Malawi Car Woes


After an inspiring two days in Mzuzu, Northern Malawi visiting with some of Flame Tree Initiative’s entrepreneurs, Wayne, Tricia, and I started off on our journey toward Blantyre. We anticipated the drive would take a little over nine hours plus a few quick stops, so we were prepared for a long travel day in our Toyota Hilux.

We made our way over to Nkhata Bay, a small town on the shore of Lake Malawi. Tricia and I hopped out to take our Instagram photos before Wayne hurried us back in the car.

We opted for the winding, more scenic Lake Shore road. (More photo opportunities and less traffic, since we could avoid the capitol city of Lilongwe that way.) Wayne, with his two new knees, didn’t mind taking the wheel for much of the day.

Along the way, we passed villages, farms, and caught glimpses of the lake. No more than an hour later, we heard this loud noise and pulled over. Sure enough: our back passenger tire was flat. More than flat, shredded and certainly unsalvageable. We unloaded all of our luggage to dig around in the back for the necessary tools to change it. We looked everywhere and came up with only a lug wrench. We were missing the jack!

As Jones likes to remind us, T.I.A. (This Is Africa).

Since none of us has superhuman strength to lift the car up to remove the tire, we were forced to turn back to the town of Kande. We pulled into a dirt drive, naturally drawing a lot of attention to ourselves. A young man jumped right up to help us out and took a look at the damage. He took me to the nearby mechanic who happily brought over the needed jack. Soon enough, there were three other gentlemen working away. Within half an hour, we were back on the road, albeit driving cautiously knowing that we didn’t have another spare.

A few hours later after a pit stop for coffee in the town of Salima, it was my turn to drive. Wayne’s break was well-deserved. The final stretch from Salima to Blantyre should take about 3.5 hours. Easy!

However, things did not go as planned. As soon as we turned left out of the parking lot, the rains started. They came and went, sometimes only sprinkling and other times completely down-pouring. Side roads were flooding and spilling over onto highway M5.

Roadways in Malawi suffer from poor maintenance. The edge of the road is often eroded, resulting in a smaller and smaller shoulder. I found that there was often more traffic on the shoulder than on the roadway itself, as many people use the shoulder to walk or bike. We saw children walking along the road to go to school or women carrying their groceries home from the market. This meant, we often have to drive well across the middle line to give pedestrians plenty of space.

In the rain, all of this became more difficult. Not only was it a challenge just to see the lines on the road, but it was tough to see if there were any people walking alongside the road.

Now, in addition to the monsoon-like rains (that did cause significant flooding damage in the southern region of Malawi), the sun then went down. I’m not sure if Malawians choose not to use headlights or if they don’t function in many vehicles, but that added another level of excitement to the remainder of our drive. Combine that with getting trapped behind a caravan of semi-trucks and dump trucks and the drive was less than ideal. The rain, poor visibility, and slow acceleration of our vehicle made it totally unsafe to attempt a pass. We were stuck going some 30 mph for the remainder of the drive.

Our 3.5 hour drive turned into a 5 hour white-knuckle drive. We arrived safely – and stressed – in Blantyre, where we settled into our hotel, scarfed down some dinner, and got a much needed night’s rest.

A few days later, after we had made our way down to MUST (Malawi University of Science and Technology) where we would be staying during the course of the DELab, we woke up to find the car battery dead. Fortunately, Jones was able to get some assistance with jumping the car (although we were surprised to find that we didn’t have any jumper cables) and we were off. No big deal. However, at the end of the work day, the battery was dead again. One of our very kind DELab participants was able to jump the battery for us.

Rinse and repeat. Each time we turned the car off, we were worried that it wouldn’t start again. Our worries were proven to be substantiated time and time again. We suspected that we had a bad battery, but we didn’t have the time or the know-how to purchase a new battery.

After the close of the DELab “Dolphin Tank”, we made it back to Blantyre without a hiccup. But the car battery died again in the Dzuka Africa parking lot, but our wonderful partners helped us out again with a jump. We arrived back to Annie’s Lodge exhausted after the week. Knowing the battery was likely to die again, we settled in feeling dejected.

After a shorter-than-we-would-have-liked night’s sleep, we woke up in the morning to find not only a dead battery, but ANOTHER flat tire.

We determined the cause of the flat was only a faulty valve stem, so fortunately that was an easy fix. With the help of the staff at the lodge, we got the tire off, wheeled it on foot to a nearby gas station, filled it with air, put it back on the vehicle, then jumped the battery. Only another hour delay. T.I.A.

Jones drove us back to Lilongwe, where we would stay until we returned to the U.S. He also helped us to find another car rental for our last few days. Better late than never!

Car reliability is key when traveling and I think we all learned some lessons with this rental experience. I will say that I’m proud of the team’s patience and ability to keep a sense of humor despite the challenges.

Next time, I’ll check the tires.