hit the white sandy beaches and effervescent blue waters of Mozambique.