A British couple run Ntchisi Forest lodge and upon hearing that we were going to Nkhata Bay, they recommended a “shortcut” that meant 51 km on a dirt road traveling down the escarpment. Having experienced the roads to the lodge the day before and knowing the rain wasn’t going to improve their condition, we asked again, were they sure that this “shortcut” was a good idea? Oh yes, they said. No problem. We might slide a little, but the road should be fine. It should take us four hours to get to Nkhata Bay. They drew us a map and said that we couldn’t get lost because all of the roads led to the lake.
We set off and were at first impressed with the condition of the roads. We made it down the biggest hill with a minor skid, but all in all it was fine. We were driving deep in the countryside, in areas that hadn’t seen cars since before the rainy season, five months ago. People in villages stopped and stared at the four azungu. Children chased the car, running and waving. We loved getting to see a Malawi that we hadn’t seen before.
An hour and half in, the road got progressively worse. We traveled through overgrown elephant grass taller than the car. Pierce bumped and bounced through small creeks and large potholes.
Eventually we drove down a road that got more and more narrow. People stared but looked more concerned for us than confused by us. Several men caught our attention and told us to turn around. The bridge ahead had been washed out and we’d have to turn around. They gestured that we should turn down a side road to bypass the bridge. The mud that made up the road looked a foot deep.
We made it the first hundred yards with no problem but then got wedged in a mud track that caught the wheels and we slid forward at a sharp angle. Tall grass lined either side of the road, except right where the mud track was leading the car – there stood a small but sturdy tree. We backed up and tried again. It was as if the tree was a huge magnet, drawing the car towards it. We tried a fourth and fifth time. We could not escape the tree and came extremely close to hitting it.
By this time, a crowd had gathered, watching the mzungu continually drive towards a tree. It was hard to tell from the outside that the tires were trapped by the mud. They kept indicating that Sandy needed to simply turn the wheel. Inside the car we were getting more and more frustrated. Someone at one point suggested we get an axe and chop the tree down.
After ten minutes of this, the men from the village realized they were going to have to push the car to get us out of the mud ruts. Kevin and Jackson got out to help. After several attempts and driving backwards, then forwards, and the tires slinging mud in every direction, we made it past the damned tree. We offered the men who’d helped several thousand kwacha, waved goodbye to our new friends and were on our way.
We continued on. And on. And on. the next hour and a half was broken up by Jackson spotting someone in a small village wearing an Arkansas football shirt. We stopped to chat and take a picture with him.
We had descended down from the cool misty hills and it was getting hotter. While we stopped to ask directions, not many people spoke English or knew how many kilometers we had left to get to the lake. The 51 km were feeling like 551. The road was rutted and rocky. The shocks on the car were taking a beating and those of us on the back seat felt like we were in an ox cart. Sandy was exhausted as the road was taking all of his concentration. We had thought that we would be on the tarmac and halfway to Nkahta Bay by this time. After three hours, one person we stopped thought we had another 30 km to go. Our morale hit rock bottom. We were hot, tired, hungry, thirsty, and sick of that road.
Finally, we found that we were slowly approaching the M5, the tarmac road that runs the length of the lake. Ecstatic, the relief we all felt was palpable. It had clearly just rained really hard, as water was draining across the length of the road and there were huge puddles on either side. Sandy had to chose a way forward. There was a large group of people on the left, so he chose to veer right and through the large puddle.
It wasn’t a puddle. It was a gigantic hole. The car tipped forward, the front right wheel sinking two feet into deep water, back left tire in the air, balancing on the axle with a huge thud.
We all sat stunned for twenty seconds. No one moved or spoke. We were worried the car would flip on its side. That the axle was broken. That the water was deep enough to flood the engine.
The hundreds of people milling about reacted loudly and were quick to surround the car and offer help.
Once the shock wore off, we climbed out of the car and into the steam of water. Fortunately the shift in weight didn’t flip the car on its side. It started to rain again. People were four deep, surrounding the car. I waded through people and water and stood under the roof of a small store.
Startled, my hands were shaking. A kind Malawian man smiled and me and said not to worry, they would soon have us on our way.
Sandy kept his cool and negotiated with a man who had come forward offering to organize help. For several thousand kwacha, they would lift Pierce out of the hole. The man was efficient and made sure that all of the men worked together. They surrounded the car and got ready to lift. Now, this is a huge car. This car weighs a ton. Literally. Amazingly, thirty or so men were able to use their strength to lift Pierce four feet in the air, right him, and then set him on the road.
Within twenty minutes, we were in the car, turning onto the M5, waving goodbye to even more new friends who had done a good deed and made a little money.
It took us awhile to recover from the fear and shock. Had we been in our Rav 4, we would have tipped over. Had we been in a car with less clearance, the engine would have been flooded. Fortunately we had Pierce and he was just fine. Perhaps most importantly there were dozens of people on hand to help us.
Exhausted, we changed our plan and decided to stay the night in Nkhotakota. Luckily they had rooms available and within thirty minutes, we were relaxing on the khonde, drinking a much deserved beer.