A Travellerspoint blog

November 2010

Aftertaste of victory

Rachel - Nyika Plateau

We stopped in the town of Rumphi, just south of Nkiya national park in the north of Malawi. We stayed in a lodge attached to an orphanage and farm that we had been recommended but unfortunately we arrived late and had to leave early so we didn’t get a chance to look around much.

We had arranged with our guides that we would make our own way to the campsite at the top of the plateau and so next morning we jumped on the back of a truck and then waited and waited and waited as it filled up with more and more people and goods and finally we set off. The road we were taking would go north up to the Zambian border but also goes through the national park where we would get off at the junction and hope there’d be another truck going into the park itself or otherwise have to walk 18km to get to the campsite.

Normally I love travelling by pickups but this was the most uncomfortable three hours I’ve had yet with men falling asleep on my shoulder and pushing me into sleeping babies I was trying to protect while an old women restricted any possible movement of my legs while I was sat above the wheel with no suspension and feeling every jolt up my spine. Meanwhile Dave was sat up high on two comfy sacks of flour with the wind in his hair! I need to learn to get high early on in the packing process and hold my ground... But anyway when we arrived at the gates of the park we were called back by the young lad, Twembe, who worked the gates who had called our guide who was following some way behind since he was concerned that we’d not get a lift from the junction to the website and there was a risk of being found by poachers, hyenas or leopards and normally all visitors out in the open should be accompanied by a scout with a rifle. Twembe asked us to stay with him at the gate and we would be picked up by our guide when they arrived in a few hours.

So we waited. And waited. And bought some dried fish for cooking an evening meal, And waited. And it got dark. And we waited. And the park gates officially shut. And we waited. In the end we came to the conclusion that something had happened and so Twembe broke the rules, quite seriously for him, and allowed a timber truck through who were waiting outside the closed gates to bring a mechanic to a broken down friend inside on the condition that they took us all the way to the campsite.

We had an enjoyable 2 hours bumpy ride through the pitch black park, dropped of the mechanic and finally arrived at midnight. Woke up the unhappy warden, set up camp, put on all of our clothes cos at over 2000m it’s COLD, lit a fire, put on the iPod and finally sat down to our meal of fish, tomato, garlic, onion and some chilli powder and pasta at 1.30am. Many weeks wait to try this meal and we have to say it must be an acquired taste. The fish is a bit metallic and gritty tasting. Not terrible but not really tasty either. Still we felt chuffed to have accomplished this feat all by ourselves at last so it had an ultimate aftertaste of victory :)

The next morning Dave left our little tent for a wee and found a sunrise over the vast open hills in front of our site and four zebras grazing not 10m from our tent. Apparently I wasn’t to be woken without a sledgehammer so he managed to catch them on video – they stayed for ages he says.

Our guides finally arrived the next morning – the car had suffered two flat tyes and so they’d had to abandon it and walk 15km to the gate and then get a lift to the site in the morning. They were really worried we’d think they’d made off with our deposit cash but actually this hadn’t even crossed our minds. But in the end they were too late to organise the porter and scout and so we had a day to explore the closer areas of the plateau. So I hopped on a bike and dave by foot went out to see what we could see. For a seriously furious pedal in places I was rewarded with a small herd of zebras and some Roan antelope. I love the zebras; they trot off to a safe but still distance and then just stay staring back at you until one or other of you gets a bit bored and moves off. They didn’t seem bothered at all by the bike until I got off and they moved away. I wonder what they’d make of a unicycle, if i could master that perhaps I could pat one... I saw undulating grassy valleys, heather, patches of trees in little nooks, rocky crops. Wish I’d had the camera but maybe I can find a picture on the internet to show you. But no wonder they call Nyika the Scotland of Malawi.

I’ll skim over the hike because pictures always speak louder than words in these matters but it moved from the same vast open grassy plains we’d seen the day before to forests and through some picturesque and leafy villages on day two, over a river and ending on day two in a village market square, the edge of which, strangely, we made our camp and were allowed to use the toilet of a nearby family home. That afternoon, after our 5am start 17km hike, we were shown to the “where we could take a bath”. So we followed past the house, down a lane (okay...), out of the village (...!?), over a bridge, through some scrub and down to the river :) But what a bathroom view! And soooo refreshing for our hot feet and sore muscles. We had the place to ourself so dave even got nekkid oooOOooo (i didn’t look of course, i was too busy trying to keep my cup from floating away downstream)

On the last day, and another 5am start, we had a pretty easy dirt road walk up to Livingstonia past dozens of people filling in potholes and resurfacing the road with hoes as part of a self-help community project. We arrived about 10 so we had time for me to do some internetting and Dave wondered around the town.

Livingstonia is a strange place for a settlement really although it was successful for the missionaries in the sense that this was the first place they moved to where they didn’t lose everyone to malaria because of the healthy climate. It’s perched right at the edge of the pretty much vertical Rift Valley escarpment which leads right to the lake so the views are stunning but it’s only reachable from a truly terrible rutted dirt road. It’s a strange town as well with lots of colonial buildings widely spaced out and so as the guide book puts it “the impression is as if somebody started transporting a small Victorian village to the edge of the Rift Valley Escarpment, but got bored before they finished the job”.

After a stroll through the town we finished the hike by walking for another hour or so, stopping for a little break by a 100m waterfall. We passed under another kind of waterfall on the way – light rain seemed to be falling on us from a noisy tree and a local pointed out the large winged insects that we have heard making a very loud chirruping noise everywhere we go, and the “rain” is actually their excretion. Piss insects...nice. Fortunately we finished our hike in the pretty open air showers at the awesome Mushroom Farm – a place that people take pride in reaching even when they haven’t been walking for 3 days already what with it being inaccessible by public transport and up that 10km long and steep hill. They should make victory badges.

Posted by rachndave 12:27 Archived in Malawi Tagged food hiking Comments (0)

Chistmas cottage in the woods

Rachel - South Viphya forest reserve

Many places we have visited so far have had a serious problem with deforestation. There is little electricity here and cooking and heating rely on burning wood, as does building of course. With a rapidly growing population (a fourfold increase between the 1965 and 1998 censuses) making ever increasing demands of a depleted woodland wood has become a valuable commodity. 60% of the The Viphya forest reserve is planted with pine which makes it the largest artificial forest in the whole of Africa and is used to produce plywood and timber products. The other 40% is protected native trees.

An ex forestry building in the middle of the forest is now converted into an eco-lodge and base for outdoorsy activities such as mountain biking, climbing, canoeing and hiking so so we headed here for a backwoodsy break from the lake. When we arrived I thought we’d stepped into a Christmas film with classical and jazz playing on the stereo, a fairy light lit bar and a roaring fire and rocking chairs in the dining room. The dorm was a cosy wooden hut out in the woods and because we were over a thousand metres up the temperature was just right for a good nights sleep.

Unfortunately Dave managed to trip over a bag of maize flour when our bus broke down in the dark and hurt his rib on the back of a chair seat so he couldn’t go climbing, so we hired a couple of mountain bikes and went out to see the forest. I’ve not really been mountain biking before and it was such a nice way to see the outdoors but cover a lot of distance. The hills were pretty tough mind and the sandy ground caused me a slip and I fell pretty heavily and shredded my elbow and bruised my left side but nothing was broken and it didn’t spoil the day by any means – i’ve been back on a bike since and am now even more certain i’d like to make a cycling trip next.

Back in xmas lodge we spent a pleasant evening talking with the two volunteers based at the lodge and working on some projects in the nearby villages in which the lodge is heavily involved. The next big step is to install a bore hole and so Dave and I learned lots about how they work, answering some questions we’d been pondering for some time which was cool.

I mentioned in my first entry from Malawi that I had seen lots of “agricultural fires” and every night, wherever we have been, there have been big fires – on Chisi island we looked back to the mainland at night and there was a serious inferno that lit up the sky. The fires are often set to burn surface debris and old plants to allow new shoots to grow more easily, in Mulanje they were set to kill off the now unwanted pine. Viphya has a unique problem in that fire damaged wood fetches a lower price and so people purposely set fires illegally. Here, as elsewhere, the fires are often unsupervised once they’re set and so of course they get out of control and create serious damage. The volunteers had impressive photos of a huge forest fire that had gotten out of control and the forestry, lodge owners and volunteers had all helped to try and back-burn other sections of forest to prevent the fire jumping the road and causing even more damage. It looked frightening. One other sad thing is that in the case of the agricultural fires that method is old and now proven to be more disadvantageous in practice because the beneficial organisms and animals in the ground are killed off by the heat.

We weren’t ready yet to get back to the lake so we decided to head pretty much the furthest north we were going to get in terms of places we wanted to see - to the Nyika plateau where we could organise a three day hike to the town of Livingstonia. This hike is not only supposed to be beautiful but would join up two of the difficult to reach “want to see” circles on our map. Not many circles left now to fill in....

Posted by rachndave 12:24 Archived in Malawi Tagged trees Comments (0)

a Dar Dar Dar


Just a quickie to say we've arrived in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, via a 35 hour train trip (well it was supposed to be 24 but it was 11 hours late by the end but lots of fun). We're off to zanzibar tomorrow. I keep trying to upload photos but get scuppered by nasty plugin.
more blog entries coming soon too.

Posted by rachndave 06:29 Comments (0)

Doctor Doctor, I think i'm a loaf of bread

Rachel - Likoma Island

The Ilala arrived predictably late due in part to slow running down to countrywide lack of fuel, and in part due to some long stops for loading. We were met at the port by one of the managers of the lodge and given a bumpy ride in the back of their pick up – a godsend because it’s a 45 minute walk and by now it was dark.

Mango Drift was a collection of bamboo and grass-roofed huts and a bar on the beach. The only frills were a resident dog, a well stocked bookcase and some toys to use on the lake. This was a place to completely relax and that we did. The dorm room had a door that opened straight onto the shore and so we started the day with a swim and settled down with the magazines.

Later on we made the long walk into town which was surprisingly extensive with a sandy main square, a market area and oddly one of the largest buildings in Malawi – a huge redbrick cathedral. We stopped for a while to watch a pretty thrilling netball game in the square before being shown to the cathedral by some kids who grabbed our hands and insisted on showing us the way. We managed to lose them when we snuck up some dark stairs into the clock tower!

After that we left the main town and headed to the outskirts to find out if we could make an appointment the village witch doctor mentioned in the guide. Dave was a bit more keen than me, partly because he had a genuine niggling back to present and partly because I wasn’t sure I could disguise any skepticism if he seemed to be a total quack. But in the end I was too curious to pass up the chance to meet him. When we arrived outside his compound the mood was solemn and serious. We were made to wait for a long while and then instructed with import to choose a stick from a pile with our *left* hands and then we could enter the gates where we were to place the stick in the circle on the ground and wait there. So we did, removed our shoes to enter, passed a monkey tied to a tree with a rope and passed lots of lounging people and told to wait seated there for 15minutes. After a time we were indicated to enter a large dark room with pigeons flying eerily around the eaves and in the corner in the dark was a man lying down – a scene straight out of Apocalypse now or something! The man hacked and groaned loudly and made some strange noises so dramatically that I thought it must have been an act to intimidate us. We were shown meekly and respectfully to a mat in front of his bed while he sat up. And what a surprise we had. This 60 year old but fit and cheeky man with dreadlocks was the height of politeness! Turns out he was feeling sick with a fever so we’d woken him up. He told us he was really happy to see us but he couldn’t “enjoy us properly”. He wanted to tell us all about the history of how he became a doctor and maybe sit in on a session so could we return tomorrow…with two bottles of Carlsberg ;) But first if we wanted we could take his picture so he posed with us both and his magic fly whisk! We left laughing and joking, promising to return while wishing him better.

The next day we spent the whole morning and well into the afternoon with him hearing about his methods and the types of people he treats, even meeting some of them as they entered the room waiting to see him. He has a partnership with the local hospital so that if something is medical case such as malaria or dehydration he sends them to the clinic saying “these are not problems of magic, this is not my job”. Somewhat surprisingly if the clinic has cases they cannot find a cause for, or people are not responding to treatment then they will send them to the witch doctor to find a magic cause. I think he was totally genuine in the sense that he believed that there were cures for magic diseases and we met plenty of people who claimed to be made better.

The methods of cure ranged from the benign “herbal teas” to the frankly bizarre. Such as one particularly difficult “mental disturbance” case which his guiding spirit told him, after an overnight drumming and chanting session, could only be cured by feeding the man with the meat of a dog as requested by the trouble causing spirit who currently resided inside this man as a way to release it. We met the man who had been cured who is now in training to be a doctor himself who swore it was indeed the case and now he says is fine. The causes for illnesses and the reasons for cures are up for debate of course but I have to say I found the healer totally charming and with a real concern for his patients and the community. In Mua at the museum the information about witch doctors did say that while some can perpetuate revenge attacks against perceived jealous spell casters or charge extortionate costs for repeat treatments, but that the good ones are aware of village politics and will often prescribe restoration of harmony and reconciliation and are therefore important maintainers of village cohesion.

I promised I would make an appeal for donors to build housing for patients in the compound – many people stay for days or weeks while they are receiving treatment. If anyone is interested in hearing more about his story and would like to help this unusual community project then contact me for details (promise fulfilled).

He made us some lunch, sent out for several more beers and seemed happy just to hang out with us. He was particularly chuffed to read about himself in the guide book and had someone copy it out for him. But eventually we headed back to camp for a lazy evening with a local musician and some star gazing. The island runs on a generator and so the electricity goes off at midnight and so the stars are super bright, we even saw some shooting stars.

We could have done with another day on the island just to enjoy the beach more and we had a pretty good extension because the Ilala ferry was about 10 hours late so instead of leaving at 3am we had a great morning lounging round the bar watching the horizon.

The ferry back to the mainland was just as initially chaotic then fun and relaxed as the way over and we managed to make better friends with one of the lovely families staying on the island who had just had a wedding-festival with guest appearance from the Bees (they live on the isle of wight and everyone seems to know everyone) and met some new people on the ferry who had been working at the Lake of Stars festival. All very rock and roll. Our time with the Ilala and the islands is sadly over. This has certainly been a great way to see the country. Don’t think i’ll be signing up for a cruise ship just yet mind :)

PS. A. Stop loafing around then

Posted by rachndave 23:32 Archived in Malawi Tagged islands culture Comments (0)

Community on the waves

Rachel - The Ilala

Hoonnk Hoooooooooonnnnk. The Ilala is the old, Scottish, iron passenger ship that makes a weekly trip north and south, up and down the lake stopping to pick up passengers and cargo, service the islands and take people between Mozambique and Malawi. It’s super important to the trade and lives of people, especially the islanders, and it even takes tourists.

Most of the harbours don’t have a jetty and so people and all their cargo are piled high onto the lifeboats and everything is then passed up through the door in the side of the hull. And there is a *lot* of stuff. Enormous bags and bags and bags of dried fish and maize flour, sheets of corrugated iron, bundles of hand brooms, suitcases and rucksacks and all sorts of things you just wouldn’t expect to see; a bookcase, a double bed, a live goat tied by the legs…. Tales are told of a speedboat that was to be used by one of the high end resorts lost into the water after it was dropped by the winch. Oops.

Once you make it through the doors with your stuff the corridors are full of sacks and boxes that you have to climb over and under to reach the stairs and then fortunately for us the breezy top deck. I was a little guilty to find that everyone on the first class top deck was white and there were only 20 of us compared to the hundreds of people crammed below. And the costs aren’t *that* different. But anyway for the next 24 hours or so we hung out chatting to fellow travelers, playing poker on the floor with bottle tops and daily disposable contact lenses, watching the cargo loading at the stops (each stop being about 4 hours…there’s a lot of stuff to load), and of course drinking beers. All very civilised and a gentle way to travel such a distance. There was even a shower on the deck below although having a shower on a rocky ship is quite a strange experience I must say.

At night we all slept out on the deck under the stars on foam mattresses where it’s breezy and cool. If you pay for true first class you get a cabin but that *is* much more expensive and apparently very hot so no-one really bothers. Lined up on the deck like that it was a bit like a camp out :) At one point I woke up in a mozambique port with the sun rising over the lake and the engine gently throbbing which was pretty special.

Some people were getting off with us at one of the islands, and there’s really only one place to stay on the island, so we all became pretty good friends and have all unexpectedly met up again since which is one of the other nice things about the Ilala; the sense of community that develops.

We’ve heard that they’re taking it out of service for a while for maintenance but there are no plans to replace it with anything, I can’t imagine what would happen in that case because it seems to be the heartbeat of the lake.

Posted by rachndave 23:26 Archived in Malawi Tagged transportation companions Comments (0)

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