We have arrived from rainy Dar Es Salaam some weeks after the rainy season in Malawi has stopped and the winter has started with a perfect climate of clear skies and somewhat warm but most of the time not too hot temperatures. From the very first step on Malawian soil we see a beautiful country with beautiful people. Everywhere we are welcomed and greeted by the most friendly people. Especially in the small towns we cannot walk around without responding to a friendly ‘hello, how are you?’ every few minutes to all random strangers and even the official at the airport who provides us with our visa. Malawians are maybe the nicest and friendliest people we have met until so far during our whole trip and the Malawians treat us as equals rather than look up to us because we are white, which is nice for a change. Apparently this is why Malawi is called the ‘warm heart of Africa’.
The infrastructure seems quite alright, the roads we are travelling on with public transport minibuses are the best roads we have seen since leaving South Africa. There are quite a lot of police checkpoints on the roads and
as a result the minibuses leave when completely full but they are not topped off with double the amount of passengers as in Mozambique. Almost every village and town we pass seems to have a lively market and although the variety of what is presented is not great there is an abundance of fresh food like tomatoes and potatoes and small fish at the numerous market stalls along the roads everywhere. Malawi is still one of the poorest countries of the continent (and the world) which for us is hard to understand.
By travelling with public transport minibuses, which conveniently go absolutely everywhere, and by staying in some local guesthouses we meet some locals on the road and some of the other guests which are almost all Malawians travelling for their work. They are all as curious to hear our story as as we are to hear theirs so we get some insight in what makes a developing country like Malawi struggling so hard.
While the people we chat with are educated and have jobs it’s clearly hard to try and improve the situation in which they work or live. We chat with a
radiographer who has his current job in the local clinic already for six months but because the x-ray machine is not working and there are no supplies he has not made a single x-ray yet (which is the sole purpose of his job).
We meet a guy who works for the government run energy company and we ask him curiously if he can explain why we have experienced at least one total power blackout every single day in every single town we have stayed. This triggers a for us very interesting and entertaining discussion between him and some other guests whether the situation had improved or worsened now there is a democratically elected multiparty government instead of the single party not elected quite dictatorial government. The countrywide energy situation is said (by the energy company guy) to be improving but nobody can really see this as there are blackouts every day and (according to the nurses from the hospital) people die in hospitals during blackouts.
It’s impossible (for them) to really come to a conclusion although all agree oppression (as before) is not the desired state but also all agree that with freedom and
elections beautiful leaps forward in development do not happen automatically. It’s such an incredible shame that countries like Malawi have had (and some still have) leaders for such a long time who have mainly been stuffing their own pockets and who have only been helping to improve the lives of their direct relatives.
We travel from Blantyre through some endless green tea plantations to Mulanje with a huge mountain plateau as a backdrop. We decide to go for a hike up to the plateau from Likhubula the next day. This is a very rural area and walking around the village we see the most basic houses, rundown stores and people mainly busy with collecting wood and fetching water. We meet a guy who will be our guide the following day and we have lunch and tea at a local restaurant, eating the local food ncima. Samuel also invites us for dinner at his house, which we accept after paying for the groceries ourselves. His house is the most basic house we can imagine, made of mud bricks and a tin roof, with no electricity nor running water.
The track up to this plateau is
very steep and soon after the start of our hike we are panting and sweating profusely but after a few hours we reach the edge of the plateau and we can enjoy a beautiful view. We walk down via some nice waterfalls at the base of which we swim and cool off in the very cold clear water.
The next day we travel a short stretch to Phalombe from where we walk a day to the highest point of a pass between the plateau and the neighbouring mountain. This is more a leisurely walk over a road, passing small villages with extremely basic mud houses, small plantations and gardens. As we walk through one of the villages the primary school just finishes for the day and from that moment we are surrounded and followed by tens of pretty, smiling and yelling kids, almost none of them wearing shoes. They all want to practice the few words in English they know so we have to tell them our names over and over again in response to their ‘what’s-your-name-what’s-your-name-what’s-your-name?’
We continue to Zomba, which is quite a short distance away but we have to change vehicles
three times because one flat tyre and one driver not authorised to go further. Zomba has been the capital of the country but it does not show, it’s not really a city in our opinion although we find some old colonial government buildings. From town we let us drive up to another plateau and walk around and along the edge of it. Both the then queen mother of the British Empire as the then emperor Haile Selassie (of Ethiopia) have visited this place and the viewpoints which are named after them now give us a perfect view of the surrounding countryside, looking down on some old volcanoes and even until the Mulanje plateau.
Another quite short ride brings us to Liwonde and Liwonde National Park. Here we pitch our tent in the camp run by a Dutch guy who ended up here with mechanical problems with his vehicle and since then never left and now runs a nice lodge in the park. The camp is in the park within the fence so we needed some courage for pitching our tent after we heard that five lions were just released in the park. After pitching our tent we
had our lunch at a wooden platform where we immediately saw some elephants passing by. And these guys were really close and there is no fence between them and us and our tent …
The afternoon we spent in a motorised boat cruising the river and spotting literally hundreds of hippos. Everywhere we could see their ears and eyes above the water, sometimes they dove under and sometimes the came up pretty close to the boat. Just before turning the boat we spotted a small herd of elephants crossing a small side river. Back at the camp we fetched ourselves our first MGT (Malawi Gin & Tonic) which we drank while the sun was setting behind the park.
We had a mediocre night of sleep because we could hear all sorts of noises around our tent but luckily there were only elephants and no lions around =-) The next morning we got a ride through the park from Joukje a Dutch writer we met at the camp. We drove for a few hours through the beautiful landscape spotting a lot of different antelopes like impalas and waterbucks, a few herds of elephants and big
birds of prey. After this game drive we decided to break up camp and come with Joukje to Cape Maclear on the southern shore of Lake Malawi.
We found ourselves a very affordable room in the backyard of the very nice Thumbi View Lodge where we stayed for four nights. We had great food at the lodge but also in small local restaurants in the village which is still very much a long stretch of mostly mud-brick houses of the fishermen. We spent a few days chilling and reading our books at the poolside and one day kayaking across and around Thumbi Island where we did some snorkelling in the clear water and where we could find hundreds of coloured ciclids (small fishes famous for their huge evolutionary variety) of which we don’t have any pictures because I drowned my UW camera :-(
After Cape Maclear we visited Mua Mission which is one of the oldest missions in the country where we stayed in a lovely roundhouse. When we visited the extensive museum there was a local group of dancers and musicians performing for a tourist group. The dancers and musicians were dressed in
traditional costumes, used huge masks and traditional instruments and the director of the museum was able to explain a lot about the meaning of all the characters, masks and dances. The dances and masks were both fun and impressive and all about all the important moments in peoples lives, like birth, marriage and death.
While already on the road in just another minibus we decided to change course and skip Lilongwe, the capital of the country, and head to Nkhotakota from where we understood (or hoped) to be able to catch a ferry across the lake to Likoma Island. The MV Ilala ferry is kind of a travellers’ classic, a slow steamer traversing the whole Malawi lake from north to south and back, stopping on the way and connecting some otherwise disconnected communities, cities and islands.
In Nkhotakota we walked around and got our visa extended with another 30 days at the smallest immigration office ever. We got confirmed that the ferry MV Ilala was supposed to arrive the next day and to leave early in the morning the following day. We kept our room during the day and after diner we got ourselves
to the place where the boat was going to arrive and leave. Because the jetty had almost completely disappeared after a collision with the ferry we just found an empty spot in the darkness close to the waterside where around one hundred people gathered in small groups and a lot of cargo was dumped. We waited for a few hours and in the middle of the pitch dark night suddenly the lights of the ferry appeared. We decided to first see how the locals would get to the boat and not be tricked into a small boat for a few meters only. The shallow waters did not allow the ferry rescue boats to come close to the shore so we followed a few locals wading through the water which at the end came to our crotches and with wet pants but dry bags we climbed on board.
We chose to spend the trip on the first class deck which was the upper deck and where no cargo and a lot less people were put than on the lower decks. We rolled out our sleeping mats on the decks and got a few hours of sleep under the
beautiful star filled sky. We woke up just before sunrise and had a good breakfast in the first class salon which felt like what travelling must have been like half a century ago.
Arrival on Likoma island was quite easy, offloading of passengers and cargo a bit hectic but OK and the ferry rescue boats brought us close to the shore. We got onto a small vehicle which brought us to the other side of the island where we settled at Mango Drift, a lodge with a few huts and houses right on the sunset beach. Likoma island is a small island (8 KM longest side) with a lot of massive boabab trees, it’s close to the Mozambique shore but still part of Malawi. This is a place where we want to spend a few days doing nothing and we immediately find after one day there is not a lot to do on the island but walk around, go snorkelling, kayaking or SUPping and reading our books, laying on the beach or in a hammock, waiting for the sun to set, take our daily medicine (the Malawi Gin & Tonic) and have a nice candlelit dinner at
the table the staff puts in the sand at the beach under the stars.
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