1999 Zimbabwe to Malawi by Bus

This trip was arranged around a visit to Zimbabwe, where my Grandmother and my Aunt Betty had lived and a holiday in Malawi with my brother and his family. We flew to Johannesburg and on to Harare . We had an arrangement to meet my brother but had made no other plans. On arrival at Harare airport we were greeted by several lads holding placards advertising backpackers’ lodges. We queried one likeable man about what that meant and the cost and decided to go with him. He took us in his pickup to an estate outside Harare and we hired an A-frame hut at a cost of £8/night. It was bitterly cold.

Backpackers Lodge

Lodge Pool

We also booked in for an evening meal. We chatted to a chap who offered guided tours of the area for a reasonable amount and booked to go with him the next day. We were his only customers and he took us to see some excellent bushman’s paintings and to a bird sanctuary amongst other things.

Sue in Zimbabwe

The day after our guided tour we went into Harare and visited a fabulous market where we purchased some beautiful tablecloths.

Sue at Harare Market

We decided that we wanted to visit Victoria Falls only realising that this was in the opposite direction to Malawi and a considerable distance away. We decided to go on the night train to Bulawao even though all the sleeper compartments were booked. We also tried to obtain a visa to Mozambique but after queuing for ages found that it would take several days and was expensive. The modern train had TV screens showing American junk at high volume and dumped us at 5 am in the dark on a freezing platform. We emerged cold an sleepy and a bit frightened into Bulawao not knowing how we were going to complete the other of the journey to Victoria Falls. People were rushing about, going home after their night shifts. A man stopped and asked us where we wanted to go. He offered to take us to a bus station where there was a bus that went to Victoria Falls. We squeezed into a 12-seater Toyota, the local transport. The man saw us onto the bus and we were sure it was out of his way. The generosity of the people generally amazed us. We bought some food off some hawkers and arrived in Victoria Falls that afternoon. A local travel agent found us cheap accommodation but it was not close to any shops or restaurants so our evening meal was what we had on us, just bits and bobs. We had heard that the area was not very safe so deposited our valuables in the hotel safe before we took a taxi into the town. The falls were everything they are cracked up to be and we found it difficult to tear ourselves away from them.

Sue at Victoria Falls

Bill at Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Bridge across the Zambezi River

In the afternoon Sue had some fun with the locals buying 100 charms for someone back in England who wanted to sell them on. What she was offering was very low but the number was large to the kids who were lucky to sell one or two. We also took photos of a lad and promised to send a copy to him. In the evening we wandered round looking at the impressive hotels build for the rich visitors before having a meal at a Spur restaurant ( franshise of Alan Ambor’s).

Breakfast before setting off across Zambia

We had under 2 days to travel 1,400 miles from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, to Blantyre, Malawi, to meet my brother and his Malawian family. Flying wasn’t an option, information on alternatives was patchy and visas were a problem. The backpacker-friendly travel agent suggested a solution based on booking a room at Fawlty Towers, Livingston (no visa required) and taking luxury buses through Zambia. The Fawlty Towers landrover picked us up at 9 and drove us across the Zambezi bridge into Zambia – no visa required! We told the hotel we weren’t stopping, even though we had paid and asked where to catch the bus. The bus was leaving at 10 they said – it was 10.20 – but they said not to worry. We rushed to the stop and I went into the bank opposite to change some money only to find the cash, £200 of it, had been removed from my wallet from the safekeeping of the hotel safe. Sue was already on the bus and we had to just forget it. We could have stayed in a luxury hotel in the centre and had lots left.

We arrived in Lusaka at dusk after six hours, only to find that the connecting bus wasn’t leaving until morning and was fully booked. Despair. Then we heard about a country bus station.Our arrival there by taxi was greeted by a sea of excited Africans, all clamouring to look, help, sell or steal something from us. Unprepared, we timidly forced the doors into the crowd. The rucksack was removed onto the roof of the packed ‘chicken’ bus, supposed destination Malawi while we were ushered inside. A lad became tearful when forced to stand and give his seat to Sue, two rows in front of my slot. After 30 anxious minutes (“Are we safe?” “Is this the right bus?” “Is our luggage up there?”) we departed into the early night.

Our "chicken" bus

Sleep was problematical; the seats were hard and a cold draught rushed through the several missing windows as the old rattlebox lurched along the appalling road. Only the security of sturdy engineering and skilled driving made the journey tolerable. At the occasional refreshment stops we observed our fellow passengers carefully before choosing for ourselves. Toilet stops were made by the roadside, men standing one side of the bus, women squatting the other. After midnight, we made a longer stop at a magical candle-lit rural market. Later still luggage fell off the roof. The driver was alerted and reversed back to it. From then on men took turns to check the roof, climbing up out of a window as we sped through the dark.

The night cocooned us. The company captivated us. Sue was entertained by a Bible basher, bent on conversion, and a farmer’s wife (third of four) with five children, who faced a 25 km walk from her midnight drop. I met a teacher hoping to study further in Manchester.

After a further change of bus we arrived at Llongwe at lunchtime, groggy from lack of sleep, and were disgorged into the centre of a vast teeming market. Frightening. A man took charge of us, taking us first to a moneychanger to get currency (“Bank?” “No bank here, baas”) and then to the Blantyre stop. We fell out when he demanded money, ostensibly to purchase our tickets.

This last bus was frustratingly slow and it was dark when we finally arrived. The last leg of our momentous trip was in a decrepit taxi (the petrol tank a 2-litre plastic bottle in the passenger foot well) down an atrocious road.

When we finally arrived after 36 hours my brother’s first words were “We weren’t expecting you till tomorrow”. I was too tired to hit him.

Kachingwe house Blantyre

We stayed a few days in Blantyre and had a trip out to Zomba. The vehicles at the Kachingwe house were very unreliable and we were only able to get the pickup to go any distance. It was in this that we travelled to Zomba, a pleasant university town in the hills. We set off back at sunset and the engine soon started playing up. Around 10 pm a water hose burst and cab filled with steam. We debated what to do. Anna was concerned but eventually managed to raise someone from the house opposite (she thought they might think we were bandits and attack us). They had water but the hose was unrepairable. A pickup with two men in stopped and offered to tow us home. There was a lot of debating in Shona between Anna and the helpful homeowners and in the end it was decided that it was too dangerous to accept. They thought the men might be criminals who would just slit our throats and take our possessions. A bit further up the road was a mission but we couldn’t raise anyone. We were running out of ideas when a vehicle full of trainee priests drove past into the mission. Anna managed to persuade the man in charge to let us sleep in the hall. It had a concrete floor and was freezing cold. The front of the stage was edged with a wooden plank about 30 mm wide and we took down the curtains to wrap around us. None of us slept much. In the morning the priest was much more friendly and gave us a cooked breakfast. Anna thought his change in attitude was because he’d been embarrassed the previous night by the drunken state of the trainees and wanted to make up for it. Anna phoned for her brother to come and pick us up and tow the broken vehicle back. She also asked him to get a crate of beer as a thankyou for the mission’s hospitality.

David decided he would need a more reliable vehicle for our planned trip to Lake Malawi so hired a car. On the way to Cape Maclear we stopped off at a lovely restaurant for lunch and watched some fishermen’s skills.

Cafe at hippo pools

Fishing at hippo pool with a throw net

Shelter at Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi

David and Anna had been to Cape Maclear before and knew what to expect.  We had two rooms in a ‘hotel’ overlooking the lake.  They were definitely 3rd world but were ensuite although the shower was only operable when the pump pumping water from the lake was switched on and then was cold.

Lake Malawi

Sue on dugout canoe

The scenery was magnificent and the people lovely.  They catered to the tourists with some crafts.  Sue bought bracelets from a lad who made them from different coloured insulated copper wire.  We had a ‘minder’ who  followed us about  and arranged things for us.  He organised some dugout canoes and accompanied us to our trip to an island about a mile away.  He also organised some spiked cake some of which we consumed with our picnic on the island.

Trip to the island by dugout canoe

View back to Cape Maclear

The ladies try snorkeling

I decided to swim back and set off a while before the canoes in case I got into difficulties.  They passed me about half way across.

Bill swimming back from the island

Entertainment was provided by watching the locals playing Malawi boules, a game played with stones or beans in pits in sand or in special boards, strolling through the village and  browsing the shops , listening to their wonderful singing, drinking beer or consuming hash cake.  We bought a Malawi chair, a set of Malawi boules and a small round carved table, all of which I had to fit into a rucksack.  We  had heard that the children had few possessions and had gone armed with about 100 pencils.  When we started to give them out we were quickly surrounded and it was difficult to distribute them fairly. We ended up throwing them out to the edge of the group at random so the little ones had a chance.  On our way back we watched some children happily skipping with ‘ropes’ made from twisted black sacks.  Tim and Toko seemed confused.  They were used in England to being ‘black’ yet here felt less empathy with children of their  ages.  Anna chatted away to the villagers in Shona.

Outside our Hotel at Cape Maclear

Tim and Toko with their reed Land Rovers

The Village at Cape Maclear

The Village at Cape Maclear

David and Anna were going further and were able to drop us off at LLongwe airport before continuing.  To start with the dirt road was good although with a huge camber and I lost control at one stage at about 70 mph.  It was slipping down the camber, heading towards the forest.  At the last minute it responded rose right over the camber towards the other side.  We continued for some distance weaving dangerously from side to side until I regained control.  Toko had enjoyed the experience and all David said was ‘well done’.  I stopped the car to calm down.  Anna then decided to recommend a short cut through the hills.  This turned out to be a mistake but having started on it we had to continue or miss the plane.  Early on we had to cross a dried-out river bed because the bridge had been washed away.  As we climbed into the mountains the ruts were so deep and the incline so great that all the passengers had to get out of the car whilst I fought a way through.  We made our plane and were sad that our wonderful holiday had ended.  So many experiences.

The mountain route to the airport

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