A Travellerspoint blog


Paradise found....again

Zanzibar to Lake Malawi

Back on the Train!


Even if the busses in Tanzania had not treated us so poorly we would have opted to jump back on the train. After such good experiences on the trains in India and Thailand we decided to get on the busy train from Dar es Salaam heading south where we would disembark in the town Mbeya, the closest stop to the boarder with Malawi. After departing Dar it was country all the way. I do not think I saw as much as a paved road the entire time. We crossed a few small villages and did stop for a few of them but very rural. Mostly we were staring our across unblemished African landscape. We had heard roomers of elephants and other wildlife seen out the cabin window but despite all my looking we only spotted a few monkeys.

At the station

A lone Cyclist waits for the train to pass

With a 24 hour ride I had plenty of time to study our trusty guidebook in our comfy first class cabin.

After a quick overnight in Mbeya, we where on our way south to Malawi. We had an interesting ride from the train station to the boarder. The bus made an incredible amount of stops along the way including an accident. A truck went off the road ahead of us and we gathered the injured driver and took him to the next town. Shortly after this we picked up two guys in handcuffs and their armed guard!

The problem with AIDS in Africa is no laughing matter but this sign at the border had us cracking up.

Once into Malawi it was complete mayhem. Taxi drivers fought it out for our fare, a fare that we negotiated down to 50% of the first quote. Kids surrounded us trying to sell water and grabbed at the money in my hand when I went to buy. Even after we were in the cab the aggressive negotiations between the drivers continued. We switched to a Matola (Malawi’s version of small shared public transport) in the town of Karonga. The bus was as packed as we expected but the real surprise was when we stopped along the roadside and picked up passengers with two huge baskets filled with small fish about the size of sardines. They had to completely rearrange people and luggage to get them in the van. The smell was overpowering. It was a smell we would have to get used two while staying alongside lake Malawi which dominates the western boarder of the country. Fishing was the primary source of income along the lake and was evidenced by countless drying racks lined with the small fish everywhere you went. Chitimba would be our first stop in Malawi. This was a tiny road stop with a collection of huts resembling a village.

Packing the fish in (note Peter’s red backpack)

We found ourselves at Mdokera’a Beach Campsite. Mdokera ran a tiny beach campsite on his property. He had a collection of small huts with sandy floors that served as basic accommodation. He was incredibly friendly and received us with the warmest greeting one could give. We were quick to dip ourselves in the cool fresh waters of lake Malawi and before too long we were surrounded by all the neighborhood kids who spend most of their days on the beach. Meghan and I were the only two guests and got the run of the small place. His family prepared a delicious meal of local foods (beans, greens, and rice) for us to enjoy under a palm thatched gazebo on the sand.

Meghan and Mdokera

Lake Malawi

At first a few…

And then Many. These kids were cute but they would not leave us alone.

The next day, after making arrangement with a guide, we hiked 10 miles and 3000 feet up above Lake Malawi onto a large plateau to the town of Livingstonia. In the late 1800s after falling victim to malaria on long the lake, the Scottish mission headed by Dr Laws and in memory of African explorer and missionary Dr. Livingston founded its base here. Today it is a view into Malawi’s missionary history with wide tree lined dirt roads, incredible panoramic views of the lake and surrounding hillside, and old colonial buildings. (Including hospital, university, technical school and church) We spent the night in Stone House, home to Dr Laws, a 20th century home with huge rooms built in the Victorian style. We wanted to hitch a ride back down the bumpy dirt road, but after waiting alongside the road for 2 hours without any sign of a jeep we reluctantly deciding to walk back down the trail in the heat of the mid day sun. The 200 miles in Nepal apparently had done nothing to prepare me for this and by the time we got back to Mdokera’s my feet were killing me and I was completely exhausted. We lazed on the beach for the rest of the day and were passed out shortly after the sun set.

Heading into the hills on our hike to Livingstonia

Stained glass window in the Church

The Stone House

A view back down to Lake Malawi

Our main destination and reason for visiting Malawi was a trip on the Ilala Ferry to Chizumulu and Linkoma Islands. This trusty ship has ran the length of the lake weekly since 1957, although its seaworthiness is up for debate. We made our way to Nkhata Bay, a small but incredibly busy port town. This was completely different from the isolated beachside village feeling we got at Mdokera’s. Instead of having the place to ourselves we found the all to familiar backpacker scene reemerging. We only spent one night here but had the entire second day to hang out while waiting for the ferry to arrive from the north. Town was hopping with hundreds of people milling about and stocking up at the market waiting for the ferry to take them back out to the islands. The boat, the only transportation on the lake, brings people in from the Islands on Saturday and then brings them back out with their cargo on Monday night. A weekly market took over the entire town and it was fun to walk around and see it all. We secured our tickets for the first class deck and then spent the rest of the day lazing around .

Bungalows at The Big Blue Star

Edge of the market at Nkhata Bay

One fish, two fish, million fish, all small fish

Scheduled to arrive at 1:00PM and the leave at 8:00PM the Ilala did not show up until 7:30pm. We where told that it would leave as soon at it was loaded, little did we know what this meant! Hundreds of people with an unbelievable amount of cargo were waiting. Most were waiting to board 2nd class with out assigned seating so this meant that there was a huge frantic push to board when we finally were allowed. Clearly not the time for someone with first class tickets to be boarding. Before realizing our mistake, we were swept away in a strong human current over a long narrow bridge to a loading dock. All the locals had big heavy parcels on their heads pushing in a rugby scrum style mass towards the loading ramp. On the ramp itself people were climbing on under the handrail and handing parcels overhead onto the boat. People were actually scaling the railings on the side of the boat trying to board. It was complete chaos and probably one of the most dangerous situations we had found ourselves in yet. Meghan was close to a panic attack but we were already in the mass, and once you were in their was no getting out. Eventually we got close to the ramp and I pushed on the back of her backpack with all my might pushing her past people and onto the ramp. I really felt like it was a fight for your life type of a situation. I am not exaggerating. Once on board we had to continue the fight through the already full 2nd class and up to the first class deck, which was empty.

Chaos at the loading dock. This picture does so little to represent what we went through. Far worse then trying to get on the subway in Calcutta!

The first class “deck” ticket did not buy us much other than a safe haven above the masses below. The top deck only had a few wooden benches and a small bar. After hiring mattresses we spread out on the open deck and slept under the stars. We arrived in Chizumula shortly after sunrise and making our way off the boat was almost as much of a struggle as getting on. The Island did not have a jetty, unloading was unto over stuffed motor boats. The lowered decks were impossibly crowded. Stepping over people and parcels of mostly dried fish and maize we scrambled towards the exit wondering how we would make it on a boat.

A bed for the night.

Sunrise from the top deck

First Class, Ilala Style

Soon we were greeted by William, the assistant manager from Wakwenda Retreat on board. He came out in his own boat and boarded the ferry in search of any backpackers headed toward his place. I felt like we had been rescued from an impossible situation as we were whisked away on own private shuttle. Wakwenda Retreat was directly in front of us and gave a great first impression. Small wooden decks with tables and chairs were built into a rocky outcropping jutting into the lake. In every nook and cranny there was another little place to sit or lay out and relax. An open aired bar and restaurant crowned the small peninsula looking out over the vast lake. I was afraid that the budget backpackers accommodation may have gone upscale but was please to find that we could still pitch out tent on the beach for USD$3.50 a night! Our host Nick, a slightly cynical and crazy expat from the UK ran the only accommodation on the island and was currently empty. There were six of us who had come off the ferry and we were all surprised to find that we were the only tourists on the Island.

Unloading the Ilala. The boat was anchored of Chizzy for over 5 hours unloading and a reported 12 hours at Likooma. Through passengers had to stay aboard and wait.

Nick’s Wakwenda Retreat from the ferry.

Meghan, Jacky, and the Ilala. We had already had breakfast, checked in, set up the tent, and were in the water before the ferry departed.

We spent the next three days just hanging around. The snorkeling right around the rocks was impressive for fresh water. Many different colored cichlids swam about the shallow rocks making themselves easily viewable from the surface. At night time we would all hang around the bar drinking “chizzy” (short for Cizumulu) refreshers with Nick until we were all a little buzzed.

Checking in on the cichilids

Coffee and Bao. We spent a lot of time playing this popular game that involves trying to capture your opponents seeds.

Meghan in her favorite spot on the Island… Do we have to leave?

On our 2nd day we went out for a dive. Heading out into big waves and a lot of wind did not help the sea sickness situation!. Feeling a little woozy we all rolled back into the lake and made our way to the anchor line. There was a good amount of current and the visibility was not that great but we proceeded. A few fun swim through rock formations saved the dive and we wound up having good time while we were under. The ride back in was with the wind and we were pushed back quickly by the waves to the shelter of the bay.

Camping on the Sand. The tree behind the tent is a massive Boabab. The tree is completely hollow on the inside served as a bar at one time and reportedly could sit up to 12!

The new bar and restaurant.

King of the boabab trees. Check out the size in comparison to the small hut by the trunk.

The sun setting on Chizzy

The only way to other neighboring island of Likoma without waiting for the ferry was on a dhow that sailed daily between the two islands. We set out to the beach were we could catch the boat and waited for departure. This was a real deal dhow. The mast and crossbars were narrow tree trunks and the sails were bed sheets. There was no seating, just a few 2X4’s and the side of the hull. The wind was barely up and we moved very slowly across the water. Two hours later we landed on the beach only a few meters from Mango Drift, on the western side of the island.

Our ride to Likoma

Slow ride

Far removed from any of the villages on the island, Mango Drift enjoyed a nice bay with a long beach of golden sand. A few nice beach huts were tucked in underneath many grand baobab trees and a nice bar and lounge area faced the lake. We had slowly sailed from one island paradise to another. We set up our tent on the sand within earshot of the gentle waves lapping the sandy shore. Here we would settle back into our new routine of lounging, trying to perfect the art of doing nothing. Fortunately, a fellow traveler with an endless amount of energy kept us busy with games of volleyball and kite flying! Four more days would pass before the ferry would return to pick us up and we both looked forward to the continued break from the hustle and bustle of the taxing life of an independent traveler…. catching busses, finding accommodation, figuring out were to eat, and trying were to decide to head next.

Mango Drift

The bar and lounge that we rarely strayed from

View of chizzy in the distance

St Peters Cathedral. Out of place on an Island without many buildings bigger than a thatched beach hut!

Our spot on the sand

We were entertained by a poet and a one man band… with a one stringed instrument!

Facing west at Mango Drift we were treated to great Lake Malawi sunsets

Posted by pmunson 09:02 Archived in Malawi Comments (2)

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