Broken Down

Getting away from Likoma island to Mozambique proved to be no easy task. The large steamer the M.V Chambo, was currently out of service. So I had to take a small fishing boat across the lake, first to the tiny settlement of Cobué only an hour away to get a visa for Mozambique. This was a bizarre way to enter a new country, I had to practically swim to the beach at Cobué as the boat didn’t anchor close enough, here you’re greeted by a border ‘official’ and taken to the immigration office a ten minute walk through the village and issued a visa for $50, no questions asked and a pretty simple procedure.

Just swim to the beach from here

The replacement boat

Cobué immigration officeR

I then swam back to the fishing boat where I sat on a bag of dried fish for the next 13 hours. It was relatively fun at first, but once the sun went down, sitting there in total darkness was very lonely, depressing and tedious as the boat chugged along at about 5km per hour, stopping at every settlement along the Mozambican side of the lake to load on or off more people and/or bags of fish. It was a very psychologically demanding trip. The word Malawi means ‘fire flames’ in a local language, evoking the beautiful sunsets over the lake, something that is clearly represented in the national flag, at least I got to see it one last time on the nightmare boat, almost making the journey worth it.

Before the lights went out

There is not a lot in Metangula on the Mozambique side of the lake, but it’s a friendly town and an ok place to rest after the boat journey. I think the word Metangula might mean ‘dust cloud’, as there were some really strong winds blowing in fine orange dust from the unsealed roads and surrounding hills. It was here I accidentally drank 500ml of water from the lake which resulted in me throwing up my first Mozambican meal. Let me tell you, fish vomit, has to be the worst kind.

Lake Niassa from Metangula

Lichinga is the capital of the Niassa province and home to the Muslim Yao people. The Samora circle in town has a statue of Samora Machel in the centre, commander, revolutionist and first president of Mozambique. This was the closest I’d get to a running track over here so took the time to get some training in. The people in Lichinga seem to like posing for photos – “Mr, take my picture holding a dirty piece of cardboard over my head”.

Mozambique’s airline Linhas Aéreas de Moçambique, or LAM, has a very poor safety record. I have no idea why there is an old LAM passenger plane wreck on the outskirts of Lichinga, I’m thinking it might’ve broken down and they couldn’t be arsed to scrap it.

I was required to arrive at the mini bus station at 3am to get to Cuamba. It’s the middle of the night, but that is when all chappas start to collect passengers. The first chappa to Mandimba got a flat tyre half way, because the road is basically a giant pothole, so the 150k took 6 hours. After changing in Mandimba and eating some rather dodgy looking chicken bits, I boarded a second bus to Cuamba, this one got a flatty after about 20km. My patience had ran out at this point so I stuck my arm out and managed to get a lift in the cab of a heavy goods transport truck. Hitchhiking is normal in Mozambique and it’s custom to pay the same fare as a bus, this was a lot quicker as they’re more suitable for the roads and don’t stop as much.

3:30 am

I stayed in Cuamba for one night in local pensão for another 3:30am rise the following day. The Pensão Zambezi was, well, a shit hole. It was here that one of the little kretins who worked there, snuck into my room through the night and stole money from my bag. I made a big mistake of counting it up in a common area, letting them know where it was kept and inviting opportunity. The guesthouse was only £3 but ultimately staying there ended up costing me something like £60. I may as well have checked in to the Cuamba Hilton.

Had on, I’m sure I had more than this last night.

The robbery sucked balls, but if you drank sour milk once would you never drink milk again? I couldn’t let a carton of sour milk spoil my impression of the Mozambican people. Mozambique’s long distance train from Cuamba to Nampula covers a distance of 350km and has been hauling passengers across the country since 1912. After departing at 5am I thought I was in for a nice comfortable ride by Mozambique standards, until, you guessed it, the train broke down.

An in date carton of milk

The train got going again after a three hour standstill. I finally made it to Nampula 14 hours later after spending the whole journey stuck next to a woman with the two worst behaved kids in Mozambique, who cried, kicked, spat and screamed all the way there, not even the deep fried soya pieces that I covered in hot chili sauce and fed them managed to shut them up. Sometimes I wonder why I do this to myself, but even after all these break downs, nothing is going to break me down. When I spoke to someone a few years back about Mozambique they said “go to Mozambique if you want adventure”, they weren’t wrong there.

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

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

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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. 

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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. 

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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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