THE ROAD TO THE LAKE

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Kamuzu International Airport to Senga Bay

 

Back in America it seems every time we get into a car the trip we take is always meant to focus on reaching a particular destination, and while the destination is important it is also true the trip has its own special importance. For instance the traveler who passes a rose garden unseen and unknowingly misses a moment the destination perhaps will not offer. Or, the scene at the top of the mountain can ill afford to be missed while trying to get to the valley on the other side.

 

There is much to be said for enjoying the trip as well as the destination. After all don’t we spend much of our lives on the trip? I am determined on this day, even though my destination is beautiful Lake Malawi, to enjoy the trip along the way. I am starting my journey a dozen kilometers north of the capital city of Lilongwe and will begin at the intersection where the airport turn off gracefully touches highway M-1. I’m off to a rather late start so we had better get going. Many of our travel stories have pictures attached to them. This one does not. It leaves the journey to your imagination. I will try to describe it in enough detail that you will be able to “see” the scenes along the way.

 

The Danger Will Come at Nightfall

It is nearly three in the afternoon as I pull up to the airport turn off on M-1, and I really need to reach Senga Bay before nightfall. The roads are not safe at night as animals often wonder unhindered into the roadway. Trucks without both of their headlights, or vehicles broken down without markers make the highways unsafe, and of course there is the danger of breakdowns with no AAA towing service to call. And then there is the possibility of bandits. All of these give assurance to the need to reach Senga Bay before the sun leaves the eastern side of Africa alone with the night.

 

Long Shadows Crossing the Landscape

One look over my shoulder indicates the blazing afternoon African sun is already casting long shadows across the landscape to the east. M-1 is a pleasant experience that has shared the broadest portion of tarmac I will encounter during the 110-kilometer trip from my starting point to the lake. Two lanes include white lines along both sides of the berm-less road, and a white dotted line denoting the center lane. It projects itself all the way in both directions beyond my vision. M-1 is the best, as well as the most traveled road in the country. It extends from the southern tip of Malawi, in fact all of the way to Cape Town they say. It also touches the northern border then leaps across the miles on its trip all the way to Cairo… they say. Seven thousand miles in all… they say.

 

Seven Kilometers of Potholes

Where the airport turn off intersects M-1 and goes the short distance to the west I steer the Isuzu off to the east and wave goodbye to the ribbon of black tarmac heading south toward the capital or north toward Mzuzu. For the next seven kilometers I find myself bouncing along a bush road that is only a little wider than a dirt path – a road that is obviously nearly impassable when the rainy season sweeps in from the east. But for now, it is the dry season, winter to the Malawians, and there is not a rain cloud in the sky. The road is clear all the way.

 

Though I slow to 40 kilometers an hour on the dirt road and close all of the windows, I still find myself tasting the red, gritty, dust of the sub-Sahara. It seems to be spurting into the car through every conceivable crack, and it casts a red, dusty glaze over everything in sight. The bone jarring potholes strategically located all along the road seem large enough to swallow an ox-cart. They don’t make this portion of the trip any easier, and in fact add a great deal to the discomfort experienced by the dust. I maneuver back and forth between both sides of the road in an attempt to avoid the vast expanse of holes that threatens to engulf the road and everything on it, but I am unsuccessful almost every time in missing the potholes completely.

 

Unbelievable Views and Deep Valleys

From an altitude of 4,100 feet near the airport turn off I begin a gradual descent to around 800 feet in the valley floor, then up the long climb to crest the picturesque Dowa Mountains and their panoramic view of the horizon. At this point I will be on top of the mountains that mark the lower end of the Rift Valley and the view will be spectacular. How can anyone miss the trip in order to focus only on the destination?

 

As I continue along the way I glimpse the clusters of tiny villages scattered carelessly around the landscape on both sides of the road. I am in the depth of the valley, and I will again be at about this same altitude after I cross the mountains and wind my way down to about 900 feet above sea level as I near the lakeshore. That is still 80 kilometers away east just a little way beyond the dingy, crossroads trading community of Salima. With the change of altitude will come a change of temperature as the fireball hovering above me exerts a greater intensity of influence on the heavier air near the lake. Even with the late afternoon sun running away behind me I already find myself shedding the brown jacket that just a little while earlier felt comfortable. It is a prelude of what is to come on the other side of the mountain and the lower elevation.

 

A Man Disappears in the Dust

As I cross the valley floor I can see off to the left for at least 25 kilometers. My vision is unhindered and the view is magnificent. Almost everything carries various hues of brown. No crops are growing this time of year that would extend their bright green hues of prosperous growth. No wonder, there has not been a drop of rain in three months and a brown, suffocating canopy has extended over the entire landscape. A man on a bicycle in a brown suit and white shirt peddles past me heading toward the setting sun. I glance in the rear mirror but he quickly disappears in a cloud of red dust that is chasing my car along the road. Three small girls in tattered, dingy dresses stand beside the road and wave as I pass. Obviously they have come out from one of the three or four thatched huts nearby, but as I look back through the mirror they too disappear in that same cloud that enveloped the man in the brown suit a little earlier.

 

 

Suddenly I Reach the Tarmac Again

After several more waving children, and a couple of dozen more brown huts, I curve to the right, accelerate up a ridge, and intersect with the east-west tarmac road to Salima. It is not as wide as M-1, but it does offer a reprieve from the dust cloud that has been traveling the same seven-kilometer road through the valley that I have been on. Now I am free to happily leave it behind me, push the window button and flood the car with cool fresh air. As it rushes in from the outside it suddenly creates a second dust storm. This one comes from the glaze of dust that has settled over everything inside the car. I lick my lips and wipe at my glasses in a vain attempt to rid myself of the valley. I wonder to myself if all valleys taste like red dust?

 

The road from Lilongwe city to Salima is blacktop all the way, and there are relatively few potholes. I relax as I realize that I have just cut away nearly 20 kilometers from the trip by taking the meager 7 kilometer dust filled, pot hole experienced expedition across down the valley road. It seems a small price to pay to gain 8 or 10 minutes off of my trip to the lake.

 

Evil Controls the Night

On this new road the traffic is a bit heavy for my late afternoon trip, as it appears the whole countryside is trying to get home before nightfall settles in to take control of the villages. Night in the sub-Sahara is an unknown thing, and evil things happen in the darkness where only the distant, cold glare of the moon stands witness. I pass a few groups of school children lingering along their way from the primary schools to home. These schools dot the landscape of this impoverished country in spite of the poverty that exists here. Some of the children are in blue and white uniforms. These indicate their parochial affiliations, while others wear only the hand me down dresses, and stained jeans, that have been long forgotten by the children in the benevolent nations of the west.

 

These are the Unlucky Ones

I witness the village children as well. They are the ones in tattered clothes, who have no school fees, and are the ones who never go to school. There are many of them, and they stand near the edge of their mud-hut villages and watch the other children pass near the tarmac on their way homes from the big brick buildings of learning. As I continue past the children each cluster of these laughing, jumping children drop out of sight behind the dusty windows, then are captured for another slit second in one or both of the rear mirrors. I can’t help but wonder what will become of them, those vagabonds from the village farms, those children who will never go to school. With unemployment in the cities in above 50% what hope is there for them? And even for those who gain an education, what chance is there for them? I fear if I were to drive down this same dirt road in 50 years I would pass little old worn out men and women who never got more than a few kilometers away from the village of their birth, and who never knew there was anything beyond a mud-hut in a far away place. The future of the village seems bleak in its sameness. I sigh as I pass them.

 

 

Branches Warn of Danger

Rounding a curve in the road I begin to slow for the telltale sign of freshly cut tree branches lying directly in my lane. Up ahead, unseen from this distance but sure to appear soon, is some object directly in the road. Lorry, or galamoto, or accident I can’t tell yet what is ahead. I can’t see it, but I know it is there. I crest the hill with my foot precautious near the brake pedal. Then I see the giant lorry, loading with tobacco bales, lying helplessly and lonely directly in my path. I carefully swing to the right and into the oncoming lane. Just as I do I realize a second “dead truck” is sitting in the oncoming lane. It too is helpless to move. The driver is sitting near a tree eating his meal of nsima. I thank the tree branches for warning me, as I quickly maneuver between the giant lorries and back into the eastbound lane. Then I accelerate back up to a speed that should insure my arrival at the lake before dark.

 

They Disappear into the Sun

Four women pass me heading into the sun, each with a bucket on her head and two of them with babies fastened securely to their backs. All of them are wearing brightly colored chitinjis. A girl in a red dress flashes a smile, and a partial wave of her hand before the Isuzu disappears around another curve. Although I am now climbing higher into the Dowa Mountains the parade of humanity continues to pass on both sides of the road. They are seemingly going in every direction. By all appearances I am far out in the country many kilometers away from the cities, but in reality tiny villages and trading centers dot the brown, drab vegetation that disguises their presence with a sense of emptiness.

 

As I scan the vista around me I almost fail to see the goats that have crested from a slight depression near the road, and are now claiming the right-of-way directly in my path. I call their bluff, yet it is only with the incessant sound of the horn that the lead goat is convinced to exit my path. As I pass I look down beside me at the lead goat, an old grey with a long beard that denotes his dominance and perhaps his wisdom. My threat has worked, and the other three choose not to call my hand. The lead goat is quickly reflected in the mirror looking my way as if to say, “beat you didn’t I?” For a moment I consider honking a reply but I think better of it as I realize he probably does not understand Isuzu sound. Before I can consider the goats challenge to my manliness a rooster that has apparently watched the retreat of the goats half runs – half flies across both lanes in a successful show of his prowess. He is apparently showing off for all of the goats to see. I slow to see who else is worthy to take up the challenge, but none seem ready to come forward. My trek continues as I race against the sun.

 

A Trading Center Suddenly Sweeps into View

A few kilometers east of the “goat crossing” I round another curve and sweep abruptly into a tiny trading center that has failed to announce its presence back up the road in order for the unexpected traveler who crests the hill to make appropriate provisions to make a proper visit. A bus sits partially in my lane, (there is no place for him to stop, so he just stops in the roadway), and street vendors, true to their name, encircle it with their commodities held high for all

 

 

to see, or for those who wish to make a purchase to obtain something to take home to a pleased wife or excited children. Bananas, apples, live chickens, bread, biscuits, ground nuts, and hard boiled eggs with little packets of salts, as well as drinks appeal to the purchaser on board the bus who has a few Kwacha they wish to submit. Baskets are also for sale to anyone with too big a load to carry loose in their arms. The Isuzu inches past them, and it seems that traffic is brushing dangerously close. This fact seems to have no influence on those who are so desperate to make a final sale before the setting sun drives them back to their villages to count the few Kwacha they have been able to roust from the weary travelers.

 

Masked Men in Ancient Outfits with Machetes

The car accelerates again as the open road appears. Over the next hill come three gulies, each in the traditional, tribal dress, running along the highway in single file in near military procession. One has to wonder if they are racing to some mysterious, sacred place of meeting. They eye the vehicle as I race by. I don’t look back. There is something mysterious, ominous, and dangerous about masked men running along the road in ancient attire and machetes in their hands. The Isuzu seems to accelerate without my assistance.

 

A Giant Comes at Me From Down the Road

A tiny village comes into view, along with a broken church building, and a giant termite mound. It seems such a strange combination to punctuate the roadside scene. I cannot help but wonder if the preacher next Sunday will speak of the rich riding by in their red galamotos, looking the other way as the poor suffer silently in the tiny villages that are lost in time.

 

Suddenly a herd of cattle break my concentration as a small boy loses control of them, allowing the bull to move out into the roadway and straddle the centerline. He looks threateningly toward the oncoming, red intruder, and then stands his ground near the center of the road. His intimidating stare causes me to slow. The goats a little way back would have cheered with joy. I chose to pass him on the berm of the road. It is my choice you understand, not his. Before I can get past the giant animal closes the gap, and crosses directly into my lane. Apparently he has not read the animal signs that indicate cars and trucks have the privilege of right-of-way. Then suddenly he stops. I grab the advantage and sweep past him; thankful it is not two hours later and pitch black as we reach this moment of near contact.

 

A little farther along a giant impaca (cat) lies dead near a tree; apparently he was the victim of some careless hit and run away driver.

 

Reaching Salima Before Darkness

Ninety-eight kilometers into the trip and I pass the sign reading, “Salima City Limits”, although the roadside images remain the same for another three or four kilometers. Apparently some political entity sought to increase the tax base for Salima by annexing an additional half dozen huts into the corporate empire.

 

 

 

The road to Nkhotakota points its tarmac ribbon to the north as it signals my approach to the real outskirts of the trading center. A sparkling new Total petrol station and the smartly dressed attendants remind me change is coming ever so slowly to this forgotten land.

 

A Trading Center for Death

The intersection for the Balaka turn holds its rest houses, and coffin makers. Strange bedfellows (no pun intended) it would seem, but then I am reminded of the seriousness of the HIV/AIDS problem in this part of the world. What should be a center for commerce and trade is, in fact a magnet for the trade in alcohol, drugs, sex and death. This area is a virtual deathtrap for the unsuspecting visitor with loose morals. Many will continue to be seduced by its deadly charms.

 

Rail Reminders of Days Long Past

I cross near the main business district, a loud crowded mix of old world and new music, then over the rail lines that remind one of an earlier day. Nearby sits an ancient, deserted rail station and a group of abandoned, rusting rail cars. A tobacco lorry indicates some rail usage still exits, but there is little other evidence that a rail engine has traversed this stretch of track in a very long time. Leaving the trading center the road narrows and I swing more into a northerly direction. The road will soon end near the edge of the lake.

 

The Carvers Seek the Tourist

I slow for a group of bamboo stands that line the road on each side as the carvers and basket makers wait for the next Azungu who seeks to part with some of his valued western currency. Farther along another goat considers challenging the right of the Isuzu to proceed, then at the last minute he thinks better of his action. It is a wise decision to live another day.

 

Almost To The Lake

A narrow bridge comes up suddenly, and an oncoming car chooses to cede the right-of-way to my much bigger cousin. I wave and smile, and from inside the tiny car the black faces and white teeth behind the “Malawi” tinted windows flash back a warm greeting. Each of us continues in our own respective worlds. A big yellow concrete pillar indicates just seven more kilometers, and success will be reached. In a distant field smoke rises where an unknowing farmer is burning much of the future nutrients off of the soil in an attempt to clear the stubble from last seasons harvest.

 

Two kilometers, then one more to go, and I will be there. I slow for a number of people walking in the road near the upcoming village. A man staggers along the road near the centerline. When he awakens tomorrow morning, with a terrible headache, he will probably not remember the car that passed him with just inches to spare.

 

 

 

 

 

Hello Abambo. It is Good to See You Again

A turn to the right, then I move slowly down a winding dirt road through a run-down village. I stop at the steel gate waiting for someone to recognize I have arrived. A short blast from the horn alerts them, and a smiling watchman runs to open the lock and trip the latch. I pull into the Cool Runnings resort.

 

“Hello, abambo. It is good to see you again.”

 

“It is good to see you as well.”

 

I pull into the car park between two trees, and let the diesel idle for a couple of minutes. It has been 107 kilometers of excitement, intrigue and suspense. A few more seconds and I cut the engine, and exit the vehicle. I can hear the waves washing against the sand beach of Senga Bay, and I can already feel the coolness of the breeze coming in off the big lake. It will be cold tonight in the sub-Sahara, and the sun has no intention of remaining behind to experience it.

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