A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: rachndave

Halloween in Zomba


There are three famous plateaus in Malawi: Mulanje, Nyika and Zomba. We were planning to climb Nyika later in our trip to do a three day hike and we had only recently climbed Mulanje and so we decided to give Zomba Plateau a miss (sorry Steve – hello Steve!). However Zomba town itself was conveniently located for one of the other main lakes which we wanted to visit, and the town is described in the guidebook as “often claimed to have been the most beautiful capital anywhere in the british empire”. That was before the capital moved to Lilongwe of course. So we arrived late and found our motel lodge which itself backed onto a late night bar playing live music. Drawn to the ryddim we headed round to investigate and found a local band playing to an outdoor dancefloor full of only men dancing while the women watched on – an interesting role reversal . We sat in the garden to listen and watch with a beer and soon got talking to one of the locals who seemed to know everyone in the bar. He and a friend were very keen to take us sightseeing to the lake the next day so we made plan to meet for lunch and see then if it were possible.

The next morning we woke early for some sightseeing and hadn’t been out 5 minutes before we passed a pub decorated like a Chibuku Shake Shake carton and full of people drinking the same…at 9am! Chibuku Shake Shake is a local beer that is hard to describe. It’s sour and savoury and contains a sediment of grainy slush which is why you have to “Shake Shake” the carton. Ideal for breakfast obviously ;) There is no alcohol percentage on the carton because each one is fermented separately so no one knows – I have heard of some cartons that have been almost spherical when they were served. The idea is that you slice the top off the carton and then share it around so it’s a very sociable drink. We stopped in to have a look at the decoration and because there was a toothless grinning and wrinkly old geezer playing his home made banjo encased in an outer guitar case and kicking his heels on a wooden box. At 9am! The price for a listen and a picture was a carton of Shake Shake so we sat for a while to listen and shared round the carton. At 9am!

Zomba was a very green and pretty town once you got out of the main shopping and market area. Leafy and relaxed at the foot of the plateau and full of old colonial whitewashed buildings. We strolled through the extensive botanical gardens/park, past the university campus, churches, archives offices and up to the grand old hotel looking out over the parks and golf courses. And then after a call to the friends we had met the previous night we went to the meeting place…only to be stood up. Without even a call! Hurumph! Humphrey and Matthew….shame on you. Never mind, we had provisions to buy and a pick up truck to find.

Our pickup ride was shared with a couple of super friendly and informative couple of guys called Alex, a business man/pick-up-truck-fare-collector and another guy but unfortunately I’ve forgotten his name, which is a shame because we’ll meet him again later… an ex-teacher turned currently unemployed social worker. So we spent the long journey being given a history of the area, learning about the struggles of businessmen/ pick-up-truck owners/social workers and told local stories of bandits and the spirits that are reported to live on the top of mount Mulanje.

We were finally dropped off by the harbour in a fishing village on the shore of Lake Chilwa and they offered to help us out by driving us to a local resthouse they knew, which of course we accepted. As is often the sting in the tale of the traveler we were then ripped off in a minor way by Alex who pretty much doubled the fare for driving us this extra kilometer but after such a pleasant journey we found it hard to make a stand so with a sad sigh settled up and said goodbye. I mention it because this sort of thing happens so often it’s part of our story but this one particularly saddened us. Still, from our small glimpse of the harbour, it felt very remote and very different from anything we’d seen so far so we were very excited to be here for the next few days.

Posted by rachndave 23:15 Archived in Malawi Tagged cities Comments (0)

Happy Blantyre Birthday


We traveled to one of the biggest cities in Malawi, Blantyre (named for the town in which David Livingstone was born), still exhilarated by completing the Mulanje trek and and thoroughly awesome trip down. There was gospel on the minibus radio and I felt totally comfortable here.

We headed straight to the local backpackers hangout, postponed a jump in the little pool for now, had a quick shower, a few G&T, asked around about local places playing live music and then headed to one of the restaurants that promised the “best steak south of Nairobi”. And it was a great meal, a proper birthday-only treat. We even had a cheese board!

We both could have gone back and slept for a week but this was a birthday dammit so we headed over to “Motel Paradise” and arrived to see sweaty dancers in traditional bush dress stomping about stage banging spears down in time to some choral botswanian traditional-ish music. Perfect (if a little unexpected). Following that was an ex-MP Lucius Banda who we have heard on the radio a lot since. A local man translated some of his songs as we listened and although they sounded very upbeat they all had quite a serious message as you’d expect from a politician.

We were the only white people in the place and therefore a little conspicuous for dancing and had a host of people trying to teach us how to dance properly and make friends with us. In the end we started to flag and left about 3am, resisted the swimming pool back at the lodge again and snuck into our dorm room for a well earned lie in.

We decided to stick around in Blantye the next day since I had lost my watch which I wanted to replace, and Dave wanted to explore the town a little. Also there was a Lake of Stars after party (somewhat late but there you go) which looked worth checking out that evening. So we ran our errands, both luckily avoided being caught out in the 20 minute biblical downpour – the first rain of the rainy season! – and had a very relaxed night at the (unfortunately quite dead) after party, playing some pool and listening to one of the live acts Dave had actually met at the festival. He’s playing gigs to raise funds for a trip he’s making walking from cairo to Capetown. He’s not doing it for charity either, just to meet people on the road in a Forest Gump kind of way. Lovely lovely guy, and a shame there’s no website to track his progress but we hope to catch some more of his gigs round the country if we’re lucky enough to catch him again.

Could have stayed in Blantyre another day just to hang around the backpackers and enjoy the food and beer and the buzz of other travellers (and working internet!) but really there was no other reason to stay. Oh but we did see an enormous chamelion in the garden: while we were on the internet uploading pictures someone ran in to say there was one out there. It's the coolest animal - super slow and careful it seems almost mechanical. Next stop is another town though so we dont want to get city weary.

Had a great birthday precident set here though...wonder where we'll be for my birthday....?

Posted by rachndave 04:12 Archived in Malawi Tagged clubbing birthday Comments (2)

Ups and Downs - Mulanje Massif


We had gotten up before 6am to try and catch one of the more reliable but crack-of-dawn-leaving 7am buses but our breakfast took too long to be prepared so we took our time instead and caught a series of minibuses, via one of the big cities Blantyre to buy food and cooking pots for the walk and change some cash. The market there was huuuge and crowded with no real structure, which leant it the feel of a slum especially by being cut through by sludgy water in places and by having a nearby free bus station toilet which is honestly the worst I have ever…. EVER seen and I’ve been let into the squat toilets in men-only coffee houses in Iran. But the market sold clothes and gardening implements and more than we’ve ever seen before or since so we had no trouble getting everything we needed.

We made it to the foot of the Mulanje Massif, a plateau which rises to the highest point in Malawi (which looked like someone had painted it in the sky it was so pretty) as the sun was starting to dip and were immediately met by some porters and guides offering their services and accompanied us all the way up to the hostel. We had a bit of an ethical dilemma however because we had a personal recommendation from someone we met in Cape Maclear and who had climbed the massif, but the guides up to the plateau are supposed to operate on a rotation basis to provide everyone with some income. However we were too late to go via the official office and still be able to leave the next day, but these guys who had just followed us for 2km were sitting outside waiting to see in which way we were going to break the rules – in their favour or not. However the lady in the church-run hostel (in a beautiful setting by the way at the foot of the massif) associated with the plateau management assured us that the rota system didn’t really work for a variety of reasons and so if we had a personal recommendation then we may as well go with that. So she sent for the guide, Nedi, in order to vouch for his character and then we spent the night planning together. Dave and I really wanted to cross the whole plateau which should normally take an easy 5 days because some days you would only walking 3 or 4 hours on the paths between the various official mountain huts in which you would stay, and so we thought we could do it in 3 days. But Nedi refused to budge, doubting our enjoyment potential, so because of logistal constraints we agreed to explore the south west corner.

So on our first day we rose early, had a welcome wholesome churchy breakfast of porridge, fruit and tea and set off up the steep earthy, bouldery path into the sky.

Right at the top of this path (thankfully) I started to feel exhausted and none-too-right but after a whole hour the previous night trying to argue that we were fit and fast walkers, well, pride made me go on. Until I had to sit down, and then couldn’t move, and then was sick. How embarrassing. Hoping it was just the heat (and it was very hot), and actually feling a bit better I carried on but after some lunch which I brought straight back up again it was starting to look a lot like I’d caught the cape maclear bug. I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done to continue the mostly uphill path for another hour and a half, in the heat of midday, with an empty stomach, on an empty energy tank, knowing that noone could help, stopping often to pant or be sick (thank you Dave for always standing in front of the sun and creating me some shade as I did). But I did it and I’ve never been so relieved to see a destination before.

The hut was basic but cosy and full of other walkers making dinner in the fireplace and bedding down on the floor (adventure points to dave for earlier browsing someone’s Lonely Plant guide which warned that there were no mattresses in this hut which meant we brought our rollmats and sleeping bags with us…some people were caught out and were literally sleeping on the floor). There were even a few beers and cokes being kept cold in the nearby stream.

Weirdly I didn’t *feel* ill, just unable to keep anything down, so after a mostly good night and a test breakfast of porridge I decided to continue. Fortunately we were mostly going downhill on day 2, over areas that looked just like the Peak District or Yorkshire Dales withgreen rolling hills with the odd huge grey rock patches and streams. Unfortunately with an hour or so till home again I started feeling unwell again and have never been so glad to see a toilet when we arrived :) After a bad evening of cramps and dashes to the outside loos I thought it best to have a proper recovery day.

I’m so glad we stopped another day because the hut was like an american woodcutters hut with a open porch that ran all round the outside where you could sit and take in the tree fringed plains of gentle grassy hills. Although we were over a thousand metres up you’d swear you were somewhere in the middle of England – even weatherwise because it’s noticeably cooler up there with a gentle breeze. And it was the height of cosiness inside with old dark wooden furniture and bare floorboards, a roaring fire in the communal living/dining area and candlelight after dark. We were the only ones here so we ignored the dorms and slept on the “overflow beds” next to the crackling fire and I felt like I could move in and raise chickens.

Next day I made house and chatted to the workers re-planting local cedars to replace the non-indigenous and invasive pine while Dave climbed a nearby peak. In the evening we went to explore some nearby stream-fed pools and look out from the edge of the plateau over the towns below. A candle lit game of scrabble was the height of excitement and we enjoyed watching our guides try and work out how to cook the spare packet noodles we’d donated them (we’d all only brought enough food for the trip but fortunately I’d skipped a meal).

The next day was Dave’s birthday and back in tip top health (almost sadly) we trickled down easy tree shaded bouldery paths, broken by further views out over the side of the massif, getting more and more tropical as we descended. For lunch we stopped at a waterfall straight out of some advert for shampoo. Dave dived into the icy cold clear and deep water while I slid in ooching and eeking but it was sooo refreshing after the tropical trees. We dried out in the sun and then made the last few km back to base.
As a special birthday treat we were passed by a local church gospel choir who were staying at the hostel and were going on a trip to the waterfall but singing as they went. It was great to pass them one by one in a line and hear the different harmonies.

We finished pretty early in the day and Dave requested dinner out and dancing in the big city so we didn’t even have a shower but gathered our bags (dashed off that last blog entry) and hopped on a bus to Blantyre – after being given a lift to the next town by an ambulance who was returning to base and picks up some passengers for cash when he does. T.I.A. This is Africa.

Posted by rachndave 03:55 Archived in Malawi Tagged hiking muontains illness Comments (0)

Gently gently catchy Jumbo


From the bottom of the sea-like Lake Malawi flows the Shire river which in turn drains into the Zambezi (which even I’ve heard of). And this slow moving sleepy river Shire and the transport-hub town of Liwonde would be our next stop. The river flows through a national park which is renowned for its birds and wildlife and the river makes it rather unique as a wildlife park. Neither of us were particularly interested in a game drive but the chance to pootle up the river in a boat sounded like a nice alternative to see riverside wildlife.

So we arrived, left Jeroen to recover from his tummy upset, borrowed Anna’s laptop for a rare film and room service treat in our elevated turret room overlooking the river listening to the sound of hippos in the river.

Next day we hopped on the back of a cycle taxi to the riverside and had a very lazy river trip past all sorts of birds (my favourite being the “intermediate egret” for the name alone) and yawning hippo pods. The highlight of the trip though was an elephant who had come down to the reed beds to drink. He was none to happy to have us so close judging by the apparent charge-warning of his flapping ears and swaying head but soon we left him alone to watch him and his mate disappear under the water bar their trunks sticking out like periscopes and walk along the bottom to the other side and privacy.

We had offered to cook something healthy like a veg stir fry for Anna and Jeroen using their Landrover stove so we checked out the local covered market but nearly all the stalls in the market were offering the same things – tomatoes, onions, cabbage, dried fish and sometimes some dried beans. We did manage to track down some garlic and a man whispered to us that he could get us a green pepper, literally sold to us under the table out of a hidden bag, which we jumped at. We headed home with what we could get and it turned out they had a store of green curry paste and even some coconut milk they’d stocked up with in Zambia I think. Saved!
As I’m writing this of course we’ve been here for a month so I can say that the markets are often the same. No matter what their size they will still stock only the same things. In the larger markets you can get some bread, mangos and condiments as well but as far as main ingredients go…that’s pretty much it, anything extra is worthy of investigation and comment. Fortunately the tomatoes and onions here are some of the best I’ve tasted. But I tell you, I could murder some cheese.

But I quite liked Liwonde, it had character and we’re easing our way into how the towns work. We left Anna and Jeroen at this point as they head back towards Mozambique and we headed south to climb mount Mulanje…festival hangover safely behind us.

Posted by rachndave 02:24 Archived in Malawi Tagged animals markets Comments (0)

How to recover from a festival


Anna, Jeroen, Lani and Bryan, Dave and I headed in the Landrovers / Toyotas to Cape Maclear, a fishing village cum backpacker chillout destination further up the lake side. When we arrived Dave and I turned out to be sharing a dorm with a couple who had been camped next to us, sharing the same tree shade, at the festival: Mouse (nickname for Fay…fay-mouse…geddit ;)) and Johnny. The eight of us and two others, Nick and Amy who were two VSO workers in Uganda, would be kicking about together for the next 5 days.

We had intended to stay in Cape Maclear for only a day or two to recover from our hangovers but the clear blue water, island view, bars along the shoreline and village distractions were too difficult to leave so we remained there having bbqs on the beach (I think one of the tastiest fish I’ve ever had), snorkling among the brightly coloured freshwater cychlids (these are as renowned as darwin’s finches or the madagascan lemurs as a demonstration of evolution in action), feeding the fish eagles, swimming out at the stunning and dali-esque “otter point”, visiting the other nearby lodges and bars, lying in hammocks with a book and generally pottering about with a beer in our hands. That’s when we weren’t catching up with hand washing etc…which brings me to the picture of that horrible monster you might have seen in the photos Dave uploaded. I was washing some of our stuff, including Dave’s pants and after having mashed the washing up and down or a few minutes I started working through the items to clean them more thoroughly and when I picked up these I found this spider clamped down smack bang in the middle of Dave’s crotch! All I can say is that I’m glad it wasn’t my finger – that thing had massive jaws. *shudder*. We’ve checked a book and I don’t think it was poisonous but I bet it would still have nipped :-s

When sitting on the beach a variety of people would pass by to sell us what they were offering or just to stop and chat. Including a man who would fetch fruit from the trees or make special cakes, the bbq organisers, a man who made greeting cards from recycled paper and using old shoes as print-stamps. The best of all tough were the “Lucky Band”: a ragtag bunch of 10 year old boys with home made instruments made from paint pots, bottle tops and a guitar made from a broom handle, string and a big petrol bottle and they sounded awesome. They had a repertoire of about 10 sings including, oddly, “who let the dogs out” (brilliant). We’d see them touring up and down the beach and in the village.

Anna, who is a spontaneous, inquisitive and friendly soul and she really made the most of the place. She and Lani had replicas made of one Mouse’s dresses using a sarong for fabric and taken to one of the local tailors. She also struck up a small business deal with the man who made the recycled cards but also makes jewelry from strips of old magazines and some varnish. I even had a chance to sit down with him to make some of the beads later when we went to collect a big batch that Anna plans to sell when she gets back home. She and Jeroen also made a sound recording of the Lucky Band and made them a few CDs which they can maybe copy and sell if they wanted. What a lovely thing to do. I hope I can get a copy too when I get home so you can hear them.

One of the nicest things about Cape Maclear is that is a working fishing village so when you pop out for some cold drinks you pass the small markets and fishermen mending their nets and everyone calls out a friendly “helloo, how are yooo”? You also get trailed, the minute you step outside the hostel gates, by a crowd of small children asking for pens or money but will happily stay around and hold your hand everywhere you go no matter what you say to the request. They’re lovely playful kids and the guys working in Uganda say that it’s a nice change to see children having a proper happy childhood which they say often isn’t the case where they’re staying.

Unfortunately Amy brought a tummy bug with her from Uganda and one by one everyone fell to it by the last day but unfortunately we had to get back on the road anyway. So Anna, a poorly Jeroen, Dave and I waved goodbye to all the guys, and the lake, and got back on the road to start exploring Malawi properly.

Posted by rachndave 00:44 Archived in Malawi Tagged lake companions Comments (0)

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