Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Off to the Great Unknown!

(Nkwichi Lodge)
The wilderness conservation organization where I will volunteer next month is pretty remote. That’s a big part of its appeal, both for me and for the people who stay at the associated eco-lodge, but making arrangements to get there turned out to be a little more complicated than I expected.

Nkwichi Lodge and the Manda Wilderness are in northern Mozambique, on the eastern shore of Lake Malawi (or Lago Niassa, as people in Mozambique call it). The folks I’ll work with told me the easiest way to get to Nkwichi is to fly to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, and then take either a charter flight or a battered old steam ship up the lake to the lodge. So I did my usual cheapskate search for the lowest fare, went on Air Malawi’s website and reserved a flight from Johannesburg to Lilongwe.

I reserved it, but then I couldn’t pay for it. The site wouldn’t let me uncheck the “Pay Later” button, and I couldn’t find any way to actually buy the ticket. I emailed their reservations department. I called. Then I called the two other numbers they gave me, both of which were out of service. Finally I got an email that said I could pay at the Johannesburg airport. I emailed back asking if that meant I could pay on the day of departure. I’m in Gaborone now and won’t be in Jo’burg until the day I’m flying. No answer.

I asked my landlord if he knew how Air Malawi’s procedures worked and he said, “Oh, Air Malawi!” in a worrisome way. I asked a travel agent for help—no luck.

But then it turned out to be a good thing I hadn’t paid for my ticket. Right at this juncture a friend in Mozambique emailed me to make sure I’d heard about the upheaval in Lilongwe. I hadn’t, but the news was grim—demonstrations over food and fuel shortages, violent conflicts, multiple deaths. That poor country.

I began my travel planning again. I thought about going overland from Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, but reading online accounts of shaky buses and breakdowns and missing bridges quickly cured me of that idea. I wasn’t eager to find myself stranded in the boonies with my inadequate Portuguese, and I’d had enough shaky buses in Madagascar.

Flying sounded good. But though I could tell from my Mozambique map that Lichinga is the closest airport to Manda Wilderness, I couldn’t for the life of me find any airlines that fly there. Kayak turned up nothing. Expedia, zilch. Travelocity wasn’t even sure the place exists. LAM, the national airline of Mozambique, showed Lichinga on its route map but its booking engine couldn’t come up with a flight, even a sold out flight. It started to seem like the place wasn’t really there.

Finally I went by the local office of South African Airlines, a partner of LAM’s and a really good airline. A helpful man there connected me with a knowledgeable travel agent, and she shortly emailed me. She'd actually found flights and she quoted me a fare.

Still, there was a bit more comedy to go through. I asked the agent if she wanted my credit card number and she emailed back, “I’m sorry, we don’t take credit cards.”

More emails.

“How can I pay?”

“Cash or cheque.”

"Where are you located?"

She told me. I trundled down to the office with a wad of pulas and am now the proud possessor of a ticket to Lichinga.

At least I hope that’s what it is. After all my attempts to find flights, I know Lichinga’s airport code is VXC and that’s what’s on my ticket. But where the travel agent’s computer was supposed to fill in the airport and the town, the ticket says instead “Unknown, Unknown.”


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