DAY 18 - Karonga, Malawi to Mpulungu, Zambia
Brandon and I knew we only had 24 hours to get from Karonga to Mpulungu if we were to make the ferry, so we were up early and at the matola stop on the western edge of Karonga by around 7am. There was a ute waiting when we arrived (which wasn’t too full) and at first we thought we lucked out. However, the driver was determined not to go anywhere until every square inch of space had been utilised. So we didn’t end up leaving until 9am and when we did we were joined by approximately 25 locals and their luggage. We were all squeezed in like sardines as we headed down the dusty road to Chitipa. It was slow going, taking us over 4 hours to get the 100km to our first destination. On the way Brandon and I were puzzled to see Chinese people taking rock samples and surveying the road – as it turns out, a paved road is being constructed between Karonga and Chitipa by the Chinese and is scheduled to be completed sometime this year.
It was already 1pm by the time we reached Chitipa, so Brandon and I were as keen as possible to push on across the border. We asked around town if there were any more trucks leaving that day but they had all apparently left in the morning. However, thanks to some help from a couple of kind locals we were eventually able to arrange for a bloke with a ute to take us the not inconsiderable distance (around 95km) to Nakonde, the nearest town on the other side of the border in Zambia.
The ride from Chitipa to Nakonde was in total contradiction to the first leg of our journey. First of all, it was relatively expensive (about $20 each as opposed to $2 per person for the first leg). Second, it wasn’t crowded at all as Brandon and I were the only 2 people in the tray of the ute. Thirdly, it was fast! The driver covered the 95km (over rough gravelly/dirt roads) in under 2 hours. At times we were taking bumps easily in excess of 80km/h. So fast that my arse was getting bounced off the bottom of the tray and I had to hold on to the side just to keep myself from being thrown out. Nonetheless, we made it to Nakonde safe and sound.
The only hiccup on this leg of the trip came at the Malawian border. When crossing into Malawi from Zambia (on my way to Lilongwe from Lusaka) I had (stupidly) told the immigration officer that I only intended to stay in Malawi for about 10 days. Australians don’t need a visa to travel to Malawi and can stay up to 90 days without an issue but the first immigration officer had obviously put something down in my passport when he stamped it that said I was only allowed to stay in the country for 10 days. I didn't think it would matter that I ended up staying an extra day but the Malawian immigration officer at this border was now making a big deal out of the fact that I had been in the country for 11 days.
A Mexican standoff ensued with him trying to convince me that this was a very serious offence (most likely in the hope of me offering to pay an ‘on the spot fine’) and me refusing to play along with his game. The atmosphere in his office was very tense and as we talked back and forth there were numerous long, awkward pauses as we tried to size each other up. In the end, I was able to get stamped out of the country (without paying anything) by playing up to his vanity and national pride. I suggested that a man of such importance and authority is no doubt endowed with a certain amount of discretion and that this was a perfect example of a situation where he could use that discretion. I also told him that up until now I had had nothing but extremely positive experiences of Malawi and that it would be very unfortunate to leave his beautiful country with a bitter taste in my mouth because of an unfortunate misunderstanding. From memory, I think I even told him that if he would let me pass I would go home and tell people how generous and kind the Malawian people are and that they should all go visit! Whatever I said, it worked and I was finally able to be stamped out of the country.
Due to the delay at the border it was dusk by the time we arrived in Nakonde, Zambia. Luckily, the Zambian immigration office was still open and Brandon and I were able to get our Zambian stamps - we had only made it by about half and hour, any later and we would have had to wait until the morning! Completely exhausted from what had already been a long day of travel, Brandon and I started asking around for transport to Mpulungu. Of course, we were too late and there were no more minibuses running and the only other possible means of transport was another matola. What is more, all the utes had already left for the day and the only things available were great big, overloaded flat-bed trucks where we would be stuck sitting on top of the cargo, close to 5-6m off the ground. It was now 7pm and by the best estimate it would take at least 8hours to make it to Mpulungu. That meant, we couldn’t afford to wait until morning because if we did we would miss the ferry and there was no way we were going to let that happen.
Brandon and I finally boarded one of the huge, lumbering, overloaded trucks at around 8pm. By this time it was well and truly dark except for an almost full moon that was rising slowly. With nothing more to secure us than our grip on a frayed rope that was holding down the cargo beneath us, Brandon and I crossed our fingers as the truck lurched forward. With a sway, a bump and a grind of gears we were on our way and there was no looking back now. I was filled with a mix of excitement and fear… what was I doing? How did I get myself in this position? Was this really worth it just to catch a ferry? My fear seemed well deserved as we drove past an overturned container truck which had veered too close to the edge of the drainage dip and fallen on its side. If a huge truck like that could topple, what chance did we have!
We had barely left Nakonde when all of a sudden the conductor started motioning for us all to dismount. Evidently, we had come across a government checkpoint that had been set up to prevent this very kind of transport! We all had to sneak through a field which ran parallel to the road to get around the checkpoint. I managed to stay close behind the conductor while the others dispersed a little so as to make it harder for the police to see us. The conductor and I rejoined the highway a few hundred meters past the checkpoint and sat there sipping on cheap Malawian gin till the others joined us and the truck finally came and picked us up.
When we remounted I found a really comfortable position wedged in between the cargo and my compatriots. Zipping up my jacket against the cold, the first 5 hours of the journey atop the truck passed relatively peacefully. I was rather warm, being protected from the wind by a fellow traveler and I felt quite safe given that my centre of balance (ie. my arse) was well away from the edge. In fact, on a couple of occasions I even felt myself drifting off to sleep. However, all this comfort was shattered around 1am.
Boxes and bags had been periodically falling off the back of the truck for the last couple of hours. Each time this occurred, it would solicit a round of yelps from us on the back to the driver up front who would then stop while one of his human cargo would jump down and retrieve the offending item. Apparently, this happened once too often and the driver decided that some repacking was in order. We all had to get off while the cargo was reorganized and properly secured this time and the tarp was lashed back over it. This whole exercise took almost an hour and (in addition to the unnecessary delay), had the result of destroying the nook I had established for myself. When I remounted, I found myself stuck perilously close to the edge with not even so much as the frayed rope to hold onto. As the truck entered a particularly rough patch of road, for the first time I found myself genuinely fearing for my life. After all, I was suspended approximately 5-6m above the (moving) ground on a truck which was intermittently pitching from side to side at angles in excess of 30 degrees!
There was no apparent remedy for this predicament other than to move because there was no way I would get through the night without falling. So, with the truck still in motion (and me looking like some stuntman from a low budget action movie) I made my way over, across and around the 20 or so people on top of the truck until I was on the roof of the cabin. Unfortunately, someone was already lying face down on the cabin taking up most of the room and there was a suitcase right underneath me so the only sustainable position I could find was for me to sit with my arse on the cabin roof, facing backwards with a blokes legs either side of me as I straddled a suitcase. At the time, I had no idea I would be stuck in this position for the next 7 hours!
What this position lacked in comfort (facing backwards, open to the elements, legs stuck apart) it made up for in security (seated centrally, able to keep my balance by way of applying pressure to one of my legs as necessary to counteract the pitching of the truck). However, I had nothing to hold onto and I soon realised that if I wasn’t careful it was still very possible to fall. I could only maintain my balance as long as I continued to resist the pitch of the truck with my legs. Given the nature of the road (which was even worse than Brandon and I had anticipated because of recent heavy rain), rest of any kind was out of the question but as the hours of the night ticked slowly by, I found myself growing wearier and wearier. By 4am I was having full blown microsleeps and was seriously worried that I would fall asleep and wake up (if at all) on the side of the road.
Looking for something to entertain me and help keep me awake, I dug around in my day pack until came upon a packet of vanilla cream biscuits which I had bought a couple of days earlier. This discovery reminded me of my hunger, Brandon and I hadn’t eaten anything all day save for a couple of bananas we bought on the side of the road somewhere between Karonga and Chitipa. I ate two of the biscuits and screwed my face up in response to their sweetness. These things were pure sugar. So sweet in fact that eating them was about as pleasant as biting into a slice of lemon. However, they filled my shrunken stomach and gave me a noticeable burst of energy. I was suddenly wide awake, no longer fighting bouts of microsleeps. The energy kick lasted a good 30mins before I felt the drowsiness return. All it took though was another biscuit and I was wide awake again. I ended up spending the next 3-4 hours chomping on sickly sweet vanilla cream biscuits every half an hour just to keep me awake and alert. I know it sounds dramatic but I had barely slept or eaten in 48 hours and these biscuits were literally preventing me from falling asleep, slipping off the truck and potentially dying.
Within a few hours my biscuit supply was dwindling but luckily by this time dawn was beginning to break and with the darkness of the night, so went my fatigue. The sunrise that morning was easily the most beautiful I had ever experienced. The red orange glow of that big ball of fire in the sky as it slowly crept above the horizon. The way it reflected its light off the curvature of the atmosphere so that as it rose, the clouds shone with every colour of the spectrum… from red to orange, to violet, to indigo and even blue.
This peaceful, beautiful setting was only disturbed momentarily when we hit the biggest, deepest pot hole I have ever seen – only I didn’t see it, I just felt it. This water filled pot hole was so deep that when the truck hit it, it pitched to its left so steeply that I am sure we passed 45 degrees. Moreover, I am positive it was only forward momentum that kept us from going all the way over. Brandon and I both looked at each other with faces that reflected both our shear terror and disbelief that the truck was able to right itself.
The final hour of this epic journey of ours was spent in bright, warm sunshine which reflected against my back and warmed my bones after the chilly night exposed to the elements. Light also revealed the faces of our fellow travelers – local Zambians who told us that they admired us for embracing their mode of transport. I had a particularly interesting conversation with an intelligent, good natured man named Arnold. Arnold had 3 kids and was 30 years old, although he had never had a proper job and was only just finishing his last year of high school. He asked questions about life in Australia and gave particularly enlightening answers to my questions about Zambia and Africa in general. Especially interesting were his comments about AIDS and the UN. In his opinion, all that the UN is concerned about in Zambia is AIDS and helping people with AIDS. He claimed that the administration of anti-retroviral drugs is actually making the AIDS problem in Zambia worse because infected people were now living longer and therefore had more of an opportunity to infect others. His attitude may have been a little Machiavellian, but it was certainly an interesting perspective.
We finally arrived in Mpulungu at around 9am, bringing to an end our epic 26 hour journey from Karonga. Can you travel from Karonga – Mpulungu overland using only public transport in one day? Of course you can… but you won't enjoy it.