Driving up Africa
After a week of panicky preparations I thought I had all the things absolutely necessary: a certified copy of my bakkie’s (pick up’s) registration document, a letter from the bank and from PID saying I could use the bakkie, its licence document, a police clearance certificate to prove it wasn’t stolen (issued despite the police computer being down leaving the officer unable to check whether it was stolen or not), reflective stickers on the front and back of the bakkie, two warning triangles, a fluorescent vest and a first aid kit. I hoped that these would prevent any problems with officials on the 2500km drive from South Africa, through Zimbabwe and Mozambique, to Malawi, where I will be testing and demonstrating the eVac.
I’d anticipated that the first border would be the hardest: Robert Mugabe is known not to be a fan of Brits, and I thought that this might have percolated down to his immigration and customs. I was wrong though: despite being a very long process during which I had to visit six or seven counters to hand over cash and get things inspected and stamped, it turned out to be a trouble free process.
By the time I was released into the Zimbabwean wilderness darkness had fallen. I thought this might be a bonus as the police stops I had been warned about would surely not be operational – I was wrong. At the first check point I was asked to show my drivers licence and fire extinguisher. I had read everything I could find on driving through Zimbabwe, and a fire extinguisher had never been mentioned. I joined the queue to pay my $10 fine. As I drove on I thought maybe they were concentrating on the wrong aspects of road safety- night driving was made difficult by the number of vehicles that only had one headlight working, or whose dipped headlights were enough to completely blind me - a problem in a country where cows and goats on the road are not uncommon. I decided to accept that I wasn’t going to make my planned destination that day, and stopped at a Motel I passed.
It wasn’t long the next day before I came to my second Zimbabwean police checkpoint. They too asked to see my licence and fire extinguisher. My protests only managed to get the fine reduced from $20 to $10. Police roadblocks were very frequent throughout Zimbabwe but thankfully most were straightforward and nobody asked to see my fire extinguisher again.
Leaving Zimbabwe was relatively easy, although I did have to refuse a request for $10 from the person working the gate, but this was nothing in comparison to the trouble I had with the Mozambiquans. When they saw the eVac on the back of my bakkie they demanded first $25, then $50 as a guarantee that I wouldn’t leave it in Mozambique. I was convinced they had made a mistake or misunderstood what the eVac was. They offered me the alternatives of paying a $250 deposit (I couldn’t do this as I wasn’t leaving by the same border post) or paying $250 for an escort through the country. It took me a while to realise what was really going on: any of these fees were going to go straight into their pockets. Two hours later, during which I had tried calling their bluff and accepting an escort, and they had ignored me to help somebody move some pictures from one phone to another, we were both tired of one another. Just as I was going to give in and hand over $20 (by this stage they were quite open that it was for themselves) they too gave up and signed my papers.
Mozambique felt hotter than Zimbabwe, and with no air conditioning in the bakkie I sweated my way through firstly green farmland then dry forest. Having passed many dry riverbeds I was astounded when I rounded a bend and was faced with the gigantic Zambezi river. As the sun set I crossed it on one of only three Mozambiquan bridges which span the river and then spent the night camped on its bank.
I had only one final days driving to get to Blantyre, my destination. The Malawian border officials were very grumpy: quite in contrast to the man who helped me through the process and arranged for my third party car insurance. I knew his eagerness was because he was ripping me off with the exchange rate he gave me but there was nobody else I could turn.
My first impression of Malawi is that it is an incredible country. Huge numbers of people ride bikes: often with large loads of charcoal or hay on the back. There are even bike taxis! Blantyre has lots of open space, is very clean and feels quite safe. I was in my hotel by lunch (despite getting very lost in Blantyre) and spent the rest of the day exploring my surroundings (including the Malawi National Museum), ready to start work the following day.