MONDAY 25 NOVEMBER – THE BORDER
“To those who speak of Pan-African union, I ask ‘what are we supposed to share? Each other’s poverty?’” – Felix Houphöet-Boigny, President of Ivory Coast.
We were up at 5:00 AM, long before dawn, and after packing our gear, we walked down to the bus station. It took us about 20 minutes to find a vehicle going to Kayla, near the border, and we ascertained from a couple of locals that it was actually going to the border, and not somewhere nearby.
The “bus” was actually just a truck with a row of seats down each side and as we left town, they jammed more and more people into it, until it was packed tight with sweating natives and their bags of junk.
It took about 4 1/2 hours of jolting along potholed roads to reach the turn off where the road the border branched off the road to Kayla. It turned out that the truck didn’t, in fact, go to the border after all, and we had paid 600 shillings each to get there! So after a row involving a lot of swearing, we got a refund of 100 shillings each.
There were four of us now. An American girl called Sondra had joined us for the push to the border, and we were faced with a 5km walk to get there. We set off down the newly-sealed road, swearing, and cursing Tanzania, and after about 2 km we flagged down a passing truck and paid 50 shillings each for a ride to the border post.
The “worst border in Africa”¹ turned out to be a cakewalk. We had expected trouble, but we were through in less than 15 minutes and walked across the Songwe River bridge into Malawi. We sat under some trees and ate mangoes given to us by crowd of children, and planned our next move.
The first police checkpoint was no trouble, although they searched our packs, obviously looking for the Africa on a Shoestring guide book [see below]. We sat for a while outside of shack selling Coke and Fanta, and a slimy young man offered to change out Tanzanian shillings for Malawian kwacha, but we refused, as we didn’t like the look of one of the other men sitting there listening to everything we said.
Three English backpackers walked up from the border, and we all sat there wondering what to do. Then a dump truck pulled in with a load of shingle, and the driver said he would take the 4 of us up to the Custom’s post at the border gate. So we rode in the back of the truck for 20 km, and we’re dropped off about 1 km from the Customs Police Post.
We were again approached by a group of men offering to change Tanzanian shillings and again we refused, which was lucky because just as we moved away an off-duty policeman approached us and asked if we changed money with them. We said no, and he warned us about illegal monetary transactions.
We sweated buckets walking up to the border post, but the formalities were quick, and after a cursory police check, we were on the waiting bus and bound for Karonga. We didn’t have any Malawian currency so we paid the fare with 200 Tanzanian shillings, which the conductor seemed happy with, and about an hour later we were showered, changed, and ready to do a deal with the hotel owner for some kwacha.
We changed $US20, and straight away went to the first store we could find for ice cold Cokes. We spent the evening hanging around town, and to be on the safe side, we each changed a few quid legally at the District Commissioner’s office, in case we were stopped by the police and asked where we had got our money. It was just as well we did that, because at 1AM next morning, the police raided the hotel. They were only checking passports, but we had a hurried rush to hide our illegal money before we opened the door. Kath and Sondra ignored their knocking and they left them alone!
¹Travellers were routinely hassled by the guards at this border post. The main reason for this was a negative comment made about the Malawian president’s son (a violent, corrupt gangster), by the editor of the Lonely Planet guidebook Africa on a Shoestring. Since then, the guidebook had been banned in Malawi and any traveller caught carrying it was fined and had their copy confiscated. I hid our copy (I have it still!) by rolling it up in a sleeping bag stuffed into a bag, and even though the guard squeezed the bag, he didn’t detect the book inside.