Not your average travel blog
With just a weeks notice, I’ve flown out to Malawi with mother Wolfrider to see my sister for her birthday. She and her chap have driven overland from Bristol, through Europe and down the east side of the African continent. They’ll finish in Capetown before Christmas but currently my sister is in Nkhata Bay. I’m just having a taste of southern Africa, visiting Malawi, which has less land area than England….it does come with a rather large lake though.
No electric, no light bulbs, no Internet, phone line or wifi, no refrigeration, no traffic sounds, airplanes overhead, medical services and no update on the ashes score! The nearest thing to civilisation as we know it was a 75km drive over dust track and mud road taking two hours in a 4×4 vehicle.
However, we had a bar (without ice), straw roofed huts, a compost toilet, beds under mosquito nets, a kitchen where local Malawians cooked our meals on an open fire and made us freshly ground coffee. It was basic and you were quick to appreciate simple comforts.
There was a rickety bookshelf with sporadically chosen topics to read through; brown paged, aged literature pleading to once again be read and there was an abundance of geckos and lizards sunning themselves whilst great kingfishers and hammerkop birds casually but efficiently went about their business, gathering for their nests and gorging themselves on unfortunate fishes (mainly cichlids of which the lake is famous for). Last night the dark lodge was peppered by hungry, nimble, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them bats (technically not their scientific name), flying in and out of the rafters, picking off the light-fixated insects. Much like where I used to live in the Kent countryside, except Moonshine, the pet cat was intelligent enough to hunt the bats and bring them down as they came too close to the cottage roof.
Ruarwe is a remote, small village set back from its sheltered beach towards the north of Lake Malawi. From the lodge I was sitting in, it was an hour and half trek through the village and up a cliff to find local phone signal. However, I was not there to play on my phone and although discarding civilisation for a few days was a little worrying or frustrating, it was ultimately liberating. I’m wondering and slightly hopeful that it will be like this off the beaten track in America. I’m guessing that I will have a long stretches where I’ll be ‘cut off’ and expecting that, at times, it will be at the most unfortunate moments. However, it was a taste of what to expect and good practice for my state of mind for next year.
On the morning of the second day in Ruarwe, sister Wolfrider and I walked up the narrow gorge in search of a waterfall. Through spider, snake (hopefully not a black mamba), tick and fire ant environments, we hiked through long grasses, along dust tracks created by the locals and their goats and waded across the river half a dozen times to climb upstream. Whilst zigzagging our way across relatively rough terrain and often carefully crossing the river like drunk stalks, we caught glimpses of colourful birds, insects and blue monkeys and whilst the sun warmed the ground and the day became uncomfortably humid, we saw the local women toiling with their casava plants (they make a type of carbohydrate based moist dough out of the roots to fill their bellies with) on remote hillsides. It’s customary for the women to do most of the manual labour in Malawi. I’ve not yet seen any man farm the earth – they tend to be fishermen, bike taxi drivers, shop holders, wood carvers or tailors. The kingfishers carried on inspecting the waters we tried gracefully (failing) to trudge through and to the best of our ability we kept an eye open for snakes, spiders and other flesh-piercing annoyances.
It was only after we had reached the top of the cliff, after we’d had a smoke, taken in the humid views and caught up on gossip; after we’d waded through the river a few more times and walked for over an hour on the way back down the gorge; after I had torn a fire ant from the inside of my thigh and struggled to avoid being sucked on by half a dozen ticks and ripped those out of my flesh too that my sister then asks, whilst I’m thigh deep in the river, wondering where my feet need to go in the dark flow of water, “Do you think the river is too cold for crocodiles?”. (Lacking confidence but hopeful) “Ummm, yes!?!?”
Whilst sleeping in a straw hut pretty much anywhere in Malawi, I’ve learnt that one thing is never going to happen – a lie in.
Being close to the equator, Malawi’s sun sets around 6pm every evening and rises at roughly 5.30am all year round; consistently putting the country into the shadow of darkness for more than 11 hours every night.
It’s rather primal and working your body clock to the natural rhythm of the hours of sunlight definitely balances the mind. However, when the fishermen come in after a nights fish on their wooden dugout canoes around 1am, drunk and singing to themselves – never in tune – its hard to balance ones mind to the rhythm of their song!
After walking through the village of Usisya, south of Ruarwe and having a tour of the amenities set up by (charity) Temwa: head offices, the library, the educational farming field where the locals can practice and are taught sustainable farming methods, we walked through the casava fields accompanied by the dogs from the lake side lodge.
Unfortunately, Pablo decided to attempt to rip a small goat in two. Showing off for his new female friend, the “chase the goat” game went a little too far. Persistence from Pablo was met with stick, rock and mud throwing from myself to divert his attention away from the screaming kid. There was no way we were intervening with bare hands whilst the dogs were in “kill mode”.
Thankfully a few hard clumps of mud to the head (and sadly a wod onto the goat’s by mistake) and Pablo left the blooded kid standing alone in the pond where it had ran, or rather stumbled and been forced to relative safety…or so we thought. The dogs were adamant and got their paws wet to continue the barrage of biting and throat tearing. Sheepishly, the unfortunate kid limped back to its pleading, helpless mother, thankfully alive after we’d given Pablo a short lesson in dodgeball, only with mud.
It put us on edge as we walked through the village again, Pablo often eyeing up for more goats, chickens, guinie fowl and even small children – of whom have been indoctrinated to fear dogs and make whistling noises when they come close. Sadly this just confuses the dogs and it’s no wonder they reluctantly cause so much trouble and lash out at locals. They believe the dogs are the white mans pets. Thankfully there were no more kerfuffles.
After a week in Malawi, it was a sad case of ‘man down’ for the Wolfrider team. Mother was in bed for two days at Usisya and although she’s not the best of travellers on water transport, the short, two hour, boat ride simply floored her after feeling under weather before breakfast. Mother didn’t even manage her morning coffee and this was a sure sign that things were not right. Exhausted for two days and completely oblivious to our stay at Usisya, she missed the walks around the village where my sister was based with Temwa for a month or so and she was also unaware of the view outside her straw hut, positioned right on the beach. Fortunately though, she was also unaware of a fairly poor mosquito net hanging from her ceiling and the amount of ants that had infested her mattress to scavenge her barely sniffed at bread roll. We managed to avoid panic and cleared the ants before they were noticed. Mother might have been attacked like Gulliver on his travels into Lilliput if she’d rolled onto the army of flesh piercing insects. The only positive was and is, that unless contracted in the UK, Mother does not have malaria.
It’s the 10th of August 2013 and Mother is now on the mend in time for Safari. Couldn’t keep a good girl down and her timing is impeccable. Mother had to handle the three hour drive via Mzuzu to Nkhata Bay this morning and tomorrow they’ll be another five hour journey to Vwaza, the national park. Realistically, I imagine “the road” will be much like the steep climb that we had when we left Usisya this morning – like riding a rodeo bull for an hour! The last forty kilometres will be again, restoring my mothers faith in travel sickness ailments.
Tomorrow, travel sickness is not an option. Sleeping with a hippo, might be.