Strangers in Malawi

I had no idea what to expect from Malawi. It was just a last minute route change driving south from Tanzania that took us there. So, we decided to find the local beer first. We stopped at a roadside bottle shop. The guy behind the counter dressed rather like a cool dude; he wore sunglasses and dressed like a rapper, whilst rock music blared as he danced along behind the counter, and the store was decorated with posters of soccer players. We ordered a dozen of the local Malawian beers, called Kuche Kuche.

As we did with every new country, we learned hello and thank you, ‘muli banjo’, and ‘zikomo‘. We practised our new phrases at the bottle shop. The north of Malawi was dotted with small towns, with ramshackle buildings, and lots of locals getting around on bicycles. As the main highway wore on down the coast of the lake, the road grew steeper and pulled inland. As the road grew ever steeper, we soon found ourselves scaling a almighty mountain, winding, climbing, ever higher. The view was sensational; the weather was perfect and sunny, the jungle was lush and green, and Lake Malawi stretched off as far as the eye could see, an endless sparkling blue, like the sea.

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Along the way we found the town of Mzuzu, where stopped for breakfast. It was a sleepy place, more of a crossroads pit stop town. We drove into a petrol station to fill Hammond up. We laughed when the pump attendant saw our realistic rubber snake on the dashboard, jumping in fright. We had fooled a lot of locals so far with this toy; it made us laugh every time. He was good-humoured about it though – the people of Malawi were very friendly.

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While Wessel used an ATM, Jeff and I waited in the car and a young boy came up to the window trying to sell us some sort of fried pastry balls. They looked good and we bought a few, which just tasted like oily bread. With no real directional plans, and nothing really on our list of things to do or see, we started driving south.

On the other side of the mountain we stopped the car at a crossroads. One road led to Nkhata Bay, a touristy town on the edge of the lake, the other continued travelling south. At the junction was a long row of stalls selling statues and souvenirs. We walked up and down, admiring stone carved animals, carved wooden boxes and furniture and musical instruments. Jeff and I bought stone carved animals and tiny lizards made of coiled copper wire. Wessel was bargaining for a little jewellery box claimed to be made of ebony, but Wessel was skeptical. A lot of the time, wood would be polished with shoe polish to make it look like ebony.

Eventually, Wessel bought the box for a strange price; some money, a pair of brand new jeans that he didn’t want anymore, and a few cans of food. In the car, we scratched the bottom of the box, revealing lighter wood underneath. Fake. Oh well, it was still a nice box. We kept following the road through a shady forest until we came out at Nkhata bay. It looked nice, a small crescent of beach with a row of shops and a few tourists milling around. We weren’t planning on staying here, however, as it was still early in the day and we could make up a lot more ground if we kept driving. It was regrettable, but we figured that there would be other nice places to stay further down the lake. We turned around and headed back to the crossroads, heading further south.

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The coastal road snaked down the length of Lake Malawi and we drove until late afternoon, eventually choosing to stay the night at a campsite by the water. Like many campsites we had stayed at, it looked like nobody was home. No cars, no staff, not even a discernible reception area. Hammond was parked on the grounds, which overlooked the lake which was below us. There was a staircase leading down the beach by the lake. Local women fished in the water; standing waist deep in the water and bringing in nets. The three of us had a wander around the camp grounds, eventually finding a man who was in charge. We paid him for the night, a very cheap rate. The tents were up shortly, and we wanted to go have a look at the beach. We walked down and Jeff and Wessel got into the water.

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I stayed on the beach, playing with my camera settings, when a group of friendly kids filtered out of the woodwork to say hello. There were a dozen of them, probably 7-10 years of age, and they were fascinated with my camera. When I pointed the lens at them to take a photo, they all started dancing, perhaps thinking they were being filmed. I took a photo and showed them; they burst out laughing and cringed with embarrassment.

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I started walking up to the car to get a beer and the kids followed me. When they saw all the empty water and beer bottles in the car, they all wanted one. The kids all throughout southern Africa loved to collect bottles, to trade in at their recycling centres for money. “Bottu! Bottu!“, they asked in broken English, as I gave away all the spare bottles. Eventually the mothers arrived to take their kids home, and Jeff and Wessel returned to cook dinner.

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That night we played pool in the nearby gazebo; two of the staff members, bored at work, joined in the game, and we were having international battles; Australia vs. Malawi, Malawi vs. South Africa, South Africa vs. Australia.

In the intermission, we built a fire near the gazebo and cooked our usual – Chakalaka (A canned vegetable stew from South Africa) with beans. We offered the Malawians some plates of dinner as well and they joined us for a meal. We went back to the tent after dinner and decided that now was as good a time as any to test out the various drums and musical instruments that Wessel had been accumulating over the last few weeks. With a drum each, we started a noisy percussion jam from inside the tent. The next morning, the curious staff quizzed us about what all the crazy music was. Packing up early and saying goodbye, we started another day of driving.


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