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DA in Malawi


Ford Everest in Malawi
Everest - the Ford...not the mountain

"Sorry!" I shout as my passengers’ heads make contact with the roof-lining yet again. This is the real use for 4x4s. Not mud-plugging or green-laning for fun, no, this is the real deal. OK, it’s not strictly off-roading - this rutted, rock-scattered track is classed as a road in Malawi, but it’s as rough as any green lane or off road course I’ve driven. The reason for the apology? I’ve missed the deep drainage rut in the road, lost in the dust kicked up by the Landcruiser I’m following up the mountain side. The resulting jar is magnified, not softened, by the rear suspension and my passengers experience brief weightlessness, moments before they are brought into contact with said roof. I am in Malawi with the Co-operative (supermarket group) filming projects paid for by the Fairtrade scheme that the Co-op supermarket chain supports.

Ford Everest in Malawi

Our convoy, winding it’s way up a track cut into the brick red soil of the Mulanje district of Malawi, consists of a Nissan 4x4 Pick-Up, a Toyota Prada (Landcruiser in the UK), a Toyota Fortuna, and me driving the Ford Everest. Two of these 4x4s we don’t get in the UK - the Fortuna is a plush, Range Rover rivalling model just out in Africa and is very smart. From some angles it has the look of the previous ML series Merc. The engine is a 160bhp 3.0ltr D with 252lb of the pulling stuff. The Ford Everest is best described as a Ford Ranger with a full body and, as it belongs to the company I work for, it’s my wheels for the week-long visit to this stunning country.

We started the day on the smooth tarmac of the main highway that runs down the spine of Malawi, and the Ford, which is fitted with a 2.5 Turbo Diesel, struggled to keep up with the Toyotas. I was beginning to wonder where the 2ltrs had gone but the fuel in these parts is poor and quality varies so I was told not to expect any more.

When you’re learning to drive you are taught to use the mantra "Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre", over there you need to add "BLOW YOUR HORN" as every overtake is signalled with a "toot toot" to give due notice to the bicycle, Hi-Ace minibus or truck that you’re coming past. Mirrors on your vehicle are a luxury and, in all honesty, most of the three means of transport listed above are usually so overloaded that they couldn’t see behind them even if they were fitted. It would also appear that many of the cyclists can’t look behind them without veering off to the left which results in many amusing low speed bike crashes as the roads are lined with ditches.

The lead Toyota pulls off the tarmac on to the dirt road to visit a tea plant nursery. I leave the Ford in 2-wheel drive as the road is hard and smooth, if very dusty. By now the Everest had been christened the "film unit" as I’ve got Mike the cameraman and Dave the stills photographer - here to record the trip for a DVD that the Co-op are producing to show their customers what a difference they are making by buying Fairtrade products. Riding shotgun is a young Malawian, Pelile, who works with the Tea processing company and has offered to help with directions as I haven’t seen one road sign since we left the commercial capital Limbe. He’s keen to find out what I think of the Everest as he has a Nissan saloon which is falling apart under the pounding it receives on the roads and tracks which make up the majority of his daily motoring. He wants a 4x4 and he likes the look of the Ford. I have to admit it’s not a bad looking motor and in Malawi it’s unusual in that it’s finished in metallic blue not the white which the majority of other vehicles are.

We leave the smiling faces of the locals at the tea nursery where the future tea bushes, paid for by Fairtrade, are raised before planting in the fields which stretch from horizon to horizon in this part of Malawi. Back on the tarmac the rain starts - and boy does it start - biblical springs to mind as the wipers struggle to cope, the road surface disappears under 2 inches of water and red soil is washed into your path wherever a track leads onto the road. This is the first rain for 6 months and the tarmac becomes like polished glass, a fact demonstrated by the young lad who’s bike slides from underneath him and he is left sprawled on the road in front of us. Somehow I thread the Everest between him and the oncoming Peterbilt truck lumbering up the hill laden down with wood. 2km down the road the rain is gone and the sun is back, a clearly defined line marks the point where a few days later the crops will spring into life and the others will wither in the heat - one farmer will prosper, the other struggle.

DA in Malawi

Up ahead the billowing red dust signals that we are turning off the tarmac again. We start the 15km climb up the ’road’ to the tree planting project which is sited at the source of the local river which feeds the villages and tea fields down the mountain. This road is rough and I stop to select 4-wheel drive, and it looks like I am going to need it. The electronic diff-lock triggers itself as the wheels scrabble for grip over the polished stone that breaks through the red dust in the places where a water course crosses the track and has washed the soil away. The Fortuna leads, I am following the Prada and I am told later that as we turned on to the road the drivers of the Toyotas tell their passengers that this road will dull my enthusiasm for driving in Africa as it’s a tough climb and if you don’t know what you’re doing you’ll struggle. In the next 15km I catch the Prada on numerous occasions and have to wait for him to get going when he comes to a halt on a slippery climb over a rock strewn stretch. I drop into 4-low and let the 200lb plus torque pull us up the incline.

When we finally get to the tea planting site I am buzzing - this is off-roading with a real purpose and I am having a ball. My Mike and Dave are impressed that we have got here in one piece and Pelile is equally impressed with the Ford. As I jump down from the Ford the drivers of the Toyotas wander over to congratulate me and chat about the Everest. I can’t help but feel chuffed with myself, all that theory I’d gleaned about off-road driving over the years and the few chances I’ve had on driving courses at the wheel of 4x4s has paid off and I’ve done it for real.

The tree planting is vital for the area, without it the soil will be washed into the river and block up the water course. The locals walk up the 15km to tend to these 1500 trees. I feel a little guilty as we bid them good-bye and climb into our air conditioned trucks and set off down the mountain side.

DA in Malawi

The drive down is not easy, I snatch the breaks and set off a slide that takes us towards a steep drop. After that seat creaser I leave it in low and let the engine breaking take us over the trickier slipperier sections. This is the older model which will not allow you to switch from low to high or 4 to 2-wheel drive on the fly so we stop to select 2 and join a fantastic piece of tarmac that winds it’s way through the hills - it’s just glorious, brilliant blue sky with fluffy white clouds and despite the heat the hills are clad in green. In fact we all agree that it could be the Scottish Borders or the Malvern Hills if it wasn’t for the Banana trees, tea and monkeys we catch glimpses of. The surface and bends encourage some spirited driving but the tyres soon remind me that they are off-road biased and squeal in protest whenever I get a little too exuberant.

The next section off-road is simply stunning - we are off to see a some hill top villages where Fairtrade have paid for a tea hut to be built (one of 38 in the area) these are used by the locals not only to weigh out the tea leaves that they have picked but as a community centre to meet at, have village discussions, settle village disputes and for the kids to play in. The road has recently been re-graded in places and is a mixture of fast, wide, hard packed sweeping bends covered in gravel and narrow tracks heavily rutted with some large rock sticking through. The wide sections are similar to a stage on the New Zealand Rally or Pike’s Peak Hill Climb and are in stark contrast to the tight water carved sections that make you wince, if you have any mechanical sympathy, as the tyres smack into another rut or rock.

As this is a main road up to an important trading town there is a constant flow of traffic in the other direction - tractors, picks-ups, mini buses and trucks all with one thing in common, they are overloaded. Toyota Hi-Lux with 20 people in the back, Hi-Ace mini buses with more people squashed in than the designer could have possibly imagined and then add 100s of Pineapples piled up in the back window - a sudden stop doesn’t bear thinking about - push-bikes with two 50kg sacks strapped to the luggage rack - most of them have rod operated brakes which, at best, are ineffectual but with that much weight and gravity the results can’t be good.

Mike the Cameraman and Dave the Photographer are blown away like the rest of us by the scenery and sites; stops are frequent to capture shots for the DVD and images for the website. These stops result in us falling behind the schedule - and the leading Toyotas - so I have to press on a little more than would normally be prudent, but with 4-wheel drive selected and a clear view through the fast corners the next 10km rival the Nurburgring for sheer driving enjoyment and thrills.

The Everest is at it’s best on these smoother gravel roads where the leaf sprung suspension is not too troubled and the lazy, torque-rich engine is not asked too much of. The steering is slow but, as the slides are long and gentle, quick corrections are not required and our progress along this hillside road can be tracked from some distance by the huge dust cloud we are leaving in our wake.

DA in Malawi

As we enter the town the streets are lined with market stalls laden with fresh mangos, pineapples, corn cobs on sticks covered in syrup, cooking oil hanging from strings and dried fish. These are brought down from Lake Malawi which is at least 6 hours from here. The sight of the Muzungos (slang for whites) triggers smiles and waves from the kids along with the mantra "give me money". There are friendly shouts as Mike leans from the window to film this classic African street scene. The sight of two UK registered cars comes as a surprise - a ’94-plate Red E Class Merc and an ’07-plate Silver Toyota Amazon remind you that many cars stolen in the UK end up in East Africa smuggled in containers full of scrap.

We swing right at the corner garage where a Hi-Lux pick-up, propped up on rocks and swaying around, is being repaired - it’s drive shaft is being heated with a dodgy looking oxyacetylene kit and bashed straight in the dust. The road continues to climb, wedged between a 2m high wall of red soil and rocks on one side and a steep plunge into the dry valley below on the other. I keep to the centre of the road when I can see the corners and take advantage of the space, the big Ford squirming and sliding beneath me as the grip ebbs and flows, never dropping below third gear, surfing on the rich vain of torque available at 3000 rpm.

We enter the village to be greeted by dancing and singing women and children. There, in the centre of the village, surrounded by banana trees and next to the brick kiln, is another Tea Shed adorned with its plaque proudly stating "paid for by Fairtrade Premium". As we clamber from the Ford my passengers, Mike and Dave, announce to the waiting crowd, "Well we know who the Stig is". It would appear they too have enjoyed the climb up here!

The kids love having their photos taken and looking at themselves on the camera view panel - just like children all over the world they pull faces and mess about trying to get in on the act. It’s hot and dusty but it doesn’t matter because these people have walked miles to tell you what a difference you are making by buying their tea and encouraging and cajoling you to buy more so they can build classrooms at their school. It’s humbling and uplifting all at the same time and puts our soft European life into perspective.

Pelile walks over and says "Oh, it is hot", which makes us all laugh. "If it’s hot for you can you imagine how we feel?" The locals ask how cold does it get in the UK, they can’t comprehend minus temperatures and sympathize with us for having to live in such a cold place. We are brought bananas by the family who’s house is closest to the shed as we must be hungry – the bananas are the sweetest I’ve ever tasted and the flavour is intense.

As the filming goes on outside and Dave takes more of his stunning pictures I chat with the locals sitting in the shed in the shade. They ask me how many kids I have "Two", I reply "TWO!" comes the incredulous reply, "Two?". The headman, Laxton, tells me he has "eight boys", pauses for effect then adds "four girls". "You da man" I reply with a big smile. "I am da man’s man" he beams back. It’s translated for the non-English speaking locals and the place erupts with laughter.

I can see how important these meeting places are to the villages, the tea they grow and have picked is sold at a fair price through Fairtrade and the premium raised on top funds the materials. They have built this meeting place themselves and have real pride in what they have created. Laxton invites us back to his village to meet his family, we haven’t really got time but we decide to make the time as the welcome has been so warm.

As we drive back down the road it’s partially blocked by a broken down truck - this is too good for Mike to miss, I drop him off by the truck, turn round head back up the hill round the corner, do a very precarious three point turn and head back down the hill, lights blazing and kicking up the Mars-like red dust, weave my way past the truck and wait around the corner for Mike - DA’s in the movies, how cool’s that?

DA in Malawi

Laxton’s village has a fantastic location and by Malawian standard is well off with a borehole and a goat house (goats paid for by a EEC farm diversification fund) but his pride and joy is his Fairtrade Motorbike. As a senior member of the Fairtrade committee he was given a bike so he could get to the meetings and visit the projects which are spread over an area that is 120km from top to toe. Mike films him riding it and then jumps on the back and films some more as he rides off into the sunset.

We now have an 80km drive back to where we are staying, the latter part of the journey will be done in the dark and that turns out to be the toughest part of the day - all those bikes we had seen in the morning are now coming back the other way but this time in the dark with no light and no reflectors! Then there are the tractors with trailers full of people, again with no lights, looming out of the darkness. This is the wrong kind of exciting after a full day of driving and you can see why driving is so dangerous at night for all road users.

DA in Malawi

To break the journey up we drop into the Golf Club (their Greens are browns – sand, not enough water to keep grass) and the car park is full of 4x4s all in white, it looks like a UN compound. A quick head count reveals Toyota as the number one brand; A) because they are reliable, B) the parts are cheap and plentiful, and C) the cost is lower when compared to Land Rovers. They all agree that the Landies are better off-road but they did say that if it had rained no 4x4 would have got us off the mountain as the rain turns the road to slippy, sticky mud which fills the tyre treads and makes progress impossible. Last year 6 tractors got stuck trying to get the tea down to the processing factories. The only thing that got through was the big, new 4-wheel drive John Deere tractor that had just been imported.

When we get back to the guest house the talk turns to cars over a few Greens (Carlsberg). I’m told that a combination of the poor fuel, dust and rough roads means you must have your car serviced every 3000km, welding of chassis is common place and you can expect to have at least one big off a year. The perfect car for Malawi? My top 3 would be a Subaru Forrester, a Land Rover Discovery 3 and, for the fun days, a Bowler Wildcat - the thought of all that grunt on those roads, nearly as mouth watering as the ripe mangos growing in the garden.

DA in Malawi

The next day we drop off our guest from the Co-op with the sugar processing company who will be taking them to look at projects paid for with the premium from Fairtrade Sugar. This takes us into town and to a whole new style of driving - if there are two lanes they make three, parking is wherever you can find a space but traffic lights are taken heed of. Despite the initial impression of chaos, it soon becomes apparent that it is surprisingly well ordered, in fact the only traffic jam is caused by the roly poly police woman on point duty at the roundabout. Sights I don’t expect to see; a BMW Z3 in purple and a bright blue Mk1 MX5, three up - the young lady sitting on the boot, legs between the seats, music blaring as they cruise along.

After the space of the countryside the crowded roads of Limbe seemed claustrophobic and I long to get out onto the open roads of Mulanje & Thylo. Those gravel roads are stunning and as far removed from normal day to day UK motoring as I am ever likely to experience but, for once, it’s not the motoring that I’ll remember most from the trip but the people. They’ve enriched my life by their kindness and openness and I’ve seen, first hand, what a difference you can make for the people by choosing Fairtrade products. Next time you’re standing in the supermarket make the right choice, choose Fairtrade - and smile because you’ll have made a difference.

Nick.

DA in Malawi