All good things come to an end…

 

Blantyre, Malawi

…But it’s not goodbye forever. I would be back in Malawi in less than 2 months, doing my project with International Service. For now, I just had a few more days to hang around Blantyre before my flight back to UK. I was kind of ready to leave, in a way – I find travelling totally exhausting. That’s why I prefer to have a base when I’m abroad, just like I did in China and Australia, so there’s a home to come back to and some familiarity. Africa has been a whirlwind. But now I’m back in the UK I can’t wait to get back to Malawi again, especially since I found out my project will be in Zomba, where I’ve already spent a bit of time. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to do this trip before going over there to live for 6 months. I’ve learnt so much, made so many good friends, and understand a lot of the issues I will potentially face during my time as a team leader.

I will also be blogging during my charity work, so I’ll talk more about that when I’m back in Malawi. The last bit of time in Blantyre, I spent with Diana and her kids, as well as their neighbours. I had a bit of a crisis once I got to her village near Mangochi, because I couldn’t remember where her house was, and she wasn’t answering her phone! As a white gal wandering around the city suburbs by myself, I attracted a lot of stares, and was starting to feel a little anxious. The afternoon turned into a kind of treasure hunt, as I tried to jog my memory and find people who knew Diana or her niece who also lived nearby. My treasure hunt took me to a school, where Sabita (Diana’s niece) was studying. I walked in during the girls’ lunch break, and they all knew her but weren’t sure where she was, or her phone number. The matron ended up calling the headmaster, who said he would come and give me her details, so I hung out there for a while waiting. This headmaster never materialised, but the matron told me to go down to the church, find a man selling clothes on the corner, and ask him, because he lived close to Sabita. It was getting weirder and weirder! As I walked down, I came across a woman selling spices – I knew she was friends with Diana because Diana often came to buy spices, so I asked for her help and finally, finally arrived at the house!

The reason Diana hadn’t been answering her phone was because she had been checking out a new mosque that day, and there was no signal there. She wasn’t back when I got to the house but all the local kids were so happy to see me, so we played outside for a bit. Then Diana came home, dressed in the most elegant outfit and full of apologies, and we decided to climb the ‘mountain’ just next to her house. It was one of those moments I felt pure elation; with about 12 kids in tow, along with Diana and her friend Elizabeth, we walked along the village streets singing “Let’s go climb a mountain, let’s go climb a mountain!” Astonished locals stopped what they were doing to look, confused, at this procession, and kids ran up to us to join in. At one point I looked behind us and there were 20 children following! Before we started the climb, we had some help from a guy who advised that the younger children should wait at the bottom, because the climb would be too hard for them. They patiently sat and waited, and the rest of us went up. Farmlands covered most of the mountains now, but Diana told me that there were once lions here, and there are some folk tales about how it became barren and dry. Sadly, I think the most likely tale is that the people have ruined the land by cutting away all the trees… but, people have to eat. It’s really difficult to think about. We watched the sunset from the top, and could see all the way to Zomba. We waved at the little ones who were shouting at us from below.

I slept so well that night, and rose early the next morning to walk the kids to school. One of Diana’s kids, who was a total drama queen, had taken a shine to me and screamed and cried when we left her at the gate, knowing that when she came home from school I would be gone. I really feel like that child is gonna go somewhere – she has a spark about her. I met some of Diana’s friends and we went back to the house for some tea and bread. Later, we went to visit her father, who is one of the most intelligent men I have ever met! His English was impeccable and he knew so much about what was going on in the world, through newspapers and radio. I can definitely see where Diana gets her worldliness from. We discussed philosophy and politics among other things. He was a tailor, and his small house was dominated by his trade, as suits and shirts hung down from the shelves and his sewing machine took up most of the living room. It was really a pleasure meeting him, and I hope to see him again.

Meeting Diana and her family was definitely a highlight of my trip, and there have been so many other times that people here have shown me such kindness, and been so accommodating. It leaves me with a warm feeling in my heart. This is how people should be; we are all together in this weird experience that we call ‘life’, and sometimes we need to help each other out, or show some acknowledgement towards each other.

Each trip I take gives me a totally different kind of education. Africa, you’ve been very special. See you again soon.

Advertisements

Mulanje Massif

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mulanje, Malawi

After our night in Zomba town, we treated ourselves to a fairly fancy breakfast the next day of pancakes, waffles, honey and fruit at the backpackers in town. It was mainly so we could use the WiFi as I needed to book my flight home, but it was so slow that it wasn’t even worth it. Then we took the minibus down to Blantyre. Adrian was ready to get back up to Lukwe and start working – he would be working there for at least a couple of months. I was going to spend some time with Diana, who I had met on the bus from Mangochi, and also sort out my Mulanje hike. Diana said she would pick me up at the bus station, but she was a bit late (coz Africa) so we stood there for a while and it wasn’t the nicest area, we had some drunk local guy who wouldn’t leave us alone, so I was glad Adrian was with me. I could not understand anything this guy was saying, but Adrian seemed to understand him perfectly and was chatting away. Apparently he was quite philosophical.

Eventually Diana arrived and took me to her place. It was a bit out in the sticks – not near the city at all, and we had quite a long minibus ride, but beautifully located under a huge mountain that Diana thought looked like an elephant. After the minibus, we had a long-ish walk down a dirt track and farmlands, also the occasional vibrant (but small) shopping area where she waltzed around buying spices and chatting to her friends. Everyone was very surprised to see me! She lived a very simple life, with a small house consisting of a living space and also a bedroom with one bed which she shared with her four children, including one baby. Everything was slow and relaxed. The children played all sorts of games outside with the neighbouring kids; they have no special toys or technology, but all games come from the power of their own imagination, and maybe the odd discarded flowerpot, plastic bag or wooden stick. Apart from Diana’s eldest daughter (who had grown up in South Africa), the kids didn’t speak any English, so they seemed to find it hilarious to hear me speaking! Although we spoke different languages, it wasn’t hard to communicate, and to join in the games and dancing. Dinner was a lovely spicy curry with rice – Diana is the first Malawian I’ve met who doesn’t really like nsima – and we ate with our hands. I crashed at 9pm on a mattress on the bedroom floor, whilst Diana and her children sat in bed eating spaghetti from the pan.

The following day was also relaxed – it was a bank holiday, so no school. Everyone was up early, but there was no rush to do anything. We strolled around the market and the base of the mountain before breakfast, and then went back for some porridge, followed by bread and tea. Bread and tea is a standard breakfast here and is almost like a ritual. We sat on the floor to eat and drink. Late morning, Diana walked with me back to the bus stand, as I would be going back to the centre that day to start organising my trips. I promised to return before I flew home; it was such a fun place to hang out especially with all the kids around, and Diana is a great person to talk to, as she is so open-minded and I feel like I can ask her anything and she won’t be offended. Adrian was still around in Blantyre, he would be leaving that evening on the night bus, so I met him and we had a drink followed by some nsima. Another guy eating in the little hut with us was so happy that we were eating the local food, especially when we told him we really loved it. We both had plans in mind for that day – I wanted to get down to a marsh-y place in the south where you can go on boat rides in a dugout canoe, and Adrian needed to whizz back to Zomba as he’d left some stuff there, but somehow neither of these things ended up happening and instead we went into the centre and ran around the markets buying random things and eating satsumas. It was such a cool market with a light-hearted vibe.

Later, me and Adrian said goodbye yet again. This would be the last time we’d see each other for at least a couple of months. He’s been such a big part of my trip that it felt strange waving him off on the bus. The following day I was hoping to head to Mulanje town to organise my mountain hike, but I woke up feeling very ill, and had to spend most of the day in bed. I’ve been on-and-off sick since the beginning of my time in Malawi, so I really hoped I hadn’t got some illness or infection. Sometimes I’d feel fine and other times I would feel awful. So I ended up going to Mulanje the following day instead. Apparently the minibus only took about an hour, incredibly short for Malawi, but the one I got on took about three hours – I later found out that there were two routes and I had got on the slower one! The bus kept stopping at all these random towns for ages, so I was glad I had my book and some music.

Because I hadn’t been feeling well, my plan was to just do a short, easy-ish hike for 2 days. However, when I arrived and I was under the shadow of the dominating mountain, I fell in love and I just had to spend more time there, and do some more challenging hiking. I organised a three-day hike, climbing to the top of one of the peaks also. Mulanje is like a huge plateau rising up from the ground below, of which most is just over 2000m in height. From this plateau rise numerous peaks, of which the tallest is rocky Sapitwa, at 3002m. It doesn’t seem so high when you compare it to beasts like Kilimanjaro or Mount Kenya, but it should definitely not be underestimated – it’s a powerful, prominent mountain and the climb is tough and steep. That goes for most of the peaks on the Mulanje plateau, and even getting up to the plateau is not easy.

I found a really cheap guesthouse ever to stay in that night – $2! There was a huge green bug under the toilet seat, and it had a tendency to pop up while you were sitting down, but at that price I didn’t mind. Actually I probably wouldn’t have minded anyway; it was a cute bug. Spent the evening stocking up on fruit, milk, biscuits, and other things that were easy to snack on. I had an agreement with my guide that we would share dinner and he would just buy some nsima and meat, so I didn’t have to worry about carrying pots, pans and heavy ingredients. Once it got dark I retreated to the guesthouse, stood in the courtyard and managed to make out the silhouette of the great mountain by noticing the absence of stars. I was nervous, but couldn’t wait.

The first day was an uphill struggle, literally. With my big backpack loaded and along with my guide (whose name unfortunately escapes me) we began to scale through the trees to get up to the plateau. On the way we met two Portuguese ladies also trying to reach Thuchila Hut for the night (there are several huts on the plateau provided for you to sleep in). The steep climb went on for 3.5 hours, but somehow it felt shorter. I remember hoping that I would see the hut after every corner, and always being disappointed, but when my guide finally pointed it out, snug in-between a spotting of trees, I was surprised to see it so soon. Despite feeling unwell the days before the hike, something about this mountain had temporarily cured me. It had a special power, just like the lake. Maybe it was to do with the beauty of the views and surroundings, the fresh air, or simply the lack of the bustle and stress of the modern world. Nature can do incredible things. After a quick bit of lunch I was ready to climb the nearby peak. There are three near Thuchila Hut, and I can’t actually remember the name of the one we were going up, but I think it was Nandalanda. This would be my afternoon challenge, and it was supposed to be the only peak I would climb – I was hesitant to try the famous Sapitwa Peak, because of not feeling so good. However, I was suddenly feeling so energetic I could have probably jogged up one of the peaks, and so I bugged the guide to take me up Nandalanda as well as Sapitwa Peak tomorrow. Persuading him took a while – he kept making excuses about why we couldn’t climb both, but after offering him a bit more money and clarifying with him that I was definitely fit enough for the challenge, he agreed.

My guide took a while finishing his lunch, and we didn’t set off for our afternoon climb until pretty late in the day. I was a little worried about this, but figured he knew what he was doing. This peak is climbed very infrequently; overshadowed by its higher and more famous ‘neighbours’ Sapitwa and Chambe. However, it was a pretty climb over rocks and shrubs – it looked like the exact kind of place you might come across a leopard. Unfortunately, we got lost about halfway up. The path hadn’t been cleared and was overgrown. With the setting sun not far away, and no sign of another way up, I made the decision to go back down. It just wasn’t worth the potential risk of climbing down in the dark. I was a bit annoyed at my guide who had taken so long eating his lunch, meaning we didn’t have enough daylight hours to complete the climb, but he promised to take me up Sapitwa the next day with no extra charge.

I had a cosy evening by the fire with the two Portuguese ladies. It got very cold at night up there, so I was happy to have a very early night just for an excuse to get into my sleeping bag. We would be up very early the next day, as it was a couple of hours just to get to Chisepo Hut, and from there it was a 5 hour round trip to Sapitwa Peak. The hike to the hut was absolutely beautiful! Not only were we up high, but the plateau rises so steeply from the ground below, that it felt like we were floating above everything. A thick duvet of clouds below shielded the lower ground from the early morning sun, with the exception of a few little peaks who had fidgeted their way through and stood stubbornly, like teenagers who are awake and know it is morning, but are reluctant to get out of bed. But even this sleepy white blanket could not tame us, or Mulanje, as we rose with it, high above the clouds, a dominant and omnipresent part of the blue sky above.

It was like being on our own planet, as craggy rocks rose high above and little streams ran below. Thousands of yellow flowers surrounded the path and the foothills of the mountains. I love the colour yellow in nature. It was hard to remember to watch where I was putting my feet sometimes, because I didn’t want to look down at the floor, I just wanted to soak up some of the most amazing scenery I’ve ever had the privilege to see.

I only had time for a very short break once we reached the hut; then we had to get going for Sapitwa if we wanted to get down before dark. I ate as much as possible in preparation for the steep ascent. Sapitwa is 3002m above sea level, which isn’t as high as a lot of other places I’ve been, so I didn’t really think anything of it – but it should definitely not be underestimated. It’s a hard climb; a really hard climb. Everyone wants to go up because it’s the highest point in Malawi (and Central Africa), but many end up giving up part way through. The route up to Sapitwa is defined by rocks, and there are times when it’s more of a rock climb than a hike. The first few parts were the hardest, because there were a few sheer rock faces to climb, that were so steep that I had to go onto my hands and knees for parts of it, and when I did stand up, my calf muscles burned like they’ve never burned before. Thin bands of mist came and went as we ascended, slightly engulfing us sometimes, but quickly passing on. Often the path became obscure, and we had to haul ourselves up big rocks or jump from one rock to another to continue. Occasionally I was a bit too short to climb to the next bit, and had to be dragged up, or attempt to shimmy up backwards. I definitely couldn’t have done it without a guide or someone else with me. I was so determined, and despite sometimes being a little scared (I have a bit of a phobia of falling), and a few cuts and scrapes, I made it! I was absolutely exhausted but that didn’t curb my elation at having reached the top, and I walked all around this area of rocky isolation, whilst my guide had a nap. It was quite misty still, but every so often I caught a glimpse of lower areas, which were mostly also these light-grey rocks.

As we descended along the same path, my legs were shaky from exhaustion, but my mind felt refreshed and calm. Unfortunately, this hut is very popular and when I arrived back, there were so many other people staying the night as well. When you’re on a mountain, most of the time you just want some quiet time with your surroundings, so I ended up going down to the stream to read and sit by myself. The Portuguese ladies were here as well, so it was nice to see them again. The hut was lovely, and watching the sun setting and then rising in this beautiful place was very special.

The following morning I would be taking the Chigamula path back down into Mulanje town. I’m not a fan of downhill hiking, so I kept wanting to ask “are we nearly there yet?” like a child! But it was impossible to really be that impatient, because it was again stunning scenery, and it was made even more fun when we were joined by hundreds of locals – men, women and children – who were almost running down these steep hills carrying firewood on their heads. It was the weekend, and after this ‘quick’ dash up and down the mountain, they would have a bit of time to relax, so they wanted to get down as quickly as possible. When you’re being overtaken by small kids carrying heavy loads on their heads, it does make you feel a bit embarrassed. The best part of the day was when we reached a waterfall with a huge deep pool, and the guide left me for a little while so I could have a swim. The water was incredibly cold, and the shock of it made me slightly giddy, so I hopped in and out, staying in only as long as I could bear, then drying off in the sun.

The first thing I did when getting back to Mulanje town was have a huge dish of rice and beans. Then I got a minibus back to Blantyre.

Goodbye lake, hello highlands, hiking and culture

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

The power of Lake Malawi

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Stuck in the wild – there are worse places to be

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Nyika National Park, Malawi

After finishing our hike to Chelinda, our priority the next morning was to find a lift back to Lukwe, or at least Rumphi which was the nearest big town. There is no public transport, but we knew that tourists and ranger vehicles go in and out of the park so we were prepared to hitch. We heard of a guy staying in the lodge who was driving to Lukwe that morning, so Adrian ran down to ask if we could join. I’m still not sure what went on with that, but it sounded like the people who owned the lodge were not really happy with backpackers like us trying to hitch a lift off the well-off customers who were paying lots of money to stay there and be catered for. We are definitely not the usual customers around this area – most people fly in, stay in chalets and have cooks to cater for them. Thing is, we were desperate and exhausted, I was sick, and we were running out of cash and food. There was only one person in this big car – don’t see what problem we would have caused by going as well.

So, I ended up having to fork out for a room that night, and moved in as soon as I could. We spent most of the morning drinking the free Rooibos tea, trying to get our money’s worth for this expensive place. Adrian camped again which caused a lot of confusion among the locals – “why aren’t you sharing a room with your wife? Have you had a fight?”. I slept most of the afternoon and then lay in a hot bath and had some soup delivered to me – which made me feel a whole lot better. Meanwhile, Adrian had been spending time in the compound which is where all the workers and rangers live, and he’d made several friends. We quickly realised here how welcoming, generous and helpful the local people were. Most tourists just fly in and stay in the little bubble of lodges and chalets, but if you actually interact with the local community they are very grateful for it and will welcome you. Steve and his wife Agnes invited us to their home for dinner that night after hearing about our food problems. Although there is a shop here, they have not much at all, so we would have been completely stuck (or living on biscuits) if it wasn’t for the kindness of these local people. They head out of the park to the nearest town about once a month when transport is provided, and buy everything for that month – sometimes growing their own veggies too. Agnes cooked such a nice meal and we ate while listening to Justin Bieber songs blasting from Steve’s speakers. They love JB over here. They’re a cool family, with two beautiful children. They refused to take any money from us and told us to come back whenever we wanted. After speaking with Agnes, I realised how low the wages are here. She earns 26,000MKW per month working for the lodge, which is about $35. Per MONTH! And I was paying $30 a night! It really shocked me; even though things are cheaper in Malawi, some things like transport are still pretty expensive and earning that little means no room for saving. I have noticed in most places in Malawi that the guesthouses that the tourists stay in are all owned by foreigners. Minimum wage in Malawi is 22,000MKW, so these foreigners can get away with paying their staff so little, but still charging Western prices for rooms, and where does the money go?… into these peoples’ pockets. Not into the Malawi economy. So I really doubt how much tourism is actually benefiting Malawi.

On a side note, I have recently found out that my project in July with International Service will now be in Malawi! I’m very excited to find out what my project will involve and hopefully I can do something about this problem. If some of the locals are given the skills to run and manage these tourist retreats, and at the same time tourists are encouraged to try local guesthouses and restaurants, it could benefit the country greatly.

Anyway, back to Nyika. After our meal we had to head back pretty quickly before it got to nighttime and the leopards started coming out. It was the nicest feeling having a bed, and there were so many blankets that it really got all the chill out of my bones. I felt much better the next day and packed up because me and Adrian were going to move to the guesthouse in the town, where the locals and researchers stay. It’s not really advertised to tourists – I think Wilderness Safaris have something to do with hushing it up although they don’t really have the right to – but because we’d been chatting to the locals we’d heard about it and it was so much cheaper. After taking some more advantage of the free tea at the lodge, we went over to town and moved in. It was such a nice place! I wish we’d found it from the beginning. We had the whole house to ourselves, with a fireplace, a kitchen with loads of cooking equipment, bathroom, living room and we each had our own room with double bed. Next door were living some researchers who were extremely intelligent, friendly and interesting people and who brought us round some vegetables, so we managed to cook up some rice and veggies. And luckily I had some tea bags with me so, with the fireplace, we could drink cup after cup. It was idyllic – the only problem was that because we didn’t know when we would be able to get out of this place, we felt a bit trapped.

Went for a couple of hours’ walking in the hills this day, and saw so many animals up close. The zebras are always my favourite, and the roan antelope are impressively huge. The reedbucks and bushbucks are common even around the compound. Things started to get exciting when we saw some very fresh leopard prints on the path. I know that leopards are not dangerous – except maybe if you’re on your own at night. Even the staff had said it was very safe to walk around. But, there is something about growing up in a country like England and thinking of Africa as this wild, untamed place full of dangerous animals out to kill you, that makes me very wary about everything here! Camping and walking around in national parks are a little bit scary for me. Adrian, who had grown up in Zimbabwe exploring the hills, camping amongst hyenas and lions, and canoeing down hippo-infested rivers, was totally unfazed by the leopard prints or the herd of roan that started running at us, or any of it. Animals here are smart – they know to stay out of people’s way. I think Africa is safer than a lot of us perceive it in the West. But obviously you just need to be aware of the dangers and stay out of potentially troublesome situations.

The rest of the day was chilled, we just settled into our new home and hung out by the fire. I started feeling ill again in the night and the next morning but I felt better after Adrian managed to find enough ingredients to make a Spanish omelette! Basically luxury food to us by this stage, with our limited supplies. We were spending so much time here going back and forth to the town and the lodge asking if any vehicles were going to Rumphi (or basically anywhere except here), but no luck. Adrian met a guy called Baxter who was convinced there was transport that day or the next, because his daughter was sick and his boss was going to give him transport out. This temporarily got our hopes up before we realised that Baxter was obviously an alcoholic and probably had no idea what he was talking about. This back-and-forth between hoping and then having our hopes crushed was really getting to us. Both of us had little moments that day where we got pretty grumpy. And we decided that if no lift happened tomorrow, we would pay to get out. This would burn the rest of our cash, but the longer we stayed here and paid for accommodation, the more our cash was running out anyway.

Spent the last night boiling big pots of water on the fire for a bath. There was no light in the bathroom but we managed to find a tiny candle. Adrian tried to make nsima for dinner after we were given maize flour by Charles, another local guy here. The friends we had made in the compound kept popping in and out to say hello. Looking back, the whole time in this little house surrounded by animals, nature, and awesome people was really a lovely few days. I wonder why I was in such a hurry to leave when all we needed in the world we had right there. I think sometimes I can be in a bit of a rush, when actually I should be stopping and appreciating what is already here. Malawi is teaching me to do this, to an even greater extent than any place I’ve visited before.

The journey out was really interesting with lots of different scenery. Some very rocky areas which would have been perfect for leopards, and shrubbery areas, and forests. One area had loads of elephant dung but we didn’t see the elephants themselves unfortunately. We were dropped at a random shop on the side of the dirt road – ‘main road’ apparently. We were assured there was frequent transport – maybe in 15 minutes’ time. This means nothing in Africa! Three hours later, we were still waiting, and starting to think of a Plan B in case we had to spend the night here. Baxter, full of maize beer, actually bought us some lunch and biscuits, and kept trying to ask about the transport because he knew we had to get to Mzuzu, so we were starting to warm to him. Finally the pick up truck arrived, and although it was really full, we ran after it desperately and waved our arms until it stopped and we squeezed onto the back. The back of the truck was full of young African men who were having a great time – laughing and joking together. They all found Baxter absolutely hilarious. I guess when you’re so squished up in other people’s personal space, it breaks down barriers and you kind of have to talk and joke together. Although, that sort of thing would never happen on the London Underground!

I was very surprised at how quickly the journey went. The sun was going down as we went along and it was really pretty – almost made me forget about how uncomfortable it all was. We were dropped in Bolero which was not far from Rumphi. By this point it was dark, but we really needed to get to Mzuzu because if we paid for a night here we wouldn’t have enough money to head on the next day. I knew someone in Mzuzu who would understand if we couldn’t pay straight away, so it would be OK. Our only real option was to hitch, because we couldn’t even afford to pay for a taxi! We walked up to the main road, and quickly realised how quiet it was – but to some enormous amount of luck, a truck turned out onto the road and stopped for us. It was the chief of a village nearby, who was heading home, but he saw how desperate we were and said he would take us to Rumphi if we just pitched in for petrol. From there we could get a matola to Mzuzu. So nice of him! We stopped in at his village and met his wife and kids, then he took us off. I promptly fell asleep, which was probably a good thing because Adrian said he slowly realised that this guy was really drunk, and was telling him that he had been driving non-stop for about 2 days with little sleep – I think I would have been pretty scared! We arrived safely anyway, and jumped straight on to a full minibus headed for Mzuzu. Funny how perfectly it all worked out, in the end. We had our doubts, but it was all OK. For most of the journey we were hearing these weird noises and thought it was the guy behind us being silly, when finally we found out that the noises were indistinguishably from a goat in the boot! Late at night and after a long day, it felt good to laugh. Africa, you’re brilliant.

When we arrived at the hostel we were starving, so despite the fact it was about 9:30pm, we had to go and find some food. The hostel was full of dogs, and we tried to close the gate to keep them in, but they just jumped straight over and followed us. Apparently they like white people. They walked alongside us the whole way, waited for us to have dinner, then walked us home. I was grateful for the company – no one was gonna mess with us when we have two big dogs either side of us. Now we were in Mzuzu and running a tab which we couldn’t pay, with basically no money left, we had to figure out a plan to get our bank cards back. We knew Auke from Lukwe was going to Mzuzu the next day, so we texted him to ask if he could bring our stuff. No reply that night, and no reply the next morning either, so we were a bit worried. We decided later on to see if we could get a family member to transfer money to us using MoneyGram, and we could get it out using a PIN. As we were standing in the mall, the timing could not have been more perfect as we saw Auke walking past! We ran up to him in sudden elation. As we thought, he had never received our messages – connection is just so temperamental here. He offered us a lift back to Lukwe with him, even though it took rearranging his whole car and all the stuff he’d picked up in Mzuzu! It was just the strangest coincidence and the best luck to run into him.

We had to take the back road back to Lukwe because a bridge had broken on the main road. Because of all the rain, this road was really muddy and we would have been stuck for sure if Auke hadn’t had years of experience with this kind of thing. We went back in a convoy with some other travellers who wanted to stay at Lukwe and had their own car, and they got stuck several times, so it was lucky we were there to help. Not that I did much helping, because I have no clue about this kind of thing. It was well after dark when we arrived. It felt so good driving up the path to Lukwe – kind of like going home. Beer and dinner with Adrian and the two girls who had driven with us, who were doing research here in Malawi. I put on a dress to feel a bit human again after all the hiking and dampness and dirty clothes. Of course the tent leaked again in the night and a few towels had to be sacrificed to mop up the water. The next morning was slow – had a nice breakfast and some fresh juice and sat on the swing overlooking everything. A little butterfly hung out with us for most of the morning. It was time to say goodbye to Adrian for now; I was keen to get to Nkhata Bay for some lake activities and he wanted to spend some more time at Livingstonia. We’d been through a lot together so it was a sad goodbye. It’s rare to find such a good travel companion and someone you get on with so well.

Hiking through Nyika’s grasslands

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Nyika National Park, Malawi

Day One – ready for Nyika! We were up early and had a substantial breakfast to prepare ourselves. Auke was kind enough to lend us his water filter and to lend me a backpack. Everything else we already had. Henry would be our guide and we both had a lot of respect for him – he had previously been a park ranger, and carried a gun, which was extremely big and heavy. We each had a big backpack containing everything we would need for the next 3 days – clothes, cooking stuff, food, tent, sleeping bags, jumpers for the night. Today we walked a fair way along the main road – we wouldn’t actually get inside the park until the following morning, so today we were still in ‘civilisation’ as such. We stopped off at Henry’s very cute house near the town, where he geared up and we met his daughter Maureen, who at just 16 years old was coming with us, as she would be going to a school in Chelinda, which is the small town in Nyika. Over the next few days of being with her, I began to think of her as an inspiration. She spoke no English, but just hiking with her was enough to be in awe of her. No complaints, no fuss, she led most of the way in little ballet pumps, carrying her bag on her head, and was extremely strong and fit. She will have to do this walk at the beginning of every term, and will have to walk back at the end.

We walked to Livingstonia again and then onwards, finally heading off the muddy road into little side paths overlooking fields of maize. Henry, an older guy who had been in the area for many years, seemed to know everyone, and stopped to chat to many people! Kids popped out of little houses to say hello; not many people do this hike, so it’s probably quite rare for them to see tourists. In this area of Malawi most of the English the kids know revolves around asking for stuff. So they will say “give me pen” or “give me bottle”. They either want your bottle just to play with, or because they potentially get money for recycling them – I’m not sure. Some of the way through the fields, we were joined by three teenage girls, serenely carrying big bundles of produce on their heads. Whilst we sweated and struggled, they kept walking in perfect poise. We saw some really young kids carrying things. No wonder Africans are so strong and have so much stamina when they are doing it from such a young age. It’s very impressive what they can do here; walking for days to sell produce or to herd cows, and just sleeping in the open along the way, is nothing for a lot of these villagers.

I saw tobacco fields for the first time today, and tobacco plants are so pretty! I think they are my favourite crop in this area, besides tea – basing this on aesthetic value alone. It felt like a long day today, and I wasn’t used to carrying a big bag, but finally we made it to our campsite near a coffee plantation. I was proud of myself. We were by a beautiful stream which we could use for washing and drinking, although the water was dirty here so we used the filter. The stream was refreshing and cold. We cooked over a fire that Henry prepared for us – pasta and tomatoes, with curry powder for flavour. Nicer than it sounds. Henry cooked for his daughter and helped her with her tent, which was really sweet, because sometimes the men are a bit lazy here!

Unfortunately the night was rather sleepless, mainly because the tent leaked! The rain was relentless for a lot of the night and maybe we hadn’t prepared the tent properly or it just wasn’t perfectly waterproof, but we ended up trying to sleep in-between the parts of the tent that were dripping, while at the same time avoiding the small floods that had formed! So some very weird sleeping positions. Everything we owned was damp by now and it would remain that way for the next few days, as we had to stuff it all into our bags during the day!

Day 2 was an early start. The distance was not crazy far but it was all steep uphill today so it would be difficult. I decided to hire a porter today because of the climbing we would be doing; I didn’t want to tire myself out before the last day which would be the longest. Having a porter also meant we could give him the heavy stuff so Adrian had a lighter bag too. The porter was a champion; no problems with the bag and most of the day he was well ahead of all of us. Henry struggled with the hills – he’s getting old, and he’s had a pretty tough life as a ranger, so I’m surprised he’s still doing this at all. Four steep hills in total today, and because of the change in altitude there were massive scenery changes. After entering the park boundary, we saw hills covered in forest (the trees outside of the park boundary have all been cut, right up to the boundary line… which is pretty sad), then we climbed into misty meadows with sparse, bare trees – there were lots of unusual plants here that all smelt nice. After reaching the top of a very high hill, we were surprised to find a herd of cows up there! They looked just as surprised to see us. From this hill we could see Chombe, Livingstonia, and the lake, where black clouds of flies congregated. This weird formation of flies on Lake Malawi is actually on the first series of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, so pretty cool to see! We could feel it getting cooler now. The last part of the day we reached the smooth, hilly grasslands of the plateau. Pockets of forests existed in the lower parts of the hills, where they could survive with water from the streams. Apart from that, it was too cold and too barren for trees – although that’s not to say there was no life. Widow birds – tiny black creatures with long, ribbon-like tails – flitted in and out of the grass catching bugs, caterpillars of all colours and sizes were everywhere, and every so often we saw a lone, brightly coloured flower poking out of the sea of green.

We arrived at the campsite pretty early. This gave us time to wash in the stream and try to dry some clothes in the sun. We then took great care in putting up our tent, hoping it wouldn’t leak. The site was beautiful, with views of the grasslands. I napped for a bit and woke up to a herbal cup of tea from Adrian and Henry – they had found a plant that tasted kind of lemony and made a good cup. It started to get cold and rainy later on, so we huddled around the fire, cooked some dinner and then wrapped ourselves up in clothes and sleeping bags. We had a lengthy discussion about where best to put all the food scraps, because there are hyenas around here. I wasn’t sure about keeping them in the tent in case the hyenas somehow got in, but there wasn’t really anywhere else to put them, so we had no choice. I don’t think hyenas could easily slash a tent, but I made sure to tell Henry to keep his gun handy just in case.

Last day! Rolling hills, grasslands and streams were the theme of today. I was carrying the bag again, and it was tough – lots of ups and downs, although not as extreme as the day before. We couldn’t see anything else for miles; Malawi is a very populated country, so it was really nice to see this amount of wilderness. As we began to get closer to camp we started seeing reedbuck and a couple of warthog. It was a really long day; maybe 8 hours of walking. Very close to Chelinda we began to see all kinds of grazing animals; huge eland and roane, zebra, and all other kinds of antelope. They were everywhere! I wonder if they are all around this area because there are more rangers to stop them from being poached. We were near the end now – the last bit of the walk was through an eerie pine forest with creaky trees. Then we emerged into… civilisation! Warmly greeted by the people at Wilderness Safaris, offered a comfy seat by a roaring fire and a cup of tea, whilst people took our bags off us and congratulated us. Luxury! My feet were just about finished, having been permanently damp for three days, so they took prime place by the fire and stung as they dried out. We said farewell to Maureen, who looked very happy to be finished – she had started getting sick the last couple of days. Henry we would see again, as we hoped to find transport back to Livingstonia together.

I think we both had wishful thinking that a room here wouldn’t be too expensive, but after hearing it was $30 each (!) we reluctantly agreed that we would have to camp. Even the campsite was $10, but it did have hot showers heated by a wood-burner, and a shelter, and – the best thing – a herd of zebra literally right on our doorstep! Other animals were also nearby, but nothing beats the zebra. The view, especially when the sun started to go down, was literally incredible. We cooked on the fire; curry flavoured pasta again! Tried to dry some things by the fire but it didn’t really work, and then the night was very wet, windy and cold again. We were both craving warmth so badly. We heard hyenas cackling in the distance and some grazing animal galloping very close to our tent. Unfortunately I woke up in the middle of the night very ill. Being in a tent, whilst it’s torrential rain outside and there are hyenas and leopards around, and needing to be sick, is not ideal! I am still not sure why I was sick, perhaps just exhaustion and the dampness. Adrian and I had eaten exactly the same food and drank from the same places, and he was fine, so I just don’t know. We were under a shelter but the tent was still getting wet from underneath, and all our clothes hanging up under the shelter had fallen and were soaking again! (This rain at night seems to be a thing in Northern Malawi and I actually can’t count how many times now we’ve woken up to a leaky tent or a puddle on the floor – every time it’s from a different place! Sometimes it’s stressful and other times you just have to laugh just because you’re so helpless and it is kind of funny).

Our little Nyika excursion ended up being a bit longer than planned due to transport issues, more on that in the next blog. Our big hike was completed though, and possibly the best three days I’ve had in Africa so far. Three days in absolute wilderness, no people, no electronics, and telling the time by using the sun – eating when we’re hungry, sleeping when we’re tired, waking up when it gets light. It does good things to you.

Some days of beautiful hiking in the mountains

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Livingstonia, Malawi

I got the pick-up truck/bus back from Livingstonia the following morning, and this time I didn’t get the front seat, but was squished up in the back, in the rain – back to Chitimba, where I was hopeful to sort out a hike to Nyika National Park. Nyika sounded awe-inspiring, with vast grasslands, forests and many grazing animals. If I could get to Chelinda in the west of the park, I could hike for three days through the park back to Livingstonia, where I could spend some time recuperating in one of the eco-lodges around Livingstonia. I stayed at the cheaper lodge in Chitimba this time, called Hakuna Matata, and met the owner – Willie from South Africa. It was his 70th birthday, and he had a few friends over who also lived in Malawi, so I spent the afternoon with them, listening to their stories of Malawi and travelling in general. I find more and more during my travels here that to listen to others is a lot more fulfilling than talking. Foreigners in Africa are always interesting. It’s not a normal place to visit – everyone has an inspiring story as to why they are here.

As it turned out, one of the guests, Auke from Belgium, owned Lukwe Lodge which is near Livingstonia. He knew a guide who could take me on the walk, but unfortunately it was not possible to go from Chelinda to Livingstonia, because the Chelinda side was owned by a company that would charge a lot of money per day of walking. So I would have to do it in reverse to avoid the fees. This meant I would have to go back up the hill in that old pick-up truck, and I would stay at Lukwe Camp while I sorted out the hike. First I had to do an ATM run back to Karonga in the north; ATMs are scarce here and I was going to run out of money. Bit of a nuisance but it was only about an hour away. I spent the night there and even ended up finding some working WiFi for the first time in Malawi. After getting back, I quickly made my way up to Lukwe and arrived just before dusk. When arriving at Lukwe, my whole body and mind just breathed a sigh of relief. It was an amazing place! To get there you walk through a quiet forest, and then the common area and lodges are carefully crafted from wood, and overhang one of the mountains, with views over forests, waterfalls, lone houses and farmlands, beach and lake. Any description or even pictures I give will not do it justice – it is a fantastic location. I had my own little hut with open glass windows and a balcony, so I could sit in bed and watch the sun rising or setting, and witness the world going by.

The rain comes in small patches up here, so you can often see them coming. That first night I sat under the shelter, drinking a beer and indulging in chocolate (hadn’t seen that for a long time!), as and listening to the rain suddenly arrive on the roof, then suddenly stop again, then begin, and so on. Even when it doesn’t rain, you can always hear the sound of running water from the many waterfalls. The next morning I met Auke again and we discussed Nyika. It would take a couple of days to sort out, and I would now have company, in the form of Adrian from Zimbabwe who I had met the previous week in Mbeya. We both seemed to enjoy hiking and getting into the wilderness, so I had invited him and he would be reaching Lukwe later that day. I was keen to get out and about after all the admin stuff I’d done the last couple of days, so Auke directed me on a long hike to Chombe Mountain and then back through farmlands. I started off in the forest, where I got lost a few times but I didn’t really mind – then came into a tiny village (by ‘village’ I mean a collection of mud huts), then I had to find my way to Chombe Plateau through the hilly farmlands. People here have crazy agriculture and grow their crops on the steep slopes of the mountain – I guess there is limited flat space, but all the felling of trees and tampering with the land causes a lot of landslides. So I was clambering over fallen trees and bushes, after being directed in this direction, wondering why there wasn’t a clear path when I got called back by some of the locals who had been watching me in disbelief – what is this weird tourist doing. Turns out there was a path, and it was just the start that wasn’t clear. Once I had been put on the right path, it was easy to find the top, although a very steep final ascent. Then I came to some rocks, and after pulling myself up I was on the plateau! The first sight was breathtaking – the lake was so clear and blue that I could have been by the sea on a Caribbean island. The plateau jutted out and around and then fell steeply into forest and finally into the beach and villages below. I was so lucky to get a break in the clouds while I was up there which gave me a perfect view. Actually, the whole day had been clear, despite the foreboding rain that morning at breakfast. Sitting up there, on the edge of a huge drop, was exhilarating (not too close to the edge, don’t worry guys). I then looped around back to Lukwe, via hills and farmland, which was also really pretty and there were these bright yellow flowers everywhere. Reddish-brown mud roads, dark green forests, light green fields of maize, and yellow flowers – what I was seeing could have been an oil painting. The sound of kids singing travelled for miles. Something for school or for church, I’m not sure, but it was done in beautiful harmony.

After running out of water, I tried to find some at the few shops that existed, but all they had was this luminous orange fizzy stuff, or alcohol! Orange fizzy stuff it is. I had to speed-walk the last couple of hours because I was worried about it getting dark, but luckily I made it back just in time. It was really nice to see Adrian that evening and we did a lot of talking – I think both of us felt a bit deprived of muzungu company. It happens in these regions. There was still a lot we wanted to do around Lukwe so we were happy to sort out Nyika slowly and in the meantime do some exploring. So the following day we hiked again – our plan was to get to the top of some hills for a nice view, but we were pretty relaxed about where we ended up. The first part of the walk was along the road, and due to all the rain we had been having (relentless every night, and often patches in the day too), the road was pretty muddy. I actually don’t know how we managed to cross over all this mud – it was really deep and squishy and wet. It wasn’t without a struggle that we finally made it off the road and escaped down a village path. Our shoes were covered in the stuff and even a good wash in the stream didn’t get rid of it.

Afterwards we just found some paths up into the hills, to get some gorgeous views of the landscape and lake. Occasionally the path would open up and we’d be in someone’s back garden and get looks of surprise. But people don’t care here when you’re on their property – they’re not as possessive as we are in the west – so we mainly got welcoming greetings. One guy even led us through his whole field of maize to show us how to get to the top of one of the hills. It was really steep and slippery and I struggled, and got laughed at by all the local kids for whom this walk is second nature.

We got back not too late and had a lovely local dinner of nsima and vegetables at a small place on the main road near Lukwe. Nsima is the same as ugali in Tanzania or posho in Uganda, and is made from maize flour. It looks a bit like mashed potato but definitely doesn’t taste like it. It seems to be the staple food in all of East and Southern Africa. You can eat it with your hands, but it still gets pretty messy so they always bring round water for you to wash afterwards. We had made a decision to begin our Nyika hike soon, so we would spend the following day in Livingstonia buying supplies, and then would leave early the day after. Not wanting to destroy any more pairs of shoes with this sticky mud, and remembering that Livingstonia was just as bad, I walked up barefoot. This raised many questions from curious locals – “Why are you barefoot?” “What happened to your shoes?” – I would have thought Africans would find it normal, but I think people in Malawi are actually very well-dressed, and most of them had at least flip flops on. We found quite a lot that was easy to carry and to make. Porridge for breakfast (maize porridge… interesting), and rice or pasta with soy and tomatoes for dinner. All ready… we were excited.