A blog about traveling around Africa is going to have a lot of posts about bus rides, after all, it’s the transport of choice. Actually, scrap that. There is no choice for backpackers and locals alike. But this particular bus ride was a ride like no other. Definitely a laugh, or you might cry type of adventure.
With a bit of tramping around the bus station, we managed to find a “big” bus that was heading to Monkey Bay. I made the mistake of taking my pack off next to the bus and before I could yell out “I’ll do it” someone had grabbed it saying luggage had to go onboard.
So, I followed him onto the bus to where he found space for our bags but unfortunately no space for us. The only empty seats we were told, were saved for people still to arrive.
We waited 2 hours. About an hour for the bus to become full, as in all seats full and the corridor full of standing people. Then we waited another hour for the luggage to be loaded on the roof.
I clapped with excitement when the bus finally took off and it seemed like the whole bus turned around laughing at the funny foreigner and potentially sharing my delight. My traveling mate was seated on his backpack in the gap between two seats and I had managed to get half of my butt onto the edge of a seat which I was sharing with a young boy. Although truth be told he had no option in the matter, I was sharing his seat whether he liked it or not. The excitement of taking off was short lived, we stopped 5 minutes later to get petrol. This was only the first of many stops/adventures to come.
The excitement of taking off was short lived, we stopped 5 minutes later to get petrol. And sadly this was only the first of many stops/adventures to come.
Don’t Get The Big Bus
Later that night a local lady at our accommodation told us we’d made the error of getting on the “big” bus. That they are notoriously slow. Yes, indeed they really are. Not only do they drive slowly, they stop many times for lengthy periods and then, they break down. Well, ours did.
After about 20 minutes with no movement and on asking the question we were told it was a “mechanical fault” that was to blame. Aha! Carl found evidence of this very fact on leaning out the window and seeing a body under the bus around the locale of the engine. While most people got off the bus, got back on again and then off again we sat and chatted with friends on our Smartphones. That is until the fight broke out!
As the noise levels rose, so did our heads and our attention. Two local women were at it. Scratching each other and throwing punches all while the rest of the bus either tried to drag them apart or egg them on. The whole village seemed to appear from nowhere as the fight slowed down and then escalated again. Carl and I, unsure what to do and with our tension cords already taunt, decided to have a beer. The fact they were Carlsberg and warm was beside the point.
One of the fighters returned to her seat and child, two rows in front of us with her singlet ripped while the other lady appeared outside, scratches on her face, being supported by the village. And so “the break down” went on while we finished our beers and the chicken on board with his legs tied together squawked (in protest?) under the seat in front.
And so “the break down” went on while we finished our beers and the chicken on board with his legs tied together squawked (in protest?) under the seat in front.
We got chatting to a teacher on the bus who was kindly explaining what was happening as things unraveled, and who kindly volunteered to take me to a nearby house so I could borrow the toilet. One has to find the positives in each situation and without our breakdown, I couldn’t possibly have had the experience of using the loo in a rural village in Malawi.
Full Monty Flash Backs
I may have been the first white person ever to use their loo, if the reaction of the young girls, the kids, the dogs and the chickens that greeted me was anything to go by. It was a small, outside bricked building with a concrete floor. Needless to say, it came without instructions so I took a calculated guess that I was to aim for the CD cover-sized square hole in the centre. Flash-backs to the British movie, Full Monty came to mind.
A Two Wheeled Thief
I hadn’t been back on the bus for 10 minutes when another event caused excitement and drew some of the bus passengers off down the road. Turns out a guy had been caught stealing a bicycle, in the middle of the day in a small village, not sure how he thought he was going to get away with that. We watched out of the safety of the bus windows as once again the whole village streamed out onto the road to surround the thief. Unfortunately for the thief, mob punishment prevailed as he was “sorted out” before being taken off to the police.
Breakdown time lasted for two hours and finally the engine spluttered back into life and we headed off in a cloud of smoke. Everyone had settled back into the peaceful lull only the rhythmic rolling of wheels on a tarmac road can cause when people on the left side of the bus started yelling in unison. The bus braked suddenly and then started reversing until 400 metres later we realised one of the bags from the roof had ended up in the middle of the road.
Now I was very thankful to the man for hauling my back onboard without me asking for it. My massive toiletry bag would never have survived a tumble like that.
Arriving at Monkey Bay
Our 4.5 hour “big” bus ride ended up taking about 10 hours from boarding to disembarked but what a hoot! My leg and butt muscles weren’t taking the experience with quite the same lighted heartedness as my mind was, however, as they unenthusiastically helped me off the bus.
We hadn’t planned on staying in Monkey Bay but now there was no option, we let two locals lead us towards the Monkey Bay Lodge. To finish the day off nicely the whole town had no power and we walked in the dark, trusting these guys not to be leading us into a lakeside ambush.
Guys dressed in camouflage and carrying guns loomed out of the dark and I’m not sure if that made me feel safer or more like I was about to be hung, drawn and quartered. On arriving with no lighting, there was nothing more to do than lay on our beds, which our bodies thanked us for, and wait for dinner.
There were two options on the menu, fish and chips or chicken and chips but the bed was like a sponge and sleep was bliss that night even though the mosquitos were biting me, from inside the mosquito net.
Motorbikes to Cape Maclear
The same guys that had taken us to our accommodation were back in the morning wanting us to book a motorbike over the hill to Cape Maclear with them. Which we did and it was a pretty picturesque dirt and tarmac road viewed from the back of a motorbike, through to Cape Maclear. Finally, we’d made it and it was very much worth it to be on this massive lake that so feels like an ocean with sandy beaches, sun loungers and all.
- The “big” bus from Lilongwe to Monkey Bay cost 3000 kwacha ($4.16 usd)
- Wherever the bus stops you can buy food from the sellers that gravitate around it, samosa’s, fruit, sweet peas and if you’re game, whole mice bbq’ed on a stick
- The motorbike taxi’s cost approx. 1000-2000 kwacha ($1.35-$2.77 usd)
- the motorbikes all sit waiting for passengers on the main road out of town heading towards Blantyre
- they have helmets although not great ones
- most of them have a luggage carrying on the back to house your backpack/suitcase
- the trip on the motorbike from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear takes about 15-20 minutes
- Monkey Bay Lodge was 6000k ($8.3 usd) a night which is a little steep for this area but it was clean, had comfortable beds, mosquito nets, a hot shower and food available at request. Breakfast of two eggs, hot chips, and coffee or tea was included. It’s at least a 10 min walk from where the bus drops you off but you do wake up on the water and the grounds are nice and green
- Venice Beach Lodge is another suggestion of what’s available in Monkey Bay