04-Jun-2011 -- Sarah and I are both American college students who were staying in Malawi during a study abroad with West Virginia University. We were staying at CCAP Likhubula House, a lodge for tourists in the Mulanje region. We had been in the area for about three weeks and decided we were familiar enough with local customs and the transportation system to make our voyage.
On Friday, 27 May, we went to Blantyre to renew our visas, and while there we stopped by the Office of Surveys to buy a topographic map for the hike. Since the Confluence lies at the corner of four 15' quadrants, we spent a while deciding on which of the maps to use (at 10 USD a piece, we could only afford one). We settled on the Thyolo quadrant because it supplied the best perspective on how to hike from the road we planned to use.
In Malawi, public transportation is provided by minibuses, which are passenger vans whose operations are privatized but remain somewhat regulated by the government. The interiors are modified to accommodate as many individuals (humans, chickens, goats, etc.) as possible. The record capacity I witnessed in my month-long stay was 24. These minibuses roam sporadically over the main thoroughfares in the country. Those wishing to travel must hail one like a taxi cab, ensure that the driver will be passing the desired destination, and negotiate a price for the distance traveled.
On Saturday, 4 June, we left Likhubula at about 10:00 a.m. Our notable equipment included the map, a Garmin GPS, a compass, lunch, and a short note about our intentions that was translated into Chichewa (the native language in that region) by a close friend who worked at Likhubula house. We took a minibus to south toward Chitikale, where we swapped for a bus that was heading northeast for Thyolo. We stayed on past Thyolo and asked off in a town further north called Thunga. This was about 10 km from the Confluence and was the closest we could get via minibus. Luckily, as we began heading west down an unnamed dirt road, we were passed by a pickup truck carrying employees to a tea estate further down. We flagged them down and offered some money to take us to their destination. They accepted and brought us within 3 km of the Confluence.
At this point, we unrolled the map and switched on the GPS. We plotted our course and began walking. We were only about halfway there when we began feeling uncertain about our direction. A very friendly Malawian named Vincent stopped us and offered his assistance. He was an office worker on a nearby tea estate but had this particular day off. We showed him the map and he was immediately able to point out some inaccuracies. Luckily we had managed to stay on course and he shared some directions on how to hike the rest of the way. We tipped him and he wished us a safe journey as we parted ways.
We followed Vincent’s advice and closed in on the Confluence. We were only about 500 meters away when we were stopped by a man who introduced himself as a local chief. Whether he was telling truth we’ll never know, but he was very stern with us and asked a lot of questions about our destination and intentions. I showed him the note and he let us pass, though he was very clearly reluctant. Whether he was the chief or not, I still felt as if we weren’t most welcome and considered turning back. We decided to press on but only because we were so close.
Moments later we stood atop a hill looking towards the Confluence. We knew we were looking right at it but could not find a path to it or conceive of a reasonable way to get there. A local man named Martin approached us and seemed to be offering assistance but his English was very poor. Using a few key words and gestures, he deduced our intentions and led us to a hidden path that took us within just a few yards of the Confluence. I can’t imagine he understood what we were doing, and he even laughed a bit as we wandered in circles trying to find a good reading for the project. We stayed a bit and had a snack with Martin, then walked back up the hill and thanked him with a tip. He gave us his address and was very insistent that we keep in touch. We went back home exactly the same way we came.
Overall the trip was a terrific success. The weather was cooperative, the landscapes were gorgeous, and perhaps most importantly, the people were friendly and helpful. Even the small obstacles we encountered only made the day more memorable. As we waited on our last minibus in Chitikale, I spoke with a local man named Moses that I had become good friends with during our stay. I sheepishly told him how we’d spent the entire day wearing ourselves out just to take a picture of some arbitrary point on the map. He smiled and told us he admired our eagerness to travel simply for the sake of travelling. “Sometimes,” he said, “a destination is more like a distraction.”