13 – 25 March 2013
As we started our journey in Malawi we commented on how it reminded us of Ethiopia. This was both in terms of the number of people walking along the roadside with hardly a stretch of road unoccupied and in the way the kids were not only waving, but also demanding sweets or money. (Something we’ve since seen that fellow overlanders have commented on as well.). It also reminded Karen somewhat of South East Asia, with all the paddy fields and people on bicycles.
Soon after we arrived the heavens opened and we braced ourselves for the rainy season in the weeks ahead. We noticed that the majority of locals just resigned themselves to getting soaked, without a raincoat or umbrella in sight (perhaps due to how poor the people of Malawi are). However there were a few, including a guy on a bike, who tried their best to keep the worst of the rain off with a banana leaf … somewhat unsuccessfully.
Our first stop was the Mushroom Farm which is located up in the mountains just outside Livingstonia. We had visions of buying all different types of mushrooms from them and making a nice stroganoff or suchlike, but when we got there we were told it was just the name the locals had given it because of all the mushrooms that grow in the area. Despite this slight disappointment, it was a lovely camp with stunning views over Lake Malawi: a reward after the slightly muddy, twisty drive up there. (We were praying there wasn’t too much rain over the coming days ahead of our drive back down again.)
Our second day there we were joined by Nicky, Nick and Simon, a South African girl and two Aussie guys who were also travelling in a Landie. They’d started in Cape Town and were travelling North, so we had a very useful info swapping session with them followed by some lovely Aussie-handmade burgers.
In the morning, we joined them on a guided tour of Livingstonia and the waterfalls. On their way up to the Mushroom Farm they’d given a lift to Joshua (one of the locals) and his catch of the day, so he wanted to repay the favour by showing them around. We were very grateful to have gatecrashed as he was a great guide, even taking us to his house and showing us his animals and how they pound and dry cassava.
The next day we headed further along the lake to Ngala Beach Lodge, one of the places that had been recommended to us by Nicky, Nick and Simon. It was a fantastic lodge run by a South African couple and we were able to camp right next to the beach on the lake shore. Unfortunately we were advised not to swim in the lake as a croc had been seen there recently, but as they had a lovely infinity swimming pool overlooking the lake, this wasn’t too much of a disappointment.
After a relaxing day or so and a delicious meal with them we drove right down to the bottom tip of the lake to Cape Maclear. It was Karen’s birthday the following day, so we’d wanted to be somewhere nice and not spend the day driving. We stayed at another great spot, Chembe Eagle’s Nest, right by the lake and were reliably informed that it was safe to swim in this part of the lake.
On b-day day, we were up early to take a boat trip out to the nearby West Thumbi Island, part of Lake Malawi National Park. Marcello had successfully hidden a couple of presents in his braai box: a lovely pre-breakfast surprise.
Once we’d reached the island, our guide first tempted some fish eagles down by throwing some fish into the water and calling to them. It was fantastic to see them swoop down up close and we did our best to capture the moment on our cameras. Next we donned our snorkelling gear and prepared for our first dip in the lake. We’d read and heard about the cichlid fish species that Lake Malawi is famous for, but nothing really prepared us for how colourful they were. We must admit we weren’t really expecting much from fresh water fish, but they were a beautiful array of blues, greens, purples and yellows. Our guide gave us some bread each and we chuckled underwater watching them swarm in towards us to feed on it – sometimes nibbling our fingers and even legs in case they’d missed some. The lake was beautifully clear and it was really nice to snorkel in … no salt water taste for a change.
When we arrived back at the lodge an English couple had arrived and were having a drink at the bar trying to decide whether to stay there or at Fat Monkey’s down the road. We went over to say hi and discovered it was Ben and Jen. We’d never actually met them before, but we kind of felt like we knew them as we’d been reading their blog for the last few months! They’d been a couple of weeks ahead of us and following a similar route, but them having decamped in Dar es Salaam at a friend’s place for a couple of weeks had meant we’d arrived in Cape Maclear at the same time. It was lovely to actually meet them and we were really pleased when we persuaded them to stay and join us for a braai and celebratory glass of bubbles later on. As we were sat chatting, Marcello suddenly shouted and pointed at what looked like a tornado out on the lake. This was something he’d seen on wildlife programmes and is actually a swarm of fish flies. When we looked closer there were several of these swarms moving across the lake. It was incredible to imagine how many of them there must have been to be able to see them from so far away.
We had a lovely evening sharing food, wine and travel stories. This was topped off nicely when Marcello snuck back from the kitchen with a cake he’d asked the lodge to make. (Yay, cake!) We had pondered going out for dinner but, in the absence of family and friends from home, shooting the breeze with Ben and Jen around a fantastic campfire courtesy of Marcello was the perfect way for Karen to spend her birthday.
The following morning Jen got a bit of a shock when she went to put something in the bin and was greeted by a large monitor lizard that had obviously fallen in and got stuck. Karen decided to put a nickname given to her in Borneo to the test (Ranger Karen) and found a long stick to use to push the bin over and set it free. Obviously a bit shell-shocked and cold, rather than scuttling out as expected, it strolled along and climbed the nearest rock to lay in the sun.
Unfortunately for us Ben and Jen were setting off towards Mozambique that day so this was the extent of our shared journey with them, but we hope that we bump into each other along the way: stranger things have happened.
We also set off that day and drove the short distance to Monkey Bay to see how life was on the other side of the landpoint. It was another beautiful setting, but we weren’t overly impressed with the way the camp was run. It was called Mufasa’s Rustic Camp, but rustic was an understatement. It’s not that we mind rustic – our best camping experiences have been wild camping with no facilities – but rustic doesn’t have to mean that things don’t work or somewhere is badly run (right, moan over). It probably didn’t help that Karen felt shockingly bad either. At first she thought she’d just had a few too many beverages, but what first seemed like a slight hangover soon turned into severe nausea, fever, achy muscles and a stomach upset. We’ve since found out that Ben and Jen felt similarly bad (Marcello came out unscathed), so we really hope we didn’t poison them with some dodgy white wine we’d inadvertently bought: sorry guys! (Although having now “Googled” white wine and food poisoning this seems unlikely. Phew!)
Unsurprisingly we decided to move on the next day and headed straight for Lilongwe. We set off early and stopped off on the way in Dedza at the Pottery Lodge for breakfast. It was a lovely setting with pretty gardens and we enjoyed checking out the pottery they had on sale. Even better though was the takeaway cheesecake we got as recommended by Jen and Ben. Yum! On route we were also flagged down by various wooden “toy” makers who had crafted some amazing replica Land Rovers, Land Cruisers and bicycles amongst other things. After stopping at several of the stalls we found a pretty close match to Charlie so couldn’t resist buying it. We then wondered where on earth we were going to put it for the remainder of the trip, however there’s always room to squeeze just one more thing in …!
At Lilongwe we stopped to drop something off at Mufasa’s sister camp and were told it had been seized by the police as they hadn’t been paying their rent. This didn’t come as too much of a shock. (Luckily we’d been planning on staying at Mabuya camp anyway.) As with most other capital cities, our time there was spent catching up on jobs, stocking up on supplies and planning for the week or so ahead. Then, after a few days of this it was time for Zambia, our eighth African country.
We weren’t in Malawi for long, but it was yet another beautiful country where the people are friendly and smiley, despite how little they have: a consistent theme in each of the African countries we’ve visited so far. We met some lovely people and it was a great place to spend a birthday. We were also incredibly lucky as, despite a few heavy downpours at night/early morning, it generally stayed dry and sunny. Perhaps our extended timetable was working in our favour … but we don’t want to speak too soon!