Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lake Malawi

With the Canadian credit union coaches in town for two weeks, I had the chance this past weekend to join them in a whirlwind tour of central Malawi's sights.

I was told that I would be picked up around 6:45 on Saturday morning, which in practice means it was close to 7:30 before I tucked myself into the middle seat of a 4x4 pickup (otherwise filled with driver Dalitso, MUSCCO employee Jovita, and coaches Lennie and Rocio). Our first stop would be Liwonde National Park, about 300km southeast of Lilongwe. 

This journey ended up taking close to 5 hours. One might think that this is due to the roads being in poor condition, but in reality, they were surprisingly well-paved, rivalling many of Montreal's busy thoroughfares (ha!). What did slow us down?

1) A speed trap. None of us Canadians argued with this stop early in our journey. 100km/h did seem a touch fast on a 2-lane road crowded with pedestrians and bicycles... plus I had spotted several billboards on the way from which the Malawian president encouraged us to respect the speed limit (50km/h in settlements; 80-90km/h elsewhere, depending on which type of vehicle you were driving). 
2) Engine tuning. We pulled to the side of the road in, seemingly, the middle of nowhere, and a man appeared (again, seemingly out of nowhere), popped the hood, and started working on the engine. Turns out our driver had called ahead and his buddy was now "adjusting the fuel consumption". I couldn't get more detail than that from Jovita, but it looked like they were trying to lower the rpms on the engine.
3) Another speed trap. This time we were apparently going 77km/h in a 50km/h zone (although I'm fairly sure we were nowhere near a village). Our driver went off and argued for about 30 minutes with the police, and eventually returned without a ticket. 
4) Shopping. We stopped in an extremely busy (and very awesome) market, where Jovita left to buy some beans (500 kwacha got me a giant bag of red beans!) and our driver picked up an early lunch. Meanwhile, we three foreigners sat in the car, nervously watching the crowd gathering around us. It felt a bit like a zombie movie - people shuffling up to the car, frantically tapping at the glass... except zombies aren't usually brandishing platters of delicious-looking green peppers.
5) Yet another police stop. This time, the insurance sticker was inspected and found lacking. (Funny how the previous two times, the police had looked at it and not noticed anything.) Another half-hour parked on the side of the road while the driver and Jovita went off and appeared to gesture wildly at the police for a while before returning with another citation.

Boat on the Shire river
A pod of hippos. The pictures fail to get across that
these guys were about 2m away at one point!
We finally arrived in Liwonde shortly after lunch, and decided to save money by driving into the park instead of taking the ferry. We made it to the gates, where we were informed that the road wasn't driveable due to rain and we had to go back to the boat. Oh well. We decided to splurge on a 2-hour boat safari, which yielded no elephants or monkeys, but plenty of hippos... dangerously close hippos. It's probably a good thing I didn't read about how dangerous they were (deadliest animal in Africa after the mosquito, apparently), because our boat was going awfully close to their pods. Bless you, developing world, and your general lack of concern for both environmental conservation and passenger safety.

After our boat safari, we drove about an hour to the Sunbird Nkopola Lodge, where we would spend the night and part of the next day. No traffic stops, so we made it there as the sun was setting (around 5-6pm in other words), and checked in to amazing little rooms with views of the lake. Really nice, considering they were only 70$ a night. The "downside" is that the hotel grounds were infested with monkeys, so I heard squeaking and scratching on the roof of my room all night! 

The next morning, I slept in until 8, and went and lazed on the beach for a while with the coaches and Jovita. (Our driver was off [unsuccessfully] trying to buy gas for the return trip). We later moved to the hotel pool, where we enjoyed Savannah cider (very yummy!) at 10 in the morning. I'd also like to take this moment to express my sudden appreciation for North American pool safety standards. See those steps behind me in the pool? The first one takes you into knee-deep water, the second hip-deep, the third waist-deep, and the fourth... over 2 meters deep. Suffice it to say a brief crisis (resolved with no lasting damage, thankfully) ensued when a member of our party who couldn't swim accidentally walked into the deep end.

Shortly before noon, we checked out and hit the road. There was no gas around Nkopola, so we drove to Salima (nervously eyeing our almost-empty fuel gauge the whole way) and paid K 10 000 (~50$) to fill the tank to just below the halfway mark. The rest of the ride back proved to be about as eventful as the ride out, but for different reasons: no police stops this time, but we ended up with 3 live chickens, 2 bags of charcoal, several bags of vegetables, and a bunch of chambo (fish) riding in the back of the truck... with our bags tucked in there, too. 
Chickens, luggage, and a cooler full of fish.

In particular, the acquisition of the chickens was of great amusement to all of us Canadians. Our driver pulled over quite suddenly when he spotted two young men walking down the road with chickens in their hands. Some debate then ensued, which, despite my lack of linguistic ability in Chichewa, I can safely say boiled down to a fundamental disagreement about the relative merits of the chickens vs. their cost. The poor protesting chickens were passed in and out of the truck cab several times before money was exchanged and the birds were confined to the back. 

In this manner we rolled back into Lilongwe in late afternoon, whereupon I reclaimed my luggage from several upset chickens. Another Malawian adventure draws to a close!

Village on the way back to Lilongwe

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