Blantyre to Lake Malawi
22nd to 23rd January 2007
Upon arrival at Doogles, this is the e-mail I sent on 22 January 2007 at 06:33 CAT:
Subject: Mala wi is cold and wet – but still beautiful
The 50 hour ferry was a life-changing experience – I strongly recommend it to any adventurous travellers. I shared a 1st class cabin with a Congolese businessman and spoke broken Swahili and pretty good French to many of the 500 passengers on the 100 year old MV Liemba. I also caught up with my blog (in written form only), now for the arduous task of typing it up and updating the site with photos – expensive in Malawi. So I’ve just made it into Blantyre early this morning after a hectic two days of travel. I jumped off the 50 hour Lake Tanganyika ferry – which was an incredible experience which I will tell you all about later – once I’ve recovered. Zambia was a nightmare – 10 different transport options ranging from 30 minutes to 15 hours each! Breakdowns, border/passport problems - the whole shebang.
I was going to do another ferry all the way down Lake Malawi, but the weather was awful and the experience similar to the one I’ve just completed. So I traveled down the length of Malawi and it’s still pissing cats and dogs. I think I will chill out here at Doogles Bar and Campsite and check out the surroundings. Still not sure if I should go the Mozambique-Zimbabwe-Zambia-Botswana-Namibia route home, or simply Mozambique-Swaziland-South Africa route = I will take my time thinking about this one. Getting a bit tired now, so I will need to recharge my batteries before setting off again.
ANYONE KEEN ON JOINING ME IN MOZAMBIQUE??? Vilanculos? Bazaruto? Let me know ASAP.
Well, after writing the above e-mail, I took all of 30 minutes and four cups of coffee to recharge my batteries and decide on which route I would take home.
While looking for a camping spot (the rain stopped for a few minutes) I stumbled upon a rough Zimbabwean named Gary David Wingate. My first words to him were “where’re YOU from”. He was intrigued by a crazy backpacker who didn’t even introduce himself and just wanted to know where he was from. I guessed wrong three times and then looked at his number plates and worked it out. He invited me for coffee and we chatted about corrupt African countries (he was really pissed off with Zambia for reasons I’ll discuss later), investigative journalism and adventure travel. He was amazed at my trip and after too much coffee and a lot of cheeky talk, we left the campsite together in his ‘dagga boy’ (an ancient Toyota Land cruiser renowned for its reliability). He was on the way to the mighty Rovuma River that separates Tanzania from Mozambique. This was the last frontier area of Mozambique, completely unexplored and dramatically beautiful!
I wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to join a mad Zimbabwean, free camping, travelling through impassable roads and crossing washed away bridges!
We went into town, got more Malawian Kwachas and tried unsuccessfully to find any Meticais for Mozambique.
We spent most of our money on canned food: corned beef, baked beans and sweet corn. I was worried when Wingate bought three cartons of ‘saffris’, the local dirt cheap Malawian cigarettes called Safari. He said we wouldn’t be in civilization for a long time, so he had to stock up. I only realized later that he was a chain smoker. If it wasn’t a saffri in his mouth, it would be a joint.
We said goodbye to miserable Blantyre and headed for the border where we planned to spend a few days around the Lake. On the way to Zomba, I got a whiff of something bad, mechanically bad. My senses have been honed over the years and I can tell exactly which smell corresponds with which leaking fluid or burning part. I have been through it all, from electrical faults (burning plastic and then ultimately fire) and broken pipes (petrol fumes) to overheating and seized engines. This particular smell I guessed was related to the breaking system, as I smelled break fluid and overheated break pads. The car got stuck and Wingate pulled over, very stressed out. He rolled a fat spliff while I ran into the nearby fields to chomp on baby corn (the size of my little finger) and search for some pumpkins. He freaked out telling me “that’s illegal, they’ll shoot you for that”. I laughed at him and reminded him what he was smoking!
The hand break was too tight, and he admitted that he had just fixed it in Blantyre. I told him it probably just needed a small adjustment. He agreed and we moved on towards the border.
We stopped many times on the way, for sugar cane, roasted corn and chicken skewers. All of the above were delicious and dirt cheap. We got involved in a heated debate about charcoal. I wanted to buy some but he refused to carry any of ‘the evil stuff’ on board his truck. I persisted, suggesting many ways to store it without the fine black charcoal dust landing up on everything, which Wingate guaranteed me would happen, without fail, every time. Once I had convinced him he started moaning that charcoal use was irresponsible and contributed towards the deforestation of Africa.
I was either very naïve or plain stupid, as I didn’t see the difference between using fresh wood, which was currently all wet as we were in the middle of the rainy season, and charcoal. I was sure that charcoal was simply partially burnt wood. One makes a giant pit, fills it with wood (usually dry branches, not freshly chopped down trees) and sets it on fire. Once it is burning well, one covers the fire with corrugated iron and quickly throws sand on top, thereby suffocated the fire. The result is charcoal, which can be used in minute quantities in a special ‘jiko’. A jiko is a small stove made entirely from recycled metal. Paint cans are chopped in half, holes made for ventilation, a grate made from the tin’s lid and inserted into the cavity, and a soda can used to make a door for poking the coals and creating an initial draft. I have seen giant pots of Nshima/Ugali/Mielie Pap and even woks filled with bubbling oil on top of a tiny jiko, with only a handful of coals required. It was cheap, it created jobs for both the jiko and charcoal makers, and it was their only choice as far as I was concerned. They had no access to electricity, no money to buy liquid fuel, and any sort of wind, solar, or hydro electric power was far from being a reality any time soon.
This charcoal fight would eventually cause us to part ways, as Wingate admitted he was stubborn as a mule and like an elephant, refused to ever forget.
We got within 50km of the border, but Wingate wasn’t comfortable pressing on through. It was 17:30 and the border closed at 18:00, so he didn’t want to take any chances. The LP listed several campsites south of Monkey Bay, and they were only 20km out of our way, so we searched for a place to spend the night. I was very eager to free camp, not seeing the need to spend money in a campsite when we were completely self-sufficient.
The 42 year old felt otherwise and pressed on. The first campsite was idyllic and we set ourselves up pitching tents away from coconut trees (more people die from falling coconuts than the combined total of elephants, lions, crocs and hippos).
We soon found out the price was too high and there wasn’t even hot water. The manager assured Wingate there was hot water, and I assured Wingate there wasn’t. I knew the power was out, and there wasn’t much chance of it coming back on anytime soon. We left in a rush to go find some hot water. Wingate insisted that the only reason he needed to pay for a spot to sleep was because of the hot water. The next three places were either ridiculously expensive, didn’t have hot (or cold) water, or both! It was now almost dark, I insisted we try one more, and feared the worst when we arrived at a set of ornate gates 20 minutes later.. It was an exclusive luxury resort replete with Italian tiles, water features, a concierge and an a la carte menu. He got angry, but I insisted I saw a camping sign on the main road. I visited reception, looking like a tramp, and politely inquired about both their availability and the corresponding rates. The options ranged from a few hundred dollars per person per night, to $5 each for camping. I threw them ten dollars and ran out of there jumping for joy. They called me back and insisted I fill out forms, become an honorable member, leave my passport, etc.
Wingate was now fuming, and didn’t seem to be getting any calmer.
The camping ground was separate from the plush resort, but still on the beach overlooking a stunning sunset with the Mozambique mountains looming 10km across the placid lake. There were more than a dozen staff running around and it seemed all of this fuss was just for us. Not only were we the only campers, the hotel was completely empty!
Wingate would only relax once his tent was installed on the roof of dagga boy and the kettle was boiled on a fire (which had to be made of wood).
I went for a dip in the lake and enjoyed the sunset from under a palm tree.
Wingate was battling with the fire as his wood was wet, so I fetched a large oil drum barbeque, asked for a small bag of charcoal, boiled the kettle and made him coffee, all within 20 minutes. He wasn’t happy I’d used charcoal, and ran off to have a shower.
Half an hour later, after I’d prepared a dinner of boerewors, bread, tomatoes and baked beans, he appeared a completely different man. He looked like he’d meditated (but realistically probably just masturbated) in the shower and was at peace with himself and the world around him. I plugged in my iPod at the bar and we listened to chilled out tunes until the early hours while discussing Africa, Africans, our lives, and of course, charcoal.
I awoke to a troop of monkeys yelling from the trees above. They had already nicked my precious mango, a coconut, butternut and sweet potato. Wingate started throwing rocks at them. I joined in. He asked a local boy who was hiding behind a tree trunk, to go fetch a kettie (African slingshot) and promised to reward him handsomely.
Wingate told me my attempts were futile but had to bite his tongue when I hit the primate and the coconut came crashing through the tree’s branches. The boy arrived with what looked like a sturdy piece of equipment that would last indefinitely. The handle, made from a forked tree branch, was perfectly shaped, sanded and grooved for ultimate comfort. It had a thick strong rubber tube for the sling and a fresh piece of brown leather to hold the shot. I got excited and collected some ammo, while Wingate gave it his ‘try before I buy’ test. He pulled the sling back and purposely stretched it more than it was designed to be stretched. It snapped in two after which he threw the remains in the boy’s face and demanded another one. He showed the frightened child exactly where it was week and the boy obediently ran off. I was shocked at the pent up aggression this man was releasing, and soon found out why. He claimed that he spoke to Africans that way and they always understood him. He also promised that they didn’t ever feel threatened and always did what he told them to. I wasn’t the least bit surprised, nor was I going to argue my point, lest he lash out at me.
Wingate was an anal, bitter and twisted man.
The bitter part was justified because he’d been continuously screwed over during the past few years. First his country went to shit and Mugabe essentially forced him to become a refugee. He then spent a large proportion of his life savings, made from his career as a river rafting guide where he had saved all the cash dollars from the tourists and failed to declare most of his income. When the shit hit the fan, he ran to neighboring Zambia, who was welcoming Zimbabweans with open arms. They had only one criteria for letting him in and starting a business. He had to bring $50,000 in with him.
So in he went and spent over a year of his time and buckets of sweat and tears (actually I don’t think he was capable of shedding any tears), building an overland camp site. Just when he was about to open up for business and start actively marketing his spot, the Zambian government (he like to call them ‘those cunts’) upped the $50,000 to half a million dollars! So now he was looking for another spot to start his overland camp and Mozambique was offering the same deal as ‘those cunts’ had originally offered. He was in a rush to get it all legitimate before the ‘Mozzies’ got any bright ideas.
The twisted part was because he had no family (they’d all died in unfortunate and unspeakable ways), no home, and lived out of his ancient vehicle. I believe the anal part was simply due to his military background.
We spent the day cleaning out his truck, eating food, planning the next few days and chilling out.
Being the only Mzungus within earshot of the surrounding villages, we were soon joined by a mob of hesitant traders. I think they were briefed by the slingshot boy. They didn’t come too close, until I invited them after seeing their drums. I played each one, much to their amusement, and was about to buy a gift for Wingate, when he lost the plot and chased them away. I changed my mind and agreed I would buy something from them later when he wasn’t around. Two of them took me on a guided tour of their village and workshop and bragged about the pet crocodile they were taking care of on a small plot belonging to a South African Mzungu. He had left them money to feed the little croc chickens and goats.
I promised to buy some charcoal from them and made it my mission to sneak it inside the truck. I was eager to press on but Wingate was in no rush and insisted we spend another day in this idyllic spot. Later I was happy we had.
After Wingate proudly made me his favorite dish, corned beef and baked beans, we spent the evening under the stars. I played my Rwandan drum while he used his satellite telephone to contact a ‘Jewish business partner’ who he resented.