Goodbye lake, hello highlands, hiking and culture


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Zomba, Malawi

It was a really quick journey to Mangochi, at the very bottom point of Lake Malawi. I wanted to spend the afternoon here doing a few cultural things. I really liked Mangochi; it’s rare to ‘really like’ a big African town, but it had a certain charm – thousands of bicycles sped across the roads, and there were hardly any vehicles, which made for a completely different kind of bustle and noise. It felt rather calm and peaceful. The further down the road you go, the prettier it gets, until eventually you reach a roundabout with an old brick clock tower built in memory of Queen Victoria, and a cannon which was on one of the old boats which sailed on Lake Malawi. There is also a memorial dedicated to those who died when the Viphya (another boat on the lake) sank. Ironically (and sadly), around the time I was visiting Mangochi and saw this memorial, there was another accident on the lake, when around 50 Malawians died when a boat sank due to overcrowding. Tragically, drowning is something that happens very often here. A lot of people don’t know how to swim despite living in a country that is so dominated by the water.

The street then becomes a bridge over the river. On the other side of the bridge are some forested hills similar to those around Cape Maclear, and the river itself is really pretty, with locals paddling through in dugout wooden canoes and bright green grasses all around.

There is a Lake Malawi museum here and the guy at reception was delighted to see me. I don’t think they get many visitors, but it was a cute little museum and worth a look. Big displays about the environment around the lake, and the animals and plants that inhabit the area, and also a room with lots of photos and information about all the boats that had existed on the lake, for one function or another. Later, I pranced around the huge and lively market, picking up cheap bananas and apples, and looking at all the different fabrics (even making a cheeky purchase… not sure whether to make another pair of trousers, or a t-shirt, from the fabric?). It was a very good market. Had a really nice meal in the evening and also munched on some maize from the market. The first time I’d tried it, I thought it was a bit plain, but now I love it.

Unfortunately there was a bit of a dispute the next morning with my guesthouse, as we had agreed on a cheaper price for the room the day before, and now they were going back on what they had said the previous day. After I refused to pay extra because of our original agreement, they quickly changed tactic and tried to make me feel guilty about it instead of arguing. I left Mangochi feeling a bit miserable because of that, which is a shame because I actually had a really good time there. I quickly cheered up again on the minibus ride to Zomba, after meeting Diana who is just one of the coolest people I’ve met in Malawi. She is from Mangochi but now lives in Blantyre (a bit further south than Zomba) and was going back there. She lived in South Africa for a long time with her husband, he is still there but she is happily back in Malawi – Cape Town sounds a bit intense and I think she prefers the quiet life. She invited me to stay with her in Blantyre which was exciting. With her husband in South Africa she must get a bit lonely. As we were in the bus we passed a chameleon on the road which had changed to the tarmac colour. It seemed like a mistake to me – trying to be camouflaged on a busy road!

I liked Zomba immediately. I would be couchsurfing here with one of Camilla’s friends Ole, and his housemates, but they wouldn’t be back until later so I left my bags at the friendly tourist information place (which didn’t really have any information and looked more like an office… but it’s the first one I’ve seen in Africa!). I had some lunch at the backpackers and met the neediest cat ever who clung to my lap, and then the day seemed to go really quickly. I just had time to stock up on some food ready for the Zomba Plateau, and stroll around the botanical gardens which was full of cuddling young couples, before meeting Ole. He works as a bike mechanic here and has such a nice place – on the walk there we passed many different coloured flowers, and not too far away were all the mountains including the huge Zomba Plateau. Later I also met Sarah, one of the housemates, and the three of us went into town for dinner. Very cool chatting to some expats, and they have a really nice set up here in Zomba.

The following morning was hiking time! It had been a while… the lake days had been pretty lazy, so it was definitely time to get back into it. I carried my big bag with all the food and supplies up to the plateau from town, via the Potato Path which is a steep and muddy, but direct, route to the top. I found it tough, but I was out of practice. When I reached the top, I wandered around for a further five hours or so, through some forests and to the big Mulunguzi Dam and waterfall. It was a beautiful sunny day and the birds and flowers were plentiful. I was bumping into so many spiderwebs which was actually kind of nice as it made me feel like the only person around – obviously no one else had walked this path all day! It’s really easy to get lost up there with so many different dirt tracks, which sometimes look like they are going the right way but actually don’t. So it was late when I arrived at the Trout Farm where I would stay the night. It is actually a trout farm (seasonally) but also puts guests up in some of the workers’ houses. It was quite expensive for not very much – no hot shower, and the ‘kitchen’ I had heard about was actually just a fire in a shack. There was no electricity in the room either, and I’m pretty sure my bed had ants or bedbugs. I don’t mind these basic facilities, but they were charging too much money for them! However, it was by far the cheapest place to stay on the plateau, so I didn’t really have a choice.

Cooked some spaghetti on the fire and then I was in darkness, with only a small candle and a magazine to keep me occupied. It gets dark so early here, about 5:30pm, and nothing to do once it gets dark so it was pretty boring. My kindle had broken so I couldn’t even read a book. Went to sleep very early and the next day I just did a shorter walk, as unfortunately it was cloudy and rainy, and most of the plateau is about having nice viewpoints. I just walked around some small paths, through some forest and meadows. At times, it was so misty I could barely see in front of me! Lots of animals about on this cooler day, and I saw a mongoose, some kind of grouse, and a big bird of prey which followed me for a short while. I got back just after lunch and had time for a long nap and a freezing cold shower before some welcome company arrived in the form of a very wet Adrian, who had just travelled from Blantyre to Zomba and then walked up to the plateau in the pouring rain. While I had been lazing by the lake, he had been climbing up to Malawi’s highest peak, but apparently still had some energy to join me for a few days on the plateau. After dinner we tried the famous Zomba Plateau rasberries, they were divine and I think I ate most of them.

So the following day the sun came out again which was awesome. Time for some viewpoints. We walked around the Eastern part of the plateau which gave nice views around Zomba town and the surrounding hills. It was a typical South Malawi view, with many peaks rising from the flat landscape. Could also see across to Mulanje which, despite being further away than a lot of the other peaks, seemed to dominate with its gigantic and overpowering breadth and height. It was all so beautiful, but also sad because of the lack of trees. Malawi’s population is huge and growing, and there are very few trees left in the country because of this – most being cut down to make way for farmland, and also to use for timber. This causes so many environmental problems, and landslides happen frequently, often killing people and destroying property. What will it take to make the locals see the damage they’re doing? It must be hard sometimes for them to see the bigger picture, when many of them are poor and just want to make sure they have enough food for themselves and their family.

There were some big rocks on the side of the road as we were walking around; it kind of reminded me of parts of Australia, which is a country full of random big rocks! We decided to climb up, and hung out at the top for a bit enjoying the view. When we got down someone had taken our water bottles, as we’d left them at the bottom! Strange and annoying.

We also stopped by William’s Falls, which was more beautiful than the Mulunguzi falls. It was getting quite late by this point, and a bit cold. Considering Malawi is in Central Africa, I’ve spent an abnormal amount of my time here being cold! I wasn’t wrong when I said it’s easy to get lost up here though, and even Adrian’s trusty maps app couldn’t help us when we tried taking many different shortcuts and always ended up in the wrong place! Eventually we just had to find our way back to the main road and walk the way we knew – after speed walking, we got back just before dark. We both desperately needed a shower but couldn’t face the freezing water, so we heated up some water over the fire instead and took turns splashing it on ourselves. In the dark. Luxury huh? At least it was warm! The dinner of pasta, soy and vegetables was also very welcome. Then we sat in the dark house, eating condensed milk straight out of the tin and playing Yahtzee by candlelight. A really lovely evening.

The following day I think we were both ready to go back down, but we wanted to do another walk first. We thought we’d just do a short walk but it turned into most of the day! We wanted to visit Chingwe’s Hole which is apparently just a really deep hole but is supposed to be interesting. Despite an American girl telling me that the path to get there was dull, I actually loved it. At one point, we waded through flowers amongst what felt like thousands of butterflies – as we rustled the plants, they rose up in a flurry, and zigzagged around us, unsure of their next move… sometimes trying to settle, but quickly being disturbed again by our presence. Nearly every flower had a butterfly on it. Being surrounded by this commotion of wings and colour was like a child’s daydream. We had some lunch on a big rock and continued out of the trees, onto the road and then through a meadow. We had promised ourselves that we would set off early and walk quickly to make good time for getting down to the town, but neither of these things happened – we set off later because we were being lazy, and we didn’t walk quickly because we kept seeing interesting bugs! First we had seen a giant earthworm (and I mean giant!). Then we kept seeing lots of red army ants behaving very strangely – it looked like some kind of war or massacre was going on, with two sides charging at each other, and plenty of casualties. I have never seen ants behave like that, it was really weird but also so interesting. After that, there was this beast of a beetle with the head of another beetle crunched up in its jaws – and of course we saw some giant crickets too. My inner kid was fascinated by this dynamic and brutal insect world.

When we finally arrived at the hole, we were really glad we came; not because of the hole itself but because of the mind-blowing view from the area! We actually walked right past this famous hole straight to the edge to see the view, slightly hypnotised by the beauty. Steep green cliffs spilled into a clumsy river below, and further away we could see the same river, but shining and sleek. We watched rock hyraxes far below us; despite the fact they were so far away that they looked like little lumps, they were still very aware of us and kept a close eye on our movements. A falcon made use of the thermal columns to take a lazy flight – how great would it be to be a bird in the mountains?!

We took a peek at the hole on our way back. One of the tribes used to throw their enemies down it, so it has some nasty history. It was very dark and you couldn’t see the bottom. It was interesting but I’d much rather stare at the awesome view for longer! After the hole we marched back to the Trout Farm to get our bags and then left the plateau. I had been starving all day and was tempted to get a motorbike taxi down instead of walking. I do hate downhill walking! But I was just being lazy really, so in the end I just did the walk. It wasn’t far. All I could think about on the way down was getting a big bowl of nsima, so that was the first thing we did at the bottom, although weirdly it was hard to find any restaurants – luckily there was a very small market so we perched on a bench with some street food.

We were going to stay at Ole’s place again, and I was confident I knew the way until it started to get dark and I got really disorientated, which made me stressed because I knew we were in trouble if we couldn’t find it. Both our phones were dead so we couldn’t even call him. Eventually we found it, after some help from a local guy (we just told him we were looking for our friends, and he knew exactly where the muzungus were!). It was so, so nice to be in a house, with lights and cooking stuff and some degree of warmth, although still no hot shower! Thanks Ole and the other members of the house, for all your help and friendliness in Zomba.


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