After my Adult Summer Camp in Lilongwe, I hit Malawi’s calling card: Lake Malawi.
I’d heard a ton of good stuff about it, in particular about Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay, two towns on its shores.
The road to Cape Maclear started on a packed mini bus from Lilongwe, continued on the back of a truck, and finished on a boda boda. It was the first time I’d hold on for dear life on the back of a motorcycle in Africa, but it’s certainly not been the last.
Upon arriving, I inquired about rates & wifi at the first place we came across, checked out the bathrooms, and decided to stay. That’s the process at every place I hit, with an additional look at the dorms whenever I’m not camping. But this time I was, on the lake, for $2!
I met the Saley sisters there, the first time I’d run into Americans since bumping into a Mormon missionary in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Beers were in order as the conversation delved into our new president-elect. A few beers.
They had a snorkeling excursion booked for the following day and kindly invited me to join, so after an omelette and a french press or two in the morning, we hopped on a boat. Before we got going, I found the only English book in their tiny exchange pile and, after reading the back cover, traded in Tender is the Night & The Red Badge of Courage for Blood River. It was a welcome break from the older literature and turned out to be a fantastic, fast-paced read I couldn’t put down.
I finished it by the time the girls left the following day and made sure they took it with them.
The water on Lake Malawi had great visibility and nice fish, but snorkeling with a cold was a pain in the ass. It’s the reason I passed on the potential PADI certification.
Despite the beautiful surroundings and affordable everything, Cape Maclear came up short of expectations. For a popular lakeside town, it was unfathomable that nobody sold sunscreen or water in bottles larger than 500 ml, even in low season. I ended up having to buy two mostly-empty bottles of sunscreen previous guests left behind from a bartender at a hostel that was closed for the week. You can do better, Malawi.
As for water, it wasn’t an issue, per se, as plenty of it was available, but the last thing I wanted to do was contribute to the massive plastic problem the continent has. I use my Sawyer filter whenever I can and reuse water bottles as much as possible. However, since the locals wash themselves, their clothes, and their dishes (starting at 5 am daily) with plenty of soap all along the edge of the lake, I passed.
While it was great to read a bit, Cape Maclear was short on vibe and long on boredom, so I thought I’d head to Nkhata Bay, about 8 hours north, and see if it was better.
The coffee and conversation with Chris and Philippe, who were also staying at Malambe Camp, was so good and plentiful at breakfast on my last morning there, that I got a late start out of Cape Maclear.
After getting a free ride into town, the day was off to a great start. Moby Dick in hand, I made it to the Salima bus station after a series of three minibuses. Of course, the next bus, I was told, would not leave until 9 pm that evening. I avoid night buses in Africa like the plague, and I’m still somewhat impatient, so I decided to start walking back to town and see about hitching a ride.
It was a long, hot walk, so upon seeing this sign, I my inner fat kid and outer sweaty adult convinced me to step in for a cool treat.
“What flavors do you have?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” the cashier replied.
“What types of ice cream are available?”
“Oh, ice cream? We don’t have any. Maybe in a few days, but probably not. Load shedding.”
Killin’ me, Malawi.
Totally understood, but it was a little disappointing, not gonna lie. Power in Africa is definitely an issue. This was the second laughably African moment of the week at a food establishment. In Lilongwe I walked into a coffee shop that didn’t have coffee (not just at that hour, but, ever), despite the name and new signage.
I continued a few kilometers further and when a local flagged down a semi not too far ahead, I hustled up and saw if I could join. It wouldn’t be a free ride, but it would get me closer to the goal.
So I jumped on the G.O.A.T. semi.
It was slow, hot, and a bit too windy to read, but when a goat fell off, broke a leg, and had to be euthanized by Lebron James, it got a little interesting.
Fast forward to dusk and were were still very, very far away. At the pace were were going I wasn’t going to make it by midnight.
A mini bus driver slowed up as he drove by while we were stopped at yet another police road block. He was going a helluva a lot faster than the truck. With the driver and his sidekick busy with the police, I couldn’t wait for them and miss my opportunity. I grabbed my bag and jumped off the truck and into the minivan, which speedily moved along.
They wanted quite a bit of money, but I refused to pay that much and paid the going rate, plus Muzungu tax.
And I’m glad I did it that way because, before long, he’d come to a stop in a little town and told me I’d need to transfer there.
It wasn’t unusual, having to hop on another minibus to complete the journey; it was just untimely, as it was 9 pm. These minibuses don’t leave until they’re full, so after nearly an hour sitting there all alone in the mini, I knew it’d likely be many hours before I’d be leaving, and that the sun may be up by then.
But then, guess what? The G.O.A.T. slow semi caught up and as it slowly rolled by, I was easily identified, being the only muzungu for miles. So the driver came up to the mini a few minutes later and asked for payment. It was a fair request, so, I paid him…then asked if I could board again. Which I did, after paying for the entirety of the journey.
The full moon illuminated the way while Gregory Alan Isakov, Atmosphere, and Pearl Jam provided the soundtrack to my slow-moving journey. I was frustrated, tired, hungry and thirsty. And I was smiling because my unlucky breaks made for a memorable move across Malawi, despite the frustration. It’s all part of the adventure.
It took me almost 15 hours to travel 450 km. On paved roads. So very Africa.
We made it to Nkhata Bay, or at least the junction closest to town where we were told to get off. At 2 am.
I was in no-man’s land and determined to make the best of it. But after walking into town, rocks in hand to ward off the angry dogs who found my lonesome, shadowy presence suspicious, I realized I was in for a long night. The hostels that had been recommended had terrible signage and nowhere to be found. The 2 other hostels I walked into were completely dark with no one answering my knocks.
So, I decided that Nkhata Bay was not for me and walked the 5 k back up the hill, where I’d catch a ride towards Tanzania.
After 9 hours on another minibus, I made it to Karonga, where I started feeling ill and upgraded to a hotel room with AC. Except that to have AC, you have to have power, which they only had at sporadic times. Load shedding. As frustrating as it was for me, I feel for the Malawi (and Zimbabwe, and Zambia, and…) locals who deal with it daily. I couldn’t complain. It made for a crappy night, but at least I had a bed and mosquito net. A couple cold showers also helped.
Before leaving for Tanzania the next morning, I stopped at a clinic. Luckily the mosquitoes that have eaten me alive over the last 4 months were not to blame for my nausea. Negative for malaria, but positively happy to gtfo of Malawi after a crappy few days that made me question the sanity of crossing Africa overland, I was hopeful that my luck would improve.
And it would, but not until after I dealt with an asshole boda boda driver who refused to give me change. It’s not the first time it’s happened, of course. I always try to carry small change for that reason.
In addition, I dealt with an even more anally deplorable bus driver. He handed me his cell phone 5 minutes after boarding and said an immigration officer was on the phone for me. The “immigration officer” claimed the visa payment I’d made at the border was insufficient and that I needed to pay more. I couldn’t believe the drive had the gall to try that ish. He chose the wrong person on the wrong day for that.
I tried to stop, step back, and breathe, and resist the urge to throw this punk’s cell phone out of the window. I accomplished the latter, but failed to get my mouth to comply with the anger management mantra, hurling some vitriolic verbiage at the surprised driver while handing him his Nokia, taking my seat, and throwing my Yurbuds on.
The cool, rainy weather helped simmer me down, and I eventually got to the Mbeya train station.
The travel gods had mercy on me, delaying the train enough for me to arrive on time to catch it. Once on board, they found me a bed in the sold-out sleeper cars.
Thankful to be off the constantly-stopping minibuses, I very much enjoyed the journey on the, comfortable refurbished train. Cheers, China!
A nice local getting home from a visit to his mango groves invited me to join his taxi from the Dar Es Salaam train station, gave some insight & suggestions for my time in his city, and got me to the center of town.
Into the Indo-Islamic madness on the water I went, where Fantastic Beasts, cool Canucks, a fun flight crew, and ferries filled the following few days of A Great Journey.