Thumper…

September 15, 2013

A Day of Travelling

Origin: Main Bus Station, Lilongwe, Malawi
Destination: Nkhata Bay, Malawi
Shortest Distance via inland route (according to google): 371km
Estimated Time (according to google): 4hrs, 54mins
Transport: AXA Bus Company, Punctual, Reliable, Friendly!

Ultimately, we were heading for Likoma Island, in Lake Malawi, situated in the north of Malawi. The regular ferry service, the Ilala, that ran the length of the lake had been out of action for at least 12 months and nobody was sure when (or if) it would be back in action. That meant to get to Likoma Island, our best chance was going via a boat leaving from Nhkata Bay. After doing our research about the trip to Nkhata Bay over the last day or two, we’d got all the information we were going to get: The bus leaves around 7am, but you need to get there about 6:30am because you can’t pre-purchase your tickets.

Bus Station at Lilongwe

Bus Station at Lilongwe

We arrived at 6:30am: we definitely wanted to be on that bus, preferably with a seat! The price for the bus was quite reasonable (for us as tourists, for the Malawians, it is an expensive trip), around 1000-1300MKW (can’t remember exactly), which translates to about $3-4AUD. So we picked our seats. Not as difficult as it sounds – we just wanted some seats that looked like they were in one piece… Now I know what Africa is like, so when the 7am departure time came and went, I wasn’t too worried – what I did wonder was why we had to get there so early given that there weren’t too many on it. But anyway, the bus slowly filled up, all seats now taken, and a few standing. A few more people wandered on, we had few “entertainers” come on, entertain us with some singing and dancing, then depart. Thought I was going to get bashed or something after sneakily videoing one of them, but obviously not as sneakily as I thought. He wanted to see it, but I honestly had no idea how to play it back! Time ticked on. Chooks came on, bags, packages, you name it. But still we sat there. After about 2 hours of sitting on the bus, somebody announced that the bus would not be leaving til there was no standing room left at all. Finally, after sitting there for nearly 3 hours, we took off. JOY JOY JOY! Except it was short lived. We drove about 400m before pulling into a petrol station and spending another 15 minutes sitting around.

Early risers on the bus!

Early risers on the bus!

Anyway, finally we got under way and continued for quite a while til we arrived at our first police check – this one with a conveniently located market right alongside. No idea what the police were looking for, but everybody had to get off the bus. Grabbed some deep fried chips (thought they were potato, but maybe they were cassava, who knows) and roasted peanuts, they were both pretty good and were served up in one of the numerous blue plastic bags with a toothpick. Malawi seems to have a blue plastic bag problem, these little bags litter the countryside everywhere. The other girls in our group managed to get the keys to the police toilet, a good move for them, as it proved to be the only toilet stop of the day… I’ll repeat that so you get it: Yes, these buses don’t do toilet stops. Or food stops (poking food through the window on sticks doesn’t count!). Or any other stops except to set down and pick up passengers and police check stops! So, if you’re travelling, don’t eat a lot and don’t drink a lot either. So it’s a good idea to stock up on food before you go and if you happen to have a chance to do either the food or toilet stop at a police check – you better take it!

Police Check

Police Check

Two things I learnt at these police stops: 1. Not everybody got off – so soon enough I didn’t bother either. 2. There’s no courtesy getting back on – if you’re standing you don’t worry about letting those who are sitting back on first – you just get back on and then let them climb over you – despite that, everyone makes it back to their original spots. (Wasn’t too sympathetic toward the driver who was complaining that he was running late and the people were taking too long to get back on!)

Fried chips!

Fried chips!

We took the “coastal” route (ie via the lake) – which is much more scenic than the inland route I’m told, but also a bit longer. Our first major stop was Salima, where you could buy water, doughnuts, chips, drinks and plenty of other things, through the windows. Not sure how, but still more people got on – definitely more on than off, but yet somehow everyone fitted. Of course I should’ve remembered rule number 1 of African transport – there’s always room for one more!

Still room for more!

Still room for more!

We got to Nhkata Bay around about 6:30pm that night. That was 12 hours on the bus, from the time we got to the bus station, til the time we arrived. In the chaos that surrounds a bus (or boat) arrival in Africa, and the even greater problem of trying to find someone trustworthy amongst those hassling “white people” for their business, we grabbed a taxi to our accommodation, Butterfly Space. Glad we did, I’m pretty sure we’d never have found it in the dark. Owner was really helpful, we had a communal meal that night, but no warm shower for us that night as the hot water wasn’t turned on and the toilets were, umm, not made for small people like me.

I guess I emphasize the differences in transport standards between here and Malawi a little bit tongue in check, but I do it more so to describe to others who haven’t been what it’s like. Not everybody’s been to Africa and not everybody understands the potential difficulties of travelling there. But despite the great differences, the unreliability, the guaranteed delays, that to many could be nusiances, even holiday “breakers”, I enjoy the experience. If you want a “genuine” local experience and to mix with the locals, to live how they live, then there’s nothing better than public transport to demonstrate that.

Kids on the bus

Kids on the bus

So…

Origin: Main Bus Station, Lilongwe, Malawi
Destination: Nkhata Bay, Malawi
Distance (Coastal Route) (according to google): 395km
Estimated Time (according to google): 5hrs, 16mins
Actual Time: Approximately 9 hours travelling time, 3 hours sitting around on the bus for a total of 12 hours on the bus.
Transport: AXA Bus Company, Punctual – err no, Reliable – we didn’t break down, Friendly – we did get one update on why we didn’t leave on time!

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1 Comment »

  1. interesting time you had

    Comment by Sang N. — September 17, 2013 @ 12:32 am | Reply


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