When people say don't go out at night on foot in Malawi, especially if you're alone, foreign, and female, listen to them.
Last Saturday I decided to take a day trip to hike around the Zomba Plateau. However unlike all the other times I've traveled around Malawi (partially due to not being very organized) I decided to go solo and the local way - by moving death trap minibus.
I would guess minibus is the most common form of transportation; essentially it is a stripped down van that will be cramped full of as many people as possible. I have been on a minibus carrying 22 people. You feel every bump in the road and every movement your neighbor makes. Minibuses will leave from their stops when the bus is full, and people will get off and on along the way. You can ask the minibus to stop at a specific place...if you know what you're actually doing and if its actually going in that direction.
This is what a minibus looks like
This is from the back of a minibus
Getting to Zomba
I left for the minibus stop at 7:45 am, by 8 am I was off to Limbe from Blantyre which cost 150 MWK / 0.41 CAD. Once at Limbe the minibus driver directed me the next bus that would take me to Zomba, which cost 1100 MWK / 2.97 CAD. I later learned that they're not allowed to charge more than 1000 MWK / 2.70 CAD. Whoops.
To get from Blantyre to Zomba would normally take 1 hour. However the road there is under construction so it took closer to 2 hours.
By 10 am I was in the town of Zomba. Except, I didn't know where to go. In Malawi things are not the easiest for tourists - there are no big signs saying "This way to climb the plateau", and even the minibus driver didn't really know where to drop me off when I kept pointing at the plateau and said I wanted to go up it. Also, the internet is not very good or up to date for planning a trip.
However on the way I did see this sign, which I remembered was a hotel at the top of the plateau. I figured a place geared for tourists should be right for me. So I started walking back to it.
Along the way I saw a large pink bus full of nuns singing, Malawi University, and a guy who told me to "shoot him". So I did.
I walked along this road. I was very cleanly.
One part of Malawi University
I shot him.
Eventually I found the sign and started walking in the direction it pointed. And after a while I found this place whew! I was already tired.
A half day tour where you're driven around cost 16,000 MWK / 43 CAD and a half day walking tour cost 7,000 MWK / 18 CAD. I didn't have enough money on me so I opted to do the walking tour.
By 11:45 am I was all set to go!
Hiking Around Zomba
I had a guide named Christopher who studied archaeology in school and wanted to do his Masters degree. He told me lots of history but I was hungry, sweating, and tired so a lot of it has left me. In contrast I don't think he broke a sweat all day.
We hiked for 4 hours, covered approximately 15 km, and went up the plateau to an elevation of 2,600 meters. I saw a dam, some small waterfalls, a place where a trout farm is, and the hotel on the sign. If I hadn't been slow and tired we might have made it to a large waterfall.
The "Potato Path" is a steep dirt trail we took up and down the plateau. I slipped a few times and damaged some plants.
A dam. This lake supplies water to the entire city of Zomba.
Look at all that wood. People live on the plateau and chop down the trees to sell in town. Apparently the plateau is a good source of trees since the rest of the surrounding areas have already been cleared. The government is trying to control how many trees on the plateau are cut down.
Some of the view
The hotel! Thank goodness for that sign. I kind of wish I stayed a night as there was a lot I didn't see.
Night is Falling
We got back down around 4pm and the owner of the place make sure I got onto a minibus and didn't pay more than 1000 MWK / 2.70 CAD. However, things didn't seem right. The bus kept trolling the streets for more passengers and the driver had some sort of argument with a guy at the gas station. I was sitting at the front and noticed the dash indicated the gas tank was empty. Sure enough the minibus stopped and we had to hop onto another one.
By then the Malawian next to me, Emmanuel, had started talking to me. He worked at a bank in Zomba doing transaction processing and is headed to Blantyre to see family. He asked for my phone number very very quickly. The minibus we were on wasn't much better. It was probably the slowest minibus of all time, crawling along trolling for passengers. We finally made it to Limbe around 6:45 pm. The sun has set and it is dark.
Limbe bus station at night is a scary scary place. People are yelling at you in the dark about who knows what, people are very aggressive and of course nothing is organized. Apparently the minibus we were on was taking a different route and I had to find another minibus to take me to Blantyre. Luckily Emmanuel was headed the same way so he found a minibus for us to board. A man grabbed my shoulder through the minibus window.
During this I was trying to figure out where a taxi could pick me up and bring me home however: 1. I didn't really know where exactly where I'd be dropped off and if I could describe it properly ("uhh I'm in a place and people are yelling in my face") 2. I didn't want to wait around in the dark for a taxi when I could likely run back faster myself
We make to Blantyre and Emmanuel tells me I need to get off in the middle of the town and walk back to where I'm staying because the minibus is taking a different route. Since he needs to catch another nearby minibus he walks with me for a bit to make sure I know where I'm headed. Walking through town in the dark is also a scary thing. People ask you where you're going, any time someone says "hi" your mind wanders to what they mean, and people stop their cars to roll down their window and try to talk to you. I pretty much ran / jogged the way back.
Luckily I make it back without incident by 7:30 pm and Sameer (a Canadian with I work with) finds me near the entrance to our lodge and I tell him how I'm never walking alone in the dark again.
- I did end up giving Emmanuel my number because he was relatively less sketchy and was being nice by helping me figure out how to get home by minibus in the dark. He said he wanted me to tell him that I got back to my place ok. I sometimes have problems lying quickly and he definitely saw me using my phone.
- ...But then he kept calling and texting in the days after and I decided not to pick up...
- Kristina (other Canadian) suggested I tell people "I have a very strict husband" when they ask for my contact info. I will do that.
- Things look different in the dark