How Mal Are We?

After a relatively painless border crossing into Malawi we made our way up to Livingstonia, an old colonial town at the top of a steep windy pass with cliffs to one side and obstacles in the road requiring low range etc and obligatory clapped-out car with shot shocks and 10 passengers inside just behind to make us look like amateurs. It took us about an hour to go 15 km.

We stayed at a lovely campsite called Lukwe with an amazing view down the valley to the lake. They have a permaculture vegetable garden growing pretty much every type of fruit or vegetable imaginable and we spent a morning chatting to an incredibly passionate guy who is in charge of the garden. He lives in a little property on the other side of the valley and has been using the same gardening techniques he has learned from the owner of the campsite to grow his own vegetables. You can see the difference with an oasis of green in the hills on the other side of the valley.

Jules and I became unwitting pied pipers again when we went for a walk to a nearby waterfall and a bunch of children started following us and then tried to guide us to the waterfall. They should have been in school, but the owner of the campsite told us there are tourists who will quite happily give them 2,000 kwacha for 5 minutes of pointing out the waterfall. When his father earns 500 kwacha for a day’s labour (about £1), there is no incentive to be in school.

After seeing the waterfall and visiting a cave at the top where people used to hide from slavers we walked up the rest of the way to the town – about 5 km of steep uphill heading in the direction of squabbles, bitching and moaning about heat, dust and sore legs which suddenly stopped when we were overtaken by people walking along the same route with large baskets full of flour balancing on their heads. We went to an old missionary museum in the town and then treated ourselves to some scones with banana jam (6 bananas, cup of water, half a cup of lemon juice, cup of sugar, bring to boil then simmer. Banana Jam – Done).

My late grandmother Nina was a lady who’s only competition for title of “loveliest nicest granny in the world” was Mother Theresa and Jules’ and my other grannies (oh and our mothers as well – I forgot, you are also grannies). I think she has been put in charge of the angels looking after children around Malawi, because even though temperatures were in the mid-thirties, they have clearly been listening to her say “It’s that time of the year again – you need to put on a cardigan otherwise you will catch a cold”.

On the way to the lake we stopped at a town called Mzuzu to get some supplies. While I drew money Jules bought a Malawian sim card from a lady who approached her window. With a new currency and exchange rate every couple of weeks Jules can be forgiven for paying 5,000 kwacha (about £10). I drove around the block to find the lady who had tried to crook my wife and left her with the same “I hate people and feel like a muppet” feeling we had with our almonds in Turkey. “Did you just sell my wife a sim card for 5,000 kwacha? That seems very expensive, what is the real price?”

“1,000 kwacha.”

I think this is the first time I have actually wagged my finger at anybody and in my Stern Assertive Gruff Voice I said “You are very dishonest.” She then hastily counted out the difference and handed it back to me. This turned out to be more than I thought Jules had paid, so I handed her back 1,000 kwacha and told her I didn’t want her to pay me more, just for it to be fair. Back in the car and on our way I remembered that Jules had also bought some airtime, so the sim card lady should have given me the extra money after all and had ended up with a 1,000 kwacha present. “And let that be a lesson to you” (spoken in a Stern Assertive Gruff Finger Wagging Voice).

We spent a couple of days on the lake staying at a place called Makuzi Beach Lodge. After staying at one or two campsites Jules and I now know a thing or two and reckon we could build and run the perfect campsite. These guys know more. It is definitely the nicest place we have stayed at and somewhere we will return to. You are also unlikely to find friendlier people running a place like this. We have heard of somebody who went for 5 days and ended up staying for 35 (Makuzi Beach Lodge). To top off a great couple of days we also met up with Sophie and Richard, an English couple we have been chatting to for a while who are on their way back to the UK, having lived in Australia (Morgan Safari). We also feel like we missed a trick, because other people at the campsite had met a couple of people driving around Africa with a deep freeze full of steaks and a 50 litre water container full of Klipdrift. To the uninitiated Klipdrift / Klippies / 2 past 8 (the time on the clock on the label) / Moer my Vrou (beat my wife) is a South African brandy. As Julie’s brother Ross once said in a Stern Assertive Gruff Finger Wagging voice as he put a bottle on the table and squashed the lid – “Nou praat ons” (Now We Speak).

On the way down the lake we spent a night at a campsite called Cool Runnings. Having been away from Nandos for approximately 215 days I cooked the perfect chicken flatty and then for some strange reason felt compelled to play it down to the dreadlocked NGO volunteer next to us who was cooking his own version of Red for the umpteenth time in a row. “We normally have spaghetti with tomatoes, but it’s my birthday tomorrow, so this is a big treat”.

Yesterday I overhead somebody ask what the enemy was. When nobody understood what he was going on about, he said “What is the time dammit – I’m 76 years old.” At 34 I can relate to that. 1 year away from my first Ferrari – a challenge given by a stupid 18 year old version of me. Challenge spitefully declined – “Up yours younger Chris with your long hair and your chiselled abs. Instead of working hard and saving all my money I am going to drink beer and then go on a long trip down Africa”. One of the more colourful stories we have heard on this trip also involved somebody saying “up yours” to himself. A “friend” of one of the bikers apparently used to regularly wet his bed after a big drinking session. It became such a problem that before he went out one night his sober self wrote a note to his drunk self saying “Don’t wet the bed, go to the loo before you go to sleep” and put it on the pillow. That night when he got home, his drunk self read the note and said “Up yours sober self”, and basically stood on his bed and purposefully weed all over it – “Take that sober self – you can’t tell me what to do.” In the words of Nan, my other grandmother – “God Fathers.”

We decided that this year would be the year of no birthday presents because of the trip. This didn’t stop Jules from rebelling and giving me the greatest gift a 34 year old could wish for – my choice of music on the ipod for the drive down the lake. An hour of Guns ‘n Roses. I was even allowed to do the Axl Rose voice (“I don’t need your civil wowoowow” followed by “knocking on heaven’s dowoowow”). I hadn’t been allowed to do that before and I haven’t since. Other voices I’m not allowed to do include AC/DC (although I wouldn’t be able to anyway as those get skipped as soon as they come on), High Pitched Beach Boys, Nasal Tom Petty, Deep Anastasia, Unintelligible Bruce Springsteen etc. After sitting next to each other every day for over 6 months I guess some things can become a bit annoying. Singing along with iPod – occasionally allowed. Sniffing – not allowed. Picking Nose – occasionally allowed. Ball scratching – not allowed. Farting – believe it or not – occasionally allowed.

With Axl Rose voice in full swing we made it down to Cape McClear to spend a few more days at the lake, staying at a place called Fat Monkeys. We have seen lakes big and small this trip, but Lake Malawi is hands down the nicest. We took a boat trip to a nearby island and watched the boat guys feed some fish eagles by whistling to call them, then throwing a fish into the water as they got near. After that we spent some time snorkelling with hundreds of incredible cichlids. The boat guy then taught us how to catch one with our hands and some bread.

From Cape McClear we drove to Lilongwe to get stocked up on groceries and beer, staying at a place called Mabuya Camp, and then at the quieter golf course.

Having left a trail of destruction in our wake – Riots in Turkey, more craziness in Egypt, fuel riots in Khartoum with 30 people shot dead, animals in Kenya doing unspeakable things in a shopping centre, claims by the UN that Rwanda is supplying child soldiers to the Congo – we really didn’t expect to experience any craziness in Malawi. Malawi is known as the “warm heart of Africa” and for a very good reason – the people are friendly. We really didn’t expect to have police in riot gear shooting cartridges indiscriminately from tear gas launchers right next to our car as we drove past a village on our way to the Zambian border – rocks blocking the road, things on fire and people running everywhere. We later found out that two armed robbers had been apprehended by the police but the villagers wanted “mob justice”. There is a news article here.

Other than that, Malawi is definitely a country we will be coming back to, although I’ve put a little reminder in my diary not to steal anything when we do.