Tuesday 4th to Thursday 6th September 2012.
The Malawian border post of Mwanza was a chaotic mess of trucks, buses, people, baggage strewn across the ground, touts selling phone credit, black market money changers, and dusty children begging. We waded our way through the chaos to find immigration. After completing a quick entry card our passports were stamped with a free visa. I noticed that mine had just seven days, whilst Luke had a month. We spoke to the weary woman behind the counter who thought I wanted a transit visa. She snatched my passport back and started looking for my Mozambique visa. I had been in the process of switching back to my UK passport, so then had to fish out my Australian one with the visa and stamps in. Seeing I’d switched passports made her more annoyed. She refused to stamp my UK one again, crossing out the visa she’d already stamped in with a flourish. She still gave me a month visa in the Aussie passport, slamming it down on the desk and refusing to look at us once she was done. We wished her a nice afternoon and found our way to customs. Here our carnet was quickly stamped. We were then able to drive through the barrier, navigate through the tangle of bodies, vehicles and luggage, and towards Blantyre.
If we thought Mozambique was populated, we were in for a surprise in Malawi. People were everywhere! Though the sun was sinking, people lined the streets meandering about their business. Even young children walked the roadside; we saw kids who looked as young as four unaccompanied on the busy highway. We were stopped a few times at police checkpoints, but after brief friendly chats they waved us through. We had heard they’re hot on speeding here and the signage seemed pretty poor. So we checked with one police officer and discovered the speed limit is 100km out of town and 50km in town. The only problem is it’s hard to know when the town begins and ends due to all the people on the roads!
By about 7pm, after a long day of driving, we reached Blantyre. Though it was dark, it was surprisingly easy to navigate around the wide city streets. We encountered more begging children when we stopped to visit an ATM. It’s so sad seeing them live like this and thinking they probably have few opportunities for a better future. Let’s hope the new female president can turn things around for the people. From what people have told us she’s getting more aid money in, so that should help in the short term at least.
‘Doogle’s Lodge’ had been recommended in our ‘Africa Overland’ book so we found our way there. Camping with a car is actually in the busy car park, so not the most picturesque or relaxing spot to be. We really didn’t want to drive around looking for somewhere else though, so accepted the spot and set up our tent. The bar was a lively mix of locals and travellers enjoying some cold, locally brewed Carlsberg beer (known here as ‘greens’). We joined them to enjoy a couple with some tasty tortillas before heading back to our car park campsite. As we climbed into our tent, we noticed a fire had flared up in a pile of leaf litter next to where we were camped. After much persistence, Luke convinced the security guard to put it out. He and a colleague dragged their hose over and started on the flames. The hose however had seen better days. It was riddled with holes, so as much as came out the nozzle, also spurted in jets out the body of the hose. Water splattered on our tent and streamed through our windows onto our bedding. We thought they were joking hosing us off and called out for them to stop. Eventually we all realised it was the holes in the hose and got it turned off. So, we were soggy, smoked out and in a busy car park populated with drunk people…not the most idyllic entrance into Malawi.
After our eventful evening we decided to spend some time doing a little housekeeping before we set off to explore Malawi. We handed our washing over to the friendly staff, Edith and Mabel, and decided to leave the city once it was dry. By late afternoon they returned with it all in neat folded piles. By then it felt a little late to leave so we spent another night in Doogle’s car park campsite and took advantage of their internet to update our website.
We were up early the next morning, intending to leave the city and get to the lake as soon as possible. We realised that I was out of contact lenses and I would need them if we were to go diving in the lake. So, that in mind we set off on an early morning shopping mission. The plus side was we got to see a little of Blantyre in the daylight. We liked the city. It was a sleepy place, with wide streets, and populated with warm people who we found were eager to help us out. Amazingly, we found an optometrist who opened at 7.30am and specialised in contact lenses. Whilst we were waiting for them to open we popped into the nearby Alem Ethiopian Restaurant, for an Ethiopian Breakfast. We ate Injera, a flat bubbly pancake-like-bread topped with piles of spicy vegetables and curries. It was divine. There we had a wonderful conversation with Sisay, the warm husband of Alem. He told us much about Ethiopian food, culture, and life, and we felt very inspired about our impending visit. We also spoke about the difficult to obtain visa on the road. It turns out that the Nairobi ambassador to Ethiopia likes to dine at Alem’s restaurant when he’s in Blantyre! Sisay gave us his contact details and said we should be sure to mention him and the ambassador should be able to help us out.