Chasing Sunrise: To Lake Malawi

Malawi is one of the smallest countries in Africa and usually features in the top 5 poorest countries in the world. It is also often dubbed the “warm heart of Africa,” as its people are known for being the friendliest in Africa.

We got lost again leaving Zambia. Apparently going from a sealed road across country on a dirt track to get to another sealed road, is the route you do need to go but we had initially doubted it and with no one around we’d had to go back a long way to find someone to ask and thereafter stop at every fork in the road to find someone to confirm which to take.

It was midday and hot when we reached the Zambian border town of Chipata. We were descended on by money changer touts when we stopped for fuel. Like everywhere else they weren’t pushy. We did need some Malawi currency to pay some of the Malawi border fees, so we signaled one of the touts as we drove off the forecourt. They were joined by a couple of other guys and initially they offered a really abysmal rate somewhere close to 4 times less what it should be, but after some negotiation we landed on a fair rate. We’d pretty much done the deal but as we counted their money it was a note short. It wasn’t worth much but we’re not inclined to be ripped off. We pointed this out and recounted twice. Then of course they wanted to count. We don’t accept money unless we counted it last. Then suddenly someone said the rate was wrong and it was changed to one that was ridiculous again. They were being too aggressive for our liking and Emma played tug of war with one of them as they were determined to take her money. We’re not into being messed about, we knew there would be other touts at the border so we swiftly called the deal off, grabbed our money and hit the road.

The moment we pulled up at the border and Emma got out to start the exit paperwork Marie got surrounded by pushy touts. She was super assertive, asked what the rate was (the correct rate was offered straight off the bat) and was direct in saying yes we need to change a little (because of courese they know you need to pay the Malawi border fees) but that we’d only deal with 1 person on their own, no crowding or we’d walk away, and that we’d do the deal in a calm way after we’d finished our processing. The other touts ceded to a calm guy that had been the first to approach us. this showed us among the chaos there is respect and order among them.

He had taken on board our point about not being crowded and kept others away and patiently waited until we’d done immigration and the vehicle exit and were ready. We then changed the amount we had set aside that we needed for the fees in a very easy transaction. We had a few smaller notes left that Marie then asked Emma for and with our deal being done we were suddenly a free for all and literally half a dozen arms were in the cab trying to change that bit with us. Marie pushed them all off and signaled to the guy we’d done or deal with. She then handed it to him as a tip to reward his ‘good’ behaviour. He was stoked.

On the Malawi side the vehicle paperwork took forever. Less steps than Zambia and all done at just 2 desks but the production of the importation document took a long time. It was then given to us with errors which we made them correct and finally it was stamped. There was carbon tax again and mandatory insurance which you have to buy off a private provider.

A provider approached us and we were told the going rate was much higher than we’d read. It had probably gone up since it was wrote but we were going to give it a go at pushing it down. So we said no we have friends that got it for half the price, the woman was adamant that is not possible and when did they come. We said 6 mths ago so the price may have gone up a little but that is a big jump. We continued with our paperwork. 10 minutes later she was back and we were offered the price we’d asked for. Marie did the paperwork required with the woman then she went off and prepared the sticker we needed to display and it was done.

The fees had taken all of our local currency and we wanted some in our pocket so finding an ATM wasn’t an imperative that afternoon. Marie had quietly and calmly sussed us out a tout and said to him we’d like to change a bit before we leave. When it was time she gave him a nod. It was a discrete, calm and fair trade and then we were on our way through the border gate.

The small border town had a nice feel to it. We pulled over and Emma went to find a SIM card. She came back with a working phone and some chips and salad in a plastic bag for lunch.

We then did a 4 hour drive to and then through the capital Lilongwe then onto Senga Bay on the bank of Lake Malawi.

The 9th largest lake in the world and the second deepest in Africa, Lake Malawi is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is 360 miles long and its shores can be found in Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania (however Malawi gets the privilege of claiming most of the lake theirs).

Malawi is a populated country, there were people everywhere. This made toilet stops quite challenging even if it did make the journey more interesting.

We finally arrived at the village we were aiming for as it went dark. We’d googled a lodge with a campsite that sounded ok and before we drove the last 10km of the narrow road with people spilling onto it in the dark we called ahead to check they had space. We turned out to be the only ones on the campsite.

It was a hot night and noisy too as we were next to a path to another village and broadly speaking Africans like to party. The next morning we had a lie in and took it slowly. We cooked breakfast for a change and Emma faced off a big male baboon that had fixated on Marie’s bacon buttie and had snuck to within a couple of metres while Marie was completely oblivious.

We had a walk down to the beach before we left and sat on a swing under a tree watching the villagers with their fishing boats for a while. It was stinking hot and it was only just 9am. The lodge really was a piece of paradise, the beach was beautiful and it had lookout areas, kayaks, swings and a really cool beach bar set in the cliff so you could enjoy the views.

Our plan was to take a slow day and only go a few hours south to another bay on the lake edge. We broke the journey in Mua. Set on a hill a Catholic mission was established there in 1902 and it has some lovely brick buildings and a small fascinating museum that told the history of the museum, and explained a number of the local traditional rituals and had a huge collection of masks. It was much better than we were expecting.

As we left we pulled over and stopped a guy transporting firewood he had harvested and was taking to sell. He was happy to sell us the top of his massively tall stack (they often use bikes as transport, so they’ll overload them and then push them not ride).

Our camp that night was in the garden of a guesthouse right on the bank of the lake. Bizarrely you have to pass through an army base to get to it. They had a number of ships moored up, including a very shiny one we were told had been recently gifted by the Chinese. It reminded us that the lake was an international border and Malawi is still in dispute with Tanzania as to exactly where that border line is.

The guesthouse did amazing fresh food (and great coffee) so we skipped on cooking dinner. We were a little reluctant to leave the next morning but it had been another hot restless night even without a party pumping in the background. It was time to head into the highlands to hopefully find some cooler air.

Click on any photo to enlarge and scroll through

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