Saturday, 21 January 2012


Perhaps it was coincidence that we were listening to Daddy Yankees' 'Gasolina' as we drove into the border post between Zambia and Malawi. Malawi is currently suffering a huge petrol crisis that is crippling the nation's economy. President Bingu wa Mutharika threw out the British High Commissioner after a leaked cable revealed that the Brit had told London that Mutharika was a "combative president… autocratic and intolerant of criticism" and that "the governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights". Following that, the EU and US cut aid, and the Malawian Kwacha became an undesirable currency. Malawi can't therefore buy petrol, as no-one wants to sell a valuable commodity to a country whose currency is about as credible as monopoly money. This has led to higher food prices, half-finished building and road works throughout the country, and a burgeoning petrol black market. We were glad that we had two extra jerry cans in the boot, and before going into the border post, we covered them over with our blanket: police will often confiscate good petrol at any opportunity, as it sells at four times the price.

The border into Malawi felt positively easy in comparison to the border into Zambia. One hour total, and we were through. And that included changing money into Malawian Kwacha. The drive over to Lilongwe was calm and pretty, only spoiled by entering Lilongwe itself which, like Lusaka, is utterly charmless and rather ugly. We stopped at St Peter's Guesthouse, on the grounds of a church, and after sharing our noodle soup with the porters, headed into the centre of town. We were thinking of heading into Mozambique after Malawi, and the guidebook said that everyone needs to have a reflector jacket in their car (which we didn't have), as well as a bunch of other kit (which we already had). Heading into the market, we chatted with the two gentlemen running a hardware shop in the market whilst their friend ran to fetch a jacket for us. They recommended we see the South of the country, which, they assured us, was very beautiful.

Walking back to our car, I spotted some local artists who had their paintings stretched out on the ground in front of them. The vivid colours and pictures of women dancing, Lake Malawi and elephants caught my eye. Whenever Alex and I travel, we always buy a painting - we have some beautiful works from India, Italy, Vienna, Paris, Wales and Cuba, as well as prints, pictures and canvases bought for us when we got married (just no house to put them in yet). I tugged Alex's arm and we walked over. Of course, the minute we looked at one artist's paintings we soon had ten around us, all shouting and holding up their paintings. This was a little confusing for a minute until we laughed and started bargaining, coming away with three beautiful paintings and leaving three happy artists running to the shops before they closed to buy food. I wish I had enough money to buy a painting from all of them.

The next day we high-tailed it out of Lilongwe and headed North, towards Kasungu where a friend of Alex's holds a teaching post in a prestigious school. Called over - again - by the police at a road block, we watched as a woman swayed her hips over to the car and languidly leaned on my window, raising one eyebrow whilst glancing over the contents of the back-seat (mostly mud, and the occasional empty water bottle).
"Hello" she said slowly.
"Hello Officer, how are you?" We replied.
"I'm good, but it's coming to New Year's and we have nothing to celebrate with." She said. We braced ourselves for what we knew was coming. "So we can have New Year's on you..." She smiled slowly.
"On us?" We asked.
"Yes. What you got? Coca-cola, Fanta, chocolate, meat... any meat?"
We truthfully replied that vegetarianism meant we didn't carry any meat on us, we didn't like fizzy drinks and so had no coke or Fanta. She looked at us sceptically and there was a long silence.
"You can search the car if you want" we invited. She certainly wouldn't find anything she liked - just tins of beans and pasta.
"Go." She said, waving us on suddenly. We didn't need a second invitation.

Just before Kasungu, we saw a petrol station where a car looked like it was being filled with petrol from a jerry can followed by an exchange of Kwacha. Pulling over, we asked if there was petrol at the pump.
"No, there is no petrol anywhere in the country, at all. It's very bad."
"Ah. So how do people get petrol?" we asked innocently. The pump attendant looked around, then leaned in close.
"Black market" he whispered and named a price - twice the usual price of Malawian petrol, and four times the price of Namibian petrol. We gulped.
"Thank you, we'll think about it" we said, before driving off into the distance.

We finally reached Kasungu and turned East towards the school where Alex's former Latin teacher, Andrew Goodson, has worked for 10 years teaching Latin and Greek to the students. Andrew, according to Alex, didn't look a day older than when he last saw him and was full of energy and enthusiasm. Showing us around the lovely grounds of the school, we discussed the petrol crisis.
"I waited for seven hours at the pump one day and didn't get any petrol - because the attendants were filling up their own jerry cans to sell on the black market at twice the price. On Christmas Day they finally had another re-fill and I only waited three hours before I was able to fill up. A good gift!" We told him about being offered black market petrol.
"The problem with it is that you don't know if it's actually petrol. Many people's cars have been ruined because they've filled up with what they've thought is petrol but is actually a mixture of different substances." Andrew opened a door to the school clock tower which we rapidly climbed up. "Technically, we're not supposed to be up here" he said with a shrug and a smile, our delight at the view soon pushing aside any moral quibbles. For Alex, catching up with his former teacher was a highlight of Malawi and a great way to spend some time before New Year's Eve. We joined Andrew and two young men for dinner, enjoying a fantastic combination of delightful conversation and amazing cooking. Andrew had studied a great many languages, among them Armenian. Alex and I recalled the language with great pleasure, having studied it for a month in Yerevan this time last year. Andrew was also studying Chichewa, Malawi's national language, and entertained us with renditions of various sentences.
"Interestingly," he said, "there are no names for the stars in Chichewa. The people are like chickens: as soon as it gets dark, they go inside and stay in their huts."
"Too dangerous to be out at night" agreed his young Malawian sidekick.

At the school with Andrew

Leaving Kasungu the next day, we drove to Senga Bay on Lake Malawi, stopping off at various points of interest en route recommended to us by Andrew the day before: a tree where David Livingstone sat to speak to locals, famous potteries now serving as a restaurant. The villages teamed with life, and driving required considerably more attention than in Namibia. We drove between 80-100km/h to ensure good fuel economy and turned off the a/c. We were sure we could make it to the Southern border with Mozambique on the petrol we had, but we didn't know what petrol supplies there were on the other side of the border. The Lonely Planet stated that petrol can be tricky in Mozambique too. We thought there would probably be a petrol station on the other side of the border, but information wasn't easy to find, either in the Lonely Planet or on the 'net, and when we crossed into Botswana for the first time, the petrol stations nearest the border had run out of petrol. If the same thing happened in Mozambique, did we have enough to get down to a town further away from the border? We didn't think so... but pushing these worries aside, we came into Senga Bay and our first glimpse of Lake Malawi. Stunning, stunning, just stunning.

The beach at Senga Bay

That night was New Year's Eve, and by the time we'd arrived at the hotel, the party was already underway. After pitching the tent in the hotel's campsite, we stripped to our swimwear and ran into the lake. Deliciously warm, with a shelf that ran for a huge strip of the lake, meaning that you can wander out for a fair distance before it becomes deep. Music pulsed from the campsite next door to ours, and we picked up cocktails from the bar before settling on the beach with a good book. "Reminds me of Cuba" Alex said, referring to a few days we'd spent on our honeymoon on the beach drinking rum and mojitos in between bouts of swimming in the fabulously warm waters. We'd decided to book in for the New Year's dinner at the hotel, and after bribing the campsite guard to keep an 'extra special eye' on our car and tent, we walked up to the restaurant where the band was already playing a mixture of Malawian and international music. Dinner and dancing in the restaurant soon moved to the beach just before midnight, and as the clock struck twelve, Shakira's 'Waka Waka' was blared out on speakers loud enough for it to be heard over the border. Every song that contained the word 'Africa' followed in quick succession and the crowd went wild. The party continued well into the early light.

New Year's Eve, just before the party began

The beach after the rain the next morning

The next morning, the rainy season started in earnest, and we realised that we'd be unable to cook breakfast for a while. The advantage, however, of using a campsite attached to a posh hotel is the use of the facilities. We went to the hotel gym and worked off the excess of the last few days while the hotel staff cracked up with laughter watching us. Seeing the rain had cleared to reveal beautiful blue skies and sun, we enjoyed a huge breakfast of veggie sausages, egg and beans. Alex had booked a swimming and snorkelling trip to an island near the middle of the lake, and that afternoon we raced over in a speedboat before enjoying a few hours snorkelling and swimming down to wrecks of cars that nestled near the bottom of the lake. In between bouts of swimming, we drank water and snacked on the island. At one point, a large boat of 50 men passed by, shouting to the crew with us that they were on their way to Mozambique to watch a football match. Then they spotted me in my bikini, walking back onto the island, and let out a huge cheer. Red with embarrassment, I ran over to Alex and threw on my sarong to cover up, at which point they let out a collective cry of protest.
"Another thing that's common across cultures" stated Alex as the boat disappeared into the distance and I harrumphed in annoyance.

On the boat on our way to the island

In between snorkelling bouts

The view from the island

That evening, the party on the beach continued. Alex and I slipped out of our hotel's beach and wandered over to the beach next door, where locals were partying hard. Looking around, we noticed we were the only white people, a fact quickly picked up by everyone else. Three children came over and sat next to us, giggling.
"Hello" I said.
"Hello" they replied "Give us money."
"That's a naughty thing to say" I said.
"Oh, sorry. You're pretty. Can we sit with you?" Alex and I laughed and said of course. They quickly asked where we were from, did we like the place, the music, the food. We asked about their families, where they were from, were they enjoying the music. They giggled with each reply.
"Hey, how are you?" A tall young man said, walking over holding a beer.
"Good, how are you?" We replied. Joseph, a young Malawian, was home on leave from his work as a soldier in the British Army ("Here, here's my ID" he said, flipping open his wallet), and he was currently based in Devon. He'd been to Afghanistan with the British Army, and was pleased to be back in the UK. While he added Alex on facebook through his phone and Alex bought him a beer, I danced with the three young boys - who, even at age 8, had considerably better moves than me. One of the boys' mothers came over laughing and began twirling me and the boys around. Alex returned and watched, smiling, before beginning to chat with another local man, called Lloyd. Lloyd told Alex it was nice seeing white people there, and as they chatted long into the night, they discussed Malawi, the UK and Europe, the petrol crisis and international relations. Lloyd tied a bracelet onto Alex's wrist, and then another onto mine when I came over panting, danced out. A sign of friendship and something to ensure we'd never forget him or Malawi. Alex bought him a Coke as we had nothing else to give in return at that moment, and he didn't drink alcohol. He was very pleased and toasted us, the UK and our friendship. The DJ slowly wrapped up and after the crowd had dispersed, we wandered back to our campsite in the dark, paddling in the shallows of the Lake. The stars twinkled brightly as we zipped up the tent and went to sleep.

Lake Malawi

The next day, we sat down and seriously looked at our calculations of petrol, km and distance to go. We'd have enough to get over into Mozambique, but there was still the question of petrol on the other side. We decided not to risk it, and headed back to Zambia. The border crossing was very easy - our previous paperwork was still valid, so going back in cost us nothing at all. An Afrikaaner family said hello as we walked out, and stated that they'd only just made it through Malawi.
"What happened?" we asked
"Couldn't get petrol in that last part of Mozambique" they said "so we had to rush over here. Weren't sure if we'd get here at all. Last time we filled up was Maputo. We've gone through all our jerry cans." We gulped. Looks like it was the right decision to make, even if going back through Zambia was a pain, and a 300km diversion to get to Zimbabwe.

We drove right the way back to Lusaka that day, and gave into temptation to spend another night at the InterContinental. We'd had an email from our insurance people about our claim for the robbery in Botswana. We called them from the hotel phone, and they called us back so it was on their bill (have you ever heard of an insurance company being that considerate?). We held our breath to listen what they had to say.
"We've paid it, it's all been authorised. Money will be in your account shortly."
"Fantastic - do you need receipts?"
"What for?" They replied. Clearly things here were done a little differently to back home.
"Well, great!" We said, and after hanging up we worked out what the amount would be in pounds. Enough to buy back everything we'd lost. Wooohoooo! The new year was going well - so far. Tomorrow, we were facing the border crossing into Zimbabwe. And this time, it was our car that would also need to be stamped in.

1 comment:

  1. This brings back memories of some memorable moments that I had in Senga Bay!