Day 67 – 68

… so we never did get to cycle much of a ‘symbolic’ distance on the Great East Road even though the condition of the road did improve from the Luangwa bridge toward Chipata. The reason for this is simply … distance. Chipata is still over 300km from the Luangwa bridge and with the increasing number of villages along the road, speed limits, animals, etc. it takes far longer to do 300km here than back home. With the 220 odd kilometers we’d already crawled along from Lusaka … crawled due to poor road conditions, potholes and manic drivers … it was getting well into the afternoon by the time we hit the better road. There was simply not going to be enough time to start cycling in the afternoon … even if we’d just done 100km. The actual problem with Zambia is the lack of places to camp along the Great East Road, aside from Bridge Camp which other overlanders had warned us against. Being none the wiser, we took the advice of the 20+ year Africa travel veterans and decided to abandon the cycling. We figured … rather stay safe and cycle another day …

But this was before we met the owner of a cycling holiday business. She was prepping for a group of Dutch tourists that were to fly in to Lusaka and cycle to Livingstone. It was the morning we were going to leave Lusaka for Chipata and Claire had just arrived at Pioneer Camp with her team. Chatting, we found out that she runs trips out Chipata way as well, and that she knows of places to stay … being Zambian herself. Pity we hadn’t met her earlier but we took her number as a contact for a possible re-try of Zambia on the way back … or maybe we’ll just try to cycle the distance missed once we get back to SA where the drivers aren’t half as bad as we thought they were. It’s all about perspective.

But we’d made the decision with the information we had at the time and we stuck to it rather than try to make hasty plans to change things at the last minute and generally make a hash of everything … again.

The initial thought of staying in Chipata a few days and driving back along the Great East Road to complete the ‘better’ part also soon went out the window when we realized how far it actually was, and how long it would take. It was just not practical. So we drove on to Chipata … disillusioned … silenced …

The scenery did nothing to cheer us up either as the whole of Zambia appeared blackened. As far as the eye could see lay scorched earth with the stark remnants of blackened trees standing against the bare, ashy earth. Even the rocky outcrops on the hilltops looked to be darkened by licks of flame. The air was smoky and the sky seemed low. The weather looked ominous what with the threat of an early rainy season. Apparently, according to Claire, Chipata had received 100ml of rain the previous day … almost a month early.

With the downpour, the ground road out to MamaRula’s (the campsite in Chipata) had turned to mud. Slowly, we ground through the thick, red porridge heading for the higher, more rocky ground of MamaRula’s turnoff. Bouncing over the rocky outcrops we arrived at the gates only to be ushered into a very wet and muddy campsite under the myriad trees that would otherwise have brought shade relief, but it was cold in Chipata.

Zambia had got us down and we were ready for a new country, even though we’d be crossing the border about 2+ weeks ahead of time. Contemplating taking a trip to South Luangwa first, we all finally decided, ‘this is not a sight-seeing holiday’ and anyway, we may need the extra time somewhere up ahead. So that was it … we were crossing into Malawi … full stop.

Up early, we packed a very muddy tent and even muddier shoes. But heading to the border was not going to be plain sailing. Zambia had one more nasty surprise for us to deal with. Making quite certain of the possibility of using a credit card at the petrol station, Suzann asked the petrol jockey to fill us up with diesel. With a full tank we stood and waited for a signal on the credit card machine that just wouldn’t appear. We did not have enough kwatcha for our fuel, so we were stuck. In desperation, Suzann asked if we could pay in dollars even though she knew we’d get an awful exchange rate. Agreeing, the petrol jockey marched us into the manager’s office where we could make payment with a combination of dollars and kwatcha. The diesel was paid but the extra kwatcha we were hoarding for the return border crossing was now denuded. We’d just have to worry about where we’re going to get money from, later … when we return in a few months’ time. Will surely have to use the money changers again …

Speaking of money changers, one was already bugging us at the filling station about 20km from the border! Thinking his exchange rate was poor, I declined doing business with him on the pretense that I had Malawi kwatcha left from a previous visit. I’m sorry, I lied … but this guy just won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Even after I fibbed so robustly, he hung around, even trying to get involved in the diesel transaction, confusing the whole situation even more …

Quite shaken by this encounter, we left for the border where things would not be much different. The money changers descended on us like a pack of hungry wolves, each insisting we do business with him. I just had to ignore the throng at my window and keep it firmly closed while we exchanged a few dollars with a guy at Suzann’s window. A local agent and third party insurance salesman was also at hand. He, though, had identification and could tell us how much kwatcha we’d need to pay the taxes and temporary import permits for the vehicle. Of course, we’d then have to buy the insurance from him, but he was as good as any and at least he’d agreed to assist us through the border post.

At least the border is far less chaotic than Kazungula, between Botswana and Zambia, and there are far less things to pay when entering Malawi. With the help of our friendly insurance salesman, we were home free in an hour. Handing him 50 Zambian kwatcha for his trouble, we headed out into Malawi.

It’s strange what a border can do. One side of the line the world is burning, the other side the trees stand green and the red, fertile earth lies ploughed and ready for the rainy season. One side the houses are built of cinderblocks, the other side, mud brick and grass thatch. One side there are myriad ramshackle cars doing duty as taxi’s, the other side, bicycles galore, laden with all manner of things from a goat strapped to the handlebars to a double bed on the back!

We’d planned to head on to Lilongwe from the border and start cycling from there down to the lake and all points north. We just hope that we’ll be able to do more cycling in Malawi …

Arriving in Lilongwe was again a startling experience. The number of traffic circles remains a wonder to me, especially when the local drivers so clearly have no clue how to drive these roundabouts properly. Then again, a robot means little to them as well since when one goes … they all come, and just keep coming … If you want to go anywhere, you simply have to keep inching forward until you just ‘get in the way’ and cut the flow of traffic off. Then you can go … and then the entire queue behind you comes as well, and they also just keep coming until another edger from the other direction manages to cut the stream off, and then his side just goes and goes and goes … Inching through the city, we went round one circle after another until we managed to squeeze ourselves past the local taxi rank (opposite the police station, mind you …) into the clear and on to out campsite for the night.

Suffice it to say, this place won’t see me again soon. Somewhat of, well … filthy (sorry, no other word can describe it) bathrooms, I haven’t seen in a long time. The loos were positively held together with the residue of old excrement … clean it, and you’ll probably break it … This is not even to mention the dodgy feel we started to get once the sun went down and car after car began to enter the property, fetching and carrying locals and foreign backpackers alike, ferrying them to and fro in dodgy ‘picked up’ pairs to who knows where … Even a local ‘cyclist’ arrived there out of the blue and invited himself to accompany us down to the lake as an escort. He insisted we meet him at the first police roadblock on the road out of Lilongwe the next morning at 7:30. This was only after we insisted that we’re not going to cycle through the traffic bedlam of the city itself … and of course, we didn’t have space to take his bike to the roadblock as well. We should’ve known that something was a bit ‘off’ when the lady at reception came out of the office to tell us not to give him any money … under no circumstances was he allowed to get anything from the guests at all! But he never did show up at the roadblock …

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