There’s nothing like a few coppers slowing you down in the searing 45 degree heat to slap you with some concocted bullshit to extract just enough cash to buy a bottle of beer on knock off time to test the virtue of patience aboard an overland safari truck. Especially on a border crossing day. Ahhh the sweet scent of a corrupt cop.
With elections in Tanzania looming over head everyone was at it, trying to scam as much money as possible in case of imminent unemployment lest the current government is replaced with a just as corrupt other. Which is more than likely.
Our second halt for the day is for one of the phony candidates convoys to come into a random small town and hand out some shillings to the locals in return for votes. The air is thick with tension and we dare not make eye contact with, let alone take pictures of, the less than friendly crowd. We’re right to be suspicious as no sooner had we stopped than a melee ensued as some halfwit yelling out a slogan for the opposition is promptly bumped on the head and launched upon.
Border formalities between Tanzania and Zambia finished (see tips below for money exchange) we arrive at Hakuna Matata campsite in the dark with a stream of kids chasing the truck as if it were the pied piper. With not much else to do in the dark we’re all over the moon about having to hand peel potatoes for 20 odd people for dinner, with a predawn start the next morning as dessert.
The highlight of our first day in Malawi was the shopping. At the turn off that begins our descent through the rubber plantations to the lakeside Kande Beach campsite, we bargain hard and spend USD$130 on a pair of carved wooden Malawi chairs and a custom made wooden giraffe 1.5 meters tall and painted black.
With a few days to relax on the beach after so many long days on the road we bum around camp catching up on backpacking chores (the boring grooming and clothes washing), lazing around in the hammocks or playing the game Trans Africa – The Hard Way, an ingenious board game that evolved over the years through various ex-overland crew into a carved tabletop representing the continent. Without boring you it involves making it from one of the four actual starting points of African overland trips south to Cape Town. Along the way there are road hazards, border crossings, obstacle cards in a game that’s touted as being
‘A game to drink piss and talk shit over’
with the disclaimer
‘Not for Juveniles, Soft Cocks or anybody with a weak stomach’.
While cooling off in the clear lake waters, we notice what appears to be dark clouds of smoke on the horizon. But alas, the truth is actually much much worse…the ‘clouds’ are actually huge swarms of midgies which swarm across the lake, and as we bathed the camp was overrun by one such swarm. It came from nowhere and swarmed over the trees, seeming like horror movie or the X- Files and we were afraid it was going to devour everything in it’s path. It didn’t. We were told the locals catch the bugs during such a swarm and use them to make burgers, but we didn’t see anybody firing up the BBQ so we can’t vouch for that one sorry. That evening whilst talking with the owners we’re treated to a blood moon glowing orange over the lake adding to the feeling that we are just about in nowhere Africa.
Sunrise over Lake Malawi is in sensational fashion akin to last night’s moon and today is spit roast pig day. A way for the villagers to make a few extra kwachas they take turns providing the trucks with a swiney delight. Mel Gibson (yep they have names like this so the tourist remember them) leads Sarah out at the crack of dawn to the local village to watch the slaughtering of that nights feast. Note: Sarah is neither a pork eater (bacon is its own food group) nor a sadist animal slayer, she was just taking up the invite offered to her after a 7am swim in the lake…). Along with Mr. Sugar and Spice and Cheese on Toast (love the originality for these guys) the jobs done and the pigs hauled into camp.
Days spent here are to relax, you can choose to go horse riding, canoeing, scuba diving or lazing about the place. A few card games and a round or two of ‘The Trans Africa game (in which Sarah had to down a shot of Dirty Diesel…a concoction of every bottom shelf liquor available) its carving time at the rotisserie as we swarm like files to hover over the master of ceremonies, Mel Gibson. A merry feast follows where the drinks flow and the fat off the crackling drips down our arms, leading us to finish on the beach playing the adolescent games of ‘Never have I ever’ and the counting game 21. (Count in a circle, when someone reaches 21 they chose a number to replace with a word, action or another number. You start the count again replacing said number with its replacement, trust us it’s a good, fun drinking game, no matter how old you are).
One of the activities on or in the lake is the scuba diving. Having received our Advanced PADI tickets in Honduras last year we dove (ha!) at the opportunity to dive in fresh water and at altitude. Attached to Kande Beach camp is the Aquanuts Divers manned by a friendly English chap. Suiting up in 45 degree heat after a night on the red wine is a mission in itself, let alone having to carry our tanks and gear to the lake shore.
Out there and in the water we start our decent in to the 12 meter depths of Lake Malawi waiting to cross paths with a Loch Ness-esque creature that surely must exist in local legend. Failing to spot such a creature is Sarah, and not Matt, as equalising trouble means she can’t make it to the lake bottom and unfortunately has to remain on the surface. The rest of us buddy up and make our way around the island. Lake Malawi is renown as a mecca for the huge diversification of Cichlid fish species and with only 1,650 of a potential 3,000 identified it’s the main reason our dive instructor, a marine biologist, is here, with a view to name one after himself in a most self-indulgent manner. They’re popular aquarium fish and snorkelling in the shallow rocks around the island teeming with fish Sarah felt a bit like she was in one and was even lucky enough to spot a ‘mouthbrooding’ fish which sucks it’s young into it’s mouth when danger approaches.
We take in a few small sunken fishing boats whilst circling the island and whilst there is not an abundance of sea life the waters are clear. As we corner around the last flank of the island the seascape slowly opens up to reveal what we’d been told about on the surface. Much like a martian landscape the sandy lake bed is pocked with hundreds of craters giving the impression that we’re maybe just flying over the moon. These are the Cichlids breeding nests which they use to lure in the Cichlid chicas. And as they say size does matter, the bigger the better.
Back on land we barely have time to change out of our wetsuit when Mr. Mel Gibson is back to take us on a tour of his village. Cruising out of the camp we are swarmed by people wanting to sell us things but mainly just talk and practice their English. It’s a mad house for the first couple of minutes until everyone has secured themselves a friend/customer in the hope of having you ‘promise’ to visit and buy from them.
Firstly it’s to a traditional house that Mel’s mother lives in. A well built mud brick structure with roof ventilation it’s a large space, comparative to other African dwellings, for a single lady to live. It’s decked out with handmade furniture by Mel Gibson showing he’s a man of all trades (spit roaster, furniture maker and tour guide) though we all get a little confused when he suggests he also lives here…with his wife…and two children…yet the place seemed void of anything to indicate anybody was living here at all…hmmm.
Next is the local school and within seconds there’s a gang of kids tugging at anything they can wrap their finger around in order to have our undivided attention. Again the majority only want to practice their English or be your favourite. We’re taken in to a classroom that is full to the brim with the little blighters (year 9). It soon becomes apparent that here, as in most villages, the school system in woefully under resourced. Talking with some of the faculty we again feel like we are only here as cash cows with our wallets being pried open for donations. It would be nice if teh community could adapt a model of community support much like that of Soft Power from Jinga.
Following onto the hospital it’s again a little like the same old though this time we lay the pressure on demanding facts and figures and were a little dubious that within 3 years of educational programs they had reduced the new cases of reported HIV by over 50% (but if they have hooray!). In the maternity ward there’s ladies at various stages of motherhood. Some are there about to give birth, some have recently lost one whilst others are there for education in hygienic practices in caring for babies. Forking out some money that we requested be spent on polio vaccinations (Matt’s Dad contracted it after the war) we are a little doubtful as to the directions of the funds, especially after a consultation for an ear full of water (see tips below).
Our last afternoon is spent contemplating swimming to the island, something half the group had agreed to do when we first arrived. Lucky for us we’d lazily put it off over the past 3 days, as just as we were contemplating it again, the owner comes down to the beach front and we notice a commotion further along the beach. Turns out a couple of hippos were swimming along just offshore, and within 30 minutes they’d passed right by the spot we’d planned to be swimming. When this has only happened three times in the past 22 years, we felt glad for laziness.
Later that evening its back to Mel’s house in the village for a feast and a show from the local kids. Sitting down on bamboo mats the kids break into tunes as pots of sweet potato soup, ugali made from cassava and vegetables stews are laid out before us. It’s a mountain of food and we can see the kids eagerly eyeing up the odds of us finishing the lot (we don’t by a long shot). Finishing dinner we have a dance off with the kids with Matt by far the best of the lot of us. Mobbed by newly made fans Matt walks off into the night and obvious stardom.
Our short stint in Malawi has come to an end and again there’s others places we would have enjoyed seeing, though when on an overland truck for 73 days you can’t see it all.
Next up: The pissing Zimbabwean border officials.
Tips for Lake Malawi and Kande Beach
- On the border crossing between Tanzania and Malawi we got a better exchange rate from the people sitting outside the immigration office rather than the guy who came onto the truck (who wanted 20% commission!) BE WARNED: The people at the front of the immigration doors will take you over to their office so you may want to go in two’s (preferably men). They only charged a commission of 2.8% BUT there have been stories of them getting you into no man’s land then robbing you, and neither Tanzania nor Zambia will assist you.
- Save most of your wooden carving purchases until you get to Malawi, there’s numerous places to buy. The ones that we used were;
- The turn off to head down to the lake at Kande Beach. There’s a dozen or so shops along this stretch
- Outside the gate of the Kande Beach campsite. Here you can get some real bargains, just haggle hard. You can even get custom made pieces too, just pay on delivery and NOT BEFORE, though sometimes you’ll have to pay a deposit, just make sure they’r reputable (our truck driver vouched for our guy)
- Kande Beach campsite only sells small bottles of beer (330ml) along with the usual spirits. It may be an idea for you beer drinkers to bring your own if your truck has power to run the fridge when you’re parked up for a few days.
- Do buy the Malawi tables as soon as you can as when you get back to Europe these may be hard to acquire.
- Swim in the lake, it’s refreshingly beautiful on a 40 degree day! Just make sure you buy Bilharzia tablets while still in Africa, they can be a pain to get once you’re back home (or not available at all, as we found out in Poland).
- Watch our for the doctors. On the village tour we stopped at a hospital. Matt had water in his ear from diving which was becoming uncomfortable. Asking the doctor to take a look and asking how much the consultation and ear drops would cost we were greedily asked ‘How much money do you have?’ NEVER respond to this. Pressure them to give you a price and then negotiate. We paid the equivalent of USD$5 yet he wanted to charge us USD$20 for looking in my ear and handing over some generic drops. Needless to say the kwachas probably went straight into docs pocket.