2 Nov 2013

Chill, Man, Chill

Malawi: Lilongwe, Monkey Bay & Cape Maclear

Although Malawi is a pint sized country, its (relatively recent) capital Lilongwe still struggles to rise to the occasion.  It has the feel of a small town that has reproduced itself several times over – its skyline devoid of any discernible centre.  In fact it has 2 main areas, the old town and the newer commercial district, although the layout of each has a slightly random feel.  There are no Lusaka-type malls here, but the wide streets are well kept, and trees explode in blossoms of bright orange and red. 

Despite being one of the poorest countries in the world, it quickly becomes apparent why Malawi is known as the “warm heart of Africa.”  Everyone smiles and has time to chat, and the standard greeting of “Hello, how are you?” is a genuine enquiry rather than hollow rhetoric.  At least one reason for this constantly happy disposition must be the amazing treats on offer at “Ama Khofi.”  This eco café tucked away in the Four Seasons Centre had the best chocolate brownie we had tasted in a long time, together with home grown salads, pumpkin quiche and delicious coffee straight from the hills of Mzuzu.  Suberb.

We were fortunate that our few days in Lilongwe coincided with a complimentary evening of traditional Japanese drumming laid on by the Japanese embassy at the exclusive Crossroads hotel.  It was a novelty to mix with dignitaries from other embassies and thrilling to be just a few rows back from such a dynamic performance from a famous Japanese drummer.  Only the American ambassador, sitting in the front row, seemed underwhelmed by it, wearing earplugs for much of the time.  Presumably he has to sit through things like this more often than he would like.  After the performance we carried on the Asian theme by having dinner at a Korean restaurant.  Unfortunately, despite being recommended, this was a bit of a let down – we both agreed we had had more authentic food on our Korean Airlines flight earlier in the year. 

Chocolate brownies aside there was little reason to linger further in Lilongwe, and after three days we set off for Malawi’s number one tourist attraction and world heritage site, Lake Malawi.

As the road southeast from Lilongwe crests over a high mountain pass, Lake Malawi unfolds, glittering and vast as far as the eye can see.  It is also known as the calendar lake being 365 miles long and 52 miles wide.  Another impressive statistic is that it has more species of fish than any other inland body of water in the world, with a total of over 600, 350 of which are endemic. It is this latter fact that has made the lake the main livelihood for the many small villages that line its shore.  Our first stop off was the tiny cove known as Monkey Bay.  Arriving at the end of season, we checked into the deserted *Venice Beach Campsite* - this was a huge disappointment.  The camping rates, written in chalk on the blackboard, had been hastily rubbed out, and re-written at three times the prices quoted in the guidebook.  After negotiating them at least part of the way down again - we settled into the bar/restaurant on the beach.  Here the staff were either too stoned or drunk, or both, to get anything right.  One pizza took them 2 hours to deliver, during which time they snuck out one by one from the kitchen to replenish their glasses at the bar.  This is unfortunately a community business without any leadership.

The next day we left early and made our way to the popular beach hang out of Cape Maclear.  Fortunately, this was just what a beach resort should be.  Just a few metres from the waters edge, we paid only $3 each for camping at *Malambe Camp*, next to a chilled out bar serving fresh fish and staffed by super friendly locals.  

Snorkelling in the warm waters off Thumbi island revealed the myriad tropical fish that the lake is famous for.  A kaleidoscope of colours darted around us, while fish eagles circled overhead, occasionally dropping to the surface of the water.  We then had an even closer encounter with a lake fish – juicy fillets of kampango (cat fish) were grilled over an open fire and served with rice and homemade tomato coulis on the beach on the island – idyllic.

Later that afternoon we took a catamaran sunset cruise with Joseph from Kayak Africa – this was definitely one of the highlights of the trip so far.  The sails flapped idly in the breeze, and every now and then we jumped overboard into the deep turquoise water.  Always impressive, the huge African sunset was even more spectacular viewed from the water.  Golden ripples danced like flames on the surface of the water as the sun sank behind the row of hills that fringe the western shore of the lake. 

Back on shore, as the darkness deepened, countless stars emerged in the inky sky.  Sometime later, these seemed to replicate themselves on the surface of the lake itself – dozens of wooden fishing boats turned on their lights creating lonely specks in the blackness.  It was by now impossible to tell where sky ended and water began.

But holding true to the African paradox the beauty of Lake Malawi has its nemesis.  In this case it is the waterborne parasite, Bilharzia.  Beginning its life cycle in small snails in the shallows of the lakeshore, the parasite then burrows into the skin of any unfortunate human passer-by.  Entering the bloodstream, they then hunker down in the cosy confines of the liver and intestines before laying eggs and finally making their great escape.  The Bilharzia threat has been exacerbated by overfishing of the Chambo fish, of which the pesky snails are a favourite delicacy.  Fortunately for us a one off dose of 6 large tablets 4-6 weeks after potential exposure to the parasite is apparently enough to purge them from the body.  If you don’t hear further from us, you will know that this is incorrect… 

Days in Africa: 55
Km driven: 425km

Km total:  7,215km

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