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Harare to Cape MacClear, Malawi

From the moment we set foot in Nairobi, everyone we’ve spoken to has said Malawi is amazing. They were all correct. We’d been talking to people at the Sable Lodge in Harare about the various ways one could get to Lilongwe, the capital, from Harare. The shortest way is via the Tete corridor a.k.a. the ‘Gun Run’ which is a highway that runs through the shortest point of southern Mozambique, straight into southern Malawi. As Mozambique is currently in the middle of a civil war, the rebels think it’s a hoot to fire on the truck convoys (which are all accompanied by Zimbabwean national guardsmen) that the hitchhikers and travellers ride on. The alternative is to go around Mozambique via Zambia. To hitch it’ll take two to three days and to take a bus would be twenty three hours. The final alternative is to take a one hour flight Harare-Lilongwe.

After weighing the options we decided to fly. We’ve got two weeks to kill, so why not fly to a country we won’t be visiting on our safari. So that was that; we bought our ticket and arrived in Malawi on November 8th. We met this South African couple, Ian and Dee on the plane, and they directed us to the Lilongwe Golf Club where we rented a tent and slept for our first night. We seem to move from country club to country club as we go. We camped there the first night and the next morning we went with Ian & Dee to the bus station to get a bus to Monkey Bay (near the popular Cape MacClear National Park – our destination). We got to the station and got our ticket for the 8:30 a.m. bus that morning. Ian and I wanted to change some money on the black market before leaving, so we found this guy near the station who bundled us into his friend’s car and took us to a nearby photography studio. Upon entering we were led through the back room into a maze of residential living areas. We walked through narrow outdoor paths, filled with people bathing from the taps in this path. We passed a bank of sinks filled with people brushing their teeth, one woman washing her hair; we’d entered through the photography studio and ended up in the middle of an outdoor residential compound. We arrived at this guy’s friend’s room where we entered and exchanged our dollars for a couple of stacks of the Malawian Kwacha. [Bank rate – USD$1 = K4.2 Black Market – USD$1 = K5.5]. Transaction was done so we were led out to the street and headed back to the bus station to meet Rich and Dee.

The city of Lilongwe is beautifully landscaped – there are Malawian flags everywhere you go (in addition to portraits of Hastings Kamuzu Banta, the ruling dictator) and it’s really lush and green. We got on our bus, which turned out to be a local’s bus because there was no express bus, ready for the journey to Monkey Bay. The bus left, and it was absolutely packed with people, in addition to it being hot and humid – off we went. We passed thatched hut after hut the entire way across the country. If you remember the sets from the show Gilligan’s Island, that is the way the Malawians were living. We saw so many villages along the way – it did show us how the locals lived; that and the fact that the woman in front of us had a guinea fowl seated in her lap for the duration of the bus ride.

The bus ride seemed never-ending, and every time we stopped we’d buy something to eat or drink by leaning out the window and buying it from the local children. The bus was so uncomfortably hot and humid and we’d been sharing our water with the South Africans and we were almost out so we were relying on the non-thirst quenching downing of the African version of orange drink. The bus did leave at 8:30 that morning, it was 2:00 p.m., hotter than hell, humid, there were three times the safety allowance of people on the bus (all standing) and there was a tree blocking the road. People were a little bit on edge. The bus had to drive off the road along the side of a steep ditch and at the angle we were riding at I was absolutely positive that the bus was going to roll. I had my hands up in the air and I was crouching on my seat ready to jump when the bus did. Our bus slowly righted itself, eased back up onto the road and arrived at Monkey Bay around 4:30 p.m., but we still had to arrange for a car to take us the last 21 kilometers into Cape MacClear. Ian and I tried to call some people of the lake to come pick us up, but we couldn’t get through so Ian flagged down a local with a pickup truck and basically hired him to drive us the distance to Cape MacClear.

He drove us on a bumpy, rocky, unpaved road through the National Park, which was filled with baboon and an unidentifiable animal that looks like a rabbit with short ears. The village is made entirely of mud huts with thatched straw roofs – absolutely amazing. We ended up staying at a place called Mr. Steven’s where many a traveller end up. We paid K12 (US$2.10) for a double room with screens to keep the mosquitoes out. After getting cleaned up and took a better look around. It was a brilliant full moon so we could see the water, boats and the hillsides clearly at night.

Lake Malawi amazing – you go through hell getting there, but it’s well worth it. The lake is massive and right off Cape Maclear there are no less that three islands which you are able to hire a local to take you out to. The water is warm – like 70°.

* * * * * This place is stunningly beautiful. Today we’re just sitting on the beach at the Golden Sands vegging out. We met Ian and Dee earlier and walked over the top of the hill to Otter Point to go snorkeling. Since the entire place is a national park the fish are protected from the fishermen. There are more fish here than I think I’ve ever seen! It’s above and beyond even Hawaii. You get into the water which is packed with the live animals and instead of swimming away the fish come up to you to find out what you’re all about. When you swim along the fish just move out of the way. I was even doing cannon balls off a rock into the water and it didn’t disturb the fish. The only way to describe swimming in Lake Malawi with the fish is to liken it to swimming in an aquarium. There are tons of fish all around you at all times. The Malawian people are all so friendly and they bend over backwards to help you out. Everything everyone has said about Malawi is true – the place is paradise; the best place we could think of to kill two weeks!

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