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Published: September 5th 2009
Candle and Carlsberg
My first night in Karonga
From the Malawi border, I take a shared taxi to the first proper town, Karonga. I'm squeezed into the back seat with two women, a man, and two children. They're remarkably cheerful at the addition of this large, sweaty foreigner to their vehicle, though one woman's opening comment to me, in lieu of a greeting, is that I should give some money to her child. Later in the journey she tells me I have such soft skin, accompanied by a gratuitous fondle of my upper arm, and I recommend to her Aveeno daily moisturising lotion with natural colloidal oatmeal.
My arrival in Malawi now means I have to turn to the Southern Africa section of the WLP, a sign that I am slowly making progress towards my rendezvous with Cape Town at the end of the year. There is a part of me that thinks I've gone too quickly through the less-travelled countries on my route, leaving a disproportionate amount of time for the more-touristed (and perhaps less interesting) areas to come. However there's no going back so I'll have to make do.
Karonga is a dusty town with pigs and hens wandering freely across its sparsely-trafficed streets. Many
Banda at independence
Like most African leaders that led their countries to independence, he then ran the nation as though it was his own personal bank
Cultural and Museum Centre
of the buildings have an unfinished look. The inhabitants are friendly and helpful, and for the first time in months I'm given correct directions to a hotel. It has no other guests but at least four resident black cats of various ages.
I put in an afternoon walk to Lake Malawi. Under overcast skies and with a stiff breeze blowing, it's not at its best and in fact I'm reminded of the North Sea. An old man stops me to ask for money - I refuse gently, and he says "Cheerio" as he walks off.
An evening power cut gives me little choice but to sit in the hotel bar with a couple of beers. Carlsberg's only African brewery is in Blantyre in the south, and its produce is the most popular beer in Malawi, with the basic lager being known simply as Green. It feels strange to be drinking Carlsberg here, a world away from my last encounter with it in some bar in London. A local policeman buys me a bottle, a friendly gesture, but he later starts dropping hints that his table of mates could do with a round. I reciprocate his original purchase, but
I have no appetite for being a cash machine so then bid him goodnight.
The next morning, I'm pleased to find that the free breakfast is an omelette and chips. I'm less pleased to find that, despite having only seen 1 mossie in my room (which I killed), I have literally a dozen bites on my right hand. I guess it's time the doxy started earning its keep.
On the way into town, I pass 5 Palm Tree Enterprises, a firm of rice millers and coffin makers, a level of diversification to compete with the kitchen knife and underpants hawker I saw in Mbeya.
Karonga has a small but informative museum that houses a reconstruction of a herbivorous dinosaur, Malawisaurus, that was excavated nearby. It also gives an interesting history of the region and its Ngonde people, including the slaving period when the Arab Mlozi was "constantly raiding the country for human bootie". Tradition holds that the Kyungu, or hereditary chief of the Ngonde, must not die a natural death lest the whole country turn into a pool of water. In the past, this meant that if he was sick or even cut himself, he would be
Before WW1, Malawi (then Nyasaland) was a British colony whereas Tanzania was part of German East Africa. News did not necessarily travel fast in the region. The museum contains a translation of an amusing letter sent in 1914 from the German administration in the province bordering Malawi to the British Commissioner in Karonga:
"Thanks to your extreme kindness in preventing the forwarding of dispatches into our colony, I am not clear as to whether England is at war with Germany or not. But I understand that you are mobilizing your available forces and are even distributing breechloaders to the Natives on our border. If you therefore wish to attack our province I must most courteously remark that we are prepared to meet you in a somewhat unfriendly fashion. The position definitely requires clearing up and therefore I beg you most politely and urgently to let me have a clear answer."
P.J.Howson, A short history of Karonga, 1972
Once war was declared, the British took the opportunity to take out the only German gunboat on Lake Malawi, and it was only after much confusion that the Germans were told by the British that they were at war.
I also enjoy some of the quirkier descriptions including one stating "Technology did not start in America, it was invented in Africa", and another labelling a compass with the words "For showing which direction is which".
With Malawi generally a slim country, I don't particularly need a compass to know that the only direction I can really go in from Karonga is south. Which is the direction I go in. Dull but possibly useful info
i. See my previous blog for how to get to Karonga from Mbeya in Tanzania.
an official-looking FX booth near Malawi Immigration but the rates they offer are no different to those of the street moneychangers. However I would guess they're less likely to perform some sleight of hand or calculator trick on you than the street moneychangers.
iii. A shared taxi from the border to Karonga costs MK500 per person and takes 45 minutes. You will no doubt be accosted by available drivers when you are going through immigration.
iv. I stayed at Safari Lodge, costing MK3000 including breakfast. The rooms are large but basic, with a loud, fixed-speed ceiling fan, no hot water, and not necessarily cold water either. However there are lots of cats in the grounds.
v. The Cultural and Museum Centre Karonga costs MK500 to enter. They also have an Internet cafe costing MK10 per minute.
vi. None of the ATMs accept Mastercard.
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