Poor countries with well-paved roads and high fuel prices make good news for foreign cyclists. Welcome to little land-locked Malawi, which surely has the highest fuel costs on the continent? It’s something you probaby didn’t know, unless you were unfortunate to be living and driving a car here.
A litre of petrol when available here costs 380 Kwatcha (£1.50) from a fuel pump, and more like £2-3 on the black market from roadside jerry cans. Only the very rich can afford to have a car and run it – true throughout much of Africa, but more so in Malawi.
Malawi’s fuel crisis just seems to be one of many problems currently facing the country. There is also the lack of rains ruining the vital maize crop, the fall in the price of the country’s biggest cash-crop earner – tobacco, massive increases in the price of foodstuffs due to fuel costs, and then foriegn aid which the country so depends upon being affected by the departure of the British ambassador. He was kicked out of the country earlier this year for calling the President an autocrat.
One wonders how Malawians still smile, for the warm heart of Africa, as the country gets dubbed in tourist literature, remains just that.
Besides the smiles, Malawi greeted me on arrival with a free 30-day stay and a mountain to climb. At first I had no intention to scale Mt Mulanje. Besides lacking a backpack, waterproof clothes or having any information about the mountain, I naturally assumed there would be some irritating complications like permits to apply for and entry fees. Fortunately there were none of these and the cost of a guide was about as cheap as I could have hoped for. It might not have been Kilimanjaro, but hardly anyone seems to hike up onto the Mulanje massif and the views below to tea plantations and waterfalls were well worth the steep ascent.
Almost everyone seems to speak English and use a bicycle in Malawi, if not to transport goods, then as a taxi service. This makes for great on-the-road company. Part of me feels sorry for those whose livelihood depends on the fuel situation (which in truth is almost everyone) but the sound and sight of bicycles dominating a national highway might make Malawi one of the best countries to cycle through in Africa.
It was on one such bicycle-dominated highway that I left the scenic surroundings of the Mulanje massif and headed to the country’s commercial capital – Blantyre. At first I wondered if I’d arrived during a national holiday. The centre seemed to be about as alive as the person whose name the city was named in honour of. David Livingstone was born in Blantyre, Scotland. Anywhere else would be abuzz with motorbike taxis and bustling street stalls. Surely people should have been out on the street deploring the economic situation and the fuel crisis?
I stayed with the Country Director of a large NGO here. Having married a Ghanian and lived and worked there and in Nigeria he agreed that Blantyre and Malawi was lacking the West African vibe. “Great place if you want the quiet life with family” Pretty dull otherwise.
From Blantyre I’ve moved north. Totally the wrong direction, but seeming that Malawi is so small and scenic (I came here 11 years ago) I decided it was worth to see more of the country. Particularly Lake Malawi, Africa’s 3rd largest body of fresh water, which is where I await a journey on the MV Illala.