Driving in Malawi and other observations!

Advice on the HOW of overlanding, camping and caravanning. Travel location is discussed elsewhere
RedCat
Vehicle: 2007 LWB GLX Gen4
Location: East Rand
Posts: 91
Joined: Wed Jun 15, 2011 12:29 pm

Driving in Malawi and other observations!

Thu Nov 17, 2011 4:59 pm

HI Guys,

I’ve been fortunate to have an interesting career working in more than a few countries on our exciting continent over the past decade. In the early days, upon landing, I would be given a project car or a rental, a map and told the general direction to head in and how long it should take to get there. I really looked forward to my first field research visit. After the first one, I was terrified whenever my company sent me out there alone just for the sheer fact that driving in many of our SADC countries could quite literally have been the last thing I ever did! Especially after dark! :o

In recent years and a few promotions later, I get driven! Now this isn’t a guarantee that I’ll survive the trip but there is a certain level of comfort in witnessing a local not scream in terror at every single maneuver other drivers make. The actions of fellow road users make sense to my colleagues, they are almost expected and the way my drivers weave in and out is like a finely practiced traditional dance. This week, I was forced to be driven from Lilongwe to Blantyre since the flights into the southern city have been cancelled and during this trip, in the dark, I came to realize that it couldn’t only be me who’s been scared witless by the strange and unwritten driving laws that all locals seem to abide by.

So I asked my driver to be patient with me and explain each and every ‘extra-ordinary’ behavior I see. For the most part, the standard K53 rules apply but I’ve compiled this short synopsis for your reference, from my observations.

Traffic lights:
When they work they confuse the life out of ordinary road users and if you’re educated as to what the different, dimly lit, colours mean you may actually be at a disadvantage since your life becomes endangered should you alter the natural stop/go flow of traffic. Check for police when its red, but its apparently not necessary to stop for longer than it takes to make sure you’re not going to be t-boned when you go through the red light. This doesn’t apply in Gaborone, Windhoek, Harare or Lusaka (and possibly Mbabane on sunny days!)

In most instances the lights are out and it’s a free for all. You will get flustered but just tailgate the guy in front and you’ll be fine. If you have a trailer you’re automatically superior.

Police Roadblocks:
This could be a thread on its own. Generally, the rule is try to have a local number plate, or, have you’re RSA number plate made to look like a local one. You won’t be stopped less, but it’s unlikely you’ll be asked to produce some incentive to the peace officer. I don’t know if this a legal offence but I’ve seen it done.

Many places have permanent police checks, they are more interested in checking large scale goods transport vehicles but they can be difficult. Don’t pay a bribe, the cops have phones and will let the next roadblock know that a piggy-bank is on its way. Have all paperwork, in multiple copies, smile, try greet in the local language. Don’t show them you’re annoyed by slowing down and stopping for no good reason. If they want a lift, give them a lift! They’ll remember you when you come by again and you’ll get top notch treatment (no stopping, no bribing).

Some countries’ police service are more aggressive. Zimbabwe and Tanzania particularly, though my worst experience was in Mozambique. You’re likely to be on vacation, the cops aren’t and they have places to go so you CAN outlast them in a stand-off. Refuse to pay, take out your camping chairs, cold drinks, umbrellas and skottle braai. The guy will know you are no walk over, and may ask for a wors-roll and let you on your way. You’ve earned an ally. Take his number, call him if you have problems down the road.

DO NOT LOSE YOUR HEAD, take his keys and throw them in the bush. You’ll need a lawyer and your mates will need a lift!

Indicators:
How many of you have driven through another SADC country and the truck you’re stuck behind suddenly puts his right flicker on for about a minute. Then his left. Then his hazards, the right again, the left again and you think “hell, this buffoon has had too many beers and is playing silly buggers with his lights!”. This is in fact him communicating with you, approaching drivers as well as pedestrians.

Right flicker on an open road: if it works and comes on, it indicates to a following vehicle that another vehicle is approaching head-on. This flicker is multipurpose in that it also lets the approaching driver know you’ve seen him, as well as providing him with a reference of where the edge of your vehicle is in poor lighting. But, it could mean that the vehicle you’re following wants to suddenly brake and turn right, or, it wants to overtake an even slower vehicle. So, your options are limited to the same response no matter what the reason for the left indicator coming on. Brake and don’t try overtake!

Left indicator on an open road: This communicates to following vehicles that the driver thinks it’s safe for you to overtake from here. When you pull out, keep an eye for a right indicator or frantic right arm out the window gesturing for you to ‘go back!’ because then it means you’ve misread the signal and the driver really just wanted to turn right and you’re about to have a head on!

The indicators are used to avoid blinding head on drivers with flashing brights, while at the same time telling the guy behind you that they might be able to make a decision, or not!

Flashing headlights: Pretty similar to home (RSA). Flashing once means there’s something ahead of you in the direction I just came from, that you should be on the lookout for. Flashing a few times means you’re lights are on bright and I’m warning you.

If someone behind you starts flashing while veering right and left, they want to overtake but are waiting for your move left and then use your indicators to let them know if it’s safe to do so. You can have fun with this scenario but expect to be flashed more and more as time goes.

Breakdowns:
Triangles are becoming law in more countries recently, but in some places its customary to break a few branches from nearby trees, strip the leaves of the stick keeping a few at the end and then place these in the road with the bare-stick end pointing to the direction of the broken down vehicle. You’ll need quite a few since as you get closer to your stricken ride, the spaces between the pointing arrow sticks must become shorter and shorter.

This of course can be confusing if you’re driving through Hwange or Chobe or the like, looking for a colleague who’s called to inform you they’ve broken down and they need you to collect them and suddenly you’ve followed the trail of sticks smack bang into a herd of elephant that have sneakily used the international breakdown branch code while enjoying their dinner of leaves and bark! :roll:

Fuel:
Available pretty much anywhere so long as you’re not prohibited from using Diesel that isn’t 50ppm of less. Prices vary and are hard to budget for, I advise travelling with 2s0 for its ALLEDGED cleaning properties but toping up in urban areas is quite safe, so don’t chance it if you don’t have to. Malawi and Zim have shortages regularly. If you’re in Malawi and there’s a fuel shortage, take a drive to Dedza district. The western side of the road is Mozambique, and the Easter side is Malawi. The Moz side will mostly always have fuel, and Dois M J. Seriously, there is no border fence, just the dotted white line in the road.

Roadkill:
Sometimes it’s all you can afford! Sometimes, you’re paying for it without realizing it. You’ll never know!

If you do kill something like livestock, STOP! Be courteous and offer to pay for it. Most often there is some poor sod who’s been assigned the ‘job’ of looking after the beast but your 100km/h was too quick for him to get the animals out of harms way. He will be accountable for the loss – which could ruin his life in paybacks, but for you its small change. Also, sometimes by paying a small settlement, you’ve changed a life for the better, or at least fed a few hungry tummys who couldn’t concentrate at school from starvation. You never know.

These are not earth shattering revelations but they can make a car ride in another country more enlightened, and you’ll sound worldly wise describing these cultural differences to your kids and friends!

See you in GP!

Gareth
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paw_by_paw
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Re: Driving in Malawi and other observations!

Thu Nov 17, 2011 7:54 pm

Hi Gareth,
Yip I will give testament to virtually everything you said here except I nearly learned the hard way in Zims by stopping at a non fuctional robot as I assumed it be treated like a 4 way stop . I nearly got shrinked by a few feet by an oncoming heavy vehicle and it was actually a policemen who saved my bacon by telling me to go.
Must say had no problems at roadblocks and it shows by just being friendly and patient you can go a long way in avoiding trouble.
Regards
''Life Can Be Good - It Can Be Exceptional Too ' !!!
RedCat
Vehicle: 2007 LWB GLX Gen4
Location: East Rand
Posts: 91
Joined: Wed Jun 15, 2011 12:29 pm

Re: Driving in Malawi and other observations!

Thu Nov 17, 2011 9:12 pm

Gee PawxPaw, i bet you looked at things from a new perspective after that! I've had a few close calls while away from home and am often reminded just how important it is for the following:

ALWAYS let you close family know your plan before you leave
ALWAYS leave your details such as ID, passport number, regisgration etc with Family
Its a good idea to get cross border insurance and medical insurance
It doesn't hurt to send off emails to the RSA consulates or high commissions in the countries you're travelling to
Check www.reliefweb.int for updates on health, safety, weather and disaster issues in the country you'll visit
Lastly, make friends with local leaders / chiefs along your way. They are massively powerful resources.
superairborne
Country: Namibia
Vehicle: 2006 Pajero GLX 3.2 DID LWB A/T (Sold)
Location: Windhoek, Namibia
Posts: 130
Joined: Wed Sep 29, 2010 3:37 pm

Re: Driving in Malawi and other observations!

Fri Nov 18, 2011 8:17 am

RedCat wrote: Left indicator on an open road: This communicates to following vehicles that the driver thinks it’s safe for you to overtake from here. When you pull out, keep an eye for a right indicator or frantic right arm out the window gesturing for you to ‘go back!’ because then it means you’ve misread the signal and the driver really just wanted to turn right and you’re about to have a head on!
This does NOT apply to Namibia. A heavy vehicle in front of you will indicate with 2 or 3 flashes of its RIGHT flicker that it's safe to overtake him.
2006 Pajero GLX 3.2 DiD LWB A/T, aux battery system, roof rack, tow bar, 9000 Lumen LED Light Bar, Speedo Cruise (Bestech AutoCruise)

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