Monday, May 28, 2012

Things turn sour: Mount Mulanje and exiting Malawi

After around a week on Lake Malawi at a couple of different resorts we headed to Mount Mulanje to spend a few days hiking and climbing the mountain.

We went via Blantyre, Malawi’s other major city, with the intention of stocking up on a few key items and spending the night, leaving only a small trip of one hour to get to the mountain the following day.

Blantyre was a bit of a crazy city, although I suspect it will have nothing on some of the cities ahead of us. In Blantyre we did make one good find, Mandela CafĂ©, which had lovely salads and cakes as well as an art gallery next door. We stayed at a small guesthouse in Blantyre which was well priced and offered breakfast in the morning, useful in helping us to get away early the next day. Little did we know the trouble the guesthouse would cause us…….

Mandela Manager's House: Beautiful cafe and art gallery
The veranda lined by a pretty garden.....
.....and yummy chocolate cake with coffee
The road to Mount Mulanje was pretty uneventful, although at this point we did conclude that many Malawians can not ride their bicycles in a straight line, scary given the number of bikes on the road. We didn’t see many people on bikes in Zambia, but in Malawi they are everywhere. It makes sense really, but would help if they didn’t continue to veer into the middle of the road!

Hazard: Millions of bikes on roads in Malawi with many people who don't know
how to ride a bikes!
The road to Mount Mulanje
Our first point of call at Mount Mulanje was the Forestry Office; unlike for Kilimanjaro, limited information is available on climbing Mulanje, and there are no pre-organised tours, so you need to do this yourself at their local office.

Mount Mulanje entrance
The man at the Forestry Office was fairly helpful and set up a guided walk starting the following day. He was also able to provide details on a couple of options for overnight accommodation close by. We opted for the local church run lodge and campsite on the mountain, although we were a bit shocked at how expensive their chalets were; between $60-$75, steep given they were quiet with no other guests! The guy at the lodge didn't seem willing to negotiate on price, so we broke our rule of staying in a room where we had a single night only and opted to camp. This would turn out to be a HUGE mistake as we discovered later that evening. While setting up camp we had guys and children coming to us trying to sell “walking sticks”, asking for food, money, clothes and pens, basically whatever we would give them. I know some Malawians are struggling at the moment but it really was super annoying when they are able to walk freely into a paid campsite! And again, the “give me” culture that we had come to know well in Zambia continued.

Mount Mulanje: It was very difficult to get a clear photo of it as there was always
a haze
Tea plantations on the way up to the mountain
Then at 7pm things went drastically downhill as Mike starting vomiting constantly; I joined in the fun a few hours later, although not as bad. We worked out pretty quickly that we both had food poisoning from the guesthouse we had stayed at the previous night, more specifically a breakfast sausage. I had two bites and gave mine to Mike, who ate his and mine.

Camping in a roof tent does not go well when you encounter food poisoning and we both spent the night in the front seats of the car, making a dash to the bathroom or bush and desperately waiting for light so we could arrange an overpriced chalet up the hill.

Two days and two nights of sleep and no food (except crackers) at an overpriced chalet, more annoying guys at our door (even being in a chalet and sick didn’t keep them away- “Can I have a pen”- “No”, Can I have a shirt?”- “No”; “Can I have shoes?”- “No”) and we felt well enough to leave. And I should make a special mention to the pharmacy in Livingstone who sold us a whole lot of travel drugs before we left; thank you to “Health & Glow” or “217” as they are fondly referred to, for saving us!

Chaos in our room after a couple of days hauled up!
Need I say more? This is so typical!
So we didn’t get to climb the mountain, which I should add was amazingly beautiful, but at that point we didn’t have the energy for climbing it and were just ready to leave!

Pretty Mount Mulanje
We headed back up north, again via Blantyre for a few items and to eat our first food in just over two days. We decided that we would spend the night this time in Liwonde, as it was a bit further north and closer to the Mozambique border crossing, better for the following day. It was also a reasonably sized town with a National Park nearby, all the better for accommodation, or so we thought!

Upon arriving in Liwonde it was starting to get dark, so we felt a bit of pressure to find something fast. We had a few leads and felt pretty confident. However, what we didn’t know was that Liwonde is a meeting spot for EVERY aid agency in the area, and nearly every place we tried was either full or totally overpriced due to aid workshops and conferences. In the end we stayed at a place called Hippo Lodge, an amusing hotel because it was trying so hard on the surface to be beautiful but in actual fact was just ugly and pretty rubbish. It was also expensive and we paid the equivalent of AUD100 for a very underwhelming room. And so again we encountered the curse of aid!

Hippo Lodge at night
Did I mention how beautiful it is????
I'm worried that this photo makes our room look better than it was. Not worth $100!!
The next morning we hit the road early, ready to leave Malawi which we felt had turned its back on us, the fun definitely at an end! This feeling was not helped by the multiple police stop points, ALL of which asked us for a “gift”, and all of which were flatly rejected. Yes, it was time to go!

After narrowly missing a cow determined to play on the road we finally made it to the border town of Chiponde, already feeling pretty fed up only to be inundated with the usual riffraff as we parked the car to head into Immigration. These guys are always super annoying and I’m not sure if it’s because we’d already had enough but they definitely seemed worse than normal, blocking our doors, trying to peer into the car and just not understanding the meaning of “no”!

However it was our last encounter with a Malawian official that made us glad to be leaving most of all, as the Immigration Officer accused us of overstaying our visa of which we actually still had another 5 days left. The stamped date was written in reverse order (i.e. YY-MM-DD) and  he tried to tell us it had expired. We made the point that if he read the date literally it would mean we could stay to the year 2027, but humour was not something he understood. There was a bit of a stand-off, perhaps to see if he could get anything from us, but in the end we got through payment free and felt a tinge of happiness to be leaving Malawi after a rough 5 or so days.

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