Guest Blogger, Evan.
I re-checked lodge report. I re-checked the emails exchanged between the lodge owners – Matt and Marie – and myself. Yep, they DEFINITELY said that skiing conditions were good, with a minimum base of 6”. And yet there I stood, drenched in sweat at the Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe, Malawi – with a pair of madshus racing ski’s freshly waxed with violet special – and not a flake of snow to be seen!
Marie greeted me with a bear hug and a wide smile. Exasperated, I exclaimed, “you said that there was a 6” base?!?”. “Ah, yes”, Marie smiled, “skiing conditions are quite nice here, but you see there is only one problem … it does not snow in Malawi”. Such was going to be the story of our first week of travels in Malawi; everything went perfectly … except for one little problem.
I had arrived on a Friday afternoon, and by Saturday morning, the crew (Matt, Marie, Beth, and myself) was readying for our weeklong road trip into the north of Malawi. First task; Beth and I needed to get some cash: a simple undertaking in the 1st world, not so much in the 3rd world. The denominations of cash in Malawi have not kept up with inflation; to take out even a modest sum of money means receiving a ridiculously fat wad of cash. And, because everyone is taking out ridiculously fat wads of bills, the ATM’s are constantly running out of cash. To combat this, many of the ATM’s limit the amount of Kwacha (Malawian currency) you can take out. Consequently, Beth and I simply re-inserted our debit cards, and took out the max four times (with a long line of disapproving Malawian’s behind us, annoyed by the Azungu’s – Malawian term for a white person – who were making them wait and draining the ATM). So there we stood, on the side of the road, waiting for Marie to pick us up, with our pockets literally bulging with Kwacha. Luckily, Malawian’s are notoriously friendly, and despite the fact that we were prime for a mugging, our only hassle was the guy selling avocados.
Cash in hand, we hit the road for our first stop: Malawi’s top tourist destination – Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi. We had three days booked at the Butterfly Lodge, with separate cabins overlooking the lake paradise. The setting was magnificent: gorgeously pleasant swimming, premier snorkeling, cliff diving, canoeing, and beach volleyball. The accommodations, however, could not have been a greater contrast to the setting. Our cabins were dilapidated; our sheets crusted with dead insects, and the mosquito nets were more hole than screen. The single pit toilet (which served over a dozen cabins) smelled not so much as though the waste was composting, but more like it was stewing. Rather than install a urinal, they instructed guests – girls and boys alike – to pee on the lodge grounds (I would not want to see the results of that policy during the dry season). Equally as unsanitary were our fellow guests at the lodge: an exceedingly annoying, intoxicated, and lazy crew of ex-pats and aimless travelers. It was paradise with only one problem: it was a total shithole.
The view wasn’t bad.
We shook off the stench of Butterfly, and set out for the second half of our road trip: Nyika National Park. It was a long drive and we hit road early. Driving in Malawi can be stressful: highways in Malawi are the primary arteries for not only cars, but also pedestrians and some animals. Add an occasional pothole (more like pot-chasm) and rainstorm into the mix, and driver’s need to be especially vigilant. The last 110km of our drive up to the Nyika plateau was a dirt road. The first 50 km of the dirt road was laborious but uneventful, under the steady hand of Matt in the driver’s seat. I took over for the last 60km. Roads conditions quickly deteriorated: massive mud pits, flooded road, potholes, and terrain that resembled more of a rutted riverbed than a road. We reached a flooded section of the road, and Evan slowed to develop a game plan.
I would like to pause at this point of the story for a little life lesson. The next time you’re thinking about driving an overloaded, low clearance vehicle into a water pit of unknown depth, I would offer two pieces of advice: 1) don’t 2) the ‘gun it so you don’t get stuck’ philosophy is a stupid philosophy. If either of those pieces of wisdom had occurred to me, the week may have been salvaged . . .
Not even the worst spot.
As it stands, however, I hit the pond with momentum. We bottomed out – HARD – but made it through. As we approached our next treacherous section of road – a lengthy section of deep, rutted, mud – I stopped the car to evaluate the route. There was only one problem: the car would not go into park . . . or reverse or change gears at all. There was no going back now … literally!
The injured automobile clunked and scraped its way to the ultimate destination: our rented lodge atop the Nyika plateau. We arrived 5 hours after beginning the 110 km dirt road: exhausted, relieved, and wearied by an anxiety filled journey. Despite our mechanical misfortune, Nyika immediately intoxicated us: open, rolling plateau scattered with massive, bright grey boulders; antelope and zebra and baboons and hyenas galore; wilderness that felt both peaceful and wild; and massive, mesmerizing sunsets.
We settled into our lodge, and set up a half-day safari and hike for the following day. A mechanic arrived the following morning, and worked on the transmission while we took our safari. When we returned, the mechanic had great news: the car was fixed! Finally some GOOD LUCK – we were ecstatic! Marie took the Toyota Rav4 for a test drive to confirm the good news. Marie reported that there was only one problem … the mechanic had fixed ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! The car would still not shift! We were screwed!
The mechanic was leaving the next day. We decided to leave our Nyika paradise early, as we did not want to traverse the road in our wounded automobile without the assistance of the mechanic. Matt took the first driving shift, and successfully navigated us through the most difficult sections of the road. By early afternoon, we had descended the plateau into Mzuzu, where we dropped the Rav4 off at a transmission specialist. Before long, the dent in the bottom of the car had been knocked out, and the transmission was working perfectly. FINALLY! A bit of good luck!
Nkhata bay may have been a bit of a bust. Our Nyika trip may have been a disaster. But the Rav4 was now fixed, and we still had a couple more days left on our road trip. This week could be salvaged! We headed out for the largest man made forest in Africa, the Viphya Forest Reserve. A number of lodges operate in the Viphya Mountains, making it a tourist friendly destination. We pulled into one such lodge, and were approached by the owner. We informed the owner that we were looking for a cabin for the night. The owner responded, “Yes, that will be just fine”, followed by a pregnant pause, “there is just one problem – we have been shut down by the health department due to fly infestation”.
Yes, indeed, that was a problem, and we pushed on to the next place down the road: Luwawa Forest Lodge. There were full up, but had space available in their dorm accommodation. By the time we arrived, it was dark; we were road weary and hungry, but thankful for a bed. Perhaps we should have been more discriminating. The dorm rooms had not been inhabited for what seemed like a decade. The walls were infested with mold, and the accompanying stench was suffocating. Too tired to protest, we attempted to gut out the respiratory biohazard for the night. By morning, however, we found ourselves sleepless, incessantly coughing & sneezing, and generally feeling ill. We sought out the owner for an explanation. He waived the dorm fees for the previous night and offered us a whopping 10% discount on our next night. F!%# you very much. We had had it.
Our week in paradise was littered with one ‘little’ problem after another. Africa had beaten us. We packed our things, and set off for the refuge of the Malawi Ski Lodge. Skiing conditions at the lodge may not have been ideal, but at least that was a problem I could deal with.