Malawi (formerly Nyasaland) is a small country in the south-eastern part of the African continent bordering Tanzania, Zambia, while its southern part is “embraced” by Mozambique. Much of the country is occupied by the homonymous lake, the third largest in Africa. Prior to the country’s independence in 1964, it was a British protectorate, and in the 19th century Arab slave traders and European explorers such as David Livingstone were active in the area. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world today, but despite low per capita incomes, the standard of living seems to be tolerable compared to African standards, with agricultural production being a major factor. Malawi is referred to as “the warm heart of Africa”, a quote that describes the friendliness of its people. Malawi has a population 17 million people with rapid birth rate, but at the same time life expectancy remains low and AIDS rates exceed 10%.
The reputation of this friendly and noble people, fully corresponds to reality. However, there is also the usual prejudice against white people treated as representers of wealth, which by comparison is usually not far from reality.
Malawi’s two largest cities are the administrative capital of Lilongwe and Blantyre, which is the commercial, industrial and financial center. Blantyre took its name from the homonymous city of Scotland, the birthplace of explorer David Livingstone. Other smaller towns are Mzuzu and Kazungu in the north, Liwonde in the southern estuary of Lake Malawi where through the Shire River flows into the great Zambezi River. Many small lakeside settlements are scattered along the shore of the lake, with Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear being the main tourist attractions.
The warm heart of Africa
In a full squeezed mini bus departing from Cuamba, Mozambique, I am approaching this small, relatively unknown country, which has been teasing my imagination for years, thinking of pictures from Lake Malawi and people’s rural lives in lakeside settlements…
Entering Malawi from the land border with Mozambique at Entre Lagos – Nayuchi is a very adventurous and exhausting task. The mini bus from the town of Cuamba waits for three full hours until the last passenger was squeezed before setting off, as is the rule in Africa. However, the vehicle does not reach the borders of the neighboring country, but leaves us halfway, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, from where we have to find motorbikes to transport us. Fortunately we immediately found motorcyclists who were non-negotiable about the demanded price (€ 4.5). The weather is rainy like the previous days, but fortunately at that moment the rain has somehow halted. In the end it turned out to be a good transport price, given the effort for drivers and riders. There is virtually no road to the Entre Lagos border, just a muddy path full of potholes, where scooters are “skating” for 1.5 hours, loaded with passengers and luggage, for a distance of 25 torturous and dangerous kilometers. The reason for the border post existence is the railway carrying coal, with just one passenger service every Wednesday.
Customs clearance is easy thanks to the new e-visa system, but we will have to get the visa sticker in one of the two big cities, Lilongwe or Blantyre, in the coming days. The two border employees are polite, finally the official English language of Malawi closes the communication gap. But they do not hesitate to ask for a tip, and as an exception, I give everyone $1, because I have favored them.
Crossing in the territory of Malawi the adventures are not over. If the previous 1.5 hours of acrobatics in the mud were a challenge, an additional 45 kilometers of desperation awaits us. Almost 3 hours of exhilarating road with countless potholes, but this time under rain, on a scooter that strains my bones. When we finally reach an asphalt road, it’s already dark and the locals are laughing at us. Luckily a minibus is coming soon. What an experience! We sit in the front seats. The vehicle has a problem with the lights and sometimes it runs blind, on a road full of pedestrians, bicycles, animals. The driver moves an electrical fuse and the lights come back on, then the same again. Finally we reach Liwonde. We ask him to take us to a hotel that we had booked but afterwards canceled. He denies. We insist, He refuses. We are offered another minibus that leaves immediately for Blantyre and charges us $4. It’s already late but we are trying it to advance the next day. It’s raining outside. We approach the city by 10:30 pm and there is no living soul around, a ghost town! The driver wants to leave us in Limbe, a notorious suburb outside the city. We insist on taking us to the city center. We ask him to leave us at a hotel. He refuses, he’s not aware of any. He finally leaves us in the center of the ghost town. We are alone, in an empty African city, infamous of insecurity at night, without an internet connection, homeless under torrential rain, without anything running around. And then, two “guardian angels” appear. Two well dressed gentlemen come out of a door, probably a company. They see us loaded with luggage, raincoats that are unable to protect from the rain. They care about us and we inform them that we’re looking for an affordable hostel. They say they know one, the one I have marked on the map as well. They offer us to get in their car despite our wet clothes and to take us there. Of course due to the late hour, there is nothing open for dinner and we have empty stomach all day. The young guy having an evening shift at the property, offered us some bread and concentrated juice.
It’s the dawn of New Year’s Eve and my previous online research for car rental will finally… end the hassle, radically upgrading the trip conditions. But first we need to get some things to do, like currency exchange at the bank, a SIM card from street vendors and the validation of the visa at the ministry of tourism. Blantyre is a small, modern-looking town that is the commercial capital, with glass buildings, business units, well-built streets and plenty of greenery. It reminds me much of Kigali in Rwanda and certainly nothing testifies to the country’s level of poverty.
We pick up the car, a small Mazda, at a low cost per day but with mileage charge. Our 24 hours of hunger, makes it imperative to find something to eat before leaving town. A self service shop where people take their lunch break, has delicious dishes with a great variety and this is not a side effect of hunger. The tour in the green country begins. I was missing driving in Africa! A few kilometers outside Blantyre, we see by the road a sign of some institution. Bypassing through a dirt road, we meet the Timotheos Foundation Orphanage, where we are greeted by many children but almost no caretakers. We ask permission from some adults to finally deliver the stationery goods we carry all the way from Greece through Mozambique and now to Malawi. By organizing the children in a disciplined order, we offer these little gifts that bring great joy and receiving their love, as we always do in Africa. On our leaving, we met the pastor who was returning to the institution, while some children in an adjoining settlement did not catch pencils and throwing stones at us disappointed.
At some point we arrive again in Liwonde, intending to stay at the accommodation we had canceled a few days ago due to our uncertain schedule. A small hydroelectric dam joins the two sides of the small town and cuts off the Malawi Lake end, that flows through the Shire River in Zambezi. We explore first by car and then on foot at the natural landscape around the lake. Large baobab trees dominate the lush environment, with a sky background of spectacular traveling clouds and impressive storms on the horizon. Towards sunset, groups of hippos get out to the shores to spend the night. Note that the hippopotamus is responsible for most human deaths than any other animal in Africa.
We are looking for a possible New Year’s Eve celebration, but even at the most expensive lodge in the area, the kitchen closes by 9pm. It seems there are no tourists at this time neither in the lodge or the area in general. The same was about our accommodation, Villa Liwonde. Regardless of the low season, the discount we ask on the phone is not very flexible. He is suggesting an offer of one breakfast instead of two, but after our insist logic prevails. Finally James, the owner, shows up a little later to meet us and continue the evening at a nice outdoor restaurant under a huge baobab. At local bars we enjoy beers and shots of local “brandy”, but there is no soul alive to celebrate the new year. Finally we drive to the outdoor “club” out of town where the partying takes place. Almost everyone is heavily drunk, to the an annoying degree, especially when they speak to you spitting in your face. Others harass the attending girls who simply ignore them. Loads of firecrackers are launched in every direction, without any sense of safety, landing among the crowd. Amidst this surreal frenzy, the first moments of year 2020 begin to count. The road back is a driving video game, attempting to avoid drunken pedestrians blocking the route of the vehicle.
A rainy New Year is dawning, the weather has become monotonous on this trip. Plans to visit the Liwonde National Park seems to be canceled. After all, our small vehicle, despite its a 4-wheel drive, will not be able to overcome the mud even to the park’s entrance gate. As we load up the luggage for another destination, a large group of Europeans and Indians appeared at the property. Early maintenance was carried out on the decommissioned boat bound by the shore. The family gathering is preparing for a cruise and we ask James to ask if we could join. The group welcomes us and a wonderful journey at the lake begins. The friendliness of these people who are residents of the country, hosting us like family members, is unforgettable and they did not even accept our contribution for the tour expenses. The weather also gives us a favour and gradually turns into a very warm sunshine. At the point where the boundaries of the park officially begin, we remain in the lounge of the boat so that guards will not see us and demand a ticket. Across the area, large herds of hippos enjoy the habitat, grazing in and out of the water, rushing into it and displaying their huge jaws with elongated canines. There are so many that after a while they cease to impress me. In contrast, elephants are further on land at this time of day and difficult to spot from a distance, while crocodiles are not visible at all. After about 3 hours of travel and on the way back, the old captain who seemed not quite skilled, manages to get the boat stuck in low depth. Instead of trying to reverse it, the owner of the boat gives him a forward command. Of course this worsens the situation with both engines unable to move the heavy boat. After many hours of fruitless efforts, they call the park rangers, approaching with a small boat. Apart from being unable to tow, they do not even accept the responsibility of transporting some rushed passengers. The solution would later be given by the tourist boat of the luxurious Hippo View Lodge, which detached us by pushing the ship, repeating many more times as the boat was no longer controllable, making winding manoeuvres.
We return late and depart for the next destination. I have to drive at night, something not very pleasant on the dark, crowded African roads. Arriving late at Monkey Bay, the quest for affordable accommodation begins. But only two guesthouses are located in the wider area. Following a narrow dirt road we reach the first. Walking toward a side entrance, hundreds of cockroaches are swept away by a well, their tranquility disturbed. This is not a good sign, but despite my dislike for this insect I stand my ground. In the open-air, semi-lit restaurant, tourists are having dinner and drinking, I wonder if the chef has any cockroaches in the menu. The price of the sole vacancy was not particularly low and certainly did not match the ruined condition of the wooden hut with the grass roof and a net instead of walls. Climbing the wooden steps, we upset a well-fed mouse that starts to run in panic, but eventually opts for a heroic exit instead of entering the room. Hopes are now limited to the next option that is strangely within the gates of a naval base. The finding is gratifying, a dreamy place with great decor and good cuisine, worth the slightly more expensive price the South African owner was asking for. The gourmet dinner and a glass of rum will end the beautiful evening by the serene lake. Monkey Bay under the light of the cloudy day is not very inspiring, so after breakfast we will move to nearby Cape Maclear. Here was a completely different situation than Monkey Bay, beyond expectations. Numerous guesthouses are built along the beach and the place has some low tourist traffic. Looking for a stay, we stop at an outdoor craft shop and hostel, with young guys smoking weed day and night. After all, Malawi is famous for its production. It took a little more searching, but the guesthouse belonging to a local was superior in quality and was cheaper than anything else. The landscape of the lake is idyllic, but the waters are not alluring for swimming. As the bilharzia parasite is found in almost every lake in Africa, including Lake Malawi, one should take a prevention pill days after entering the water, so I resist swimming. The snorkeling excursions suggested by many boatmen do not excite me either. After all, the everyday life of people by the lake, doing their laundry, personal hygiene, fishing, playing and swimming, have to offer amazing images, till the end of day in a purple evening.
The proactive supply for the evening is a bottle of whiskey. Nature’s power, which a few days ago cut access to the Quirimbas archipelago of Mozambique with a hurricane, will give a spectacular show tonight. An electric storm illuminates the sky and reflects lightnings on the water surface.
Music playing on the cellphone accompanies the evening with favorite tunes and my soul sails into a romantic ocean of fresh water and whiskey.
Cape Mclear is arguably the most visited part of the country, but all around of the lake the images are equal. That’s why we decide to head norther, looking also for the Chewa tribe and their folk dances. Finally, we find out that besides some annual celebrations, the dances are now a posed touristy attraction, which is not to my taste, nor worthy of a price negotiation. The dirt road runs between farmlands or by yellow sand beaches with fishermen patching their nets, but it’s interrupted at some point by a rushing river. Youngsters and seniors are crossing the river carrying with their belongings, but our vehicle is not amphibious and must find a road back.
Continuing north, one further detour meets Mua, a village that hosts missionary headquarter, a cultural center and museum. A dense bamboo forest and a small waterfall complement the landscape.
Searching on the map we point at a distance of 25 kms an unknown lakeshore settlement named Chipoka, where it supposed to have a couple of hotels. Another tropical storm will pour along the way, turning roads into rivers and disorienting potential accommodation sites. I stop by a ghost hotel without electricity because of damage throughout the area. I’m worried about tonight’s stay. Fortunately, there is a brand new small hotel, featuring electricity and a restaurant. Of course there is no other visitor here except for some fish farmers. Another day, full of pictures, is dawning, on the beach scattered with the traditional canoes of fishermen, made of a dug trunk. Net repairing, small fish drying out in the sun and a crowd of adults and toddlers make up the setting. Unfortunately, as in many parts part of Africa, some children have been taught to beg for money. On the contrary, a local with an infant in his arms offers to guide us without any benefit.
The most remarkable National Parks in the country are remote, so we’ll just have what is on our way, the Kuti Wildlife Reserve. This is not actually a natural park, but a wide enclosed area that can be crossed both by car or by walking, since it does not host predators. So I’ll be close to adorable zebras and less close to antelopes, while the sole giraffe was not seen.
The road to the capital city of Lilongwe, which is the finale of the trip, is quite boring. The city isn’t less boring either, despite having plenty of things to see. From the rich suburbs of high fenced villas, to the ghettos of slums and from the few “shopping malls” and restaurants, to the big crafts market, the visitor will surely find interesting activities. Not to be forgotten, the rather disappointing wildlife center, the central mosque, the World War II monument, and the mausoleum of President Kamuzu (Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda 1898-1997) the nation’s independence leader.
Malawi, without being a popular travel destination, has exceeded all expectations, filling my soul with unique experiences, unforgettable images and moments of carelessness. My irresistible attraction for the black continent keeps calling me again and again.