Sunday, August 31, 2008

Southern Malawi

We ended up staying in Blantyre, the largest city in southern Malawi, longer than we'd planned, a total of 4 nights. We needed to get some more US cash and the girls got their hair braided again. Now that we are back into something resembling developing Africa they wanted the braids back. Blantyre wasn't bad at all, it has a nice hilly setting and wasn't overly busy. The central part of town, the banking district, where I spent most of my time is nicely developed and clean. Malawi is significantly cheaper than the rest of Southern Africa, from the food prices to camping to internet. I can camp and eat an overpriced meal at the hostel for the same price as camping in Mozambique. They also have proper greasy street-food again! Mmmm....greasy fries...
When we finally left, we headed on a very slow and rickety bus to Monkey Bay, on Lake Malawi. It was a long, boring bumpy day, not helped by the lack of view since this country, actually the whole region, is so hazy these days. The bus was the super slow local one, the only direct option, and the local ladies sitting next to me were travelling with a pair of chickens under the seat. When they finally left, a different lady with a different set of chickens sat down. Ah, the chicken run.....
It wasn't a long way but it took all day, nearly 10 hrs because of the stops and the last 2 1/2 hrs were on road being rebuilt so we were in the dust on the side and finally exited the bus covered from head to toe and with a none-too-happy family. We were supposed to be headed to Cape Maclear, a popular backpackers destination nearby but it was getting late and the transport in the area is a bit of a hassle with connections and timing so we ended up on a 1/2 march through sand and a fishing village to a backpackers place right on the lake called Venice Beach. The beach was nice, but it was strange to see such calm water after all the wind and waves in Mozambique. The fishing village surrounds the place and it seemed that every villager came down to bathe and do laundry all day in the lake while the fish dried in the sun on racks nearby.
One thing I definitely have to say about the people here, they are really nice and friendly. I think Malawi may have the nicest people in Africa and so far it looks as if this will end up being my favourite country on the continent as it is for so many others I have talked to. I walked around town with some guys from the high school who were very helpful in showing me around and just chatting.
Leaving Monkey Bay was a bit of a nightmare as the 6am bus either didn't exist or just didn't bother to show up. The 7:30 arrived totally stuffed and we ended up having to take a combination of 2 pickup trucks and one minibus to get to Lilongwe. When I say we were in a pickup I mean something a little larger than a typical pickup that you would drive at home. More the commercial type but still something with no business putting 30 people and their luggage in the back and driving along bumpy dirt roads. We were totally squashed and to make matters worse, this country has gone back to the old style of every female has a baby so you end up surrounded by a bunch of bouncing breast-feeders to horrify you. Oh the clouds are so nice out here..... Actually, the view is or would be stunning, if not for the haze. It is pretty dry but has some small mountains as well as the lake.
Lilongwe is not as nice as Blantyre, or at least not in the area we are. We are in a cheap hotel across from the bus station because we weren't planning on staying long. We needed more money (the ATM withdrawl limits are so low here, grrr) and planned to move on but have ended up staying 3 nights. There is a good reason though. Ben met us in Lilongwe that first night having just arrived from Zambia, where we intend to go next (tomorrow). We didn't want to travel on Sunday and today is the funeral for the Zambian president, who died in France just recently. Everything will be completely shut down across Zambia so there was no point in leaving today. There is a big mosque just beside the bus station and it is the first time I've heard the call to prayer since West Africa. As we head up the coast we will of course get more Islamic again. Not sure that the girls are too keen on that.....
We intend to jump into Zambia for only a couple of days to visit South Luangwa Park for one last safari before coming back to Malawi.
PS. Shean, the syntax you questioned, well, I was making it clear (sort of) that Kees is not in a relationship with the mother other than as a joint parent. Mom's speeding ticket cost about $25.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Our bus ride into Mozambique was the first time we'd been on a bus since Ghana. It was one of those fancy double-decker coaches with A/C and movies, not a bad easing into the bus transport life again but I still heard plenty of grumbling out of this group. You'd think they'd forgotten that they were budget backpackers or something. Personally I was excited to be back on the road again and when we got to the Mozambique immigration with its hordes lined up in the decaying building with dingy lighting, dirty floors and a stale, sweat smell poorly circulated by a rickety ceiling fan I knew I was back where I belonged. Once again it seemed that crossing a border produced immediate results. The landscape somehow suddenly changes to something flatter and more humid, vegetation and palm trees miraculously appear....along with the mosquitoes. Yep, back to the Doxy pills, Mozambique has the lethal cerebral malarial strain and that doesn't sound so pleasant at all.
As always seems to be the case, we rolled into Maputo, the capital one hour late and just as the sun was setting. We had to call the hostel again for our free pickup since it is still not considered safe to be running around in the dark. We decided to leave the next morning on the hostel shuttle up to their sister place on the beach at Tofo a full day's drive up the coast. It was supposed to leave at 5am the next morning so we pretty much went to bed right away. The reason we head up the coast so quickly was to surprise Ben who we knew to be in Tofo already. From what we saw of Maputo it looked interesting as a city and was more developed with highrises than I expected. It also had the colonial Portuguese look to it, which is very distinctive.
In many ways Mozambique reminded me of Angola. Both had the Portuguese influence of course but they are also rebuilding after very long civil wars and have amazing tourist potential with such beautiful coast and countryside. As you drive along the road you see the people living in their little thatched mud huts and all the concrete buildings are just blown out shells. The road was often potholed and horrible, particularly the farther north we went (though we really didn't get that far). The landscape in the Tete corridor also reminded me of parts of Angola too.
Tofo has been a party beach town popular with backpackers for quite some time so it wasn't too surprising to find it busy and lively. Ben had been travelling with 2 female friends from England, as well as Alex, but Alex had just left and we were just in time to say goodbye to one of the others. He was surprised and happy to see us (well Bre anyway) again. We hung out at Tofo for a few days on the beach. Ben had hoped to do his PADI there but it was so windy that the conditions weren't the best for diving. It was significantly warmer than in SA and I love the feel of shorts and bare feet again. The only problem is that it is still a cool wind and chilly in the shade. That and the sunsets are soooo early :(
Now that we've caught Ben, we will see him frequently at various points as we head north so we managed to sucker him into taking some of our junk that we don't need at the moment (it really was too much for the crammed minibuses). That included Bre and Savannah too because he took them up to Vilanculos a day before mom, dad and I followed. They didn't want to be on the buses at all and mom has been sick lately with a cold and wanted another day of rest.
From Tofo to Vilanculos was another full day of travel for us, not helped by the fact that it was Sunday. Never travel on a Sunday, things are more shut down and transport fills up slower. We had to take a very full minibus (called chapas here) 20km to the provincial capital Inhambane. There are signs in the minibus saying it is a 15 seater but we fit nearly 30 with people standing over each other and the odd bum hanging out the window. It's not comfortable but it is the norm. Very much like Guinea again, especially in the pothole sections. Inhambane is a quiet town (especially on a Sunday morning) and very colonial in style. It has a great look and feel to it compared to other towns in Mozambique. We had to take a short boat ride to the other side of the inlet to Maxixe and then a long minibus ride to Vilanculos from there. One thing I've noticed about Moz, they don't ever stop for food or toilet breaks, which I would generally consider a good thing but sometimes it can be very uncomfortable that way.
Mom was just about dead by the time we got to Vilanculos and upon checking in, crawled into bed and stayed there for 3 days before I saw her outside again. It's just a head cold but a very persistent one. The beach at Vilanculos is more of a tidal flat and with the full moon they were reaching way out to the horizon. Lots of dhows sailing by and fishermen out at low tide collecting whatever they could. Vilanculos is more layed back than Tofo but there are still a lot of touts and it is the gateway to the Bazaruto islands just off shore and easily visible when the weather is good (which it wasn't for the first couple days). It is another famous diving and snorkeling area, famous for manta rays, whale sharks and dugongs (they're like manatees). The problem with Moz is that it is really expensive, prohibitively so and we were unable to afford to do anything, though Ben and Rachel went out snorkeling on one day. We focused mostly on healing and reading to shrink our library down a little. While in Vilanculos, we met an Israeli guy, David, who'd survived a head-on collision in his bus with another. They pass blindly everywhere here and he was saved only because he was in the middle of the bus; the people in the front seats were crushed to death. Note to self, sit in the back. Sometimes I think potholes and bad traffic are a good thing in some of these countries because it forces slower speeds. It just serves to remind me that the buses are my biggest worry and danger out here, forget all the rest of what the news would have you afraid of (wars, terrorism, etc).
Ben left Vilanculos a day ahead of us and only a couple hours after he left, Kees rolled in. Once you've heard it, you can't forget the sound of that truck coming down the road. It was another pleasant surprise and we stayed another day to hang out with him. He's still travelling with his son and its mother, more or less on the same route as us as well. We still hope to hook up with him again in another month or so when he becomes free again.
Leaving Vilanculos we had to catch the bus at 4:30am. Almost all the transport leaves at 4-5am in this country, I have no idea why. It seems strange to leave at 5am and arrive at 11am or maybe 2pm on a long ride when you could just've easily left at 7am and arrived at 4pm, still before dark. Whatever. We play the game. With one change at Inchope we made it to Chimoio, another small provincial capital, where one of those wonderful moments that makes travelling fun occurred; we ran into Oliver. Oliver, from Germany, was with us on the boat to Timbuktu, Mali last Christmas. He was on a 2 week holiday then and was on another fairly short one now, and he just happened to be in an insignificant town like Chimoio as a transit stop like us, but headed south. What are the odds of something like that happening 8 months after meeting someone? Only once before had it happened to me after a full year, back in Cairo, but it is one of those moments that really makes you stop and wonder at how small the world has become. You never know who you'll meet, or when, so better be nice and leave a good impression on every occasion I think.
Unfortunately Oliver had bad news for us, every place to stay in town was full and the two of us spent the rest of the day trying to find anywhere to stay. It wouldn't've been a problem if the people were a little more creative (we just needed a place to camp) but they have a hard time thinking outside the box here. In the end we bought tickets for the 4am bus the following day, and like half a dozen or so locals, "slept" in the bus. Did I hear more grumbling from the group? Did random people keep knocking on the windows all night? Did we suffocate from an overpowering stench of urine and get bitten by mosquitoes? Did the bus have no luggage racks so after loading we had no leg room on an already cramped ghettomobile? Did the bus leave an hour late and hit every gigantic pothole in the road for the next 6 1/2 hrs to Tete? Oh yes, yes indeed. I love travel. The only consolation was that as we were settling in for the night in our bus, Ben showed up and showered us with sympathy and a little food. Did I mention that we hadn't really eaten either?
Upon arrival in Tete we decided that it was in our best interest to make a press for the border with Malawi so jumped in another squishy minibus for the 2 hour run to the border. We were mobbed by money changers at the border but got out quickly and easily to find ourselves in a taxi for the 5km drive to the Malawian immigration. Malawi is one of the few countries in Africa that doesn't require a visa so we were thinking it would be an easy crossing. No. I forgot, we're still in Africa, there's always something. In this case I actually found it quite comical. The official refused entry to dad because his new US passport has extra pages added to it that are in the old US passport style. He claimed that it was altered by dad, therefore invalid and his responsibility to refuse entry. At one point he even asked dad to separate the two parts. Wow. Having been through this nonsense how many times now, we didn't even blink when he told us there was a problem. I guess he was fishing for bribes or doesn't like Americans or something, I don't know but it must've been obvious that his attempt at intimidation was having more effect on the wall behind us. I would've laughed more but the day was getting on and we really wanted to arrive in Blantyre before dark and had another 2 hours to go. The guy held out for about 1/2 hr or so and then we got through and were off to the attemped pressures and hassle of the minibus touts for Blantyre. They had no luck with us either but we did arrive in town just after sunset but while it was still light. Fortunately we were dropped off right at the hostel and somehow I managed to stay awake long enough to set up my tent and eat before falling asleep at around 8pm.
Blantyre is the largest city in the south of Malawi but it is pretty quiet actually. The people are friendly, they speak English here and it is much cheaper than Moz so I like it already. We are off to Lake Malawi next and another reunion with Ben in a few days.

Monday, August 25, 2008

2 weeks in a rental car

After a teary farewell, made even more dismal in the rain, we attempted to drive out of Cape Town. I say attempted because dad was driving. He'd been driving the truck for months and was used to being on the left side of the road, but suddenly finding himself behind the steering wheel on the right side of the car was totally disorienting and we thought we were going to die. There was lots of screaming of directions and advice and just plain screaming, until the passengers unanimously voted to put mom in charge. She hadn't driven since Ireland, but at least that was the same driving system as here so she was much better and we all felt safe again. Dad did later get the hang of it but is looking forward to getting back behind the wheel of the truck again.
Our rental "car" was a Toyota Avanza, which doesn't seem to really fall into the car or minivan category but was barely big enough to hold the 5 of us (first time it has been just the 5 of us since just before Sky arrived in Morocco) and all our junk. We've picked up so much stuff in the last couple of months that we'll never fit it in a bus. We now have new clothes, big blankets and after a quick count, over 20 books (we've become serious James Michener junkies)!
About 1 hour out of Cape Town the rain stopped and we haven't had any since. It was still cold and in an attempt to minimize backtracking and passing any cities, we stuck to the back roads as much as possible visiting only Oudtshoorn again (that's where the ostriches were). The road ran parallel to the coastal one, through some beautiful mountain and valley scenery, initially on what is called the wine route, for obvious reasons. Lots of grapes and farms with horses. Our first night out we stayed on a farm that had converted its stables into a dormitory, one of the more interesting dorms I've ever seen. We continued along the Wild Coast region with the weather getting progressively warmer, through places like Coffee Bay and other popular backpacker hangouts but we pressed on quickly, not particularly impressed until Port St. Johns where we stayed a couple of days to relax. Maybe it's just the winter scene and the water being too cold to entice us to surf but we just relaxed and I went undefeated at the ping pong table.
I was also able to have a very interesting chat with a white guy who had dropped everything in his former life to become a witch doctor and is now living out in the boonies with the locals. Very interesting to hear how such things work. The witch doctors operate on a mystic level very similar to advanced yogis and they claim a complete understanding an respect with witch doctors from other regions and cultures, including South America, despite language barriers. They still have a lot of power within the communities and hence the country, with the majority of the black population still using them.
From there we went to Pietermaritzburg to visit James, Patrick and Sarah. They live there and we were able to stay at their step-father's farm, not far out of town. He was quite the character and we enjoyed staying with him and all his stories. In 1994 when the government changed in S. Africa there was a large period of unrest and 27 of his neighbours were murdered within the following few years. I can't imagine. As one of the old timers that remembers "the good old days" he is not very optimistic for the future of the country. All I can say is that S. Africa is not really a happy place to live and everyone has to live here in too much fear. I can't imagine living behind bars, awaiting the worst my whole life. With Patrick and Sarah we spent a day touring around countryside, culminating in the purchase of some very nice cheese. Mmmm. Our cheese days are coming to an end very soon.
From PMB we went northeast to Dundee where dad and I spent a day going to Rorke's Drift and Isandlwana, sites of some of the more famous Zulu battles with the British in 1879. The whole region is full of historical battles but seeing as these are the more famous ones and in the movie Zulu (which I've never seen btw) we felt we had to go. It was interesting as there has been almost no development in the area so you can easily picture the land as it used to be at the time of the battles. Isandlwana was where ~15000 Zulu surprised and massacred ~1500 British troops in a couple hours, as they invaded Zululand. Later that night ~4000 Zulu attacked Rorke's Drift (a hospital and staging post for the British military) which was successfully defended by less than 150 British for over 12 hours. 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded, the most of any battle in British history. This battle is also the plot of movie Zulu.
From Dundee we drove into Swaziland. It was most significant in that it is my 100th country I've been to. The country is nice but also developed like S. Africa in many ways, certainly more than Lesotho, which I wasn't totally expecting. We stayed a couple of nights at Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a small park with lots of antelope, zebras, hippos and crocs to see. It's nice because it is cheap and you can just drive around on the dirt roads, get out and chase the animals if you want (though I don't recommend it). The main camp in the park has a restaurant overlooking a small watering hole with hippos in it so you can see them from very close range. One even got out of the water and rested its head on the little wall that keeps them from running around the camp! The hostel inside the park was also the only place where we were able to watch any of the Olympics. We'd considered staying for 2 weeks just to watch them. I like international competitions. We also picked up a Mozambique visa in Mbabane, the capital. Even the same-day, express service is cheaper than getting it at the border.
From there we reentered S. Africa only to have mom get a speeding ticket on the last day with the car, on our way to Nelspruit where we had to turn our wheels in. One thing we've noticed lately is that eveyone seems to be burning a lot of the countryside and the air has been incredibly hazy. Not good for our views of the mountainous countryside. For the most part, the entire area since entering the Wild Coast has been hilly or mountainous but very dry, barren and brown. The Wild Coast and part of Zululand that we saw were not as fenced off and organized as the rest of South Africa, very poor and dirty (lots of litter for the first time in a while), mud huts (rondavels), bad roads and few whites. Much more "African" but in all honesty I was looking forward to getting out of S.A. and moving on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Still Alive

Hi all, sorry for not writing for a while. We've been really busy and should write a more in depth blog soon. We did make it all the way to Cape Town, where Bre and Savannah went out on numerous dates and really enjoyed themselves while mom, dad and I hung back and relaxed. Cities aren't really my thing but the view and overall layout was nice as seen from across the bay in Table View where we were staying. We did make the drive down to Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope. Not much to see really but it was an important landmark for us to hit. From Cape Town it was a teary farewell for the girls as we left Kees and Ben behind and took off for the last 2 weeks in our rental car. We drop it off tomorrow and are back to the public transit again :(. That will hopefully not last too long again before we hook up with the boys again. Sorry for the quicky but I'll try to get back to you when I can.