ODE TO MALAWI

WARNING

Below is the story of Mike and Matt Jackson, two weary adventurers traveling in the heart of Darkest Africa.  The story will take you approximately 14 minutes to read and digest, which may seem like a long time, but keep in mind that the events themselves took place over 14 hours!  Those willing to endure the full 14-minute epic, will be rewarded with all the components of a good story including danger, intrigue, Rastafarians, Libyan warmongers and at least one dead goat.

DISCLAIMER

The events below are true.  In some cases, names have been changed to protect the inept (or because we never actually learned them).

MALAWI

Before outlining the events of July 13th, it is important to provide some background information on Malawi.  If you read any of the popular travel literature on Malawi you will hear of a magical place - "The Warm Heart of Africa", where the lake sparkles, the people are friendly and willing tourists can travel freely, safely and incident free.  As so often is the case, the literature is packed with blatant untruths! The story below will portray Malawi in its true sense - "The Arm Pit of Africa" only to be visited by travelers with an abundant supply of money, patience and sense of humour.

PART 1 - THE PROBLEM

Our story begins in the lakeshore community of Cape Maclear, Malawi.  It is Friday, July 12, 2002.  Mike and Matt Jackson have just returned from a "magical" snorkeling outing on Lake Malawi consisting of a few coloured fish and some large gray rocks. 

It is 2:00pm.

Both brothers have agreed to the plan:  load up the rental car - an early 90's Nissan Sentra - and start the first leg of the 8 hour drive back to Lilongwe (their original point of origin).  Their intention is to cover the first two hours of the drive before sunset, stay at a guest lodge overnight, and then reconvene early the next morning.  This plan, though not ideal, is the only one that will allow the brothers to get the car back to Lilongwe before the downtown office closes on Saturday at 1pm.  As they are scheduled to leave on the first flight out on Sunday, missing the deadline is not an option. 

As neither brother is looking forward to the 6am start the following day, they are relieved when a local Rastafarian, Gerard, advises the two "there is another road that cuts 4 hours off the trip".  It seems the road makes it possible to bypass a long switchback that takes travelers 150 kms south only to turn them back to the north and towards Lilongwe. Mike and Matt are further encouraged upon confirming the story (and the good condition of the road) with other locals, and feel down-right blessed when Gerard offers to accompany them as a guide...coincidently Gerard needed a ride to the main highway, so this offer was not entirely selfless.  Regardless, with this windfall, the brothers decided to spend the extra night in Cape Maclear and leave with their new Rastafarian friend at 8am the next morning.

Saturday begins with high spirits and interesting (but concerning) conversation about Malawi's declining level of safety. Gerard relates a story about a young German cyclist that was recently murdered within minutes of our campsite.  This story comes hot on the heels of meeting Jerry who on the day of my arrival was stabbed 11 times by a would-be mugger while walking in broad daylight.  Needless to say, we are happy our week has been incident free...to this point.

However, our moods drop suddenly as we arrive at the bypass road.  Within minutes it becomes glaringly evident that the road quality assurances received the previous day were greatly exaggerated.  Suddenly short-on-time and without the option of the alternate route, Mike and Matt prepare themselves for 1 hour of bumps and pothole-avoiding swerves. Miraculously Mike is able to avoid the majority of the major obstacles and potholes...arriving (seemingly) safe and sound at the main road about an hour and a half later.

About here is where the wheels fall off.

OK, technically the wheels didn't fall off, but they may as well have.   After spending only a few minutes on the main road, Mike turns to Matt with a somewhat concerned look on his face and states simply "The car isn't really going".  At this point, Matt realizes for the first time that our speed is tailing off rapidly despite the fact that Mike has the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor.

"You can let me off here" says Gerard as if on cue, and it is the last statement to be made in a functioning Sentra on this day in Malawi. 

"The car just died," says Mike

"Really?" asks Matt

"Yup"

"Bugger" ...seemed to sum it up the situation nicely.

All is silent as the car coasts to the side of the road.

The silence continues as the three passengers step out of the car to survey the situation.  It is glaringly evident that the worst-case scenario has occurred - they are irreparably broken down in Central Africa, in the middle of nowhere, with only a few dollars to their name and no way to contact help  (remarkably, Mike's cell phone doesn't seem to work in back-country Africa). 

"This is gonna suck" says Mike, who has always had a flare for summing up situations with only a few words.

Popping the hood, reveals the source of the breakdown.  The cap for the coolant was nowhere to be found (whether it was ever present at all remains a hotly debated subject) and the engine had obviously spilled all it's coolant on the bumpy road...leaving it with no option but to overheat and die.

Now, for those readers that have never visited an over-populated African country, it is important to note that even in the middle of nowhere, two white dudes standing next to a broken down vehicle are bound to draw a crowd.... even when there isn't a house or any other sign of life within sight.  As such, within 10 minutes Mike and Matt are surrounded by 20 young locals...two of whom run off into the bush (at Gerard's instructions) and return with a metal basin filled with water and a cup.  How they were able to conjure these implements out of the surrounding nothingness remains a mystery.

The next 20 minutes are spent trying to revive the engine by replacing the missing coolant with water, in hopes that the damage was limited to this obvious malady.  After much hissing and steaming the engine finally cooled to a point where it would take the water, but without the hoped for results. 

The engine was dead.

"This is REALLY going to suck," says Mike.

PART 2 - THE SOLUTION (aka. MORE PROBLEMS)

It is 11:00am

Abandoning any hope of restarting the car, Mike and Matt turn their attention to contacting the rental car agency to arrange for a tow and an evacuation.  The good news is that the rental contract contains several emergency numbers. The bad news is that we have no way of contacting them and the locals don't seem to offer too many quality solutions.

Gerard suggests that we hire a rickety bicycle from one of the local kids and that one of us rides the bike 15 km down the road to the village of Mua while the other one waits at the car.  He admits that Mua probably won't have a phone, however there is a mission there that may or may not be in regular communication with Lilongwe.  This solution is ruled out quickly as Mike and Matt decide that it is still a little too early to split up...and that the idea itself is dubious at best.

Instead we decide to waive down a local minibus taxi in hopes that it can take us 70km further down the road to the town of Salima...where there is a very high possibility of finding a working telephone.  In an incredible stroke of luck, a minibus headed to Lilongwe (via Salima) arrives within minutes.  Quickly grabbing our essentials (cash, plane tickets, passports and expensive camera gear) we hop in the taxi and leave the car (and the bulk of our stuff) in the hands of the locals.

Describing an African minibus taxi could very well constitute it's own 14-minute epic, but in consideration of time I will keep my remarks relatively concise.  It appears that 90% of all 1970's VW minibuses have somehow made their way to the African continent.  Unfortunately, in most cases, their seats, doors, windows, roofs, floors and seatbelts did not survive the trip and have since been replaced with plywood, plastic, tape, string, corrugated iron, or pretty much any other materials the locals could get their hands on. 

Each minibus can comfortably seat 9 passengers plus a driver however, if you ever see only 10 passengers in a bus take a picture.  That snapshot would be as rare as one of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster playing backgammon.  In reality, there is no maximum capacity for a minibus taxi...ours, for instance, had at least 18 passengers, plus luggage, plus its own advertising executive yelling our destination to everyone we passed on the street.  As you can imagine, the ride was extremely hot and uncomfortable...and would have been even hotter had they been able to close the back door as opposed to simply tying it down with string. 

OK...back to the story.  So Mike and Matt survive the ride to Salima...and Halleluiah, Mike's cell phone actually has service...more good news!  Followed very closely by more terrible news:  It seems that none of the 4 emergency numbers on the rental contract are still in service, once again leaving us in need of a revised plan. 

It is 12:00pm

Deciding that the only way to progress this situation any further is to get to the car rental office, we agree to extend our minibus taxi ordeal all the way to Lilongwe.  Given the time, it is very unlikely that the office will be open when we arrive, but then again, we figure we are due for some good luck.

No dice.

We arrive in Lilongwe at 1:30pm to find the office locked and barred until Sunday morning...essentially ensuring that there is absolutely no chance of us being on our morning flight out of this God-forsaken country.  Dejected we head for the local take-away for what will be our only meal of the day.

Historically, Mike and Matt have done all their best thinking while eating...this fact has also served as a good excuse to eat as much as they do.  Today was no exception.  Realizing that the likelihood of our possessions surviving the night in the car was close to zero, we decided that we would have to return to the scene of the breakdown (160km  away) before sundown...but how?  The prospect of another 5 hours on a minibus taxi was one that neither of us could handle and chances are that we wouldn't beat dusk.  Then Mike had a brainwave - SHEMU!

Shemu Phiri to be precise.  Shemu is an enterprising cab driver whose taxi services we had used in Lilongwe earlier in the week.  After driving us to and from a restaurant on our first night, Shemu had given us his cell phone number in case we were in need of transportation at any other time during our stay.  That time was now.

Shemu arrived at our location within minutes and Mike went into pitch mode.  First he explained the previous 4 hours as concisely as possible and then went in for the kill: "Here's the thing Shemu.  We want to hire your cab for the rest of the day...we first want you to drive us to the airport to see if we can exchange our plane tickets for a later flight...then we want you to drive us to our car, which is 70 kms South of Salima...and we want you to do all of this for $100 US...can you help us?" The $100 bill happens to be Mike's "Emergency money" but all three parties agree that this situation justifies the expenditure.

"Let's go," says Shemu...and at this point I'm sure I see a halo of light form around his head. 

Within minutes we are at the Lilongwe airport and our luck seems to have shifted...not only is there someone at the Air Malawi desk but there is also an airport office for SS Rent-A-Car...our rental car company...and it is OPEN!  Mike and I decide to split up to save as much time as possible - he will see what he can do about the flights while I explain the situation to the Rental Car dudes.

Enter Bishop.

Bishop is the unfortunate soul that happened to be on duty at the SS desk on that day.  Watching his face as I (somewhat angrily) explained the events of the day - glossing over the details of the road conditions and dwelling on the non-serviced emergency phone numbers - I could see the exact moment that he realized his evening was going to be a write-off.  Poor Bishop.

At this point, Mike returns with the rental contract in hand and shows Bishop the emergency numbers.  Turns out that these emergency numbers were good several years ago but now they have all been disconnected - welcome to Africa. Too bad we weren't here several years ago.  Also too bad is the fact that we cannot change our departure time to the later South African Airways flight as it requires agreement from the SAA representative who isn't in until 10 am the following morning - 2 hours after our original flight is set to leave.

It is 3:00pm

After further conversations with Bishop...and numerous phone calls between Bishop and some nameless, faceless person who seems to pull the strings...it becomes evident that we are not going to get a tow truck to the scene of the breakdown until well after dark (the sun sets in Malawi around 5:30pm).  At this point, Mike and Matt decide it prudent to abandon our "let's stick together" approach in order to get our stuff from the car (before dark) while also helping to organize the tow truck with the rental car company.

Leaving the cell phone with Matt, Mike and Shemu head off on the 2 hour drive back to the stranded vehicle.  As Shemu has a cell phone, we would be able to contact each other during that slim window of time when Mike passed through Salima (the only place on the drive where there was adequate cellular service). 

Matt was left with Bishop to sort out the details on the rental car.  After several more phone calls everything seems to be in order for the tow...with one slight hiccup.  They can't find 2 people with a drivers license to facilitate the tow (one to drive the tow truck and one to steer the Sentra).  Their solution is a simple one...Matt will have to drive the tow truck.  It appears Matt will also have to drive Bishop to the head office (downtown) where they will meet the other driver and pick up the towing vehicle. 

"Fine" says Matt "but on one condition, that we take care of everything...including payment tonight so that Mike and I can make our flight first thing tomorrow morning" 

Bishop agrees...looking forward to being rid of these troublesome Canadians. 

Meanwhile, 50 kms away Mike and Shemu are hurtling down the road, racing against the setting Malawian sun, and hoping that when they arrive the car and our possessions are.  Their confidence in this hope holding true is waning with each passing minute and their concern drives them to even faster speeds on the dangerous African roads.

In Lilongwe things continue to progress...painfully slowly.  Matt and Bishop have finally arrived at the SS main office after a 20-minute detour to pick up Bishop's coat at home.  They are met by another SS employ and a ?contract' driver who will be responsible for steering the Sentra as it is being towed.  In the office, Matt arranges to rip up the US$1,000 credit card deposit that Mike had left prior to their departure...don't want that thing flying around allowing SS to charge us for repairs, towing costs, etc. without further authorization.

So it is with a slightly improved level of comfort that Matt heads out on the road back to the Sentra with Bishop, his driver buddy Darryl and his other non-driver buddy Darryl (never caught their real names but I think these ones sum things up nicely).

Along comes the next challenge.  In order to tow the car, we need the keys...which are currently speeding along the highway with Mike and Shemu.  Now one might think that the company would have an extra set of keys for each of their cars...but one would be wrong.  As such, it is essential that we meet Mike somewhere to pick up the keys.  So it is, that during another detour to pick up driving Darryl's license Matt calls Mike to make the necessary arrangements.  The conversation progressed thusly:

Matt:  "Hey Mike, how's it going?"

Mike:  "OK, Where are you?"

Matt:  "Still in Lilongwe...but just about to leave.  How's the car and our stuff"

Mike:  "Both are fine.  Our car is actually being ?guarded' by about 20 locals...all of whom are expecting some form of payment when you guys get there for the tow.  I have all our stuff with me and Shemu"

Matt:  "Cool.  But listen, we need to get the keys from you in order to tow the car"

Mike:  "Yeah, I figured as much...but that's gonna be tricky"

Matt:  "Not really, what's your license plate number"

Mike:  "Well that's just the thing, we don't have a license plate.  You see...we hit a goat.

Matt: "OK"  (you see by this point we had both been desensitized to any new setbacks...regardless of how inane they were)

Mike:  "Yeah, I guess we lost the plate when we hit the goat.  In fact, we didn't even know it was gone until we got pulled over by the cops"

I guess some more explanation is necessary at this point....

OK.  It is relevant to note, that when not being used by second-rate Sentras, minibus taxis and tow trucks, African roads are also used as transport lanes for people, cattle and - you guessed it - goats.  While driving, it is very common to come up over the rise to find any of the above walking directly down the middle of your lane as casually as if it was a path in their back garden.  This causes all sorts of problems as you can imagine...especially when traveling at breakneck speeds towards an abandoned vehicle, in a $100 taxi, driven by a dude named Shemu.  The goat really didn't have a chance. Poor goat.

Given Mike's run in with the police, I should also probably explain how things work with the cops in Malawi.  There are a lot of cops (and a lot of police roadblocks) in Malawi.   This reality was particularly exaggerated on July 13th as Malawi was preparing to welcome an important visitor to the country.  It seems Libyan President General Moammar Qadhafi was going to be paying Malawi a visit in a few days to discuss his plan for a United States of Africa of which he will be the President for Life.  Due to his checkered and infamouis past (and the lunacy of his proposal), Qadhafi has insisted on a police crackdown in the week prior to his arrival.  It appears that it was crucial that every vehicle on the roads be checked numerous times for guns, explosive devices, western intelligence agents...and (remarkably) missing license plates caused by close encounters with cloven-hooved livestock.  Hence Mike and Shemu had some explaining to do.

After a few minutes outlining all that had transpired (except the details on how the plate was lost - there is a hefty fine for hitting a goat) the policeman was nice enough to let Shemu and Mike off with only a small fine.  However, this did not solve the problem of transferring the car keys to Matt and his three stooges.  For that they would need to establish a meeting point somewhere on the road between Salima and Lilongwe.  Mvera seemed to be the best choice as it seemed to be the most central discernable landmark. 

It is 5:30...and rapidly getting dark.

Arriving in Mvera, Matt is once again an immediate celebrity which is a novelty when it's daylight but more of a concern when it is dark.  Also concerning is the fact that Mike should have beaten Matt to the meeting point as his portion of the trip was substantially shorter.  It seems that Mike's tardiness was due to a lengthy delay to retrace the scene of the goat-icide to see if there was any sign of Shemu's missing license plate.  This task was made significantly harder by the fact that all evidence of the goat had disappeared into the bush where I'm sure it was the center piece of the evening's meal. Eventually, after asking several locals if "they knew anything about a recently deceased goat", Shemu and Mike gave up the hunt for the plate and arrived in Mvera to meet Matt and the towing contingent.

At this point, Shemu was relieved of his obligations for the night but he had promised to pick us up at our campground tomorrow and drive us to the airport.  Mike informed Shemu that it was distinctly possible that we wouldn't have any money to pay him for the ride to the airport...to which Shemu replied "don't worry about it...I can give you my address and you can mail me the money".  Shemu Rules!

It is 7:00pm

Having said our goodbyes to Shemu, Mike and Matt climbed back into the awaiting tow truck (which was simply a pickup truck with a rope and a tow bar) and completed the drive back to the Sentra.  Thinking ahead, they stopped at a corner store to purchase some candies, drinks and cookies for the kids that were watching the car.  One Hundred Malawi Kwatcha would have to suffice for the two grown men that were "supervising" the kids...hopefully it would be enough (it is essentially equivalent to just over one US dollar...but is probably more than they would make in a month).

It took about an hour to complete the trip to the car...and another hour to hook up the tow bar.  Part of this hour, was spent watching Bishop, Darryl and Darryl try to "fix" the disabled vehicle by turning the key in the ignition, until the starter motor was destroyed and the battery was almost dead...at which point Matt and Mike took over.  Mike tied the tow bar between the two vehicles and Matt made sure payment was made to the local watchmen.  Then Matt and Mike climbed into the leading vehicle while the other three piled into the Sentra.

It is 9:00pm

Determined to "get this the hell over with", Matt set out at a solid, white-knuckled 90kms per hour.  For Matt there were three main areas of concern on the upcoming drive:

  1. The police roadblocks
  2. The rickety old bridge (just outside of Salima there is a bridge that requires the driver to keep his wheels on two very thin tracks of pavement to avoid plummeting into the crocodile infested river below...a challenge on its own but a real challenge when towing another)
  3. Making it up the steep hills between Salima and Lilongwe.

The first concern turns out to be nothing major.  Explaining our situation to the local police seems to go extremely smoothly and is met with equal parts of concern and amusement.  The bridge turns out to be the challenge that we had expected but the care and patience taken to negotiate it is rewarded with an incident free crossing. 

The hills, on the other hand, cause an increased degree of difficulty as Bishop, Darryl and Darryl had experienced all the speed they could handle by this point, and begged the lead vehicle to slow down.  Slowing down on the downslope of the hills made it increasingly difficult to get the underpowered pickup over the upslope of the following hill.  As such, Matt was required to downshift several times (each time jerking both the towing and towed vehicles and passengers) in order get over the slope.

One concern that Matt had not counted on was the traffic.  While the traffic wasn't heavy it did pose some interesting (and heart racing) challenges. It seems that (although hitting a goat is a major driving infraction) headlights, taillights and signals are entirely optional.  On several occasions swerving, passing and sudden stops were required to avoid everything from disabled vehicles in the middle of the road to other towing operations that weren't on our hectic schedule (is it possible that two other tourists had experienced an identical day as we had?)

The driving held out and at 12:00 am the journey was finally over...much to the relief of all five weary travelers.  All that was left now was the unpleasant matter of "the bill".  Luckily the weary SS staff were too tired to battle on many of the "additional charges" that Matt and Mike were unwilling (and to some degree "unable") to pay.  The charges that were particularly interesting to note was the "Drop-off Fee" as "You didn't drop the car off at the same office you rented it at...in actual fact, you ?dropped it off ? 70kms South of Salima".  After explaining the difference between dropping a car off and breaking down in the middle of @#$ nowhere...this fee was waived.  However, we were not as lucky with the petrol charges that were applied since we didn't fill up the tank before returning the car.  How you fill up the tank of a broken down vehicle when the nearest gas station is 70kms away is beyond me...but we happily paid that charge and went on our way.

Arriving at the campsite we learned that it was closed but after a few minutes discussion with the guard at the gate we were allowed in and were able to camp for the night. 

It is 1:00am when our heads finally hit our respective pillows.  Matt and Mike both breathe out a long sigh of relief and remark about how lucky we were to be able to leave on our original flights the next morning...provided Shemu picks us up in 5 hours as promised.

"Cause if he doesn't that will really suck," says Mike.

It is 6:00am the following morning.  Shemu is waiting outside the gate as Mike and Matt emerge from the campground.

Shemu Rules.