When I saw this article in the New York Times, I was excited to see if the author had gone to a different part of Malawi than I and what he found there. As I began to read the article and realize that he followed the journey that I took, it became interesting to compare the relative experiences in terms of funding and perceptions of the country.
There is nothing terribly wrong with the piece, just that it is portraying a view of the Malawi experience that was unobtainable with the budget I had going through Malawi. Thus it is interesting to read how those with a larger budget were able to see the country. What I learned however, is that despite his substantially larger budget, he saw many of the same sites and scenes of Malawi as I did, and came away with the same satisfaction of his trip, if only at a much higher cost.
However, his advice to that it is adviseable to hire a driver for your time in Malawi is completely unnecessary. While, danger on the roads, especially in Blantyre is significant, it is no more than any other major city.
Plus, once out of the city the rarity of finding another driver on the same road is low enough that you would not need to worry about accidents on the motorways. One caveat to that is, that if you are hesitant about passing on the right-hand side (Malawi, like most of Southern Africa is a left-hand drive country), then you’ll have an even more exciting adventure. Though I must reccomend that the driver should place a male in the front seat on the left hand side. Women who may not realize that the road is smaller than two lanes may constantly point out that the space between them and the truck that you are trying to pass may be slowly (or quickly) decreasing much to their concern. The way they present their concerns can unnerve the driver to a certain extent.
Second, the roads going north to Liwonde and Lake Malawi are not in a condition to allow for a high rate of speed. They are littered with large potholes that can require the driver to do some defensive driving in order to navigate the maze that they create without having to slow down to a snails pace. There were stretches on the road north that were unpaved, but most of it seemed to be due to pending road work, and could easily be passed through by a 2-wheel sedan. However, these certainly do not require any special training or the expense of hiring a driver to do the fun part for you.
We used a Toyota Corona, that was rented from a hole in the wall rental company. We had originally selected SS-Rent a Car for a 4-wheel Toyota 4WD vehicle, because it was a significantly cheaper rate than we normally payed in South Africa. However, on arrival, and seeing that it was a manual drive car, which meant that none of the girls in my group could drive in case of an emergency, plus the fact that it was a diesel fuel vehicle made us recalculate and eventually decide to look some place else. This search led to an entirely new adventure as we had planned to jump in the car on our first full day in Malawi and head to Mt Mulanje to hike its trails. We proceeded into town once again to look for the AVIS location, only to learn they had moved out to the airport, which required a combi ride out of the city. On arrival we spoke to the AVIS rep at the desk and told him what we were looking for. He said he knew of a person who could help us, and had cheaper rates. We thought this odd, as the rates were printed right on the desk, and we knew there were no other car rental companies in Blantyre. Eventually we’re driven down the road to a house off the main road where we go and learn that this is not AVIS but that we’ve been passed on to an entirely different company, by an AVIS employee. This worked out, as the rates were in fact cheaper (though all in cash) and the man who worked through it with us was very kind and helpful in getting us on our way. Though we did not make it to Mt Mulanje, the experience of simply finding a car to rent more than made up for it.
Like the author, we also stopped at Liwonde National Park for two days, where we had the most enjoyable experience at a game park in our entire time in Africa. The park is not nearly as commercialized/toursity as the South African private game reserves. Like the author writes, it is much in the vein of game reserves of the past century. We certainly took that to a new level as we chose the lesser expensive, and less famous Chinguini Hills Camp (they were excited as the year we were there they had pipped Mvuu for top spot in the Lonely Planet guide book for places to stay in Liwonde, we would certainly concur). Par his trip, the NYT author stayed at the luxurious Mvuu lodge, which is far and above our budget as students. Our accommodations were quite spartan but the home cooked meals and the tours that were provided by the staff were excellent. Though I must advice against a night safari, as ours turned up little of note for the cost of 15 dollars and a sore back from the bumps of the humvee (though it looks as if there rates have increased since we were there). The early morning trek was the most profitable in terms of animals as we were able to stand no more than 20 feet away from water buffalo, who were as interested in us as we were in them. With the entire group staring and tracking us as we paced our way around the herd, it certainly made us feel that they were only permitting us to roam only as long as we kept silent.
Later we were able to watch a group of four elephants make their way to the lake from a distance of about 1000 meters. While getting close enough to touch Elephants while on safari is easy enough in game parks in South Africa, when on foot, the experience is quite different, and 1000 meters is as close as one wants to get.
Finally, he reaches Lake Malawi at Cape Maclear. Again, he stays at the fancy Sunbird Lodge, where we stayed at the Gaia House, which was a friendly place on the beach, that had a nice courtyard and clean facilities. The reception for a mobile signal was terribly poor for one person in our party who required contact with the boyfriend stateside, but the experience was very relaxing. The food was also of very high quality at the Gaia House, though terribly slow, so anticipate your hunger before it hits or the wait can be difficult.
However, they more than make up with their portions and the taste must to our delight. We also enjoyed lunch and dinners at various restaurants up and down the beach, where the the Gecko Lounge was one of our favorites. Also, the only place on the beach for Champions League or Premiership matches as they had the bar with a Supersport subscription on the beach at the time we were there (September 2007).
The author fails to warn travelers of the hawkers at Cape Maclear. Though I have much experience in saying ‘no’, and spotting them along the road or in town, we fell for one on our way into the village. At a fork in the road we stopped to look at the road sign that pointed to each lodge and which fork to take. At this point, conveniently, there were men on bicycles standing at the fork. One asked us where we were going, and he proceeded to lead us to the lodge, without any prompting. However, we understood the deal and were prepared to pay him for his services when we arrived. However, he suspscious disappeared as soon as we parked. We assumed that we might have misjudged his intentions and he was simply helping us out. However, he returned that evening on the edge of the lodge’s property (we quickly realized that he must have a reputation and was not welcome on the lodge’s property which was the reason for his disappearance on our arrival). He showed us pictures of ‘his’ boat and a bunch of white Europeans going out on ‘his’ boat and enjoying ‘his’ tours and ‘his’ braai. The pictures looked terribly inguinine, especially since he was in none, and they looked like they were pictures of people in the early 1990s. We politely said, we’ll think about it, but that we had already made dinner reservations for our first night. He of course wanted money up front in order to go collect food and provisions for our ‘beach braai’. We had read about these people before our trip to Malawi and were told to be weary as many children simply took the money and then never showed up that night to take you to ‘your party’. Others have written that they can be quite enjoyable, but either way we had no money with which to take the chance, nor did we want to be dragged someplace on the beach at night before we had a chance to walk around ourselves. While I was out, he came back that night and verbally argued with my friend who had stayed behind and told her that we ‘owed’ him and that we were supposed to accept his invitation because he led us into town. My travel-companion politely worked her way out of the situation and ‘tipped’ him for the service he provided early in the day and sent him on his way.
All total, our trip per person (for a group of four) cost around USD 800 in 2007. This included transport from Durban, South Africa via overground bus to Blantyre, plus car rental for 5 days, plus all the food and accommodation along the way. Which can show that the $6,200 trip that is proposed in the NYT article seems to be inflated to such a degree that one must wonder where all of that profit really ends up. When you consider that one room at the Sunbird Lodge costs $121, and a bed at Gaia house is $5, the savings can add up substantially. Though the NYT is certainly catering to a class of traveler well above a student’s budget, in all my travels through Africa I have seen that paying for that Western-high class facility is never worth the cost, especially when you could convert that savings into going further and doing more on your African adventure.