Road Tripping in Malawi

Road Sign 1Americans’ love affair with the car is no secret.  In reality, Western Europeans have more cars per person than Americans, but Americans drive their cars for just about anything – short trips, long trips, and everything in between.  And when Americans go on long trips, they might be just as likely to pack up the car as to get on a plane.  Americans (in general) love a good road trip.

Although I have spent a good portion of my adult life (between September 1995 and September 2011) without owning a car, I still very much appreciate a good drive.  In my Foreign Service career, I have not done much driving at Post.  In Ciudad Juarez, we could only drive in a limited area around the city and into the United States, and I did not own a vehicle in Shanghai.  Malawi has been an “interesting” opportunity to get back on the road.

Most of my driving life in Malawi is within a small area, maybe five square miles, if that.  It’s a seven-minute drive from my home to the Embassy and most other trips are to and from friends’ homes and a few supermarkets and restaurants.  But every so often we get out of town, and with nearly two years under my belt in Malawi, I have taken a road trip or two or ten.  And driving here is unlike any other place I have driven.

A. Roads

Some Malawian roads I have driven

Malawi may be one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, but when on the road between cities and towns, it can feel as if you are in the middle of nowhere.  Its not just the lack of population — there can certainly be those times when it seems there is no one else around — but even when there are villages it is just those villages, a cluster of small homes, probably the majority just a single room.  They might be mud or brick with thatch or corrugated iron roofs, but except in the larger trading centers, the homes, maybe a school, is it.  You will not see road lights or electricity poles. There are few if any road signs. You will only rarely see billboards by the side of the road — only as you might approach a major center.  Playing “I spy” is a futile exercise.

There will be no fast-food restaurants if any restaurants at all.  Few stores.  Even petrol stations are in short supply.  On the 4+ hour drive on the M1, the country’s main artery linking the capital Lilongwe with the business capital of Blantyre, there are perhaps only two or three places to stop for gas.  You should always fill up when you can, because there may not be another opportunity for some distance.  The same goes for restrooms.

CowsThe paved roads, even the main ones, are predominantly two lanes, one in each direction.  Maybe there will be a painted center line, maybe not.  Maybe there will be a shoulder, though usually not.  Most often the sides of the road are jagged, as though a large monster that eats asphalt has bitten huge chunks off the edges.  There are many potholes.  Near villages, there will be cyclists, and it seems almost a given that as your car approaches they will begin to weave haphazardly, adding an extra challenge to an already difficult drive.  There are also often goats or cattle alongside the road — the cattle are usually accompanied by children or young men, the goats are often unattended and maybe a wee bit suicidal, or at least not phased by traffic at all.  However, if you hit someone’s livestock, be prepared to pay up.

The speed limit is generally 80-90 kph (50-55 mph) on the roads outside urban/market areas and 50 kph (30 mph) within.  Yet, in my experience, you either get those who drive a maddening 20 kph below or a scary 20-30 kph above.  It’s the excessive speeds which are particularly worrying —  according to the World Health Organization, sub-Saharan Africa has some of the highest rates of vehicle accident fatalities per 100,000 people in the world, and Malawi ranks as one of the higher among southern African countries.

A. Road Blocks

License and registration, please

To force people to at least occasionally slow down, the police set up roadblocks.  The Malawi police are basically a static force; they are hampered by their shoestring budget and a limited number of vehicles.  Thus they are not hiding around bends or behind trees in their police cars or motorcycles ready for the hot pursuit of lawbreakers.  Instead, they set up roadblocks, some quite rudimentary, to at least temporarily halt travel and conduct vehicle inspections.  My diplomatic-plated car is rarely stopped, and on the very few occasions it’s happened, I have been waved through quickly.  Not that I am doing anything wrong mind you.  I drive the speed limit, my tires are in good shape, I have a license and insurance, and I carry the required-by-law equipment.  I have a feeling I might be in the minority.

A. Safety First

Safety First!

On any given day you will likely encounter some creative interpretation of traffic regulations.  There are no official taxis and buses are few and far between (largely cross border routes); the primary means of travel for the commuter is on foot, bicycle (including bicycle taxis), or the ubiquitous mini-buses, which can be used for intracity or intercity transportation.  These small vans are notorious for being overcrowded with people and packages, in poor condition, often with inadequate tires or brakes, and often driven at excessive speeds.  Besides the mini-buses, Malawians come up with some resourceful methods to transport goods and people via the roads.  If I weren’t so concerned about how their ingenuity impacts my ability to safely get from Point A to Point B, I would be pretty impressed.  But I have also read enough articles about, and even come across, what happens when vehicles drive too fast on Malawian roads.

A. Accidents

Uh-oh!

I remember something a friend once said about driving here — how much it takes out of you because you cannot ever really relax.  This is not the place where you can put the car on cruise control and zone out.  One has to keep on one’s toes, as you never know what will be around the next bend.  Maybe there is a disabled vehicle, cordoned off not with the required-by-law warning triangles but leafy branches.  Or a police checkpoint.  Or perhaps there might be a bunch of uniform-clad school children lollygagging on the road’s edge.  Or a bunch of goats.  You might come across someone selling dried fish or gunny sacks of illegal charcoal.  Or perhaps someone selling roasted field mice on a stick — a popular delicacy during the dry cool season.  Or you might run across masked young men or boys dressed in makeshift costumes of torn clothes, strips of fabric, burlap sacks, and straw, heading to a performance.  These are the Gule Wamkulu, or ritual spiritual dancers of the Chewa tribe, the dance inscribed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.  Or maybe you come around a curve to face a stunning vista.  Driving in Malawi is not for the faint-hearted, but it sure does keep things interesting.

A. Road Side

Furry fried field mice anyone?  Or maybe hang with Gule Wamkulu spirits?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 2

13

Heading up the Spreetshoogte Pass — sometimes the best view may be behind you

After our visit to the Cheetah Conservation Fund we headed west to the seaside town of Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast.  Leaving Cheetah View Lodge we picked up a mother and son hoping for a lift to Otjiwarongo, the closest town.  On our trip we had already seen at least a handful of people standing by the side of the road hoping for a lift.  Though later we also saw quite a few no-hitching signs, at this point we had not yet.  I would not pick up a single male or a group of males, but a mom and young son, dressed in his school uniform?  There was little along that dirt road and they could be waiting quite some time.  Along the way we chatted.  The mother told me their lift had left them behind and she needed to get her son to town to complete some paperwork before school resumed after the Easter break.   She asked me what I thought of Namibia so far and I raved about the great roads, which, to my surprise, she responded that many Namibians complained about the state of the road system.  This really made me think of relativity — sure, there were places with more paved roads, but in comparison to the roads of Malawi, Namibia seemed a road paradise.

road to the coastWe dropped them in the center of Otjiwarongo and then headed southwest.  This road too was paved and in good shape, but I had miscalculated the distance and it took us an hour longer than expected.   As we approached the coast the green scrubs gave way to desert, and a fog descended, the clouds swallowing up the blue sky.

14

Swakopmund in sun, from the end of the jetty

Arriving in Swakopmund we were surprised to find it chilly.  Before coming to Namibia I had set my weather app for Windhoek, and had packed accordingly.  However, while the app indicated a wonderful 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Windhoek, it was hovering in the upper 50s in Swakopmund!  We checked into the hotel, headed out for a late lunch, visited the small museum, and then I purchased myself my very own souvenier fleece jacket (I had had the forethought to bring C’s jacket).

The following day we were up early and soon on our way to the Cape Cross seal reserve.  Cape Cross is so named for the cross Portuguese explorer Diego Cão placed in that location in 1485.  The seal colony is the largest breeding colony of cape fur seals (actually a type of sea lion), with numbers over 200,000 animals!

16 seal colony

Seals between us and the parking lot; surrounded by seals at the replica cross

The sky was an overcast grey, the fog thick, as we made our way out of Swakopmund north to Cape Cross.  Although friends’ had noted the gravel road could be rough, it had been paved in the years since they left the country.  Yet, the sand had blown over the road and soon everything from the road, to the sand, to the mountains, and the sky took on the same steely tan color.  Every so often there were small stands set up on the roadside with various sizes of quartz locals had dug up in the desert.  However, no locals manned the stands, instead the purchaser is on their honor to leave the correct amount in the makeshift plastic banks.  As we closed in on the reserve entrace, a lone jackal made its way across the sands; I was far too slow to capture it with a photo.

Seals as far as the eye could see!  Hundreds of thousands of noisy honking, snorting, seals lying around nearly every available surface, loping across the sand, and cavorting in the waves.  The parking lot was surrounded.  The smell…was, um, frangrant.  We made our way to an enclosed boardwalk, we had to hoist ourselves over to one wall as there seemed no entrance.  Once inside, we could get quite close to the seals hanging right next to the boardwalk.  In fact, towards the end  two seals, who had sneakily made their way onto the walkway, blocked our forward movement.  When we tried to have our pictures taken near the replica of the Portugese cross, one seal kept making aggressive lunges toward me.  I screamed and the laughed as hard as I have in a long while.

Back at Swakopmund the fog lifted and the sky shone gloriously blue.  We had another incredible lunch, then headed for a walk along the beachfront to the very small national marine aquarium, then to the jetty.   Finally we headed to the Krystal Gallerie — mostly a super fancy quartz jewelry store, but it also has a small museum, a little cave to walk through, and a “scratch patch” where kids can buy a small bag and then pick out as many stones as they can fit into a bag.  C LOVES this kind of stuff and a really great time picking out her own “precious jewels.”

15

C horseback in the moonscape

Our third day began with an hour horse ride to the moonscape outside of town.  Okakambe stables set us up with a wonderful guide, Noah, who knew exactly how to give C the perfect ride.  Although initially they had us set up with Noah’s son who would walk holding C’s lead, I convinced him C had enough horse experience to do it on her own.  He trusted me and C did a great job.  But that was not it, Noah gave C riding tips, and made her laugh at silly things, like when his horse began wandering away on its own.  Afterwards he tasked her to help remove her horse’s tack, clean its hooves, brush its coat, and then lead him back to the field.  The whole experience completely made C’s morning.

We then drove over to Walvis Bay, as I wanted to see some of the flamingos that flock there each year.  We were able to catch sight of some (maybe there were close to a thousand?), far fewer than the tens of thousands that are there at the height of the season.  Back in Swakopmund we were met by our living desert tour.  With our guides we headed into the dunes just south of Swakopmund and with a miraculous eye they saw tiny trails — little footprints, slither marks, small indentions in the sand.  They found us a Namaqua desert chameleon, a Fitzimmons burrowing skink, a shovel-nosed lizard, a sidewinder adder, a horned adder, and a super friendly Gray’s lark.

17 living desertThere was so much more to do in Swakopmund I was reluctant to leave, but we were heading south-east, back inland, to the Namib-Naukluft Desert, the oldest desert in the world.

It was Good Friday and as we headed south toward Walvis Bay, we were stopped in a long line of cars waiting at a police checkpoint.  Ugh.  There was nothing to worry about of course, but no one likes to wait in a police checkpoint.  And this one turned out to be absolutely nothing to worry about — they were handing out paperbags of Easter candy to motorists!  Another score for Namibia.

After Walvis Bay we headed into the desert and, for the first time, off the tarred roads.

road to solitaireMiles and miles of sandy gravel — stunning vistas but with few, if any, signs of civilization.  No houses, no gas stations, and almost no other cars.  It was exhilarating and also a wee bit scary.  This is where I was especially worried that I would blow a tire, run out of gas (although I had filled up before leaving Walvis Bay), or have some other car trouble, like run into an oryx that suddenly jumped out in front of me.  I had a long, long time to think, to daydream, and also come up with crazy stranded by the side of the road scenarios.  There were enough cars that should something happen someone would likely be along in about an hour, and we had plenty of water, but not something I wanted to experience with C on vacation (or ever).

166At long last we arrived at the town of Solitaire.  Well, town might be a bit of a stretch.  Solitaire is a gas station, bakery, lodge, cafe, general store, and mechanics at a t-junction, the only stop between the coast at Walvis Bay and the dunes at Sossusvlei.  The population is probably less than 100 souls.  The sandy yard around the settlement is littered with colorful and photogenic old rusting cars.  We stayed at the Solitaire Desert Farm seven kilometers away, down a sandy track towards some rocky red hills, that at sunset burned crimson.  The evening was still, with the exception of what I guess were jackals yipping playfully somewhere near our lodge.

We woke early, grabbed our pre-packaged breakfasts from the refrigerator and headed south to Sossusvlei before the sun rose.  This road too was gravel, yet rougher than the one from the coast.  But the hour drive went by quickly as watching the sun rise across the desert was truly magical.  We paid our fees at the park gate and headed straight for Dune 45.  There were some 30 people trudging their way up, a dozen at the top, and probably a dozen on their way down.  Whew.  Here we would go — a middle aged woman, not at her peak physical condition, and a seven year old child.  The climb, according to what I had read online would take 45-60 minutes; we made it in 35 and I felt really, really good about that.  No matter though the view would rejuvenate anyone.

19

C heads back down Dune 45

Next we drove on to the parking lot at Sossesvlei where we caught a park shuttle bus to take us out to where we would walk out to Deadvlei.  Along the way we saw the results of stubborn people intent on driving themselves those last few kilometers — many a 2×4, and even a few 4x4s, tires spinning, sunk several inches into the sand.  Our shuttle picked up a few who were at least temporarily abadoning their vehicles in the interest of making the walk before the sun got too high.

We trudged through the now burning sand (we were barefoot for the hike up Dune 45, but now the sand was far too hot) a difficult 20 minutes to the white clay pan dotted with the skeletalized remains of 900-year-old trees known as Deadvlei (“dead marsh”), surrounded by some of the largest sand dunes in the world.

192

C at Deadvlei

Whew, it felt like much longer than 20 minutes.  I snapped a few pictures as I caught my breath.  C never seems to need to catch hers.  We were both quite hot though, sweating despite the dryness.  I would have liked to have stayed longer had the temperatures been cooling, but with the heat seeming to rise several degrees per second, I was ready to get back to the air conditioning of the car.  Slogging back through the sand to the shuttle stop, I ended up in step with another visitor.  He seemed quite pleasant, a doctor from Australia traveling with his family.  Though when I think about it, I might have felt a bit more of annoyance when he expressed his surprise first that I might be a U.S. diplomat and then second that I could have ever run half marathons given my huffing and puffing across those dunes at high noon.  Luckily, I was a wee bit too tired to protest.

We drove back to Solitaire for another night, then the next day drove back to Windhoek, this time heading across the stunning Spreetshoogte Pass.  For a good two hours we  passed maybe a total of ten other vehicles, though at the top of the pass I took a picture of an American couple from Manhattan.  Back in Windhoek we had lunch then headed to our lodge for the final night, a room at the lovely Etango Ranch Guestfarm, conveniently located across from the airport, but which felt a world away.

Our road trip finished with 2,674 kilometers (1,661.5 miles) on the odometer.  It was a truly extraordinary journey to the north, west, and south of the country.  It was a journey of superlatives – the third youngest country in Africa, one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the oldest desert in the world, the largest fur seal colony, the oldest national park in Africa, the greatest concentration of cheetahs in the world, the most German of any of Germany’s former colonies…and some of the most stunning scenery anywhere.

 

 

Namibia: Superlative Spring Break Part 1

5

A Himba woman in Windhoek

Namibia. I have wanted to visit this country since my friend CG traveled there during her posting to Angola.  All I knew is that Namibia is home to large sand dunes .  That sounded sufficiently cool.  Fast forward a decade and my daughter and I are living in southern Africa.  Another friend is posted to Namibia.  She once noted on Facebook that she had received a notice to stay indoors as a leopard had been spotted in her neighborhood in Windhoek.  That sounded terribly exotic; we only have the occasional hyena in Lilongwe.

We landed at the Windhoek airport close to 10 PM.  Our hotel shuttle driver was waiting.  On the 30 minute drive into town, even in the darkness, it became quickly apparent we were no longer in Kansas, er, in Malawi anymore.  The drive from the airport in Windhoek is similar to that in Lilongwe, approximately half an hour, and a distance from the city limits.  But that is where the similarities end.  The paved road was better, clean, smooth, nicely painted.  We stopped at a police checkpoint, it had a well-crafted metal dome, it was well lit.  That means electricity.  Police checkpoints in Malawi are much cruder – no cover, wooden beams placed over oil drums.  As we approached Windhoek we saw sidewalks; we saw them because there were working street lights, working traffic lights.  It was hard not to already feel impressed with Namibia.  And then to feel a wee bit silly that I found sidewalks and streetlights so remarkable.

Windhoek buildings

Christchurch, Independence Memorial Museum, Parliament

The next morning we headed out on a free guided walking tour recommended by my friend MB.  There is not much to draw visitors in Windhoek, but the few tourist sites are located near one another.  We could have walked to them on our own, but our student guide gave us a plethora of information in the 90 minute tour.  We stopped first  Windhoek’s most iconic landmark, the Christ Church, a 100+ year old German Lutheran church built during the German colonial period.  The clock, bells, and part of the roof were brought in from Germany; the stained glass windows a gift from Emperor Wilheim II.  Inside is a plaque inscribed with the names of German and military casualties during the colonial wars.

2We then crossed the street to the Parliament building, built orginally as the headquarters for the German colonial administrative offices, and its gardens.  We then headed a short way up the road, at the corner of Robert Mugabe Avenue and Fidel Castro Street, to the Independence Memorial Museum.  The building is jarring.  Modern, yes, but also leaning on eyesore.  No surprise then that it was built by a North Korean firm in the socialist-realist style.  The bronze statue of Namibia’s first President was also made by North Korea.  Behind the museum we ended the tour in the currently closed Alte Feste, once the headquarters of the imperial German military, in front of which stands the Genocide statue (also gifted by North Korea) representing the brutal extermination and punishment of Herero and Namaqua people during the 1904-1907 Namibia-German war, and how the indigenous people of Namibia overcame repression.  We left the tour there and headed to the museum, which while informative, most certainly had that same socialist-realist vibe.  We swung by the kudu statue and then headed back to the hotel.

On the way back we had to pass the craft market.  On our approach I suddenly saw a group of five extraordinarily dressed women pass in front of us.  Tall, lithe, dressed in only a goat hide skirt covered with a sarong like material; their bare arms and chests covered in leather and bronze jewelry, their feet in gladiator-like sandals.  Their skin and hair shown a deep bronze terracotta color for the otjize paste (made of butter fat and ochre) they use to protect themselves in the harsh desert climate.  I gasped audibly and blurtered out “you are beautiful.”  They immediately turned to me, gave me stunning smiles, and one wrapped her arm around mine to walk with us.  The Himba people are known for their incredible friendliness.  Once they had set up their stand C purchased one of their bracelets and they allowed me to take a photo.

My friend MB got off work at the Embassy and picked us up so we would head to lunch.  She then helped me to purchase a SIM card so that I would not be left completely without phone or data while traveling around one of the least densely populated countries in the world.  Then we picked up the rental car and stocked up on bottled water, apples, and snacks.

6The following day it was time to begin our Namibia road trip.  Now, back in Malawi, having finished the Namibian vacation, knowing we survived the drives is so different from before it began.  Back when I was planning the trip I thought most about doing the driving.  I wanted the freedom driving ourselves would bring.  C and I have gone on a few day group bus trips.  They have been convenient and sometimes fun.  But there have been those, like the one to the Cape of Good Hope, where we were too much at the mercy of other tourists who had their own agenda at the expense of everyone else.  I did not want to do that for a whole trip.  Yet I am a single parent, who has limited (my diplomatic way of saying non-existent) car repair skills, traveling with a 7-year old long distances in a country I have never been to.  I have traveled to many places, I am intrepid, but honestly, the driving had me a tad worried.

7Heading north from Windhoek toward Etosha National Park though, I had nothing to worry about.  It was a long four hour drive but on the most beautifully tarred road.  There was not much to see along the way, a few times we saw warthogs and baboons, but mostly miles and miles of green shrubs, every once in awhile a town that we could drive through in minutes.

After over four hours of driving we arrived at our lodging, the Etosha Safari Camp.  We had a little cabin a short one minute drive from the main building.  From outside it was functional, plain, but inside it was bright, modern, and whimsical.  We had a sweet queen sized bed below a same-sized loft.  C loved the bathroom the best.

We spent the next two days driving around Etosha National Park.  Nothing could have prepared me for the incredible, stark beauty of Africa’s oldest national park.  The biggest feature of the park is a massive salt pan that can be seen from space.  Most of the park is savannah woodlands but near the pan, where we visited, its sandy grassland or very low scrub.  Because of this one can see animals far in the distance.  We saw many animals, mostly springbok, oryx, and ostrich, but could also drive for twenty minutes without seeing an animal or another vehicle.

8

Wildlife of Etosha

We drove for two hours the first day, five hours the second.   Long times in the car, but it was not boring.  I bought C a checklist book so she could mark off the animals we saw and she had her tablet and a few toys.  Lucky finds were the lion cubs and later lionesses, kudu at a watering hole, and wildebeest.   We would have loved to see more predators but we were not that lucky.

Fortunately, I planned for us to visit the Cheetah Conservation Fund, 45 minutes outside of Otijwarongo, about two hours south of the Andersson Gate at Etosha.  C LOVES cheetahs and Namibia is one of the best places to see them as the country hosts the largest concentration of this magnificent wild cat.  In Namibia there are about 3,500 cheetahs; compare this to the 16 recently reintroduced to Malawi.  At the facility visitors can observe their resident cheetahs, who cannot be released into the wild, see feeding time, and take drives into the enclosure.  We also stayed the night at the Cheetah View Lodge where we could watch the sunset and then rise over the beautiful Waterberg Pleateau.  It was so peaceful.

cheetah view lodge