Lost in Malawi

From Lusaka, it’s a trip of several stages to Lilongwe, Malawi: a bus to Chipata, a shared taxi to the Zambian border, a walk across to the Malawian border, another shared taxi to Michinji, and a minibus taxi to Lilongwe.

We exchange dollars for Malawian kwacha in the no-man’s land between borders, getting an astounding rate of US$1=MK300 (as compared to the bank rate of MK171). Later we learn that our moneychanger has swindled a fellow traveler of half of his money by making bundles of MK5000 instead of MK10000, explaining the excellent rate.

A brief stop in Lilongwe to get our bearings and plan our journey through Malawi. At the backpackers’, we hear of a place called Zulunkhini River Lodge in Ruarwe, a small fishing village on Lake Malawi that is accessible only by boat. We decide to go there, hoping to find something special.

The next morning at 6:30am, we board a bus to Nkhata Bay. It departs two hours late, then stops a million times for bus stops and seemingly useless police checks at road blocks (a policeman stops the bus, everyone shuffles off, the policeman walks through the aisle slowly glancing at the bags and poking the occasional package, then everyone files back on again and rearranges themselves in their previous uncomfortable positions). We finally arrive in Nkhata Bay around 4pm, and are greeted by a small friendly man who brings us to Mayoka Village lodge. A quick dip in Lake Malawi and a brief night’s rest, then the alarm clock rings at 5am for us to head to catch the ilala (ferry) to Ruarwe.

Arriving at Ruarwe, we become lost in Malawi. A tiny fishing community that is inaccessible by vehicle, the main modes of local transport are dugout canoe and walking. We spend our days reading by the lakeside and swimming in the clear blue lake. There is no electricity in the area, and evenings are passed dining and chatting at a communal dinner table by candlelight. At night, the lake twinkles with stars and lanterns from fishermen’s boats. The gentle lapping of waves accompanies our sleep, heard from our tent perched on a grassy platform above Lake Malawi.

We intend to return to Nkhata Bay (and the transport route) with the “mid-week boat”, but by Tuesday it becomes clear that due to fuel shortages the boat will not leave until Friday or Saturday. Our cash supply dwindles as the days pass. Unable to afford to continue eating at the lodge’s restaurant, we make arrangements to buy fish via a local man and rice from the lodge owners. The mid-week boat finally arrives and we are lucky: the lodge owners must attend a wedding in Nkhata Bay on Saturday so they arrange to guarantee a Friday departure.

We take the boat to Usisya, the next town south on Lake Malawi and the nearest place with a road. We have been informed that from here, there is a truck that travels to Mzuzu (the region’s transport hub) every night at 11pm, and if we are lucky we may find a lift earlier in the day. Our plan is to travel north to Chitimba, the jumping off point to Livingstonia, hopefully arriving by the evening. However, upon arrival in Usisya, each time we speak to someone the truck’s departure time gets later and later, until we are finally told that it will only leave at 5am the next morning. The village is completely absent of any vehicles, except for a local NGO’s vehicle (which is “not going today”) and the ambulance (whose driver says he will “inform us” if he is going).

There is still some hope that a car will come to Usisya from Mzuzu for some errand that must return to Mzuzu at the end of the day. We sit on a bench in front of a small spaza shop near the road entering town, waiting. We wait on this bench for approximately six hours. Painfully short on cash, we pass the day consuming only 1 Coke and 1 Sprite from the shop. Seeing this, a man named Flanders offers us his home where he says we can camp and cook, and the shopkeeper gives us each a small packet of corn snacks to eat. We figure we can afford to buy a packet of spaghetti for dinner, which we can cook with an instant noodle flavor packet I have been saving in my bag.

At 5pm, the truck returns from its daily run to Mzuzu. We speak to the driver and reserve the front seats for the following morning. We go with him to the Musunguti Tree Guest House, from where the truck will depart, and decide to camp there for the night for a small fee. Then we start walking back to spaza shop to inform and thank Flanders and the shopkeeper, and to purchase our packet of spaghetti.

On the way back, we meet the ambulance. “I’ve been looking for you”, says the ambulance driver, “I’m going to Mzuzu.” We’re confused by the sudden turn of events and don’t know what to do, but I say “Let’s go!” and we throw our backpacks in the back. The ambulance stops at the hospital to pick up the patients (a woman with tuberculosis and a child with malaria), then we’re off.

The drive to Mzuzu winds on a red dirt road up and down over the mountains. The scenery is lush and green with a bird’s-eye view of the Lake Malawi coastline peeking through the trees, until night falls and our eyes see only the red dirt and stones in the vehicle headlights. I grip onto the dashboard as the vehicle bounces all over the place, but feel quite safe and secure in the hands of the ambulance driver, who has obviously driven this road a thousand times.

After two hours of bouncing, we arrive at the paved roads of Mzuzu. The ambulance stops quickly at the hospital to drop off its wards, then the driver brings us to the bus station. He puts us onto a minibus taxi going to Chitimba, and we have just enough time to say a wholehearted thank-you and find a moneychanger to sell us some kwacha. After changing money, I see a stall selling loaves of bread – but there’s no time, the engine is revving. A group prayer in Chitombuka, and the drive to Chitimba starts.

We arrive in Chitimba around 11pm. The minibus taxi drops us at the turn-off to the beachside campsites and a helpful local man leads us in the dark to Hakuna Matata Camp, which he says is the cheapest. The night guard lets us in and wakes up the manager, who turns on the lights and shows us around. We pitch our tent on the sand under a lapa.

We have made it to Chitimba! It is far too late to order food, but we do manage to get two bottles of Fanta before falling into bed.