Bay of 1000 teenagers

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Africa » Malawi » Northern » Nkhata Bay
July 25th 2009
Published: September 21st 2009
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The WLP describes Nkhata Bay as "Caribbeanesque" then back-pedals and damns it with "quite picturesque". It's certainly (and thankfully) not as hot as the former but I'll give it the latter. It has the potential to be overrun by tourism but, with Malawi not on the tourist trail and with the nearest airport to Nkhata Bay 6 hours away by road, that won't happen any time soon. However it's certainly a backpacker destination and the number of smoking teenagers is overwhelming, with me not having seen such a quantity anywhere in Africa.

My first accommodation is serenely peaceful and I fritter away three days on the balcony of a basic bamboo hut, occasionally pottering into the town where there's nothing to do either, though I do see a store advertising "A good coffin for a good price". The hostel is owned by a foreigner, something it appears to have in common with all the other accommodation in town. It also has a friendly cat that claims to like spag bol. Other local animal life includes plenty of ants, which penetrate the packet of Bourbons I thought I'd carefully folded up.

I learn that there's an enormous black market in
Sun worshipperSun worshipperSun worshipper

Nameless but friendly cat at Big Blue Star Backpackers
kwacha, meaning the bank rates of ~140 to the $ are poor compared with up to 180 obtainable on the street. I'm not quite sure how the various FX bureaux fit into this, as their rates are somewhere in the middle yet I can't see how they can offer those rates unless they're also involved in the (illegal) black market.

The town has a bizarre sprinkling of "Rastas" with names such as Smile and Happiness, who appear to have espoused the religion partly as an excuse to smoke weed, and partly because it attracts white chicks. They also bang on about the friendliness of Malawians, in order to draw you into a conversation, after five minutes of which they suddenly change the subject to their conveniently close handicrafts shop. I'm not sure I prefer fake friendliness to being ignored, however with agricultural work netting approximately $1.50 per day it's no wonder that people look for other ways to make a living. A month of agricultural work will nearly produce enough money to buy a goat.

The inmates of the local prison are allowed out to work in the fields with little in the way of supervision. Every time
My hutMy hutMy hut

Big Blue Star Backpackers
I walk past, they beg for cigarettes, a request I can't help them with. I learn later that they may include murderers in their number. I think that maybe I should buy some cigarettes.

One of the more picturesque sights in Nkhata Bay is at night, when the lake is dotted with lights courtesy of the nocturnal fishermen using paraffin lamps to attract their prey. This has given rise to the nickname of "Lake of 1000 Stars".

I meet two Peace Corps volunteers about to embark on their two year placements in rural Malawian villages. Like many of the volunteers I've met on the trip, they have absolutely no background in the field that they will be working in. They tell me that, in Malawi, it's a faux pas to hang out your undies to dry on a washing line - you have to cover them with another piece of cloth as well.

For the second half of my stay, and foolishly thinking I need a livelier atmosphere for the weekend, I hit the WLP's recommended lodge which also has many positive recommendations on the web. However what's not mentioned is that there's hardly anyone in the
Pied kingfisher caught mid-gobblePied kingfisher caught mid-gobblePied kingfisher caught mid-gobble

Big Blue Star Backpackers
place over 20. I see a few other bewildered guests with birth dates in the 1970s.

The actual accommodation is excellent and probably the best I've had yet in Africa (including a stone bathtub and a showerhead about 8 inches wide). I sit on the balcony and a bird on the roof skilfully manages to thread a turd through the thatch and onto the book I'm reading.

The bar/restaurant area in the evening brings back memories of Australia - crowds of beer-swilling teenagers as far as the eye can see. I meet two similarly bemused guests, C and L, an Anglo-Malawi couple on honeymoon. L's aunt is the wife of the couple owning Flame Tree Guesthouse in Mzuzu. They say that Malawi's economy is the fastest-growing in Africa and a great place to make money.

There is a dancing interlude courtesy of a German backpacker who is trying to raise funds to extend her travelling - surely one of the least worthy causes in all of Africa but at least she's honest about it. The performance consists of Eastern dance forms and she's actually pretty good but she has an unreceptive audience, more interested in their own sharking.

The night wears on, the atmosphere becoming increasingly raucous and the music cheesifying enough for my own tastes. The air fills with flying dreads as the Rastas strut their stuff. There's a sprinkling of local guys but not one local woman (except the waitresses). A pool tournament is arranged, the draw chalked up on the menu board. I can only assume that the entrant called "Boobs" is the sole girl in the line-up. I've heard that the HIV infection rate in Nkhata Bay is 70%!,(MISSING) which seems unbelievably high given the national rate of something like 12%!,(MISSING) but either way it doesn't seem like a good place to fool around.

I learn that, in the past, the resort used to offer free alcohol to guests on their check-out date, in an attempt to inebriate them sufficiently that they'd end up staying longer. That seems entirely in keeping with the vibe of the place so I'm not sure why that policy was discontinued.

Five days next to the lake turns out to be enough for little old sun-hater me, so then it's back to Mzuzu.

Dull but possibly useful info
i. There are many minibuses from Mzuzu to Nkhata Bay each day, costing MK350 and taking about an hour.
ii. I first stayed at Big Blue Star Backpackers in the north part of Nkhata Bay right next to the lake. It used to be called Big Blue until the current owner took it over a couple of years ago - she retained the bulk of the original name so it was still recognisable, but added the Star to indicate it was under new management. I paid MK1,000 per night for a bamboo hut with electricity, a mossie net, and a small balcony. The shared bathrooms were clean.
iii. I then stayed at Mayoka Village in the southern part of the town, also next to the lake, paying MK2,900 for a double room with ensuite bathroom and a balcony. I'm not sure if that price was for single occupancy. The room had a kettle and free tea/coffee. There's decent library. Mayoka is a 15 minute walk from the town centre (but would feel more with luggage as there's a chunk of uphill involved) so they offer a free transfer. To get back into town after your stay, you can get a taxi for MK700. Note that, for
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Big Blue Star Backpackers
whatever reason, the food prices are all quoted exclusive of a 16.5% government tax.
iv. There is web access at Jessie's next to Big Blue Star Backpackers but it's a rather steep MK480 per hour. There is a place in the centre where you can get it for MK300.

Additional photos below
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Big Blue Star Backpackers
Ceiling made from zitenjesCeiling made from zitenjes
Ceiling made from zitenjes

These cloths are used as skirts, shawls, bags, baby holders, and for umpteen other uses Big Blue Star Backpackers

Wonkiness all photographer's own
Lakeside relaxationLakeside relaxation
Lakeside relaxation

Mayoka Village

Mayoka Village
Drying animal skinsDrying animal skins
Drying animal skins

Great smell, too
Fish eyeFish eye
Fish eye

On the minibus back to Mzuzu

23rd September 2009

Covering your underpants
Very enjoyable. And nice to have practical information, too.

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