Saturday, May 15, 2010

Malawi/Mozambique trip: Part 1

The bus trip

For the record, I have no problem slating this particular bus company, because, quite frankly, they need to jack up their service and stop being such a dodgy bus company. Even the "regular" travellers on the bus had a horrendous time, and swore never to take this bus again! Since I have been back, people who heard about my trip have told me that they never, ever use this particular company, because it is so dodgy! Hindsight is such a marvellous thing...

I diligently journaled the events of the bus trip, which is a good thing because so many things happened. However, if nothing else, the take-home message from this part of the trip is: Never use the JR CHOEU bus company. Ever. For any destination. However, I might use another bus company to travel some more - its cheap and you see way more of the countryside than if you flew, not to mention the fact that you get some of the culture too. Anyway, without further ado, here are my notes (square brackets are my thoughts now). Apologies for the confused tenses - I added stuff after it was written, and am too lazy to change it all to the same tense!

  • Arrived at JR Choeu building at 7.30, in the middle of town [no, really, the middle of the middle, it was quite dodgy]! Got tickets which was a relief, since I was sure that they would have sold out cos we booked on the morning we were leaving! [with hindsight, this is probably an indication of how dodgy the bus actually is...] But there is no bus yet. People are packing an enormous removal truck that is 22m long, full of goods that are being taken to Malawi.
  • 9.30. Still no bus. I discovered the law of packaging tape though: every item of baggage must be covered in as much brown packaging tape as possible, the desirable state of the item is that you shouldn't be able to see any of the original bag/box under the packaging tape. [I was vastly amused by this, it kept me entertained for a few hours] The truck is still being loaded.
  • 11.00. Found another law: the law of packing. This law states that there is ALWAYS room for more baggage. Even if there isn't really... We discover that the truck must move before the bus can come.
  • 11.30. We watch as the doors to the truck are forced closed on account of the truck being overloaded. Hoping the bus will arrive soon, because the truck has now departed.
  • 12.30. No bus. We are assured that the bus will come by 1.15. [At this point, I started telling my parents that we hadn't in fact left yet, and was contemplating getting them to try find a bus company that went to Mangochi that had a number that worked... Travel Partner said we should just wait it out]
  • 1.15. No bus.
  • 3pm. People are threatening violence against the bus company and its employees, who aren't communicating with us. Bus company hands out cooking oil and food to placate the passengers.
  • 5pm. Bus arrives after I got my mom to try and find alternative travel arrangements. Getting on the bus was the most stressful short-term event I have ever experienced! Trying to get your luggage and self onto the bus was crazy. Everyone pushes and shoves, and it is just insane... The bus was one of those extended buses, with no trailer. So much luggage was piled into the bus itself - don't think this is legal. We think the trip was overbooked for a normal bus, so they had to get the bigger capacity bus, and then the licence to go with the bigger bus. There is luggage everywhere.
  • 7pm. We attempt to leave, drive 2 blocks, then return to the start point. The brakes sound super dodgy, and I hope that I make it out of the trip alive...
  • Eventually we left. It was night time, and on account of being exceptionally lonely throughout the day, and not wanting to use my phone too much (because we were in the middle of JHB), I was smsing people like crazy. The rest of the time, I spent gazing at the stars, and thinking. Lots.


  • My first border crossing ever! We arrived at the Beit bridge border post early the next morning [I think about 4am on the SA side]. The SA side was pretty quick, about an hour, and I saw my first case of a fake passport [he was a Malawian guy, and taken in for questioning, but later we saw him back on the bus...]. The Zimbabwean side took in the region of 3-4 hours to get through.
  • By the time we left the border post, the sun was well and truly up, and I got to see the landscape - loads of random baobabs. [I didn't get to see any of the landscape as we travelled north through South Africa, so I had no idea as to what to expect, and it came as a bit of a surprise, although a pleasant one] Its rather pretty. I told TP about savannas, tree-grass interactions and a bit about landscape drivers. He must think I'm nuts, and I'm not sure that I explained very well either...
  • We got stopped at every roadblock we came across, and got 2 fines. Bus driver and "handlers" paid bribes. Good times.
  • Dusk: We arrive at Harare: "Welcome to Harare. Enjoy our pleasent environment", with litter and a broken landscape behind the sign. By now, I'm impatient, a little hungry, and really missing communication from the outside world. We were stopped in Harare, and the bus impounded. We waited for another hour, while another bribe was paid. The other passengers were fed up and hungry. The food money was used for the bribe. I was getting fed up with TP, he wouldn't stop complaining and saying "if we had taken another bus we would be at...", etc. I discover that we will have to spend the night at the border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. TP slept and I had complete sense of humour failure as TP wont send an sms to let KCB (who was fetching us from Mangochi) know where we were, and that we had been delayed. So I cried, knowing that there is nothing I can do but wait this out, and make the best of a really bad situation.
  • TP lets me send an sms when we get to the border, but doesn't wait for a reply before switching off the phone, to conserve his battery [I still had battery, but he didn't want to swap sim cards, and I couldn't use my phone because I don't have international roaming]. The bus is humid and stuffy, cramped and uncomfortable. I left the bus, stepping on people, over people, disturbing them as I try to exit. I find myself a spot on the road to the weigh-bridge and put my feet on one of the blocks. My feet and ankles were really sore from being down for 2 days and not moving.
  • I had a chat with DG, a girl of roughly my age from Malawi. We struggled to make ourselves understood, since her English wasn't amazing, and I don't speak any Chichewe. I was shocked to discover that most of the bus thought that TP and I were married! YUCK!!! [my thoughts at this point went along the lines of, if I ever do this again, I'm travelling with my boyfriend!]
  • I fall asleep in the early hours of the morning, with my shoes off, backpack under my knees and a copy of Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy as my pillow [strangely fitting], and pearl-spotted owls calling close by. I woke up once to put a jersey and my shoes back on, and then again to turn over. I was so unbelievably comfortable, that I'm not entirely sure why I woke up, but was immediately glad that I did, because the bus had started up and was moving toward me [The danger of sleeping in the road is that you could be run over...]! This was my first 3 hours of sleep in two days.


  • After the sleep I find my sense of humour recovered, and I'm ready to deal with the next part of the trip. I'm still super irritated with TP. We have an apple which TP eats for breakfast, and he shares his packet of chips with me, while masticating in my ear.
  • We cross into Mozambique without too many hassles, although as usual, it takes forever to get back onto the road. At the city of Tete, we wait to cross the Zambezi river - the bridge is under construction/repair, and is only open to one lane of traffic at a time. I changed money here, since we would be getting an extremely good rate of 22.50 Malawi Kwacha to a ZA rand. We crossed the massive river, and found that the country was rather pretty after the ugliness of Tete, and the dryness of the landscape before the city.
  • I managed to sleep on the bus in the afternoon - must have been exhausted!
  • Customs at Malawi took forever... All the luggage that was on the bus was taken off an checked by customs officials. As everything was being re-packed, we discover that the bus has no intention of taking TP and I to Mangochi. In the meantime, KCB somehow managed to get hold of the driver, who gave the phone to me, and in this way, we arranged to get dropped off at a police roadblock near the border, and KCB would come and pick us up (a long drive for him!). TP arranged this, cos KCB phoned back while I went and found a really dodgy toilet at the border...
  • After about 3 hours, KCB arrived! Was so happy to see him, and despite not seeing him for 3 months, things were not awkward at all!

This ends the bus trip story. It took me a while to recover, and for a few days I was rather emotional, but I came out alive and unscathed :) Here are some factoids from the trip:

  • In 72 hours, I went to the toilet 3 times.
  • I drank 2 litres of water, and 2 cokes.
  • Between TP and I, we shared 1 packet of chips, 2 apples and 10 mini seed bars.
  • I slept about 5 hours
  • I crossed 3 borders, and went through 6 border posts
  • We travelled approximately 2000km

I'm more than a little impressed with myself, that as a first time traveller, I managed to survive this!


Helen said...

Chuck Norris. Seriously, i'm glad you had a good trip, but I'm' not sure anyone else would have survived all of that!

Leia said...

I still think Chuck Norris is way more hardcore than I will ever hope to be... What would you have done in my place?