Habitat Malawi 2018 with a safari

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Africa » Malawi
October 24th 2018
Published: December 14th 2018
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The first stage of any long trip is the packing process. This time, I had decided in the spring that I would be returning to Salt Spring and leaving for Africa from there. This turned out to be an error as we decided to stay at West Hawk Lake until the end of September where we enjoyed what turned out to be a wonderful stretch of warm fall weather except for the last few days. This meant that I would be leaving for Africa from Winnipeg and I was missing a few basic necessities (such as luggage) I ended up buying a canoe bag (MEC Scully 100) which will be good for canoe camping as well as GV travel.

Closing the cabin is always easier when you can spread it out over a long period of time - we started about 3 weeks ahead of departure day. Jan left for home 2 days before I had to leave to catch my flight.

I did one last 8.5 kilometre walk on the Lost Lake trail on Monday October 1st. Then it was home to complete more of the shutdown process and take time for one last sauna and a quick dip in the lake. Due to careful planning by Jan, I was virtually out of food so it was off to the local eatery (NHC) for a last meal.Fish and chips is not their forte.

On Tuesday morning I had a last outdoor shower, completed the shutdown and drove to Birds Hill Provincial Park for an excellent 10 Km walk. My next stop was the Museum of Human Rights which is a new world class attraction in Winnipeg. The featured exhibit was Mandela but the Holocaust section was also well worth a look- I didn't have enough time to do the place justice so will be back next year.

My evening was spent with Aron, Fran and Xavier. The big news is that they are expecting another child in April- so a third grandchild is on the way.

The next day, I did my final packing and went to the Colleen Jessiman funeral along with lots of other lake people-sad event. After the funeral, I decided to visit Winnipeg's other new world class attraction which is the Churchill exhibit at the zoo.

The main feature is the polar bear centre. They rescue orphan bears from the
Community soccerCommunity soccerCommunity soccer

Winner of best actor award
Churchill area and have about 12 at the present time. The bears were really enjoying the snow and staged a mock fight in front of the restaurant windows.

I stayed at the Comfort Inn near the airport and had to get up at 3.30 AM for the red eye flight to Toronto at 5.25 - not a pleasant start. Air Canada was pleased to announce that they had received yet another award from the Air Canada "Award Association"-definitely fake news... I fully expect they will soon have pay toilets. Toronto airport has improved a lot and I only had a short walk to the Ethiopian Airlines gate. The flight left at 11.00 and is supposed to get into Blantyre about 12.5 hours later at 2.30 PM Africa time via Addis Ababa and Ndola. (it did) Ethiopian Airlines has a lot of new Boeing equipment and the Addis airport has changed a lot in 3 years-presumably thanks to China. It should be noted that meals, drinks and luggage transport are included in the ticket price on this airline.

I was in a middle section aisle seat and had no one in the other 2 seats at takeoff. However this
Our busOur busOur bus

Waiting at the ATM machine
is a hard hill to defend and I ended having to do a swap with a couple for a 2 seat spot on the side... It was OK and I was able to get some sleep-reading Bryce Courtenay books on this trip and finished 3 by arrival in Malawi. It is always interesting to observe fellow travellers and there was a lady dressed like Johnny Cash (Goth attire) on the plane who was also going to Malawi-presumably in her 6th decade and quite outgoing.She is apparently going to be doing missionary work in Malawi (Africa appears to attract a lot of missionaries)

One of my team members had given advance warning that the Malawi visa process at the airport needed serious work but it turned out to be a non-event. The staff were very helpful and the process only took 20 minutes. Luggage came quickly and it is quite easy to spot a fluorescent green canoe bag. After luggage retrieval everyone did an exit to the usual gauntlet of luggage carrier and taxi touts- I chose a friendly helper and stopped at the currency exchange - $200 USF equals 143,000 Kwatchas.

The taxi ride will be a story
Popup store Popup store Popup store

at our hotel
if I ever write a travel book. I exited the airport and headed for the Lotus with the very friendly driver sharing lots of information about Malawi and Blantyre. The ride was supposed to cost 20,000 K which is about $30 USF.

As we got closer to the hotel, the traffic got more and more dense and everything basically came to a stop at a traffic circle. Off to the left smoke was billowing off a commercial building. The driver started to get excited and it became apparent that we were out of gas. This is not uncommon and sometimes upfront money is needed to enable fuel to be acquired for taxi rides. In any case, the driver was able to engage some bystanders to push the car into a nearby gas station. More yelling and excitement as it turned out that gas could not be pumped due to the nearby fire. My driver than handed me off to another taxi and we continued on to the Lotus Hotel. The ride ended up being cheaper.

Subsequently I was told by another driver that the fire was in a government building. According to him and several others, money had
Opening day orintationOpening day orintationOpening day orintation

Bricklaying 101
been missing and the fire was started to destroy the accounting records by having some type of incendiary device deposited into the filing cabinets...

The Lotus Hotel is a pretty good place with very friendly staff. I had a good dinner then was able to get a good nights sleep. The next day was free time to explore Blantyre and see if my bank card worked.(it didn't work at the hotel). Downtown was a short cab ride and there was an outdoor craft market with lots of fairly eager vendors. Apparently October is a bit slow.

The bank card (debit) worked and my other project for the day was to get a sim card and buy some cell time. However in order to buy a sim card you need a passport and mine was safely tucked away at the hotel... Buying the sim card gets you registered with a phone number and then you can buy time cards at one of the many street vendors. I eventually spent about $20 CAD on cell service including data, text and voice for over 2 weeks.

The street vendor economy is somewhat desperate due to a lack of customers. I
Results of listening in classResults of listening in classResults of listening in class

bricks are made of local clay
think I was the only tourist in the market area over the period of 2 hours that I was there. I sat on the curb talking to Steve who with his 2 sons appears to be a wholesaler/manufacturer/retailer of wood carvings. A featured product is a carved bowl which apparently they turn out on a wood lathe and then hand carve the "African Big Five" scene on the sides. These come to the market as raw wood and then one of Steve's sons finishes them by hand with shoe polish-purchase price is about $5 CAD. If they don't sell anything, they don't eat. I ended up buying a bowl and a "lion" pen

Back at the hotel, the team was starting to arrive. By 4.30 we had Mara, Linda, Nicole, Rachelle and Heather accompanied by our very efficient GV Malawi coordinator Bernadetta. We had a team dinner and everyone turned in early for what was expected to be a sleep in day coming up. However the best laid plans etc.. All of us got a call at 9.00 PM indicating that the rest of the team was going to be delayed due to flight connection issues. We were therefore

Pile was pretty much gone by end of the week
asked to be ready to catch the bus at 7.30 AM to help out with some complex logistics etc. Flexibility is a good trait for GV teams.

The next day, the six of us and our various stages of jet lag boarded the GV bus at the prescribed time and headed off for Mulanje. On the way a few team members stocked up on Kwachas (the Malawi currency (MWK)) at an ATM right near our hotel (Hapuwani Village Lodge) - very nice place with a pool,2 bars, and a restaurant which had a wood fired pizza oven. Pizza is a popular food in Malawi although the cheese on a pizza we had at a different place was Velveeta.

The HPV staff are about as friendly as I have ever experienced. The hotel has a huge set of wildlife statues (big 5) in the front parking lot. In addition, a trio of crafts vendors set up their wares on blankets at the side of the parking lot every morning. If they don't have what you want they will make it. I ordered a carved hippo head for my workshop door collection.

After checkin a few of us headed
More progressMore progressMore progress

We did all this in 4 days
off down the street to the local soccer field to watch two local football teams fight it out. We were directed around the field to the VIP section which is a covered set of stands. Lots of very passionate supporters including one team's publicity director who ended up taking us down on to the field after the game to meet the coaches. The game ended in a tie which apparently was a great outcome allowing our friends team to move up in the division.

By the time we got back to the hotel most of the team was present. (there were some flight delays) We were still missing one person.

The next day It was off to the site for our first day of work. We had about a 40 minute drive to the site and the last part was on the community's rugged dirt road system. As we turned the last corner, we could hear singing and see the village families on the road in front of us dancing and chanting. This was a special welcome and unlike anything we had ever experienced.

After the welcome at the site, we were given an excellent orientation and
The build teamThe build teamThe build team

lots of local help
training session on how to do brick laying. Our team was then split in half so we could work on 2 different houses. The building sites were about 500 meters apart and team 2 got what came to be known as the "yoga" site as a result of team members showing the neighbourhood children a number of yogas poses.

After a hard days work in the heat, with lots of progress, we closed down at 4.30 and headed back to the hotel for a re-hydration session and a good buffet dinner. Our missing team member was found after a brief stay in Addis Ababa due to illness. All 12 of us are now here.

Day two we were back down to 11 people (Nicole missing) as stomach issues started to have an impact. Imodium is going to be a hot commodity for people as the week goes by. On the way to the site we did a quick stop for a sim card (10,600 for 3Kb talk and data-about $16 cad) which should last for the trip.We also got a soccer ball for the neighbourhood kids.

Another big work day with lots of progress. We are getting
a 2 year old Habitat housea 2 year old Habitat housea 2 year old Habitat house

big impact on the children-one of the girls was planning on becoming a nurse
better on brick laying in very hot conditions and water is in high demand. Today we toured the houses that our families currently use-pretty grim. A major issue is the thatched roofs which apparently don't keep out much water during rainy season.

Our on site toilets are pit privies with the usual floor slot. People are somewhat challenged by these given the developing stomach issues. Our GV coordinator also warned us about taking cellphones, cameras etc into the toilet buildings-more on this later

We quit at the usual time and returned for showers and downtime at the hotel. It can be a bit disturbing to think about our quality of life relative to village conditions on these trips and this is especially true in rural Africa. There is no electricity, no running water and no ready source of fuel. Life is very much focused on survival and growing crops to eat. Deforestation continues to be a major environmental issue as the wood is needed for cooking. The air is pretty full of smoke from charcoal production and the burning of wood as a kitchen fuel.

It also seems that women have a big share of the everyday
Closing ceremoniesClosing ceremoniesClosing ceremonies

lots of dancing
burden of gathering water, tending the crops, collecting wood and looking after the children.

Our evening meal was pizza which was cooked in a huge brick oven beside the restaurant-just like home although my oven is a lot smaller. Everyone turned in early- we are sleeping under bed nets as mosquitoes are a constant threat. Apparently they are not so bad as this is still the dry season. My room has a bit of a design flaw as the hall light is right outside my clear window skylight above the door. I was able to get it covered with newspaper.

Day three came at the usual early hour. We have Nicole back on the crew but Mara has taken her position on the stomach wounded list. We also had Linda join the list in the afternoon.

In spite of the health issues, we still made more great progress on the construction front with our team closing in on wall completion. Today we got to visit two households that were living in completed Habitat homes- what a difference. The children were apparently the biggest beneficiaries and one girl was planning to become a nurse.

Back at the hotel we had a quiet evening and I joined the Imodium parade. It is always difficult to figure out the cause of stomach issues but the overall situation is not really that bad-we will survive...

Thursday was a light day on site as we had basically finished all the brick work. Dave and I were able to assist with some carpentry work pertaining to the rafters. These houses have metal roofs which are laid down over the wood rafters. The children are enjoying the two soccer balls we supplied as football is very popular in Malawi.We did an early quit and drove to a distant craft market which was located at the front entrance to Mount Malanje Park.-lots of wood carvings and fairly eager sales people. We than drove back down the mountain to another market where people were on the hunt for fabric.

Bernadetta organized a cultural event for us at the hotel evening which involved a very energetic dance group doing traditional dances and songs. After a fairly long show, we came to the realization that entertainers in Malawi will play forever as long as people continue to watch... It seemed bad manners to walk out
Fish Eagle Fish Eagle Fish Eagle

showing off his ability to scrip fish off the water
but we eventually had to do an exit stage left to the restaurant after thanking the troupe.

Our final task the next day was to take part in the dedication ceremony. Every build has one of these and they are typically quite emotional for all. This was no exception with lots more tribal dancing and singing. Audience participation was encouraged and Jessica once again did us proud. I inadvertently missed my chance to join the village performers but did join our team in the dance area for the Hoki Poki organized by Nancy. One of our team members who will remain nameless managed to have her new iPhone disappear down the toilet. Bernadetta indicated this was the third such occurrence during her time as coordinator. The toilets are built in such a way that a backhoe would be needed for recovery...

After receiving lots of appreciation from homeowners and the community we returned to the hotel. A few of us went for a walk before dinner and visited a micro lending office down the street. We had a pleasant chat with some of the staff. I am going to focus on doing some Kiva lending in Malawi. We
Hiking Hiking Hiking

On our way up Mount Mulanje
also went to the forest reserve office to see what kind of hiking maps might be available but the appropriate staff member was away. Preserving the forest seems to have lots of challenges-more on this later...

Our final team dinner was at a different hotel (Kar O Mala) which is up the mountainside overlooking the broad valley on the edge of Mulanje Mountain. We will be returning to this place later as HQ for our hiking activity.

The next day it was off to the R and R resort via a Malawi Style bus with Patrick the guide. We are now down to 10 people as Philip and Jessica have left. The ride to our hotel on Lake Malawi is a relatively short distance but travel in Malawi can take quite a while. The bus A/C packed it in shortly after departure and as we got closer to the lake and road construction provided lots of dust and bumpy conditions-everyone was happy when we arrived at the Mokokola Lodge which is on Monkey Bay. After settling in we did an evening cruise on the lake on the MV Sunbird. This is the 9th largest lake in the world
Lifting pipe into placeLifting pipe into placeLifting pipe into place

lots of labour and few machines
and borders on Tanzania and Mozambique. It is reported to be over 900 feet deep.

There is a very active fishery on the lake and much of the activity takes place in the night. The fishermen have large wooden boats which they paddle out to the fishing spots so they can set their nets. We could see the blinking lights from their lanterns from the hotel. Early the next morning they return to shore to sell the fish. According to some locals (including a fisheries official) the lake is subject to over fishing as the three countries can't agree on conservation efforts (not to mention that the food is needed to feed a growing population)

Wildlife viewing is a focus of the MV Sunbird boat trip and we saw lots of cormorants and fish eagles. The crew carries a tub of fish carcasses and the eagles are on full standby when they see the ship. We returned to port about dusk. Our team is now much happier as the cruise was quite a bit more pleasant than the dusty ride through the highway construction. We had a great buffet dinner and did some rehydrating. The rooms here are excellent with the inevitable bed nets and ceiling fans.

The next day we decided to pass on the village tour and stay at the resort. Several of us did some early morning birding and saw lots of different species right on the grounds. It is very hot so the pool was quite inviting and fairly clean except for a DOA frog in one corner near the bar. The resort is not very full- I was walking behind a group of people speaking a language that was very incomprehensible. It turned out to be a contingent of Scottish teachers from Glasgow.

The next day we had an early departure (8.00 Am) and headed back out through the road construction. Our plan is to drop two people at the airport and one at the Lotus (David, Nicole and Linda) and then head up the mountain to the Kar O Mala Inn. Along the way we crossed the Squire River and saw at least one hippo.

The logistics of our trip were a bit poor and I plan to chastise the organizer (me) for all the extra driving. We drove from Blantyre to the lake, then back to Blantyre to
Tea field tree Tea field tree Tea field tree

on our hike
the Kar O Mala. After hiking there we will go back to the lake for a safari, then return to Blantyre.

The Kar O Mala is a bit rustic in comparison to the Mokokola Lodge but every place has its redeeming features. This place has great staff, a wonderful view and a nice bar. On the downside it suffers from rolling blackouts and the restaurant service proves that time really does stand still. We developed that theory that because our stay was all inclusive (meals included) we were given low priority due to a perception that tips were unlikely until the end of our visit.

After checkin, we met our hiking guide whose name was Mckenzie. Our first hike right from the lodge was a slow amble up the mountain to a set of paths through a tea planation. Our guide does not encourage people to walk ahead and told us several tales of visitors perishing when they walked independently. After our first hike we returned to the lodge for dinner. We decided on pizza - none of us had ever had Velveeta cheese on pizza before...

The next day (Tuesday October 16th) I was up at

These are huge
5.30 after a great sleep. One side effect of the malaria pills seems to be the very vivid dreams which I have been having most nights. The particular medicine I am on is doxycycline and the more common side effects include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rash, sun sensivity, hives and teeth discolouring. Malaria symptoms are similar... I have not yet seen a mosquito. I am supposed to continue taking this wonder drug for a month after returning home.

We (6 of us) left the lodge at 8.00 for a short bus ride to the Mulanje Mountain park entrance, picking Mckenzie up along the way. From the entrance, we did a steady climb up the mountain side to a waterfall. The waterfall is about to become the source of a pipeline that will provide drinking water to Blantyre. Our path was right beside the trench for the pipeline which is being dug by hand. We also got to see the crews carrying long sections of 24 inch pipe and placing them by hand in the trench-quite a contrast to how it would be done in Canada.

On the way up, we met dozens of women coming back
Cape BuffaloCape BuffaloCape Buffalo

Up close and personal with Africa's most dangerous animals
down the path. The dam at the top is being made of cement and the women are carrying bags of concrete powder up the mountain to the site. For their all day efforts they get a 1000 kwatchas (about $1.80 CAD) Our guide noted that these women were single mothers due to divorces and spousal deaths and need to earn this money to feed their families.

This is a park and the forested areas are protected. However on the way down we saw lots of people carrying illegally cut firewood. The prospects for healthy forests in Africa are dim unless alternative ways of cooking can be found-support for agencies that provide solar cookers is a good thing.

After some art shopping we arrived back at the hotel just in time for a huge thunderstorm. We had another power outage after dinner so it was early to bed etc. The next day we did a final 8 km hike through a tea plantation and learned about the economics of tea harvesting in Malawi. Apparently good pickers can make $6 USD per day. One hazard of the job is the presence of deadly snakes and we saw a dead green
One of many hornbillsOne of many hornbillsOne of many hornbills

prancing along the river bank
mamba on the road. The temperature was between 35 and 40C and the pickers are in long pants and rubber boots due to the snakes.

On the way back to to the hotel we stopped at the Hapawani Hotel for lunch in the hope that food arrival might be somewhat faster than at the Kar O Mala. However it seems that ordering from a menu has similar long delivery times regardless of the location.

Our days in Africa are numbered now and everyone is trying to carefully manage their Kwatcha inventory as the currency apparently has no value outside of the country. Our next adventure which is a safari is going to be expensive and credit cards are not accepted by our tour company. As a result the ATM beckons.

The last phase of our trip is a visit to Livonde National Park and our plan was to commute from the Park Motel to Muvu Camp. However the group decided the logistics of this were not appealing so we ended staying at Muvu Camp which is a high end safari camp in the park requiring yet another ATM visit. The low point of this plan was the
King of beastsKing of beastsKing of beasts

oblivious to our presence
drive as the last 16 kilometres were on the worst road ever. I say this with due regard to the roads in Mongolia that were experienced on a previous build.

However everything changed when we arrived at the rivers edge across from the lodge. We immediately started seeing lots of wildlife including hippos, elephants, wart hogs, deer and lots of birds. After a fast trip across the river to the lodge with Mathews (our host and guide) we quickly checked in and then went out a night drive to see what animals could be spotted. During our drive we saw sable antelope, impala, waterbuck, reedbuck, warthog, kudu, yellow baboon, pangolin, monitor lizards, vervet monkeys and a hippo. Lions have recently taken up lodgings in the park in the last few years, and we got within 100 meters of a large male.

Our guide's true passion seems to be birds which is fine for Heather and I but not quite so interesting for David, Nancy and Mara. By the time we had finished our visit my bird list showed 74 species and I think Heather had an even bigger list. However we had no shortage of sightings of other
Elephant just out of the waterElephant just out of the waterElephant just out of the water

Elephants have no fear of crocodiles
wildlife. We ended the evening game drive at dark out on the plains near the lions by having beers beside the Land Rover. Then it was back to the lodge for a late dinner - we had to be escorted to our rooms after dinner due to the possibility of animals wandering through the grounds. The African night is alive with the sounds of birds and animals with hippos and ibises being the main contributors.

The next day morning came at 4.30 so we could do an early morning game drive to see lots of birds including big african hornbills We also spent some time on the riverbank watching deer, hippos and warthogs. Then it was back for breakfast , packing and a transfer to a boat for the river game drive. The big highlights were lots of nile crocodiles, a big herd of elephants and getting very close to a bunch of cape buffalo. We were off the river by noon and had a quick lunch before catching the water shuttle back to the bus. The staff at the lodge spend a lot of time trying to keep the monkeys from taking over the place and I had one swoop in and steal a muffin right off my plate-very fast.

We then returned to Blantyre to the Lotus Hotel in preparation for our return home the next day-a long process culminating in arrival quite a few hours later. The flight goes through Addis and Dublin to get to Toronto. I then had two more flights to get home.


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