Chasing Sunrise: Southern Malawi

Our destination for the day was Zomba; we wanted to visit it’s plateau and have a break from the heat in its cool mountain air.

We started the day with Emma getting a haircut in the town before hitting the road. Initially the road followed the southern tip of the lake. We thought we’d easily be able to get to its edge but every time we tried we hit a lodge or resort. It turned out to be where a lot of the higher end accommodation is. Eventually we did find a track that took us there. At the end we found a group of young boys playing at the water’s edge in their pants. They wanted to engage but were quite shy initially, though eventually overcoming it to be cheeky enough to cling on for a ride on the tailgate as we drove off.

With our last lake fix we carried on south and reached Zomba at midday. The temperature was bliss. We headed straight up the plateau. As we started going up we found a lodge that had camping so we pulled in and reserved their only vehicle camping space for the night. They also gave us a map of the roads on the plateau. We still got lost. What makes a road we’ve discovered is very subjective and the map was ambiguous on what was road and what was path.

We’d turned back to the only sealed road after doing a fair distance uphill on a 4WD track. After talking to the security guards at the hotel at the end of it we went all the way back to the start and took a different branch, only to have that turn into a path and reach an impassible section. In Malawi they call it ‘broken road’ . It took a 17 point turn in order to turn back. We asked some villagers and they couldn’t tell us how to get up onto the plateau either just that the ‘road’ we’d just attempted is no longer a road.

With no other branches to try we headed back to our accommodation and asked. It turned it we had originally been on the right ‘road’ the first time. The 4WD track was it and if we’d just kept going we would have come out onto the plateau. We still had time so we headed back up.

There were heaps of side of the road sellers mainly offering berries (the first time we’ve seen berries for sale) and some potatoes and fruit. We bought quite a few bags of berries during our multiple trips back and forth. Emma deserved the stomach ache that followed as all had rapidly disappeared.

Finally we reached the plateau. It sits at 1,800m and has a lake, waterfalls and on a clear day amazing views. We had a hazy day so the views weren’t good and the plateau itself wasn’t overly interesting. It had a lot of pine plantation and deforestation too. We were expecting something a bit more impressive like in Lesotho. But it was pleasant and we enjoyed exploring its empty tracks.

We got back in time to make camp in the light. They’d also lit the fire for the hot water boiler for us so we had a lovely hot shower and did some much needed laundry.

Owned by an Italian the lodge offered an extensive menu of fantastic Italian food made with fresh local ingredients. For the 2nd night we again took the opportunity to skip making dinner.

It was a blissful night’s sleep. Cool, dark and quiet.

Up at first light our plan for the day was to head to the Mozambique border crossing at the very southern most point of Malawi. We hadn’t been able to find any information on it but we could find one old article that suggested all of Mozambique’s border posts would soon be able to issue visas on arrival. In other lists we found the crossing didn’t get a mention. However if they could issue visas and we could cross it would save us a lot of driving time in Mozambique.

It was a long drive. The border crossing wasn’t signposted and the last 30km started out as gravel and became a single file track. It felt like the road to nowhere. We weren’t feeling optimistic.

Finally we reached the small Malawi post. We had a chat to them and they confirmed they didn’t think the Mozambique post on other side could issue us a visa. It was a small crossing they said (we didn’t see anyone or anything seek to cross in the time we were there). They whatsapp’d their Mozambique counterparts on the other side and they confirmed they weren’t able to issue a visa on arrival as they didn’t have the kit. This gave us two options; we could either go back to the city we’d passed through that morning and get a visa from the Consulate there or take another crossing. We chose the latter as it would be faster and we didn’t have time to waste. We’d taken a punt and it didn’t pay off. It was going to cost us precious time.

We got a couple of hours backtracking done before it went dark. The only accommodation we could find was a motel. They had a lot of outdoor space. We could rent a room and use its bathroom and sleep in the tent or sleep in the room, there was no price difference. Since we wanted to leave early we opted to sleep in the room to save us the pack down in the morning.

Sleeping inside was a mistake. A fabulous breeze had been whipping through the missing glass in the winds but it dropped off not long after we went to bed and it got stifling hot. We had a few mosquitos come into the room, not pleasant at the best of times these vicious creatures in Malawi can carry the worst kind of cerebral malaria. We were very keen to get out of there come first light.

We decided to take a shortcut instead of the sealed highway. We knew this would mean a gravel/bad road but it would save us a lot of distance and mean we would double back less. Psychologically we never like going back the same way, there are so many new things to see and experience it just seems such a waste.

The first part was good, they are doing a lot of work on improving the road, and it was gravel but wide and well graded. Then we turned off to cross the mountains. This time we checked with some locals it was the right turning.

It quickly became a track. There were some rough bits that required 4WD but overall it was reasonable. Just slow. We didn’t mind one bit, the view was incredible as we wove our way up the hills and across them. There was so much agricultural terracing. We only met a couple of motorbikes and by how friendly the people were we suspect few locals never mind tourists take that route. We stopped and checked with bemused locals at every junction so we didn’t waste time with a wrong turning. If we’d had more time it would have been a fantastic place to camp up.

We stopped and bought a drink at a little kiosk, the only place we saw to buy anything. The guy running it was very happy to see us. We attracted quite a crowd. Though it wasn’t as impressive as the crowd we attracted when we popped out of the hills into a large village right next to a primary school on a break. We followed this by unexpectedly coming out into a huge tea plantation. It was very cool to drive through and past workers harvesting the tea.

With a myriad of different tracks in the plantation we had to keep asking the way and it took us a while to realise that some people thought we were looking for a mountain (which we can only assume has some importance or meaning to them). We checked the map and figured out which town to ask for and that soon had us on a new perfectly tar sealed road.

The last stretch of road to the border was really pretty, the tea plantations had stayed and we could see the outline of mountains just to our left through the haze. Malawi wasn’t going to give us an easy run to finish on though as we plunged into a chaotic town. Market day, there were shoppers and sellers and guys moving goods with traffic including minibuses and trucks trying to get through and to navigate a junction. We slowly crawled though. It was so tight and at almost a total gridlock, for the first time in the whole trip Emma had to get out and help guide as without using every inch of space we’d be going nowhere. Unphased by the new role of spotter and Marie unphased by the chaos we inched our way forward to some puzzled looks and a few smiles.

Finally we reached the border. The exit process was quick and easy. We again needed some local Mozambique money and this time we also had a reasonable amount of Malawi we needed to get rid of. No touts had approached us or looked obviously like a money changer. So after we’d completed Malawi immigration and customs we took a short walk back into the village and asked around. Someone soon led us to an office where a phone call was made and a guy appeared. It was a straightforward trade for the right rate.

At the Malawi border gate the guard wanted a cold drink (a common request from those that man any kind of checkpoint) we didn’t have one handy so instead gave him a lolly. This kept him happy enough to move the big truck out of our way so we could cross the short no mans land.

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