That’s what Malawi calls itself in its publicity material, anyway. It’s mostly true. People in Malawi are friendly and helpful in a sincere way, like most citizens of small countries. In other places we’ve been, people often only want to talk to you in order to part you from some money.
We continue up the lake. Our next stop is Nkhata Bay. I was here in 1987. Things have changed a lot. At that time, there was virtually nothing here.
Now it has scores of guesthouses. The population has nearly tripled.
It’s still a hippy mecca of sorts. We stay at a lodge called the ‘Butterfly Space‘. We’re in the Beach House, a spot so relaxing that I barely leave the hammock for two days.
We know a place is right for us when we don’t leave the property because we have everything we need. There are even a few friendly dogs to pet.
We do manage to pry ourselves away to go for another snorkeling excursion.
We are ferried to a rocky bay in a rustic wooden boat by Captain Andrew.
Finally, we wake at 5:00 AM and make a ten-hour dash back to Cape Maclear to spend our last few days at the Chembe Eagles Nest resort before leaving Malawi for South Africa.
It’s the weekend, so we no longer have the resort to ourselves. But we manage to soothe our jangled nerves (after a pothole-tormented road trip from the north) anyway.
Sight or Insight of the Day
While driving up to Nkhata Bay, just before entering a small village, I see a man dressed very much like this walking nonchalantly down the road, coming in our direction. Big wooden mask. Strange costume.
This guy must’ve been a Gule Wamkulu dancer, on his way to or from a gig.
Maria was asleep, so she missed the whole spectacle. (This makes up for the time we were on a bus in Sumatra – a very conservative Muslim island – and Maria saw a naked man walking along the highway. I was asleep.)
First thing: it’s November 23rd, my sister Lynne’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Sis!
As predicted, we linger in Cape Maclear for three days.
One day we take a catamaran trip to a nearby island to do some snorkeling.
We have the boat to ourselves. As in many places, there are few other guests.
We get to a quiet bay that’s swarming with colourful fish of the cichlid family.
Lake Malawi is famous for these. It’s like swimming in an aquarium.
We set off in search of fish eagles, common in the area. These look a lot like bald eagles.
We get a photo of one scooping a fish out of the lake. (To be honest, it was a dead fish that Moses threw in.)
On the way back, we skirt the coast along Chembe village. Apparently it was much smaller at one time. Now it’s a raucous town with hundreds of fishing boats puttering out into the lake at all hours.
We mentioned the two Finnish women and their snazzy Land Rover. We’re perfect neighbours for each other because we’re all quiet and unintrusive.
They work as bear guides in Finland in the summer. Then they spend months traveling in this vehicle, which they purchased in Namibia. They leave it in Africa when they return to Europe.
We drive north. Along the way, we stop in at the Mua mission. The Kungoni Art and Craft Centre is part of this mission. Started in 1976 by Father Claude Boucher (from Canada), who is still there today. The Centre has surprisingly well-carved items, compared to the usual tourist tat.
We succumb to the urge to buy a little something for our travel wall.
The mission also provides accommodation that looks like a slice of Tuscany.
There’s also a church with African murals inside and out.
Because it’s Sunday, every town is full of people attending services of some kind.
Malawians are mostly Christian of varying sects, with a big sprinkle of Muslims in most places. Everyone seems to get along well. Local Muslims don’t seem to be caught up in the wave of head-severing Islamist violence in Africa that is cutting a swathe from northern Mozambique to Somalia and across the Sahel to the Atlantic Ocean. Western media isn’t interested in reporting this, for some reason.
We break our journey at the Bua River Lodge. We intend to camp, but are told that they no longer allow camping because elephants roam the property at night.
We are the only guests, so we get a deluxe tent with a broad balcony to ourselves.
We get a guided walking tour along the river, home to lots of crocodiles.
The pattern of a croc tummy is printed in the sand where one just slipped into the river.
It’s so relaxing, we decide to stay over another day.
At night, the friendly South African couple who manage the place cook us a BBQ.
It’s about ten kilometres from the lodge back to the main road. The traditional villages we pass through on the way look much more pleasant than the squalid towns along the highway.
We have noticed this elsewhere in the country (elsewhere in Africa too) when we wander off the beaten track. It’s the lack of economic opportunity that drives people away.
Back on the main road, bound for Nkhata Bay. The road is appalling in some places. Potholes the size of the Grand Canyon. The edges have crumbled off, leaving a steep drop to be risked whenever we pull over to let a big truck pass along what is now a single lane. Fortunately, there aren’t many big trucks. And the road does eventually improve.
Sight or Insight of the Day
In search of something to read, I come across a well-used Penguin paperback copy of Villette, Charlotte Brontë’s last novel in a book swap shelf.
I’m getting a kick out of the mid-nineteenth-century dialog. It’s full of exchanges like this:
Dr. John: “Do you and she correspond?”
Lucy Snowe: “It will astonish you to hear that I never once thought of making application for that privilege.” (This is mid-nineteenth-century English for ‘No.’)
Imagine living in a time when people actually spoke like this! Too bad most people today wouldn’t think of reading a book written in another decade, let alone in another century. (Or another millennium.)
I can imagine a future where ALL books that don’t meet certain criteria of diversity, equity, and inclusivity will be consigned to raging bonfires, Fahrenheit 451-style. Not ’til after I’m gone, I hope.
On our last day in Zanzibar, we go for another snorkeling excursion.
It’s raining on this side of the island, but more gently than before. Besides, we’re going to be in the bath-temperature water all morning anyway.
There is a fantastic reef just a few kilometres away. Besides lots of fish – sorry, no underwater photos – we can see the wreck of the cable-laying ship Great Northern lying on the bottom.
Back near our hotel, Maria purchases a dashiki-like blouse in an act of solidarity with our friendly hotel staff.
In a remarkably normal flight next morning, we arrive in Blantyre, Malawi.
Our accommodation in Blantyre is an oasis of calm surrounded by a lively bus station.
We also eat here. One night we have pizza from a wood oven. It doesn’t hold a candle to our brother-in-law Chris’s wood oven pizza. People have been known to drive a hundred kilometres for Chris’s pizza. (Well, those ‘people’ are US, but no matter…)
It’s time for some more intensive near-term planning.
In our quest to find a competent SIM card supplier, we visit a shopping mall. Like many urban places in Africa, there are shops that specialize in supplies for small farmers; seeds, fertilizer, hoes, etc.
In the window, we see something you don’t see everyday: snake repellant.
Malawi reminds us of Mozambique in several ways. For one thing, people walk everywhere. For another, the women here wear wrap-around skirts called ‘chitenges‘ (ChiTENjay). Like the Mozambique equivalent ‘capulana‘, they come in thousands of bright colours and lively patterns.
Our first destination is the Zomba Plateau. The quaint town of Zomba at the foot of the plateau was the capital of Malawi until 1974.
(Maria likes the sound of the name ‘Zomba’. We give this name to our new rented wheels, a sort of mini 4WD vehicle made by Suzuki.)
We plan to spend the night here, but a combination of rainy weather and the non-existence of our targeted campsite convince us to move on.
On our drive back down the plateau, we pass many bicycles overladen with firewood.
We end up spending the night in Liwonde. There is a national park near Liwonde, but we are reserving our game viewing for larger parks.
Our bungalows have carvings identifying the cabins. Ours is the Buffalo cabin. In the morning, we find a tiny tree frog sleeping in the eye socket of our carving.
This is Damiano. He’s preparing our dinner of grilled chicken and vegetables with rice.
There are mango trees everywhere in Malawi. So of course there are mangos for sale all over the place.
We catch our first glimpse of Lake Malawi. This is the prominent feature of the country.
The lake is a source of fish. These ladies are drying fish on top and getting shelter from the sun below.
The countryside is embellished by flame trees.
More overladen bicycles. These men are carrying great sacks of charcoal.
Our goal today is Cape Maclear, on a scenic peninsula that juts out into the southern end of the lake.
We arrive in Chembe village. In addition to the usual small motorized fishing boats, there are a lot of these craft, carved out of a single log.
When we arrive, we are the only guests, besides a pair of Finnish women camping in their snazzy Land Rover.
This gentleman is delivering the fish for our dinner. They’re kampango, which we later learn are under threat from overfishing.
We’re thinking of spending three nights here. It’s tranquil and uncrowded at this time of the year.
Sight or Insight of the Day
One thing we forgot to mention about Zanzibar. We are shocked – shocked, I tell you – to discover that it’s a hotbed of sex tourism for European women looking to hook up with Masai men.
At first we thought these Masai come from the mainland to flog trinkets on the beach and charge to have their photo taken with visitors. Like in Kenya. Then we noticed there were a suspicious amount of single women treating their Masai ‘companions’ to drinks and giggly conversations. Finally our hotel manager removed the scales from our eyes.
Maria can’t resist going for a swim in between snorkeling sites.
This photo shows the unearthly blue of the waters surrounding the atoll on the return trip.
Our next stop is Kiwengwa, a village down the coast.
It shares the same powdery white sand as Matemwe. We’ve never seen such a clean beach in a developing country. Probably because the locals don’t have the money to purchase consumables that turn into trash.
The Sipano Lodge is our home for the next few days.
One unusual aspect of Kiwengwa is the use of lateen-sailed catamarans. Just 15 kilometres up the coast, all of the boats have outboard motors.
We can’t resist cat pictures. This is Rafiki, the hotel’s resident cat.
These places are in a transitional state of touristic development. There are extremely expensive private resorts owned by global European hotel chains like Melia and TUI. But there are also many medium-priced accommodations. But not too many.
In another ten years, the seafront will probably be full of concrete monstrosities and abandoned, half-completed construction sites, like Mexico and Turkey.
The place is not yet overrun with Russians. We have found that many places Russians like to go to are sort of disreputable. We have yet to figure out if Russians go to them because they’re disreputable (that is, nobody scolds them about their journalist-murdering, baby-killing fascist regime), or they become disreputable because Russians go there.
Sight or Insight of the Day
There is always trouble in Paradise.
This place is so beautiful. But following the global trend, so many beachfront places have atrocious music blaring out from gigantic speakers at atom-shattering volume. Why anyone would prefer to hear brain-dead techno music instead of the sound of the sea and the wind blowing through the palms is beyond comprehension.
After a chaotic day of flying from Nairobi – don’t ask – we finally arrive in Zanzibar.
What is it about the name ‘Zanzibar’? I remember first hearing the word as a kid in the theme song for schlocky 60’s sitcom ‘The Patty Duke Show‘, about two kooky look-alike cousins:
‘Meet Cathy, who’s lived most everywhere, From Zanzibar to Berkeley Square…’
It just sounded so exotic. Even today, our brother-in-law Chris says ‘Zanzibar! That’s such a fun word to say!’
The old town, known as ‘Stone Town’, is a warren of narrow streets and alleyways.
Intricately carved wooden doors are a Zanzibari thing. We pass a madrasa where we see boys hunched over their Korans, deep in study. We are invited in, but only because we might take their photograph and give them some money. We politely decline.
There are heritage buildings that have been turned into hotels much fancier than ours.
My main interest in Zanzibar is as the heart of the former Indian Ocean slave trade. Zanzibar was the main outpost of an Omani Arab empire that bled central and eastern Africa dry of countless people that was a match in barbarity and cruelty with the Atlantic slave trade.
It was finally stamped out by the British.
You don’t hear about this much in the West because it doesn’t match the Western-people-bad-everyone-else-good narrative that simple people use to make sense of their world. You certainly don’t hear about it in modern Oman.
Even though modern surviving slavery is largely restricted to Muslim countries – Mauretania, Sudan, Libya, the Gulf States – black people seem to be willing to give a pass to their former Arab taskmasters. There is no movement demanding reparations from the Gulf State gazillionaires.
(There was a smidgen of Karmic payback. During the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution, thousands of Arab and Asian Zanzibaris had their property looted and were then tortured, raped, and killed. Most survivors fled the island.)
A different kind of market. We stop to watch an auction take place at the fish market.
Present-day Zanzibar has lots of very pettable cats in the streets.
As we tend to do when near the sea – Zanzibar is an island – we treat ourselves to a good dinner of seafood.
It might not be common knowledge, but the late vocalist for the band Queen started life in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara. So of course, there is a Freddy Mercury Museum.
(His Zoroastrian family fled to England after the, um, disturbances in 1964 mentioned above.)
In the 1980’s, my friend Ann and I attended a Queen concert at the Westfalenhallen in Dortmund, Germany. It was a pretty rockin’ event, as I recall.
Sight or Insight of the Day
It rains a lot our first few days in Zanzibar. I mean, it hammers down in great deluges and solid walls of water for at least eighteen hours. We’ve never seen anything like it, not even in the AndamanIslands.
The tin roofs of most buildings make a hellish clatter as the rain smashes down on them. The streets are awash. We begin to wonder if the rain will ever end.
The dominant feature in Amboseli is Mount Kilimanjaro, which looms over the border in Tanzania.
It becomes a personal challenge to see how many photos we can get with Kilimanjaro in the background.
There are many elephants in this park.
There’s lots of water for them to cool off in.
Lots of interesting birds, too. We see this saddle-billed stork successfully catch fish in the marsh at the side of the road.
We also see a flock of distinctive gray crowned cranes.
A gray crowned crane is the central feature of the Ugandan flag.
Our campsite is, um, pretty basic, with sporadic electricity and running water. We really enjoy it, though. The three nights we spend here, we sit in the light of a full moon with a glass of wine and listen to the jackals.
A full-blown crisis erupts on our last morning in Amboseli: our car key is stuck in the rear door lock. All our worldly goods are in the car. The key is also the ignition key.
A local ‘mechanic’ is summoned. It takes two hours of patience to fit a length of stiff wire through the window weather-stripping to unlatch the door. It takes another hour and a half to dismantle the rear lock and free the key. Our bacon is saved.
Next day, we set out through the Jipe Gate of the park.
This is an enormous park (9065 square kilometres). One straight stretch follows the border fence for about twenty kilometres.
Our goal is Mzima Springs. These springs gush out from under the volcanic mountains and are one of the main sources of water for Mombasa, hundreds of kilometres away.
The water here is crystal clear. Besides hippos and crocodiles, there are unusual blue carp.
I carry a stick to beat any over-inquisitive monkeys
As usual, we get lost. Maria is now on a first-name basis with the park manager, after phoning several times for explicit directions.
We come across a giraffe that blends in surprisingly well with the tree he’s standing next to.
We cross the Rhodesia Bridge. This has been here since the beginning of World War One, when (British) East Africa declared war on nearby (German) East Africa (modern Tanzania).
In the cool forest that lines this river, we see a mamma elephant and her little one.
We cross over an abandoned stretch of the Uganda Railway, built by the British (with almost exclusively Indian labour) and completed in 1901.
By the time we get back, the hippos are grazing by the lake.
Our final day of driving takes us down the notoriously attention-demanding Mombasa-Nairobi Road. According to Wikipedia:
‘Due to the volume of traffic, and the concentration of heavy-duty transport vehicles, the route is accident-prone, accounting for a large number of injuries and fatalities in the region. In 2013 alone, 3,179 people lost their lives in traffic accidents on the combined Mombasa–Malaba Road.’
We survive to reach the Wildebeest Eco Camp one more time for our last few days in Kenya.
Sight or Insight of the Day
We notice these signs around Kenya wherever public servants are handling money.
Notably around the Nairobi National Museum. Which is pretty rich, considering the management of the museum have been busted embezzling hundreds of millions of Kenyan schillings recently.
As in most of Africa, people here are very poorly served by their government.
We never tire of seeing how much cargo can be put on a small motorcycle.
The flower industry is a big employer in Kenya, especially around Lake Naivasha and the area around Mount Kenya. These enormous greenhouses are everywhere.
In keeping with our Born Free-themed tour of Kenya, we visit Elsamere, the former home of George and Joy Adamson.
The price of admission includes tea on the lawn.
The grounds contain a troop of striking colobus monkeys.
One macabre exhibit is the Land Rover in which George Adamson was murdered. According to Wikipedia:
“On 20 August 1989, George Adamson was murdered near his camp in Kora National Park, by Somali bandits, when he went to the rescue of his assistant and a young European tourist. He was 83 years old.”
Joy Adamson was also murdered nine years earlier in 1980 by a disgruntled employee.
In our campground, a large party of young Muslim girls camps overnight for some kind of Islamic jamboree.
While in Naivasha, we visit Hell’s Gate National Park. This park is unique because you can rent a bicycle and ride through it. Large predators are not an issue.
Maria is smiling because I haven’t told her yet how potentially dangerous the buffalo in the background can be.
Speaking of excess cargos earlier: the way in which our rental bikes arrive at the park gate is by motorcycle. Seven or eight bicycles are strapped onto the back of a motorcycle and delivered to clients.
The Olkaria V geothermal power plant is in the middle of the park.
We favour Shell gas stations. They have the cleanest bathrooms, the best coffee, and you can always pay with a credit card.
In Masai Mara National Reserve, we stay in the rather rustic Aruba Mara campsite. We see a convoy of safari vehicles gathered in one location. It’s a leopard.
She leaves, calmly ignoring the circus of Land Cruisers and Land Rovers.
Masai Mara has plenty of wide-open vistas. Good for spotting animals.
One day we drive across the park to the Mara Bridge.
These colourful agama lizards are common. They look like they’re wearing a Spiderman costume.
We stay at Aruba Masai Camp. We complain to a camp employee, John, that we haven’t seen any lions yet. Especially because there is a BBC program, ‘Big Cat Diary’, that is filmed here and which shows lions galore. John says ‘I can show you many lions.’ So we take him up on his offer on our next game drive.
(That’s our tent in the background.)
John rides shotgun while I drive.
Sure enough, we soon spy a lioness snoozing under a bush.
We also find a male and female.
We hit the mother load of lions – dozens of females scattered around like downed tenpins. Apparently when lions aren’t hunting, they spend most of the time sleeping.
When they finally wake up, they become 150-kilo tawny bundles of pure muscle.
There are a number of young males. They like resting atop small grassy hills to keep an eye on things.
On the way back, we stop at a hippo pool. Just about any body of water in Africa is likely to be a hippo pool.
I feel slightly underdressed next to John’s Masai regalia.
The next day, John shows us a shortcut that avoids crossing the park. (And paying sky-high park fees.)
At one point, we ford a river in which a vehicle has already been stranded mid-stream. But Jambo has no problem thrashing across.
Sight or Insight of the Day
On our drive from Masai Mara to Amboseli, we break our journey once more at the Wildebeest Eco Camp in Nairobi.
We have a single day to do some concentrated research regarding flight bookings and hotel reservations. As usual, we monopolize an entire table with our panoply of books and gadgets.