Malawi adventures part 2


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Africa » Malawi » Southern » Cape Maclear
June 2nd 2018
Published: June 5th 2018
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The morning after arriving back in Malawi I met a nurse from London and we went to explore the city of Lilongwe for the day. We got around by tuktuk and local minibuses and visited the beautiful Lilongwe wildlife centre and had a nice lunch there. We then chilled in the hostel for the evening (with the resident rats of the hostel. True story). I met lots of other people who were finishing their travels in Malawi, so was able to get lots of hints and tips. The morning I was leaving Lilongwe, my roommate was attacked by the resident Rhodesian ridgeback which the owner didn't seem to take much notice of. So if you plan to visit Lilongwe, I wouldn't recommend this hostel!

My next adventures would start with the journey to Cape Maclear, Lake Malawi. I took a tuktuk to the bus station in Lilongwe. As I arrived in the vicinity of the station, tens of people surrounded the tuktuk asking 'where are you going?', 'bananas?' 'pineapple?', 'cashew nuts?', 'cakes?', 'oranges?', 'biscuits?', 'boiled eggs?', 'cold drinks?', 'kittens?' ('Yes please, to all of the above' was my reply). The station was heaving with people and minibuses. There was a
Motorbike taxi Motorbike taxi Motorbike taxi

Monkey Bay
dirt road, no paving, with puddles of water from the rains overnight, bananas skins and monkey nut shells all over the floor. I jumped on a minibus towards Mangochi via Monkey Bay. I would get off at Monkey Bay and take a motorbike taxi to Cape Maclear. In Malawi, when you get on a minibus, it doesn't leave until it is full. Full to bursting I mean. This minibus had 3 free seats so I thought, great, it will leave soon. However it was nearly an hour before all seats were finally taken and all luggage, including mattresses, chickens and bags of cassava, was packed in between all of us passengers. We set off on a beautiful drive towards Lake Malawi, passing views of Mount Chiponde and Mount Ntchisi. The drive took about 3.5 hours with a few stops in small villages on the way to buy snacks. I bought myself a few bananas and two boiled eggs, which they serve with a mini sachet of salt. The bus dropped me off around 5kms from Monkey Bay, where I could take a shared taxi to actually get Monkey Bay. At Monkey Bay there was a stand of motorbike taxis ready
Cape Maclear Cape Maclear Cape Maclear

Children posing, Lake Malawi
to take passengers to Cape Maclear. I say passengers; I seemed to be the only tourist around headed for Cape Maclear! So the motor bike taxi men essentially fought over me, which was sort of funny. I had no choice but to go with the most persistent one, who was charging 1500 Malawi kwacha=£1.50 for an 18km journey. On I jumped, with my 80L backpack tied on the back. We drove though the beautiful Lake Malawi National Park, all lush and green and mountainous, for Cape Maclear. It was dirt road all the way and, on our approach to the town, children on their way home from school ran alongside the bike waving and smiling and trying to keep up with it's speed! We passed lots of typical Malawian houses and little shops with the usual chickens and goats running around the place. The motor bike dropped me off directly at my lodge, called 'Fat Monkeys', recommended to me by people I met in Lilongwe. I was welcomed by really friendly staff and given a tour of the hostel. It stood right on the edge of the lake, with gorgeous white sand and crystal clear waters and the sun bursting in the cloudless sky. My dorm room was overlooking the beach and I had it all to myself as the hostel wasn't very busy. I got into my bikini straight away and went for a refreshing swim to cool off after the long journey!

After the swim I went for a walk along the beach. The shore was full of women, children (and a few men) washing clothes, pots, pans, bowls and themselves. I was starting to regret my swim ..... the children were so gorgeous, and so free! Just running, jumping and playing in the water. There were also lots of ducks and ducklings running around the place. It was such a busy but lovely atmosphere, a real hub of local life. I walked the length of Cape Maclear beach (about 3kms) and back and sat myself in the Fat Monkeys restaurant overlooking the lake, just in time for sunset. Special brew in hand. This was one of those lovely moments. When you're at home, you almost never seem to have time to watch the sunset...or rise. This is why I love travelling - you get to just people and nature watch, and take everything in. And enjoy the simple things. I had a delightful dinner of fish goujons and, after the sun went down, watched the music channel in the bar, which was playing mostly the spice girls and Hanson. I was in my element. (It also made me think of how sad I was to have missed your spice girls hen night out Rachel Gerlis!!!!)

The next morning I arranged to go on a snorkelling boat trip on the lake. I indulged in some pancakes with honey for breakfast on the beach and then Captain Simon and his skipper Terry came to pick me up. As it was low season, I was the only person on the actual boat trip! Our first stop was to the local village. As we approached the harbour there were fishermens' wooden boats scattered everywhere with all the local people coming to buy the morning's catch. After Captain Simon bought some fish (which would be used to feed eagles apparently) we headed into the village to get milliemeal for making nsima and charcoal for cooking. Everywhere we walked, tens of children came running up to me to hold my hand as we walked. By the time we got back to the boat there was an entourage of around 30 children. I waved them goodbye as we set off on the boat again towards Ilala Gap and Domwe Island. At Ilala Gap there was some lovely snorkelling and rock jumping. Then Captain Simon started throwing fish from the boat, at which point a fish eagle jumped from a far off tree and swooped to catch it with ease. I have never seen an eagle that close; I could see it's little trouser legs and it's beak so clearly. We then headed on towards Thumbi island for a trifle more snorkelling followed by lunch cooked on the beach by Simon and Tezza! It was hugely delicious - fresh barbequed fish, rice, nsima (load the carbs!) and veggies cooked in a tomato sauce. We then chatted and I asked lots about local life on Lake Malawi. It was then siesta time ! 😊 in the afternoon we headed for Otter's point, to spot some otters. They are elusive creatures though, so we didn't get to see any. There were lots of locals hanging out playing the music (perhaps this is what was scaring the otters off) and we all had a rock jumping
Breakfast Breakfast Breakfast

Pineapple fritters mmmmmm
contest which was fun!

We headed back to Fat Monekys in time for a beer at sunset - a super chilled end to a super chilled day !

The next morning I was headed for Mount Mulanje. I just had time for a quick breakfast of pineapple fritters and a coffee overlooking my last view of Lake Malawi (for this trip anyway!) I jumped on a motor bike for Mangochi and then got on a minibus for Blantyre. As usual, the minibus didn't leave until it was full to bursting, so I busied myself with my book/music/marvelling at the bustling of the locals and the markets. It was around a 6 hour journey on the bus. The bus drops you off at Limbe and you have to take another bus or taxi for Blantyre. Blantyre is Malawi's financial centre and is named after Dr Livingstone's place of birth in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. The city was founded through missionary work of the Scottish Church. It is home to 25,000 expats. Limbe, a suburb of Blantyre where most of the minibuses terminate, is full full full of minibuses and people and rubbish. As soon as I got off the bus,
Chambe PeakChambe PeakChambe Peak

Mount Mulanje
about 15 locals surrounded me asking where I was going and taking my big bag without even asking me. They take your bag because this is their way of showing everybody else that I'll be going on their bus. So you have to be quite firm in telling them which bus you actually want to get into, rather than the bus they think you want to get into. If that makes any sense at all! Finally though, I jumped in a taxi to Blantyre, for Doogles hostel. I had high expectations for this hostel because 1. It was starred in the Lonely Planet guidebook and 2. It has the same name (but different spelling) as one of my favourite tv characters. However, when I arrived my expectations were not met. The place was completely empty; I seemed to be the only traveller. The dorms and bathrooms had a weird smell and had a sort of boarding school feel about them. This was sub-ideal as I had been hoping to meet some people to climb Mount Mulanje with! It was one of those lonely moments when you are travelling solo. So I decided to take myself out for a posh dinner at a local Italian restaurant where I had a nice glass of red and the biggest prawns I have ever seen in my life. They were the size of lobsters. It turns out they had been imported from Mozambique - a sign of things to come! At the table next to me was a nurse from Newcastle, UK who was working in Malawi for a few months, so we had an interesting chat. I headed back for the dreaded Doogles and spent just one night there, which was enough!

My next adventure was to climb Mount Mulanje, Central Africa's highest mountain. It's advised to take a guide to climb the mountain so the next morning I organised to meet a local guide, Vincent, recommended by the hostel. He explained to me the different options for climbing the peaks, ranging from an overnight to a week long trip. A porter would be provided to carry our kit e.g. food, sleeping bags, pots and pans etc. We would stay in cabins/lodges on the mountain. I opted for a 2 night trip. And off we set. First we went to the supermarket in Limbe to pick up lots of white carbs such as pasta, bread, biscuits, porridge oats and peanut butter. We then jumped on a minibus for Chitakale where we took a motorbike to Likhubula, at the base of the mountain. The motor bike ride was beautiful. It took us through all the tea plantations with a view of the many peaks of the mountain on our right hand side. At the entrance to the mountain, I paid an entrance fee of 1000 kwacha (=£1) and left my big backpack at the tourist office. I also bought a walking stick.....I am getting old now so needs must.....but really, they recommended a stick for the steep downhill walking on the mountain. It was a beautiful stick made of cedar wood, with Mount Mulanje 2018 engraved on it. So just after midday, Vincent, Frances (our porter) and I headed off up the Chambe plateau path a.k.a skyline path of Mount Mulanje! Vincent set off at lightening speed and, in the heat of the midday sun, I felt felt a bit light headed and had to get him slow down! It was pretty steep from the outset but the walk through the thickness of fir trees, huge granite rocks, streams and waterfalls, stepping stones and little wooden bridges with the sweet smell of cedar was beautiful. As we approached the Chambe plateau itself, I heard a swooping noise, as if an aeroplane was flying over us. It turned out to be a black eagle coming to say hello! It swooped so close that if you put your hand out you could have touched it. Incredible. Just as the sun was setting, we reached our first lodge for the night - Frances Cottage, in Chambe Basin. It was a gorgeous little cottage surrounded by shrubbery and flowers, on a stunning granite rock with a view of the beautiful Chambe and Chilemba Peaks. Inside the cottage was very simple; there was a main living room with a fire for cooking and a few chairs. There were 2 bedrooms each with 2 beds. The place had such a cosy feel about it and reminded me of the cottage where my Nana Kenny grew up. Upon our arrival, the caretaker of the cottage put the fire on and get the hot water ready for cooking dinner and also for making a cup of tea 😊 the washroom was in an outbuilding in the back garden of the cottage. It was a small room with a shelf for a big basin of hot water (heated on the fire by the caretaker) and a small bucket for washing. Bucket shower it was! I managed to move the bucket from the shelf to the floor so I would be able to stand in the basin; this allowed me to get almost full body coverage with the hot water. It was pretty chilly at the altitude of around 1,800m and so it was so nice to have even a hot bucket shower! By the time I had finished with the whole top-of-mountain-washing-experience, Vincent had already prepared a dinner of spaghetti with tomato sauce and eggs which we wolfed down as we were so hungry after the walk. After dinner we all chatted by the fire. The Malawians have good English which made life easy for me. We went to bed by 8.30pm.

The next morning we were up at 5.30am. Vincent prepared oats (Rachel Blundy, please calm yourself) and peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast and off we set on the next part of our walk to the peak; towards Chisepo Junction. The morning air was so beautiful and fresh, clear blue
West PeakWest PeakWest Peak

Me and Vincent
skies and sunshine. At West Peak we had reached the level of the clouds which felt pretty cool! We arrived at Sapitwa hut, where we would stay for the second night, by about 10am. We had more peanut butter sandwiches (all this climbing makes you hungry!) and tea and then deposited most of our stuff for the night, taking just a small rucksack for our climb up Sapitwa Peak. Sapitwa Peak is Mount Mulanje's highest peak at 3002m.

At first, this part of the walk wasn't too challenging - we ascended up a steep rocky path. After 30mins or so the path sort of disappeared at which point you had to literally climb up the rocks faces, which were at about a 75degree angle. This is when Vincent decided to tell me stories about people going missing or dying whilst trying to climb Mount Mulanje. Great.

In the distance we could hear the sound of rock hyraxes, whose home is Sapitwa Peak. Unfortunately they were being poached with the aid of dogs. So with the sound of the poachers with their dogs, and all the the horror stories, I can't say I was feeling particularly great at this
Sapitwa PeakSapitwa PeakSapitwa Peak

First part of the climb
point! Anyway we powered on with the climb and reached the plateau at which point it started to rain! 😞 so we had to take cover. Vincent pointed in the direction of some caves in the distance which we headed for. Turns out they weren't really caves. They were more like big rock overhangs. Anyway, we took some shelter under those but had a lot of water dripping onto us. I started having visions of us being stuck on the mountain in the rain for the night.....to be found dead days or weeks later. Luckily, after about on hour, we saw a group of 3 people in the distance walking in our direction. They had already reached the peak and were heading back down for Sapitwa Hut. It was reassuring, at least, to see some other people. They headed off on their descent but Vincent said we should wait under the rock until the rain settled. Which took a lonnnnng time. And it was cold. And wet. He cracked out the biscuits and bread and peanut butter. This helped somewhat. After nearly 3 hours, the rain finally settled. To climb the 500m to the peak would take 1.5 hours and
Sapitwa Peak Sapitwa Peak Sapitwa Peak

Hiding under the rock....cold and miserable!
wasn't worth the risk with the changeable weather. We decided to head back down for Sapitwa Hut. So I can't say I climbed to the peak of Mount Mulanje, but I got pretty close and feel proud to have done it!

It was a bloody slippery descent down the rock faces back to the hut after all the rain. We took it slowly. Polé polé as they say here in Africa! I spent most of the time on my bum. I wasn't slipping over, but was purposely sliding down in a sort of half bridge position, for safety/comfort. True story. My arms and legs paid for it for dayyyyyyys afterwards. I suggested to Vincent that perhaps he could build a slide down the mountain to aid in such situations. He was keen on the idea!

We finally arrived back, with beautiful views over Lichenya Path, at Chapitwa Hut by late afternoon. It was such a MASSIVE relief to make it back in one piece. Outside the hut were lots of clothes hanging to dry. It turns out, lots of other hikers had also been caught in the rain and fled to the hut for shelter! When we entered the hut it was lovely and warm with a roaring fire on the go. More clothes drying and pots and pans full of food bring cooked. Ideal! A really friendly couple of people approached me saying 'you made It!' I had no idea who they were. It turns out they were the people we had seen when taking cover under the rock near the peak. The rain had just been so heavy, they now looked different as completely dry people. They were called Declan, from Canada, and Izze, a from the US. They were so friendly and welcoming and I spent most of the evening chatting with them around the fire, eating dinner and laughing about the terrible peak experience and toasting marshmellows. So cheesy I know. They also told me about their travel experiences in Mozambique so I was able to get a few tips! There were lots of other people around too, who were part of the 'mountain group of Malawi'. So it was just a bunch of hikers (if I can call myself that) chilling out in a hut around a fire. We set out our sleeping bags on the foam mattresses on the floor and were asleep by about 8pm.

The weather was poor the next day so we decided to have a bit of a lazy morning and a later leaving time of 9.30am. We were due to descend back to the foot of the mountain, a 5-6 hour walk. It was a nice atmosphere in the hut with everybody was busying around the fire cooking breakfast and boiling water for tea. When we set off the weather was still pretty misty and the paths still wet and slippery. It was a challenging descent! As we walked along the Lichenya path the weather improved and so did the views. Near the foot of the mountain we reached the beautiful Likhubula falls where we met Declan and Izze! We went for a refreshing swim 😊 😊 after that we completed the rest of the descent all together; Vincent, Frances, Izze, Declan and their guide and porter and me. We all said our goodbyes and headed in our own directions.

Mulanje was certainly a challenge but it was so spectacularly beautiful and I'm so glad I was able to climb it!

That night, I stayed at the lovely Kara O'Mula lodge in Mulanje and
Tea plantations Tea plantations Tea plantations

Mount Mulanje
was upgraded to an executive room because it was low season. A nice change from sleeping in dorms. I had a beautiful room overlooking the tea plantations. It was a nice place to recover from the hike and to plan the next part of my travels. My next step was to get to Mozambique. I had planned to cross the border near Mulanje but the locals, including Vincent, advised against it as the public transport on the Mozambique side was virtually non-existent. So I decided to head back up north and cross the border at Chiponde, with a stopover in Zomba. Zomba is famous for its plateau and British Colonial architecture and was the capital of Malawi until 1974.

To get to Zomba I jumped back on a minibus, with the dudes fighting over my bag as usual (I'd had to leave my cedar stick behind, sadly, as it didn't fit in my bag 😞 ), straps being pulled in all directions. I chatted to the locals on the way; they were all so friendly and chatty and having top jokes on the bus. Rather different from the tube in London! It was only a few hours so I arrived in time for lunch - pizza and chips - I was, of course, still hungry from all the hiking. I stayed at Pakachere hostel which I would definitely recommend if anybody plans a visit here! It sits right at the bottom of the plateau with stunning views and has a fantastic restaurant and lovely staff. There were also lots of other travellers so a great place to meet people and share travel tales. One of the girls even had a mutual friend who was due to drive to Mozambique in a few days and would have space in his car. This was great news for me as I didn't have to worry about organising public transport across the border. This also gave me a bit of extra to enjoy some time in Zomba.

The following morning I hiked Zomba plateau with some people from hostel. We took a motorbike taxi up the plateau to the beginning of the walk. My motorbike taxi man ran out of petrol half way up though. So he had to abandon me and coast it back down the hill. He got one of his friends to pick me up and take me the rest of the way. We eventually arrived at Sunbird Ku Chase and started the walk here. It was a really pretty walk, through lots of woodland, Munlunguzi dam, streams and waterfalls, fields full of flowers and a few lovely lodges scattered in between. From Queen's view and Emperor's view there were some misty views over Zomba and the surrounding landscape. In the afternoon we sort of ended up taking a wrong turn and descended down an extremely steep and rocky path to make it back down to Zomba. Here, the sandflies had no mercy and my legs were soon covered in tiny horrible bites. The descent was tough. But the locals made a show of us when they were balancing huge loads of wood on their heads as well as walking down this hugely steep path, without so much as a groan or wobble. Incredible warriors! We finally reached the base of the plateau, through the botanical gardens and arrived back at the hostel just before dark. In time for a hot bath (as I say, great hostel), dinner and a beer. A few of us played card games for the rest of the evening and I finally collapsed into
Passion fruits Passion fruits Passion fruits

Zomba market
bed by 9pm, party times!!

The next day I had a bit of a lazy morning, reading and catching some rays in the garden. In fact, I spent the rest of the next few days doing this. It was nice to spend a bit of time in one place and get to know the area. I often went to the markets for fruit and veg and did a bit of cooking in the hostel. The fruits in season were passionfruits, papaya and oranges. The oranges here are actually green but they are so fresh and delicious. At the market it's also possible to buy material and have clothes made by a local tailor. So I bought some cool green and black material and had some trousers made, for a total of 7000 kwacha = £7.00. The day before I was due to leave for Mozambique, one of the guys from the hostel, Nick, suggested a day trip to the local Lake Chilwa. Lake Chilwa is the second largest lake in Malawi after Lake Malawi and has an island in the middle called Chisi Island. It's depth is greatly affected by seasonal rains and, at this time of year, is
Lake ChilwaLake ChilwaLake Chilwa

Chisi Island in the background
only 2m deep. We set off from the hostel quite early and jumped in a chapa to the chinamwali junction. From there we jumped into the back of a pick up truck that was filling up quickly. There were mothers with babies, men with bamboo and a mattress, chickens, rugs and lots and lots of people. Unknowingly, I nearly sat on a sack of tomatoes and the woman next to it shouted 'noooooo! Tomatoes!! Tomatoes!!!' So I swiftly stood up again. We set off towards the village at Lake Chilwa, a 20km ride. I was squashed between a mattress and the sack of tomatoes for the majority of the journey and by the end, my legs and rucksack were covered in tomato juice. Delightful! The babies all seemed to enjoy the ride though, giggling and cooing at everything. When we arrived at the shore of the lake, there were stalls selling 'irish' fried potatoes. I couldn't possibly turn this down so both of us had a portion! We met a local police man not in uniform who organised a boat to take us over to the island. Due to the lake's depth, the locals punt across it. It was a
Baobab tree Baobab tree Baobab tree

Chisi Island
gorgeous boat ride - a scorching day with bright blue skies and not one cloud. Luckily I had smothered myself in factor 50. When we arrived at island, we decided to walk it's perimeter. The first thing we noticed was the sheer size and number of the beautiful baobab trees. Nick walked at lightening speed so it was difficult to keep up with him! Lots of children started to join us on our walk, forming an entourage, holding my hand and asking me lots of questions. They are so smiley and curious and always fight to hold your hand. They accompanied us to the next village where they all scattered and then another group of children joined us. This happened all around the island which was very cute. The walk through all the villages was a glimpse into the local way of life which was so lively; people selling tomatoes, red onions, sweet potatoes and pumpkins; fishermen scattered at the banks; cattle grazing near the shore; a loudspeaker with music playing and the locals dancing around it. There seemed to be children just everywhere. The adults usually stayed within their houses and there was not a single old person to
The kids!The kids!The kids!

Chisi Island
be seen. The average life expectancy in Malawi is between 55-63 years for males and between 59-66 years for females. About 3/4 of the way around the island I was getting tired and, by luck, a bicycle taxi popped up out of nowhere. Magic! Nick was keen to continue walking and so I jumped on. Bicycle taxis are popular in Malawi and a cheap way to get around. They are very comfortable too (for the passenger anyway); they have a cushioned leather seat on the back of the bike, with little handlebars to hold onto and foot bars to rest your feet on! When we reached the harbour, the local women wanted me to help them peel the dried maize for the nsima, which I did so gladly, until Nick arrived. We jumped back into the boat (the punters had waited for us) back over to the mainland where what seemed like millions of children were waiting for us and followed us back towards the village. There were some motorbike taxis around so we jumped on one back to Chinamwali junction where we took a minibus to Zomba. I was impressed with the number of methods of transport we had used that day; our feet, a minibus, a pick up truck, a boat, a bicycle taxi and a motorbike taxi! We arrived back, pretty exhausted after the day, but it had been such a great day, so enjoyable and so fun and I totally loved it!

The following day I was due to head to Mozambique. I took a bus to Blantyre (skipping Doogles this time) where I met Meyer, the mutual friend, who would drive us to Mozambique!

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