Monthly Archives: October 2017

Magical Mystery Tours 

Livingstonia is perched on top of the Rift Valley escarpment 700 metres above Lake Malawi. Getting there involved an extremely rough ride on the back of a pick up truck. I shared a spare tyre with an old woman and had a bundle of sticks jabbing me in the side the whole way. Why do people in Africa bring bundles of sticks on public transport? Surely that’s the one thing available anywhere? Thankfully the trip only lasted about an hour. Once at the top, you’re rewarded with some amazing views of the lake. 

From this..,

To this.

The town of Livingstonia was founded by a group of Scottish missionaries led by Lt. E D Young, at the village originally known as Khondowe. Named after David Livingstone, the first two attempts set to establish a mission in Malawi failed after a high number of malarial fatalities, hence a site of higher altitude was chosen. There’s a few colonial style buildings in town, although not exactly the impressive architecture you’d find elsewhere in the empire. For some reason they also built a roundabout which sees only sees about a dozen vehicles per day. When the British first introduced roundabouts to Africa the locals didn’t know their name, so just referred to them as ‘keep lefties’. 

The Clock Tower, Stone House and the Keep Leftie

The church is the largest building in town, it took 30 years to complete due to a lack of funding. On this day I found  some friendly sisters arranging maize to be sent out to the local orphans. 

Manchewe falls is the largest waterfall in Malawi. The tallest drop is 125 metres high, it is surrounded by lush rainforests and a number of view points. Some guides hang around the entrance, but there’s really no need for them, as they simply state the obvious. Most of them are just young kids practicing their English and will try to follow you anyway. I gave him 60 pence. 

Likoma island is in Mozambique waters but is geographically part of Malawi, also as a result of its long association with Scottish missionaries. It’s difficult to reach, 12 hours on a basic boat called the Limani. Packed with all the supplies coming from the mainland getting to the toilet was difficult, a terrible time to get the squirts. Likoma has some lovely beaches, clear blue water and is mainly a place where people come just to chill and do nothing. 

Tired of being around the tourist lodge with the self-righteous expats, I decided to go on a tour of Likoma with someone I met in a local bar. He promised to show me all the non touristic sights on his alternative tour of the island, sounded promising. After walking about 6 miles in the blazing midday sun we arrived at our first ‘sight’ – a boulder with a mysterious footprint on it. To me looked far too big to be a footprint and was nothing more than a blemish in the boulder. 

Secondly was the ‘hidden cave’ which was more like a shelter where the locals come to smoke tac. Next up, the ‘singing rock’ which made a high pitched noise when you struck it with another stone. They were amazed at why it made such a noise. I tried to explain that it must be the way it was positioned or that it could be slightly denser than the other rocks around it but they were convinced it was a magic rock. It was at this point that I realised that I’d signed up to the shitest tour ever, in fact this tour was so shit it was almost good. 

The Singing Rock

The Tac Den

Hey Mister, how you enjoying your utterly shit tour?!

What was meant to be the main attraction of the tour ‘the bat cave’ we didn’t even get to see because the ‘tour guide’ said it would be too dark, and he was scared there were snakes inside. More like he realised how shit his impromptu tour was and could tell I was sick of clambering over rocks in the 35 degree heat. Ultimately, the highlight of the tour was when the guide suddenly picked up a rock and launched it into a flock of grouse, injuring one enough so he could grab it to take home for dinner. With that, it brought an end to this magical mystery tour. 

Believe it or not, he was actually happy with his day’s wages and free dinner

Categories: Malawi | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Witch Malawi Project 

Liwonde town is the tenth largest settlement in Malawi. Named after a Yao chief, this place wins the award for the biggest dump in the country so far. Thankfully, there’s no need to stay here very long, it’s only the jumping off point for Liwonde National Park. 

On a morning game drive in the park you’re unlikely to see any huge game or predators, but plenty of bushbuck, impala and buffalo.

Liwonde is considered one of the best birdwatching destinations in Malawi. It’s said that over 250 species were spotted in two days on an ornithological tour. The beautiful Lilian’s Lovebird and the Bateleur bird of prey were my highlights. These are rare sightings, but there’s also the common as muck Weaver. The Weaver is practically part of Africa’s furniture, the name of this species derives from the way the male carefully constructs and ‘weaves’ its nest. 

Lilian’s Love Birds

An afternoon boat ride down the Shire river is a special experience. This is when the herds of Liwonde elephants come for their afternoon cool down. There is also hundreds of hippos, dozen of crocodiles , plenty water birds and one very rare species I like to call ‘the Southern toss pot’. The Southern toss pot is a middle class man, who most likely attended boarding school in the Home Counties, who desperately tries his hardest to be funny. 

3 in 1

A very different Malawi is Cape Mclear, the original resort town. This is where the hippies of yesteryear used to flock to party and get stoned without a care in the world. It still holds its local and shanty feel and after ten days of consecutive camping, I decided to splash out on one of Cape Mclear’s finest lodgings.   

David Livingstone named the cape after his good mate Sir Thomas Maclear, although the fishing village is still known by the locals as Chembe. You’re guaranteed a good sunset here, you’re also guaranteed a good night out if you hit one of the local clubs. As the name suggests, Uncle Charlie’s booze den will not let you down, especially when you hit it with one of the local chefs named Cheeseburger. There’s a children’s beach band that go around and play for tips, I flicked the tin. 

Beach Band

It’s a good idea to take a snorkelling trip to Thumbi island to get away from the bilharzia infested water over on the shore. Lake Malawi is one of the Great Lakes of Africa and contains over a thousand different species of fish, many of which belong to the cichlid group, a brightly coloured species of fish which cares for its offspring. 

The boatman took us to see Mandela the fish eagle perform his theatrical show swooping down to take the fish from the water. He has some skills, dee feet weren’t so bad either. 

Mandela on his long flight to freedom

We’ve decided to skip the Mulanje district of Malawi where a witchcraft rumour has spiralled out of control. The locals believe that anyone who is a stranger to the area is really a ‘bloodsucker’ from Mozambique disguised as a human. They’re convinced the ‘vampires’ are using special powers to draw blood from their victims to use in special rituals. All of this seems to have started by a woman that complained of a headache. Up to now, half a dozen outsiders have been bludgeoned to death and two Europeans remain in hospital. The government have issued a severe warning not to travel there and all the volunteers in the area have been displaced. As much as I enjoy travelling the world and doing new things, I wouldn’t say that ‘being chased by an angry Malawian mob wielding hoes and pangas’ is top of my bucket list. 

Categories: Malawi | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

The Spy Who Logged Me

The drive to Zomba took 5 hours in a packed ‘which is which tours’ minibus. It’s around 250km on a good surfaced road,but takes so long because of the amount of stops so all the passengers can do their weekly shop from the roadside vendors. Stop for bananas, stop for onions, stop for cabbages, eggs, nuts etc etc. No need to ask the price, everything is 100 kwacha. 

Zomba was the capital of Malawi until 1975 and there’s a few British colonial style buildings dotted around town. The botanical gardens is a nice place to walk around for a few hours to see plenty of vervet monkeys and baboons. My fondest memory of Zomba town will be drinking with Philip, the head of the police in a local bar before been accused of being a spy by a drunken and aggressive Malawian CIA agent just for taking a photo of the TV. As romantic as it sounds, two scruffy looking guys from Newcastle are hardly James Bond material. Just as well he didn’t ask to see in our bags as he would’ve found some expensive birdwatching binoculars and telescopes.

The Zomba plateau is an isolated syenite mountain that towers over the town to a total elevation of 2000 metres, and forms part of the Southern escarpment of the Southern Shire valley. Camping is available on the plateau at a trout farm which doesn’t seem to farm trouts anymore. There’s only one very expensive hotel up there to eat at, looks like it’s peanut butter and pork paloni sandwiches for the next few days. 

The Trout Farm

Zomba plateau has some nice hiking trails through the forests and some great views of the surrounding area. We were guided by Erin, a 69 year old former policeman, personally sacked by Hastings Banda for taking a nap during a police convoy. The guy hastily hobbles along with his walking stick and easily managed the 6 hour hike with no water, wearing is wool hat and sweater.  

William’s falls

There is some rich birdlife up on the plateau which includes mountain wagtail, Livingstone’s turaco and the main event being the yellow-throated apalis – a Malawian endemic only found in the south. 

White Starred Robin

Chingwe’s hole is a natural hole hidden by trees. Locals reckon it is at least 60 metres deep and full of bones from when ancient tribal chiefs threw their enemies into the pit to rot. Chingwe means ‘rope’ in Chichewa after the first European who abseiled down there. 

Zomba plateau is Malawi’s oldest forest reserve, that doesn’t stop loggers illegally cutting it down. Higher up on the plateau, the sound of chainsaws is blatant and the local carrying the logs away is just outright depressing. Five years ago Zomba was apparently a lot greener and denser than it is now. Police bribery and political corruption are letting this happen, if nothing is done soon then it won’t be too long before there’s nothing left. Seen as I’m a spy now maybe I should sneak into the Malawian parliament and leave a different kind of log on the desk of the bent fool who is supposed to be dealing with these matters. 

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with the average national wage being less than a dollar a day. Erin asked if we had any spare clothes we didn’t need once we left Zomba, we gave him a whole new outfit. Bet he can’t wait to get back to his village wearing his brand new ‘John’s Stag Do Berlin 2017’ T-shirt. 

Categories: Malawi | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The Long Way 

Lilongwe is the capital and largest city in Malawi. As far as sights go, there really isn’t a lot here. Everything in Lilongwe seems to be, well, a long way. “Where’s the bus station?” – “A long way”. “Where’s the supermarket?” – “a long way”. This makes getting around a real chore. The city is actually named after the Lilongwe river. 

A long walk just to get a loaf of breadAfrica is known for vendors selling anything they can get their hands on at traffic lights and busy junctions. In Lilongwe you can even buy puppies this way. Dogs seem to be quite popular in Lilongwe for security purposes. Where there’s dogs, there’s a need for the dog trainer. He let’s train your dogs to know what every things u want. 

Getting to the city centre is a hassle from the old town as it’s such a long way in the heat. I got a mini bus, but waited 40 minutes for it to fill up and leave, only to travel four miles and drop me off nowhere near where I wanted to be. 

Waiting…Dr Hastings Banda was the prime minster of Nyasaland until 1994 and led the country to independence in 1964. His mausoleum is situated in Lilongwe’s city centre. The security guard will tell you that foreigners need to take a guide, simply so that you pay him to walk you up the stairs so he can state the obvious. This is a lie and it’s fine to walk in on your own to the guard’s disappointment.  

Banda had some curious rules during his reign. Every business building was required to have a picture of him on display but not below a clock or poster. There was a strict dress code for every Malawian. Men were not allowed to have long hair, even foreigners who arrived in the country were subject to an involuntary haircut before having a visa issued.  

Malawi’s currency is the Malawian Kwacha, the current exchange rate is 956 to one pound. Before the Kwacha was introduced in 1971 they used the Malawian pound, each coin bore the face of Hastings Banda which led them to be know as ‘the Banda coin’. 

Banda now features on the 1000 Kwacha noteJungle Lovers is a novel by Paul Theroux about an insurance salesman who moves to Malawi. In the novel Theroux states that Banda famously quoted that ‘1 white man can do the work of 10 Malawians’ and that he had a striking resemblance to the man from Uncle Ben’s Rice. 

Time to move on from Lilongwe after a couple of days using the public bus.  Broken bus window in Malawi? No problem, we’ll just sew it back together. Looks like Malawi has a long way to come till they have window fitters. 

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Rock Me Amadeus

A nine hour overnight coach is probably the last thing you want when suffering from a serious case of stag do heeby jeebies. Flix bus is like a European National Express, it’s rather comfortable and it’s saving me a nights accommodation, every cloud.    

Vienna is the second most populous German-speaking country in the world after Berlin. Vienna old town has some of the most stunning and well planned architecture I’ve ever seen. Every corner you turn there’s a perfectly crafted sculpture or fountain, and nowadays, falafel shops. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart established himself and achieved fame in Vienna. Mozart passed away at the age of 35 with an unknown fever. One theory suggests that he suffered from a huge vitamin D deficiency. Vienna has cold dark winters and Mozart favoured sleeping through the day and writing at night. Prior to his death it’s reported that Mozart was so pale he looked like he’d just finished a month’s worth of night shifts at Nissan. The lack of sunlight to his skin combined with his condition made him prone to infections which ultimately killed him. 

Mozart statue at the Hofburg

Saint Stephen’s cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in Vienna and a climb up the 350 steps to the top offers nice views of Vienna. The staircase is very narrow though so be prepared to give way and breath in for fat American tourists. 

The beautiful Vienna central cemetery is one of the largest in the world by the number of people laid to rest here. The 3 million interred includes a number of famous Austrians including Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss and a huge Saint Bernard dog known as Beethoven. 

Vienna now only has a few thousand Jews living there as they all moved abroad during and after the war. The Jewish section of the cemetery is now very overgrown and dilapidated because most of the families of the dead are long gone. Some of the grave stones read ‘year of birth – Auschwitz’. It’s a sad and eerie place. 

Would you believe that Beethoven isn’t the greatest musical genius buried in Vienna central cemetery? Well believe it, because this buried here is Austrian pop legend Falco. Falco had a worldwide hit in the 80’s with the song ‘Rock Me Amadeus’, written about none other than, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 

Before I left Vienna I decided to take a walking tour guided by a homeless person. These tours offer a unique insight into the world of homelessness in Vienna and what the city does to help those in need. I learned that to be unemployed in Austria the average person gets around €800 in benefits, I know where I’m going when I need to sign on to the dole, funny that bad back seems to be playing up again. 

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