Lake Malawi, Mountains and a Zambian Safari

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Africa » Malawi
November 4th 2018
Published: November 5th 2018
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So, we left you in a dusty town near the Malawian border. All that remained of our time in Mozambique was one final chapa to the border town of Mandimba. Another horribly early morning start in yet another impossibly packed minibus, along a very bumpy dirt road took us to the border. They were building a new road alongside this one as we got closer to the border and I can't tell you how much I longed for us to be driving on the flat, smooth(er) surface!

Anyway, we eventually arrived at the border town, transferred to a couple of mototaxis to take us the last few kilometres to the Mozambique border itself (where the mototaxi driver tried to tell me the policeman wanted money and when I refused backed off saying that the policeman was drunk) and on through the several kilometres of no man's land to the Malawian border.

I shrugged off the money changers, telling them confidently that we didn't need a visa - we're from the UK don't you know, and my guidebook says it's free! Well, it wasn't. The guidebook was a few years out of date, and in that time they've hiked it up to $75. And we needed a double entry as we were going to pop out to Zambia for a safari midway through the trip. They've kindly made the double entry $150 so at least you save a bit of money… What a kick in the teeth!!

As usual there was the usual ruckus at the border, getting mobbed by taxi drivers, but we got ushered into a half decent Japanese car. Yes, it was overloaded, but the seats were comfy and at least it wasn't a minibus! Once again, there were the usual scenes where another driver got angry we'd got in a different car, and snatched the keys out the ignition as we were driving off. This happens so frequently and it gets a bit grating after a while - generally everyone we meet in Africa is so friendly, with the exception of any transport hubs, where unfortunately aggression and nastiness is the name of the game. The driver did whatever he had to do to get rid of them and we were off. And it was so smooth, the tarmac roads were amazing, I can't explain the relief of being on roads like this!! My body could not take any more of what we had gone through in Mozambique!

There was a marked difference to the remote, empty bushland of Mozambique. Apart from the roads, the cars were better, it looked like there was some managed farming, and the buildings were much more substantial too. Brick kilns lined the roads, with people digging the clays out of the ground, firing them, and building their houses with their homemade bricks. Bicycle taxis also seemed to be popular, there were hundreds of them in every town we passed through. Nicely decorated bikes, with a padded seat and some handlebars on the back - a great way to get around. English is the lingua franca in Malawi, and it was weird seeing all the road and shop signs written in English in such a different landscape. The shop signs are all beautifully hand painted, which was really nice - much better than all the printed logos and signs we have at home. Some of the shop names are quite funny - there's lots of religious based names such as ‘God Bless Restaurant’ or ‘You Shall Find the Light’ and so on, but also some good combinations, such as ‘Hair Salon and Pub’, ‘Car Wash and Take Away’, ‘Technology and Barbers’, perhaps these are some symbiotic business ideas that could take off back in the UK?

Our first stop was Cape Maclear on the southern shores of Lake Malawi. We arrived in the nearest town, Monkey Bay, not sure how to get to Cape Maclear. We'd heard that a pickup came by occasionally that you could hitch a ride with, but upon turning up we heard that this had been banned by the government as there had been too many accidents. As soon as we got out the taxi, a guy came over to us to offer his help, which always sets alarm bells ringing. He told us not to worry, he'd help us out and took us over to a café. His friends came over, all speaking flawless English and being super nice - they sorted out sim cards for us and arranged a taxi at a reasonable price. By now my head was clamouring with alarm bells - surely no-one is this nice for nothing! But there didn't seem to be any catches so we cautiously went along with it, and guess what - turns out they were just being nice. It does exist! We both felt so guilty about being suspicious of these guys, I had been a little bit frosty with them as I just couldn't believe they weren't after something, but our cynicism was misplaced. And this was what we found throughout Malawi - the people are just on another level of friendliness, and once you realise this you see that there is no superficiality to it at all. People are genuinely interested in talking to you! Malawi is known as ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ or ‘Africa for Beginners’ and it was certainly living up to its name.

We turned up in Cape Maclear just as the sun was setting over the lake. It may as well have been the sea - sandy beaches line crystal clear waters, and there is no sign of land on the opposite side of the lake. We grabbed a couple of beers and found to our surprise that the choice was between Carlsberg and Carlsberg Special Brew. Bearing in mind that Special Brew in the UK is generally the drink of choice for the homeless, it seemed a strange selection! Turns out that basically all of the beer in Malawi is brewed in the Carlsberg brewery in Blantyre - apparently back in the day a Danish minister didn't think much of the beer on a visit and so agreed to put a brewery in the country. I'm not sure why other beers are hard to find, I heard that they had signed a 50 year contract to only sell Carlsberg (which has just expired) which might explain it. Anyway, they actually taste a lot better than the UK versions, and as the beer always seems colder when you're abroad it wasn't much of a problem!

We spent the next few days hanging out at the beach, swimming, kayaking and snorkeling. Lake Malawi has bilharzia - a parasite that lives in small snails, and can enter your body through your skin if you swim in areas where it is present. But I challenge you not to swim in that water. It is so clear and refreshing, and outside is so hot, there is no way you aren't going to dive straight in there. You can take a dose of medicine 6 weeks after going in the water which should clear it up if you've caught it - apparently if you feel sick when you take the medicine it means you had it. So we'll see in November - we are due to take it on Amy's birthday! Cape Maclear is a really lovely village, where the tourist lodges and restaurants feel very much integrated with village life, more so than anywhere else I've ever been. As you walk through the village you feel like you've been there for years, with everyone saying hi and the kids running up to hold hands with you or give you high fives as you walk down the road. It's pitch black at night on the roads but there's no safety concerns. There's none of that ‘us and them’ vibe that you get in so many tourist destinations these days. And it makes it such a charming and addictive place to be - we stayed for longer than we planned. As usual, there are kids plying the beach during the day, but they are a bit more entrepreneurial than those we came across in Mozambique. They've formed a few bands such as ‘The Welcome Band’ and the ‘Chembe Eagles Band’, using old Jerry cans and bits of wood and metal to create their own bass guitars and drum kits. Hits include Shakira’s ‘Waka Waka’ and Baha Men’s ‘Who let the Dogs Out’, with improvised lines such as ‘Who let the mzungu out’, all complete with a couple of breakdancers doing headstands on the younger kids backs. All very entertaining and worthy of a few kwacha!

There are plenty of tailors in Cape Maclear armed with their Singer sewing machines, and it was hard not to keep commissioning clothes to be made in the colourful African fabrics - our bags are a lot more full than when we started.

Our next stop was safari in the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia, via a night in Lilongwe. This meant getting back on the minibuses. Although these do get full they are nowhere near as cramped as the buses in Mozambique. One of the minibuses we saw though was quite aptly named ‘FML Tours’. As usual the journey was full of people pointing through the windows and excitedly shouting ‘mzungu’, which has become quite a common occurrence! Stops in the villages had the usual trading through the windows. We saw one man with what looked like a rat kebab. One guy was insistent on selling Amy (not me for some reason…) some brooms - ‘1 for 1000’, ‘no thanks’, ‘ok 2 for 1000’, ‘no’, ‘ok 5 for 1000’, ‘no!’, ‘ok 8 for 1000’, ‘no, it's not the number I just don't want any thanks’, ‘ok 5 for 500…’ and so on!

Lilongwe was not what we expected for a capital city. We expected to see at least some high rise buildings and tar roads, but instead were greeted by shacks and dirt roads. I think we were in the old town and never got chance to explore the ‘new town’ but it was a bit unexpected. Still there are a few nice restaurants and cafés around, but to be honest we spent most of our time looking for ATMs that worked and then queueing with the rest of the city when one was found!

The next day we headed to the border in a share taxi. There are so many police checkpoints in Malawi, and there's usually a bit of toing and froing at them. They are dead keen on making sure seat belts are worn (the drivers usually put them on as they approach and then take them off straight away as they drive off… ) but are less concerned about there being 8 people in a 5 person car, or that the car is falling to bits. We heard that a lot of people that work for the state get paid very badly, and often don't get paid at the end of the month. Apparently the president recently made an announcement on the radio admitting that they don't pay the policemen enough, and that they should find alternative means of making up their salary (read bribes). This is especially so at the end of the month when money is wearing thin, and more police are on the roads looking to make a bit of extra money. To be honest though in our experience we found that the police asked for food or drink more than money (one driver handed over a couple of pineapples from the dashboard), and were quite polite about it all. Someone said to us that although there was corruption, at least it was corruption with a smile, which is more than can be said for a lot of other African countries!

We had another classic taxi experience on the way from the border to the park, where the driver drove around town shouting spare tyre out the window, and eventually took us to his house out in the countryside near Chipata to swap a couple of the wheels on his car! There seemed to be another step up in terms of infrastructure going into Zambia, good roads with segregated cycle lanes and more robust looking buildings greeted us in Chipata, although we had the usual problems with the ATM - I checked five and still couldn't get any to work. Its partly our fault, unfortunately we only brought Mastercard with us and Visa is king. At least our emergency dollars are getting used.

We arrived at Marula Lodge just outside the park and had our check in briefing. We were staying in a small dome tent on the riverbank, and our briefing consisted of a warning about elephants and hippos that regularly walk through the camp. We needed an escort to take us back to the tent every evening just in case we accidentally bumped into anything dangerous! As we were right on the bank I thought that the conventional wisdom of not getting between the hippos and water put us in a slightly perilous position, however apparently it is the elephants you need to watch out for - the advice was to freeze if we came face to face with one! Staying at this place was fantastic. It is just outside the park itself but you may as well be in it. Bushback, monkeys, hippos and elephants wander through camp throughout the day. We saw a video from a month or two ago with a crocodile in our toilet. Lions had apparently come through in the past. Amy accidentally took a shower with a bush snake. There was wildlife everywhere! The tent had mesh sides and I spent most of the night with my nose pressed up against it looking out for elephants and hippos outside - their guttural barks, moans and roars always sounded so close. It was utterly enthralling.

The safari itself has, I think, ruined any future safaris we might do. We did five game drives and a walking safari, and saw so much. There are many leopards in the park, and we got within metres of many of them, including a cub. Every so often you would find a dead animal high up in the trees (aardvarks, impalas, you name it), which leopards had dragged up to stop the hyenas getting a free meal. One of the more brutal things we saw was the recent kill of a giraffe by a pride of lions. It turned out the giraffe had been pregnant, and one of the lionesses was dragging the foetus around a couple of metres away from us - brutal but quite amazing to see in the wild. We finally got to see a lion hunting on our very last night drive - we had spotted the lion in our spotlight on the path and had stopped to watch her. She was only about five or ten metres away, and all of a sudden she leapt at the jeep. At the same time there was a flash of movement from underneath us - unbeknownst to us a warthog had been hiding in a drainage culvert directly below us, and we had walked into the middle of a hunt. Another heart stopping moment came on the walking safari. The animals can't smell you in the jeep but they can on the ground. Our guard suddenly dropped to his knee and cocked his rifle just as a lone buffalo charged towards us then skitted off to the side. The guide said that if it had been wounded he would have gone for us. Very scary but pretty exciting! On another occasion we had driven in close to see a leopard when a nearby hippo (apparently wounded) mock charged us a few times, looking very angry. Even the guide flinched. We were saved by a huge herd of elephants that surrounded us from three sides, and began to wallow in the mud. So we were hemmed in on all sides by a leopard, about fifteen elephants and an angry hippo! There were really very few tourists in the park, and we spent most of the time driving round without anyone in sight, which was really great. Would highly recommend this place to anyone thinking about going there!

We headed back to Malawi, to get back to the Lake, as we hadn't quite had enough of it. Getting on our biggest bus yet from Lilongwe to Mzuzu, it looked like we might be in relative comfort for once. They said a prayer before we set off (slightly worrying), and asked everyone to say hello to their neighbours. All was well for the first two minutes, after which they started blasting Christian music over the speakers at full volume, FOR THE ENTIRE 6 HOURS!!! WHY WHY WHY DO THEY DO THIS? WHY DOES NO ONE COMPLAIN?? I've been trying to be as tolerant to general annoyances as possible throughout this trip, thinking that there must be some logic somewhere in the things I don't understand, and that it is just me being ignorant, but this? No one can like this. Sometimes they just play white noise, sometimes with the mobile phone ‘searching for signal’ bleeping sounds over the top. I had my headphones on full volume and could still hear it louder than what I was listening to. This happened about 2 weeks ago and I still have the tunes stuck in my head.

Ours ears and minds numbed, we changed to a minibus in Mzuzu, where Amy was sitting next to a young girl who had very poor control of the chicken she was holding. Much to the amusement of everyone else on the bus, whenever the chicken got loose Amy did almost as much flapping and squawking as the chicken did! Our lodge in Nkhata Bay was set on the steep rocks above the lake, surrounded by trees. It is a beautiful spot, where we spent a few days swimming, snorkeling, stand up paddleboarding and kayaking around the local area. You only had to paddle around the corner before you were accosted by the local kids. At one point I found myself being handed a naked screaming baby whilst I had my snorkel mask on. On another occasion, Amy was being hugged on a stand up paddle board by a topless woman, with about ten kids hitching a ride on the back of the board.

Looking to the horizon on one of these trips we noticed huge plumes of smoke coming from the lake. At first I thought it might be a boat on fire. Then we saw another one, thinner, that looked a lot like a tornado. Perhaps it was some weird water jet? But there was no wind. Well, the answer came when we were discussing the horrific number of tiny flies that had descended on us one evening. The ‘smoke’ was actually what is reported to be the largest gathering of any species on the planet - billions of tiny flies that burst from the lake surface, reproduce, drop their eggs into the water and then die (when the wind blows them over the land the locals mash them up into burgers to eat). It is an absolute spectacle, it really looks like explosions in the middle of the lake. You seriously need to Google this to see it (David Attenborough did a Planet Earth episode on it, check out an excerpt here

By this point we had totally changed our plans for the trip. Initially we were planning to go through Malawi into Tanzania, and finish off with Rwanda and Uganda. But we were running out of time, and we would have rushed all of these countries if we followed this plan. Travelling through Tanzania would also mean some more mammoth multiple day bus trips, which neither of us were that keen for any more. So we booked a flight to Rwanda from Blantyre in the south of Malawi. But first we decided to head north to Livingstonia, continuing ping ponging across the country. Livingstonia is situated at the top of the Rift Escarpment, overlooking Lake Malawi hundreds of metres below. The road to the base of the mountain from Mzuzu traverses through the mountains of northern Malawi. The roads are steep and winding and are plied with large trucks and tankers. Unnervingly the remains of many, many trucks and tankers are littered either side of the road, upside down and in ruins. To get up to the top of the escarpment from the base involves sitting in the back of a flatbed truck, bouncing up a very steep loose rubble road, navigating 27 hairpin bends (the locals walk up this using the more direct, even steeper, shortcuts carrying all sorts of stuff - seriously impressive). By the time you reach the top you have been smashed around so much there's not a part of your body not bruised. But the views on the way up are spectacular, and I must admit despite the pain I thoroughly enjoyed the exhilarating ride up!

We were staying at The Mushroom Farm, a permaculture eco lodge set into the mountain with encompassing vistas of the land and lake below. Our room was an A-frame timber structure with an open front and balcony overlooking all of this. It is one of the best places I have ever stayed, and I couldn't stop standing on the balcony surveying what lay so far below. In the mornings the sun rose over the lake, which we could watch from the comfort of our bed directly in front of us. At night, hundreds of wildfires in the bush lit up the landscape. We spent the next few days hiking around the area - the steep climb up to the Chombe Plateau; visiting the spectacular Manchewe Falls plummeting hundreds of metres through the dense forest to the rocks below (a slightly treacherous walk along the cliffs not suited for a pair of sandals, as we found out the scary way); and nearby Livingstonia. Livingstonia was established as a mission by Scottish missionaries in the late 19th century. It's a sleepy place with not all that much there, but some interesting old colonial buildings built by the missionaries back in the day. The Mushroom Farm was a fantastic place to stay, not only were the views fantastic, but the food was first class - as a devout carnivore I never thought I could love vegetarian food so much, but when it's made like this there really is no need for any meat. We opted to walk down the mountain to get back to the main road to catch the next bus - a steep and slippy descent, so we hired a couple of porters to carry our bags and guide us down. Well worth it as it was a beautiful walk down with commanding views across the lake.

We decided to travel back down almost the entire length of the country to Blantyre, in order to hike the nearby Mount Mulanje, before our onward flight to Rwanda. Overnighting in Mzuzu on the way down we met yet more Peace Corps volunteers. I'd heard of the Peace Corps before but really had no idea what they did. Turns out it is an American scheme where graduates head to countries across the world to help out in some capacity - the placements are usually in very isolated villages where they spend two years working as volunteers. A very admirable thing to do for two years - most people we met were living in places several hours away from any other volunteers, so are fully immersed in the local culture. It must be so hard - not having anyone from a similar background or culture to speak with for long periods of time must be very challenging. And you could tell, as whenever we met anyone from the Peace Corps you couldn't shut them up, I think because they were so desperate to have a conversation with someone from the outside world! Hats off to them.

Something weird had been going on down south. We heard it from a few people living in Malawi and Tanzania, and had shrugged it off. Then one of the Peace Corps volunteers we met mentioned that everyone in the south had been pulled out of the area because of it, and were yet to return. The previous year rumours of ‘bloodsuckers’ began to circulate in the areas around rural Mulanje. Witchcraft and superstition runs rife in these area of Malawi, and people had begun to see and hear weird things - deaths were beginning to be attributed to ‘vampires’ coming into people's homes and sucking the blood out of them. Mobs had gathered and beaten up and killed several people who were suspected of being these ‘bloodsuckers’. Even basic technological devices could indicate that you might be one. Things had apparently calmed down in the past year, but it was still on our minds a bit as we headed south.

We organised our 3 day hike up Mount Mulanje, a 3000 metre high granite massif, whilst in Blantyre. We met our guide, and Amy brought up the ‘bloodsucker’ question - will we be safe? The response was reassuring - ‘It is just rumours - I took five people up two weeks ago and no one had their blood sucked’. Well there we are then, should be fine. It was only a few days later I realised that he had misinterpreted the question - he thought we were worried that we might get our blood sucked, and that he was saying there was no such thing as bloodsuckers. Not that there were no mobs of people killing those they thought were bloodsuckers! But don't worry, we didn't see any angry mobs on the isolated mountain and are still alive to tell the tale. The hike was an adventure - the first day took us up through the forests and waterfalls, scrambling over huge boulders in the rivers until the trees gave way to grassy plains on the top. The landscape here can change so much at the turn of a corner, so much so it felt like you had travelled through some kind of portal to another land. The views from the mountain were spectacular, overlooking the plains below, with the huge rock peaks towering above. The summit, Sapitwa, means ‘Don't go there’ in the local language, Chichiwa. And we took that advice - it is a treacherous hike where the weather can change quickly, and we weren't particularly well equipped for such a climb. Most people we met hadn't actually made it to the top anyway, so we didn't feel too bad about it. We stayed overnight in small wooden huts, where the temperature dropped overnight so much you could barely believe you were in Africa. We huddled by the fire, cooking our tuna pasta (which we ate for lunch and dinner every day as we didn't know what else to bring to eat…) and trying to stay warm. On the second night we were entirely alone in a hut in the forest and I must admit it was pretty creepy, like the start of every horror film you've ever seen.

Hiking across the top of the mountain was beautiful. Every corner revealed another postcard. A lot of illegal logging goes on on the mountain, and we saw many men and young boys carrying huge planks of wood on their shoulders. These guys would run across the rocks carrying these heavy loads, many of them in bare feet. As sad as illegal logging is, what is even sadder is that these guys are have no other way of making money and are driven to do it - I'm sure they would rather not be running around a mountain barefoot carrying huge loads on their shoulders. Take away that logging and you take away their livelihoods. It is easy when travelling around Africa to get a slightly warped view of the wealth of a country. The tourist spots are always going to be better off. Seeing this hit home to me how poor Malawi actually is. Perhaps I had been fooled by the tar roads and beach resorts that it was better off than it actually is - the number of aid agencies you see in the country should perhaps giveaway a different reality.

The final day was the descent. We had briefly met a Brazilian film director in the dark in a hut on the first night, who had made a film about the mountain (more on that later), and he had advised us not to take the Boma path down. Our guide, however, assured us it would be OK. Well, he was wrong. We hiked to the edge of the mountain, a stunning view with the clouds swirling below us, and then realised that the way down was the near vertical ‘path’ below us. The rock was slippy and had few hand or foot holds. The clouds began to enclose around us, and it started to get a bit hairy. Amy had slipped near the top, catching herself before she fell, but it had knocked her confidence and she was beginning to panic. We took it very slowly, with me and the guide going ahead and holding her feet as she came down. Secretly though I was enjoying the thrill of it all! Eventually it eased off, and we began to drop from the alpine moorlands into woodlands, dropping further into what felt like rainforest, and eventually out into the tea fields at the base.

Our porter for the hike, William, was the nicest guy alive. He was working so that he could afford to pay his school fees, and was hoping to become a doctor. Polite and bright, he was a joy to spend a few days with. He patiently taught us how to play 'bao' - a game you see all over Africa, and he carried our heavy bag without breaking a sweat for the whole three days. Something about him deeply affected Amy and I. When we took him and the guide, Steve, for lunch, he diligently went about taking apart his chicken with his knife and fork. Clearly struggling, Steve told him to use his fingers, at which he breathed a sigh of relief and picked it up and stripped it bare. The thought that he was only using his knife and fork out of politeness to Amy and I choked both of us. I was so embarrassed with how much chicken was still left on the bone of mine. We've got it so lucky and here is this guy, having to climb mountains to pay his secondary school fees.

Several people have gone missing and have died on Mount Mulanje. We bumped into the Brazilian film director again and again, and it turned out the film he had made - Gabriel and the Mountain - was about his friend that went missing and died on the mountain in 2009. On our return to Blantyre it turned out he was showing the film at the local cinema to bring it back to the people, and he invited us to come and see it. I'm glad we watched it after we had done the hike though! It is a very good film, and anyone that has travelled through Africa will immediately identify with a lot of elements within it. The screening was unfortunately beset with a few technical problems, beginning with one of the many power cuts in Malawi (the country is powered almost exclusively by hydroelectricity - great in the rainy season but pretty useless in the dry season). Talking to the director and the actors within the film (who were playing themselves - these were the people that Gabriel had met along the way, including his guide) was fascinating and a great experience. He told us that the reason he had advised us against using the Boma path was that during filming they needed to get off the mountain quickly, and the Boma path was the quickest way down. This meant carrying a generator and all of their film equipment down the near vertical rock face, something he said was the scariest thing he'd ever seen. These porters are something else, some of the toughest people I've ever met (they have a race every year up and down the mountain - 25 km with the record being 2 hours and 5 minutes!).

Africa has made its mark on us. We love it. We love the hustle and bustle, the friendly people who have so little but are happy with what they have, the music, the colourful clothes, the laughter, the lot. Maybe not the buses. But it's hard not to let it change how you think of things, and how much you take for granted.

Next stop, Rwanda.

Additional photos below
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12th January 2019

Destination experiences
I am impressed with your adventures in Malawi. You did a tremendous 'voyages of discovery!' In a few words, If I may ask, what would you say are the destination brand experiences of Lake Malawi?
6th March 2019

Thanks - I would say that Malawi has something for everyone. Hiking in the mountains, relaxing on the beach, fantastic snorkelling and kayaking, and some amazing accommodation. But my favourite thing about Malawi was the people - such warmth and friendliness - and for me that was what made it such a special place to travel.

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