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Malawi 1999 - "Missionary Trails"

Malawi seemed a rather restrained destination by African standards. However, it did offer a chance to have an African holiday that involved walking.

Malawi is one of the World's poorest countries. It lies along the shore of one of the major Rift Valley lakes. ( Click here is you would like to have a map and keep it open in a second browser window) It is an agricultural country with some wildlife parks, but fewer and less well-stocked than its neighbours. This does mean that it is considered "safe" for walking holidays.

Day 1

We got stuck at Harare Airport when the Air Malawi plane developed a fault. Finally got to Lilongwe in an Air Zimbabwe plane and travelled straight on to tonight's destination. It was not yet dark and the first impressions of Malawi were similar to the high plateau regions of Zimbabwe, though there were more villages and the rectangular houses were very neatly constructed of clay blocks and thatched. The landscape was rough grass we saw remarkably few animals grazing. Cultivated fields were rare.

Luwawa Forest Lodge We were travelling on the main road of the country, named the M1. It is tarmac-topped, but has a few nasty potholes here and there. Three hours of driving took us well into the hours of darkness. We finally turned on to an unmade road which led us to Luwawa Forest Lodge in about another three quarters of an hour. The accommodation was in chalets surrounding a well built single storey building. The grounds lead down via Lawns in front of the buildings to a lake at an altitude of 1700m. Rooms were shared between four. Good food had been prepared for us and the place had a pleasant atmosphere.

Because of the lost time at Harare we certainly did not have any "following of forest trails or hiring mountain bikes" . A slightly alarming aspect of the delay was that we were asked to split our luggage tonight into five days of porter-carried camp gear plus a residue for storage! It was not much fun having to do this late at night after a day and a half in airports and planes.

Day 2

Our bus In the morning we had our luggage packed by 06:30 to be loaded on the bus and we were off early to Mzuzu, arriving in about 2 hrs. Cloud was down to ground level for most of the way. However I enjoyed seeing the trees and bushes in their natural shape; evidently they do not see any elephants around these parts. We stopped at 12 in Rumphi and had a look around the market.


 

Afterwards we continued on our way with an occasional short stop. The scenery was little different from yesterday except that there were fewer houses around once we got inside the Nyika Park. We did pass a small herd of Reed Buck with a single Roan Antelope near them. It was a long journey and the bus was cramped. We did not arrive at Chelinda Camp until after 18:00 and we walked the last few hundred metres to ease our legs after the cramped bus journey.


To quote from Explore Worldwide's brochure "This morning we enter into this park by the Thazima Gate and walk for about 4 hours through the forest to Chelinda." Who the hell wrote that? We had been on the move all day, stuck in a crowded bus with partly obscured windows and no leg-room for most of the passengers. All of us were really cross - we had nearly all chosen the holiday because it involved walking and we were being conned by Explore: it would never be possible to get that claimed 4 hr walk fitted into the hours of daylight!

Chelinda Camp was pleasant and a welcome touch was the lighting of log fires in our bedrooms and the availability of warm showers. Cooking standards were below those of Luwawa, but adequate.

To quote the brochure again: "There will be enough time to explore the nearby Juniper forest or take a walk around the trout streams and lakes, or perhaps you might like to join the optional night drive out into the park. This is the best way to see the leopards the park is known for." There was no night drive available since we were too late arriving. Another con!

Day 3

The lodge at Chelinda Breakfast was at 7:00. Food was quite good. We had a short time looking at our surroundings. There is a lake outside the lodge with woods on its far side. It looked very pretty, in the European tradition. The area is in receipt of German aid money.


 

Typical Nyika scenery! Then we were off. Up past the Alpine-style chalets being built with that German aid money. As we cleared the immediate area of Chelinda Camp we were quite surprised at the nature of the countryside. It is composed of rolling hills just like the Scottish Borders or, say, the higher ground around the M61 in the UK. The main difference was its totally non-varying nature: it was covered either in grass or in burnt grass and nothing else apart from a line of trees and bushes along the infrequent streams. We walked all day without any variation in the style of the scenery.
 
Clients and porters The path was a narrow game trail whose width did not permit two boots to pass readily side by side as one's legs swung.

Twice we did see Reedbuck in the distance. Rather bizarrely we later saw two rat-like creatures standing dead but otherwise undamaged, just beside the path.


 

As we approached the planned campsite we crossed a small river by a highly improvised bridge made from tree branches, which was interesting. We camped on tussocky grass near the river- called Phata Stream.


Day 4

Flowery path After a peaceful night we were up at 6 to find good conditions. We were not under way until 8, when we started the day with a steep initial climb up the hill. It levelled off at the top almost into cloud. From here the scenery improved: we began to see trees and plants around us. Later, when the path started to descend, there was lots of bushes and tall grass overgrowing the path and many flowers.


 

Eventually we got down to an area of terracing and cultivation. We passed through Chakaka village and over a second small stream to our camp area.


 

Privacy was compromised by goats eating the tree-branch screen This was still in sight of local villages and we had some privacy problems with grazing goats eating the tree branches screening our loo.


 

Incidentally, the standards of food and hygiene were excellent, as they have been on all our Explore Worldwide trips apart from the one subcontracted in Venezuela in 1993.

Two of our party who had been finding the walking hard today were picked up here by fwd vehicle and travelled on to Livingstonia by road.


Day 5

Inspecting coffee-bean preparation plant At 7:30 we had packed up and walked a few steps to the local coffee co-operative. There we had an inspiring guided tour. The local people have scraped together the money for their own processing equipment and seem to be working well together.

We continued on our way along a road dug out of the bright orange soil of the hillside. Today we were in farming country the whole time.


 

After the high point on the road we left it and dropped down some steep paths to a fine bridge, built across a river between two large trees. At our lunch stop we joined the road again under a big concrete bridge. This was not connected to the road, but had a ford alongside it.

After this stop we climbed in hot sun up steep paths through farming country. Then down to a small stream where we stopped again and rested in the shade of trees. This was followed by a long slog up steep paths in the hot sun. At the top we found a real town; it even had streets. This was Livingstonia. Entering it, we passed through the quadrangles of a large school and reached the Stone House where we were to stay.

On the veranda of the Stone House were waiting our two companions John and Annie who, bless them, had bought us beer and soft drinks which they had managed to get put in a fridge to cool. Magnificent!

This "Stone House" was the former residence of the mission head and is rather bleak and full of old furniture. However the views out across the Lake are superb. We were given a tour of the church, mission and museum by its present head.

Afterwards we had some stimulating cold showers and finally we were served a good meal in the evening under electric lighting - now and then


Day 6

We set off initially along roads past shops and large houses. The road led to a ravine containing two waterfalls. We descended a path to stand under the falling water of one of them.

The unpaved road continued for some good distance until it began to zigzag down towards the shore of Lake Malawi. At that point we turned off on to a steeper footpath which led down through woods and into tall grass and smallholdings. This proved to be an interesting section since we found ourselves often in the middle of someone's yard and stopping to ask them which was the best onward footpath. This gave us a close view of the local houses in a way which otherwise would have been awkward and difficult.

Eventually we emerged on the beach and we found we were in a rustic holiday camp with a huge open-sided bar area with a thatched roof. They served cold drinks, which were more than welcome since the day had been hot.

Next we walked along the beach to where our steel-built diesel-engined boat was moored. A fine lunch had been prepared for us in the shade of the trees which backed the beach.


 

After lunch we were ferried out to the boat in a small tender and began our journey southwards along the coast. After travelling for two or three hours we stopped short of the planned destination in a small sandy bay with the dugout canoes of local fishermen beached there. There was a brief meeting with the local headman, who was quite pleased to have us stop, since he would be able to sell us firewood.


 

We put our tents up on the beach and after a wait we were treated to a truly magnificent meal, eaten seated on the beach in the darkness. James is a very skilful cook and he can work wonders on an open wood fire!


Day 7

A late breakfast today at 7:30 after a swim around the bay. Afterwards, back on the boat with all our belongings. We continued our way southwards.

Swarm of flies over Lake Malawi On the journey we saw several columns of flies across the lake. We did pass through one of them and found the apparently solid mass was actually quite tenuous. Several people on the boat had not realised that we were passing through the cloud. It was hard to find the flies when they landed on the boat, but when we did they were very tiny.


 

The journey included a lunch stop on a sandy beach full of dugout boats and nets and fish both drying in the sun. The locals watched curiously, as we ate our beautifully-prepared lunch.

Finally we reached Nkhata Bay and carried on past it to our destination at Chikale Beach. Here the accommodation was comfortable. We had paired sets of rooms built under a single thatched roof. Although space was tight, each room had its own bathroom and there was plenty of hot water for showers.

In the evening there was quite a long walk to get over the hill to the town of Nkhata Bay. There were fireflies around this road as we reached the town. As we had been descending the road we had seen the lake steamer coming in on one of its periodic visits. As a result of its arrival the town was bustling with activity and there were dozens of backpackers coming and going and queuing in the warm darkness.

We ordered food at the Safari Restaurant. It was good food and was served efficiently. We sat eating it as we watched the lights and bustle around the ferry, moored at a pontoon in the middle of the harbour.

Day 8

The next morning we had a somewhat rough breakfast in the tiny restaurant and bar on the beach, including the most dilute coffee I have ever been served. A second cup was to be charged for, but at least it did have some (instant) coffee in it!

Today was earmarked for lazing around on the beach. This was a fine sandy bay between two rocky headlands and to all intents and purposes it was our private beach.. The water was clear and warm and I tried snorkelling around the rocks at either side of the bay. There were plenty of small fish there although they were all very similar in type and colour - the colour of sparrows, with only a few blues and yellows showing on a few of the fish. Surprisingly there was a total absence of plants growing in the water. The fish seemed to be grazing on algae on the rocks.

Fishermen pulling in their net There were larger fish in the bay, as the local fishermen demonstrated on another occasion. But, as the evidence shows, not a lot of them.


The whole catch obtained In the evening we went to the adjacent resort of Njaya. They had a barbecue that evening. The food was good, although as always in Malawi the meat was tough. This resort has a much pleasanter and larger bar, where one can sit under the thatched roof and look out over treetops towards the lake. The evening air was warm and pleasant.


Day 9

Woke to find a small shower of rain in progress and there were a few more to follow. Breakfast was rather better today. An odd feature of this holiday has been that the usual dry-every-day weather of the area has been replaced with some cloudy days and occasional rain.

We spent some time standing near a fig tree watching the birds in it with binoculars. Lots of Mouse Birds with their long tails. Two fine large Kingfishers hunting insects in the grass and a Touracal with red eyes and a dark green body, which showed red when it spread its wings.

Afterwards we walked over into town. Quite a few of our party were already there, shopping for souvenirs. We tracked down Amanda, who was in Rachel's hair salon having her hair plaited in African style in corduroy rows close to the scalp.

We walked around the town, looking at batik and woodwork. Went to Jonathan's Bar on the edge of town for a coffee while looking down on the activity of the "bus station" - this is the small area where people gathered to wait for buses and taxis. We then wandered around for some time and back to Jonathan's for another coffee, by which time Amanda's hair was completed and looking very smart.


 

Afterwards we spent a good part of the afternoon bargaining for a small table with Mphatso & James Sulamoyo. Finally we retraced our steps back to Chikale and then on to Njaya for a soft drink before going "home" for a shower. Finally walked back into town with a few others for a meal at the Safari.


Day 10

We got up and got packed. Breakfast was at 7. We were all set to journey across the lake to Likoma Island, however it was considered too rough and we were stood down until 10. I took the opportunity to walk southwards along the shore away from Nkhata Bay and then up a steep cliff path which lead to fields and isolated smallholdings. This was an enjoyable experience, although not a planned part of the trip.

At 10 the story was that we would not depart until 13:30 and we would then leave from the pontoon in the town centre; luggage would be transported there.

We did depart according to this schedule and set out across the lake towards Likoma Island. The waves were fairly big and getting steadily bigger. After an hour or so a sensible decision was made to turn back to Nkhata Bay and we disembarked there. We returned to our old rooms at Chikale Beach, which were still vacant. We sat around reading for a while and then had a coffee at the Njaya.

In the evening we had a very good-natured but serious discussion between the members of our party to perhaps requesting a change of tour plan. (Quite a number of us could see no point in a long journey across the lake to the island and a similar return journey after only a short night there. There were also some who still wanted the visit) A decision was to wait until the morning to have a look at conditions - if good enough we would go to the island.

Afterwards dinner was eaten by most at Chikale Bay and was of a reasonable standard.


Day 11

Up at 6. It was calm and our boat was waiting but, as we took the luggage out, we were told it was likely to be too rough on the lake today. Our alternative plan was to assemble some vehicles during the morning and to make our way on to the Bandawe Mission by road. During the morning the Njaya 4wd arrived and we were in the first four to travel in it.


 

A Mantis calls for tea After a comfortable journey we arrived at Makuzi Beach, beside the Bandawe Mission. The accommodation was good for us and the appearance of the bay truly delightful. We were served lunch and a Praying mantis dropped in to keep us company! We also talked to Wilfred, who is a local school teacher who does tours of the Mission.


 

After the lunch we went out for a walk, accompanied by one of the camp dogs, to visit a fishing village just around a headland along the shore.

We also tried snorkelling but the water in the bay was very murky (2 feet maximum visibility) The local pet animals were exceptionally friendly. We even had a kitten following us on the beach. There were lots of birds in the area and some weaver birds had nests on reed-like plants in the swampy areas.

The others turned up late afternoon, but by then they had acquired a bus and turned up as a group. Later many of the party went for a tour of the local area with Wilfred. Soon afterwards we had a waiter march all round the beach asking what people wanted for dinner - and there was only one item on the menu! The food was OK and was served while we sat at a table outside the building in the warm darkness, which was really pleasant.

Day 12

Weaver bird Up at 6 and I went on to the beach to try for some Weaver Bird photos, but conditions were not quite right. Breakfast at 7:30. We loaded up the bus and set off down the coast, passing through Nkhotakota on the way to Njobvu Safari Lodge.


 

Repair work The temporary ford During this journey we had a stop of over an hour where a bridge had been swept away on a wide sandy river. We had to wait while the next section was being placed in a temporary ford made of stones in wire mesh cages.


 

Overgrown river - good for birds It was after 13:00 when we arrived at Njobvu, which was also a pleasant place. We had a quick snack before half of us went out in a motor boat. We passed along the coast, past some hippos in the water, then through Chia Lagoon and thence into a narrow river overgrown with water plants. This place was most attractive and the bird-life was very good. We had an enjoyable stay before returning in the twilight with the sun setting over the land on our left.

That evening a fresh fish dinner was served with some interesting and unusual extras such as tiny Nan breads and piquant dips. The hut was pleasant although very simple.

Day 13

Locals fishing near Njobvu At breakfast time the second part of our group went for the boat ride. We walked along the beach to an isolated pottery, where we bought some of the pots. Afterwards we went for a swim and I snorkelled around the rocks (again without seeing much variety among the fish) While we were swimming we watched a local lady trying to drive a troop of Vervets from her garden.

Afterwards we had a quick look at some Fish Eagles in trees nearby before going off in the bus to meet up with the boat party and to have lunch on a hot sandy beach with them. They had not seen the hippos today, so we walked a little way through fields to where some hippos could be seen disporting themselves in the water.

Later we all got back into the bus and drove on to Lilongwe and we checked into our hotel just as darkness was falling. We did have a short stroll around the locality and then returned for a shower: preparing for contact with civilisation in the morning. We certainly did not do anything as spectacular as Amanda, who traded her remaining money and several of her possessions for a large wooden carving of an African girl. It was magnificent but it did look more suitable for anchoring airliners in windy weather than as hand-luggage!

Lilongwe - an airport with no planes! We had dinner at the restaurant on the roof of the hotel and then went to bed, ready to rise at 5 in the morning (4 in the UK). This we duly did, ready to go to the airport and journey home. We finally arrived at Long Whatton at 23:30.


Comment

Malawi is a pleasant country full of friendly people. The Lake Malawi beaches are superb and you usually have them entirely to yourself. The walking can be excellent. The whole country is very pleasant and worth a visit. Although it perhaps does not feel like Africa.

Explore Worldwide disgraced themselves on Day 2 with brochure claims that could never ever have been delivered! We were angry and felt cheated, since most of us had chosen the tour because of such claims. Another weak aspect was the trip to Likomo Island, which failed. Locals assured us that such weather on the lake is very common at this time of year. One might hope that a major travel company would not set up any arrangements that were so fragile.

With a little care this could have been a holiday of good walks and excellent beaches.

Update

Explore have agreed that the schedule for Day 2 is unworkable and will be changing this part of the trip for next year's groups.

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