African Overland Tour: Lake Malawi

Welcome to our exclusive ongoing review of Absolute Africa’s The Big Six African Overland Tour, if you like reading about us looking at animals, joking around on a truck, and drinking interesting local spirits of East Africa, then you will find additional chapters of our 52-day journey at the end of this post. If you like THOSE posts, then maybe you want to read some stories about our adventures in Europe (or if you’re reading this in the future - Asia, India, and South America), and you can find those all throughout the site. And if you like THOSE posts (And you’re either a relative of mine or a huge fan), then maybe you should share them on some social media sites. Like Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Google+ (Side note: How do people have followers on Google+? It seems somehow both outdated like MySpace and newfangled like Buzz that I don't understand). If you don’t like this, and you hate social media, and you also hate the Carolina Panthers, then I’m surprised you’ve gotten to the end of even this introductory paragraph. Bounce rates aside, let’s get on with this thing, because we’ve got some beaches to go to and booze to drink!

After saying goodbye to beautiful Zanzibar Island, we were reminded immediately of what life on the truck was like with a hellaciously long drive day. When I say hellaciously long, again, I'm talking about getting up before dawn and arriving after sunset. This drive was (as most in Africa are) absolutely beautiful, with the first stretch taking us from the coast into the mountains of the Southern Rift Valley (you may remember the Rift Valley from one of our very first drive days in Kenya, it actually stretches from Ethiopia to Tanzania) and into the Valley of the Baobabs, which are centuries-old trees which were described as looking "upside down", but looked more to me like they had been pulled directly from a Salvador Dali painting. Most native legends describe some sort of a scenario where an ancient God became angry with the Baobabs (who gets angry at a tree?) and uprooting them and throwing them into the ground upside down, which is why they grow with their roots upward. Either way, there were THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS of them in the valley, stretching their God-Angering roots craggily towards the sky, always begging for forgiveness.

Image Credit: Aduna.com

Image Credit: Aduna.com

You may or may not have noticed that I used an image credit for the above picture. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures of the beautiful Baobab Valley as we were taking advantage of the long day on the truck the only way we knew how.

PLEASE NOTE: Absolute Africa does not condone drinking on the truck. And neither does Getting In The Map. But if you're going to do it, just make sure you toss the bottles before you make a stop, and the tour leader will NEVER KNOW.

PLEASE NOTE: Absolute Africa does not condone drinking on the truck. And neither does Getting In The Map. But if you're going to do it, just make sure you toss the bottles before you make a stop, and the tour leader will NEVER KNOW.

After camping at a very nice campground which featured Hot Chocolates and Brownies after dinner in Iringa, we were up SUPES early again to hit the border crossing into Malawi. This border crossing is notoriously slow (it took our group of 28 about 3 hours to get our visas and out on the other side), but we passed the time picking up preregistered SIM Cards, samosas, and changing money at the border.

If you've never changed money at an East African border, it's not like other countries where you will go into a bank or Exchange, there will literally be dozens of guys with stacks of money outside each border station, yelling a rate at you. Luckily, our tour leader Phillipa had people that she trusted at almost every border we crossed, so we didn't have to make a decision and try desperately to avoid scams or negotiate rates. The Malawi Kwacha is not a popular currency, so we wanted to make sure we didn't exchange too much or we would be STUCK WITH IT when we left in a few days. While Malawi is one of the poorest countries per capita in the world, it should not be judged on it's GDP alone. The friendliness of it's people and the beauty of it's landscapes made Malawi one of our favorite stops in Africa.

Once we crossed the border, we stopped at a grocery store (the quality of grocery stores steadily improved as we went from East Africa to Southern Africa, culminating in a grocery store in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe which was basically a Whole Foods but cheaper) and stocked up for the next few days. Somewhere in Overland Trucking History, a tradition had been borne that at some point during your stay at Lake Malawi, each truck would have a "Bad Taste Party" in which you pulled names out of a hat and purchased the ugliest, most ill-fitting, and tackiest clothes you could find for them. While I'm sure that at some point, the Truckies of Yore had to slog through hours of shopping at local markets, a couple of enterprising young gentlemen were set up with garbage bags full of the worst jumpsuits, miniskirts, wigs, and leggings you can imagine. Leopard print abounded. 

I've actually read a blog detailing this practice recently that had a huge problem with it (seemed as if he actually had a problem with Overlanding in general), that we as outsiders (Read: White people) were "taking advantage" of the locals by forcing them to sell these ridiculous wares. It was hard for him to get a "true African experience" with all these idiots that were on his truck having fun on their trips of a lifetime. To me, it seemed like a pretty good system. They sold us these ridiculous outfits for $3, we wore them once and left them at the Beach Hostel we were partying in, and they washed them and resold them. Not a lot different than the folks on the side of the road selling hand carved wooden animals, they found a niche market and they filled it. I'm not sure a lot of locals are buying those wooden animals, it's probably all tourist-driven. Just like the terrible clothes. Sorry Colins Notes. Anyway, let's put a pin in this party. 

After the grocery stop, we headed down the road to another local market with exquisitely hand-carved wooden tables, chairs, trinkets, and even globes! I'm ashamed to admit how much we actually bought, but we were able to make our budget stretch a little further by trading our iPhone 4 (a backup we had brought in case our 6's broke or were stolen) and 2 of my T-shirts I was planning on throwing away in lieu of money. I'm going to put this in a larger font in case people are skimming this before their trip to Malawi:

If you are going to Malawi (or really any Southeastern African country) and want to buy souvenirs, bring old cell phones or T-Shirts with worldwide logos on them to trade.

Our 5-year-old iPhone we were never going to use again not only saved us a boatload of spending cash, it will truly be utilized by someone instead of sitting in a desk drawer or just being put into a boxed warehouse when I trade it to Best Buy or Gamestop for $4 of in-store credit. When we had our fill of souvenirs (Fun Fact: We've been lugging around a table and chairs through five countries because they're THAT BEAUTIFUL and we HAD TO HAVE THEM), we were on our way to Kande Beach, a beautiful campground on the shores of Lake Malawi.

Lake Malawi is one of Africa's "Great Lakes", 365 miles north to south and only 52 miles across, it's fresh water housing vast numbers of different fish species. To look at it from the beach is to look at an ocean, with small waves crashing and water as far as the eye can see. I saw no difference between the great lake and the Indian Ocean we had seen off the coast of Tanzania a few days before. 

The next evening, we were to have a Pig Roast hosted by the local villagers of Chinteche; before the pig could be roasted, it had to be slaughtered, and we were invited to watch the killing at an early hour if we wished.  There turned out to be a fair amount of us heading to the center of town, and we were accompanied by dozens of village children, grabbing our hands and introducing themselves as soon as we were out of the campground gates. Of course, we were also bombarded by locals trying to hock their wares, most of whom had taken on silly names (Andy From Kande, Vin Diesel, Donald Duck, and Cheese On Toast were my best mates by the time I left) to try to make impressions on gullible tourists. Is it silly? Yes. Does it work? Absolutely. I bought a handful of bracelets from Cheese On Toast strictly for the novelty.

When we arrived in the center of the village, there was already a hog tied up and ready for slaughter. A few jabs with a sharp knife, terrified squeals, and bored children set the scene for what would become our dinner later. The villagers threw the body on a plastic tarp and began to scoop hot water onto the carcass as they made quick work of fur removal. Within ten minutes, a live animal had become the other white meat, ready to cook over a hot flame. What was most interesting to me was the efficiency they had, both in timing and in usage, saving everything from the blood to the fur for later. The fur could be used as chicken feed, they told me, and the blood would be made into pudding. The gizzards were eaten later, along with the hooves. What usually happened behind closed doors in a factory happened in the middle of the village here, and the kids just wanted to take and then examine selfies while it happened.

After watching our how the bacon gets made (literally), we headed back to camp for a few games of volleyball and some more beach time, obviously we needed it after having just spent three days in Zanzibar. One weird situation was the lack of locals on the beach in front of our campground, they would cross down by the water but didn't dare come close to the area we lounged in. I'm sure this was to prevent harassment by solicitors, but it made us feel even more like outsiders, sitting on our private beach while locals were only permitted to the left or right of us. Things like this happened throughout our time in Africa, where it was clear that we were being "protected" from being talked to by locals. I'm sure this is welcome from certain tourists, but it was a bit of a turn off for me. To each their own though, because I'm sure that the next few hours would be turn-offs for many (ColinsNotes I'm looking at you).

After our pig roast---OH DID YOU WANT SOME NON-SLAUGHTER PICS OF THE PIG?

After our pig roast, it was time for our Bad Taste Party. We made some punch that was most likely vodka, got dressed in silly clothes, and it got out of hand, much like other times when there was drinking involved. Want to see more pictures? Then I invite you to check out our Facebook page, where literally hours of picture-looking fun awaits you. Yes, we looked fabulous. And yes, it was super fun.

The next morning we slept in a little bit (you probably saw that one coming) and headed to another optional activity, horseback riding through the village on our way to a swim on the beach! This entire activity cost $50 per person, but I would have paid $35 for just the swim. In fact, the walk through the village was mediocre, but Renee enjoyed the opportunity to cantor; personally, I feel as comfortable riding a horse as I do riding a lion, so I could have done without it. However, the change to be on a horse as it slowly breached the water then began to literally SWIM with us on their backs was magical. One of the things we promised ourselves was that we would always do optional activities that were once in a lifetime, and certainly riding a swimming horse in one of the largest lakes in Africa lived up to that rule.