Feb 062015
 

Check-in at the South African counter was a breeze, and based on the seatmaps on ExpertFlyer we looked to have a pretty empty load going down to Johannesburg today. Up to immigration where I made some nice chat with the agent, she asked if I went to the lake, and then looking at my passport picture quizzically, I said “yep, it’s still me!” Her sassy response? “Yes, and you are wearing same shirt as two days ago.” I was NOT about to let that stand…same type of shirt, yes, but slightly different colour. The agent sitting next to her looked over and told her “you need to examine your eyes! This is orange that is red!” Hahahah…

Off to the lounge…which was closed. Instead, the airport cafe had been converted to the business class lounge. Hmmmm….and the air conditioning was broken. So was the internet. Fortunately, it was cool and I only had a bit over 30 minutes to wait for my flight. The lounge was pretty spartan, but had one of the most delicious flavours of chips I’ve ever tried…good thing I can’t find these in America!

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Caught up on e-mails for a bit and enjoyed the chips (but resisted a second bag) and enjoyed the view of the tarmac:

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Soon, it was time to head down to the gate and board. There was security before the gate, and then there was another bag check where you had to open up your bags and have them hand-searched. By hand-searched I mean open them up, have a hand stuck in them for 2 seconds, and let you go. Security theatre at its finest.

Boarding was via a bus gate, which of course meant the pushiest got to board first with no concern for priority. Flight looked pretty empty today, so it really didn’t matter.

From my seat, looking back to the airport:

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Door closed…and OMG, I’m the only person in business class. 32 seats, and it’s only me. Not having to worry about other passengers totally changes the calculus of where you want to sit.

South African Airways flight 171
Lilongwe, Malawi (LLW) to Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB)
Depart 13:05, Arrive 15:35, Flight Time 2:30
Boeing 737-800, Registration ZS-SJV, Manufactured 2003, Seat – EVERYTHING! (but sat in 04A)

Earlier, the purser had asked me if I had fun in Malawi. I said “yes, but I didn’t get to see Madonna, so I’m disappointed.” When the door closed and it was confirmed I was all alone, he comes over and says “now you can pretend you ARE Madonna and this is your private jet.” Hahahah! I asked him to take pics to document, and he went nuts, taking 20+ pictures.

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Lunch was underwhelming, but at least the beef was a nice medium and edible. The purser told me there was “plenty more if I want more of anything”:

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That clearly includes garlic bread! ūüėČ Look at all that garlic bread! A full business class of catering all to myself!

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Landed right on time, immigration was a piece of cake, and headed off to the Gautrain to head into Sandton. I was struggling a bit, so stopped for a triple iced espresso in the airport, and then headed on my way. Quick ride to Sandton station, and then time to find my hotel…the Hilton. For some reason I seem to stay in different hotels every time I go to Jozi, and this trip was no different. I don’t know why I’ve never settled on one hotel, but it is what it is. This time, the Hilton had a pretty good rate which combined with Hilton Diamond status made me go for it.

Walk was a bit longer from the station than I expected at 900m, and that combined with the sun and hills made it a bit of a trek with bags. No worries, checked in, and was given a nice studio suite. One thing about Hilton I’m not overly pleased with is their push to sell “guaranteed” upgrades…which aren’t really guaranteed. You agree to pay for an upgrade if it’s available at check-in, in an attempt to give them to people willing to pay over people with status. It’s annoying, but it is what it is. Anyways, the room was nice, blah blah.

Made some phone calls, including to United, to change my flight out to Madagascar the next day. Recovering from a sinus infection a couple of weeks prior, combined with jetlag, and I was just feeling exhausted…and not ready to spend nights in a forest lodge without modcons. So, I decided to stay in Jozi an extra night. Tickets were easily changed with a few Skype calls, and then I set off to get a hotel.

Unfortunately, the Hilton was sold out, so I wouldn’t be able to stay another night. Everything else I usually stayed at was full as well, or extremely expensive. I decided to go back to the first hotel I every stayed at in South Africa over 15 years prior, the Hyatt. I first stayed at this hotel back in 1998 when I went to Johannesburg with friends to see U2 when they first played South Africa. The hotel had great memories, but I hadn’t stayed there since. Managed to book an executive floor king room with some orphaned Hyatt points, and was all set. Now, to enjoy Johannesburg a tiny bit!

It was already quite late, so I headed up to the executive lounge for snacks and wine. The lounge attendant was attentive…probably a bit too attentive. Every time I turned my back my wine glass was full, and within an hour I think I put down three rather large glasses. So much for my motivation to head out to dinner! Managed to drag myself out the door, walk back to Nelson Mandela Square, and find dinner regardless. Quick dinner of Thai (the only place with outside seating immediately available) and headed back to the hotel and absolutely passed out.

Slept in a bit the next morning, and headed up to the lounge for a light breakfast. After that I grabbed an Uber down to Melville to check out another neighbourhood I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, and walked around for a bit, grabbed a coffee, and just relaxed. Got back to the hotel after a while, and then grabbed my bags and took the Gautrain to Rosebank to check into the Hyatt.

Got there, up to the Exec Lounge to check-in (which was just as I remembered) and then met up with another blog reader for lunch. He picked me up, and we went to Wolf Pack in Parkhurst for burgers and craft beer. Clearly he reads my blog and knows that craft beer and burgers are a quick ticket to getting me talking! One of the nicest things about this blog has been how readers have generously invited me out to show me their city or for meals and give me a bit of an insider’s look into the city.

Relaxed a bit after lunch, headed back to Nelson Mandela Square for coffee and to people watch a bit, before heading back to the Hyatt to grab a couple of glasses of wine during Happy Hour. This lounge shot is from breakfast the next morning:

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After a couple of glasses of wine, met a friend for dinner at Doppio Zero in The Firs for dinner. It had been years since I spent any real time at the Hyatt, and I had no idea this little courtyard area was located basically just behind the hotel. We had a great dinner and chat, kept it going with after-dinner drinks and catching up, and stayed up a bit later than planned…but it was so worth it. One of the greatest things about travel are the things you can’t plan like tours and such but just happen. Even with staying up a little bit late I managed to meet my goal of resting up a bit and was ready to head off to Madagascar in the morning!

Feb 042015
 

After immigration was easy to find the driver I had hired, as he was waiting just outside arrivals with my name on a sign. The lodge I was staying at said they knew a driver who could do the transfer for me, and while expensive, I decided to go with him. I asked around to other people who were either from Malawi or knew it well, and they all agreed that while expensive it was pretty much the going rate for the transfer.

The day before I arrived the lodge owner e-mailed me, and asked if I’d mind splitting my transfer with someone else who was arriving the same day…I may be a bit of a travel princess at times, but I really don’t need an entire car to myself for five hours…and it meant saving $100 on top of it. I’m in! The guy I was sharing with turned out to be a nice American guy from New Mexico who in addition to keeping costs down was interesting company on the long drive.

We stopped a couple of times along the way, either for water/snacks, bathroom breaks, or because there would be absolutely torrential downpours that made it impossible to see the road. Malawi had been going through extremely heavy rains the past month, and as a consequence many roads and bridges were washed out. The shortest route to the lake was only about four hours, but the bridge was washed out so we needed to take a slightly longer route which added another hour to the trip.

After a few hours, we got stuck behind a funeral procession of several hundred people taking up the whole road. We couldn’t’ exactly ask them to move out of the way, and they showed no signs of caring that they were blocking traffic, so that added maybe another 30 minutes to the trip as we slowly inched along behind them:

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When we finally got clear of the funeral procession we got stuck behind a group of cattle. Despite lots of honking of the horn, it still took around 20 minutes to get around them. Ah African road hazards:

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Finally after about five hours of driving, around 5pm, we arrived at the Thumbi View Lodge. After going through reviews of all the different options on the lake on TripAdvisor it was still really difficult to make a decision on there to stay. None of the lodges seemed to be very “nice” by city standards, and none of them appeared to have air conditioning either. It was definitely going to be a roughing it by the lake experience. I mentally prepared myself and chose the Thumbi View.

Based on the view from my room onto Lake Malawi, I’d say I chose well:

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Checked into my room, which was pretty basic with two single beds (plus mosquito nets hanging from the ceiling) and only had one power outlet, which meant either I could use the small stand fan or charge my phone, but not both. Roughing it indeed! It was basic, but clean and comfortable, so ticked the most important boxes.

The lodge was running a special of $50 per night, with breakfast and dinner included. You really can’t beat that! ¬†Shortly after we arrived dinner was served around 6:30 and was a spicy beef dish over rice along with salad. Nice basic home cooking, and was rather tasty! Especially when washed down with a few Savanna Dry ciders! ¬†After dinner we ended up playing cards with the lodge owners and several of their friends for a few hours before finally passing out around 11. I had a a long day of doing absolutely nothing planned the next day, and wanted to be rested up!

Despite no AC (and a nasty cold/congestion) and jetlag, I managed maybe six hours of semi-decent sleep and woke up to go grab breakfast at the lodge’s restaurant. Given the price I expected some toast and instant coffee, and instead got a full english breakfast! Two eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, fruit, and coffee. I was seriously impressed! A nice filling breakfast to prepare me do nothing…except read on the beach:

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After a bit of reading it was around 11am, and I was exhausted from all the hard work, so decided to head back to my room for a short nap…2 hours later I was feeling rather refreshed and ready for some lunch. I asked the lodge owners what the recommended, and they recommended a small “local restaurant” near the lodge called Thomas’s Restaurant. I admit, when I sat at the table and could see into the “kitchen” I was a bit nervous:

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Ordered the “chicken curry” since in Africa “curry” is code word for “cover up the taste of anything that might not be up to par.” I figured at least if I was going to get sick it should taste good! ¬†When it finally came it was plenty hot and steaming, so I decided anything that had been on the cutting knives (which were definitely being reused from chicken, to veg, back to chicken, etc, from what I could see through the kitchen door) must have been killed and it was safe to dig in:

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It was rather tasty, a rather expensive $3.50 or so, and four days later I’m not sick, so looks like Thomas’s is a reliable place. The only sketchy moment was as I paid the cook asked me: “was it good?” and when I told him it was great, he said “good, because I never cook before. Normal cook is in the hospital.” Uh, way to inspire confidence…

After lunch it was back to the beach for more reading and relaxing….watching the locals stroll down the beach (when not being harassed by ones trying to sell boat rides or small trinkets) and doing absolutely nothing all afternoon. It was exactly the kind of relaxing day I needed to recover from the long travel days that it took to get there.

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Sunset over Lake Malawi:

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Noleen, the lodge owner whipped up some creamy chicken over pasta for dinner tonight, which was just as tasty as the previous evening’s meal. After dinner, it was more sitting around and chatting…and then we lost all power. After about 30 minutes I considered just going to bed super early because I still wasn’t sleeping well due to some jetlag, but just then the power came back on. Managed to stay up and be social with the other guests a bit longer before crashing.

Unfortunately, I woke up at 5am again, and couldn’t fall back asleep. My driver was scheduled to leave at 7a, so I just spent more time on the beach watching the sunrise and enjoying the relative peace and quiet. We set off at exactly 7a for Lilongwe so that I could catch my flight back to South Africa. Stopped for Red Bull along the way to wake up a bit, and we were off. Sign outside the gas station where we stopped for Red Bulls, 100m from the Mozambique border. Driver said the road WAS the border in some places, so I made a point to hop off and cross the street. I’m all about illegal border crossings lately, hahaha!

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Just before 12 we arrived at the Lilongwe Airport, and it was time for the next leg of the adventure!