Hirpling through the warm heart of Africa (with photos)

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Africa » Malawi
May 18th 2007
Published: May 18th 2007
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I’m in love…. again. Yes, I know I’m prone to this affliction, at least as regards the places I visit, but it was love at first sight with Malawi.

Even the mayhem at Blantyre airport when I arrived didn’t bother me: the warmth of the people waving and smiling from the balcony above the immigration/baggage collection area (I’d hesitate to call it the “arrivals hall”) at arriving friends and relations countered any possible frustration at the ad hoc immigration and baggage retrieval procedures. There was a long queue, reaching back nearly to the foot of the steps from the ‘plane, for the “immigration counter”, a couple of desks set up on an apparently temporary basis in a dark corridor to deal with arriving foreigners (Blantyre clearly does not get many international flights each day), a grab-your-own-as-it-comes-off-the-trolleys baggage collection system (curiously, I had more confidence in my pack making it through this than I do of it turning up on the carousels at Johannesburg or Heathrow), and a chaotic customs procedure (I discovered it had some rationale: only returning Malawians were being searched and then for goods purchased abroad; tourists seemed, by definition, kosher, though that still left us poor sods having to negotiate our way through the crowds to locate an exit). Besides, I was on the road again, and that was enough to give me a very relaxed, tolerant approach to everything I encountered.

Malawi is a stunning country, and her people really seem to deserve their reputation as the “warm heart of Africa”. While the occasional face may look sulky, and I have heard from ex-pats that racism against whites is becoming an issue here, in my experience, most people break into a grin when you greet them, whether or not the initial encounter turns into further conversation. Walking around Blantyre on the morning of my first full day (rain had driven me indoors on the afternoon of my arrival - Malawi, too, is suffering an uncharacteristically late and heavy wet season), I felt very at ease. I had been warned that Malawi is nothing like as safe as it used to be, but it must have been something very special 15-20 years ago. On the basis of my experience here, I would feel more uneasy walking down Oxford Street or taking the train into town after Charlton has played at home than I have done walking or taking public transport in Malawi. Admittedly, I was clearly a curiosity that day: how many other wazungu (white people) walk around town at all, let alone on a road leading out of town, through Blantyre’s suburbs towards the airport? A number of people came up to talk to me, but I encountered nothing more than a desire to share their stories and an interest in who I was and where I was going. (The answer “nowhere” only increased the confusion I’d caused!) Further, they are a very courteous people. There is a delightful habit of saying “thank you” (or “zikomo”, one of my few words of Chichewa) in response to your thanking them for something, and I have been “welcomed” to many dinner and breakfast tables, even at accommodation where I have been staying for a while. The most touching (and embarrassing!) courtesy was when my guide on one hike apologised to me when I slipped!

The Scottish connection is still very much alive. For once on my travels, people understood when I gave my country of origin and could quickly acknowledge the connection between the two countries. David Livingstone himself lives on through towns such as Livingstonia and, of course, Blantyre, named after his birthplace. But I was also entertained to discover that my South African hosts at Senga Bay on Lake Malawi are called Macleod - we Scots still get everywhere!

Although Hastings Banda’s ban on women wearing trousers was lifted in the early 1990s, I have yet to see a woman/girl of any age wearing other than a skirt, dress or sarong. The only time that I have seen a woman wearing shorts or trousers was when I was shown the beads that a married woman wears around her waist, under her clothing. Amidst the layers of clothing being moved so that I could admire these beads, I was surprised to see a pair of shorts. The sarong is ubiquitous and often fulfils a number of functions. As well as being the over-clothing for the lower half, it is used to carry babies, but can be applied for this purpose in a variety of ways. In Namibia, babies are uniformly tied on the woman’s back with a wrap that ties over the bust. In Malawi, there seem to be other fashions in baby-wearing: on the left hip, and on the back, in each case with the wrap being tied over one shoulder (which looks far more comfortable than the Namibian style).

English is widely spoken and is technically the country’s official language, there being otherwise something in the region of forty Bantu languages spoken in the country, of which Chichewa is the dominant language in the south and centre of the country and is therefore deemed to be the “national” language. However, that doesn’t mean it is at all widely spoken and I have yet to meet anyone whose first language is Chichewa as opposed to one of the other Bantu languages. I was told that Hastings Banda, the long-lived, long-“reigning” post-independence dictator only ever used one phrase of Chichewa, the Chichewa for “You’re a liar!”, otherwise he used English. But Malawian English takes a little getting used to. Like the Chinese, Malawians struggle with the “l”/”r” distinction, leading to the interesting question in the middle of a discussion about music as to whether I had “written to Abba”, as well as the obligatory discussion about growing “lice” for export. It’s somehow very endearing! The other characteristic is to add “ie” to the end of words that otherwise end in consonants (in

the Shire River has a well-deserved reputation for being home to Big Crocs
Chichewa, all words end in vowels): for example, the Queen’s name becomes “Elizabettie” in Malawian (woe betide anyone who tries that one on me!), toast becomes “toastie”, and various calendar months have this ending applied.

Malawi is therefore very kind on the solo English-speaking tourist. Admittedly, elated from my successful mastery of Malawi’s public transport system to get to my first destination after Blantyre, I was a touch peeved to read in The Book (the Bradt guide to Malawi) that Malawi is “Africa for Beginners”, but I have to concede that, as well as its welcoming people and the relative ease of communication, the country’s transport is almost organised in a chaotic kind of fashion.

That’s a book in itself: Malawi public transport. I’m not sure if there’s any rhyme or reason behind the number of minibuses on the road or their destinations, other than the inclinations of the driver and, for want of a better description, the “conductor”, but, broadly speaking, in the south of the country (I didn’t get much further than that on this trip), it seems to work…. except when a mazungu (white person) decides on her own route. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are official bus companies, but I haven’t encountered one yet. My main mode of transport was the minibus. To clarify, we’re talking about a vehicle that, in the UK, would probably take nine passengers in three rows of seats behind the front seats, and, of course, the driver him/herself. Well, this kind of vehicle can take a few more in Malawi. My record headcount in the first few trips - my mind had ceased boggling about numbers after this - was nineteen adults (not counting the driver and conductor), as well as assorted children-on-laps and babies-in-slings. Invariably, there are at least two people sharing the front passenger’s seat, there’s a bench behind this with passengers facing backwards, and three rows of seats facing forwards, each of the front two of which have drop-down seats to fill the gap as and when the row behind has been filled. You’re expected to sit four-to-a-row (fingers crossed for slim companions, and for not being wedged in the corner in the back where your shoulder gets crunched), but, on the most impressive occasion, one of the passengers was stand-stooping between the bench and the front forward-facing row as well as the conductor who usually stand-stoops, bending himself either out of the window or over his passengers. (I hardly need add that I have not seen anyone other than the young and slim-built performing this role.) In short, if I would consider a vehicle to be full, there was room for at least three more!

And I haven’t even mentioned the luggage. On my first trip of any length, the c.70km from Limbe to Zomba, other people’s attendant bags and packages made my pack look small. On this occasion, I was one of the first to board, newly arrived in my first minibus from Blantyre, and, of course, these vehicles don’t leave until they’re full. So I waited and watched, drinking in the atmosphere of my first major Malawian bus station. Just when you thought no more luggage could be fitted in, the conductor would juggle things around and manage to include the latest addition: sacks of flour, trays of eggs, suitcases and cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes, large baskets that could only perch on knees, the contents of potential curio stalls, plastic bags spilling out their contents… and, of course, the odd piece of livestock. So far, I’ve only shared transport with a hen, a remarkably sanguine hen that settled down so quickly and quietly that her oddly smartly-dressed owner (briefcase and all) couldn’t find her when he came to get off the minibus (I spotted her sitting under the row of seats in front). I guess this is the Malawian version of asking him to buy supper on his way home from work.

The fare seems to depend on the whim of the conductor as he’s the man (I’ve only seen men in this role: from my experience of them, I don’t see Malawian women doing this) with the money. I think (and hope) that tourists are charged more than locals - I’m all for making money out of my species although, curiously, I’ve only seen one other tourist on a minibus - but the most I’ve had to pay on any journey, whether 10km or 100 km, would give me change out of a pound in the UK. You don’t pay on entry or exit, simply when the conductor gets around to asking you for the money, and they’re a pretty sharp breed. No fare-dodging here!

A wonderful place to watch Malawian life is

Not the best photo on the planet, but it seemed rude to omit such a populous mammal. It's estimated that there is at least one hippo every 10m on the Shire River.
a bus station/depot. All sorts of people come round a waiting bus to try and sell their wares: everything from baskets, toothpaste/toothbrushes/cotton buds, clothes (the most unexpected of which that I’ve seen was a battered black trilby… a must-have necessity for Malawi??), cell phones and watches, to “munchies” for the journey. The variety and quality of these, if you ignore the nondescript sweets and crisps, would put most British railway companies’ buffet services to shame: hard-boiled eggs, with attendant salt and spices, fruit (the bananas here are delicious), ground nuts (I’ve had several meals out of these alone), and deep-fried breads and samosas.

I’ve also travelled by taxi, matola and dampa. With taxis, we’re not quite talking black cabs here. In fact, the only difference, I’ve concluded, between a taxi and a matola, at least outside major towns, is where you sit. If you pay a lot for a “taxi”, you sit in the front; if you pay a very little, you stand/squash/perch/sit in the back. In either case, the vehicle is a pickup truck. I negotiated a “taxi” from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear at the southern end of Lake Malawi and then from Cape Maclear to Golomoti at the intersection with the road to Salima… and sat in the front with the driver and “Mr Fixit”, aka Duncan, whose English was interestingly accented with a combination of Glaswegian, American and Malawian. On the Monkey Bay/Golomoti stretch, we acquired additional passengers every so often who rode in the back. The other wazungu, a Korean on the way to Cape Maclear and two Londoners on the way from Cape Maclear to Monkey Bay, rode in the back for free - well, I wasn’t going to leave them stranded there, and the driver seemed to consider them my guests as it was only with regard to taking them that he consulted me.

When I got to Salima, I took a matola to Senga Bay and, yes, you’ve guessed it, I was one of the dozen or more folks in the back (plus children, babies, an extraordinary amount of luggage, and the obligatory hen) paying the small amount (in this case, 100 Malawian kwacha, c.£0.35). It was an interesting way of travelling: again, just when you thought no-one else could possibly fit, we somehow shuffled up closer and squeezed a couple more in. The luggage is more precariously stashed on this mode of transport, tied somewhat haphazardly to the lowered tailgate. One bag went flying just as we were leaving the bus depot, but a number of us squawked and the driver stopped to collect it and wedge it back on. With matolas, the driver seems to double-up as the conductor, and you’re charged on “exit”. Again, it wouldn’t be easy to fare-dodge here.

A dampa is a bicycle-taxi where the passenger sits on a piece of wood on top of the bicycle carrier and, in my experience, the wood has been covered with at least a small amount of foam; the deluxe models are even coated in material and plastic. It’s not, actually, an uncomfortable experience, although not being in control of the bicycle, yet affecting its balance, takes a little getting used to. However, I have mixed feelings about them. I feel guilty that someone else should be peddling a zero-gears, crappy bike in the often-sweltering heat with me (or my pack - I didn’t think anyone deserved both of us!) on the back. I felt particularly bad about the young lad peddling me the 3-4 km from Salima to Senga Bay, however much he insisted that he was strong enough for the task. I could at least send him home before we reached our destination when the route to the lodge became a sand track and we were all forced to walk. (I went on with the older (and stronger-looking) guy pushing his bike with my pack on the back. I thought he could cope with it!)

However, it is a way of earning money for people who don’t have much, as I was reminded by a cyclist in Liwonde when I refused a dampa on the basis that I wanted to walk the remaining distance myself (well, actually, I hadn’t realised the Shire River and the departure point for my boat transfer to Mvuu Camp were as far as that, or I might have made a different decision). And it certainly has a degree of indulgence to be ridden along country tracks that narrow to barely shoulder-width between tall grasses, and to have the freedom simply to enjoy the peace and nature around you.

The roads are somewhat varied. The main routes are tarred - and not just the road between a city and the airport, as was the case when friends of
Salima matolaSalima matolaSalima matola

packed to the gunnels... but we still got more people and more stuff on board
mine travelled here in the late 1980s - and I understand that this improvement is largely thanks to the current president. However, once you get off these, road conditions can vary. The roads from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear and to Golomoti are awful. This was my hiccup in route-planning. I had hoped to be able to get a minibus from Mangochi to Salima by going round the southern end and southwestern corner of Lake Malawi and then north to Salima. At Mangochi bus station I discovered that this would not work: no minibus. Bit of a technical hitch. So, I boarded a minibus to Monkey Bay and made an unscheduled stopover at Cape Maclear: no real hardship as this is a stunning promontory jutting out from the southern coast of the Lake (I reckon that Africa’s third largest lake requires a capital letter even when it is mentioned without its full name!) with the best-located backpackers I have ever had the pleasure to encounter. It abuts the Lake with its own, lengthy stretch of private beach. But I could well understand why minibuses might not be the best mode of transport in this part of the world. The road
monitor lizardmonitor lizardmonitor lizard

...on Lizard Island: how apt!
twists around the tree-covered hills in a somewhat improbable manner and, whatever the usual condition of the road, it was made far worse by the recent rains. I was very glad to be in the front seat of the “taxi” with a small amount of padding to cushion me against the bumps, even though Tres, the driver, with his army driving accreditation, was driving as carefully as he could. The road to Golomoti is, if anything, worse, and with no obvious excuse. It’s largely over level country, but, for some reason, has not been tarred other than in sporadically placed, short stretches, and even then, some of the tarring is now pretty ghostlike. It took perhaps an hour and a half to negotiate the first half of the 50 km distance.

Utilities are a little patchy. I duly acquired a local SIM card on my arrival (because of the instability of the local currency, it was priced in dollars, with “top-up” vouchers described in units that represent US cents), only to find that it was cheaper to text the UK using my UK SIM card; at least having a Malawian one meant that others could ring me without my being charged. However, reception is distinctly patchy, although it can be perfect in the most unlikely places: halfway up a mountain or by the Lake in a spot that is ringed by hills. Electricity is also not guaranteed. Zomba Forest Lodge, I was intrigued to discover, had the fixtures and fittings for electric light, but, each night, the gas lamps and candles were lit, and there was no mention of electricity, nor sound of a generator. (I can’t say that I objected, except for being unable to recharge my mobile: I felt as if I’d stepped back a century, writing my journal by gaslight!) Mvuu Main Camp’s generator was efficient - a little too efficient, as its grumble could be heard from surprisingly far away, up and down the river - but in both Blantyre and the Lake-side villages power failures have been at least a daily occurrence. I became quite adept at writing by candlelight (FYI, use two candles for preference, otherwise your eyesight will be most unhappy), and at rigging up breeze-protection for candles on the outside dinner table.

But all this ignores Malawi’s main attraction: its beautiful and varied landscape - from mountain plateaux, to “African Queen”-esque rivers and lakes so blue and endless they rival the ocean, to rolling hills and giants’ playground-style vast rocky outcrops. Only on the main islands of New Zealand have I encountered so much variety in such a small area. After all, the whole of Malawi would fit into England alone, with the odd county left over, and I have barely left the south of the country on this trip. Yes, you’ve got it: I’m planning my return trip already, quite apart from working out exactly where we would stay as and when I get Colin out here! (Ideally, I would also like to look for voluntary work with kids here, but that’s a subject to be researched on my return to the UK in June and/or September.) In fact, I have to confess that the first draft of this blog was written at a shaded table overlooking the Lake when I couldn’t bear to tear myself away for a stopover in Lilongwe and opted for another day in paradise.

In my first week, I clocked up six destinations in seven nights and, I think, covered a reasonable cross-section of what Malawi has to offer in this part of the country. I “did” a city, Blantyre, staying at the improbably-named Hostellerie de France (yes, I come to Malawi and find myself having to dust off my French to communicate with my host and hostess!); hiked around Zomba Plateau, the easier-to-access of the two main mountain plateaux in the south (the other, and better known, Mulanje, requires a few days’ commitment, which I didn’t have), where I found definitely the best vegetarian food outside India at a place that even The Book admitted served “probably the best food you’ll find in Malawi”; paid my respects to the vast hippo population and assorted species of birds of the Shire (pronounced “Shee-ray”) River, including two new-to-me types of kingfisher, including the delightful, pocket-sized, iridescent malachite kingfisher; found a different nationality of elephants and another variety of buck (the fallow deer-like bushbuck) at Mvuu Main Camp in Liwonde National Park; and canoed/swam/boated/snorkelled the must-do attraction of Lake Malawi. (For those of you who are awake and counting, and think I’ve missed out somewhere, I’ve stayed at two places on the Lake!) In any event, I was a touch pooped by the time I got to my sixth destination - not to mention arriving there a day late thanks to the navigation/bus route issue - so I stayed there for the next six nights, before returning to Blantyre to catch my flight to Johannesburg and on to Windhoek. Well, it seemed a good excuse and, with so many activities in which to indulge, as well as the virtue of being able to start writing up the Malawi blog(s) (my thanks to my host, Grant, and his mother, Jean, for the kind loan of a laptop!), it would have been rude to move on! Besides, I needed to conserve my energies for working on the elephant project next week… Does it look like I’m over-justifying myself?!

Wildlife in Malawi is patchy. The pressure on land is huge with a rapidly growing population (you rarely see a woman of child-bearing age without a child on her back: family planning, where it’s even been mentioned, is considered to be the white man’s attempt to curb the black population), and poaching is a major issue. The national parks, wildlife reserves and forest reserves are trying to improve things, and it is to Malawi’s credit that approximately 20% of the country’s land is under this form of protection. However, improvement is slow and, as usual, foreign investment is required and already, in places, already being supplied. One of the success stories is the reintroduction of black rhino in a dedicated corner of Liwonde National Park, made possible with the support of South African National Parks and so successful that two animals have been put in another reserve in the south.

One of the main attractions, instead, is the bird population. The sunbirds darting around at Zomba Forest Lodge were a delight to watch (although practically impossible to identify with Malawi not fitting into either “Southern Africa” or “Eastern Africa” from a published-and-available bird book perspective), as were the bee-eaters at Liwonde National Park. Fish eagles are a regular occurrence, both audibly and visibly, at Lake Malawi and on the Shire River, and I loved paddling a canoe round the rocks at the Lake to watch black and white-chested cormorants, squacco and other herons, pied and giant kingfishers, and hammerkops going about their daily business. One cormorant popped up from a fishing trip a few feet away from my canoe, but clearly this was way too close for comfort, and he darted back below the surface with a splash.

Reptiles were also much in evidence. The crocodiles in Liwonde National Park are reputed for their size, and certainly I saw some pretty sizeable beasts on my trip there. From Senga Bay, I took a trip out to the aptly-named Lizard Island and encountered a number of monitor lizards, one of which was swimming, not something that I’ve seen before. Usually, they spend most of the day sunbathing or moving at the most considered pace of any animal I know. There was one sitting in the same position on the same rock two days running, so I splashed it with water to check s/he was still alive (it was). There were agamas with virulent blue tails, geckos assisting in the mosquito-reduction campaign, and other assorted lizards, everywhere you looked, and, for the first time, I saw a water snake in action, swimming in the shallows of Lake Malawi. As I’d been assured that this part of the Lake’s shore was safe for swimming, being free of hippo, crocodiles and bilharzia, I assumed that it wasn’t a particularly dangerous water snake and didn’t let the sighting get in the way of my swimming or canoeing.

All in all, I am delighted to have managed to fit in a trip to this largely-undiscovered African jewel. It could not have been more different to Namibia, nor could I have been made to feel more welcome: I’ll CERTAINLY be back!

Additional photos below
Photos: 46, Displayed: 39


the Emperor's View on Zomba Plateauthe Emperor's View on Zomba Plateau
the Emperor's View on Zomba Plateau

so-called after Haile Selasie of Ethiopia who was close to Hastings Banda
removing reeds on the Shire Riverremoving reeds on the Shire River
removing reeds on the Shire River

this is one Serious Lawnmower!
cattle egret on the Shire Rivercattle egret on the Shire River
cattle egret on the Shire River

I initially thought that the birds were distressed by the reed-cutter, but, looking more closely, they were simply taking advantage of the potential food that had been stirred up
wire-tailed swallowswire-tailed swallows
wire-tailed swallows

...in their ever-optimistic attempt to make their home under the eaves of the boat's shelter
Serious BugSerious Bug
Serious Bug

...which I'm told is a corn cricket, or Park Town prawn
hippo skull at Mvuu Lodgehippo skull at Mvuu Lodge
hippo skull at Mvuu Lodge

no wonder these guys are so dangerous!
mokoro near Lizard Islandmokoro near Lizard Island
mokoro near Lizard Island

it had taken us about 30 mins to get this far with an outbooard motor: I took my hat off to this guy!
mooring the boatmooring the boat
mooring the boat

Manson had an unconventional approach, swimming out with the boat after decanting me and the luggage, to moor it round the corner

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