The lights of Zomba

I’m generally pretty safety-conscious, which was why it was strange to find myself last weekend in a car with a stranger at the wheel, driving down a mountain in the thickest fog I’ve ever seen, wondering if we were going to careen off a cliff at any moment.

The road up to the plateau
The road up to the plateau

There were four of us volunteers, all girls, who met up in Zomba, a pretty Malawian town that rests at the base of the slopes of a massive plateau. Like many other tourists, we had planned the trip to Zomba in order to hike the famed plateau. Even though hiking in Zomba is pretty tame (there’s a paved road that goes to the top of the mountain), it’s the rainy season and we were unfamiliar with the terrain, so our group had taken the appropriate precautions: we hired a guide, and left with plenty of time to return before dark.

Martin, our local Rastafarian hiking guide, led us up the plateau and into the mud, the fog, and the rain. As we rested at a beautiful waterfall about midway through the hike, we determined that in fact there had been some miscommunication (as there so often is in Malawi) and the plan was not to be back by dark. After all of the do not walk at night warnings we had heard, we suggested we instead end the hike at the fancy hotel at the top of the mountain, from which we would take a taxi home to our backpacker’s lodge.

Martin, at one of the "view"points
Martin, at one of the “view”points

Three hours and two foggy lookout points later, just as darkness descended, we trudged into the lobby of the nice hotel, hungry, muddy, and sore. The taxi driver arrived and gave us an azungu price for the trip down the mountain, but we were too tired to argue. We clambered into his car, Martin in the front seat and us four girls squished in the back.

As the car started to move, we realized that the fog was fine when all you needed to see was your next footfall, but much more difficult to navigate in a vehicle. The driver tried his lowbeams, then his highbeams; the headlights hit the fog as if it were a mirror and bounced back into our eyes instead of illuminating the way. As the car inched down the road, we also realized the danger: the narrow, winding tarmac we had followed on the way up had a steep drop-off on one side. With this weather, one wheel off the side of the road and we were gone.

The four of us clutched the door handles, the seats in front of us, and each other and watched in terror as the driver drove, slowly, blindly, down the path. Martin shone my headlamp out the passenger’s window in an inadequate attempt to provide more light. As the car rounded sharp corners, we gasped and whimpered. “Slowly!” cried one of us.

“Okay, slowly,” the driver responded, and complied, and I couldn’t tell if he was laughing at us or scared himself.

Finally, the car broke through the fog into a patch of clear air, and something caught my eye to the left. “Guys, look,” I said. “Zomba.”

The lights of the town sparkled below us, haphazard but bright. It was the view of Zomba that the fog had stolen from us all day, finally unfurled before us like a piece of art, made all the more beautiful by the lengths we’d gone through to see it.

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