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Beer and Biryani :: The Travelling Adventures of Matt & Donna  
Flowers found on the Shores of Lake Malawi - Cape Maclear
JUNE 11, 2007

Our Bus Ride From Hell

After the mission bus ride from Lusaka in Zambia to Lilongwe in Malawi, we were in the mood for a decent rest. Thankfully we secured a fantastic chalet at Mabuya Camp (formerly Kiboko Camp) in Lilongwe's old town. We missed most of the landscapes of Western Malawi on the bus ride in, thanks to our late arrival (3:30 am), so we took full advantage of our few days in the capital.

With little of real interest in Lilongwe we spent most of our time walking the streets of the old town, talking to the locals - most of whom who were trying to sell us cheap jewelry and carvings. Malawi is still a developing country and as the places we intend on visiting are well out of the way, we had to spend a little time planning - especially on the money front. As it turns out ATM's are only available in a couple of the main towns - none of which are on our route north.

Lilongwe is one of those nondescript African city's that are extremely useful for a couple of days rest and recuperation, a chance to jump on the internet and fire off a few emails, and take in some of the local delicacies (or indian food in our case). For us, Malawi's premier attraction is the Lake, which dominates the country from north to south. Dotted up the shore are resorts catering from the humble backpacker all the way through to your jet setting yuppies. Utilising the Ilala, preferred method of transport for all locals living off of the lake, we hope to travel from Cape Maclear and Monkey Bay in the very south, through the remote islands in the middle of the country, to Nkhata Bay in the north. From there we will traverse through the Nyika Plateau on our way to Tanzania and Eastern Africa.


Thanks to the helpful people down at Shire Bus Lines - Malawi's Government run bus company, we secured a bus ride south to the lake shore town of Monkey Bay. What should have been an easy two to three hour drive turned into an absolute nightmare - pushing Donna almost to the brink of her tolerance and onto the next flight back to Melbourne.

We arrived at the bus terminal at 8am as instructed, only to find out we had been told to go to the wrong terminal (by the Shire staff). After waiting around for nearly an hour we managed to get a bus ride to the other side of the old town to the correct bus terminal.

We sat for an eternity – quite patiently actually, although I regularly paced around the yard looking at the various busses as they came to see if they were going to Monkey Bay. In the past I would be frustrated if the Melbourne metro train was five minutes late, somehow after months in Africa you adjust to "African Time". By 2pm we were flicking through the guide book looking for an alternative destination for the days travels. As other buses came and went we threw around ideas for where we could sleep the night. Throughout the morning and into the afternoon we waited and it was not until 3pm that our bus finally arrived. Unfortunately for us it was no't the 'express' we had hoped for, nor the luxury coach we would have preferred, it was the ordinary bus.

We bought our tickets, our stop number 57 of 57 stops on the route, and climbed on board. As patient as Africans are in the waiting game, all courtesy goes out he window in a queuing situation. Donna has become quite adept at putting queue jumpers in their place, while I am happy to either use the elbow technique or to simply wait patiently. An hour later the bus was filled to capacity, the surplus of people left with no alternative but to stand in the isle. Our belongings were luckily placed in the space behind the driver, all other goods were packed on to the roof. The bus was old, it looked like it had fallen apart and had just been riveted back together, the seats were steel with thin plastic covers, the walls bare steel as was the floor. At least we had a seat and would be on the move again.

As the bus moved out of the yard we were actually feeling pretty good, however this did not last long as we drove back through Lilongwe to the bus stop we had started the day at that morning. After a 30 minute wait, from there we went on to the petrol station where to our amusement all the passengers slowly filed off of the bus to go to the toilet or light up a smoke. The driver climbed on as we were the only two passengers left on the bus, yet after a few minutes of small talk he got around to what he wanted to say – it was company policy that all passengers are off the bus while it is being gassed (in case there is a fire or something) – we got off.

After 15 minutes there was a mad scramble to get back on the bus – pushing and shoving we got back to our original seats. After the noise in the bus subsided, word was passed around that we would have to get off again and wait another 15 minutes. There was a shortage of fuel or some dispute over payment. Finally it was sorted and there was another mad scramble to get back on. Through all the pushing and shoving it seemed everyone made it back to the seats they were originally in – or standing as they were before – odd.

As the sun started to set on yet another day the bus pulled out After passing through a number of police checkpoints we were on the open road. Before long the bus was driving on headlights alone – they were very underpowered – I joked to myself that I should offer the driver my head torch so he could see where we were going – at least there were plenty of other cars and trucks on the road to light our way.

We had been told the drive east towards the lake could take anywhere from three to eight hours (in Africa it is hard to nail down time frames. Our final destination for the day was 20kms further around the shore to Cape Maclear, an hour in a Matola (pickup truck) and the last pickup truck from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear was at 9pm – we tentatively booked at a hostel called Fat Monkeys on the proviso that we may not make it.

On we went through the night, slowly dropping passengers off on the side of the road. Before long all the standing passengers had disembarked and the seats began to empty. The route to Monkey Bay is not a straight one, we went south to Balaka before turning north to Monkey bay – a very around about route but it is the only bus in this direction, the alternative was to take several mini busses leap frogging from town to town.

On arrival at Balaka at 10pm (our most southerly point), we were consigned to the fact that we would be sleeping in Monkey Bay that night. Silently, I hoped the journey would take all night so we could save on accommodation. When we first started this journey Donna would have panicked at the thought of arriving in a town without any accommodation booked. Nowadays very rarely do we book ahead - with transport the way it is who knows where we will end up on any given day.

At Balaka we dropped off most of the remaining passengers and started off on our northerly route. 15 minutes down the road we broke down. Our driver fancied himself as a bit of a bush mechanic, however after a short while the driver gave up trying to fix the problem and we were forced to crawl back to Balaka where we all disembarked for a 40 minute wait. There is something calming about sitting on the side of the road, pitch dark, the middle of nowhere. When you start to get agitated you simply have to look around at the other passengers who deal with this every day of their lives without complaining. The kids are amazing, young babies strapped to their mothers backs barely uttering a whimper.

The mechanic was awoken and after half an hour of small talk with the drivers, managed to temporarily fix the problem. Roads in africa vary greatly, from Lilongwe to Balaka they had been fairly busy and in good repair, from Balaka to Monkey bay it was deadly quiet and in appalling condition.

By this stage there were only about six passengers left on the bus, no one could sleep as we banged and bashed our way along the rough road. At one point we hit a bump so hard it knocked the leads off the battery plunging the whole bus into darkness including our meager headlights. The conductors shined a torch out of the window and we drove on to a spot safe to park. I then used my head torch to light up the battery bay so the driver could attempt to fix the problem.

20 minutes down the road it happened again. We stopped – fixed the problem and pushed on.

It was at this stage that I started to think getting off the bus would be a good idea - unfortunately it was now the middle of the night and we were miles from anywhere - to get off would be extremely problematic. Although it might have been a life saving decision... Donna was terrified, where as I could see the road ahead and brace myself before each pothole, Donna was riding blind. I think the sadistic grin on my face made her feel worse.

At one point we saw what looked like a railway head – the end of the road or so it seemed. In the very dim light our driver honked his horn and accelerated – did we panic or what – it turned out to be a small bridge and I swear that the bus left the ground as we flew across the small river. How we did not bounce off the edge we will ever know. By this stage what passengers left on the bus were clinging on for dear life.

As we bounced down the road the roof started working its way loose. The luggage on the roof constantly pounding up and down was finally having an impact. When the ceiling finally caved in and crashed to the floor of the bus – Donna says “uuum excuse me, I think the roof has collapsed”. A couple of the other passengers look up, the conductor turned around, then everyone started laughing. We stopped again, removed a seat cushion and used it to wedge the ceiling back on. We pushed on into the night.

At around 2:30am we pulled into a very dark and deserted Monkey Bay. Stop 57 on the “ordinary“ bus route.

As two of only three passengers and the only whites, our greeting party was a lone drunk – the conductor of the bus, not wanting to just leave us on the side of the road, asked him to find a taxi to take us to Venice Beach (which we were told was the only accommodation in Monkey Bay). The drunk ran off into the night full of gusto. 15 minutes later he re-appeared and had been unable to awaken any of the taxi drivers – he offered to walk us out to the lodge – it was in the next village – maybe 20-30 minutes through the scrub. We consulted with the bus driver who thought it wise we wait till morning.

As the bus would be parked there for the next few hours before it headed back to Lilongwe, they were happy for us to sleep in the bus till sunrise. Taking apart a few seats they fashioned the cushions into makeshift beds and we slept for a couple of hours – the conductor dropped off in about two seconds and started snoring very loudly. Lying there in the bus was a weird feeling - I managed to get a small amount of sleep, Donna lay there waiting patiently for the sun to rise.

Around 5am the driver and conductor awoke and started preparing the bus for morning route – we disembarked and sat on the steps of a shop front waiting for the first rays of light. The drunk from last night, his bottle of Malawi Gin now finished, returned and offered to walk us out to the village. A taxi (now up and about) would cost us 1500 Kwatcha which was clearly a rip off. We finally agreed to go with the drunk, and set off into the bush. Thoughts of muggings and the backpacker killings in Australia flood through the mind at times like this. With all your gear on you or in your pack you are extremely vulnerable. We were extremely relieved when we walked into the outskirts of the next village.

Our first sighting of Lake Malawi was breathtaking. By now it was 6am, nearly 24 hours since we had set out from Lilongwe. The sun was rising over the lake, in the morning light an amazing array of colours lit up the water. It was truly spectacular. Fisherman were returning from their morning outings, mothers washed their children in the gentle breaking waves on the shore. We do not overly enjoy mission the bus rides from hell, but when they provide us with moments like this it makes it all worthwhile.

Sunrise over Lake Malawi - Monkey BaySunrise over Lake Malawi - Monkey Bay

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Dude, I think you need to change the title of your site to "living the nightmare!". Glad to hear you are still alive... from the comfort of my couch! Peace.

Al - July 02, 2007

yes! it s worth the hellish bus ride. just look at that sun rise... a moment when you appreciate god for making the folly of creation.

Kannan - July 01, 2007

What a crazy but wonderful and thrilling adventure you are experiencing and in such a positive and accepting way. This journey will truly enrich your lives and remain with you forever. A tasty menu for your future story telling and reminiscing. Cheers----go for it.

Thomo Snr - June 27, 2007


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