A Quick One – Malawi, Africa

“Let’s just go across to Malawi for a few days. We can take the car. Just a quick one…”

One gets used to the lengthy journeys travelling in Africa, but anticipating the long, dusty road can be misleading. Then again, only in Africa can a "quick" trip anywhere be something more than just eventful.

From Nampula in northern Mozambique across to Lilongwe in Malawi is a mere 940 kilometres, one way. Throw in some road works, a border crossing and a few dirt roads that have been forgotten since the war, and you have an adventure in the making. When we left for Malawi, it wasn’t so much for the adventure as for a visa run, something many travellers do when trying to stay in Mozambique a bit longer than their designated visa, anything from ten days to two months.

Because of time restraints, we decide to head off after work hours on Tuesday. This means driving at night, something I am not all that keen on, but a willing driver is available, and at 3:30 p.m., we pull into the garage, fill up and head for the hills. The road to the Milange border post goes in a westerly direction. The drive out of Nampula takes you through the sentry inselberg formations to open countryside. Way more exciting though, is that the road is newly tarred, most of the way. Getting to Alto Molocue is no problem; we make it in under three hours. The road is mostly empty of traffic. It is only when we start zigging and zagging on the old dirt road, over onto the new tarred section and back again onto the old that our journey slows, stuck behind two road works trucks that refuse to pull over, a bit hair raising as we are blinded by the dust they kick up.

After five and a half hours, we stop in Mocuba for the night. Mocuba is an old town with a huge central circle that has more potholes than road surface, a corner café/bar where its waiters still serve with a tea towel over one arm, and a good many churches. You can see this was once a thriving port of call. Now it is quiet. We enter after 9:00 p.m., drive past the circle and take a left at the church, arriving at a compound, a pensão. The rooms are clean. There is a bar/restaurant outside and a guard to look after the car – all we could ever want. After beer and batates frites, I crawl into bed, sag into the middle and sleep restlessly in anticipation of the next day’s excitement.

Milange border post at nine in the morning is quiet, no hassle at all. We are amazed by the friendliness of the Malawian officials. It takes us no longer than 30 minutes to cross into Malawi. Once there, the scenery changes from the red dirt and dry grasses of Mozambique to a more surreal kind of lushness, lent by the tea estates lining the view in this area. The bright green tea plants and cool shadows of mountains make me feel like I have travelled across to the highlands of India.

Getting to Blantyre is easy; just over an hour and a half. It takes about an hour to Limbe, so close to Blantyre it is like a suburb rather than a separate town. Blantyre is a typical old English colonial African city with large suburban areas made up mostly of big houses and even bigger walls, golf courses and empty veld land in between. It is easy to get lost, especially as the place is growing by the day.

There is a mini centre with a Shoprite, a Game and a Food Court! Coming from Nampula, we are not used to seeing such wonderful things. We promptly spend an hour walking the aisles, wide eyed. We are shocked to see so many pale faces, to hear so much English. It’s all we can do to contain ourselves. The biggest pleasure is how polite and friendly the Malawians are. After lunch, we reluctantly pull ourselves together for the last stretch of the road. Onward to Lilongwe!

Having made such good time so far, we are lulled into a sense of ease and expect no more than a few hours to the capital. However, we didn’t anticipate the multitudes of police checkpoints, and we certainly didn’t count on being stopped for violating the traffic law.

“Can we see your insurance papers?”

“No problem. Here you go…”

”No, this is your import document. Where is your insurance?”

“Are they not the same thing?”

Here we are, at 4:00 p.m. in the middle of nowhere, with the only traffic official in Africa who will not be bribed. He suggests we go to Lilongwe, return in the morning to plead our case at the magistrate’s court. Being so late in the day, he won't impound the car as is standard procedure. Thanks officer! It’s not a drive round the block; Lilongwe is another two hours away! There isn’t much we can do, though. Paperwork is filled, driver’s license taken away, a letter of passage given and off we go, into the sunset, less enthusiastic about our trip.

We are not feeling inspired when we finally arrive in Lilongwe, but the sight of Mabuyu Camp with its cheerful yellow house, friendly people and much needed beer have never been more welcome. The proprietors of Mabuya advise that we get our stuff in Lilongwe done, call the cop and tell him we will meet him on Friday. Come Thursday we take a taxi to police headquarters for clearance from the Interpol Agency. No problems here. Next stop is the Mozambican embassy. I am told I am not allowed to get a two-month visa. Being South African I am entitled to a free visa. Therefore, I can’t buy a visa. Problem is I can't renew my free visa which is valid for 30 days only. (I suspect this is wrong, but I can’t argue with the immigration officers).

We manage to cut costs, thanks to the shrewdness of my travel partner. The first insurance company welcomes us, starts to fill in the form and then tells us the price. We have to get a month’s insurance even though we are only in the country for three more days. We also need to get commercial vehicle insurance as the car is a single cab pickup, but the good news is that it is valid for Zimbabwe and Botswana! All this adds up to a fair amount. Wait, there is another insurance company around the corner. A quick check reveals that we can get the same insurance for half the price. The greatest part in all this is that once I have the receipt, I see that the actual insurer is the first company; we have bought it cheaper from an agency.

After a few days of great food, interesting company and relaxation, we head off for the hills again, back the way we came, racing to make it to the magistrate's court in time. We pick up our traffic officer, who is all smiles. He directs us to the police station. We make a statement, then we go to the court, a small building in the middle of a dusty patch of ground. The courtroom is open sided with old wooden benches sitting in a row. And the magistrate is leaving for lunch!

We return to court and wait until 4:00 p.m. only to hear the magistrate declare that we have violated this traffic law; penalty is either two years in jail, or a 10,000 Kwacha fine. The magistrate is also a fair man. After hearing our side, he says we were misinformed. Still, we committed an offence and must pay a fine of 3,000 Kwacha. We pay, and get ready to leave. The court officer tells us the receipt of the fine is sufficient for us to drive the next few days without insurance!

We drive and get to the gates of the Liwonde National Park right before they close. The lodge is a short drive through the park, an old house nestling in the tranquillity of a bright red sunset. There I forget the stresses of the previous few days and conclude it has all been worth it.