For a relaxed self-drive holiday, Malawi is an inspired alternative to South Africa, Zimbabwe or Namibia. Nick Redmayne successfully dodged the errant goats to enjoy smooth tarmac and laid-back game drives in the warm heart of Africa.
“So, Innocent, what are the biggest hazards on Malawi’s roads?”
My question is somewhat late. I’m already driving, tentatively negotiating Lilongwe’s traffic. “Ah, there are many,” exhales Innocent. Now he tells me. “These small buses? They just stop anywhere, and start anytime.” He points with contempt towards a disreputable-looking white minibus. “Then there are goats. If you see one goat, just slow down, there’ll be more and they never make up their minds.”
I press him. “That’s it?”
“Yes. The police here are okay,” says Innocent. I pull over near the Safari Drive office to let him out. “I’ve made it easy for you,” says Innocent hopefully. “Take this road and turn left at the junction. See you in two weeks.”
Beyond South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia, self-driving in Africa is presumed to entail an overland expedition, most likely a painfully earnest charitable endeavour involving military escorts, teams of dogs and a UN resolution. In Malawi it appears all you have to do is avoid goats. From previous experience I knew that if there’s one thing Malawi’s late first president, Dr Hastings Banda, can claim kudos for, it’s the roads.
Fifty years on from independence, Malawi’s main routes are excellent – a real surprise. I’m ready for the journey and the Land Rover is prepped for a successful trip, with long range diesel tanks, a roof tent and camping gear, non-perishable food, a fridge, a satellite phone and – in the event of an emergency – a bottle of red wine. Rolling south to the Lower Shire Valley and Majete Game Reserve, the tarmac unfurls easily. Mud brick villages boasting one-room ‘Shopping Centers’ and handy ‘Coffin Showrooms’ punctuate the route. Carefully cultivated fields lead towards abrupt rocky monoliths. It’s an eight-hour drive. Motorised traffic is sparse, but people are everywhere.
Close to villages, squadrons of weaving bicycles demand my full attention. Forget Lycra-clad pelotons, Malawian cyclists are a different breed. Two-wheeled freight transporters see elaborate firewood constructs rising up their riders’ backs to form canopies; taxi bikes have rear-mounted cushions occupied side-saddle by demur ladies-who-lunch, whilst ever-complaining goats, strapped across parcel racks, are less contented passengers. Elsewhere, beyond steady processions of firewood-carrying women and the odd lorry, it’s an open road.
“You see, sir, we have a problem. You have committed an offence,” says the officer. I had stopped on a grassy verge at the instigation of a smartly uniformed policeman’s raised palm. Across Malawi the speed limit through villages is 50kmph. Where a village starts – or, more to the point, where a village ends – is frequently difficult to discern.
“Was I speeding? But where’s the sign?” I enquire, perplexed. “Ah, in this country we have a problem. We put a sign and then someone, they take it.” Before I can launch into a logical defence the officer segues quickly to the inevitable. “Anyhow, the fine is 5000 kwacha. This money is for the government. Pay my colleague. He will give you a receipt.” A smiling young constable sits on a rock and takes my money.
“Are there many of your colleagues down the road?”
I ask. “Yes, three from my station,” he smiles, handing me a piece of paper emblazoned ‘This is Not a Valid Receipt’. At under seven pounds sterling I can afford to smile too.
Despite my satnav’s increasingly desperate entreaties to “turn around when possible,” and take a 3000-mile detour via Tanzania, I cross the Shire River and arrive at Majete’s park gate, late but still in daylight. Following years of poaching, African Parks’ not-for-profit management was invited to take over the reserve in 2003 and reverse its sorry decline. After erecting 142km of fencing, employing 129 local staff, instituting 300km of tracks and restocking historically resident species, Majete has been transformed.
Captain of my own destiny, I take game drives along dusty loops to emerge by the Shire’s banks. The immense power of the river’s surging currents are profoundly humbling. In the air and on the ground, I miss sights a guide would quickly have pointed out. However, I take extra satisfaction from easily recognisable waterbuck and kudu, and when an elephant emerges unexpectedly onto the track my respect for the wild world is, to say the least, concentrated. Leopards were reintroduced in 2011; lions the following year. Arguably Majete is now Malawi’s top wildlife-spotting destination.
In the evening I’m the only guest at the community campsite. Parking close to a shady tree, the camp guardian, Vivec, helps me unfold the Land Rover’s roof tent. Soon dinner is cooking, a triumph of chicken noodles bubbling on my gas stove. I make two cups of tea and, in the gloom, pick my way to Vivec’s campfire. Overhead stars reveal themselves, and as darkness grows their twinkling is periodically traversed by space hardware.
“One of those satellites wanted to send me to Tanzania,” I explain to Vivec. He guffaws and stokes the fire, settling back in his chair, pulling a blanket close around his shoulders. “So, you are alone. It is all for you tonight,” says Vivec, passing me a biscuit.
I can’t argue, though through the trees the sounds of a nearby village mingle with the rustle of leaves. As in most of Malawi, you’re never far from humanity.
• Getting there Kenya Airways (www.kenya-airways.com) operate daily flights from Heathrow to Nairobi connecting onwards to Lilongwe and Blantyre.
• Getting around Several companies offer vehicles (self-drive and guided) in Malawi. Nick Redmayne’s Land Rover was provided by UK operator Safari Drive (www.safaridrive.com), which offers 16-day self-drive tours of southern Malawi from £2414pp (based on four people sharing a 4WD vehicle) including lodge and camping accommodation, many meals, a starter pack of provisions and a first tank of diesel. Nick’s itinerary took him from Lilongwe to Kumbali Lodge, Thyolo, Majete Reserve, the country-club style Game Haven, Zomba, Liwonde National Park and Lake Malawi, returning to Lilongwe.
• Further reading Bradt Guide to Malawi, by Philip Briggs (2013).
• Further information Malawi Tourist Information Office (www.malawitourism.com)
Nick’s top self-drive tips
• Satnavs are undoubtedly useful for telling you which way to go, but they also make it easy to forget where you are. Pack the best map you can find, employ common sense and ask the way using open questions.
• Don’t drive at night. As with most areas of the developing world, taking to the road after dark transforms accident risk into a certainty.
• Take cash for fuel as credit cards are not generally accepted. Long range tanks remove a lot of stress, but it still makes sense to fill up whenever possible.
• Police checks and speeds traps are everywhere. Remain polite, pay the fine, move on.
• Journey times are usually based on the experience of local drivers, so make allowances. Driving too fast on gravel roads, particularly in vehicles with a high centre of gravity, courts disaster.