Friday, April 17, 2009

M26 Between Karonga and Chipita

There are three signs in MSL for Chipita, a remote town in the far northwest of Malawi near the Zambian and Tanzanian borders. In Blantyre it’s “C” shaped hand sign in front of your face, forming a shape of the very top of Malawi meeting another hand, signifying the border of Zambia. In Chipita, it’s a “C” shaped hand above your head, outlining the top of the country border line. In Karonga, your hand snakes a few turns above your head before becoming “C” shaped and follow the shape like the second sign. The third sign is the most appropriate description especially if one is travelling to Chipita from Karonga.

Chipita, a town due northwest from Karonga is probably 150 kilometers long across southern Africa’s Great Rift Valley including many twists and turns that can last for miles. From our experience going there in a hired cab, and our return trip in a 4x4 pick-up truck the trip takes about 4 to 5 hours. I believe it is the last major motorway unpaved. The current Malawian president, Bingu wa Muthiraka, his paved road projects have made much more headway than previous presidents despite fits and starts with foreign assistance. His re-election campaign (presidential and MP election is May 19)’s motto is something like “look at the work my hands have done for Malawi” frequently with the road projects as a backdrop. M26 is facing delays possibly due to available contractors needed. And there is an uranium mine located on the motorway – we joked that Iran is buying from Malawi. Apparently, the muzugnu presence is far and few so I got more stares than I’m accustomed to. Another joke we had is I’m the real leader of the team, not Euphrasia. Once or twice during the trip, I shamelessly made the act of leading the team just to satisfy the stereotype.

Outside of Karonga, the dirt road is flattened, some areas obviously blasted and shaped for some miles and it becomes rough. Very frequently we come across a road partially collapsed by flooding (rains are frequent between November and May) and lack of maintenance. Some collapses are tiny and others are huge.

The population in northern Malawi is very sparse and the villages are far and few between Karonga and Chipita, including cars that aren’t many. I actually prayed for our cab and pick up truck not to break down in middle of nowhere. There is also a dead cell range smack in the middle. Outside of both towns, villages (growing mainly tobacco leaves, maize and cassava) were a-plenty.

On our trip to Chipita in a hired cab – it took five hours. The automobile suspension is low and whenever we tackled a difficult collapse, the men in our group – Byson, Malonje, and Haji would get out of the taxi cab and walk alongside.
Euphrasia and I remained in the taxi with the driver as he navigated the deep and/or wide crevices. Because the sun beat down on us the taxicab was stuffy and windows remained rolled down despite my left side of face and hair became grimy from the dirt. It took some good washing at the motel that night especially the crevices where my nostrils and cheeks meet. On the return trip to Karonga we rode on a pick up truck with its open bed piled with people, some standing and holding to the Hillux frame (the big black frames attached to the rear of the cab of the sporty pick up truck). The cost was probably almost cheaper by half than hiring a cab. Many lorries and pick up trucks, most of them empty after delivery would make extra cash by transporting people between the two towns, there are no minibuses or buses that travel on the route. Euphrasia and I squeezed inside the cab in one seat, and again I had the window. The driver indicated I should be the one riding inside, being white and all, but I invited Euphrasia to sit in with me. The men in our team were in the open bed with other passengers. The truck being 4x4 and higher suspension despite the heavy load of passengers in the open bed were able to navigate across the collapsed parts more easily than the taxicab and without incident. Once in a while the driver would pour water into the engine under the hood to cool it – the engine is working that hard. The trip back was shortened by one hour. The sun was really beating down and I wrapped my arm in my chitenga because it was burning. My left knee was sore from continually pressing against the door to give Euphrasia leg room, so the driver could shift gears without smacking into her leg. We encountered quite a few pedestrians along the route and the truck made stops for people to board and deboard. More people boarding actually, and I can’t imagine how the many passengers on the open bed with luggage and some produce squeezed inside the truck bed – it’s a regular sized pick up truck.

When we got off in Karonga, the passengers were encased in reddish orange dirt. Haji, our interpreter, used a t-shirt to wipe dirt out of his ears. My rucksack was also encased in dirt. I was grateful that the truck had slightly better shock absorbers than the taxicab and a little less bouncing and rattling around. Hands down, that is the toughest road I’ve ridden on. Some twist and turns would last for quite a few kilometers before returning where we turned, maybe a couple kilometers ago.


Blogger di poriazis said...

Hi Kate,

I am planning a botanical fieldtrip to Karonga/Chipita next year. Please advise name of motel lodge in Karonga and any other info. that you think may be relevant (e.g. more on the state of the roads etc.).


10/09/2009 9:56 AM  

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