TUESDAY 3 DECEMBER – FRIDAY 6 DECEMBER There wasn’t much to do at Cape McLear except swim and sit round at the bar. The high point of the few days we were there was a game of touch rugby a bunch of us played one evening on the beach.¹
We left on Friday morning for Lilongwe after catching a ride out from Cape McLear to Monkey Bay on Thursday morning. We teamed up with a couple of kiwi guys, Nick Sharp and Steve Hege to travel for the next few days, and spent most of Thursday drinking piss in the Monkey Bay Club and playing darts.
The bus took 9 hours to go the 120km to Lilongwe, and when we got there Linda and I went up and camped at the golf club, while Steve and Nick stayed at the Government Rest House.
During the night we were invaded by ants and Linda’s side of the tent was crawling with them. They were in her hair and all through her pack.
¹ That game of touch rugby, as it turned out, would have some quite serious health consequences for me in the coming months. I was tackled by someone during the game and grazed my knee on the sand. Later on, when we were swimming in the lake a parasitic worm called bilharzia invaded the cut and lodged itself somewhere in my body. When we eventually returned New Zealand in the middle of 1992, I was diagnosed with an infection caused by the bilharzia worm, and had to undergo a course of extremely expensive medication in order to rid myself of this souvenir of Lake Malawi.
MONDAY 2 DECEMBER We docked at Monkey Bay at 1 p.m. and after disembarking we walked into the dusty village and caught an overpriced minibus out to Cape McLear.
There were a lot of travellers at the “Mr.Steven’s” camp, so we set up our tent at “The Ritz”, another campsite just down the beach. There were a couple of South African blokes called Fritz and Johann there, and we shared a barbecue chicken with them in the evening.
SUNDAY. Rain threatened at first light and we all moved inside the second class cabin, but by 9:30 it was fine again so we all moved back outside.
There was an hour-long stop at the picturesque Likoma Island, where drums of fuel with thrown over the side of the ferry and towed ashore. The Mozambique Coast brooded only half a mile away as we set sail again, and we passed the day reading, talking and drinking ice cold cokes and beers.
SATURDAY: The carving salesman came back so we could take his photo and Linda swapped her Walkman for a pair of carved heads. We hung around at the camp all morning, then packed up and walked over to the Nkatha Bay town to wait for the ferry that we planned to take down the lake to Monkey Bay.
It arrived at 4 p.m. and I queued up to buy our tickets. When the gate guard spotted me waiting, he pulled me up to the head of the queue!
We boarded at 6:30 and staked our claim on a piece of the second class deck. The ferry sailed at 7:30, and by the time it left there were about 15 backpackers spread about on the steel plates of the after-deck. It was nice sleeping under the stars as the boat headed south down Lake Malawi.
FRIDAY 29 NOVEMBER Kath and I made a trip over to Mzuzu to the bank. We left camp at 6 a.m. and walked over to Nakata Bay township then sat around on the grass waiting for the bus. No bus turned up, but eventually, a battered minibus came along so we caught that in the trip to Mzuzu took about an hour.
At the bank, I changed £40 worth of traveller’s checks and then we walked with a couple of German travellers up to one of the local restaurants where we had a slap-up feed of sausage and chips, washed down with coffee. I also ordered the steak sandwich and the waitress forgot to charge me for it. The German guy bought my excess Tanzanian shillings for US$3.
Kath and I spent an hour or so looking around the market and shops, then set off to hitch a ride back to the bay as there didn’t appear to be any buses going. We walked out of town then a bus came along so we flagged it down, and an hour and a half later we were back at Nkhata bay.
Later on, back at camp, Linda and I bought a carved warrior from one of the salesmen who come around every day selling ebony carvings, bangles and other trinkets. We paid 27 kwacha (about £6) for a beautiful carving of a Malawian warrior.
THURSDAY 28 NOVEMBER We spent the day relaxing completely. It was light at 5 a.m. so we started the day with a swim, then alternated the rest of the day in and out of the water. Kids came around selling banana cake and peanut brittle, and we kept our fluid intake up with sodas from the bar.
TUESDAY 26 NOVEMBER – TOWARDS A REST STOP At 7AM, we caught a local bus bound for Mzuzu where we could connect with a bus down Nkhata Bay. We took the slower local bus, because we could get a student discount which meant that the 19 kwacha (Kw) fair was reduced by a healthy 12Kw to 7Kw!
The trip was mind-bogglingly slow and uncomfortable, but eventually we arrived at the new bus station in Mzuzu and caught an onward bus down to Nkhata Bay. The countryside was dry and hilly, not unlike the outback of Australia, with eucalypt trees and outcrops of bare, hard rock. It took an hour and a half to reach Nkhata Bay, and when we got off the bus, we sat on the steps of a shop and had a cold drink. A couple of backpackers wandered past and told us that the beach was a great place to camp, so we set off to walk there. It was a long, hot 2 km walk up over a hill, but it was worth it for as we walked down the rough track, we were greeted with the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.
The cove was about 200m wide, with rocky promontories at each end, and trees running down off the hill to the edge of a beach of coarse, golden sand. There was quite an assortment of backpackers camping there, and not much space, but we found an area to pitch our tents in the shade, then swam in the wonderfully cold water of Lake Malawi.
Later in the evening, Linda, Kathy and I went into town for an ice cold beer and some food – ugali [pounded corn], vegetables and meat – and when we returned it was time to turn in.
“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.
SUNDAY 24 NOVEMBER – LAST DAY IN TANZANIA There was nothing to do in Mbeya on a Sunday. If there was anything to do on any other day, it’s hard to say. So we sat around at the Moravian Youth Hostel where we were staying for 200 shillings each. I spent most of the afternoon wrapped up in two sleeping bags, fully clothed, with a bottle full of hot water under me, sweating the cold out.