It has been over four months since I left the sunny shores of Australia. This is about the crunch time, when my mind, body and spirit start to crave good music, good coffee and immersion in a huge body of water. So when I read about the “Lake of Stars” Festival in Malawi being recognised as one of the Top 7 Music Festivals in Africa, I snapped up tickets straight away.
This festival led me to my first sojourn into Malawian territory. To get from Chipata (Zambia) to Lake Malawi (Malawi), it goes something like this:
- Aim to get the Zambia-Malawi direct bus but, after waiting for several hours, recognise that the bus’ arrival time into Chipata can vary from anywhere between 8pm (what the bus company tells you) and 2am (the reality), with it landing you in Lilongwe at the God-forsaken hour of about 3am.
- Forego the Zambia-Malawi bus and wake up at 4:30 and catch a shared taxi, with four others, from Chipata to the border. If you’re lucky, you get to share a taxi with really drunk people who are unable to control themselves and end up peeing on your shoes.
- Cross border and get “screened” for Ebola by border staff who are overzealous about their new, fancy, thermal temperature gun.
- Jump into another shared taxi bound for the closest town of Mchinji. By shared taxi, I mean 8 adults and 3 children squished into a sedan. If you’re trying to imagine how that would work, picture four adults with three children in the back, and four adults in the front, necessitating the driver to sit on the lap of a passenger while changing gears between his legs. Again, if luck is on your side, the driver will also have a beer in his hand.
- Get into a mini-van and wait until it is completely packed before starting out. Along the way to Lilongwe, pay off several police officers to ensure the over-packed minivan passes the blind-eye test.
- At Lilongwe bus station, find the bus going to Mangochi. Sit in the bus for 2 hours waiting for it to fill, so that every ounce of space is taken up by human bodies. As the bus leaves the bus station, ensure that the exit is in the most illogical position so that the bus must do a 28-point turn just to be facing the right direction, and in doing so scrapes the side of another bus leading to long negotiations about fault.
- Finally on the road, ensure the bus spends at least an hour parked in the sun at every major stop along the way.
Twelve hours after leaving Chipata, we finally made it Andrew’s Hotel just outside Mangochi, at the southern end of Lake Malawi. In desperate need of a shower and nap, we were told that the tent we booked wasn’t ready (by which they meant the tent did not exist), and the only shower available was the change room by the pool. By this stage we were in desperate need of a mood changer, so we ditched our gear and hot footed it to the festival.
Despite paying $90 each for each ticket, the festival organisers didn’t miss an opportunity to fleece us as much as possible. Programs were only available at a cost. Taxis to/from the hotel added an extra $30 a day to the total, and required an hour wait each time. Alternatively, there was the festival bus for $24 a day, and a two hour wait each time. The non-existent tent (which did eventually surface around 1am) set us back an additional $45, making for a much overpriced weekend.
With all that said, the festival itself was okay. The music was a nice reprieve, with a couple of outstanding acts, namely Mafikizolo and The Black Missionaries. The lakeside venue was picturesque and cast a beautiful breeze across the hot, dancing bodies. The sandy shore made a comfortable spot to catch up on sleep in between acts (that is, if you didn’t mind being surrounded by men and women peeing and having sex right next to you. Fortunately you don’t notice these things when you’re asleep).
During the day, we spent our time lounging by the lake. We watched the local women carry out their daily chores – washing clothes, washing dishes, washing themselves, & fetching water for the trip home. We watched the children fishing, collecting shells, trying to sell shells, and having fun splashing around in the water. We also made some friends, joining in on games of volleyball, beach soccer, and made-up-on-the-fly water ball games.
Our trip back to Chipata left us passing through fields of gigantic baobab trees silhouetted by the hazy dawn sky. We stopped in Lilongwe for some fruit smoothies, iced coffee and vegan burritos, as well as to make the most of cheap, capital-city prices at the supermarket. We then endured hell on earth for the last leg, reaching home at 8pm (after a 5am start) and with a new-found appreciation for our little land-locked home of Chipata. As for the Top 7 Festivals in Africa, give me Swaziland’s Bushfire any day.