“The day will come when cats have horns and Dutchmen will be circumcised.”
I decided to take a plane to Malawi from Mozambique because I was told there “might be trouble near the border” and not to risk it. and so I encountered my first hurdle in my “smooth transition constantly moving forwards”: No direct flights to Lilongwe from Maputo. I had to go back to Johannesburg. Are you kidding me? It felt incredibly wasted for me to take a step back to go forward and for a split second I was thoroughly annoyed. Then I remembered: This trip embodies total freedom for me. It’s not like I have to be in Lilongwe at a certain time for something. Just freakin’ relax and get on the plane. So I did. And now I’m glad I did because I once I touched down in Johannesburg I had to retrace my steps from my first visit. I went through the same checkpoints, hallways and shop areas as when I was heading for Zimbabwe in February.
Before I left home I told several of my friends: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking forward to my trip ending, but I -am- looking forward to the person I’m going to be when I land in Oslo after years of travelling. Like, what could possibly be the problem for me, at that point, navigating from Oslo Airport?”. When I trudged through OR Tambo International Airport for the second time I noticed the difference already. Again, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m done learning, it’s only been 5 months, but the trepidation was gone, my ability to find what I was looking for less clouded by confusion and the constant assault on the senses of new impressions. I was clearer, calmer, already more experienced. In the end it actually felt comforting to return to Johannesburg…
Upon landing in Malawi everything was pretty straightforward (for Africa). I got in line, filled out the form, paid the most expensive visa fee on my trip so far ($75 for single entry!) and met my driver outside arrivals. He held up a sign calling for “Anne and she’ll” and for a second I thought they’d be two of us going to the hostel, but I guess he’d just copied a bit more of the e-mail than intended on the sign because after I had gotten some money out of the ATM we left and drove towards Lilongwe.
Pro tip, by the way: Get cash out when you can in Malawi. It can be difficult to get a hold of and during my 4 weeks there I discovered what it was like to have money in your account and no way to get to it…
The first few days in Malawi were just about getting my bearings and deciding what to do. I stayed at Mabuya Camp, a backpackers about 20 minutes walk from shops (and working ATMs!) and tried to figure out if I should brave going to Cape Maclear and follow my original plan of getting on the Ilala Ferry or if I should just get a bus up to Mzuzu… My Malawi-route ended up like this by the time I was finished:
I shared my dorm room with a woman named Dawn. She had the most Welsh accent I’ve ever heard (even if I thought, for a split second, she was Scottish) and we bonded over movie night. We propped my laptop up on he chair, sat in between our bunks and watched the new “John Wick 2″… I was sad to see her leave for Nkhata Bay a couple of days later, she was picked up by a local taxi driver with a superbly Swedish sweater ;-D My days after that consisted of reading, tanning, cuddling dogs and having a Tequila shot with Sophie (a girl working at Mabuya) and Joe…
I decided I had time to see everything and my #FoMo (“Fear of Missing Out”) kicked in, as it always does, so I started planning my trip to Cape Maclear via Monkey Bay. Apparently nowadays in Malawi you can get on a minibus destined to go somewhere, but if there aren’t enough people going to the end destination they will cut their losses and just dump you somewhere along the road. Which I guess is fine for the locals, but I was not very comforted by this, particularly since AXA, the major bus company has dropped their route going from Lilongwe to Monkey Bay, meaning I would have to get on at least three different buses to get to Monkey Bay alone. Fortunately, Sophie, helped me out. She found a guy who consented to drive me to Monkey Bay directly. Vastly more expensive than a minibus, but all in all the 3,5 hour trip cost me around $60 – which I was glad to pay. I got to Monkey Bay safely, stayed there one night and the next morning made my way to Cape Maclear. There are so many people going between Monkey Bay and Cape Maclear it’s no problem getting a taxi or motorbike taxi there… Of course, you have to go through the “police checkpoint” which is basically two-three cops standing at a tight bottleneck of the road getting paid bribes to let people through… The minute the policeman saw me he pointed at me and “needed to see the driver”. He then proceeded to “inspect the car” and lo and behold the driver needed to pay him to go through. I have no idea if the driver was carrying something in the trunk and the policeman looked the other way or if it was because he was transporting a white tourist, but the driver actually had to get 2000 kwacha in advance from me because he didn’t have cash. he then walked over to the police officer and “shook his hand” leaving the 2000 kwacha in the cops palm in the most subtle mafia-movie-exchange of money I have ever seen in real life. I just thought: “Africa…” and shook my head. (And before you get riled up and defend the poor people who don’t get paid and need to make a living: I get all that. I understand -why- it happens. I just wish it didn’t have to -and- I would like to point out that even if all the people accepting bribes out of necessity stopped doing so, there would still be bribes based on greed). Malawi is one of the friendlies countries I have ever been to, but also it bears mentioning that it was the first country I was exposed to bribes committed and attempts to coax me into bribing officials. It’s something I understand, but find it hard to respect. Poetically enough this would also encompass my last experience in Malawi at the border crossing in Songwe, but I’ll tell you about that at the end.
Anyway! Monkey Bay is not much to see. The ATMs don’t work, the shop has two types of biscuits, two flavour noodles, some god awful syrup to mix with water and 5 litre jugs of water and the Ilala Ferry leaves from there. Most tourists end up going through here on the way to Cape Maclear or the Ilala (or both) and my one night there was enough, so I went to the Ilala Ferry terminal to book my cabin for next week’s boat trip (the Ilala travels up and down Lake Malawi once a week leaving Monkey Bay early every Friday morning) and headed for Cape Maclear hoping for more chill, more fun and more atmosphere.
Experience dictates caution when booking, so I booked Thumbi Backpackers for two days hoping to scout the area when I got there. I was at Thumbi about 10 minutes before I decided I would stay there the whole week. This feeling was, of course, reinforced by the fact that I paid $11 for a dorm room (only cold showers in there, but with its own bathroom AND including a -good- English breakfast) and got the room all to myself the whole week. So I basically lucked out 🙂
I instantly bonded with Laura and Radic, two Polish people who travel and work. They were volunteering at Thumbi and I ended up chatting with them about everything from books to politics to hearing about Laura smashing her teeth through her lip while walking her dogs… Good times. AND, with the two of them being there I had someone to go on the catamaran sunset cruise with. I ended up reading three books at Thumbi, getting a bit sunburned and getting used to cold showers (that’s a lie, I’ll never get used to them, I’m a creature of comfort).
I also tried in vain to be brave and try something new. I heard that someone would roast mouse for eating and thought “Hey yo! Local experience!”… But to no avail 😦 There was no mousy treat to find and when I went back and asked Noeno and Immanuel who work at Thumbi they said they knew of no one who had that in the nearby vicinity so… I was very sad indeed… Sad enough to send a snap!
After my week in Cape Maclear came the adventure I had been planning since before I left Norway. Lake Malawi is between 560 & 580 km long, and about 75 km wide at its widest point. It’s 706 meters deep at its deepest point. It’s pretty big, people. Yup…
It’s also smack in the middle of some beautiful scenery and what better way to see the absolute most of it than to spend my days travelling north ON the lake? Like I said I booked a cabin the previous week and it was all arranged (though… it IS Africa, so I quietly thought to myself “I’ll relax when I’m actually ON the boat and IN my cabin…”). I got to the ticket office, told them I had booked the “Owner’s Cabin” (the biggest and bestest and nicest and stuffs) and they replied: “It’s already booked.”
I was just about to go all “Molly Weasley” on this guy when the thought occured to me: it’s probably MY booking and he doesn’t realize. So I tried to explain this to him, but he started talking to the woman who had wrestled herself in beside me and proceeded to sell her a ticket instead. This happens a lot here in Africa. There is no “queue-culture” to speak of only very loosely based lines that are randomly crossed if you don’t pay attention and elbow your way in. Also, if the person you’re talking to isn’t too confident in his or her English, they may start talking to the person next to you, who is easier and more comfortable to help and this person will receive help before you unless you elbow in and protest/pick up where the guy left off… For someone like me who usually errs on the side of politeness, it can be stressful and sometimes annoying to navigate. In this case, I turned to the other ticket salesman who just sat down next to the guy squared my shoulders to prevent anyone sneaking in in front of me and said “I have booked the Owner’s Cabin, the booking is -MINE- *pointing at me* and I have to -PAY NOW- for the trip, pleasethankyou?” The guy smiled, checked his record and got his little ticket-notepad out (everything is by hand here) and jutted down my name and “Owner’s Cabin”, checked the price, said it was 47600 kwacha ($65), took my 48000 kwacha, smiled and said he “had no change” (of course). At this point I just resigned to smile rather knowingly at him and said “nevermind, which way to the ferry, please?” upon which he pointed me in the right direction and I got myself and all my crap onboard the boat.
The trip to Ruarwe (where Zulunkhuni River Lodge is) would take me two days and nights and I was eager to see my cabin so the chef/saloon manager, Augustin, got the key and got me installed at once. I was not disappointed! Two beds in there that were quite comfortable a small table with mirror, a fridge that didn’t work, but who cares? I used it as a table instead and my own, private toilet and shower(!) – I have to admit, I never used the shower, but the toilet was SO nice to have. There were functioning plugs to charge my stuff, and four tiny windows to let natural light in. It was better than I anticipated and I was thoroughly happy with my choice. Of course, I found that the door didn’t lock from the inside (for some reason that’s happened to me a lot while travelling in Africa..), but I jerry-rigged a system with some hairbands and a phonecharge-wire to keep the door reasonably shut and “locked”. And, I could lock it when leaving the cabin, so my stuff was safe, I felt. (I later heard from Claire, whom I met in Nkhata Bay and whom had also been in the Owner’s Cabin just after me, that she told Augustin and he just fixed the lock the same day, but oh well, water under the bridge).
The two days on the Ilala passed too quickly. I was worried I would be bored there, but when the time came to leave I wished I could stay two more days…
I ventured off the ferry on the second day because we anchored up outside Likoma Island. Likoma and Chizumulu are two small islands in Lake Malawi that are -within the borders of Mizambique, but belong to Malawi-… Very strange. (“Although both islands lie just a few kilometres from Mozambique, and are entirely surrounded by Mozambican territorial waters, they are both exclaves of Malawi.”)
I had heard from a fellow passenger that there was a massive church built on Likoma, an Anglikan cathedral dedicated to St. Peter. He said it was as big as Westminster Abbey, of course, it wasn’t, but it was very impressive none the less and it is apparently (I checked on Wikipedia) on of the largest churches in Africa.
I was on Likoma for only one hour, but it was worth the chaos of getting in the lifeboat that doubles as “transport to/from shore at every stop”, watching it fill up with too many people, too many bags of rice, way too much luggage and some live poultry thrown in for good measure. We were preeetttyyyyyy looow in the waterrrrr…. #LocalExperience
I’m gonna have to wrap this up, this post is going to be a novel… I had decided on the Ilala Ferry and Zulunkhuni before I left Norway and upon arriving (by rowboat) at Zulunkhuni I was once again not disappointed. It’s a little paradise. There’s no internet, no cellphone reception and very little electricity (solar driven lights and the possibility of charging phones and laptops only in Annelies’s cabin) and I planned to stay there from Sunday to Friday reading books, snorkelling and generally doing nothing. I was the only guest there except my first and last day, so the managers Annelies and Levi offered me a free upgrade from my dorm room to the chalet slightly higher up. Of course, I accepted and I got my own little cabin with my very own little platform overlooking Lake Malawi.
My stay at Zulunkhuni was so good. I learned to play Bawo, I received good food made by the wonderful Flarry and Lembane, I went to the nearby village of Ruarwe one day with Annelies and saw the development done there, had a coke with the chief and was told how they traditionally decorate the graves a while after burial and most importantly, met another dog I would like to kidnap and take home with me, Dbo. I also made a friend in Annelies, the Dutch woman who was watching the place while the owners were one vacation, I hope to meet her again some day. The best Bawo-partner I could have 😉
The ferry trip to Nkhata Bay was uneventful, except I met an American lady and together we planned how to find an ATM in Nkhata because we were both running out of money fast (she even owed the ferry 25000 kwacha). The scenery was as lovely as ever though, and since I didn’t have a cabin (it was just a few hours to Nkhata Bay so I just hung out on top deck) I also ran out of battery on my phone taking pictures 😛
Naturally, I had told my friends that I would be “on the ferry with no internet” for two days, but I neglected to mention that I was staying five days in a place with no internet straight after that, and on top of that I Like Zulunkhuni so much I decided to extend my stay until Monday and get on the Ilala going back down to Nkhata Bay. When I finally got to Mayoka and logged on the internet my phone blew up…
At least I wasn’t dead #SilverLining… I even managed to get money out of the ATM in Nkhata Bay so now I was officially sorted. I managed to get a lift up to Mayoka Village (they pay the taxi drivers to take guests arriving up there) and got myself a dorm room. Decided to hang out for a week, met the people who would become the Scooby Gang (you know who you are) and basically did what I’d done at Zulunkhuni: reading, tanning, chatting, relaxing. This time I exchanged the snorkelling for a boat trip though, Mayoka has a free boa trip on Tuesdays which includes cliff diving, fish eagle feeding, volleyball and drinks. We filled the dingy and set off #TotallySafe ;-D
The rest of my week there was lazy as f**k. Good times. Much read. Such dog.
I met Claire at Mayoka Village and since she was going from there up to Mbeya to catch the Tazara train to Dar Es Salaam, I decided to join her. We set off towards Mzuzu with Elise, Tanya and Natasja, sharing a taxi and minibuses. Claire and I needed to get to Karonga, our last stop in Malawi. From there we would get a taxi to the border, a minibus to Mbeya and then wed sort out the Tazara ticket.
The taxi to Mzuzu was fine, according to African standards. The dude had a sticker on his dashboard saying “Only God can judge me”, but while he was speeding along at “too fast an hour” across potholes I was silently thinking “I’m judging you a little here, pal”…
The minibus from Mzuzu to Karonga… was the first time I was actually worried in a minibus in Africa. Well done, driver, you idiot… Where the hell did you learn to dri… DID you learn to drive??
In Karonga I got Claire to come with me to see the “Malawisaurus“! Malawi has its very own dinosaur, people! And they have made a cast of the bones so you can see it in its full, bony glory in the tiny museum they have in Karonga. It was Annelies who tipped me off about it and I’m glad I got to go see it as my final goodbye to Malawi.
The rest of the Malawi-trip was a-ok, allthough: little did we know at about what the Tazara train ride would bring us… 😛
But that’s a story for the “Tazania”-part of my blog. For now I will conclude this way too long post saying that Malawi is my favourite country so far “people-wise” (Zimbabwe doesn’t count, that whole project was a special “bubble” so it will hold a special lace in my heart no matter what). It’s known as the friendliest country in southern Africa, Africa’s heart, and I agree… The whole vibe of Malawi is warm and relaxed and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. If I hadn’t met Claire and jumped at the chance of traversing the minibus-transport-leg-hell with someone, I would have extended my visa and stayed longer.
So long, Malawi. See you some time in the future 🙂