Introducing Malawi

I am writing today from Korea- that is the Korea Garden Lodge in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. We originally had no plans to visit Lilongwe, but our 10 days here in Malawi have been a wee bit rough and we had to make a detour here to take care of some things. Namely, to try and rest up in a little more comfort since Nick and I are both fighting off head colds. We decided it would be best to spend a few days in the city in case I need further medical attention (more on that later) and to sort out some visa issues (more on that later too). So let’s start at the beginning, when we arrived in the “warm heart of Africa” to lovely torrential rains. 

Getting into Malawi from Mozambique was pretty straightforward coming from our last destination in Moz (Chimoio). We took a bus from Chimoio to the city of Tete (aka the hottest city in the world apparently) where we then hopped on a minibus/chapa to the border town of Zobue. In Zobue, we went through Moz immigration, and then caught a taxi to the Malawi border post which is 5 km (3 miles) from the Moz post. It was an easy crossing, with no visa needed. We then caught a minibus from the Malawi border to Blantyre, Malawi’s second largest city. Once we got near the Moz/Malawi border, it started raining and has not stopped for 10 days. After traveling out of season for nearly 6 months, we have finally experienced the down side…

rain proof backpacking

In Blantyre, we tried to figure out whether we were going to be able to get into Tanzania. Unfortunately, we did not know until recently that we would need US dollars to pay our visa fees. We found out near the end of our trip in Moz that Tanzania only accepts dollars for visa fees and having none, we decided we would try and get some in Malawi. Big mistake. HUGE. Malawi has no foreign exchange except on the black market (and no fuel as well which means Malawi, already being one of the poorest countries in the world, is in really bad financial shape right now) where you get $1 for $2. I emailed the US embassy in Tanzania and they replied that “Tanzania generally only accepts visa fees in US dollars”  no suggestions or helpful alternatives, so we figured we were screwed. This left us very stressed and disappointed because we had been planning on Tanzania and most of all I was really, really, really, looking forward to a safari in the Serengeti, one of Africa’s most famous national parks. Things weren’t looking good however, unless we wanted to pay $200 each for our visas instead of $100. This is not really an option as we were already stretching our budget with the Serengeti safari, which even though a budget camping safari, is quite expensive.

At a loss, we decided we would put things on hold and continue our journey though Malawi and see what we could find. From Blantyre, we caught a minibus to Liwonde to spend 2 nights at Bushman’s Baobab’s, a safari camp & lodge just outside Liwonde National Park. Liwonde is about halfway between the lake and Blantyre, so we figured it would be a good stopover and we could do an inexpensive game drive ($25 pp) inside the park through the camp. We rode in from town on an ancient Land Rover safari truck through a small village, where every child waved and shouted hello! with big grins, and sometimes a little dance. I will never forget the image of one particular little boy, who when the truck approached his hut he came tearing outside both arms in the air, frantically waving, and shouting hiiii!!!!! hiiiiii!!!! hiiii!!!!! He was absolutely hysterical to see us driving through his village. It made us feel like celebrities to have all the children screaming hello, waving and smiling. We arrived at the camp feeling very special with our hearts full. The camp was very beautiful, set amongst elegant baobab trees. There was no electricity, and the camp was lighted with old fashioned paraffin lamps, giving the camp great atmosphere at night. We were the only guests at the camp and were treated exceptionally well by the staff.

Malawi's landscape

Unfortunately, it rained nonstop for 2 days so we were unable to do a game drive. We did however, get to see some elephants near the camp (sadly no pictures). Nick heard them trumpeting nearby so we ran to the lookout hill and found them munching on some vegetation next to the river. The elephants also left plenty of evidence in the form of huge piles of poo that they had been walking around the camp at night, though we never saw them there. We were both sure we were going to surprise either elephants, hippos, or baboons at night because the bathrooms were quite a walk from our dorm in total darkness. We never did, though I was constantly encountering frogs in the bathroom stalls, and during a particular heavy rain I ran into a tortoise, 2 frogs, and a huge lizard having a meeting outside a bathroom stall.

Though we didn’t get to do a game drive, the morning we left there was a break in the rain so we were able to do a guided canoe trip down the Shire river. We saw lots of hippos, birds, and a few baboons on the shore of the park. The hippos are a funny bunch, they make lots of grunting and snorting sounds that sound like laughter. Our guide informed us that the hippos in the Shire are not aggressive because they’re not hunted, so we were able to get relatively close in the canoe to get a peek.

hippos on the Shire

We left the camp and headed into town to catch a minibus to Monkey Bay, our first stop on the lake. So far taking the minibuses in Africa hasn’t been too bad. They are crowded and uncomfortable, but they are the most frequent form of public transportation so we use them. Here in Liwonde was the first time we experienced any trouble. We were waiting for a minibus to Monkey Bay, when we were approached by guys saying they were going to Monkey Bay for a price we were willing to pay. The next thing we knew they’d picked up our bags and were heading to the bus. All of the sudden guys started fighting and yelling, and insisting that our bus was going to Blantyre, not Monkey Bay. Our driver claimed we were in fact going to Monkey Bay, but the fighting continued on for quite a while, and eventually some of them attempted to throw punches. It was incredibly stressful for Nick & I and all we could do was take the driver at his word. It seems that the other bus felt they were first in line and that we should have gone with them. The intricacies of who gets which passengers is unknown to us, but apparently the way things went down was not kosher and people were angry. This is the first time we have ever been fought over and I can’t emphasize enough how stressful it was. It just demonstrates the desperation of the people in this country right now that they are fighting over less than $15. There was again more fighting later on in the ride when the driver tried to charge some passengers for their bags, though the angry passengers claimed he originally said bags were free. Needless to say, we couldn’t wait to get to Monkey Bay and off the minibus from hell (it did in fact go to Monkey Bay).

selling goodies to the big bus passengers

In Monkey Bay, we stayed at Mufasa Rustic Backpackers Camp. We should have known by the name, but it was rustic and without electricity. We had just spent 2 days without electricity at the safari camp and were not planning to go another 4, but there was only one other option in town which the guidebook said had a reputation for being disorganized. The camp did have a nice location on a very pretty cove, except for the eyesore right in the middle of the lake. We were also entertained by the vervet monkeys and baboons wreaking havoc on the campgrounds.

Monkey Bay

vervet monkey

Our time in Monkey Bay was not very pleasant for me, as I was unhappy that we didn’t have electricity or a kitchen to use, the town was rather crappy and the markets poorly stocked, and mysterious sores on my face and left arm were starting to spread. Two days after we arrived I woke up with a really sore throat and stuffy nose and 2 more sores on my face, so we decided to see a doctor. The mystery sores started in Mozambique with one innocuous bump on my upper left arm. Almost 2 weeks later it still hadn’t gone away, and what I thought were blemishes were now starting to look like the sore on my arm. I was embarrassed by them, and when I got the sore throat, I was really miserable. So off we went to the private clinic in Monkey Bay, which diagnosed me with a lovely bacterial skin infection and thankfully had antibiotics. I have been on them for 4 days now and am doing much better. My sore throat is gone but I still have a wicked cold and Nick is starting to feel under the weather as well. Nick had his own troubles in Monkey Bay- he spent one day going back and forth to the town of Mangochi to the ATM, since Monkey Bay has none (another strike against Monkey Bay for me). He spent a few hours in direct sun on a truck and apparently didn’t drink enough water because later that day back at camp, he felt dizzy, blacked out, and took a nasty fall and bonked his head. He was ok, but he was shell shocked and weak for a little while afterward. Monkey Bay was rough!

Mufasa Backpackers Camp

So that brings us here to Lilongwe, where we have come to terms with not going to Tanzania but instead to Zambia. We’re able to obtain our Zambian visas here in Malawi and pay in the local currency. We can also do a safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park for significantly less than in Tanzania. Though I am sad and disappointed we won’t be going to Tanzania this time, it is for the best financially for us and I am sure we will have a great experience in Zambia. The owner of the Pink Papaya in Chimoio told us she’d been to every national park in Southern and Eastern Africa and that South Luangwa NP is her favorite, so I have high hopes. From Lilongwe, we are going to the south shore of the lake for a few days, and then we’ll come back to Lilongwe to join our safari tour into Zambia. From Zambia, we plan to fly out of the capital of Lusaka to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to begin our Asian adventure.

Lesson to learn from this blog post: Never, ever travel internationally without US dollars! The dollar reigns supreme, and will get you anywhere. This misstep has prevented us from going places and has in return changed our whole itinerary so learn from our mistake!

rich in kwacha (about $200), poor in dollars

Till next time…

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Filed under Lodging, Malawi, Tours, Transportation

5 responses to “Introducing Malawi

  1. Linda

    Yikes, you have had a bit of a rough time. I am sorry about all that you both have been through but I’m sure that things will be better from now on. Rachel, I’m glad that you are feeling a little better but you did sound a little congested today when we spoke! Hopefully each day will find you feeling much better. Nick, I am so glad that you were okay after your incident. Good thing people were around to help you. Call us when you can again–it really makes our day!!!! Miss you.

  2. tom and gemma

    hi guys!
    even in asia you usually need us dollars to pay the visa fees – however it’s not difficult to get some!
    the buses seem to be even better than in bolivia – do you remember the ride from copacabana to la paz? hahahaa…..
    enjoy your time!

  3. Gosh!! What an adventure. Hope you are both feeling better.

  4. Monica

    Wooow! Stay safe & healthy guys! Absolutely love your blog.

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