Low Flying in Malawi

We flew in on our first trip to Malawi. Just me and Aitch. At Lilongwe airport we hired a car from the brochures on the desk, not from the kiosks in the airport. Well, man on the phone said they didn’t have any presence at the airport to save money, but they were nearby, they’d be there in a jiffy. Cheap. I like that.

The airport emptied till it was just us, so we took our bags to the entrance and sat in the shade waiting. There was no-one there but a bored youth sitting in a Honda with sagging suspension, but we were chilled and the airport garden needed birding. Eventually I went back to the desk to phone the man. He was amazed: “My man should have been there long ago!”

‘Twas him. ‘Twas our car: The Honda. “No, no,” we laughed, “there must be a better car than this!” – thinking of the rough roads we’d be traversing. “Come back to the office and choose” said the friendly man. So we did and we inspected their fleet. Well, bless them, of course it was their best car, they’re good people; so off we headed to Kasungu National Park. We were on a safari in a dark blue Honda Civic with Formula 1 ground clearance.

In the park we drove with one wheel on the middle bump and one on the left edge of the road. On the open road we drove slowly and avoided anything above deck. While I was unpacking to occupy our bungalow I froze: a serval! Wonderful! We always love seeing the smaller wildlife. I tried to signal to Aitch as the cat walked out of the long grass into the clearing. I didn’t want to scare it, but I whistled low and urgent. Aitch came out and we watched as it came closer and closer.

And closer till it rubbed itself against my leg!!

We headed further north – to Vwaza Marsh, and then up high to Nyika Plateau, 10 000ft above seal level; then south again to Nkhata Bay, beautiful Lake Malawi and warner weather. The car went like a dream at twenty, and even sometimes at thirty km/hr.

– smooth highway! –

South of Nkhata Bay we suddenly came on a stretch of smooth road! I crept the needle up to forty km/h. Then fifty and eventually sixty! Wheee! “Careful, Koos,” admonished my Aitch, clinging white-knuckled to the dashboard (kidding! sort of). Then we came up to the big yellow grader that had smoothed our path. It moved aside and we went past with a wave to the friendly driver. The road condition was now back to interesting, so I slowed down to forty. “Slow down, Koos,” admonished my Aitch. We’d been doing thirty so this still felt fast to her and I knew she was right, but I had tasted speed . . .

WHUMP! We hit a brick and I knew immediately that we’d be getting to know this remote stretch of Malawi. I parked on a low level bridge and leaned out to peer under the car: Oil pouring out the sump. Do you have any soap? I asked Aitch. Here, she said shoving a bottle of liquid soap into my hand. Um, no, a bar of soap. Ever resourceful, she whipped out a fat green stick of Tabard mozzi repellent. Perfect, I said and shoved it in the hole. It went into the sump without touching sides! OK, we’d be here a while . .

– uh oh –

To break the tension I took my binocs and went for a walk and straight away things got better. “Come look!” I called Aitch “A lifer!” A Fire-Crowned Bishop flitted around in the reeds of the stream we were parked above. ‘Um,’ she said, ‘Don’t tell me that’s why you stopped here?’ Grinning, she made us a snack on the bootlid and we waited. Before too long someone came by. On foot. A few schoolboys who said, Not to worry, we know a mechanic in a nearby village. He will fix it. Great! I said, Would you ask him to help us, please? thinking Actually guys, there’s no ‘nearby village.’

An hour later a car zoomed by without stopping. Unusual for Malawi. Another hour later and a Land Rover stopped, the driver got out and shook his head sadly. He couldn’t help us as he was in a government vehicle. As he drove off we saw his female passenger appearing to give him a thousand words. He stopped and walked back with a 5l oil can in his hand. “I can’t sell you this oil because its guvmint oil, but I am going to give you this oil” he said. Great, we accepted it with alacrity. It was half full. It was a start.

Another hour or so and some figures approached us on foot, one with a greasy green overall and a red metal toolbox on his shoulder. It was our mechanic! The schoolboys had come through!

– my mechanic watches as I tap tap – check tool detail on left –

Soon he had the sump cover off and I started tapping the hole closed using a shifty and a spanner. As I tapped I asked if anyone – perchance – had a bar of soap. Nope. No-one. Holding up the cover to the sun I tapped until not even a glint of sun shone through. I had closed the hole. As we started to replace it, I muttered “I’d give twenty kwacha for some soap,” whereupon one of the guys whipped out a sliver of red Lifebuoy soap from his pocket.

Boy! Did the others turn on him! “How can you be so unkind to our guests?” was the accusation and they refused to let me pay him more than four kwacha for his soap, despite my assuring them that it was worth twenty to me. As we prepared to depart after pouring in the guvmint oil, we gave them each a cold can from our hebcooler, paid the mechanic his dues (he didn’t charge traveling costs) and gave them each a cap. I had two spare caps and Aitch had one. A pink one.

1500km later we handed the car back and I told the man at the airport: “Please check the sump. Its leaking oil.” It wasn’t, but I wanted him to check it.

~~~oo0oo~~~

More pictures of our journey from Aitch’s album:

– road near Rumphi –
– up on Nyika plateau – 8000ft above sea level –
– Nyika Plateau very special rolling grasslands –
– sure, sometimes we did save money – I like that! –
– and sometimes we splashed out –

~~~oo0oo~~~

Good Advice in Kenya

Aitch and I went to Mombasa in 1995 and checked in at a hotel on Diani beach. The next day I walked the crowded streets of Mombasa looking for a cheap hired car. Mombasa is quite a place:

Mombasa downtown

I did my sums. I’m meticulous. Not.

Kenya car hire quotes
– car hire – lots of choice –

While Aitch chilled on the uncrowded beach and pooldeck, no doubt quaffing ginless gin&tonics. She used to do that! Tonic & bitters. Ginless! I know! You’re right. Search me. Where’s the medicinal value?! The personality enhancing factor, PEF? Still, she loved it.

Diani Beach Hotel

I found a lil Suzuki jeep. Marvelous. I could turn round from the drivers seat and touch the back window! Almost.

scan0001

Birding Advice: Back at the hotel I went for a walk, leather hat on my head, binoculars round my neck. An old man came cranking along slowly on a bicycle, swung his leg high up over the saddle and dismounted next to me.

‘Ah!’ he said, ‘I can see you are English.’ I didn’t contradict him. ‘You are looking for buds,’ he said, also in a way that made me not argue. ‘There are no buds here,’ he said emphatically. ‘If you want to see buds you must go to the west, to the impenetrable forest. There are many buds there.’ And he put his left foot on the pedal, gave a push and, swinging his right leg high over the saddle, wobbled off. After a few yards he had a thought, slowed, swung off in the same elaborate dismount and came back to me: ‘But in this hotel over here you can see some peacocks in the garden,’ he informed me re-assuringly.

‘Ah, thank you sir. Thanks very much,’ I said, wishing him well and thinking of Kenya’s 1100 species of birds – eleven percent of the world’s total. The USA has about 900, and the UK about 600. He was a character a bit like this:

Kenya man on bicycle

Traveling Advice: We also got pessimistic advice on the roads. We were on our way to Tsavo National Park the next day and we wanted to avoid the main road to Nairobi. We’d heard it was crowded with trucks and buses and we’d rather avoid that, if at all possible. On our Globetrotter map I found a little road south-west of the main road that showed an alternative route via Kwale, Kinango and Samburu.

‘No you can’t; No, not at all; There’s no way,’ says everyone. Even the barman! ‘The bridge has been washed away by cyclone Demoina,’ they all said. This was a bit weird, as Demoina had been in 1984, eleven years earlier, and had mostly hit Madagascar, Mocambique and KwaZuluNatal, well south of Kenya.

Usually I can eventually find ONE person to say ‘Don’t listen to them, the road is FINE,’ but this time I was stymied. No-one would say ‘Yes!’  nor even ‘Maybe.’

SO: We headed off along the road toward Kwale anyway. ‘Tis easier to seek forgiveness than permission, we thought. Aitch, what a trooper, was right with me in adventurousness. ‘We’ll see new places,’ was all she said. She knows me.

As we neared Kwale a minibus taxi approaching from the other direction did a strange thing: They actually flagged us down to tell us ‘Stop! You can’t go this way! The bridge is gone, Demoina washed it away!’ We nodded, we agreed, we thanked them kindly; then we kept going.

And they were right: The bridge over the river between Kwale and Kinango had indeed washed away. But there were recent tyre tracks down to the river which we followed. Below and just upstream of the wreckage of the bridge we stuck the Suzuki in 4X4 and crossed  the low river. Then we stopped for a break, parking our mini-4X4 under a beautiful shady tree on the river bank:

– 

And we were right: Besides being devoid of traffic, the road surface was mostly good, sometimes great:

– peaceful country road –

Then the honeymoon ended: We ran out of detour and got back onto the main Mombasa-Nairobi road at Samburu: Aargh! Every so often a blob of tar would threaten to cause damage. Huge holes had the traffic all weaving from side to side so trucks seem to be coming straight at you, but it’s actually quite safe. Its rather like slow-motion ballet. Cars and trucks went slowly, the only vehicles ‘speeding’ – probably up to 60km/h – were big passenger buses with their much better suspension.

~~~oo0oo~~~

Thanks to Google Earth we can find the place where the bridge had washed away. Here’s the new bridge and new road on the right, with the old road on the left where we crossed the drift (yellow arrow) and that beautiful tree (red arrow and top picture ) that we rested under. The long red mud scar is a new road and new bridge that wasn’t there back then.

Then we got to Tsavo! I’d wanted to visit Tsavo since I was ten years old, and read books by Bernhard Grzimek and others! Well, here I was, thirty years later! Yavuyavu! Fahari!

~~~oo0oo~~~

Yavuyavu! Fahari! – Joy, happiness, yes!!