Country : Malawi – Mozambique – Zimbabwe
Distance : 704km
Resisting my initial impulse to hurl my ‘alarming’ phone through the window, I resorted to the second option and turned the alarm off. Mindful of the planned distance, and potential border delays, we were all up, showered and packed by 5:45. Bags were lugged down stairs and cars loaded while we settled the bill and waited for our packed breakfast which the hotel had promised us. Eventually it arrived and we set off before dawn broke.
As it got lighter we noticed that there was a fair amount of cloud overhead which kept the day nice and cool. The road south runs down the valley through a densely populated area liberally scattered with villages – all perched right on the edge of the road – with the now ubiquitous bicycles weaving across the tarmac as they dodged pedestrians, psychotic chickens and suicidal goats.
The population density in the fertile Rift Valley is visibly higher than the highveld areas around Lilongwe. The villages all crowd the side of the major routes and the depletion of natural resources is clearly evident with most villages surrounded by land cleared of all trees save the boababs – and even these are often amputated for fuel. The (non baobab) wood is used to create charcoal which is bagged and sold on the side of the road (mostly to truckers).
As you move away from the lake dominated central valley and drop down towards the Mozambique border the vegetation starts to change, becoming drier and denser as the population pressure drops off. The cloud also grew denser as we closed in on the border but no rain fell despite the ominous darkness.
Before we knew it we had run up against our first border for the day. Weaving through the river of trucks stopped along both sides of the road, we eventually found the main building where we decamped from our vehicles and went in, passports, money and documents clutched in our hands. By now we had each collected a veritable library of official paperwork from the different countries we had transversed. Leaving a country is generally easy – provided you can find the paperwork they gave you on the way in several days earlier!
The Malawi side of the border took 15 minutes and we were on our way. The Mozambique side took a bit longer but with the help of a friendly border official we had all our forms filled, stamped and taxes paid in short order. I had not pre-paid for vehicle insurance in Mozambique and decided not to do so at the border, relying instead on using the documentation from my insurance company that stated I was covered for Mozambique.
A couple of kilometres from the border, I decided (knowing how the police officials in Mozambique can be picky about the insurance) that it would be better to turn back and purchase said insurance from one of the small agents at the border. Back on the road again, we ran into a police checkpoint half an hour later and what was the only thing he wanted to see – yup, insurance papers.
The tarred roads in Malawi were generally quite good (ok, we had stuck to main routes there). However, this changed within kilometres of entering Mozambique. The Tete “corridor” is a main transport route between Zimbabwe and Malawi and the large 18 wheelers that tear up and down have taken their toll on the road surface. Periods of good surface are suddenly scarred by gangs of potholes. This plays havoc with the driving rhythm when you have to dodge the holes appearing out of nowhere. Fortunately the road did improve after 30 or so kilometres.
Roughly halfway between the Malawi and Zimbabwe borders the road crosses the Zambezi river. As one approaches the river from the northern side through Matundo the bridge reveals itself in the distance. Completed in 1973, the kilometre long suspension bridge is vital to trade and transport in the area and costs a few meticas in toll fees to cross.
Fairly recent discoveries of huge coal deposits in the area has resulted on a modern day ‘coal’ rush with people from all walks of life, and from all corners of the world, pouring into the region. The old Tete is rapidly being upgraded as mining money pours in and the town is transformed from a truck stop to a mining metropolis dotted with piles of black rock.
A short stop in Tete for fuel was extended when Sharpie discovered he had signal and insisted on phoning his wench and babbling on like a lovelorn teenager embarking on his first relationship…
The road from Tete to the Zim border had a few potholes but was generally in better condition. The only thing worse than the trucks that barrel down the road at manic speeds are the buses that assume that all other traffic will make way for them. Sharpie had a close encounter with one such bus on a corner and we could see the air turn blue from 100m back as he swerved off the road to stop from becoming a bus hood ornament!
The bicycles here are fewer in number – I think its a case of self preservation…
Early afternoon and we finally came up to the Zimbabwe border post at Nyampanda. Another quick exit from Mozambique was followed by a slightly longer entry into Zimbabwe where we met our first immigration official with attitude on the trip. With a firm grip on my temper and a stoic refusal to react to the comments she was throwing to her fellow officials regarding us, we managed to navigate the border post without creating an international incident.
The original plan was to stay approx 30km from the border post at a campsite we had been told about. However, since we had arrived in Zim over 2 hours earlier than expected we decided to press on down to Nyanga where we would camp instead. Getting directions from a helpful character in the small town we headed off the tar and – for the first time in a week – back onto dirt.
The road runs along the Moz/Zim border as it pushes south towards Nyanga and had been graded recently. This made it relatively smooth but also very dusty. The quality of the road meant we were making excellent time and all was looking very good.
Which brings us to “Africa Travel Rule Number 2 : If the road is good, do not mention the fact as this will immediately change”.
So, at a stop before a bridge (see pic below) we all commented on how good the road was. Which promptly changed the minute we crossed the bridge!
Our average speed got progressively slower until we were only managing 20km/hr for long periods. The area we travelled through was very sparsely populated and we saw very few signs of habitation for kilometres at a time. Just when we were beginning to think that our road was going to become a dead end it slowly started to improve and we began to see more and more signs of civilisation until, finally, we were re-acquainted with a tar road once more as we came out at Elim Mission.
With dusk approaching fast, we ‘put foot’ down the excellent road and headed for Nyanga at speed. As the sun was setting we began the climb up towards the highlands that makes up the Nyanga mountains with the temperature dropping alarmingly as the elevation climbed. The temp went from 25C to 11C in half an hour as we went from valley to mountain top.
It was dark before we finally rounded a corner and came across Troutbeck. Pulling over to the side of the road for quick conference, we were all in agreement : with the temperature down to 9C, and it was only 7pm, we were all heavily predisposed to spending the night in the hotel rather than looking for a campsite. So in we went to be greeted by the warm foyer with a fire that never goes out (really – the fire has been kept going since the hotel was opened over 45 years ago) and – halleluiah – they had rooms for us!
We pulled our bags from the cars in double quick time, went to our rooms for a quick change and hit the bar for a couple of drinks before moving on to supper. After supper we went back to the bar to watch a bit of the Olympics before slipping off to bed after a long, hard but successful day.