Monday, November 24, 2008

A 36 Hour Road Trip to Johannesburg

The departure point was most unusual for a resident of Zomba: Mangochi. And the coach was leaving at 6 am, which meant setting off from Zomba at 3:30 am. Although I was at Mangochi boma by 05:30 am, this was somewhat late as the bus was almost full by this time, meaning there was no choice in terms of what seat to get. In the end, I had to squeeze in at the back of the coach - in what was perhaps one of the few seats that had enough leg room.

For a bus leaving Malawi, you would be forgiven for thinking the main language would be Chichewa or at least English. But Mangochi is no ordinary place- it is the heart of the Yao nation. And befitting this status, the language of communication was also Yao. I therefore had to rely on the two gentlemen sitting next to me at the back seat to give me translations whenever there was communication from the crew. I must say I was impressed with the near universal communication in Yao among my fellow passengers. Here are a people, some of whom mostly live in South Africa, who don’t need any “Mulhako” to preserve their mother tongue.

Before departure, the conductor asked for a prayer and a lady in the middle of the bus gave a rather lengthy one and then we were on our way by 6:09 am. An hour into the journey, the crew passed around (lunch?) boxes of a cold meal of chicken and chips and a bottle of fanta. This turned out to be the only meal served on what was to turn out to be a 36 hour journey!

Three hours after leaving Mangochi, we arrived at Mwanza border. The crew gave instructions on the immigration procedures (in Yao of course). If one had no receipts for any foreign currency purchases, they had to include a fifty South African Rand folded in their passport to get an exit stamp. The same amount was also required for anyone using a new passport. It turns out that most people who travel on this route are individuals who previously overstayed in South Africa and process new passports (mostly with new names) when they come back to Malawi.

Anyway, although I had not carried my forex receipts, I didn’t include the required R 50 in my passport. Thankfully, the immigration officer didn’t ask me any questions and duly stamped my passport. However, on getting back to the bus, there was a group of four or five “officers” (not uniformed) at the door of the bus, checking the passports again for the receipts. If there was none, they would retain the passport on the door and ask the individuals to register their names with someone on the bus to whom R 50 would be paid to get their passports back. Again, my luck held and I was spared the ordeal.

My luck run out though as soon as we arrived at Zobwe border post onthe Mozambican side. Each passenger on the bus is required to pay R 17 for a Mozambique transit visa (perhaps the only country in the world that has such a dubious payment in addition to the standard road fees). After paying the fee, I was told my passport has a problem – I had committed the “crime” of having visited Tanzania “or Kenya or Uganda”, for which I was required to show a yellow fever vaccination certificate or “be refused entry” into Mozambique. A R100 payment to the immigration officer was required to get rid of the problem. And so, the first of the money that I thought I had saved for traveling by road went to the Mozambican immigration.

The journey from Zobwe to the town of Moatize, just before crossing the Zambezi river in Mozambique was perhaps the most difficult of the entire journey. The road is full of potholes and the bus has to go slow as the driver tries to manoeuvre around them. It is perhaps ironic that a country that looks for all manner of excuses to charge travelers fails to maintain its road network.

After some five hours of continuous traveling, we arrived at Nyamapanda border post at 15:30 in the afternoon. There was the usual long queue for the processing of exit visas on the Mozambican side plus the usual monetary requirements. Again, to get the necessary exit stamp without showing the forex bank receipts, a payment was required. I thus duly folded a R 20 note in my passport and gave it to one of the coach crew members to process. Given the lengthy queue, I must say it was R 20 well spent, as it spared me the ordeal of the hustling and jostling on the lengthy queue exit Mozambique. For that price, I also managed to move on to the Zimbabwe side of the border before another long queue formed on that side.

things are bad in Zimbabwe, and this is obvious from the numerous road signs and warnings about the need to be extra vigilant about the cholera epidemic there, the constant flow of people from Mozambique and South Africa into Zimbabwe carrying all manner of commodities etc. But, despite all those challenges, there is a positive story to tell from my trip: Zimbabwe is the only country where I didn’t have to pay any bribes to get both an entry and exit visa. The Zimbabwe immigration officers at Nyamapanda and Beitbridge were also among the quickest to process visas so much that there were never any queues at either end of the border- both on my outward and returning trips.

By the time we left Nyamapanda, it was already 6:30 pm in the evening. As a result, we saw very little of Zimbabwe country side. We reached Harare around 21:30 hours. We drove on throughout the night and arrived at Beitbridge at 05:30 am on Sunday.

We got out of Zimbabwe without any further drama only to find an extraordinarily long queue on the South African side of the border. To make matters worse, there were groups of frequent travellers who jumped the queue at will, so much that although we were in the middle of the long queue on arrival, it turned out that we were at the tail end by the time it was our turn to get our entry visas processed.

And more money flowed at Beitbridge. Individuals who had previously overstayed in South Africa were told in advance by the coach crew to get ready to pay anything between R 400 and R 600 or indeed more. On my part, I was again required to pay for my sins of having been to Tanzania – another payment of R 100.

In the end, and after a five hour long wait on the Beitbridge queue, everyone enters South Africa. Some were required to pay more than a thousand Rands, depending on the lengthy of their previous overstay in South Africa. The Beit Bridge immigration officials must be some of the wealthiest people around, no doubt.

The rest of the journey was uneventful. The scenery from Musina town to Polokwane was breathtaking. The road meanders around beautiful green and hilly countryside. It almost makes up for the extraordinarily long and tiring journey. We pass through Pretoria around 17:30 on Sunday afternoon and an hour later, the coach arrives at Johannesburg’s Park Station, thirty-six and half hours after leaving Malawi. I am naturally tired and look forward to a night’s rest before proceeding to Namibia the next day – thankfully, by air.

Was the journey worth it? The return coach ticket costs MK 31,500 while the quotation from Air Malawi for a return air ticket from Blantyre to Johannesburg was about MK 73,000. One therefore makes a saving of around K 40,000 on the ticket alone by travelling by road. After this journey, I can hold my hands up and say the savings made by traveling by road are honestly not worth the bother. The long hours on the road, added to the numerous payments one has to make, are worth more than the K 40,000 price differential.

Sadly, having committed myself to traveling by road, I also had to make the return trip – this time, of some 31 hours. Again, interspaced by lengthy queues at border posts and all manner of unusal payments.

In the end, this will in all probability be the last trip by coach

on this route. I might travel by road again – although this will most likely be by car. And then one can take in the scenery and the beauty of the country side. Otherwise, for anyone who is not prepared to go through the hustle, I would say: fly, it’s cheaper in the end.


Acacia said...

i have often wondered whether the bus is worth the hassle!! now you have proved its not... another example of corruption hitting the poor rather than the rich.

Unknown said...

I have honestly enjoyed reading the story. When you attempt to drive from Zomba (or Mangochi?) to Jozi, plan to take your time. I tried it and it was fun - never to be forgotten experience.


Unknown said...

interesting expereience by boni. reminds me of our family trip to malawi in 1996. the corruption is unreal on the macambican side.
and now on the beitbridge side it is probably worse. welcome to africa

Mbuyampungatete said...

Just seeing this post although it was done some years back. I must say you described the situation perfectly, it must find its way to the more wider publications.