We spend parts of the next three days driving through the Tanzanian countryside on our way to Malawi. Vendors dash after every slowing bus, eager to sell fruit, cashews and other snacks to bored passengers. The cheery sound of children calling and waving to the truck never gets old.
We spend the night at the Baobab Valley Camp where thousands of acacia and baobab trees crowd for space in the arid landscape. A few young Maasai man the camps, keeping up the fires to heat the water, but shyly refuse photographs from our group. I take them aside and through sign language and laughter draw them into conversation in halting English. They lead me through the campsite to a huge cactus and freely pose for photos away from the eyes of the group.
The bar is set on the banks of a muddy river, a pleasant place to while away the time, but more importantly, it stocks ice-cold drinks, something we haven’t seen for days and we greedily descend on them. We get into camp early which allows Ebron time to whip up a fried chicken dinner with gravy. In the evening, we conduct experiments with long exposures in the pitch black, illuminating a huge baobab tree and writing words in the air with our flashlights, making scary faces and one of us (name mercifully withheld) illuminates his own full moon. We’re surprised that our macabre scenes actually turn out.
We wake up to a bombshell in the morning. The Irish / Scottish couple has decided to abruptly leave the tour and head back to the UK. She isn’t dealing with the heat very well and despite upgrading to a posh air-conditioned hotel on Zanzibar, it isn’t enough. We all commiserate and feel badly for them. While overlanding isn’t luxurious by any stretch – hot muggy nights, early morning starts, long days on the road, the relentless setting up / taking down of tents – for most of us, it’s the best (and most economical) way to see this vast and captivating continent. George and Wil do their best to help with ongoing travel arrangements, but their absence will definitely be felt as our group has already bonded over (dreaded) chores and shared experiences. Go well, Malcolm and Angela!
After a brief stop to hike down a rocky valley where Stone Age tools have been found, we camp at the Old Farm House in the highlands. The weather is immediately cooler and the campsite is beautiful in its simplicity, the smell of hay permeating the air. A few of us jump at the opportunity to upgrade – the stables have been converted to quaint rooms with gloriously comfortable beds, for only USD 17 / night. A welcome break to setting up our tents, though even they would be comfortable tonight in the cool mountain air.
We climb to 2700 meters above sea level and the air is refreshingly cool. My ears pop every now and then. On the way, we have a workshop on light metering. We overnight in Tukuyu and have time to wander around the local market where foreign visitors seldom go. People have a ready smile as they try to figure out what to make of us. We camp on the grounds of a nice hotel and again we negotiate an upgrade, enjoying the full hot showers and big beds. The steak dinner Ebron prepares goes down well with everyone.
In the morning, we head off for a tea plantation tour, one of the many that dot the landscape like a living green patchwork quilt. (Fun fact: Green tea and black tea come from the same plant – just a difference in temperature during processing!) The undulating hills dotted with tea pluckers from the local village, hands scanning the bush tops for clusters of two leaves and a bud, are scenic in the morning sun. A short drive takes us to the border of Malawi where we breeze through with no visa fees.
We camp on the shores of Lake Malawi but with the strong winds and bilharzia, we can only admire the lake from the sandy shores. Lake Malawi is so large that one could be forgiven for mistaking the scene for an ocean beach. Wood carvers just outside the campsite sell all sorts of souvenirs, most too bulky to lug along. We do get personalized key chains made which allows me time to sit with the young craftsmen from the nearby village.
We talk about education and future prospects. Education in Malawi is free through the primary level only, and there is an air of resignation from these young wood carvers that life for them will always be as it is now. As I take my key chains, one of them turns to me.
‘I can give you my account number’.
‘Do you mean your email?’
‘No, my account number. So when you go back to your country, you can help me with something for my education’.
In the morning, we continue towards Kande Beach where we camp for four days. In preparation, we all buy bilharzia tablets (doled out according to body weight) to prevent against the debilitating disease carried by freshwater snails. We find it humorous that we’re ready to let these parasites lie dormant in our bodies for three months before hatching and we have to take the pills, just for a good swim. However, apparently, Lake Malawi has over 500 species of freshwater fish, many of them exported to home aquariums worldwide.
We make two stops, one at the old clothes market in Mzuzu for the group to buy crazy outfits at the second-hand clothes market for a dress-up dinner (whatever charitable organization that thought Africans needed a purple/leopard print pimp hat has a warped sense of humor) and another at a large crafts market alongside the road, each stall with almost exactly the same small selection of carved souvenirs and the same stale air of desperation.
Kande Beach is scenic and relatively quiet with a plethora of activities on offer – diving, snorkeling, kayaking, etc. The highlight is the spit roasted goat dinner on our final night there. The day before, we vetoed a scrawny, sickly looking goat brought to us and settled on a fat, mean-looking one. For the macabre, you could watch the goat being slaughtered just outside the gates before being marinated and splayed on a spit for 10 hours of slow roasting over a charcoal fire. Ebron outdoes himself as he spends practically the whole day in the cook shack, Zulu music videos playing on the laptop, whipping up sides of pasta, potatoes, stuffed lake fish, carrots and beans to accompany the juicy yet tough goat meat and for dessert, a chocolate raisin cake with custard. We decide to break with tradition (most of our meals are taken in our camp chairs set up in a semi-circle, usually around a campfire) and have a proper sit down meal. A barrel of spirit-soaked pineapple, white wine and fruit juice add to the merry-making. With it being the holidays, the whole campsite of four overland trucks and a beachful of local villagers is in a festive mood and the bar rocks until the early hours, only a heavy rain bringing the celebration to a premature end.
We change course and instead of camping in Lilongwe center, we stay another night at a campsite further down the lake. We pass bright orange/red flame trees with their dry seed pods hanging limply in the breeze. As it is Boxing Day, the locals are out in force, families and cars packed to bursting with charcoal barbecues, stereos and industrial sized cooking pots. By the beach, a stage is set up with a DJ, blasting Africanized versions of Western pop songs. The crowds bop in time to the music, ample African hips swaying rhythmically, a mother rocking out with her baby securely tied to her back. It’s a nice change, being around the locals, as most of the campsites we’ve been at so far have been in company with other overland trucks and the occasional independent travelers.
There is so much goat meat left, that we have it at lunch and then recycled for dinner, this time in the form of curry, and the extra cooking makes the meat quite tender.
We pack up in the morning drizzle, making a quick stop at a favorite soft-serve ice cream place which we missed on our way in. It must have been a strange sight, a group of mzungu, huddled in a circle, eating ice cream under gray skies at 7:30 in the morning… After a quick shopping stop in Lilongwe, and dropping off Malcolm and Angela near the airport, we head for the Zambian border.
Our trip has definitely slowed down to a leisurely pace after the first two weeks of constant activity and animal sightings. Back-to-back beach destinations (Zanzibar and Lake Malawi) offer recovery time and since there’s a head cold making its way through the truck (despite sanitizing our hands every time we board), it’s a welcome respite, but we’re all ready for a little more action…