How to travel, and how not to travel.

Blantyre Travel Blog

 › entry 7 of 12 › view all entries

*A quick note, first, the location of the previous blog is incorrect, it seems there is more than one Chipata in Zambia, I will get around to changing it as soon as travbuddy stops crashing internet explorer every time I try.  This website really does not like slow internet with outdated software.

Getting from Livingstone (Western Zambia) to Blantyre (Southern Malawi) has not been easy by any stretch of the imagination.  We've just spent three full days on buses, which has left us all with incredibly sore bums!  Zambian roads are by no means good by any stretch of the imagination.  Typically they are full of potholes and frequently the bus would venture onto the smooth dirt to the side of the road in order to get on some smooth straight surface.  Having taken a more luxury bus to Livingstone we caught the cheaper bus back to Lusaka.  Imagine a regular coach in all its cramped seven-hour glory (always add one hour to any coach time that a Zambian states), then add an extra seat in each row.  And shorten the leg-room to cram in an extra few rows.  And no movies on the televisions, just lots of Zambian music, quite a lot of it sounding evangelically christian (it was Sunday) piped in at a volume just a few notches too loud.  Not nice, but vaguely tolerable.  In theory it is possible to do our trip in two days, but we reached Lusaka about an hour too late so decided to shack up for one more night in our favourite city (not), having first being almost forcibly manhandled into buying our tickets to Chipata (the Zambian/Malawi border town) and paying extra for baggage, all described in the previous blog.

Day two involved getting up nice and early to get down to another five across bus for a supposedly eight hour journey to Chipata.  Our bags were put aboard eventually, after much hassle and fuss, I think at one point they wanted to put Alex's seventy-litre rucksack on in the overhead racks, which would have been interesting.  Anyway, nicely aboard.  And the bus didn't leave, and still didn't leave.  Eventually it was quite clear that they were waiting for the bus to fill up entirely, thereby just ignoring the fact that the first bus was supposed to leave at six, and their insistence we had to be there by five-thirty.  So the first bus became the second bus of the day, and when finally it was full, at about seven-thirty, having been sat aboard for almost two hours, we slowly pulled out of the bus station, sat in a queue for a while and then pulled straight into the nearest service station for fifteen minutes to sit there, doing nothing, not even putting petrol in the bloody thing.  So by eight we were on our way again and finally getting out of Lusaka, away from the big city, and the flat roads that are associated with it.  An hour and a half into the journey we pulled up at a small African village, at which point the driver announced that we had broken down, the full injector pipe was broken apparently, we could tell by the smell of petrol in the cabin.  Crap.  So we got out, waited for a while in the sun, then waited for a while in the shade when it got too hot (this whole avoiding the midday sun and wearing suncream thing is really doing nothing for my tan).  For three hours.  So by the time we eventually got back on, it has half-twelve, we'd been on this trip for seven hours, and travelled for just one and a half.  The rest of the journey wasn't too bad to be honest.  Sometimes quick, sometimes slow, there was an interesting bridge and all.  Altogether rather dull, made exruciating by there only being two cds, one a Bob Marley and the Whalers collection and the other a cd of country and western love-songs, on endless repeat.  And it was dark by the time we arrived in Chipata, after fourteen and a half hours.  Possibly the worst bus journey ever!

We'd been told that it was possible to travel over the border to the border town of Mchinji in an hour or so and that there'd be cheap places to stay on the opposite side.  This was told to us by a very friendly if rather softly-spoken Malawian man who was sitting across the aisle for the duration of the trip.  He also told us that there'd be atms to withdraw some Malawian Kwacha, having only got a few Zambian Kwacha left to cover us to the border by taxi.  He also agreed to accompany us over the border as he was heading over as well.  Having been travelling for two days and not yet reached Malawi, we decided to go for it.  So we got in a taxi with the guy, and headed off for the border.  This sounds like such a bad idea when I type it, but hey, 20-20 hindsight.  After twenty minutes down a road with no lights we pulled off down the drive-way to a random house.  This is when we started to question our decision.  But it was fine, the guy was only doing some money-laundering.  Well, we guessed it was money-laundering, it was unliscensed foregin exchange of crisp banknotes at rather good rates.  So we made it to the border, and passed through uneventfully, and we were now almost completly out of money, with no Zambian or Malawian money, and about 100US$ for emergencies, and heading for a town not in either of our guide-books, and therfore no backpacker lodges or decent hostels, at night.  Into the next taxi and to the town of Mchinji, where the atms either didn't accept visa, or only worked during bank hours.  So no money at all then.

The man we had met, was intending, like we were, to travel to Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi) the next day, where there would be atms.  So he agreed to put us up for the night, and pay for our matola (minibus) fare to the capital the next day.  This extraordinary generosity was our saviour really, although I guess we could have paid for a room in dollars, and hung around in Mchinji until the banks opened.  The first place we tried, a motel, was out of our price-range (a motel out of our price-range, I feel so ashamed).  The second, a nice-looking guesthouse was full.  So we travelled up a fairly rough looking street, well poverty-stricken at least, to the local hotel, which was incredibly basic to say the least.  And well, to be honest, the three people who checked in before us didn't look as though they were staying the full night.  Lets just leave it at that shall we.  We decided to sleep three people in the one double room, I took the floor, with no water in the toilet, and basically just the most basic room you could imagine.  We locked the door and dined on biscuits, coming close to the last of our food.  If that isn't a way to spend your twenty-first birthday (and it was Alex's), then I don't know what is.

The next morning we had a tin of fruit cocktail for breakfast, and left, still with this guy, who we now owed money, and possibly had mob connections.  We just don't know.  Back down the street, poverty to right of us, etc etc.  And into a matola, a local minibus, that unlike the Zambian ones, only tried to fit sixteen people into the small space, rather than nineteen.  It made a huge difference and the ride left quite quickly.  The roads in Malawi are much better and so the ride was quick and smooth, with occasional stops for the rather frequent police-checks on the road.  Malwai instantly seems like a nicer country, the landscape is much more pretty to look at, with hills and everything.  More grass for better views, and greener trees for better all-round ambience.  Plus in the light of day I could see that the border stamp was in fact in purple ink.  You've gotta love a country that uses purple ink for border stamps, right!  Into Lilongwe, nice and quickly.  To an atm, to sit in a big queue for twenty minutes, with our saviour, still waiting patiently.  Once paid back, he also agreed to help us get on a bus to Blantyre, our eventual destination, just four hours or so further down the road.

The nice luxury bus wasn't leaving until four, so we caught yet another taxi across town to the regular bus station, and the guy (we think his name was something like Mwineford but we were'nt sure) helped us get onto the next bus (think regular bus with five seats across, and a few people standing by the time it left) to Lilongwe.  That was cramped too, and we had little food.  And yet, we thoroughly enjoyed this last trip.  It was entertaining.  We bought food from the street sellers, through the windows of the buses every time we stopped, it was like some kind of African travelling cliche, but it was great.  There was a full cross-section of society on board, I think we were all next to mothers, not together, with small children in tow, who were friendly and chatted to us about out upcoming trip, welcoming us to Malawi, saying Mt. Mulanje (our next destination) was very beautiful.  Yes it was cramped, yes it was hot and sweaty, we were dehydrated and hungry.  But we got seats together for the last hour and managed to spread out a bit more.  And altogether that trip was great, one of the reasons why travelling is so much fun.  I feel like we experienced real Malawi there.  So here we are, in Blantyre, well rested after celebrating Alex's birthday at a Pizzeria, and exactly half-way through our trip.  I can hardly wait for what the second half will bring.

And finally, have you ever wanted to know the secret of sleek, manageable hair?  Apparently, so I've found out, it is not to use lots of ridiculous products frequently.  But rather to not wash your hair.  Note to all clean freaks out there, this is not disgusting, the natural oils that the scalp produces (and are removed by shampoos) are far better than any product at cleaning your hair and provided it is cleaned with water occasionally to get rid of the surface dirt its not disgusting.  At least not now I've grown out of having adolescently oily hair.

Adios for now, I'm off to mountains for a while, and to have a look at some tea, so no blog for a few days.

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photo by: tinni