Public transport horror in Malawi

Posted by Cycle Africa on 30 January 2012

We were in Chitipa town in the northwest of Malawi, and planned to cross over the border towards Zambia the next morning.  Right from the start of the tour we knew that we would probably have to complete it in different stages.  Hendrik is a commercial diver and works on a contract basis, should he be assigned to a job, we would have to halt the tour temporarily.

We were going to cycle to the southernmost end of Lake Tanganyika to catch a ferry towards Tanzania.  There was a power shutdown in town during the day, but the power was switched on early in the evening.  We rushed to the internet café to check emails.  Hendrik received notification that his diving expertise would soon be required.  That meant that we had to get back to South Africa as soon as possible.  Early the next morning Hendrik went into town to find a lift.  A pick-up truck was going to Karonga but the driver said he would have to wait for more passengers to join before he could leave.

The bicycles were loaded one on top of each other at the back of the truck – Ouch!  We sat on one kilogram maize meal bags together with about eight other people.  The ride was not too bad, we thought.  But the picture soon changed.

Every few kilometres, the truck stopped to pick up more people, their luggage, and even a few chickens.   Eventually the truck was fully loaded.  One guy was standing on Hendrik’s foot with his full weight but Hendrik was unable to change position due to the lack of space in the truck.  We were pushed to the front, kneed from behind, elbowed from the sides, squashed from all around.  Someone’s bum was in front of Riki’s face.  Her head bumped against another head every time the truck drove through a pot hole.

All along the road the driver stopped to pick up more people.  Before we realised what was happening, layers of luggage were packed right on top of our bicycles and people were sitting on top of that!  By now the truck was so fully loaded that it was almost ‘overflowing’ with goods and people.  Some men were standing on the tips of their toes on the side of the truck, holding onto the people inside.  The road surface was slippery and muddy, the hills steep.  We were very worried about everyone’s safety.  Still the driver stopped to pick up more people.  Eventually the locals on the truck started to shout:  ‘Maximo!, maximo!’ indicating that there was no space left at all.  Yet, some hitch hikers simply threw their luggage onto the truck and jumped on into the crowd.  It was the longest ride of our lives…

Close to town, the truck stopped at a boom gate.  Officials dressed in khaki uniform were sitting under a tree but did not even look up.  We waited…  the sun baked hot on our backs, still the officials did not look up. ‘What was going on?’ we thought.  The truck driver got out and walked over to them with a swing in his gait.  Very nonchalantly he put a bribe onto the table before turning around and walked back to the truck.  The boom gate was opened.  The officials still did not look up.  The gate guard informed the driver to take a back road to the town centre: the reason for that we can only guess.  After three and a half hours of agony the truck finally arrived in town and everyone got off.  We felt like caged birds being released into the vivid sky.  With all due respect to our GT Avalanche bicycles – they survived the ordeal!

In town the streets were filled with people walking to and fro.  We felt a bit lost-we knew we had to find a lift to Mzuzu, but were still shaken from the truck ride.

A taxi driver was willing to give us a lift.  Hendrik made double sure how many passengers he intended to transport.  His answer was 12.  We counted the seats – twelve in total.  The bicycles were taken apart and loaded in the boot but there was not enough space.  Riki and a few other passengers were already sitting inside.  The taxi driver walked around and asked them all to stand up.  Next moment he pushed all the seats forward to make more space in the boot.  Only then did Riki realise that all the passenger seats were fixed to a single loose iron frame which was not secured to the floor of the taxi by any means!

We arrived at Mzuzu bus station just before dusk.  We gathered our stuff in haste and ran to the bus leaving for Lilongwe that evening.  There was a bathroom at the bus station which we could make use of – what a relief!

The windows of the fully loaded bus were greasy from old finger prints, but at least we could sit down.  Many other people had to stand in the path between the rows of seats for the entire journey.  We arrived at Lilongwe bus station at 02h30 the next morning and were allowed to sleep in until 05h00.  Hendrik assembled the bicycles.  A taxi driver told us there was a bus leaving for Johannesburg at 6h00 from another pick up point.  We panicked.  Despite semi-flat tyres we peddled with all our might to get there in time only to discover that there was no bus.  Thankfully, Translux did travel to SA that day, but from another pick up point.  We booked tickets just in time.  The driver kindly picked us up from where we were.  Hungry, thirsty, tired, dirty and sweaty we climbed onto the bus, feeling very relieved.  It was the morning of 24th December.

One of the passengers said a prayer for a safe journey.  It turned out to be a short sermon.  Gospel videos played over the TV screen and the atmosphere in the bus was joyously peaceful.  (The air conditioning worked!)  Everyone was looking forward to meeting their loved ones soon.

At the border between Malawi and Mozambique we were standing in the queue waiting for our passports to be stamped.  Next thing the bus left without us.  Hendrik ran outside, waved his arms vehemently and shouted at the top of his voice.  After a few hundred yards the bus pulled off the road.  The bus drivers were very embarrassed when they realised they drove off without the only two Mzungu’s on the bus-they apologized sincerely!

In the afternoon the air brakes of the bus failed.  We continued at a much reduced speed. At the Mozambique-Zimbabwean border, Hendrik gave the drivers a hand to fix the problem.  They had no tools so he used his Leatherman multi-tool and was confident that the problem could be fixed.  Unfortunately a truck driver, who walked over to give hand, bent the very washer that was supposed to seal the pipe.    Hope faded to be home by Christmas.  Just then a half-full Translux bus arrived at the border and we were all transferred to it and the journey continued.

At 14h00 on Christmas day, the driver dropped us next to the N1 at a toll gate close to Potgietersrus.  Our brothers-in-law drove through to pick us up but waited for us at a different toll gate.  After some confusion and a few phone calls, they figured out where we were and picked us up.   After 56 hours of travelling we were very happy to see our family on home ground.  Back in civilization, we washed our hands, marvelled at the wonder of a clean toilet (with a seat), brushed our teeth, and enjoyed a hot bath.  We haven’t stopped eating ever since.  God willingly we will continue our journey in a few months’ time.

We learned a few lessons on tour and would like to share them with you:

  • It is a God given commandment to rule the earth, not an option
  • A few people with good leadership skills can make a bigger difference in conservation than many people without it
  • No matter how tough the road, the going will get easier somewhere ahead of you.  (Sometimes the road gets worse before it gets better, but it WILL get better)
  • Dream big – without boundaries
  • Do not let fear rule your life – assess each situation objectively
  • Do not stare into a brick wall when things are not a 100% perfect.  Enjoy life despite its difficulties
  • Be thankful for the abundance you have
  • It is possible to live out of what nature provides even if you have very little cash at hand
  • Conservation projects founded out of own initiative are often more successful than freely sponsored projects


PS:  Hendrik already put on 14 kg of weight in the month back home in SA.

Read more about our epic adventure at                                                                                                                                     

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