“You don’t have an e-visa?” Well, no we do not! “Well, you must apply for one. It takes 7 days.” We sit and wait. After much humming and haaring they decide to relent and issue us a visa with no receipt. The cost is the same as an online visa so we don’t care. Visas issued, passports stamped, car insurance purchased, road tax and emissions tax paid and carnet stamped. Sim card and kwachas (local currency) purchased. Phew! Welcome to Malawi - “The Warm Heart of Africa”
We head out the gates with smiles on our faces. The sun is shining and better yet the road is smooth. There are people everywhere. The road is the main walking track, market area and meeting area. Cars are secondary. We head towards Blantyre (the second largest city), but we arrive at rush hour and get caught in long snarls of traffic. By the time we exit the city it is getting late and with black clouds looming we shelve our plan of camping at a tea plantation and stop at an Eco Lodge just out of town. We can even eat in their restaurant – a totally vegan meal of course. Lots of fascinating conversations with the people staying there. A school teacher starting up a junior school and an engineer working on a durable housing project which is very timely as thousands of homes have been destroyed in the cyclone. Many simply washed down hillsides. And the rain hasn’t stopped either. It continues all night and comes in patches the next day as we head towards Thyolo in the heart of the tea growing area.
One of my very best friends was brought up on Naming’ombra, one of the big plantations here. We locate it and talk our way past the guard and head down the muddy tracks. At the main office we meet the manager (the company is now owned by an Indian company) who arranges for the engineer, Ison Ghione, to give us a tour. He has been with the company forever and even remembers Helen’s father who back then was the chief engineer. The tour is amazing. The plucking, weighing, quality control, grinding conveyors and drying boilers are all the same as years ago. After a full tour of the factory he takes us out to see Mr Barrows old house (he was the original owner) and then into the fields to watch the pluckers at work.
From here we continue on to Mulanje where we can stay at the Golf Club. Fortunately, the sky is clear and we can see the Mulanje Mountain because in the morning it is totally clouded over after raining all night. Everywhere is water logged and there are signs of flooding beside all the rivers. We do not plan to head down any back roads as they are mostly dirt and likely to be sticky and slippery, but there is another main road back to Blantyre, so we head that way. After about 10km we reach a long row of mini buses and lots of people. The bridge is washed away, so we turn around and return to the main road. It is no hardship driving past miles of gloriously green tea plantations again.
We reach Blantyre & Limbe again, this time to explore. We drive through crowded streets, along fancy boulevards and into the back streets to see the magnificent St Michael & All Angels Church and then stop at a supermarket for supplies. Finally back out of town we head to Zomba. The plan is to drive right up to the Zomba plateau in case the weather gets worse. It is still cloudy as we head up the narrow, winding and incredibly steep 10km road to the plateau, but when we come back down the sky is blue and the views amazing. Up on the plateau the woodcutters are loading their bikes to wheel loads of wood down the hill. Others are carrying long loads on their heads. What incredible strength and stamina.
Back in town we find the Pakachere Backpackers where we can camp for the night. In the morning the clouds have descended onto the plateau and we are pleased we went up yesterday. We wander into town to watch the mayhem and explore the markets. Then we hunt down some of the old buildings as Zomba was the original capital of Malawi.
Late morning, we head out of town. Finally, we have a blue sky. Not far to go today. We have been assured that it really is worth stopping at Liwonde National Park despite the inflated foreigner prices. On the way we pass lots more markets overflowing onto the road and lots of potholes. We head out to the Liwonde Safari Lodge to camp. A lovely campspot right inside the park. We enter through electric gates to camp in with the animals. Sadly, we do not see a single animal when we sit at the lookout. And then it decides to rain for the rest of the evening and much of the night. It is no go for an early morning game drive as it is still raining. Much later we head out on an extremely sticky wet road making sure 4x4 is engaged.
Again, lots of villages with markets & people overflowing onto the road. There are also lots of Mosques and ladies with head scarves. Then by mid afternoon we turn off the seal road and head to Kingfisher Lodge to camp beside the lake. It’s a lovely place with a swimming pool right on the waters edge. John of course swims, then we wander along the beach to see the fishing village. Men have been rowing out in their boats and dropping nets and now they are pulling them in from the beach. Other men are mending nets, others repairing a wooden boat with new lengths of timber and taring it, and the children are laying tiny fish out to dry on racks and cooking some on a smoker. Of course, there are plenty of others simple lounging around and watching.
We decide to use their restaurant and John enjoys his fish. I bravely order a local dish – big mistake. The chicken we discover is dubbed “road runner,” and for the life of me I can’t find any meat on those bones! At least I can eat the beans, pap and salad.
It rains in the night and it continues all day, so not many photos, but there is plenty of potholed road and massive puddles. We turn and head out to the popular destination of Cape Maclear. We aren’t too impressed with Monkey Bay, so we head back to our side track that connects with the road to the Cape. It is bad, but we don’t have far to get to the more main road. Hmmm, so much for the main road. It is wet and sloshy with no gravel at all, but sandy so not too bad until we start heading uphill and it gets sticker, muddier and therefore slippery. There is still a long way to go so we concede defeat. Sadly, no boat trip and snorkelling at the islands for us!
We continue north across soaked countryside, rivers awash with muddy fast flowing water. Then we reach a row of cars and numerous people. The road is flooded and the locals are helping push a bus loaded with people. In Aussie we say “If its flooded, forget it”, but here they say “Make a plan” So we make a plan. John checks out the water and we drive to the edge. The bus is floundering so we hesitate, but then a small truck roars past us, so we follow him. All easy peasy with a dozen guys yelling and supposedly helping. We leave them behind in a spray of water! It has been a long day dodging potholes so we are glad to reach Senga Bay and the waterfront campspot right beside the posh Sunbird Hotel for a cool drizzly night.
We wake to monkeys playing all around us. They are so much fun to watch, especially the naughty little ones. We decide to try out the breakfast at the Hotel, but as it’s a buffet it’s a tad disappointing, but the view of the beach is lovely. Then time to head off through countless villages and lots of people heading to the Sunday service. It is Palm Sunday and we see large groups gathering with their palm leaves and heading into church singing and dancing. Magic. As we get closer to the lake, we see lots of rice fields and rows of tiny fish out drying on racks. The roads are potholed and wet with one particularly massive puddle covering the entire road. Then another muddy patch where locals are shovelling so we give them some cash. It is expected!
It is early afternoon when we reach the Nkhotakhota Pottery camping area, where we camp on a lovely grassy spot right beside the beach. We do chores and relax, and decide to stay another day. It is an unusual experience to be able to body surf in fresh water. It is also nice chatting to other people and hearing their input about Malawi.
After our 2 nights we hit the road again. Not too far to go as we have found another lovely waterfront camp to stay at. The access road is very rough and narrow with lots of overhanging branches, but we squeeze through to another magical beach front spot with lovely grass and overhanging trees. We have our own white sand beach and the water is finally clear and blue. John swims and snorkels and we decide to put the boat in tomorrow.
A big thunderstorm with rain in the night changes that plan. Everywhere is wet and the sky is still black. We head up the slippery track and back to the main road. Today we will head up into the mountains to Livingstonia. But first we head through a huge rubber plantation. Guys wave us down. They are selling balls and we can’t resist buying one. Later a quick detour down to pretty Nkata Bay where we stop for coffee. Local guys hang around asking questions and excitedly locate the Malawian no plate on the truck. Then it is further inland to the big sprawling town of Mzuzu where we stop at the first Spar supermarket that we have seen in days. Time to refill our nearly empty fridge. Then it is up to the mountains. And what a glorious drive. The mountains are terraced and covered with crops. Tobacco and corn are growing in profusion. Little villages and rows of sheds full of drying tobacco are everywhere. The road is lovely brand new tarseal and twists and turns up the mountains. Just magic!
We take a detour our to the town of Livingstonia to admire the Church and Stonehouse Museum (which doesn’t seem to be a museum any more), before heading down a disgusting dirt track to the Mushroom Farm where we can camp for the night. It is a favourite backpackers destination with quirky accommodation positioned right on top of an escarpment overlooking Lake Malawi. We enjoy the vegetarian meal wile chatting with some travellers, but sadly the weather turns again. Rain all night means a slippery drive out. There is a much shorter route out down a very steep hair-pinned track, but we have been firmly advised NOT to use it. The recent rains have made it even more hazardous, so we backtrack over our glorious mountains. Pity about the rain.
Back on the main road means we are back on potholes. It is hard to believe this is the main road in Malawi. It is not helped by crazy oncoming trucks who want to hog the middle of the road. The rain continues well into the day and we finally pull over to camp at the FloJa Foundation camping area. They offer beach front camping and use the money to fund a kindergarten for local children. As predicted by the owner, it starts to rain at 8pm.
Fortunately, the day clears as we head out and for our last leg in Malawi through countless rice fields and the men are out ploughing the fields behind oxen. There are signs of flooding everywhere. Interestingly we come across a large group singing and dancing. They are a funeral procession and the coffin is made of woven reeds. Mid-morning, we reach the border. Fingers crossed Tanzania will give us a visa. All the reports make it look easy.
Perhaps the only negative we have is the number of children & adults that have said “Give me the money!” But despite that we have enjoyed our visit. Goodbye Malawi.