Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Long Way to Lilongwe

All events depicted below are true and have honestly happened to me while traveling in Malawi over the last 6 days. In order to make a more engaging narrative, however, I've taken liberty with the timeline and combined entertaining parts of several bus rides into one day's journey.

It is 8:30 a.m. I've already eaten a few slices of bread for breakfast, taken my doxy (for malaria), had a cup of coffee, checked out of my last hostel, and headed out for the next day's journey. I am carrying my large 60L pack on my back, with my smaller day pack on my front. I reach the bus depot around 8:45. They call it a "depot" because "station" would imply there is some sort of building. There isn't much for a station in any of these towns, just a designated dirt lot where vans, taxis, and buses congregate. A friendly Malawian man greets me as "My friend!" and he undoubtedly has a friend who is going my way. I arrange a 45-km ride in his friend's shared taxi for 400 kwacha ($2.70). The friend drives a mid-size Toyota SUV, the kind that normally fits a family of 5 fairly comfortably. We have at least 10 people and 1 chicken in this car. The chicken is in the lap of the woman next to me, and is surprisingly subdued for the journey.

Every 10 - 20 km there is a police roadblock. It's not entirely clear what they are looking for, but my backpack apparently looks suspicious. They inquire to the driver and all he says in response is "mzungu" (white person). This apparently suffices for an explaination and we're let through the gates without hassle. About 20 minutes into our hour-long journey, the car coasts to a stop. It appears something is wrong with the battery, so the driver flags down another car and pulls out some "jumper cables." These "jumper cables" don't have clamps on them, nor do they look to hold much voltage, and it's no surprise (to me at least) when the cables fail to deliver enough assistance. So the driver jumps in the helping vehicle to go buy a new battery. Sensing this might be a long wait, I pull my luggage out of the car and wait for a passing minibus to flag down.

A van pulls up within 10 minutes of waiting and I've arranged the remainder of the journey for only 200 kwacha ($1.35). I give the guy my bag to throw in the back and I crawl in. These minibuses are slightly smaller than a normal 12-passenger van and fit anywhere between 16 and 20 people in them. I cram into the back seat, along with 3 other people (including one man with two chickens in a bag. These chickens are not so subdued.) The van smells strongly of fish and body odor. One-fifth of this country is Lake Malawi and someone is clearly bringing their catch to market.

We arrive in the first town after about 2 hours or so. As soon as I step out at the bus depot, I am in a sea of touts all trying to get me to go with their friend. Without much effort, I'm thrown into one of the other minibuses bound for my next stop. I arrange the 60-km ride for 450 kwacha ($3) and ask if the driver knows the turn off for Kasito Lodge. He does and I asked to be dropped there. Considering the haste in which I was thrown into this minibus, there is a considerable lack of hurry to actually leave. I sit in the minibus at the depot for 2 hours until the vehicle is sufficiently full to leave. I eat a few slices of white bread and buy a Coke for lunch. When it comes time to leave, both the driver and the money-taker (the guy who sits by the door) hop out of the van, start pushing (ala Little Miss Sunshine), the driver hops back in while the vehicle is still in motion and revs up the engine. We're off.

Again, I am sitting in the back and from here I can keep an eye on my luggage in the boot. The rear hatch doesn't actually close, and there's a two-inch gap of air between the hatch and the car. But a frayed looking rope seems to be doing the trick of keeping everything bound in well enough. About fifteen minutes into the ride, it begins to rain. Good thing this minibus has working windshield wipers. Oh wait, I forgot we were in Malawi. The good news is that I'm getting a nice steady stream of rain from the open rear hatch to cool me off. After 2 hours, the bus pulls over at the sign for Kasito Lodge and lets me out.

Turns out both Kasito Lodge and the neighboring lodge recommended by The Lonely Planet are closed. No signs saying why, but they both appear empty and no one answers the locked door. Back out to the road.

It's 4:30 by this point and I'm sitting on my bags on the side of a road running along Viphya Plateau. I can see a distant thunderstorm moving my way. It'll get dark in two hours. Hmm.

I wait about 20 minutes before a flatbed truck pulls over and the driver asks in very good English where I'm headed. I ask him the same. He says he's going as far as Lilongwe and I'm welcome to a lift, free of charge. Only catch is I have to sit in the back of the truck among several bags of charcoal. No problem, I say. I don't want to be on this lonely stretch of road when night falls. I hop on and we take off. As we pass small villages, people on bicylces and children playing in the roads all turn to look at the mzungu riding in the back of this truck, smile, and wave. I spot a sticker on the windshield reading "This Car Fueled By the Blood of Jesus." I think I have just met a real life good Samaritan.

Around nightfall, the nice man pulls over to rearrange some things in the cab of his truck. He points ahead and says "It's raining ahead. Get in the truck and you'll stay dry." So for the remainder of the 3.5 hour ride I'm inside the cab. My new friend, Tregia, speaks pretty good English and rants for a while about how he can't get a tourism visa for the US. But he never asks me for money and refuses it when I offer. He even takes me directly to the hostel where I've decided I want to stay in Lilongwe. When I asked him why he picked me up he just says, "You looked stranded. You can be on that road for hours until a bus pass. Maybe 11 or midnight you not arrive in Lilongwe."

And that, is a solid dose of traveling in Malawi. Often it's the getting there that's the biggest adventure. I'm headed to a small town outside of Lilongwe for a couple of nights and then back here to catch a bus to Lusaka and then on to Livingstone.

Dugout canoes on Lake Malawi

These minibuses fit between 16 and 20 people in them


  1. That could be your memorable trip. I would also like to go tour. I wished you having great joy at there.

  2. One good news is that I get a nice steady stream of cool water after I opened the door. 2 hours later and the bus pulled in Kasito Lodge sign off let me out. Thanks for the pictures.