Well rested and eager to continue our travels we set off from Kasama due East in a bee-line towards Malawi. Conventional overlanding wisdom was to travel to the Northern border and cross at the Chitipa border, however we noticed a road that crossed directly East. No information was available online and our enquiries in Kasama dead-ended. Under the maxim “somebody has to be the first” we took a gamble. The route involved heading to Isoka across a pontoon made infamous by a deadly 2014 capsize carrying a truck the same size as ours, followed by a rural mountain road up and over the escarpment into the Lake Malawi basin. The total journey length was estimated to be 340km, which is at the cusp of what can be achieved in a single days drive on good roads.
The dirt road from Kasama to the pontoon was a dirt road but, due to relatively light traffic, the road was in good condition. Upon reaching the pontoon the road forked, the left branch went to the pontoon, the right to a steel bridge into a Chinese construction area. The bridge was padlocked so we headed for the pontoon.
After waiting around for 10 minutes the reluctant ferrymen brought the pontoon over from the far side to meet us. The lead ferryman told us that we can’t cross because we are too heavy. When I asked what the limit was he said 10 tonnes, our truck was about 8.5 at the time. Despite this fact (complete with weigh bridge certificate) he was reluctant to let us cross. I can only assume that the recent sinking of the ferry in a similar situation was to blame. Determined to find a way across, I walked across the padlocked bridge and approached a worker. After being referred to a supervisor, then a junior foreman, then the foreman, I found myself meeting the project manager. The Chinese are infamous in Africa for their near monopoly on construction projects so it was no surprise that a Mr Cheng had the final say. Fortunately Mr Cheng seemed to be in a good mood and, after a brief exchange he agreed to let our truck cross. On my return to the truck Kim had attracted the attention of an unwanted admirer who had clearly been drinking since morning. We crossed the bridge and rejoined the road towards Isoka.
The car containing Kim’s admirer caught up with us as was eager to pass us on the single lane. Courteously I let the car pass, during which they tried to initiate a conversation. Once the car passed it tried to force us to stop. I overtook them, flattening some shrubs in the process, and refused to let them pass again. Eventually the road widened and I was unable to safely prevent them from overtaking. This time, as they forced us to stop I pulled alongside at the last moment so that we could drive away. The amorous drunk then got out and rather boldly initiated a conversation with me. With one arm over the snib I leaned toward the window to engage him in a friendly discussion, leaving the other hand free to reach for the tyre iron. Fortunately he seemed to have a change of heart and began apologising to me for his inappropriate advances. Apology accepted he took a minute to relieve himself at the roadside and got back in his car which I let go ahead. We gave them a few minutes head start to put some distance between us then continued to Isoka. The #metoo movement has explosive potential in Zambia I suspect. As we got closer and closer to the tar road to weather got worse and worse until, just 4 miles away, it started to rain.
African rain in rainy season is thick, heavy, and sudden. The dirt road turns to a mud road and the top inch or two turns to clay. Dirt roads have insufficient drainage and the runoff crisses and crosses the road on its downhill journey, eroding deep ruts as it goes. Imagine ruts a foot deep (30cm) lined with clay. At one point our rear axle slid into one of these rivers and the entire truck ended up sideways blocking the entire road. After getting out and examining the situation we made a plan to self recover which was fortunately successful and we covered the remaining miles in first gear. It took about 45 minutes to go 4 miles. Almost as soon as we reached the tar road, the rain of course stopped and a magnificent rainbow filled the sky.
In Isoka we stayed at a bungalow/cottage campsite that was so dirty we refused to use the bathrooms and remained in our truck instead. The only saving grace of the place was that it was outside of town and had some security. The next day we continued East to discover a perfect and fresh tar road, presumably part of the same project Mr Cheng was working on. Unfortunately, 40km later the tar road abruptly stopped and became a dirt road again.
As we progressed the road gradually worsened until we found ourself climbing a steep escarpment. The road weaved around corners that gradually tightened and became steeper. On one side was a densely forested slope dangling branches and vines over us, the other a sheer drop. The road thinned and widened erratically but was for the most part, a single lane. As the hour increased we found ourselves plodding along in second gear, the deafening peal of the engine occasionally interrupted by suspension creaks and the desperate tyres clawing for grip on the rocky substrate. It’s difficult to express how emotionally draining such a journey can be so try to imagine how the effort constant vigilance requires plus the physical conditions of deafening noise and internal cab temperature are confounded by time pressures to reach a destination before dark, mechanical sympathy for the vehicle, and the fear of the unknown ahead can make for a rather gruelling day.
Eventually the sat-nav informs us that we crossed into Malawi without encountering a border post of any kind. At the first village we asked what country we were in and they confirmed that we had made it to Malawi albeit unofficially. Potential smugglers take note as a few miles later we were stopped at a gate by Malawi customs but there was no immigration at all. Because we had a carnet we were allowed to pass. Unfortunately we had to drive to the Northern Chitipa border anyway to sort out our paperwork making the whole experience pointless. Perhaps an appropriate corollary to our original maxim should be “by being the first, we ensured we were also the last”.
Below is a clip of the road conditions from Kasama to Malawi.