It was four days before Christmas.
“It’ll be tough hitching on Christmas,” Hope mentioned. “Everyone will be celebrating with family so no one will be on the roads.”
We had about 600 K’s to traverse and beat the supposed day of birth of a supposed savior. But first, why not start the day with an 8-K hike down a mountain? We had the upper hand of knowing where the shortcuts were. The underhand was that after 19 months of travel, I was finally caught out in torrential rains with all my gear. It turned most of the shortcuts into slippery mini waterfalls. The few cars that slowly ploughed their way down the mountain were filled to capacity (although capacity in Africa usually means a minimum of 47 people in a standard-sized car).
We kept trudging, slipping in the mud (but not falling) until we reached the main road five hours later. The torrential rain conveniently stopped when we reached the bottom of the mountain.
We were hoping to reach Nkhata Bay where a package from home was awaiting at the post office. My mother had sent me a new camera she wasn’t using, a bag of cookies and Animal 2.0 (my brother spent a week in Amsterdam and found the original Animal’s cousin). But it was already 15:00 when we reached the road in the town of Chilamba and the hike with all our gear had taken its toll. I spotted a Rasatafarian-themed roadside lodge called African Teachers Lodge.
“Would we be able to pitch a tent in exchange for playing some music?” I asked Rasta Elijah.
He grinned and welcomed us with open arms. “Not a problem, my brother. Jah bless ya.”
“Arie, brother,” I pounded his offered knuckles and tapped my chest.
We pitched our tent and I strung up my hammock between two papaya trees.
Hope and I jammed that night to an audience of three (really, it was a rehearsal on some new and old material). Rasta Elijah even provided us with a sumptuous dinner of rice and beans. Knackered from the day’s slippery hike, we attempted sleep in the hammock. A bright fluorescent light was strategically placed above our heads. Add the constant comings and goings of locals and we retreated to the heat of the sauna-like tent.
The next morning we arose early and headed to the lake for a morning dip. We hit the road only to stay around for a couple of hours. I was playing Cats in the Cradle with a local girl (and failing) when Fred stopped for us. He took us all the way to Mzuzu. He even went out of his way to drop us at Joy’s Place, a hostel that I had heard good things about.
“We just gave away our last room,” said Justin, the Irishman behind the counter willing to give us a room for a gig. “And we don’t have camping facilities. But,” he called his friend, Bernard, the new owner of Mzuzu Zoo Lodge to see if he had any room. “He does,” was the brightening response.
Thanking him, we headed out, flagging down a car that took us just shy of the lodge, saving us another grueling hike. We were granted a small room and later, some friends we had met at the Mushroom Farm – a German couple and Henry, a South African – arrived. We played a set for a room of six with a request of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ which I played as a country-styled\reggae number.
The next morning we got a ride with a local girl. She dropped us off at the main road and Hope and I began a 7-K hike heading towards the police roadblock where I was last assisted with a ride at the beginning of December.
The heat of the day was stifling to say the least. It was so hot you could cook eggs on the road. A pickup truck pulled over and offered us a ride to Nkhata Bay. At the above mentioned police roadblock, the same officer who had helped me the last time demanded to play one song on my guitar.
Reluctantly, I took ol’ Red out and he jammed a tune. It’s not that I mind anyone playing my guitar. I just really wanted to get to Nkhata Bay, pick up my package and set out on the 500 K’s to Blantyre.
After the jam and a speedy ride down the mountain, I left Hope with our bags at the police checkpoint leading to Nkhata Bay and hiked the 3 K’s to the post office. My package claimed and reunited with Animal 2.0, I hitched a ride back where the police pointed out a car that might help us.
“I’m only going about a hundred K’s to Dwanga,” offered the driver.
“That’s fine,” I said.
We hopped in the back where we chatted with a local guy who pointed out the rubber tree plantations along the road. We were dropped off in the centre of town so we hiked to the outskirts and stood by a billboard.
We sat on our bags as we attempted to hitch a ride. An elderly woman from the hut by the road approached us with a wooden bench (it made me wonder why locals will go out of their way to help a foreigner yet turn a blind eye to a fellow countryman. And not just in Africa, everywhere. Even in Oz.
Humans are weird).
After two hours in the sun I managed to flag down a truck that took us about a hundred K’s to Nkhotakhota where we were dropped off just before the Yanu Yanu Lodge. It was already getting dark so we figured to try and barter for a bed.
“We will assist you,” offered Liam, the owner of Yanu Yanu, “but you don’t have to play music.” It was almost as though he was afraid of the devil’s rock ‘n’ roll we’d emit. Most of the evening Hope and I battled against the crickets that demanded to share our room and bed, regardless of the mosquito net.
The next morning I was determined to make it to Blantyre by the end of the day. We hiked about 2 K’s to get out of town and I flagged down a bakkie.
“Where are you going?” I asked the driver.
“Blantyre,” he answered.
I looked in the backseat filled with bags and sacks of potatoes. The back was full of charcoal.
“Er, that’s where we need to go but I don’t think you have room,” I said.
“No, we don’t.”
“So, er, thanks for stopping and happy holidays,” I said watching a potential ride zip by.
Using the strategy of walking with our gear to appear slightly pathetic, a car full of Indians pulled over.
“Salima,” the driver answered my query. After the usual explanation of our moneyless ways, his Indian boss told us to hop on. Halfway down the road they pulled over.
“Breakfast,” they said. “We made curry.”
They handed us plates and home-made na’an bread that we dipped into the most delicious chickpea curry I have ever introduced my taste buds to. As we continued to Salima we got caught in the rain. At the intersection that leads the 300 K’s to Blantyre from Salima we were dropped off.
It didn’t look promising. Locals were pestering, bike taxi riders stood staring at us, distortion blared from local bars, continuous beeping horns attempted to attract passengers.
“We need beer,” Hope suggested.
And after retrieving two cold brewskies from the nearby local bar we decided to hike out of Salima and wait on the outskirts near the villages. For the next three hours we baked in the sun, got distracted by colourful grasshoppers, pretend-chasing local village kids that came up and demanded money until finally, a UNICEF pickup pulled over.
“Where are you going?” I smiled into the cabin.
“Blantyre,” grinned Simon, the driver.
After explaining our penniless ways and throwing in, “It being Christmas and all,” we were granted passage.
Three hours later, passing through remote villages, alongside majestic green mountain ranges that seemed to grow higher with every passing kilometre, just as another onset of monsoon rains descended on us, we finally reached Blantyre, lightning flashing across the sky, thunder rumbling until it cracked, like a stomach preparing its bearer for a massive burp. And it was here that Kanthungo, our couhsurfing host picked us up from the service station we were dropped at.
“What are you doing for Christmas?” I asked him as he drove us home.
“Well,” he began, “I was thinking of going to Cape Maclear with my wife and friends but my friends don’t want to go so,” he looked at us, “do you want to go to Cape Maclear for two days?”
“Hope?” I threw it to her.
“Let’s go to Cape Maclear,” I grinned.
Even though it was closer to where we had started the day from, we’d be riding in style with a playlist I’d devise, sandwiches and dip that Hope and I would make and hopefully be able to barter a bed in exchange for a gig.
It being Christmas and all.