Stuck in the wild – there are worse places to be

 

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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

 

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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

 

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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.

A border crossing and a small mission town

 

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Livingstonia, Malawi

After Tukuyu and all the tea plantation fun, I boarded a bus headed for the Malawi border. As soon as I hopped on a bus it left, which I was surprised about because normally they wait until they are bursting with people. But very soon, after picking up people from little villages on the way, the bus was full! Amazing countryside on the way down – just so green, sometimes foresty and other times full of agriculture (and more tea!). Kyela was the border town, and I braced myself for scams. Actually the first guy to talk to me was called Eric, and said he had an office where I could change shillings to Malawian Kwacha. I was obviously suspicious, but asked his rate and managed to haggle the rate down – he said his office was right by the border, so I figured I might as well follow him there and if I wasn’t happy with it, I could refuse. He even carried my big backpack for me, and it was at least a 15-minute walk. And actually it was all very legit and I got a good rate, as well as having someone to help me find the border crossing, so it was perfect. The Tanzanian border was easy and quick, and then about a kilometre to walk to the Malawi border. The visa application took a bit longer on this side, and I was stung by the incredibly expensive visa ($75 for just one month) but I will just have to make Malawi worth it. No problems getting the visa, they just took their time over it. Soon I was in a minibus to Chitimba which would be my first, brief stopover. Malawi has even more police checks than the other parts of Africa I’ve been to and at one point we all had to get out of the bus and walk across the checkpoint while the bus was searched and then met us on the other side. It also didn’t take me long to notice that Malawi was frustratingly slow – even more slow than Uganda or Tanzania. I waited in the minibus at Karonga (the first town in the north) for about an hour and a half for it to fill up with people, as a lot of people got off at Karonga. It was so, so painful to just sit there and occasionally drive around the town honking at people to get their attention, or listen to the driver revving his engine, also to get people’s attention. He would not leave until it was completely full. This is a big problem in Karonga and I’ve heard of people waiting three hours for their bus to fill up.

I could have cried with happiness when we finally pulled out from the town. It had been a long day. Shortly I had my first view of Lake Malawi! It looked perfect. Shortly after, the bus pulled into a lakeside town and was filled with people and big baskets of fish, so we had a nice fishy smell with us for the rest of the journey. Chitimba was a very small place – just a few tiny shops and two beachside camps. Not really any supermarket, restaurant or similar. The attraction is basically that it is a nice place to relax by the beach, and it is close to Livingstonia, which is a mission town with a lot of history and nice hiking in the surrounding area. As I walked down the local village road to the camps, I was greeted by several men, women and children – people in Malawi are so friendly and happy to see travellers. They are still very money-orientated (come to my shop/I can be your tour guide/etc.), but here it also feels like they are interested in you, and willing to help you out. Several local children took me by the hands and led me down the road.

It had been about a week since I’d had proper wifi so I stayed in Chitimba Camp, which was slightly more expensive than its neighbour but was the only place in town with wifi. I was later informed that the wifi wasn’t working. I would soon come to realise that this is very typical in Malawi. Wifi never, ever works here. Even in internet cafes, the internet often seems to be not working. Really, the only option is to buy a sim card and use internet on your phone. For uploading blogs, I will just have to try my best. Anyway, I had a relaxed evening in the camp, briefly checked out the lake and the sunset, and had a very nice morning – there was a big cycling group staying at the camp also, who were doing a cycling tour from Cairo to Cape Town. I sat with them for breakfast and they were a lot of fun to talk to. Shortly after, I decided to get up to Livingstonia. I was keen to move on from Chitimba actually, because it really didn’t offer much. It’s a place to rest and recover, but feels very isolated and even the beach isn’t the best for swimming or activities.

Livingstonia is a misson town that was set up by Robert Laws in memory of David Livingstone, who played a big part in eradicating the slave trade in this area. There were two previous settlements at Cape Maclear and Bandawe, but due to the dangers of Africa (malaria, wild animals), the mission moved up here to this sanctuary – high enough that malaria was not a problem. Robert Laws worked here for 52 years, set up a very good school here and Livingstonia developed into a town. It’ a quiet, friendly place with shady trees, occasional monkeys, a large student population and red brick buildings.

I really wanted to do the 15km walk up to the town, but occasionally travellers have been mugged, and as a girl by myself, I didn’t want to take my chances. What’s sad about this area, especially in Chitimba, the men just seem to be drunk a lot of the time. Actually I’ve noticed so far during my time in Northern Malawi that there seems to be a big alcohol problem in a lot of places. They’ve got nothing to do, so they just get drunk. Meanwhile the women are looking after the children, working on the farm, doing the laundry, cooking dinner… it’s really a problem in a lot of Africa. So I was sitting waiting for the ‘bus’ (questionable word for what takes you up that mountain), and all the men were stumbling around completely out of it, swigging some local brew from a plastic bottle, at ten in the morning. So yeah, unfortunately I didn’t feel safe to walk up by myself, where I wouldn’t have the other townsfolk to protect me if any of these drunk men tried something.

We waited for the ‘bus’ for maybe two hours. I met Victoria while waiting, who is at Livingstonia University. She was a little giggly and shy but also very cool and I was a bit in awe of her trendy attitude and well-styled hair. So the ‘bus’ is basically an old, rickety pick-up truck, in which many people have to squeeze into the open-air back of the truck, clinging on in any way they can, normally accompanied by bags of flour and other necessities – it’s the only way to get things up to this town. The driver saw me and immediately offered me the front seat. This often happens in dallas as well (I think they are called matolas here), and I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a girl, or because of my skin colour, or both, but in this situation I was extremely happy to be fairly safe and under cover because with the bumpy and windy road, hanging onto the back of a truck would have felt a bit scary!

I actually spent a lot of the first day walking back and forth from town trying to get my phone sorted out. I had bought a local sim card but the data didn’t seem to be working and it was frustrating me, especially as it was Mother’s Day and I couldn’t get hold of mum to send her my wishes. Life moves slow up here, so when I decided to have lunch, the wait for the food took up most of the afternoon. I finally got my sim card sorted out and headed back to Stone House which is where I was staying that night – sat with a cup of tea and watched the sun set over the lake.

The next day, it was time to explore Livingstonia. After some really yummy pancakes, I looked around the museum which is in Stone House. Stone House was Law’s place of residence here and it is a pretty place. The museum talks about the missionary movement up in Livingstonia and the Europeans who came over. It also had some of Law’s old things and a bunch of projector slides that were used in the school and were very cool – mainly showing geographical locations. My favourite part of the museum was when there was some kind of conflict going on in Africa and the Europeans in Livingstonia were sent a message from home, asking if they needed to be rescued due to the conflict. They were to write YES or NO and when the helicopter flew over they would see. The Europeans were actually very happy in Livingstonia and there were no problems; they wanted to somehow convey this to their home countries. So, they wrote out on the ground a bible verse, which was about how it is possible for people with differences to live together freely and peacefully. This conveyed a powerful message to their home countries; they were living in harmony together.

Afterwards I popped into the David Gordon Memorial Hospital. It is supposed to be one of the best hospitals in the region so I was interested to see what it was like. I was interrogated a bit when I went into reception, out of interest rather than as a formality – but the questions I get asked here always feel a bit like I’m being interrogated, I think mainly because most of them I can’t answer! Where do you live, what is your job, how long are you staying here, where are you going next are all common questions that I have no clear answer for. Anyway, the hospital staff were very kind and said the matron could take me around some areas of the hospital. He pointed out the wards and showed me the area for friends and family of the patients. Unfortunately due to lack of funding, the hospital doesn’t provide any food or supplies for the patients, so it is up to relations to bring them things and cook for them. I can see how this causes problems – Livingstonia is pretty remote and difficult to get to or from. Apparently most mothers in this region will come and stay in the hospital when they are 8 months pregnant, so they are there ready for labour. It’s not so easy to rush to the hospital here when you need to! I do wonder who looks after them while they are there though, because I didn’t see any men in the family area, and men here don’t generally do things like cooking anyway.

I gave a small donation to the hospital and moved on to the other sights of the town. The houses along the main road (if you can call it that) were so pretty – brick with plenty of plants and flowers outside. They are mainly for lecturers and people who work at the hospital. There are farmers who live up here also, but they tend to live a bit away from the road. There is a lovely old clock tower near the technical college, and further down is the market with lots of fish, fruit and vegetables, as well as a few restaurants. After wandering up and down this street a few times, I now realised I recognised a lot of the locals! It’s a small place. The university was at the other end of the town and I was meeting Victoria there in the afternoon – she would show me around her campus. Nearby was the church so I popped in to see. It was very beautiful; simple but in no way plain, with a lovely stained glass window showing David Livingstone, as well as an old-school tapestry of the Ten Commandments. I sat for some time and enjoyed the peace of the place, before the caretaker came in for a chat. He was very nice actually, but a bit too demanding of money, which I was reluctant to give.

Livingstonia University was quaint and picturesque, with brick archways and courtyards with vines, flowers and the kinds of chairs and tables that you might expect from a British tea party. There were no lectures that day because the lecturers were on strike, so there were parties and dancing going on in the common rooms. The lecture rooms were big, and the facilities seemed very good. There are fees for coming here, which are not cheap especially in Malawi terms, so I guess you have to be from a reasonably well-off family to come here. As Livingstonia is a mission town, there is no alcohol allowed and so it is a quiet and conservative place – I told Victoria what students were like in England and said that they were very different to the students here, but she said a lot of the students here also drink and even more, but it is very hush-hush; if they are found out, they get expelled from the university. We had a pretty lengthy chat about boys, our aspirations for the future, marriage and kids, etc. She could be a good friend I think.

I was staying one more night at Stone House, and I had a really nice evening with a Swiss guy… who had also been in Livingstonia for a couple of days but was staying elsewhere before. He had come down to Malawi through Northern Africa and it was very interesting to hear about his travels through Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The countries sound fascinating, with a culture that is rich and tangible – I sometimes find that the culture in sub-Saharan Africa, although very special, can be hard to grasp or fully immerse yourself in. I will have to get to Northern Africa one day for sure.

Tukuyu’s tea tour

 

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Tukuyu, Tanzania

I was in Tukuyu and we were going on a full day tea tour… it was actually classified as a half-day tour, but this is Africa, and things are slow, and people are often late. Anyway, from the dalla-dalla stop it was about an hour’s walk to the main tea plantation that we would be looking around. However, there were loads of other smaller plantations on the way, as well as avocado trees and other crops, so we were given lots of information as we walked. This region could be a lot wealthier if it just focused on one crop, such as tea, but people here tend to grow many crops because they want to be self-sufficient. Feeding your family is more important than having money here. Also, growing one crop is risky.

Most of the tea plantations are privately owned by farmers, and they sell it to tea companies and then it is exported to many countries including Britain, via Mombasa. The fair trade company Tea Direct gives back a percentage of the profit every year to the farmers and the community. The money given to the community often goes to schools and the like. Buying fair trade tea is really important for the livelihoods of these people and for the development of the communities.

Here, it is only black tea that is produced. Green tea is made from the same plant, but takes longer, and this is a third-world country so they prefer to make tea that is cheaper to buy and quicker to make. It is only the soft, newer leaves that are picked – the hard leaves do not taste as nice, and the tea will not be as good quality. This region is perfect for tea because the soil is volcanic.

Despite my blisters from yesterday, it was lovely walking amongst the plantations and hearing all about my favourite drink. We soon reached the huge plantation which I think is owned by a German. Typical – the big companies are often owned by foreigners! First we saw the houses where the tea farmers who worked for this company would live, and then the plantation emerged in front of us. Miles and miles and miles of tea, covering the valley like a blanket, with the mountains as a border. Spectacular. We saw the long roots of the tea plants and learnt that the plants can live for a surprisingly long time.

Later that day, we hopped on a bus and back in the direction of Tukuyu, where we were visiting a tea factory! After waiting for about an hour for the person in charge to get back from his lunch-break (standard Africa), we donned some very fashionable white robes, complete with hat, and walked into the factory. I found it all very exciting. First we saw the bags of tea leaves bundled up and moving along a conveyor belt, where they were spread out in big lines over a mesh. There was something below the mesh that helped to dry the leaves by blowing air on them – it took many hours to dry them. There were so many stages to get the tea dried and into particles ready for shipping or consumption. Then they went onto a moving platform where, slowly and in stages, they were dried – you could see the colour gradually change from green to brown after each new drying stage. It took days to dry out the particles completely. It was really loud in this section of the factory with all the machines whirring. After, there were some huge silver vats where I think the tea was stored for another day or so to dry it out even further. It has to be really dry, this tea! Then, there was a machine that manufactured several different styles of tea – some were course, some very refined, depending on how people like it. Some were also designed to be made into tea bags. At the end there was a taste test; there was I think about 9 different styles, and each one would be tested to check it is good quality and the drying process has been sufficient. When the batch has been tested, it is bagged up ready for shipping, which often goes on from Mombasa. I don’t think my explanation is that good, because it is hard to remember all the information, but our guide did such a good job of explaining the process and I had so much fun looking round the factory. I love seeing how things are made and processed, especially things that are so everyday for me. It reminds me of the rice tour I did in Laos which was also very interesting. After the factory it was time to head back to Tukuyu and have dinner with the tour company manager who had also come along that day. He took us to a little outdoor restaurant by the bus station which was super cheap and also had a really nice tomato and onion salad along with the standard beans and rice. Vegetables are severely lacking with meals here, so I was very happy for it!

Hiking in the Southern Highlands

 

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Mbeya, Tanzania

It was soon time to leave the easy life of Zanzibar and return to the challenges (but also rewards) of the mainland. My next stop would be Mbeya, near the border of Malawi and Zambia, and I did this journey in stages. First stage was to go back to Stone Town via dalla-dalla, which was quicker than I thought, although rather squished. I stayed the night there, had a nice sunset stroll along the beach-side market, and the next day caught the ferry to Dar es Salaam. It was only about 2 hours to the city, and you were able to sit on deck, so it was a pleasant journey and we got a nice view of Dar as we got closer.

I was staying a bit out of the city, in-between the ferry port and the airport, for ease – because I was flying to Mbeya the next day. From what I’ve experienced so far, African cities are nothing special and so I hadn’t planned any time in Dar es Salaam – people I had spoken to said it was not really worth a visit. But on the journey to my hostel, it actually looked like a rather nice city. And it’s a beachside city, which also made it more attractive. I kind of wished I’d spent a day or two looking around. At least the hostel was nice, in a grassy area with its own restaurant. Nice place to catch up with blogging, reading and exercise. I had a flight to Mbeya the next afternoon. I had booked a flight to avoid the notoriously long and delayed bus and train journeys – funnily enough the flight ended up being delayed too, but only by a couple of hours.

Wow – the view as we descended into Mbeya was gorgeous. Hilly and emerald green, I already liked it here. My check-in to the hotel and subsequent wander around the town only furthered the immediate affection I had for the place. The nearby Loleza and Mbeya Peaks were a lovely addition to the scenery, and the altitude meant a welcome break from the heat and humidity (I don’t think I’ve had air con the whole time I’ve been on this continent… so being anything other than hot and sweaty was an unusual sensation). The town was very easy to navigate, despite my hopelessness at directions. What was most of a relief however was that no one was shouting at me, or staring at me, or trying to sell me something, or being creepy or rude. People were just being normal. And really, so far I’ve not had a great impression of Tanzanians, which is part of the reason I haven’t lingered, but now I realise this is because I have just been in the touristy places. It is so refreshing to be able to walk down the street lost in my own thoughts without being distracted and harassed! And the people here are really lovely and helpful too.

I had a slow start the next day after a rough night of sleeping in a hotel beside a busy bus station. It was to be expected. I asked for some fruit with breakfast and was given this enormous plate with banana, pineapple and apple – enough for three people I think! Unwisely, I ate the whole thing – the pineapple and banana here is so tasty that I just couldn’t stop myself. I felt it in my stomach the rest of that day, but it was totally worth it. I love how fruit is just everywhere here (wish there were more vegetables though). Then I decided to try and climb Loleza Peak. “It’s hard to find,” the locals said. “Take a guide,” I was advised. But rather than pay $20 to walk with someone when actually I like walking by myself, I thought I would just wander, and see where I ended up. All very safe around here – villages, and farmlands, and friendly local people. It was really a beautiful walk and I couldn’t stop myself smiling to find that I was alone, not being haunted by cries of ‘muzungu!’, and in beautiful quiet farmlands and hills.

I just walked straight from my hotel, and first came to the outskirts of the town, then my instinct was to just walk uphill. The locals were very helpful whenever I asked for Loleza Peak, and I could tell I was heading in the right direction – I think I would have made it if it weren’t for the foreboding black cloud drifting in my direction, accompanied by warning sounds of thunder. Which I probably shouldn’t have ignored! I just kept plodding on up the mountain when suddenly the heavens opened and I was wetter than if I’d jumped into a swimming pool. The raincoat didn’t help much. It was cold, I was wearing shorts, and the path had become a fast-flowing river of mud. And I was halfway up a mountain! Not ideal. I made it down, but not without getting very wet and muddy. I spent the rest of the day wrapped up in bed trying to get warm, eating crisps and watching TV. Went out for dinner, still in a jumper, and met two other travellers from England. It’s reassuring to find other travellers in places like this, which is a bit off the tourist trail. It can get pretty lonely otherwise.

The following day I headed into Tukuyu which is a town, smaller than Mbeya, about an hour’s south – near to the Malawian border. In my hurry to get off the bus, I actually ended up getting off at the wrong place, where a straggle of shops by the side of the road had deceived me into thinking I was in a town. As normal, I was swarmed by locals trying to offer their motorbike-taxi services. As I realised my situation, this was one time when I really needed them. Instead of staying in Tukuyu town, I decided to stay very close to this random place I’d been dropped off, at Bongo Campground which is a campsite run by the local village. They have tents for hire and some information about the area. All very friendly people. I dropped off my stuff and headed into Tukuyu town by walking; it was about 5km. People here see less tourists that Mbeya, which is the transit town to Zambia and Malawi, so I was getting stared at and shouted at again, but I tried to ignore it and enjoy the beautiful views of the green, lush, hilly region. Tea plantations dominated here, and they are very pretty – they almost glow with their shiny green leaves. Once in Tukuyu, I set to work to try and find someone to take me to Mount Rungwe, which is the highest peak in the area at 2981m. It is a long day hike. I met a German couple who also wanted to go up, so we ended up going together with a guide.

I love staying in campgrounds, even if I’m not camping because the big grassy areas mean I can exercise in relative peace. So I spent the evening exercising, and was joined by the kids from the village who were at first confused at what this strange white person was doing, and then found it hilarious and joined in with everything. They wouldn’t do the squats though. It’s official – squats are the worst.

The next day I realised that the tours and organisation here are very rough around the edges – nothing like the smart safari vans and English-speaking guides that take you round the Serengeti! They don’t have the tourists or the demand to refine their trips. This didn’t bother me, because it meant the trips were cheap, and kind of more authentic Africa! We had spent about an hour the night before just waiting at the booking office with the guide, for someone to show up and take our money. Then I was told I would be picked up at 9am as the campsite is on the way to the mountain. This seemed late to me because it was a full day hike, but I just went with it. Half an hour late, the guide and the other two travellers showed up, in a crowded dalla-dalla! It was a short ride to the entrance of the mountain, where the guide informed us we would have to take a motorbike taxi to the top. We weren’t told about this the day before, and I wasn’t too happy because the road was not good, not to mention there were no passenger helmets, but I didn’t really have a choice. I asked the driver if I could wear his helmet which made me feel a bit better. I know it’s a bit mean, but they actually drive a lot more safely if they don’t have a helmet on.

The guy who took me had obviously never been up this road before and was really struggling with it, so we took a long time getting up. Then the guide had some kind of argument in Swahili with the farmers at the entrance to the park. I think they were trying to make him pay an entrance fee. So by the time we started walking, it was almost 11am! I figured we would be lucky to get out in daylight. Most of the walk was through forest, with occasional monkey and bird calls. The main wildlife we experienced were tsetse flies, but they weren’t as annoying as I thought they’d be. The first part of the walk was pretty flat, and we were confused as to how we would climb up to nearly 3000m if it was like this all the way. We quickly realised that an easy start meant we suffered for it later! After a quick lunch break the path became relentlessly steep – the only change was that every so often it became even steeper. It was a really, really tough climb, made worse by the fact that the guide kept telling us it was only another half hour, only to tell us after the half hour that it was another half hour! No people had climbed up since January and the path was overgrown, so we had to climb over fallen trees, hold our arms up to avoid the poisonous leaves, and the like. After the forest zone it became like a savannah, and the trees cleared – but the clouds had also arrived so we couldn’t see much. The guide kept telling us that we could see the top now as encouragement, but it still looked very far off to me.

After another painful couple of hours, including an amazing final push where we could suddenly see the rolling hills below us, we were at the top! A graffiti-ridden sign informed us we were at the highest point in the Southern Highlands. It really felt good. The first thing we all did was sit down and get out some snacks. It was an amazing spot – no trees up there, just grass and loads of colourful little flowers. And the clouds had partially cleared for us! The Southern Highlands is made up of ancient volcanoes. The last time Mount Rungwe erupted was 100 million years ago, but it’s still classified as a dormant volcano, not an extinct one.

We must have been about half an hour at the top, slightly dazed but happy we’d done it, when we realised it was getting late and we had to start heading down. Luckily, downhill was much quicker although the sharp decline did our legs and feet no good. I had blisters by the end. Back through the savannah, the rainforest, the tsetse flies, and down to the tea plantations and farmers. After a reluctant motorbike ride, we were back on the main road.

We had got down just before it was dark, luckily. By the time I reached the campsite, I needed food, a shower and bed. Unfortunately, they were all to take second priority when I realised that someone had been through my stuff. I had left my bag in the office for safekeeping, but I don’t think the office had been locked, and it was obvious someone had been through my bag. I checked, but nothing was missing. Then I counted the money I had left, and realised that someone had taken equivalent $20, in Tanzanian shillings. They were obviously trying to be inconspicuous, hoping I wouldn’t notice. Ok, $20 is not much, but it’s the first time I have ever had something stolen from me and I really felt terrible; I felt like crying. I really liked this village and trusted everyone here, and this had been the place where someone had stolen off me – not a big city, but this friendly little village. It’s not fair that some people in these countries think it’s OK to steal off foreigners, especially so secretly – they think we have so much money that we just won’t notice. I know it’s only a very small percentage that take advantage, but at the time I just felt so alone and all I wanted to do was leave the campsite and even Tanzania.

Maybe I was overreacting, but I was just shocked. So I talked to the owner of the campsite and at first he didn’t do anything – just stood there making shocked noises and saying it’s never happened before. This made me angry, but after talking to his friends, they all agreed to call the chief of the village to sort it out. Actually, I’m really impressed with how they handled it. The same situation in a bigger hotel or location would be brushed under the carpet, and I probably wouldn’t be believed. But I was going to meet with the chief, just for a lost $20! She took it very seriously and the next morning they formally refunded me the money. I felt a bit guilty because now the whole village has lost that money, just because of one thief. Apparently there are a lot of teenagers who come to the camp to charge their phones and play games, so they suspect one of them stole the money. She said it’s such a tight knit community that they will probably be able to find out who did it. I told them that if they find him/her, I don’t want them to get the authorities involved, because he could easily end up in a juvenile prison, and it’s not worth it for so small a crime.

After it was all sorted, it was very late but the campsite owners were so helpful and boiled me some water for a shower and went to fetch some food for me. I actually felt very pampered by the time I went to bed! The next morning I moved into a hotel in town – I had another trip that day and unfortunately I didn’t feel safe to leave my things in the campground any more, despite how nice they had all been. I was soon cheered up by the theme of my trip today – tea! Again with the couple Laura and Dennis, and a very enthusiastic guide who was just great and full of information, we set off in another minibus to the tea plantations. More on the tea next time.

A bit of a break on the beach

 

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Zanzibar, Tanzania

After getting back from safari, I felt an immediate and urgent need to get to the beach. I know, first world problems, but anyway at least this was a problem I could fix – I tried to find a last-minute flight to Stone Town (the capital of Unguja, otherwise known as Zanzibar). They all seemed too expensive, until I ran into Camilla, who I had met at the hostel in Arusha. She told me Auric Air did cheap flights there, and she was also flying with them today. After a quick dash to their office in town, and being told there were no flights left but Tropical Air had some for the same price, I went to the airport with Camilla to book one there. An hour or so later I was on a small and half-empty plane, drinking some soda and looking out at the empty empty country below. This was just what I needed after 6 weeks of crazy Africa.

Arusha is right next to the dormant volcano Mount Meru – around 4500m above sea level. I was keen to climb but things in Tanzania are just far too expensive, but at least I got a nice view of it from the airport and plane. I was also hoping to see Kilimanjaro en route, but due to the clouds (annoying rainy season) I had no luck. I was very surprised to see so much nothingness – especially after Uganda. Not even villages, just total nothingness, and a road. It kind of reminded me of the Nullabor in Australia. The best part was once we got to the coast and flew over the Zanzibar Archipelago and all the little islands and reefs. The water above the reefs was so brilliantly turquoise, and the rest of the Indian Ocean so deeply sapphire. I just couldn’t wait to get into the water, especially as the plane was so hot and everywhere was so humid in anticipation of the rains.

I met Camilla at the airport as our flights arrived at similar times. It was a short drive to Stone Town where we were staying in Malindi Guesthouse near the fish market. The smell wasn’t so bad… once you got used to it. It was also the cheapest place to stay in the expensive town – and by the looks of it, also the oldest. The walls were filled with black and white pictures, lights were made out of cassette tapes and old glass bottles and the like. It definitely had character. We were first shown to a room named ‘Aleppo’, which had dimmed scarlet lights and one double bed along with questionable interior design… not wanting to stay in what looked like a weird fetish room (and was named ‘Aleppo’!!) we asked for another room – and this time we were given something much nicer, with proper lights, although the beds were obviously as old as the guesthouse.

I had a walk that afternoon, and wasn’t sure what to make of the town. The fish market was interesting and a bit gross, with men whacking octopus against the pavement to kill them, and cats absolutely everywhere, as well as bits of fish and guts. I was also trying to scout out somewhere I could go for a jog, but it didn’t seem like it would happen here – I couldn’t walk five paces without being harassed and shouted at, plus the motorbikes were crazy and there were no pavements. World heritage site or not, I didn’t like this place. It was the same in the guesthouse – I asked for directions to the town, and the receptionist just told me that I didn’t need to go into town, I could book all the tours through him. Umm – I just wanted to go for a walk?! I have not loved the Tanzanian locals so far; they are too used to tourists in Arusha and Stone Town and are just plain rude, won’t leave you alone, will point and shout at you, laugh at you and are also creepy. I later realised that the non-touristy parts of Tanzania have very nice locals. It’s a shame about the behaviour of the locals I’d encountered on the first part of my trip in Tanzania, because it made me suspicious of anyone trying to be nice to me, and it also made me not as interested in finding out more about Tanzanian culture or spending any time in built-up areas.

There was a small beach and beachside market which had a laid-back yet hectic character, and some of the buildings were very pretty. Zanzibar is a mixture of cultures and a predominantly Muslim island, and I saw people of lots of different skin colours here. Like many islands, it has an interesting past because of being a major trading point. It was briefly under the control of Oman and even Portugal. There is a lot of interesting historical things to see here, but I didn’t like the vibe at all so unfortunately I didn’t stick around to see them.

I had left Camilla to sweat in the hotel (the fans weren’t working), so I went back to collect her and we went for a nice dinner. The next day I would head to Paje (south-east Zanzibar, by the beach) and she would hang around Stone Town for a couple more days – she’s obviously more tolerant than I am!

I was feeling lazy and decided to take a taxi to Paje instead of the local dalla-dalla (minibus). It wasn’t far, and there were three others headed in that direction so the price was OK. I just needed some days on the beach to relax before I could cope with uncomfortable and noisy public transport again! Paje is one of the more popular beaches on the island, which is what I was looking for at the time – a bit of socialising, partying, before I went off solo again. New Teddy’s Place is really the only choice if you’re a backpacker; it has high prices like everywhere on the island, but an awesome location right by the beach, friendly staff, and lots of people to meet. Most of the people there when I arrived were from a global development course at Copenhagen University, on holiday after some research in mainland Tanzania. Some of them were very nice and I had fun hanging out with them, unfortunately there were also a lot who were rather stand-offish and wouldn’t even smile or say hi – mainly the Brits. It’s a shame there are people like that going into development actually. But anyway, I had a good time enjoying the beautiful beach and ocean (which was super-warm), having some good food and cocktails, recovering and replenishing.

Of course I went diving as soon as I could. I wasn’t expecting a lot because Zanzibar is not renowned for its diving (unlike nearby Pemba and Mafia), but actually I really enjoyed it. No big animals, but lots of smaller fish and other marine life which can be just as interesting. Visibility was very good and I spotted several nudibranchs (sea slugs), which I was proud of because they can be very hard to spot! Also scorpion fish, unicorn fish, lion fish and lots of sea cucumbers. I even briefly saw a mantis shrimp before it scuttled away into its hole. The coral was very nice and there was one big bit of coral that was bright blue – it looked almost ultraviolet and could be seen from a long way away. On the second dive we were lucky enough to see a lobster as well as some cone shells. This was the first time I had seen these shells, and they are very destructive to the coral. They have a kind of black skin over them, which you can rub away to reveal the white shell underneath.

Camilla met me in Paje after a few days. By this time she was ready to relax, but I was starting to get bored of relaxing so dragged her on little walks around the beach to explore, and we ended up organising a bike ride for the following day. We met Fabian, a German who had been living in Namibia, and invited him along. The beginning of the day started out great – we were so happy to be on bikes, and the roads on Zanzibar were very good quality as well as really quiet. Our first stop was the Jozani Forest, home to the endemic Zanzibar Red Colobus Monkey. To get the cheaper resident’s price for entry to the forest, Fabian told a convincing story of how we were volunteering on the mainland with deaf and blind kids, while I hid in the corner so the receptionist couldn’t see me smiling… can’t lie to save my life.

Our guide had warned us that we could be looking for over an hour, so we’d prepared by grabbing some snacks, only to find the monkeys within minutes, and be out of the forest again! They were pretty monkeys. We had time now to see the mangroves, and our guide escorted us there by bicycle. Always love seeing some good mangroves, and these ones were particularly nice – like huge strong cages rising halfway up the tree. There are three different types of mangroves here and the roots of each are different. The guide must have talked about the mangroves for about a half hour; I think he was a big fan. My favourite part was the crabs with the red claws! Some big and some very tiny, they are an important part of the ecosystem here. Basically the mangrove trees have to get rid of the salt from the water that they absorb, and they do this in several ways. One of the ways is to concentrate it in their leaves, and when the leaves are completely saturated with salt, they fall off and turn yellow. Then the crabs eat the leaves, and so they help the mangroves. We tore the fallen leaves up into little pieces and watched the crabs scramble for them. I was curious to see if you could taste the salt, so I tried a leaf, but it just tasted like a leaf. There are other ways the salt is discarded from the tree actually, so there is not a huge amount of salt in the leaves.

As we cycled back from the mangroves, the red colobus monkeys were everywhere along the road – so we really didn’t need to pay the entrance fee! They are not rare monkeys as they try to convince you.

It was another couple of hours riding to Kizumikazi, a beach on the south coast. Actually I think we underestimated the distance we would be cycling that day! We biked through more little villages with schools and farms, but no restaurants in sight, so we arrived at Kizumikazi very hungry as well as exhausted. This was only half of the bike ride done; we had gone from Paje on an inland road and would return by the coast which was just as long. We were now well removed from the excitement of this morning and were kind of dreading the journey back.

Kizumikazi is famous for dolphins but we didn’t see them unfortunately – we couldn’t spend much time there because we didn’t want to be biking in the dark. After a quick swim it was time to return. As we’d expected, the way back was hard, but we powered through. Weirdly, when we had about 15km to go, all three of us suddenly got our energy back and we had so much fun cycling alongside each other on this big empty road, with views of the beach, singing cheesy pop songs and Lion King songs.

After the epic bike ride we were ready for the pool party in a nearby hotel, but it actually turned out to be full of boring people. Now it’s getting to the low season in Zanzibar and the parties are just not as good. There was a good group from New Teddy’s though, so we made our own fun and ended the night on the beach.