Monday, 21 May 2007

Malawi and the Lake

Our first Malawian destination is Lilongwe, the capital. We taxi the 25km from Chipata to the border and then get another taxi ride for the 12km or so to the bus depot. The price for the bus from there to Lilongwe, a trip of around 120km, gives us our first insight into how cheap Malawi is - it's around $3.50NZ each. A sign of things to come as our campsite in Lilongwe costs just over $NZ8.
Like Lusaka, Lilongwe has very little to recommend it - it seems a little odd to me that these capital cities have absolutely no "must see" cultural or national attractions, so become merely useful stopovers for us as they have banks, post offices, internet cafes, good coffee and bookshops.
Lilongwe will go down in our travels as the end of our trusty "spider" tent. It's been a faithful companion, but at Flat Dogs the troublesome pole broke again, and our repairs in Lilongwe are not really up to it. We ask if there's a camping store in town, and the ubiquitous Shoprite is recommended. We splash out on a $50 tent - just as the cost of accommodation is plummeting! Still, it's always good to know you have a roof over your head.

In Zambia our beer of choice was Mosi (aka the Beer that Thunders), but in Malawi it's the beautifully named Kuche Kuche - a bargain at 70c for 500ml bottles. It helps to while away the evening in the dark - yep, the power's gone off here, just like it did in Chipata last night.

After a pretty relaxing afternoon and evening in Lilongwe, we have another fairly long day in a bus. The trip to Monkey Bay starts with us fronting up for the bus at 8am (as advised by various blokes at the depot yesterday), to be taken to another depot and dropped off. The Monkey Bay bus we're assured will be here at 8.30, and sure enough it is. Nothing much else happens for a couple of hours, except that it slowly fills up. When we finally move, it is to go back to our original depot to fill up with diesel, except that they're out, so it's round to the local filling station. Everyone else in the bus (seems like about a hundred people) takes the opportunity to get off and sit under the trees while this happens, so it turns into a 40 minute exercise to get everyone back on board again. The inside of this bus is not so crowded, but the roof is packed with mysterious packages, some of which fall victim to the bumpy road later in the journey. The distance to Monkey Bay is round 200km, and the trip takes over 5 hours - the roads are pretty bad and there are a lot of stops, each one taking some time as it's quite a business to reunite people with their luggage.
We get to Monkey Bay round 5.30, just as dusk is falling. The Ziwade Guest House is not exactly a thing of beauty, but it's near the bus and the ferry, and for $4 for a room, we can't really complain. A couple of locals escort us to their aunty's restaurant, where we eat local fish (chambo - not to be confused with chamba, which is dope), tomatoes and rice. I think we will be eating a lot of this as we go.

We are pretty excited about the ferry; we've heard good things and seen some great photos of the Mozambican ports that it stops at. The Ilala is around 60 years old and a real institution on the lake. It goes up and down every week, loaded with people, and at this time of the year (harvest time) produce for the islands as well.

Loading up the Ilala early in the morning at Monkey Bay.
The sight of the boat loading at the docks is really colourful, but we are pleased we have splashed out on a cabin for the journey (at the fairly steep cost of NZ$130 each). It's tiny, but shipshape with two neat beds, a desk, mirror, fan and a basin with hot and cold water. Really, what else could you need. Life downstairs on the second class deck is a different story. There are only hard benches to sit on and for a 45 hour journey, it would be tough going indeed. Upstairs we are in complete luxury. Our deck has a bar, a large sunshaded area with cane chairs, and really reminds us of a forgotten colonial time. I get into the spirit of things and try Malawi Gin as the sun goes down - it's really OK, and has to help with the mosquitoes.

Chilling out on the first-class deck of the Ilala - the perfect place to watch a perfect sunset.

Our first port stop of note is Mezangulu, in Mozambique. It's a lovely sight - a hilly green spot, crowded with people and packages waiting to board. The lifeboats are lowered and used to ferry people to and from the shore - no jetties here. It's tomato season, and there are huge cane baskets of them being unloaded, together with those mysterious cloth and plastic-wrapped packages that accompany travellers all over this continent. It's a lively and colourful scene along the waterfront - the Mozambique flag flying, a couple of customs/immigration officers, and a small crowd gathered in the shade of the trees. Further down, almost oblivious to our arrival, are the ubiquitous sights of Lake Malawi - women washing clothes, fishermen with their nets, and bathers and kids having fun in the water.

We stop every few hours during the day. One stop is notable for a long sandy beach, another for a glimpse of mouldering Portuguese fortifications and a church tower. It speaks of a muddled history, but for the mzungus (that's the lingua franca for us Europeans - not sure it's altogether polite, but we hear it all the time) on the boat, makes for stunning photos in the late afternoon sun. My two favourite hours of each day are from 4 till 6. The heat goes out of the sun, the light softens and it's time to relax with a drink, reflect on the day and look forward to the sunset and dinner.

Likoma Island (famous in this part of the world) is our last day time stop. Quite a few of the dozen or so Europeans on board get off here, and rather laboriously an ambulance is loaded on. It's going to Nkhata Bay (our stop) for repairs we are told. The locals seem to be using our boat as their Saturday night public bar, and our deck is fuller than it's been before. No worries, we are happily esconsed in a corner, with a Kuche Kuche, listening to the FA Cup final, being broadcast live on Radio Malawi - thanks to the radio engineer on board who has found it for me on our radio. We smile when an African player, Didier Drogba, scores the winning goal for Chelsea.

Nkhata Bay is a tiny spot, but drop dead gorgeous. Our accommodation is on the basic side, but again really cheap - $7 for a reed and thatch hut, with two beds and mosquito nets. The loos are a bit of a hike away, and I think I would rather swim in the lake than use the showers...but hey, it is Africa after all. We ended up spending just a couple of lazy days here, "befriended" by a few local lads who spent some time teaching us a local variation of backgammon, and then trying to sell us a set. The boys have great names, Edward, Benson, Jonas - the products of God-fearing parents I suspect. There is a lot of God here; we saw a very energetic preacher from the ferry, leaping about and with lots of hallelujahs and amens from his two cohorts. The lower deck was fortunately the recipient of his words, I'm not so sure they would have been so well received on the upper deck. Solomon took us for a few hour walk into the hills at the back of the bay - lots of villages and a great mountain biking trail it seemed to us. He pointed out clouds of what looked like smoke on the lake and explained that it was swarms of flies - must have been millions of them. The locals apparently catch them and eat them in patties - a bit of a local specialty, but one we never had the opportunity to try.

They love their football in Africa, and will play anywhere. This is on the hills above Nkhata Bay - not a shoe in sight, let alone a football boot, but the game was being played seriously and with relish.
Our last stop on the lake was further north, at Chitimba Beach Camp. We had met Ed, the Dutch guy who is running this camp while we were in Lilongwe - he was in the capital to do some business and staying at the same campground as we were. The bus trip was a two fold affair - a minibus to Mzuzu, just 50km or so away, and then a larger bus from bustling Mzuzu to the beach turnoff. We arrived at the depot in Mzuzu, and once they knew our destination our bags were swiftly packed onto the next bus, and we had time to wander around, buy samosas for lunch (quite a local delicacy, and really delicious - a tastier option than hard boiled eggs, which are pretty much the only alternative), and go to the post office. We have found the people in Malawi incredibly helpful and gentle, there seems to be no malice or bad intentions from anyone towards us.

The trip to Chitimba took around 3 hours, and was notable for the number of road blocks - police or military (it's a bit hard for us to tell) man these, and all vehicles must stop and be inspected. Usually it only takes a couple of minutes, but occasionally there's a fuss about something - generally it's a local's luggage - that means we all get off and have to present our IDs and indicate whose luggage is whose. As we get closer to the borders, they become more frequent.

We hiked down the road to the campsite and decided to try out the Shoprite Bush Baby (aka the new tent). It all seems OK, but the fly looks like it belongs to another tent - still while the weather's so good, it doesn't matter too much. Before long, we've had a swim, and are happily sitting at the bar with a Kuche Kuche and a book watching another day come to a close.
Livingstonia is a 15km or so hike away, and we get an early start the next morning to walk as far as we can before it gets too hot. Livingstonia is quite an anacronism in this part of the world - a town founded by Scottish missionaries, named after our friend the Doctor, and home to a university, hospital, technical college, museum and Presbyterian church. More attractions in this hilltop village than we have come across in the last two capital cities we've visited. The walk is quite tough, the road goes up in a series of numbered hairpins (20 of them), and we can cut out the apex of the hairpins by taking "shortcuts" - ie, steep rutted tracks. I puff and sweat my way up, avoiding numerous locals skipping down with babies on their backs and loads on their heads! The views as we climb are fantastic; we can see all the bays of the lake and also look out across the rolling hills and the escarpment. There's a national park at the back of the village, and it really is lovely up here - and also a bit cooler. As we approach the village, hiking along a track that takes us through village fields, we can see the planted pine plantations - the whole effect is green and pleasant indeed. We make our way to the museum, which has been written up as a must see, but in fact is quite an odd collection of photocopied documents and photographs, and paraphernalia from colonial days. There's a butterfly collection in an old writing desk, which is lined with scraps of old newspapers - one of the headlines reads New Zealand election undecided, and dates back to 1978. Kind of a weird thing to come across so far from home.
We have come prepared to stay the night, but now think we will walk back down - till we spot an entourage having lunch at the guest house behind the museum, with space in their car. Not only do we gatecrash their lunch, we also get a lift back to the main road, and are back in the campsite in time to do our laundry and have a swim before dinner. A good day - but one that's not yet over. A couple of overland trucks have arrived while we've been walking, and one of the guys has organised a truck to come and collect anyone who's interested later in the evening, to take us to the next town to watch the final of the Champions League between Liverpool and AC Milan. A great idea - well that's how it seems. We all pile on the back of the truck and set off in the dark ... the TV is in a small concrete bunker 20km or so away, with rows of wooden planks for seats. There are loads of locals all squished into this small hot room, together with around 20 of us from the campsite. Beers are sent for and delivered from the bar next door, and the game starts. All is well until about 10 minutes into the second half when the satellite connection is lost, presumably due to atmospheric conditions. And then it starts to rain...African style...for about an hour. The ride back is wet and cold, and our laundry which had been drying nicely on the trees is all over the place. We retrieve it in the dark and then nervously open the tent - just how does a $50 tent cope with a torrential downpour. Well, not too badly actually. We are pleasantly surprised that it's mostly dry inside, and end up sleeping OK.

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