1989 opened a window of international adventure for me. My dad and I flew to Botswana and then drove back to Malawi through Zambia. We were hosted in Gaborone by our family friends, the Makwitis. At that time, Malawi’s flag carrier was the now defunct Air Malawi. It had a BAC111 aircraft which handled regional flights gracefully. It was my first time to experience bumps in mid-air, so much for a graceful flight. Who knew the skies could be so rough. Once in Gaborone, it was a wonder to see how our friends already had a national TV broadcast. At that time, Malawi was not interested in beaming video programming to the nation. What was amazing in Botswana was the abundance of huge, juicy apples. And what’s more, I could eat as many as I wanted, anytime. Back home, apples of such size had to be imported, and were luxury fruits together with grapes, apricots and pears. These had to be taken in moderation.
We were taken to several farms for a tour. I had never seen such huge cows that were raised for diary. Their udders nearly touched the ground. These were especially cared for animals, wedge shaped as if they were holograms. They all looked well fed. These were in sharp contrast to the Zebu cattle I was used to seeing back home. Zebu cattle is a local breed designed to survive the hot savanna environment. It is lean, sometimes bony and packed with strong, tough muscle. Beef from a Zebu often times requires a tenderizer, and the milk comes in drops. Okay, may I’ve exaggerated a little bit. But a Zebu is not known for milk production.
Afterwards, we were taken to see how plants are raised in greenhouses. They were planting on dry rough soil, but were using drip irrigation. Rows of thin pipes ran along the greenhouse structure, and little holes were made next to the plant. As a result, each plant was green, tall and healthy, surrounded by very dry soil. Botswana being a desert in most parts, offered such a vivid contradiction that has remained in my mind up to this day. This was how agriculture was supposed to be practiced.
Then we went to another farm where they were generating bio-gas for lighting and cooking from cow dung. We saw where the dung was piled, mixed with water and sealed for the gas production. Then there was a plant that was harvesting the gas and putting it into gas cylinders. I think the gas might have been methane. I was still in Primary School at the time but my mind was blown away. Then we went to see the biggest dam in Gaborone at that time. This was the source of potable water for the Capital City of Botswana. It looked modern, well looked after and the water looked fresh. Everywhere else everything was very dry. How they managed to harvest that water and keep the levels full was an amazing feat of science and conservation.
We then went to see the exchange for diamond trade. It was big, modern and imposing. I was impressed but not as much as the agricultural wonders I had seen. Then there was devil’s claws. This was some medicinal herbs harvested from one of Botswana’s thorny flora. The vegetation was predominantly thorny, typical of semi-arid conditions. I think the devil’s claws were used a general body tonic, cleansing the systems from the head to the toe. It was supposed to be bitter, or perhaps that was another herbal tonic made from another thorny bush. Up to this day, I have often wondered how the claws taste.
Soon it was time to take leave. We said our goodbyes and jumped into our newly acquired second-hand Toyota Cressida and took a road trip. We had a huge map covering Botswana, Zambia and Malawi. This is when I learnt how to read maps and estimate time for the trip. It was exciting. We left for the north, and went past Francistown heading to Masina. At one point we found a cattle carcass on the road. It was surrounded by vultures. I have never seen such huge birds in my life. They were easily over a meter high and when they opened their wings, the wingspan was nearly wider than our car. These were flying monsters. Thank God, that they do not hunt living prey otherwise we would have been all in big trouble. One could see that each bird was taking a huge effort to get airborne. We had to stop in the middle of the road just to allow them to clear the crime scene – cows do not just collapse and die in the middle of the road. Someone must have hit the poor animal, but that had become dinner to the flying garbage trucks.
When we reached Masina, we checked into a lodge and settled for the night. I had quit eating pork at that stage, but when dinner was served, I saw a well-sliced super beautiful piece of goodness on my dad’s plate. I just had to follow suit. Ah, some weak minded people before the temptations of the forbidden meat. In the morning at breakfast, I had my first grapefruit that tasted sweet without the usual accompaniment of bitterness from its skin. When we inquired about that, we were informed that these were sliced by sharp electric knives. I have never tasted grapefruit since that time as good as that one. Maybe one day I will return and see if it is still being served. This was in 1989 mind you.
Then we crossed the mighty Zambezi river on a ferry into Zambia. We had to spend the whole day in the Livingstone Town because it took my dad forever to figure out how to clear the car. He went from office to office trying to get the papers signed by the relevant officials. When it was nearly dark, a well wisher informed my dad that his forms were missing “extra paper”. When it finally dawned on what that meant, he pulled out his wallet and added “extra paper” to the forms. Within minutes the car was cleared and we left for Lusaka, the Capital City of Zambia. Up to this day, I do not know why we did not drive from Livingstone Town to Victoria Falls, just a stone throw away. These are world famous, and best viewed from either the Zimbabwean side or the Zambian side. We were taught in school that these are the biggest falls in Africa. They are still on my Bucket List.
In Zambia, a good size of the population speak Chinyanja, a dialect of Chichewa, the predominant local language spoken across Malawi. So it was very easy to converse with people on the street to the chagrin of my dad. It is probably in Zambia where I became a tourist. Suddenly I found myself blending very well with the street vendors. They enjoyed my naivety and curiosity and in turn I enjoyed their random questions. While dad’s horror of his 12 year old getting into wrong company was unfolding at every stop, I was busy absorbing the feel and sounds of the streets. Up to this day, I get on very well with friends from Zambia. In fact, in 2012, I took another road trip with Lighton Phiri, one of my good Zambian friends, from Cape Town to Lesotho and back. But that is a story for another day.
Along the way we came across Luangwa River, which cuts across another world famous Luangwa Rift Valley. It has been touted as the Garden of Eden, and one can easily see why. The river looked imposing, though I was not sure one could take a swim there. The cruel joke with most beautiful rivers in Southern Africa is that they have a presence of crocodiles, and those brothers don’t take practical jokes. You swim at your own peril. So, as a principle, I watch the beauty from a distance, longing for the day when we will have crocodile repellent.
Before you know it, we were at the Zambia-Malawi border at Chipata. We crossed ito Mchinji, the border district on the Malawian side. Mchinji is another beautiful area. It is flat just like the neighbouring Lilongwe, being part of the Central Region plains. And Mchinji has good sandy loam soils suitable for all sorts of crops. And I have just been recently told that there is also a good hill for hiking there. I don’t recall seeing it at that time, but then it has been ages ago and some things tend to fade away with the passage of time.
The familiar voices at the border was such a welcoming sound. I felt I was home, when probably before the trip, it would still have felt like I was away from home. Everyone who spoke my language was like a cousin, uncle or aunt. This is one benefit that comes out of travelling. It makes you appreciate home much more than before. Of course, it also gives you a different perspective on life, which is a very good thing.
I came back home, having fallen in love with agriculture, nature and travel. The food was good, but the only outstanding thing up to this day was the juicy, sweet grapefruit I ate at a lodge in Masina, the border town north of Botswana. And the sight of the vultures – boy, were they so big. This was a road trip worth taking.