May 22 2010

Malawi – diary 2010-05-02 to 2010-05-14

2010-05-02 to 2010-05-14

Malawi, ‘The Land of the Lake’ and ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’ was African country number 18 for Kirk and me. Malawi is known for the expansive mass of fresh water that is enclosed by sheer mountains on either side forming a large section of the Great African Rift Valley. Edged by palm fringed white sandy beaches it was certainly a destination that we were eager to get to. Malawi exudes serious warmth with its bright blue skies and sunny days as well as its friendly locals who make anyone feel right at home.

 Our 1st stop was Lilongwe, the nation’s capital city. We had passed through a very easy border crossing, where the Malawian officials welcomed us to their country with bright smiles and warm handshakes. The scenery was predominantly made up of 80kms of rural farmland and small villages made up of mud huts and thatched roofs. Malawi was beginning to resemble rural Africa again and we were somewhat at ease with this idea. 

Lilongwe was an unusual place. It is not very grand for a capital city but it had the bare essentials to keep the residents happy; a great big Shoprite, fuel stations, clothing stores and restaurants. We made our way to Mabuya Camp where we settled in for the evening. It had been a long day of driving, all the way from South Luangwa National Park in Zambia to Lilongwe in Malawi. The campsite was the hive of activity with a big overlander vehicle and 4 independent overlanders including Kirk and myself. One of the vehicles was a 1955 fire engine which had been converted into a fully contained ‘house’ that had driven all the way from Germany by a family of 4. Johanna and Marcel and their 2 daughters were stuck in Lilongwe as their vehicle had encountered some mechanical problems and they were in need of a mechanic. We chatted to them in the evening and obtained some useful information about our trip up north.

We departed the following morning with the intention of getting to Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi. The road wound up the Rift Valley Mountains and took us to a height of 2000 meters. When we emerged from the valleys we were treated to our first view of the lake, a sapphire blue shimmering mass of water nestled between 2 mountain ranges…it was spectacular! We made our way to Flat Monkeys Camp which was situated right on the beach just outside of the small village of Cape Maclear. We found that Okkie, Ansie, Bettie and Jannie, South African people we had met in South Luangwa National Park, were camped up in the camp ground and so said hello before rushing off to enquire about SCUBA diving courses run at another camp further up the beach. We settled in for the evening and enjoyed the 1st of many sunsets over Lake Malawi.

The next day was full of ‘tourist’ activities. Jannie and Okkie had booked a boat to take them snorkelling, fishing and Fish Eagle feeding and asked Kirk and me if we wanted to join them. We accepted, packed some lunch into a cool box and headed out onto the lake. The snorkelling was surprisingly very good with an array of little inquisitive Cichlids (mbuna rock fish) swimming amongst us and feeding frantically off the bread held by Okkie. The water was crystal clear and a balmy 26 degree celcius. We boarded the boat again and made our way a little bit further along the lake when the local boys on the boat started whistling to attract the Fish Eagles. They threw small fish onto the surface of the lake and we waited for the Fish Eagles to swoop in and collect their lunch. The Fish Eagles call was in abundance and there were up to 6 birds circling ahead at one stage. They are magnificent creatures and their call will always be associated as the call of Africa. The boys tried their luck at fishing but were only successful at catching a great tan. We returned to the shore just after lunchtime where we enjoyed a relaxed afternoon. Kirk and I took a stroll back to the dive centre and booked ourselves on a dive for the following day. We hadn’t dived in over 2 years and thought that a freshwater dive in a lake would be a good refresher and prepare us for future dives in East Africa.

That evening, we all descended upon the beachside bar for sundowners. It had been a magnificent day and we were rewarded with the most sensational sunset over the mighty Lake Malawi. The wine from Jannie and Betties wine farm, Skilpadvlei, was flowing and resulted in us having to postpone our 9am dive to 2pm as we were feeling the effects of it the following morning.

The dive was refreshing and we welcomed the pure air into our bodies! We explored some caves, saw an eel and an abundance of Cichlids and descended to 20meters. The water had cooled down and both Kirk and I surfaced 45 minutes later feeling chilled to the bone and so welcomed the warm sun onto our bodies. The dive was not as spectacular as we were hoping for but we were pleased that we were able to refresh our skills and become familiar with certain procedures. That evening we enjoyed a chicken potjie with our South African friends and an early night.

Most people set off the following morning. Kirk and I had decided to stay until Friday and so after saying farewell to the people we had spent the last 3 days with we went for a walk through the village and enjoyed a village tour. Cape Maclear is a beautiful place with an exceptionally chilled vibe. We enjoyed the tourist activities and found the villagers’ peaceful, friendly and so welcoming.

We left Cape Maclear on Friday having spent 4 days in paradise and headed south towards Mangochi so that we could exchange money and stock up on a few basics. We popped into Sun n Sand, a resort 29km north of Mangochi where Yolla’s (a very good friend of mine) sister is the manager. Upon arrival she welcomed us with open arms and told us that we were to stay until Monday. She put us up in a VIP suite and instructed her staff that we were to pay for nothing. We were taken back by her generosity and when we said that it was far too generous and that we couldn’t possibly stay until Monday for free she would hear nothing of it and insisted. We were treated to wonderful food, a very comfortable suite, stunning views of the lake and Kirk’s ultimate favourite…Super Sport. He was able to catch up on some Super 14 action and with the Sharks beating the Stormers he was a very happy camper! We used the time to relax and plan our onward travels. Time was ticking by and with careful consideration as not to offend Bella; we decided that we should leave on Sunday as we still had a vast distance to travel. We thanked Bella profusely for her hospitality and she sent us on our way with a big bag of gifts from the resort gift shop. We were deeply touched by her immense generosity.

Liwonde National Park was our next stop. Malawi is only 840km long from north to south and is nowhere more than 160km wide so distances are easy to cover. Liwonde was an hour and a half drive from Mangochi and we arrived at the park in time to do a game drive and spot various different animals such as elephant, antelope and crocodiles. Liwonde is rumoured to have the big 5 but with lions only being spotted once in the last 2 years and leopard residing in the thick trees covering the mountainside it is very difficult to see all big 5 in one stay. We set up camp in Chinguini Hills, a camp and lodge situated in the heart of the National Park. Essentially you are camping in and amongst the animals and this was evident that night when we were awoken by the loud chewing sounds of elephant who were literally right outside of our tent. They were having a feeding frenzy, tearing leaves and branches off the nearby trees. When they decided that they were done grazing around our tent their feeding sounds were replaced by that of a whooping hyena. It was spine chilling but an awesome experience.

We set off as early as possible to fit in another game drive before we departed for Nyika Platea. The grass was still very thick from the late rains and game viewings were pretty much hit and miss. We did however have a lot of entertainment when about 20 tsetse flies entered the car. Kirk and I were flapping madly trying to get rid of these sleeping sickness carriers and eventually had to resort to a can of doom. When we were satisfied that no flies had survived we spotted a roan and sable antelope, our first sighting of this type of antelope. We were still in search of a buffalo as we still had not been fortunate enough to bear witness to one as yet but we left empty handed and headed back towards Lake Malawi and the town of Chintheche.

Our arrival into northern Malawi had put us back into rural Africa. We had bought tomatoes from a street side vendor and bought some street food for lunch. We were back into the bartering groove and realised just how much we had missed it!

We descended upon a lodge called Nkhwazi Lodge which was nestled between 2 coves. The sand was white and the blue lake water was lapping onto it gently. The manager told us that the owner was looking to sell the lodge as he was not well and needed to get out of the business. This had Kirk and me thinking what we could do with a place in a prime location such as this lodge. We spent the better part of the evening dreaming about future investments and what life would be like living on the shores of Lake Malawi. All we can do is dream…we still have our initial dream to complete and we were thoroughly enjoying every minute of it.

The bright orange and purple hues woke me up the following morning where I bore witness to the best sunrise I had ever seen in my life! Lake Malawi was full of surprises and our positioning meant that we hadn’t had a spectacular sunset the previous evening but this sunrise most certainly made up for it. We were up and on the road by 9am and headed up the Rift Mountains and onto the Plateau. We drove past some rubber plantations and through the towns of Mzuzu and Rhumphi where we eventually reached the gates to the Nyika Plateau National Park. We had debated whether or not we should visit this park as it didn’t really have much to offer in the form of animal viewing but when we arrived we were pleased with our decision to drive for 5 hours because it was spectacular. The scenery resembled that of the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa with emerald green undulating hills running as far s the eye could see. We took a slow drive along some of the safari tracks which took us through pine forests and 3 dams that were stocked with trout. The game was sparse apart from the numerous Roan antelope and impala. We made our way back to the camping area and set up our tent for the evening. The temperature plummeted and we enjoyed our dinner in front of a roaring log fire. The atmosphere was grand and thoroughly enjoyed the contrast between the biting cold air and warm caress of the open fire.

The cold air had subsided during the night and we awoke to find that a thick mist had engulfed the hills. As the sun got warmer the mist lifted and revealed the green and gold undulating hills that spread into the valley. The hills were scattered with zebra and Roan antelope, a perfect view to enjoy our coffee and rusks.

Trout fishing was on the agenda for day and so we booted our feet in our hiking boots, which had not been used since Mt Cameroon, and took a leisurely walk to Dam 2 where Kirk tried his luck with his fly fishing rod. The setting was magnificent and we felt as though we were the only 2 people in this beautiful highland setting. The sun was shining and drying up the dew sodden grass and even better, the fish were biting. After a good 2 hours of me lazing on the lakeside and Kirk casting his fly we took a stroll to Dam 1 which was situated right in front of the camp reception. We enjoyed a modest lunch of chicken mayo sandwiches and juice on the banks of the dam and then tackled the 2km uphill walk back to our campsite. We had thoroughly enjoyed our morning stroll but were made aware of the fact that we were both very unfit and in desperate need of some serious training before we even think about taking on Kilimanjaro! The afternoon was spent relaxing and by 4pm the chilly air had settled upon us and so we lit a huge fire and spent the better part of the evening huddled close to the flame reading, eating and enjoying a descent bottle of red wine. We were certainly becoming civilised campers!

The rain was coming down when we awoke the following morning which prompted us to get a move on and pack up with haste. We were on the road by 8am and making our way back towards Lake Malawi. The road took us through some meandering roads and we came upon a pass that descended from 1200m to 500m in a series of sharp hairpin bends. The view of the lake was once again spectacular. The northern part of the lake is a lot more wild and undeveloped which means that the water is unspoilt and still used primarily for fishing. Once we reached the lake shore we prepared ourselves for another ascent. We had decided to visit Livingstonia, a village perched at 1200m at the top of the mountain. We read the warning in the Bradt guide to Malawi which warned travellers not to attempt the ascent in their own vehicle unless it was a high clearance 4×4. We had this and so thought ‘why not’? We started the incline slowly and we climbed and climbed and climbed from 500m to 1200m in 16 kilometres of steep dirt track and a ridiculous number of hairpin bends. We eventually reached the first of the lodges, Mushroom Farm. We drove down the steep driveway and parked in the parking area so that we could enquire about costs. When I got out of the car I noticed a huge oil leak. The Front diff was losing oil at a rapid speed and upon closer inspection; Kirk noticed that the radial arm bracket that is usually attached to the front axel had broken off and had exposed a hole which was where the differential oil was leaking from. We were in a pickle as we were literally in the middle of nowhere and we had a precipitous 16km decline to make before we could get to civilisation. We were told by some local guys at The Mushroom Farm that there was a mechanic at the hospital who may be able to help us. We were in need of a welding machine and this was our closest option. We set off, very slowly and cautiously, in search of the infamous hospital mechanic. We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the hospital and saw a descent looking garage but still had to find the mechanic that was going to save us. We asked at one of the clinics in the hospital and they pointed to a corrugated tin roof house that was covered in green moss. This was the house of Lovemore the mechanic.

We knocked sheepishly on the door of Lovemore’s house and we were welcomed in by his wife. Lovemore was stretched out on the couch watching Days of Our Lives. We explained our situation to him and he was more than willing to help. He took us over to the garage and set about preparing for the repairing of Mvubu. The latest of equipment was pulled out of an office and the best welding equipment was part of it. During the 5 hours that it took to weld the radial arm bracket back onto the front axel we learnt that Lovemore had done his training at the local technical school but had also spent 3 months in Scotland where he was taught how to weld. We had a lot of confidence in this well educated mechanic and he did an excellent job (apart from a minor mishap when he managed to knick the brake line during his last weld). We were so grateful for Lovemore’s help and we drove away confident that Mvubu would last the rest of the African journey. We were a little bit apprehensive about the ‘repaired’ brake line as we had a very steep 16km descent to make the following morning and we were praying that Kirk’s makeshift repair using Pratley’s metal solder would do the job.  We made our way down to Lechwe Camp where we were welcomed by a very surprised owner. Not many people choose to drive up the pass in the dark and he was surprised to see us arriving well after 7pm. We explained that we had been up at the hospital fixing Mvubu and that we had in fact done the ascent at 2pm. After a couple of beers we retired to bed thoroughly exhausted and very hungry.

The rain was falling when we woke up from our slumber the following morning. Both Kirk and I were ravenous given that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous morning. We made a scrummy fry up and relished every morsel. Livingstonia is famous for many historical things but its geographical fame is that of a 250meter high waterfall that falls from a gorge into the valley below. Lechwe Camp was a gorgeous campsite which was completely eco friendly with the best smelling self composting toilets I have used. The owners have really put their heart and soul into maintaining the facilities and improving it at any given opportunity. We spent the morning sitting on the deck, which overlooked the valley and Lake Malawi, reading books and taking in the view. When the rain subsided we took a stroll to the waterfall. It was a brisk 25 minute walk through organic vegetable gardens and natural vegetation until we reached a viewing point for the falls. They were really impressive and with the recent rains their power was exacerbated as they plummeted onto the rocks below. Livingstonia was a really lovely place to visit and we would have stayed longer had we not been on a tight schedule. We made a move just after lunch and headed for the Tanzanian border.

Malawi was one of the most beautiful countries we had visited. It really did live up to all of its given names. One thing that amazed me the most were the pedal bike taxis. Young and old extremely fit men transport people on the back of their bicycles to neighbouring towns. It is not only people they transport, they also carry sacks of rice, wheat, maize, tomatoes, sugar cane, planks of wood, cages of chickens, you name it they transport it! I was in complete admiration of these men who used pure pedal power to make a living. Malawi really did get us back into the African groove and restored our energy to continue with the rest of our African adventure.

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