Want to see Malawi? Just drive there! Philip Venter and his friends did an epic road trip to the lake via Namibia and Zambia.
Want to see Malawi? Just drive there! Like Philip Venter did with his wife Adri and some friends. They didn’t book any accommodation beforehand either. Here’s their story…
Our friends Gert and Renate Heese farm near Augrabies Falls National Park. In December 2016, one of their employees, a Malawian called Freddy Soda, drowned in the Orange River in a freak accident. It was the middle of the harvest season and they couldn’t attend Freddy’s funeral in Malawi. A few months later we agreed to join them on a trip to pay respects to Freddy’s parents and to visit his grave. If we were going to drive all the way to Malawi, we decided to also visit a few other countries along the way. We’d all travel in my Audi Q5 3.0 TDI, towing a hired off-road caravan. Our planned route was about 11 500 km long and we gave ourselves three weeks. On the itinerary: classic destinations like Etosha, the Zambezi Region, Malawi and Botswana. On 6 May last year, we arrived in Upington to collect Gert and Renate. We filled the tank and four jerrycans with diesel and set off. We drove to Windhoek and stayed with friends of Gert’s for a night, then made tracks to Okaukuejo rest camp in Etosha. When we refuelled in the park, the hose of the diesel pump was too narrow for my vehicle and the fuel flap wouldn’t open. This had happened before so fortunately I had the right size hose in my emergency kit. On the way to Namutoni rest camp we
saw springbok, gemsbok, zebra, giraffe and blue cranes. At the veterinary check point just outside the gate, our caravan was searched with a fine-toothed comb. “We have to check whether you’re hiding a giraffe in there,” the inspector joked. That night we camped on a patch of green grass at Mururani Camp ( 00 264 67 240 355; 00264 81 295 7585) about 100 km from Rundu, and the next night we slept about 5 m from the Zambezi River at Island View Lodge ( islandview-lodge.com) near Katima Mulilo. It is a scenic part of Namibia and the sunset over the Zambezi River was breathtaking.
Onwards to Zambia
We arrived at the busy Kazungula border post just after 11 am. It took forever to get through and we only set foot in Zambia at 3.30 pm. We soon came across the first of many road blocks that we would encounter in Zambia and Malawi. Most of the time we passed through without any problems and we were never asked for a bribe. The Zambezi River was in flood during our visit and Vic Falls was an amazing sight. The spray of the waterfall drenched us in minutes. Someone recommended we take a taxi to the waterfall instead of driving there in our own vehicle. It’s quiet during low season and vehicles parked on their own are easy targets for criminals. The taxi ride cost US$20 (R246)
there and back and the entrance fee to see the falls was US$10 per person. We reached Lusaka late in the afternoon and got stuck in peak traffic. It took us nearly two hours to get out of the city, due in part to a truck that had broken down in the middle of the road. We looked for accommodation and pulled over at Malangano Camp about 40 km outside the city. We had our doubts about the place, but we were so tired we decided to give it a chance. The camp’s facilities turned out to be fantastic – power, hot showers and a wellstocked bar ( 00 260 96 348 5833).
A son to be proud of
The next night we stayed at Barefoot Safari Lodge ( barefoot-safaris.co.za) near Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. The facilities were a bit old, but the lawns were freshly mowed. At the lodge, we asked the manager to help us find Freddy’s parents. He called Freddy’s father, asked for directions and drew a map in my diary to guide us there. The Soda family appreciated our visit immensely. A big group of people welcomed us and we all visited Freddy’s grave together. Also present were a pastor and two tribal chiefs from the area who spoke English. They asked about Freddy and the farm. “Freddy was an excellent employee – he made my job so much easier,” Gert told them. “You can be really proud of him.” Later, Adri gave everyone raisins produced on Gert’s farm and stationery for the kids. In the afternoon we drove to Senga Bay on the shore of Lake Malawi and camped at Sunbird Livingstonia Beach Hotel ( sunbird malawi.com). The hotel had power, hot water and the service was great. A local entrepreneur took us snorkelling at nearby Namalenje Island and we saw many colourful freshwater fish species. Dinner at the hotel was traditional Malawian fare: fresh fish from the lake and spicy chicken, which cost only R150 per person including drinks.
The next morning we headed to Blantyre, where we would stay for two days with Johann and Retha van der Ham. There were many stalls next to the road selling fresh fruit and vegetables. Some also sold field mice on skewers, a local delicacy. Johann and Retha have been doing missionary work at Crown Ministries in Blantyre for 18 years. They also make films, build organic toilets and teach people how to farm sustainably. They even make cheese on their plot of land! The couple took us to see tea plantations and coffee farms around Mount Mulanje (3 002 m). The indigenous forests in among the tea plantations are protected and it’s great to see what private institutions have done to aid conservation. Still, some trees are in real danger of extinction. Like the Mulanje cedar, the national tree of Malawi – Johann told us that there are apparently only seven left on the mountain. Despite this, many craftsmen still use wood from this tree to make their crafts. Look out for yellow-coloured wood with fine brown stripes and make a point of not buying products that come from this source.
We crossed the Mwami border post back into Zambia late in the afternoon. This time, Garmin and Google weren’t very helpful when it came to finding a place to stay and we ended up setting up camp at a mission station west of the town of Katete after dark. The next afternoon we arrived in Lusaka and shopped at a new mall – one of at least four new malls that we noticed in the city. We left Lusaka on the Great Northern Road and came across a nice green spot called Fringilla Lodge ( fringillalodge.com) just before sunset. We made camp and the next morning we asked whether we could leave our caravan there while we visited friends at the Kalumbila mine near the town of Mwinilunga. The road there was the worst I’d ever driven in the Audi, but we made it without incident. We had a lovely time catching up with Colin and Jo-Anne du Plessis and once again we were impressed with the conservation efforts in the area.
One last country
Early on a Sunday we started our journey back to Lusaka. The road between the towns of Solwezi and Kitwe was in a poor condition. We stayed over at Fringilla Lodge again and set off for the Kazungula border post early the next morning. This time we crossed in less than an hour. In Botswana we spent a night at Kwalape Safari Lodge ( kwalapesafarilodge.co.bw) and another at Sepopa Swamp Stop ( sepopa-swampstop.com). At around 200 pula (R250) per person, the campsites in Botswana were more expensive than the other places we had visited. After a few days we decided it was time to go home. The final day’s drive was a 1 800 km epic. We arrived at the farm at 3 am, elated and exhausted. What a trip! We had encountered no serious problems – not even a flat tyre – and the four of us were still good friends…
RIVER TIME (opposite page). Sunset over the Zambezi at Island View Lodge near Katima Mulilo in the Zambezi Region.
SLOWLY, SLOWLY (left). The biggest challenge on the holiday was crossing the Zambezi River by pont at the Kazungula border post. It took four hours to get through.
RUB-A-DUB-DUB (below). At Senga Bay, the group boarded a leaky boat that took them to an island in Lake Malawi for some snorkelling.
CAMP HQ (bottom). Camping at Okaukuejo in Etosha was one of the trip’s highlights.
CHURCH AND STATE. At the many roadside stalls in Lilongwe you can buy anything from a yellow sachet of cooking oil to furniture (top left). You can even get a bicycle taxi to take you to your destination (above). Adri admires an Anglican cathedral in Blantyre after having visited Freddy Soda’s family, where she handed out raisins and stationery (top and above right).
PUT THE KETTLE ON. Malawi is known for its tea and coffee plantations. Make time to visit one and walk around the farm, like Renate Heese did (top). The farm house on Satemwa Tea & Coffee Estate in southern Malawi dates from 1923 (above). These days it’s a boutique hotel where you can enjoy a great cup of tea or coffee in a garden setting.
WHERE TEA COMES FROM. Mount Mulanje stands guard over this tea plantation in Malawi.