Malawi in a Mini: Joburg to Lake Malawi

Posted on 20 October 2011

‘Welcome to the warm heart of Africa’. These were the first words we heard upon entering Malawi through the border with Mozambique. To be fair, they were issued by a tout who wanted to guide us through the border process for a small fee of R400, though he was one of the friendliest and most chilled touts we’ve ever come across in our travels across Africa.

Getaway photojournalist Lisa Johnston and I were three days in to a two-week road trip to Malawi from Joburg in a Mini Countryman to write a story for the February issue of Getaway. Not your usual Africa overlanding vehicle, the bright blue Mini with its zooty racing stripes had garnered us stares and admiration on our 1800-kilometre trek up to Africa’s warm heart.


Day one – Joburg to Great Zimbabwe

The first leg of our journey saw us beat the Joburg-Pretoria traffic at 5am on the N1, relishing in that delicious feeling of escaping the crappiness of the city for the open road. We were anxious about the petrol situation in Malawi, so we stopped in Louis Trichart to buy some super sized jerry cans as well as a hydraulic pump (not too sure what it is, but Lisa said we needed it and she seems to know about changing tyres and stuff).

I’m strangely enthusiastic about border crossings and always get excited about the prospect of passport stamps, so arriving at the Beit Bridge border was the first highlight of my trip. We chatted with the South African border police, who were more interested in checking out our speaker system (which they pronounced excellent) and flirting with us over our fabulous car, than inspecting our vehicle for drugs, illegal immigrants or vacuum bags of meat. The Zimbabweans were less helpful on the other side, and we had a confusing, sweaty hour spent shuffling between counters, never sure of what we were actually doing.

Across the border, we drove through countryside as dry as a overbleached blonde’s hair, along roads lined with leafless baobabs and endless streams of neatly-dressed school children. Our first pitstop was Great Zimbabwe Hotel, a charming spot of lovely staff and manicured lawns, a kilometre or so from the Great Zimbabwe ruins, where we revived with cold Bollingers, pap ‘n spinach, and warm baths.

Day two – Great Zimbabwe to not-great Tete

The next day was a long one again (made even longer by the fact that we couldn’t find anywhere to get coffee, including in Harare) – a long haul across Zimbabwe, across the border, and into Tete in Mozambique.

Tete is probably one of the worst places I’ve ever been to (keeping in mind that I’ve done a decent amount of travelling, so have been to my fair share of pretty crap towns). It’s a sprawl covered in dust with nothing going for it other than its big bridge over the Zambezi. We arrived to 43-degree heat, which made the whole place seem like an approximation of hell (though with better beer). To make things worse, Lisa was suffering from an intense migraine. Instead of driving around trying to find a place to stay, we went on a friend’s recommendation and got a room at Sundowner, which is run by meaty-looking hardened South Africans. To say it was a dump would be a tad harsh, but it wasn’t exactly the One and Only. We retired to our dark and flea-infested room, turned on our matchbox-sized air conditioning unit, and pretended we were somewhere else.

Eager to get Tete behind us forever, we did another dawn awakening and watched the red sun rise over smog and trucks as we drove over the Zambezi. Encountering the first (and last) pot holes of the trip, just outside of Tete, we had a few nervous moments doing a sort of dodgems act, trying to avoid both road crevices and maniacal oncoming trucks.

Day three – Entering the warm heart

It was a relief to get out of Mozambique and into Malawi (Mozambican police make us both very nervous, although we had no reason to be – they were all gentlemanly and courteous). Our initial entry to Malawi was rather strange – you exit Mozambique, and drive through the border gate, finding no entry point into Malawi on the other side. We continued driving, thinking we would come across immigration eventually, only to panic about potentially having entered the country illegally. We turned back and drove to the gate, but were turned back by bemused sellers-of-SIM-cards: the immigration office was seven kilometers away.

John, our friendly “˜Warm heart of Africa’ tout, helped us through what would have been a completely bewildering immigration process. Our first hour in Malawi confirmed our pre-conceived ideas of the country as populated by some of the friendliest people on the planet. Even the guy hanging out outside customs wearing a t-shirt proclaiming God to be “˜ongelooflik’, who held forth on the topic of why God is, actually ongelooflik, was one of the friendliest religious crazies I’ve ever met. On pulling up to our first road block, a kilometre or so away from the border, we were greeted by a stern-looking policeman who’s first words to us were “˜I love you’. Seriously.

We stopped once, to make avo and Babybel cheese Provita sarmies, which we shared with an enthusiastic farmer on the side of the road. It wasn’t long (in our renewed time scale, formed from days of driving thousands of kilometres) before we arrived in Senga Bay, our first lakeshore stop.our first stop on the lake. Though it was a fairly easy three days’ drive, we were overjoyed at being able to stay in one place for two days and chill out.


The stats

Day one

Johannesburg to Great Zimbabwe
Distance: 822km
Time: This took us the entire day (05.30 to 18.30) because we stopped off in Louse Trichart to buy supplies.
Accommodation: We stayed at the lovely Great Zimbabwe Hotel ($100 for a double room)
Sustenance: My mum packed us Woolies’ egg mayo sandwiches and berry smoothies, as well as loads of other lovely padkos (thanks Mum). At Great Zim we tucked into a buffet of sadza (pap), spinach, and salad.
Soundtrack: Nouvelle Vague, Foals, Nick Cave

Day two

Great Zimbabwe to Tete, Mozambique
Distance: 660 km
Time: 10 hours
Accommodation: Sundowner, Tete
Sustenance: Risotto-flavoured rice crackers, Jungle Oats cranberry bars, apples
Soundtrack: Juno soundtrack, White Stripes

Day three

Tete to Senga Bay, Malawi
Distance: 410 km
Time: Seven hours
Accommodation: Cool Runnings in Senga Bay
Sustenance: Avocado and Babybel cheese on Provitas; Jungle Oats cranberry breakfast bars; toasted cheese sarmies on arrival at Cool Runnings
Soundtrack: Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix


For more photos from my trip, check out my Facebook album.

Malawi in a Mini: the blogs

For part two of our Malawi in a Mini trip (Road tripping around Lake Malawi) click here

For part three of Malawi in a Mini (Island hopping on Domwe and Mumbo) click here

For part four of Malawi in a Mini (the Lake of Stars festival) click here

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