Thursday, September 3, 2009

Lake Of Stars

In Dark Star Safari Paul Theroux had an atrocious time crossing into Malawi from the Tanzanian city of Mbeya via the Songwe Bridge. Luckily we did not have any problems, other than the usual changing minibus three times during the journey! At the border they were pleased to see that Monika had actually done her homework and applied for a visa in advance, unlike an Austrian girl who was part of an overland tour that was crossing at the same time. What I found really annoying was the attitude of the tour leader who behaved really impolitely to the immigration officials, seemingly blaming them, even though they bent the rules to let her client through and it was her fault for overlooking this slightly major detail in the first place. Yet another reason to hate overland tours. And she was wearing a t-shirt with ‘Mzungu’ written on the front which just about took the biscuit!

Somehow we ended up taking a taxi the 300km to Nkhata Bay with a French guy called Gerard. We passed under Livingstonia, unsurprisingly Livingstones first mission, and stopped for lunch at the lakeside resort of Chitimba before pressing on. It was our first glance of Lake Malawi and it lived up to all the hype. Bright turquoise water stretching for miles, it was hard to believe it wasn’t the ocean.

Nkhata Bay is considered to be one of the nicest places on the lake, however we arrived after dark so our first real impression of Malawi came at breakfast the next day. Not a good start. The entire male population of the town seemed to be drunk, really paralytic, at 8:30am. OK, it is a fishing town and most of these guys had been out all night but still, not a pretty sight and the first time we had seen behaviour like this anywhere in Africa, although the previous night in Mbeya should of acted as a warning. Trying to put this spectacle out of my mind I immersed myself in the daily newspaper. There were three noteworthy stories inside. The first had the headlines “Dog found on roof. Witchcraft suspected. Woman taken to hospital”. The story of a woman who found a dog on her roof. Apparently it must have been a human that was turned into a dog because how else could it have got there? The presence of a low ledge on a neighbouring house offering easy access was dismissed. And why didn’t it bark when stones were thrown at it? Well, it must have been witchcraft then. This claim was further strengthened by the fact that the woman fainted and had to be taken to hospital! The second story involved a man who had been lynched for throwing dead....... chickens in a river. Apparently it is a ritual to throw ten dead chickens, some black ribbon and some sliced lemons into a river in south Malawi, in order to pacify some god or the other. The locals are annoyed at these actions as they claim that incidents of road accidents increase significantly on the days following this ritual. The final story was of a woman who gave birth to a stone. Worryingly a woman who had inserted a rather large rock into her vagina and claimed she was pregnant was able to pass all the hospital tests until her due date whereupon doctors were shocked to find the rock protruding. Of course she claimed her baby had been turned into a stone by witchcraft. The more serious reports asked how she was able to conceal this fact for 9 months, others wondered what she had done to deserve this hex!

We had enquired about the possibility of volunteer work in Malawi, in Nkhata Bay to be precise, but after this experience we started to have second thoughts. We had received a positive response to our emails but no specific details. When we enquired in town we were told that the British director had been deported for drug possession. We decided to spend some time on the islands of Chizimulu and Likoma instead. Would you volunteer yourself for a month in a town where all the guys are pissed and cannot help themselves and the organisation is headed by a deported drug addict?

The Ilala ferry is the only mode of transport between Nkhata Bay and the islands but it only passes through in that direction once a week. Since we had a few days to wait and we did not want to spend them in Nkhata Bay we decided to head up on to the Viphya Plateau to cool off whilst we waited.

I should add that we did have some good experiences in Nkhata Bay. The beach at Chikale is very nice and the welcome we received from the guys at Kupenja Lodge was extremely friendly, in fact they offered us free camping on our return to Nkhata Bay from Viphya!

Viphya Plateau is all above 2000m a.s.l and as we were camping it meant we had to wrap up warm at night. We stayed at Kasito Lodge, a beautiful old colonial house set in the forest. The area was very deserted and as we went for walks in the surrounding forest it felt like being back in Klanovice! It was incredibly quiet and serene, the perfect foil to the hustle of Nkhata Bay, and it allowed us to stop and catch our breath before descending back into the melee.

As the sector between Nkhata Bay and the islands is by far the busiest on the Ilala schedule we decided to splurge on first class deck tickets, which meant we got a bench to sit on close to the bar. Unfortunately the bar was full of fishermen who had probably been drinking since the morning, the alternative however was to squeeze into any vacant cubic inch of space down below, caught between a rock and a hard place! The ferry was so full they even left people behind. Trust me, no-one wants to be on any mode of transport in Africa when they decide it’s actually too full! When I had to descend to pop to the loo I am sure I crushed three babies’ heads and the ankles of two old women as I tried to hop, skip and jump my way through! The Ilala is an old Scottish steamer which was assembled on the lake and has been chugging up and down the lake from its home port of Monkey Bay via various stops until it turns around in the far north of the lake and returns by the same route. It has been in service now for 60 years and for about the past 5 years the government have been trying to put it out of service. It si true that nowadays it is faster to move around Malawi by road, even to cross between Malawi and Mozambique by road but for the people of Likoma and Chizimulu islands it is a lifeline, their only source of supplies.

In the middle of the night we arrived at Chizimulu island. There is no jetty so we were ferried ashore in the Ilala’s lifeboats. It felt like an horrific mixture of Titanic and Apocalypse Now as we squeezed and pushed to get off the ship and drop into the lifeboats, with small private canoes swarming around he ferry, just rows of white teeth floating in the moonlight. We fought to get off but several hours later, after a well earned beer and a short sleep in our tent, we awoke to see the Ilala disappearing around the corner, it had been sitting there, ferrying people and goods to and fro for over 6 hours!

Chizimulu is a very small island, about 3x5km are its largest dimensions with a population of just a couple of thousand. The interior has a very Mediterranean flavour with small fields of corn and clusters of silver birch. From the small hill that marks the islands highest point you can see a full panorama all the way to the crystal clear lake teeming with fish down below. For a closer look at the fish all that is needed is a mask and snorkel and time to adjust to snorkelling in fresh water, not salty, every time I got in it surprised me as I naturally anticipated a salty taste in my mouth. It is well worth it, they don’t call it ‘The Aquarium’ for nothing.

There is only one place to stay on Chizimulu, Wakwenda Retreat, A 15-year labour of love of an English guy called Nick. Unfortunately Nick was away on the mainland during our visit but it is obvious that all his time and effort has not been wasted, staying here makes campers feel like they are in a luxury spa! Luckily Nick had left the place in the capable hands of Peter and Astrid, a Norwegian couple who were doing a fine job in his absence. Spending time on Chizimulu cannot fail to be relaxing, apart from hiking up the hill, swimming or snorkelling and a spot of beach volleyball there is nothing much to do other than watch the sunset whilst listening to the washerwomen singing in lilting Chichewa by the lake.

We encountered more singing as we took a dhow across to the Likoma, the larger of the islands. The wind was slightly blowing and the gaggle of gospel singers onboard decided we might need a bit of divine intervention. Regardless of any spiritual involvement it did manage to calm my nerves at least.

Likoma is home to about 6000 people and is also the sight of a rather large Anglican cathedral. Some claim that it is the largest in Central Africa, whilst I doubt there is a larger one, it remains to be seen whether Malawi can be classed as part of Central Africa! Nevertheless we attended the Sunday service, which somehow ended with the entire congregation coming up to shake our hands. All I felt was embarrassment, and scorn at the misguided, mental missionaries who encouraged this kind of behaviour. Christianity in Africa is definitely not one of my favourite things!

After more relaxation by the lake it was time for the Ilala to arrive and whisk us further south. I had been dreading getting back on the ferry, trying to put it to the back of my mind the whole week but in the end it was not such a harrowing experience. The ferry was almost empty in fact so we were able to travel in comfort in 2nd class, even Economy, the lowest class, for a short sector. After 30 hours or so, several meals and a couple of beers and after stopping on both the Mozambican and Malawian sides of the lake we finally arrived in the home port of Monkey Bay. As it was after dark the captain invited us to spend the evening in a cabin, free of charge, until the morning!

We travelled in the back of a pick-up from Monkey Bay to Mangochi and from there in a bus to Blantyre. The bus TV was showing ‘Favourite Biblical Characters’ which only made the journey seem longer and longer. I didn’t think there was anything worse than African R’n’B videos ad infinitum, but apparently there is!

Blantyre is Malawi’s commercial centre and is a very developed city. It is nice enough but pretty faceless. We camped at one of the cities prime meeting places, Doogles, where the bar seems to fill nightly with South African expats and Malawian whores in equal measure, plus a smattering of backpackers!

We were only passing through on the way to Mount Mulanje, Malawi’s highest and our next destination. We embarked on a three day trek along with a Korean girl, Jinhyeon. Although our trek was mostly over 2500m we chose not to attempt the summit, whose name in Chichewa ‘Sapitwa’ means ‘don’t go’! We were put off by another newspaper article we read on arrival in Malawi regarding a Brazilian trekker, Gabriel Bushman, who got lost on his way to the summit and was found dead over two weeks later. Apparently he had wanted to reach the summit and back in a single day, a stupidly dangerous idea bearing in mind it takes 6 hours just to reach the base of Sapitwa, and had sent his guide back. This was not the first instance of foreign trekkers perishing on a summit push, a similar incident occurred a few years ago with a Dutch volunteer who had been working in the region. Despite these incidences being brought about by naivety we still preferred to stick to the lower paths, especially as the views and scenery were simply stunning and the weather perfect. The temperature plummeted at night but that made sitting by the fire in the mountain huts all the more enjoyable.

It surprised us just how expensive a country Malawi is to travel in. Throughout our whole stay the only nights that we did not spend in our tents were those on the mountain and the one night in the cabin on the Ilala, and sleeping in the mountain huts is basically the same as camping, even if it costs slightly more. Transport too is not cheap, working out at almost $3 per 100km. Food is really expensive, relative to the economy, even the cheapest local stalls charge upwards of $2 for a basic meal of nsima (similar to ugali, fufu or mealie meal) and relish. I am not sure how the locals survive. Strangely, despite being next to a massive lake fish was even hard to come by! On the way from the mountain we did pass a guy selling roasted mice on a stick, a local delicacy. Unfortunately we did not have time to try them! One item that is much cheaper than elsewhere is Macadamia nuts and we took the chance to stock up with packets of them! But apart from that I cannot see how the people can afford to eat. Maybe that’s why Malawian men turn to a liquid diet, the local motto seeming to be ‘Save water, drink beer’ proudly written on the outside of pubs. A small 35ml sachet of gin or other spirit in a shop costs less than 10 cents and a litre of Chibuku Shake-Shake (a local ‘beer’ not dissimilar to Tibetan Chang, tasting like a vinegar milkshake) costs just half a dollar. Chibuku is probably more nutritious than nsima as well!

And so we headed to Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, another entirely pleasant yet faceless city. Although both Lilongwe and Blantyre were nice enough it speaks volumes that I did not take a single photograph of either. One highlight was our choice of accommodation, Mabuya Camp, which is one of, if not THE, best place we have stayed so far. The camp ground is spacious and shaded, there is a pool surrounded by several BBQ’s, and a relaxing bar and lounge area. The staff were warm and friendly and nothing seemed to be too much trouble for them. Perhaps this is just a taste of what we can expect from Southern Africa?

This installment might seem less like an insight into the country and more simply a personal account of our journey and for that I apologise. Perhaps the reason is because even after over 3 weeks I have no clear impression of Malawi. The initial horror in Nkhata Bay was soon eclipsed by the serenity of Viphya and sheer beauty of the islands (definitely the highlight of Malawi), neither of these could be classed as representative of Malawi. Whilst stunning, Mount Mulanje could have been any mountain anywhere and that only leaves the big cities, and since when are they ever representative of the country as a whole? What I can say is that, in general, Malawians are the friendliest people we have met since Sudan. But is this as much a positive comment on Malawi or a realisation to the extent to which the other countries fell short? I mean, why shouldn’t people welcome visitors in this manner? The only negative aspect we encountered was in the drunken displays 24-7. We have been trying to ascertain whether we can expect this behaviour in other Southern African countries or whether it is purely a Malawian problem, no doubt stimulated but the prevalence of the fishing industry, lets wait and see.

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