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.