Tete to Blantyre

Wed, 06 Aug 2008 13:20:19 +0000

Beira to Tete Index In the Slow Lane

Wikitravel's instructions for getting to Blantyre sound fairly straightforward. Take a bus to Zobwe, which is the frontier. Cross. Take another bus to Blantyre. Since each of those legs is apparently about 100km, I thought allocating the entire day to this journey would be more than adequate. This was a gross underestimate: I made it, but it wasn't easy.

I asked directions to the bus to Zobwe from the helpful guy at reception, and was on my way. I really just had to follow the minibuses on their way back and forth to the border. They leave from the market, which turns out to be a pretty dinky little affair. And at 8:00 on a Sunday it's only barely active, without much in the way of breakfast for passing travellers. But I bought a bread roll with butter and a coke from a woman by the street, and that felt like enough, until I could get something else on the road.

I found the first minibus that was going to Zobwe and hopped on. And waited. It was 9:00 before we finally had enough passengers to get moving. And of course, we made frequent stops to pick up more passengers. Inevitably, the initially rather comfortable ride quickly degraded into the usual four-people-per-row game of sardines that I expected. Still better than that bloody wooden stool. This was especially true since I'd taken a strategic spot in the back right-hand corner.

On the other side of the river we picked up one particularly noteworthy family. The father, clutching a beer, was the loudest, most garrulous man I've ever encountered. He yelled out random observations or complaints the whole journey. Much of this was imploring the driver not to stop to pick up any more passengers, which is a sentiment I can agree with, but is pretty futile. I think the other passengers didn't mind him, or even found him entertaining. I was just glad I wasn't sitting next to him. Meanwhile his wife had a live chicken with her, presumably the Sunday roast. This is my first live-chicken-on-a-bus experience in Africa, a cliche I'd been eagerly anticipating experiencing in real life. So there was at least one passenger less comfortable than me. The poor creature squawked out loud protests when getting on and off the bus, and at particularly bumpy stretches of road, but was otherwise remarkably quiet.

The scenery around here is well worth looking at, lots of steep hills. I guess that's border country for you.

Settlements along the way were almost universally thatch and mud brick, with just the occasional concrete building, presumably churches or schools. The poverty here is surely worse than I've seen anywhere else. although unlike, say, Bolivia, there isn't much in the way of conspicuous wealth to compare it to.

We kept on stopping to pick up and drop off passengers. At most of these stops hawkers clustered around the minikbus trying to sell stuff. Sometimes it was coke and packets of biscuits, sometimes just roast corncobs. And one kid had this truly remarkable offering, which I decided not to try:

As we were climbing up a particularly steep hill, the driver suddenly cut the engine and we drifted to a stop. There was no obvious reason, but as I sat there waiting, a hissing noise from up front suggested the engine had overheated. Uh-oh. A breakdown would really suck at this stage. None of the other passengers seemed bothered though, so I waited it out. The front passenger seats were lifted up and the cover to the coolant tank was opened up, to lots more hissing. A can of water was retrieved from under the back seat, and there was gurgling. Then the guy went to tinker with something else, and suddenly there was a gigantic spray of boiling hot water all over the front cabin. The guy leapt away, and I was sure he must have had his skin boiled off. Amazingly, he seemed to be fine. The entire front cabin was dripping with water, and I was a bit concerned what that would do to the electrics. But the driver started the engine, which reassured me that we would indeed get back underway. It took a while more, with more water from the can gurgling into the bowels of the minibus, but eventually we did start moving again. So that was a bit of excitement. The chicken didn't complain once.

The road was dreadful, and all up the journey took about five hours. I'd been expecting two at the absolute outside, so I was keen to get through to Malawi as quickly as possible. Exiting Mozambique was easy enough, although I had to queue. I emerged on the other side without seeing any obvious Malawian border post, but there was a road, so I walked down it. I passed a taxi driver who wanted to ferry me to Malawian immigration. I said no, and he said it was 6km through the bush. That sounded unlikely, and I walked on. I happened to see a couple of policemen and thought I'd confirm the situation with them. They pointed down the road and said it was 6km, and that I needed to take a taxi. Well, there you go. Wikitravel never mentioned that part.

So I found the next taxi along and hailed it down. There was another guy in the back seat, I never really figured out if he was a passenger or just another member of the taxi's crew, but his name was James. The price was apparently "150", I assumed kwacha. But the guy wouldn't accept my 500 kwacha note, and instead asked for meticais. I handed over a 200, which was taken by a third guy, and lots of complicated machinations ensued, at the end of which I had a fistful of miscellaneous currency. I guessed I'd just paid.

The car had trouble starting, and James and the driver hopped out. I realised they were giving the car a push, so I jumped out to help. We got the car moving, and off we drove. It is indeed about 6km. James and the driver chatted in the local language, Chechiwa. Along the way I was offered a ride the whole way into Blantyre, but that would have been really expensive, so I said no. James also wanted to guide me through the immigration procedure, and I naturally assumed this was some way to "earn" some of my money, so I refused that too. When we got there I jumped out, and there seemed to be some protest from the driver - I hadn't paid. I guessed this was either James wanting to guide me through immigration, or the driver insisting I'd agreed to go all the way to Blantyre, or trying to double charge me, or some other rip-off. So I just said I'd already paid and went to immigration.

I had to wait for the immigration bloke to show up, but he seemed happy enough. But as he was about to return my passport, it turned out the driver had followed me and was protesting to the border guard. At first I was sure he was just trying to rip me off, but as the protest went on longer and longer it dawned on me that maybe he was for real. In which case, he was astonishingly polite about it. The driver didn't speak any English, but the border guard translated. It seemed that when I'd been handed the wad of cash, that was just me getting some money changed to kwacha. I was still expected to pay at the end of the journey. I was hopelessly embarrassed. As I handed over the money, I noticed his hands were trembling, I think from shock. Poor bloke. I wanted to tip him a couple of extra notes, but even that wasn't possible. He was intent on giving me my correct change, which he didn't have on him, and he ended up handing my 500 kwacha note to a money changer with instructions to ferry me to the Blantyre minibuses and give me my change there. The driver disappeared before I could tip him, and I certainly wasn't going to tip a money changer. So I think I disgraced myself pretty badly there. Still, I'd made it to Malawi, with a pocketful of kwacha.

The minibuses were pretty hilarious. There were two, each with a detachment of four or five hawkers, and they were furiously competing for customers. I chose the one which looked fullest, and was told a price of 600 kwacha. That was less than the 700 James had told me it would cost. But then the other minibus's hawkers yelled out that they'd take me for 500. Hey, why not. I went with them. This provoked consternation from the first lot, and one of them grabbed me and said "500! 500!" So back I went. It was chaotic and not a little aggressive, but it was nice to have all the haggling done for me.

Not that we got moving straight away. There was a long wait while the hawkers tried to find other customers, not very successfully it seemed. Then we drove a little way into town, where we stopped and the whole business of selling rides started up again. The same furious competition between minibuses happened again and again, suitcases bouncing back and forth from one boot to another as the price sunk. One family joined us with an enormous pile of luggage, which forced several passengers off the back seat. Eventually we seemed to have a fullish contingent, and off we went.

The roads in Malawi are much better than those in Mozambique, and we drove at a fair clip. There were occasional stops to pick up passengers, but not as many as there were on the Mozambique side. On the outskirts of Blantyre the family with the luggage got out. After driving off, we suddenly stopped, did a three point turn, and drove back again: they'd forgotten one metal bucket. That was nice of the driver to turn back. I couldn't help comparing this with that bloody taxi driver in Damascus.

It's a rainy day in Blantyre. Thinking back, this is the first rain I've had since Vietnam. So it was a pretty bedraggled Blantyre that we eventually sloshed into around four o'clock. My objective was Doogle's Lodge, which according to Wikitravel is right next to the bus station. I random walked for a bit, but couldn't find it. I asked a policeman and he pointed me down the road and around the corner: apparently the bus station isn't where the minibuses stop. I walked along for a bit, getting rather wet, before deciding that I couldn't see it and I should take a taxi. Of course, it really was just a few metres from where I gave up, but it's best to be safe.

Once again I didn't have a booking - I didn't have their phone number to make one. It seemed that they did have a couple of beds free, and I was taken to the room. But when we got there all the beds were full. We fetched the manager, who inspected the dorm. Several of the occupants arrived and protested that they'd paid for the entire room. So that was that: no room for me at Doogle Lodge. Pity, it looks like a rather nice joint.

Instead I went across the road to the Blantyre Lodge. This is a proper hotel, but with single rooms for $27, at least it's within spitting distance of my budget this time. And I certainly wasn't going to spend time tramping around in the rain trying to find somewhere cheaper. The rooms are reasonably nice in fact, so I think this could be decent value for money.

I headed out to the bus station (the real bus station this time) to try to find the bus to Monkey Bay. It was pouring with rain by this time, and there weren't as many idlers around as there usually are. But I asked what few people there were, and eventually found my way to the ticket office - there only appears to be one. There a very friendly guy informed me that they don't sell tickets in advance, and that I should just turn up tomorrow morning. The bus to Monkey Bay departs at 6:30 and costs 750 kwacha. All of that sounds entirely simple and straightforward, and I was well satisfied.

I went for a meal at the restaurant in the hotel, a rather basic place. I noticed too late that I could have had another dose of nshima, and just got chicken and rice, which turned out to be served in a gigantic portion. The waiter, Sam, asked me for a favour: would I be his pen pal. Pen pal! Isn't this the age of the Internet already? I'm afraid I felt this was a little much for such a casual aquaintance, and I strongly suspect that if I signed up for that, before long he'd be evangelising at me. He had that look about him. I looked for a face-saving way to wriggle out of it. This was easy enough - since I'm currently homeless, I don't have an address, and therefore can't be a penpal. Maybe I'm a bit of a bastard to refuse him, but I did offer my email address, and that was turned down.

So tomorrow I again have to get up fairly early to try and catch this bus to Monkey Bay. There I will look at Lake Malawi, and thus be able to say that I really have visited Malawi properly. And then, I'll do the whole journey in reverse, all the way to Johannesburg. I'm very pleased with myself for making it this far. And I'm very pleased that I'm finally travelling in a proper adventurous fashion. I didn't see a single tourist today, and there's been none of this Intercape floating-on-a-bed-of-luxury-over-a-sea-of-poverty nonsense. This is surely as "genuine" as this trip is ever going to get.

Beira to Tete Index In the Slow Lane