Our visit to Malawi was such a treat. We thoroughly fell in love with this country, which is home to many of Africa’s friendliest people. The stunning natural scenery added to the overall positive vibe we got from Malawi, and a chance to lounge around pretty Lake Malawi couldn’t be passed up. Our group celebrated a momentous event together (Day 200 of our Trans Africa trip) with a session of all day drinking around our piggie on a spit. Our whirlwind travels through the country took us from Lilongwe, the easygoing capital to the Chintheche Strip on Lake Malawi, home to the legendary Kande Beach Camp which was our campsite for a few blissful days. From here, we zoomed over to Chitimba, another picturesque village on the lake which has some of the country’s best wood carvings (and believe us, Malawi is probably the best country in Africa to stock up on beautifully carved wooden stools and tables). Overall, the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of Malawi is alluring, and we wouldn’t hesitate to come back.
22 May: Happily, there was no fee for the Malawi visa, but the line was quite long and it took our group almost an hour to get processed through. Once we were on the road, Chris tried to get us into Lilongwe but was immediately stopped for speeding (going 60 KM in a 50 KM zone) but he successfully argued and eventually wore the policeman down with his argument that the speed limit was not signposted and how could he be liable for speeding if not forewarned with what the speed limit was to be? After getting off with a warning and hug, we were back on the road, and drove straight to Lilongwe where we pulled into the Mabuya Camp (located near the old town section of the capital city) on Livingstone Road. It was formerly known as Kiboko Camp, and we found this to be one of the more disappointing campsites to date. Not only were there not enough toilet/shower facilities for the number of campers, but out of 4 public power outlets, only 1 was functioning. However, our biggest beef with the campsite was its ant infestation. We were not warned that the ants had been a problem (apparently when it rains, the ants will infiltrate all tents and this is a common occurrence at this campsite). We erected our tent in a grassy area and were blissfully ignorant of the growing problem until bed time when we discovered that our tent literally had tens of thousands of ants crawling in every corner of the tent! And we weren’t the only ones affected. Sean and Sara discovered ants crawling all over them inside their sleeping bags and we let them use our brush and dustpan and bug spray. The night was bearable with only a few hundred ants crawling around but we will always remember this particular campsite with repugnance as it was the worst campsite experience to date. For dinner, Lucky, Fi and Mel made sudza with soya mince sauce. We discovered that sudza tastes an awful lot like grits, and the soya mince sauce was especially delicious. After dealing with our ant problem, we fell into a restless sleep by 11 pm.
23 May: Despite our late 8:30 am breakfast, we were up before 7 am because of the ant situation. Since it was a bit too early to clean off our tent and relocate, we decided to wash a bit of laundry before breakfast. Becky complained about the ants to Nancy who inquired with the campsite staff and informed us that this phenomenon is normal especially whenever there are recent rains. We are not happy with Mabuya Campsite and based on the ant infestation situation, could not recommend it to others. Thankfully, Sean came to our rescue when he let us use some of his insect spray (bought back in Morocco but never used before) as it was the only effective deterrent in keeping the ants at bay! Hallelujah….we moved our tent out of the grass and onto a sandy area and liberally sprayed our tent down and that seemed to do the trick. Breakfast was leftover sudza and toast, and we planned to spend our free day in Lilongwe with Lucky just exploring at our leisure. Our original plan included finding an ATM machine where we could withdraw sufficient Kwacha to exchange it with Nancy for US dollars, but we found out that the largest Kwacha note is 500 (worth about $3 US) and we weren’t sure how that would affect our ability to withdraw large sums of local currency. After walking into the old town with Dowelly, Ally, Lucky, Luke, Kendra and Katherine, we finally found a functioning ATM that was linked to maestro/mastercard. However, the maximum amount it would dispense was 20,000 Kwacha (due to the thickness of the total amount of 500 Kwacha bills) and afterwards, our per day limit with Standard Bank was reached. Unable to withdraw the total amount agreed to with Nancy, we had to find her to let her know she’d be better off exchanging her US dollars instead. Lucky suggested finding her at the nearest internet café and what sagely advice! Nancy was sitting in the very first internet café we stumbled across and we let her know the bad news. Our next destination was a stroll through the crafts market in front of the Lilongwe Post Office where thousands of souvenirs were on display by a whole horde of different vendors. Surprisingly, there was very little hassle as we browsed the stalls and got prices for the various items (book ends, tables and chairs, door stoppers, coasters) that caught our eye. One of our favorite pieces was a carved table with a “bao” game on one side and a carving of the big five on the other. Prices started from the outrageous to the somewhat reasonable but no bargains were to be had without some serious negotiating. After getting a decent price comparison for later on at Kande Beach, we decided to walk to the Nature Sanctuary, but took a detour across the Lilongwe River on a private bridge, paying 10 Kwacha for the privilege of using the rickety bridge. There, we stumbled upon a vast outdoor market where fruits and vegetables were sold on one side of the bridge, and second hand clothing and shoes were being hawked on the other side. We ended up scoring a delicious local lunch at one of the restaurants for only 250 Kwacha (tasty grilled chicken and rice) and were all quite satisfied with our meal. The locals we met and talked to were quite friendly, and we found the vibe of Lilongwe to be quite enjoyable. It was easy to spot Damien, Anna, Scott and Itchiyo in a sea of dark faces and we strolled over to say hi. In our afternoon excursion around the city (Lucky was keen on scoring a coveted Malawi football shirt but no luck), Becky bought a cheap dress (500 Kwacha) and Robby priced out some replacement flip flops but ended up not buying them. What a big mistake as his flip flops finally died a quick death in front of the craft market, much to the enjoyment of the vendors and passersby. Lucky had some duct tape and a sharp knife so with a bit of ingenuity, the flip flop was repaired. However, Robby was keen on a more permanent solution so we headed to the nearby shopping center (Shoprite) where he was able to find a cheap pair of replacement flip flops. At the Shoprite center, we ran into Dowelly, Luke and Ally and learned that the entrance fee to the Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary was 900 Kwacha. Since none of us were that keen on paying that much to enter, we decided to give it a miss and buy the necessary alcohol for the Day 200 festivities. After doing a price comparison between Spar, Shoprite and Cash n’ Carry, we headed back to the Shoprite for the cheapest beer and girlie drinks. Burdened with our purchases, we were too cheap to pay 600 Kwacha for a taxi ride back to the campsite so we walked back instead, and were surprised that the return trip only took a brisk 15 minutes. Back at the campsite, we took advantage of electricity to recharge dead batteries and got caught up on trip notes. Becky took a shower while Robby played chess. Cook group (Sean, Lydia and Laura) made a delicious beef on mashed potatoes meal that was super popular, and Nancy took a while to brief us on all the options available to us to get from Nairobi to Addis Ababa. We stayed up discussing the pros and cons of mailing our passports back to our respective countries to apply for an overland Ethiopian visa with several members of our group and privately decided that our best bet was to pay the extra money for a direct flight, thereby foregoing the hassle and stress of mailing our passports back to the USA for a return trip back to Africa.
24 May: We were ready to leave the campsite by 8:30 am, and Chris drove a short way into Lilongwe where we pulled over into a parking lot for cook group shopping for the next several groups. Becky happily discovered Lilongwe’s best bargain ever, which were massive mutant sized avocados for an unbelievable 80 Kwacha each. What a deal! She talked Dowelly into a partnership deal of 4 avocados and chips, so that we could all enjoy guacamole for lunch while at Kande Beach. Meanwhile, Robby was off with the boys cook group shopping (they settled on beef kebabs), and he also found some reasonably priced coconuts and peanuts to snack on as well. Since we were keen on buying some more wooden souvenirs in Malawi (famous for its wooden chairs and tables), Becky took out an additional 20,000 Kwacha in the anticipation that we would see some woodwork that would catch our eye. We had a long drive day towards Kande Beach on Lake Malawi, stopping for lunch near a village. Of course, our presence attracted a massive amount of attention and before we knew it, there were dozens of curious onlookers watching our every movements. The boys started tossing around a rugby ball and some of the more restless villagers joined in, showing off their throwing skills. Some members of our group pulled out their big lenses and started taking photos which upset one of the village ladies who yelled at them to stop. It was a bit of a circus as half of the villagers posed happily for photos while the other half looked quite irate at having their photo taken. After lunch, we took off and continued on our long drive to Kande, with our only afternoon diversion consisting of meeting another Oasis truck going in the opposite direction. Their truck was a lot smaller than ours and designed similar to the South America Oasis trucks. By 4 pm, we finally reached Kande Beach which is a nice campsite literally right on Lake Malawi. After setting up our tents for the next 4 nights, a group started playing volleyball and talking to the local dive shop operators (Americans who have a cute puppy named “Tank”). Robby was on cook group duty tonight and his group played volleyball until 6 pm when dinner preparations commenced. However, since they were using charcoal to cook with instead of firewood, the entire process took a lot longer than anticipated, and by 9 pm, dinner was almost ready. Poor Matt got singled out and yelled at by Chris in front of the whole group, making for an ugly scene. Several comments were made by members of our group that it would have been better if all of cook group had been yelled at instead of having Matt serve as the scapegoat. The entire incident put a damper on everyone’s mood and it was an early night for all.
25 May: Day 200! Lucky was the first one drinking by 7:30 am, starting his day off with a “Bad Girl” drink, much to everyone’s amusement. The pig, Gilbert, was selected at 6 am by Nancy and crew. Several members of our group decided to join her in watching the pig get slaughtered by Nelson, one of the villagers. Apparently, they had started off with snapshots of their cute poses with the pig, followed by walking behind it as Gilbert was hogtied and carried to the slaughtering place. After a complete shave, a slow and painful death ensued, and we only saw the fresh carcass delivered at 9 am, when the locals carried Gilbert to our campsite and placed him on a spit. To be fair, the pig cost $100 USD which will go a long way in the village, and they got to keep a significant portion of Gilbert to consume amongst themselves. We took a dip in the lake to cool down and were astounded by how clear the lake is. The cichlid fish are easily visible from the surface of the water and the fresh water lake is very refreshing. While we were cooling down, two horses came down for a dip and a swim. The horses looked like they loved the water and that convinced Sara and Lisa to go for a horse ride at some point while here at Lake Malawi. We gathered around the campsite circle (surrounding Gilbert who was now roasting on his spit) with our drinks, and everyone who had signed up for a roasted chicken had to take turns rotating them on a spit. The drink pile was growing (today’s goal was to get 200 bottles by the end of the day, averaging out to 8 drinks per person, assuming that everyone was participating). Lars set up his tripod to take hourly photos to commemorate the day, and everyone got more merry as the drinks started accumulating. We took another dip in the lake and did human pyramids, getting various levels of success. It was a relaxing day and since lunch was on our own, we reheated our leftover chicken and had a nice lunch supplemented with the most amazing guacamole which we ended up sharing with the rest of the group once we had our fill. The day went on and our drink pile grew and grew and by 1 pm, we had reached 100 bottles. Only 100 more to go before the end of the day! Becky and Lucky decided to wear outfits commemorating Lucky’s favorite team, the Hawthorne Hawks (brown and yellow) and wrote 200 on their foreheads. Several other people also started putting 200 on their faces, arms, chest and back and lots of silly photos ensued. By 3 pm, Gilbert had become nice and golden, and Chris cut up crackling for everyone to snack on and we hit the lake for yet another swim. By about 5:30 pm, Gilbert was ready to be carved so Becky assisted in slicing him up. There was a massive amount of meat and served along apple sauce, a salsa salad, and potato salad. Everyone stuffed themselves silly and after dinner, we were still 26 bottles short of making 200, so we joined in on a game of 21 to help expedite the process. By 8 pm, the momentous occasion of 200 bottles had been reached so the entire gang joined in for one last group photo before scattering to the bar for a post-200 celebration. It was a lively night, lasting till midnight with everyone celebrating and in good cheer.
26 May: Any breakfast that includes leftover pork, apple sauce, potato salad and salsa for breakfast is yum in our book! We decided to join Dowelly, Matt, Lisa and Marie to visit the Kande craft market, where we separated from the rest of the group when we met Irene, a friendly crafts vendor who offered the most reasonable prices for her carved items. We stayed and chatted with her and her friend Nelson, and after a bit of deliberation, ended up buying three pieces from her (a big five Malawi chair, big five table and a man/woman carved chair for 13,000 Kwacha, which averaged out to $23 a piece at our exchange rate of 183 to the Kwacha). Robby was keen on buying a chess/bao table set, and commissioned one of the other vendors to finish his piece by tomorrow morning and if he liked the end result, he agreed to buy the table off of him. We were accompanied by Nelson on the way back to our campsite and took a slight detour to check out his workshop. To our immense surprise (we had been walking and talking to Nelson for the better part of an hour), Nelson’s workshop was amazing with several gorgeous Malawi chairs and tables. Had we known that mere meters from our campsite, one of the better workshops existed, we would have done all of our shopping there! Becky especially liked a chair with giraffes intertwined together on it, and we told Nelson that we would inform our friends to stop by for a visit. Back at the campsite, we did a quick load of laundry and had a late lunch of tuna fish sandwiches before joining Lucky and Gin on a canoe ride out to a nearby island. It cost 1000 Kwacha to rent the canoe and mask and we made it about 3 feet before tipping the unstable canoe over and getting thoroughly soaked in the process. Robby considered the entire incident hilarious but Becky didn’t really see the humor in it. Snorkeling by the island was OK as it was like swimming in an aquarium with the plentiful fish of varying colors. However, most of the fish were small and we felt that what we saw underwater during our snorkeling excursion was similar to what we would have experienced scuba diving the lake. Itchiyo and Scott were lounging by the island, so we joined them in some jumps off the rocks, taking a variety of photos as proof that we jumped willingly. A canoe race around the island ensued as we were trying to get back to the beach. On the beach, a competitive game of volleyball between Oasis and Kamuka trucks had broken out, with the Oasis team dominating the last two games. We took a quick shower before dinner and enjoyed leftover pork along with vegetable stew for dinner. Nancy gave us a quick briefing on our agenda for tomorrow and predictably, after yesterday’s long party day, it was an early night for all tonight.
27 May: We made a special effort to get up early for sunrise photos and by 5:20 am, were up and about. To get to the best lookout point, we had to walk down the beach quite a ways to get past several people who were also early birds out for photos. We captured a spectacular sunrise, and had just a few minutes to spare before heading out to a nearby nursery (Mphatso Children’s Foundation, www.mphatso.org) which is run by an Australian lady named Robyn, who initially came to Malawi with the intention of staying 6 months but has been here for the past 8 years! Naomi, Lucky, Scott and Itchiyo were also keen on visiting, and all of us gathered to get a briefing by Robyn who explained how the nursery came to fruition, along with the myriad of other programs supported by the organization. We were astounded to learn that for a mere 100 Kwacha a term (3 terms in a school year and 100 Kwacha is equivalent to 60 cents), a Malawi child is allowed to attend school. However, some of the children couldn’t even afford that amount of money, and Robyn was often sought out as a last resort. Also, Mphatso is involved with the feeding of 21 babies, whose mothers have either died from HIV/AIDS, are abandoned, or cannot obtain breast milk from their mothers. Robyn explained how heartbreaking it is to have to decide which baby gets fed and which the agency has to decline (as it would most likely not survive anyway). Since baby formula is so expensive and each baby’s case is reviewed on a case by case basis, Robyn is put in the unenviable position of having to decide the fate of a baby’s life. After our briefing, we headed over to the nearby nursery where we met the children and played with them until 8:30 am. Boy is it tiring work to keep up with boisterous 3-6 year olds! By 8:30, we were grateful when they took a break for tea and a snack, affording us the opportunity to bid them farewell and sneak off for some breakfast of our own. Back at the campsite, there was more speculation on the upcoming schedule and Ethiopian visa/flight situation and we just let everyone stew on the latest changes, adamant in our decision that we’d be better off not stressing about sending our passports back to Washington DC for a visa and opting to fly and obtain one upon arrival at the international airport in Addis Ababa. At 10 am, we headed out to the main road to check up on our carvings, and along one of the footpaths, ran into Nelson, who was on his way to retrieve us. The chairs were ready for pick up and the chess/bao board was finished (although still in a rough state). Nelson showed us how to play Bao and then we negotiated the price for Robby’s table, ending up getting it for $35 USD. Behind the craft area, we took a stroll along the workshop where we could see the step by step process on how all these pieces are made. After walking back to the campsite for a quick lunch, we linked back with Nelson at his shop and Becky ended up getting the giraffe chair that she had fallen in love with the day before. Robby ended up buying a painting that caught his eye, and Nelson threw in a free carved elephant for our business. We felt that we could reciprocate in the gift giving by donating a used pair of pants which Nelson gratefully accepted. Even though Nelson is one of the touts that the campsite warned us about, we found him to be such a nice guy who was extremely helpful, friendly and best of all, he didn’t hassle or pressure us at all. We learned so much from him [why the kids call us “Mzungu” (white man) and their respective title of “Mfefa” (black man), and countless other bits of trivia], and felt that Nelson should be rewarded for his behavior. Back at the campsite, Ally was commiserating as to why she didn’t buy any souvenirs and we told her she had plenty of time to rectify the situation, sending her to Nelson’s workshop for some ideas of what to buy. She came back with a smile on her face and $80 lighter, but was happy that she ended up with some lovely souvenirs from Malawi. At 3 pm, we headed back out to the nearby village yet again where we linked up with Robert (a tout that Nancy has dealt with over the past few years) who gave us a village tour. He showed us around the crops, houses, school, hospital, and local bar where of course we imbibed on some local brew. By 6 pm, we were back at the campsite for a slight breather while Robby went to pick up the polished chair before dinner. Nancy had arranged a village meal with the stipulation for us to gather all of our own dishes, utensils and cups. We were back in the village by 6:30 pm, and lively celebrations for a village wedding were undergoing. We gathered at Robert’s house where a meal of rice, cassava, sweet potato soup, spinach and beans awaited us. Simple but tasty, the meal was filling. For entertainment, the village children sang and danced for us, and several of us were yanked from the audience to reciprocate in the dancing. Sadly, even though Nancy had forewarned us to have a song ready, we did a hopeless job at singing Rudolf the red nosed reindeer. Then the kids sang the Malawi national anthem followed by a song were everyone had to say their name and where they are from. Once the dinner and entertainment fizzled out, some of the local villagers laid out some of their paintings for sale but after several days of shopping opportunities, no one was interested. Instead, we strolled through the bush in the dark to reach camp and called it a night. What a long and eventful day and we were thoroughly tuckered out!
28 May: By 8 am, we were on the road, bidding Kande Beach adieu. What a restful and relaxing place to spend a few days! After a short hour drive, we reached an intersection town which was a popular stop for a perusal at the craft market. Undoubtedly, the items on display here were of better quality than that of Kande Beach, and in one hour, most members of the truck had spent a good deal of their Kwacha on various Malawian souvenirs. We were able to get a door stop and 2 drink coasters with the last remnants of our local currency, before loading back on the truck for a drive to Mzuzu, where Becky’s cook group had to go cook group shopping. The market was two blocks away tucked away in a series of hidden alleys. After a quick price comparison (live chickens versus beef, rice versus pasta), the group found it impossible to spend their full budget of 7,000 Kwacha for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Meanwhile, Robby was busy at the local pharmacy getting treatment pills for bilharzias, which we bought as a preventative course of action as testing for the disease would be costly upon return to the US. For lunch, we had our own supply of tuna sandwiches, supplemented with some fruit. Our afternoon drive to Chitimba continued and some of the views over 500 KM long Lake Malawi were awesome. However, since the road was narrow and curvy, Chris had no opportunity to pull over so we had to take photos on the go. By 3:30 pm, we had reached Chitimba Camp, which was on Lake Malawi and surrounded by the absolute best carvings we had seen the entire time while in Malawi! However, the vendors seemed to know it as it was impossible to close on a deal and Ichiyo, Robby, Marie and several others went away empty handed as the vendors refused to accept their highest offer for various items of interest. Becky’s group made a beef fried rice dinner using charcoal which was a challenge but the end result was decent. After dinner, second passports were sorted out as we prepared to enter Tanzania where we would be acquiring Egyptian visa and several members sending off their passports to obtain Ethiopian visas from their home countries. It was a hot night inside our tent as this was the warmest weather since we had started the second half of the trip from Cape Town.
29 May: We were on the road by 7:30 am, driving straight to the Songwe/Kasumulu border with Tanzania.