Southern Africa - Malawi

Dougals, the backpackers' hostel in Blantyre, is an amazing place - totally divorced from the rest of Malawi. It's a haven of everything you want when you are traveling rough, and caps it all off with a good bar next to a clean, cool swimming pool. We spent a few days there, sorting out where to go next and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere and the company of our fellow travelers.

Mulange tea plantation
The Mulange heights, south-east of Blantyre, looked interesting. With no information other than that in our very out-of-date and brief guide book, we caught a bus out the long, poorly-maintained road heading to the Mozambique border, and jumped off at Mulange. We went looking for the only lodge we knew about. No-one had heard of it, and there was no evidence that it had ever existed. Indeed, we began to suspect that we were in the wrong place altogether, since we were trying to find out about climbing the Mulange massif, or at least walking on the forested slopes, but no-one we asked had the slightest knowledge about walking trails or a guide/porter hire service, all of which were said to be available in the area. We walked down to a slightly up-market motel on the main road, but they had no vacancies, so we ended up in a less attractive place just a little further out of town. Later, we walked to the next small village, but nothing there sounded like the places that other travelers had talked about, so we just stayed the night and cut our losses, heading back to Blantyre the next morning. It turned out that our suspicions were correct; we were in the wrong village to climb the hill, and should have gone to the forest ranger station, about 15 kilometres from Mulange.

One of the major attractions in Malawi is Lake Malawi, running north-south along most of the country. Our first place to stay on the lake was Cape Maclear, the backpackers' mecca. We took a bus up to Monkey Bay, but arrived quite late in the day - just on dusk - and paid a small fortune by local standards to get a lift out to the cape. Cape Maclear isn't really a town at all - just a fishing village that has been taken over by hippies, with three dive schools, lots of places to stay and to eat, and fairly basic amenities - no electricity except at the bars where they have a generator, but endless water, with the lake right outside the door. It was well after dark when we bumped to a halt in the parking area at Steven's lodge. The almost total absence of lights made it difficult to sort out what was available - where the lodges were, for example. We went off looking for a place that was recommended, but they didn't even have candles there to see the rooms, so we ended up back at Steven's, which turned out to be fine anyway, and at least had candles and a light in the bar.

Jewels of the lake
The morning revealed what the dark had hidden. We were right alongside the lake, sparkling blue beyond the sandy beach. The village and other lodges were just to the right, up the beach, with baobab trees holding stark branches to the sky. Fishermen still carved dugout canoes from single logs, and there was a spin-off industry carving souvenirs for the tourists, with a small market in the village. There were quite a few lodges, most of them with restaurants and bars offering cold beers, soft drinks and a good range of meals.

Lake Malawi is home to many of the bright aquarium fish you see in tanks all over the world. We had bought a mask and snorkel in Durban and spent some time skin-diving in the lake; we hired a sea kayak and paddled out to an island about a kilometre off the shore, to swim in "the aquarium", a spot where hundreds of brightly-coloured fresh water fishes congregate. Lots of fun, but the fish are used to being hand fed and tend to nibble a bit. There were lots of other places to dive, so we paddled around the island, stopping whenever the mood took us. Overhead the sea eagles screamed their distinctive cry, and at one place they put on a wonderful show, catching fish off the surface of the lake right in front of the place Geoff was snorkeling. The lake was also rumoured to have otters in it. We first paddled down to Otter Point, then later walked down there, but only saw dassies (rock hyrax) which look like a cross between a rabbit and a wombat but which are apparently most closely related to elephants.

We wanted to keep going north, but were loath to backtrack to Monkey Bay, so a group of us banded together to hire a boat to take us to Senga Bay, further up the lake. The boat was somewhat underpowered, and we took more than five hours to chug our way across the lake, stopping twice to refuel from a can of petrol and to have a dip in the lake to cool off. Senga Bay is much more of a straight fishing village, but it boasts the biggest collection of wood carvers in the country, and the road out of town is lined with thousands of carved elephants, chiefs' chairs, bowls, walking sticks, name it, it was there. Down on the beach, removed from this commerce, the fishermen catch tiny bait-sized fish ("kapinta") and put them out in the sun to dry. We spent the night at Senga Bay then caught a minibus out the road to Salima in the morning.

Once back on the main road we had a bit of a choice. The lake is dotted with places to stay, but not all of them are suited to backpackers. We were fairly broke, and needed to cash some cheques, so opted to stop over a night in Nkhotakota, another small village with an entry in our guide book. Bad decision. The town was divided - part on the road and part down towards the lake, about two kilometres away. The neat and efficient bank sorted out our cheques, than we walked down into the lakeside part of town. It was obvious at first glance that this was a dying village - the main road had passed it by, and it was in a state of decay. The lodge recommended in our guide book was still there, and with no other choice we booked in, but there were no drinks of any kind - not even running water - and the evening meal was an unappetizing mixture of old smoked fish and lukewarm rice. Although it is more-or-less on the lake, this part of town makes nothing of its lake frontage. There was no active fishing fleet, and the shoreline was swampy, with no beach - the sort of place that you imagine thousands of snails, all just brimming over with bilhartzia, to be clinging to every plant, waiting to get you. As you may have gathered, we didn't enjoy it, and were happy to move on.

Tree house
The place we were making for was Nkata Bay, said to be a quieter version of places like Cape Maclear. Not really - it was a bigger, much more developed town, just less tourist-oriented, having a large market and an economy based on fishing, the harbour, and local agriculture. We really liked the look of the place at first glance, and decided to stay for a few days. The lodge we chose, Africa Bay, was right on the lake, and our 'room' was a little thatched and woven hut perched in a tree, overlooking the water. There was a jetty straight out from the lodge, and the skindiving, while not as good as Cape Maclear, was quite good out at the end. Chikale Beach, a few kilometres south, also had a couple of lodges, and the water was clearer, making for better skindiving. We walked out there for lunch on a couple of days, and spent the afternoons on the beach.

Although the village wasn't totally dependent on tourism, there was a range of restaurants, some very good, and the lodges also offered great meals. We spent one evening at the Safari, a recommended restaurant, sitting with a small local boy, about eight years old. He was fascinated by two French boys sitting nearby, one of whom had cerebral palsy, so I explained the disease to him. He started out just staring, but when we took the time to explain he was truly interested and really wanted to understand it. He also wanted stories of Australia, which I started to dredge up from my meager font of aboriginal lore, but his father came and dragged him off to bed.

Our final, most northerly destination was Livingstonia. To get there we backtracked to Mzuzu, and tried to get a bus. There wasn't any public transport going that far north - amazing, when you think that this is the only road to the border with Tanzania - but lots of local people finally persuaded us to get on a minibus headed in the right general direction. The scenery was stunning, with the high hills on one side and the lake on the other. We called into Rumphi, then drove down to the lakeside, and the bus turned around for its return journey. We got out and started to look for a way to get to Chitimba, the village at the foot of the escarpment; Livingstonia is on the top. There was a police check post at the tiny village we were dumped in, and we stood near it, since all traffic had to stop there and we could get access to the drivers to ask for a lift. The policeman said he would help as well; all that did was make it more difficult. Eventually we got a lift on a truck carrying furniture. The road was pretty bad, and we jolted up and down, crashing into chairs and tables - I had a huge bruise by the time we got to Chitimba.

The first place we tried had nowhere to hang a mosquito net, fairly necessary in these parts, so we walked over to Paddy's place and got a couple of beds from him. Paddy is a great guy - we already knew about him from John, met at Linga Linga in Mozambique - but his lodge was a bit undeveloped; for example, we had to use the next door neighbour's loo, since he didn't have one yet. We stayed the night, planning to walk up to Livingstonia early the next morning. Paddy was very reluctant to let us go alone, since there had been several robberies along the track recently, and the people at Chitimba were embarrassed by it and wanted to protect the travelers from further hassle, but we were happy to go by ourselves and set off with full packs, intending to stay a couple of days up the top. It was a lovely day, and we left in good form. The walk wasn't difficult - just a slow slog up the hill, around the 20 numbered S-bends in the road. When we stopped for a breath on the way one of the local men stopped and made us walk with him - protection against the robbers.

Once we had got the initial climb out of the way we diverted off the main road and visited the permaculture farm. This project is run by a couple of English people. We didn't meet them - they were away in Mzuzu - but the local guys working with them were very friendly and took a lot of time to show us around the place and explain what they were doing. By mid-afternoon we were climbing again, up to the main village. It was surprisingly long and steep on the last part of the walk, and we were very grateful to get to the Stone House, where we were to stay the night. The lodge is run by the Presbyterian Church, and offered a strange set of books in the library. We spent the afternoon looking around the town - there are some wonderful old buildings, erected as part of the original mission. Here, high on the escarpment, there was a magnificent view of Lake Malawi, and we could see many puffs of what looked like smoke out on the lake surface. These are immense swarms of tiny flies, stretching for kilometres. The flies live out their entire lives on the water, but sometimes the swarms come in close to shore and the local women catch them with nets and make sort-of cakes out of them. We were told they tasted fishy.

Morning brought the rain. It also brought rapidly-rising lumps all over my body, where I'd been attacked by bedbugs during the night. As we walked down to the next rest house to breakfast with some fellow travelers, a three dogs rushed out at us from a nearby house, and amazingly one of them bit Geoff above the knee, dodging away before he could react. Most dogs in Africa are very cowed, but this one surprised us. We had intended to stop at the permaculture camp for the night, but it started to rain and we had to shelter under a convenient thatched roof, while the rain came down in sheets. When it eased off, my shoes finally disintegrated, and I took them off and walked barefoot through the torrents of mud and water streaming down the road. As we descended the sun broke through, and it was hot and bright again by the time we got back to Paddy's place.

Once again we had to hitch a lift; this time it was the return journey to Mzuzu, the start of our journey back south. After a wait of a few hours, the Coke truck turned up, so we talked them into taking us back to the police roadblock. I couldn't even reach to top of the tray, but three burly blokes grabbed my wrists and hauled me in bodily, protesting about my weight! Waving goodbye to Paddy and his wife we set off. The return trip to Blantyre was as fast as we could make it, traveling on the inland route, a succession of overnight stays and long bus trips; of discussions with preachers espousing armed struggle and quiet moments watching a mother feed her tiny baby; of noisy bars and noisier bus stations. Then we were back in the haven of Dougals.

With a few days to kill over Easter before we could get a transit visa for Mozambique, we took a day trip to Chikwawa, south of Blantyre. Ho hum. But it was something to do. Then, visas sorted out, we caught a bus to Zimbabwe and Harare.

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