The power of Lake Malawi

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Lake Malawi National Park, Malawi

There’s really not much to say about the next couple of weeks. After stopping by Mzuzu again and extending my visa for another month (only costs about $7), I headed on down to Nkhata Bay which is all about Lake Malawi. I wanted to dive there obviously, and other than that you can snorkel, swim, take out a kayak or just laze around enjoying the peace. I did a mixture of all these things. There is something about being by the water that just makes the days roll into each other, and when you look back you are confused about where the time went. I stayed at a beautiful place called Mayoka Village, which consisted of a bunch of chalets, dorms and camping sites set on a steep hill cascading into the lake, so it’s super easy to get out into the water. I sorted out my dives as soon as I could – one night dive and one the following morning. Whilst waiting for the dives I just hung around, had some smoothies for the first time in forever, met lots of cool people (most people here were working in Malawi and had come to Nkhata for the Easter weekend – not so many backpackers), and swam. The lodge was organising a free snorkel trip for the next morning where you canoe out to a rock, put your boat on the land and explore for a bit, so I went with some others. It was beautiful canoeing around the bay, seeing all the locals in their wooden canoes, and the snorkelling was also very nice. Being in the lake feels so different from the ocean in so many ways. You really notice the lack of salt – no stinging eyes, no salty smell in the air, and also you have to swim more to stay afloat. Even diving down during the snorkelling was different, because you are not so buoyant so when you swim down you get deeper than you would expect when you’re used to the ocean. So weird! But very cool especially the novelty of it.

Lake Malawi’s main attraction is the many different kinds of cichlids. These are a type of fish that are only found in Lake Malawi (and maybe some other lakes in the area) and I’m not really sure what their common feature is, because they are all so different! The lake floor consists of lots of big rocks, and not really any plants, so the cichlids all tend to eat each other instead. They are so beautiful, and the kind of fish you’ve probably seen in aquariums and fish tanks. So having my first experience of this famous lake and all the colourful fish was very cool. Unfortunately the wind had picked up whilst we were distracted by this new underwater world, and getting the canoes back off the rocks was tricky! We capsized several times, and the other boat capsized while in the middle of the lake! We made it back after a lot of work.

I had the middle of the day to chill before the night dive. Nighttime in the lake in Nkhata Bay is pretty special – and famous – it’s been on the original Planet Earth! It’s when the eerie dolphinfish come out and hunt. These creepy looking, long and thin fish use your dive torch to help them hunt. They eat all the little cichlids, but they are nearly blind so not that good at catching them, even though the cichlids aren’t exactly difficult to catch! They are dark in colour and the torchlight makes their eyes glow a white-green colour. This was only my second night dive and I forgot how easy it is to get disorientated and go up and down quite a lot without noticing. More importantly, it was my first freshwater dive; I was very excited to be doing it in such an iconic place. It’s pretty much the same as diving in the ocean except you need less weight and it’s easy because of no currents. Lots of fishing nets to dodge as well because we were just off the shore (no use in going far from the shore, as the lake quickly drops to 70m in the middle). Awesome dive and I was the only one out, with the divemaster, which is always nice. The dolphinfish wriggled around my face, and I felt kind of bad shining my torch at any other fish because that would make them the dolphinfish’s dinner. As I came up, there were so many stars! That is the most amazing feeling – lying in the water looking up at an endless universe. On the horizon were brighter lights, from the little boats of all the fishermen.

The next morning I was diving again. It was weird doing my first dive in the dark, but now I had a chance to orient myself in the light which was nice. This was the end of the rainy season, so the visibility was not as good as it can be, but it was still possible to see all the mind-blowing rock formations and all the awesome fish. There was just so many different cichlids of all shapes, sizes and colours. They didn’t seem bothered by us. It really was like people said… swimming in an aquarium. There were a few little caverns in the rocks to swim through. In these caverns and underneath the rocks you can see the upside-down fish, who eat the algae on the underside of rocks and have evolved to just be upside-down. Once they are the wrong way, they can’t turn back round again because of their gills. Funny watching them.

I was sad once the excitement of the dives were over. Nkhata Bay is a beautiful location, but I felt like I wanted someone to share it with. I love travelling by myself, but more and more I find myself wanting company, especially in places like this where you just go to relax and enjoy the environment, rather than doing things. When I first started travelling a few years ago, I felt like I needed lots of time by myself to think and digest stuff, but I don’t feel like I need that so much any more. I also missed Adrian a lot. I had so much fun travelling with him, and I don’t know why I was so keen to get away and be by myself after Nyika. My judgement about what I ‘need’ has been so incorrect on this trip. Anyway, to add to that general uneasy feeling, my tent poles had broken! It had been the first time I’d used it, and it had broken. Now I wasn’t sure what to do because rooms all over Nkhata were booked due to the Easter weekend.

So far in Africa, timing seems to have worked out really well. Just after my tent broke, I heard from Adrian, who was thinking of coming down to Nkhata because he’d managed to find a free lift! It was only supposed to be a stopover for him, but he ended up staying for several days. He had a tent so that problem was solved, and it was Saturday night when he arrived so we drank some cocktails and sat by the rocks dangling feet in the lake, watching the stars and catching up with what had happened over the last few days.

This is when the days started to blend together. I am still not sure how much time I actually spent at Nkhata Bay. As well as Adrian, some Germans we knew from Mzuzu had arrived here, as well as several people we knew from Lukwe, so the company was excellent and I felt very comfortable there. The rain started in the nights again, and sometimes in the morning, but most of the days were hot and sunny. We’d wake up, mop up the tent (!), snorkel and swim and normally go for a lunch of nsima and beans in town, and 4pm was free Roobois tea time… after that there was time for another quick swim before it got dark. There was a platform in the water that you could swim to and watch the sunset. Then evenings were chilled – games or just talking. Hanging out by the lake is not really travelling, it was a bit like being in a bubble, but it was so easy to stay… just one more day… just one more day.

There always comes a time when you have to move on from the little bubble you’ve created, and eventually we both made our future plans. I would be going south to Cape Maclear, to dive some more and then get down to the hiking areas. Adrian had been given some work up at Lukwe, and he would start in a couple of weeks, so he had some admin stuff to sort out in Blantyre and then he would slowly make his way north. I’m sure we will meet again either over the next few weeks or later this year, but anyway he has been a very important part of my trip and I’ve learnt a lot from him, and I’m really grateful for that.

I had to wake up really early to catch the bus to Salima, which is near Cape Maclear. Adrian walked me to the bus stop and we found out that the bus left an hour earlier than we thought, so it had gone. This would mean minibuses (matatus) the entire way. This would be a long journey! We said a sad goodbye and I tried to sleep for the first few hours of the journey. It was 9 hours of travelling today, squished up in about four different minibuses. Some of the time I didn’t even have a seat, and was just crouching on the floor, while others were half-standing. These were the most uncomfortable ones I’d been in I think, but the day went surprisingly quickly, maybe because they had some really good local music playing and I was so tired that I was in a zombie-like state. Also the scenery was lovely, and we even went past a huge pink lake.

I only reached Salima and it was evening so I stayed the night there. Wasn’t much to it, so I just went out for some food and then chilled in the room. I tried to be friendly with the locals during dinner, but as soon as they found out I wasn’t married, they kept asking me if I liked black men, with a creepy smile on their face. Although Africa is generally safe for solo female travellers, the attitude of men towards girls who are by themselves really, really sucks. I have absolutely no problems when I’m walking around with a guy, but as soon as I’m by myself I notice a huge difference.

The next day was a further 5 hours in minibuses, then a short motorbike ride from Monkey Bay to Cape Maclear. The motorbike ride was through beautiful countryside – forested hills and perfect blue sky. The rainy season had finished down here which was great! Cape Maclear was a small town on the beach, and the water was a bit busier here than in Nkhata Bay, with locals in their dugout canoes but also a fair few little motorboats. I was reunited with a sleep Camilla when I arrived. That afternoon and the next day we just swam, read and relaxed, and also sorted out our diving. I was thrilled that Camilla dives too, as this would be the first time in about 6 years that I’d dived with someone I know rather than being buddied with a randomer. I need more friends that dive! We also found a place that sells smoothies and a cheap local restaurant that serves rice and beans, so that was our breakfast and lunch routine for the next few days we were here. I also sorted out my phone again so I had some data to get blogs up – yet again, the place we were staying claimed to have WiFi but it didn’t actually work. I can’t count how many times this has happened in Malawi; it just doesn’t seem to exist here! The alternative is to put vouchers on your phone and then buy bundles of data/texts/calls, which is so tedious… as I was sat inputting code after code, I realised that this would be my life from July until December, when it will be even more annoying because I will be trying to work rather than just travelling! So I’d best get used to it.

That night was a big party but we sadly went to bed early in preparation for our dive. We were diving with instructor Rob, who was very cool and I think he really enjoyed diving with us too because we are both very capable divers who don’t really need much support. Camilla is at about the same level as me so she made the perfect buddy. Our first dive was a wreck dive – someone had purposefully sunk a ship here to create an artificial reef, home to many cichlids as well as some huge catfish. On the way, my regulator (the thing you breathe through) broke, but I quickly and easily switched to my alternative air source – it’s the first time that had happened to me so it’s nice to know I can handle it.

The wreck slowly emerged from the cloudy water, and it was amazing how many fish had made it their home. We saw the huge catfish almost immediately, from looking through the portholes, as it drifted around in the hull of the boat. It was so huge! Camilla held out her hand and it was like something from a cheesy movie, as the catfish slowly and cautiously came up to her hand and gave her a kiss (but then freaked out and shot away). It was a special bonding moment between them. Apart from the amazing catfish, there were loads of cichlids and some white crabs as well. I liked the big volcanic-looking piles of sand, as they are actually made by some of the cichlids. Must take a lot of work. More upside-down fish here, although down in this part of the lake they can actually turn back around the right way as well! As we were coming back up, Rob pointed out a plain looking fish, with some excitement. We both didn’t know what the big deal was, until we realised it was a mouth breeder! About 60% of cichlids are mouth breeders, which means when there is danger around they keep all their babies in their mouth. This fish actually had a big group of baby fish, and as we hung around it obviously sensed danger and started scooping up the fish in its mouth – so cool to watch!

The next dive was a lot shallower and was called The Aquarium, for good reason. Apparently someone studying cichlids had emptied all his specimens into this particular part of the lake, so now it is full of so many different cichlids which originally weren’t in this area, but have bred here and settled here now. The shoals of fish were incredible here, and it was just such a fun dive – no currents or coral to worry about, and quite shallow water, so we could just play around and chill out, swimming amongst the fish. I love that I’m at that level now; don’t even have to think anymore, and it’s just like flying. Instead of the volcano-looking nests, here there were massive craters – perfectly round, that are made by a brown cichlid. They make them with their mouths. The only problem is that there is a big, shimmery blue fish that steals the nests off these little cichlids. And these fish are called Liane fish! Finally I found a fish named after me… it was bound to happen sometime, with the amount of fish in the world. But it happens to be the bully fish of Lake Malawi. It’s pretty though, and some local people in this area also call their children Liane after the fish. I had a little bonding moment with a Liane fish as it came up and gazed into my eyes. I’m sure Rob thought me and Camilla were crazy after all our special connections with the fishes.

Two amazing dives, and so much fun; diving with a friend really makes a difference I think. I did some more swimming that afternoon, after a big lunch of rice and beans, and then in the evening we had some drinks with an English guy Alfie who had just arrived, and some members of a rugby club who were touring Africa teaching rugby to kids. ‘Some drinks’ turned into ‘quite a lot of drinks’ and we ended up at another guesthouse dancing with some really cool locals. I hate to think how awful I must look dancing next to African people, but it was so much fun! I got carried away being DJ and playing classics like The Lion Sleeps Tonight… it eventually reached a point (when I started playing Shania Twain) that I had gone too far and I needed to stop.

So the next day was just a lazy day, and a last chance to enjoy the beautiful waters of Lake Malawi before heading south and away from the lake. I really loved swimming around Cape Maclear because of the large population of pied kingfishers that would flurry around your head looking for fish. The next day I had to say goodbye to Camilla who was crossing into Mozambique instead. Another very sad goodbye as I had a lot of fun with her, but I know we will meet again – she’s hinting at Galapagos 2018 (to dive together), but we’ll see!

There’s something about that lake. It has some kind of power over everyone; a hypnotic power that makes it almost impossible to leave. It’s really hard to remember that it’s a freshwater lake in sub-Saharan Africa, with hippos and crocodiles and bilharzia and all sorts of things. It’s so clear, and so beautiful, and so calm, with tiny waves pushing against the shore. It feels like it goes on forever, even though you can see the mountains of Mozambique in the distance, across the water. There’s just something about it that I can’t put my finger on, and it’s definitely one of my favourite places in the world. Beautiful Lake Malawi.

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