A Travellerspoint blog


Redress the balance


This experience is absolutely the best and biggest thing I’ve ever done but it would been unfair representation if I didn’t admit that it has its more wearing side. I certainly couldn’t do this forever. I’m not keen to get back just yet but I know when I do I’ll be happy to be home.

People suggest in emails from home that they are reluctant to tell me their news because it somehow wouldn’t be interesting in comparison. Let me assure you that the more you’re away from home the more you appreciate the deeper relationships you have at home – and part of that depth is knowing the details of your loved one’s lives. They were interesting before, why wouldn’t they be interesting now?

In some ways I miss the small details of my own life – I feel like I’m living in headlines statements at the moment and while that’s what I signed up for and am thoroughly enjoying it’s a strange thing at the same time.

So I thought I’d share with you some of the tiring things about travelling to balance the scales a little

  • Having the same conversations over and over again
  • Never having time to get to know people properly, or too much forced time with people you don’t really have anything in common with
  • Squeaky doors in dorms :)
  • Rarely having any privacy
  • Being a constant focus of attention immediately you step out the door
  • Constant communication misunderstandings and sometimes inexplicable struggles to understand and be understood
  • Battling for fair treatment in any kind of service or trade situation
  • Remembering to handwash every few days and finding some way to do that
  • Rarely having more than one nights in the same bed and having to stay packed
  • Rarely being able to eat what you fancy when you fancy
  • An awful lot all conversations with resident people end in, or indirectly contain, some kind of request or sales pitch which makes it difficult to know how far to enter into any kind of conversation and cheapens earlier getting-to-know-you chit chat
  • Never remembering where the lightswitch is
  • Always knowing you’ll have to get dressed and hike to the shared bathroom in the middle of the night if you wake up

None of these (or even the entire combination thereof) are reason for you not to do this sort of thing yourself or myself again in the future cos I’m loving it. And some of these things I knew would be the case in advance but the reality is of course in emotional 3D. The thing I’ve come to realise is that the reason I have a *home* is that the inherent life-shortcuts I create by surrounding myself by the ultra-familiar is that I can concentrate instead on the more important/interesting details of my life and the lives of others…and not knock into tables looking for the lightswitch.

Posted by rachndave 12:39 Archived in Malawi Tagged observations Comments (0)

Goodbye to the lake

Rachel - Mzuzu and Nkarta Bay

It was nice to be back in a town and in an old school backpacker friendly place. The brilliantly named Mzuzu Zoo was a perfect place to relax on a sofa and share some drinks with other travellers (including Tisita, from the Ilala and Mushroom Farm) and the chain-smoking, shuffling Swiss/Italian Christopher Walken lookalike owner and his east ender ex-hippy mate. All the rooms were full, including the dorms, so we were given the caravan hidden in the towering bamboo forest. It was a funny little slightly knackered place the Mzuzu zoo but we had the comfiest night sleep we’d had in ages, some hosptible company and a later a chance to stock up on some bits and bobs in the town.

Tisita, bless her loopy cotton socks, donated me some tshirts she didn’t want anymore, lent me her charger and then failed to wait for us after we’d agreed to share a lift to our next and final stop – Nkarta Bay. So when we got to Nkarta bay we had to ask around in the lodges to find her and found out that her loopy reputation had preceded her since she had gotten into a fight with one of the bar owners after she’d been barred for un-surreptitiously smoking a big joint in the front garden. Everyone knew here but noone knew where she was so we gave it to someone who was also going back on the Ilala as we knew she had, so we hope it gets there.

So now we’re in Nkarta Bay where I’ve just spent three days sitting in the shady waterside bar of our hostel catching up with writing this blog so we haven’t seen much of it at all. In the evenings it’s lively here, especially at the moment because there’s a wedding hereon Saturday so the guests had a party last night which ended up with the bar owner gyrating half naked on the bar and being carried to bed by the staff :) Here we’ve caught up with Layni and Dean from Mushroom Farm, the Danny from Ruarwe, Tsur and Ido from Mzuzu zoo, Ryan from the festival/Cape Maclear, and Bella from Cape Maclear/Lilongwe so it’s been a great bookend to our trip.

We’ve been here for so long because we waiting here for the scheduled train to Tanzania which leaves on Saturday. We decided that although the train goes all the way west to east across Tanzania to Dar-es-Salam, and then we have to backtrack west and north using another train, that it would be a relatively stress free way to travel to the Ugandan border and take about the same time as going direct up the west edge by road given the reported bad state of the roads in the west of Tanzania and there isn’t much to see on that side other than some prohibitively expensive game parks. We may as well pay Zanzibar a visit in east Tanzania as well since it’s so close to Dar-es-Salam so we think it’ll take us a week to ten days to get to the Ugandan border. People tell us we need to be a bit more on our guard from here on in which is a shame after the easy going and welcoming nature of Malawi – even the hustles that we do encounter are pretty easy going. I’m looking forward to seeing some different landscape now though and even some bigger cities so much as I’m Malawi’s newest biggest fan I’m ready for the next stage.

See you on the east side!

Posted by rachndave 12:37 Archived in Malawi Tagged lake Comments (0)


Rachel - Ruarwe

We had read about yet another eco-conscious set up on the remotest shore of the lake which was also a challenge to reach being completely inaccessible by roads because of the surrounding mountains, and the boats all finished about 4 hours walk short (although it suggests you can speak nicely to the captain to take you the rest of the way). Ruarwe village is so remote that the lodge in question was originally named “Wherearewe” We had originally planned one of the other options to hike along the lake shore but so soon after Nyika we decided to get there by boat instead and maybe hike out. We had prepared ourselves, and were even welcoming, a bit of a battle to get there but after Steve from the Mushroom Farm gave us a lift down the big hill on his way to the market in town, and then we caught some easy minibuses to the closest harbour. We had a small wait for the boat but the captain offered to take us all the way without us even having to ask and even offered a reasonable price so after five breezy hours on the boat we arrived, not tired out in the least (other than a very numb bum).

The next day we walked a few hours round trip along the river past the waterfall and up to a gap in the mountains accompanied by the resident dog who had shared our dorm. And when we returned we hoped to find some more people to chat with but it was pretty dead with only three volunteers who were helping to build and run the local education centre who were cooking their own food and so weren’t really around much. So Dave and I asked someone to finally teach us the local boardgame: Bao. We must be very well matched or are missing a key rule because we’ve now played that game three times and we always have to give up because it doesn’t seem to finish!

That was after we borrowed the dug-out canoe and tried to balance ourselves by straddling an end each while I paddled us around for a bit. Those Malawian fishermen must have ore muscles of steel, we tried all sorts and it just felt so unstable, although we only had one fall overboard so I think we can take some pride in our wobbly efforts. Although by this point we were starting to worry about our earlier decision to hire a canoe with driver the next day to take us round to the next big town where we could get back to the main road. Three people and more importantly our precious bags wobbling about sounded risky but the manager assured us the bigger canoes were much more stable and the idea of canoeing out was too romantic to pass up.

We hung out with the three volunteers that evening, one of whom was leaving the following day and they were killing and cooking a goat in his honour. He was going to carry out the slaughter himself for idealistic principles after being a lapsed vegetarian and ex isreali army recruit and wannabe student doctor.

So the next morning, after the rain and choppiness had passed, we packed our things in plastic, secured them in the boat, took up the paddles and headed out along the coast. Even in a canoe people will shout hello from the shoreline so whoever wasn’t paddling was on waving duty and the three hours pretty much flew by while we sang all the sea/ship/water related songs we could think of to I think the bafflement of our main paddler in the back Adamson. We were told there was little chance of finding a scheduled pickup truck lift before morning so we struck some luck when a passing pickup said we could jump in while we were walking to the town.

We had to wait 2 hours for them to load mountains of fish and flour sacks onto the back from one of the visiting cargo boats while entertaining a relentless crowd of children. They wouldn’t stop staring or calling out and trying to get a reaction from us no matter how boring we tried to be and after our efforts this morning we really just wanted to zone out and wait peacefully but eventually after they were acting out the Macarena (of all things!) for us I jumped down and tried a round of hokey cokey. Fortunately at this point we were about ready to go and to a final farewell parting chorus of “give me money” we were off.

It’s a pity really that it was dark by this point because the road from the coast back up the valleyside must have been spectacular with narrow hairpin bend after hairpin bend and glimpses of the sheer drops and open views to the other side of the valley occasionally hinted at by the headlights and fires burning miles away. Our driver was a motoring whiz but still had us clutching the side of our seats and praying, not only for our lives but for the dozen or so people who weren’t in the cab with us but clinging to the mountain of sacks on the top! But thanks to the driver we all arrived alive in Mzuzu. Our inward journey to Ruarwe had been so easy but we felt like we had earned our rest today.

Posted by rachndave 12:35 Archived in Malawi Tagged transportation Comments (0)

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)

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