Malawi

Returning to Africa

The number one phrase that I said in Malawi is: “I cannot believe that I’m in Malawi”. I doubt that photos that I have uploaded or the words to come, but this country is probably one of the most stunning places I have ever visited.

Just a typical sight on the raod

Bless the rains, down in Africa

For the uninitiated, this is the time of year is the rainy season in Malawi, as for the most of Southern Africa. This is the time when no one is going to the country as the rains make it difficult to travel, hides the wildlife, covers the night sky, destroys crops, flights are reduced and places will close for refurbishments & deep cleaning. Knowing this, I still went. Mainly because it suited my timetable. I’ve been blown away by the scenery that I have seen here, which is worth a visit alone. Everything is so green. The UK is green (but cold and miserable), Dubai is sand & concrete and Malawi… Malawi is wow.

African hospitality and warmth that I struggle to find in the West.

I have always said that I am lucky. A really lucky kid. I still believe that I’m blessed because of the hospitality that I received in Malawi. The real reason I came to Malawi, was to spend time with my family.

I don’t have actual family (well closely related in an Asian sense), but I do have the Chaudry family. How am I related? I’m related via Auntie Saira, aka Mum’s best friend from school in the UK. In a very long story short, Auntie Saira is a pseudo Mum of mine. A person’s whose opinion that I value above most others. She’ll give me food for thought, when I step out of line and is not afraid to draw boundaries on my actions. I always say that should call your Mums on Mother’s Day (your actual Mum, Nani, Dadi and pseudo Mums), so it should be no surprise that I try to call Auntie Saira every Mother’s Day. In the end, to spend time with people who genuinely care about you is, especially when it’s hard to visit them is something that I fine invaluable.

I have always said that I am lucky. A really lucky kid. I still believe that I’m blessed…

Mr Fancy Feet

Before coming to Malawi, I was told (well technically, asked) what on Earth I was going to do in Malawi, especially for 11 whole days? Let me say that I did not have enough time in this country. After one day of planning I ended up going on a mini tour of central and southern Malawi. The only person willing to join me on this trip, Auntie Saira.

Just look at it! The air is something else here

The Trip Begins

We headed out of Lilongwe towards the escarpment where we started to descend into the clouds. The road was quiet and in great conditions. The view? It was green everywhere we looked. Gibson (the driver) was tell us what was around us and the villages in the area where spread far apart, away from the road. The landscape had jutting mountains that were lush and had water trickling down them. The photos don’t do them justice.

The clouds continued to float pass as we went into the rift valley. With windows rolled down, Auntie Saira and I just breathed in the clean air. Pollution free, a total 180 from London, Dubai and Mumbai. Just pure fresh air, even with the elevation; there were no problems breathing. Trying to describe the air is difficult. Sweet, crisp, light, fresh, cool… whatever other words you associate with these. The air was simply delightful. The green landscape made wonder how this country has a food shortage issue.

Just a casual river in the mountains

I cannot believe that I’m in Malawi

My daily go to phrase

No sign of the lake, as we drove through the flood plains. We drive pass the villages until we reached Mangoshi; where we turned to Monkey Bay and Cape MacClear. We finally hit our first dirt road when we see signs for the beach area. We pass the Illovo camps to find Annie’s Lodge where we planned to have lunch and I picked up a Sobo. Sobo is the local cola company, which was surprisingly nice, given that I don’t even like soda in the first place. Auntie Saira negotiated a boat trip, no mzungu prices. I went for my first dip into the lake. Went to see the cichlids up close, which are small colourful fish in Lake Malawi. We were also able to spot some fish eagles as went around an island.

From Cape Maclear we headed to Club Makakolo (with its very own international airport!). Now I have to say that the rooms in Club Mak are stunning. The hotel is owned by an Italian family and the new rooms are nicer than nearly every single hotel I’ve ever stayed in. It’s better than any of the chic boutiques I’ve stayed in by the V&A Waterfront or 5-star hotels in Mumbai. I wish I was exaggerating. You just don’t expect this in one the world’s poorest countries. When you walk around the hotel and look at the seashore lakeshore you just are stunned by the natural beauty. I was asked not to swim in the area as they had recently spotted crocodiles in the water. This is Africa, what did I expect? A large storm came in that evening and there was a large amount of thunder and lighting. The gusts came through my open windows (I had the mosquito net on) and this helped me ease to my senses in the morning. I opened my curtains to see a rough lake and waves crashing in, giving concern to Auntie Saira about our boat ride to the Liwonde.

Just a infinity pool at club Mak
Here’s my beautiful mug at Club Mak

Aren’t the Hobbits from the Shire?

We left Club Mak and headed towards Hippo View Lodge, where we would grab our boat to head up the Shire (pronounced Shee-ray) River to Mvuvu Camp. The waters were calm as we entered the boat, though in all honestly that is a generous description of the boat. Essentially some sheet metal with a motor attached onto the back. I didn’t feel unsafe, but it was concerning at first glance. As we travelled up the river, we saw some bee-eaters, fish eagles, some elephants in the distant, waterbuck in the reeds and what can only be described as a ton of hippos. I was later informed that this part of the world has the greatest amount hippos per square kilometre. So, while I didn’t see as many as I did in Chobe (that was something else), the amount in this “little” area was quite something.

This is Africa, what did I expect?

The tent that I was staying looked onto a small tributary and with just some green sheet protecting me from the elements and the rest of the world, I felt completely at ease (apart from the hornets). With a quick induction of the camp over, we went for an afternoon drive and headed South as the roads dried up. We saw a pair of lions and a stunning saddle-billed stork. We also came across several varieties of buck, eagles, kingfishers (where one even dived onto the road, picked up an insect) and some swallows. We headed towards the river and saw a monitor lizard by the side of the road. We had our sundowners with the sunset across the river and sound of hippos in the background. My choice of poison was a gin and tonic. Something suitably English for the jungle. As we headed by to camp, our spotter Emmanuel spotted a tiny snake in the bush and I have honestly no idea how he saw it.

Nothing like an African sunset

At camp, we agreed to a morning walking safari, which I had never done before. However, upon returning to my tent after dinner, I had a massive gecko (about the length of my forearm) on the door handle for the bathroom area. Let me just say, that I decided that I no longer had the urge for the bathroom that evening. Another storm came that night, which gave me a cool breeze to sleep in and lightning flashes gave me a glimpse of across the river every now and again. I did sleep well to say that I required a wake call, which amounted to Emmanuel saying knock-knock outside my tent at 5:30am.

The morning is cool and while there is some cloud cover, the ground was full of mud due to last nights rain. We walked into the fields with my camera, a gun and a keen sense of sight. While weren’t expecting to see any big game, the walk was a sensory experience where we were able to touch all the plants (or even step into the destroyed baobabs), look at birds up-close and spend some time dodging the low hanging branches. We did a quick game drive after where honestly; we didn’t see much. A small sabre buck heard and some buffalo at best. It was on our boat trip back to Hippo View Lodge, where we saw a fair number of elephants by the riverbank. Liwonde is a place where I want to return, though I would come in the dry season where more animals are forced to head towards the river. I would love to see a black a rhino again, but given their nature, I doubt that’ll venture away from any thicket.

We met up with Gibson and headed towards Zomba.

Haile Selassie

The Rastafarian God, Ruler of Ethopia and Summiteer of Zomba. Okay, so the last one isn’t as well known as the other two, but it’s just as true. Haile Selassie did go to the Zomba summit to have a look across the country, he came for no reason but to visit Malawi. In my mind: if it’s good enough for a God, it’s good enough for me. I told this to Gibson and it got to his head. We went up to the Sunbird hotel to check the condition of the road and with assurances that the road (it was a track) was in good nick we headed up the mountain. As we headed up the track, we had the windows rolled down and just breathed in the fresh air and started to catch up to the clouds that would later give us some grief. There were no other cars on the track, though someone had been up already (we could see their tracks) as we climbed the mountain. As we climbed, we passed a sign saying Emperor’s View, but Gibson said that was just a sign but not the truth. Plus, we could head to the highest peak which was constantly only 4km away. As we headed further along, the clouds came in and we started to be higher than some of them (they would be to our left in the valley while we continued to climb). This started to concern me, however Gibson was so sure that we were only 4kms away. Auntie Saira started to talk to me about my desire to continue. As we got closer to the peak, we started to see the wind pick up and streams rolling down the road.

Before the clouds came in

Even Gibson mentioned this, but still thought that we would be perfectly fine to head to the top. As we got to around 2,100m or there about, Auntie Saira decided to step into what was obviously futile trip to the top and told Gibson to turn around. I did jump out for a few photos of the car in this trip and we headed back to the Sunbird hotel for some tea and Auntie Saira gave me a quite talking to explaining that Gibson only really continued to make me happy and that I should have stepped in earlier to tell to go back, because she was leaving tomorrow back to Lilongwe and it would just be Gibson and myself. As the storm passed (luckily we were in the hotel during it) we headed to Blantyre the commercial heart of Malawi and saw a noticeable amount of traffic compared to the beginning of out trip. In Blantyre, the rain was pouring down. There was a large traffic jam, mainly because a road was closed that day. Which road? Haile Selassie! With me being the genius that I am, I had left my raincoat in Lilongwe and couldn’t find my jacket (which I have taken on every trip since it was given to me in the US), luckily the restaurant was across the road and the hotel gave me an umbrella for the trip.

The next morning at breakfast Auntie Saira gave me a warning about not being an idiot (not in these terms, but in essence) and I decided to cancel my plans for Mulanje due to reports of the weather being poor by the mountain. Instead I decided to head to Limbe to see Tillu and family, because of work and have something that isn’t in the rain.

That the summit, somewhere in the clouds
The view from the Sunbird once the clouds had passed

How to win family and be influenced

I’m not going to get into the details of the work I did with Tillu. When I decided to cancel my trip to Mulanje, I called Tillu and just asked if we could move things forward. Of course, I could. When your day starts at 6am, there is so much more time available. We dropped the car off at his house, I had chai with Dilpa Foi (she requested to be called Foi) and having chai with milk straight from the cow is just 100 times better than using homogenised milk from the store! Afterwards I spent the rest of the morning with Tillu and chatting about what was going on with the business in Malawi and what opportunities are available. We went back home for lunch and I honestly cannot remember everything we had for lunch. There was some fresh paneer which was heavenly and homemade gorkeri! After working in the afternoon, we headed to the Indian Club to have some Carlsberg. We headed back to the house and spent the evening chatting with the family over dinner and learning about life in Malawi. Which also coincided with some power cuts. After a bit of running around Limbe looking for some ESCOM tokens (thinking that might have been the problem) we returned home turned in for the night. I forgot to use the invertor and did not charge my phone or camera for the next day. Life went on…

Factoid: Carlsberg’s second largest factory is in Malawi and has a slightly different taste to the one you get elsewhere

The next day I decided to leave Limbe and head back to Lilongwe for night fall. It was a tough decision, not because of the work (I can imagine do some work in Malawi) but due to the instant bond I made with the family. It wasn’t due to anything, other than one of those ineffable feelings. Just felt right at home. That’s something that I do think that there is a something wonderful about the African hospitality and warmth that I struggle to find in the West.

Thyolo, Mulanje, Dedza and cheesecake.

A tea plantation in Thyolo

Lilongwe is in the central region, with Limbe in the South. With a brief call with Auntie Saira I headed South to see Thyolo (pronounced Ch0-lo) and check out the tea plantations and see Mulanje Massif before heading to Dedza and then heading back to Lilongwe. I still remember going throughout the Cape with the family while Mum wanted to go vineyards and seeing the rows of immaculate planted vines. These tree plantations were almost the same, with the minor difference being the landscape being far more rolling and just green green green. I did try and go into some of the plantations, but I was turned away each time. Shame, but I do want to visit Satemwa when I next return (I called ahead they were closed for the rainy season) because they apparently have an amazing afternoon tea.

We continued South towards Mulanje Massif is an amazing site. I was not going to climb it, as I didn’t have the time or the right clothes. It’s much colder up the mountain and the rains create streams that are impassable without a guide. Again, another reason to return. I was only able to stare at Mulanje and when we got close, I was able to see the water falling off the mountain and in a country already surrounded by mountains, to be in awe of a mountain here should tell you how spectacular this mountain is to see; I cannot wait to summit it.

Mulanje Massif

With all this happening I noticed that my phone was not charging in the car and my camera battery was slowly dying. I decided this was the time to head to Dedza and check out the pottery available there.  The road back from Mulanje was a bypass road and I just saw green mountains all the way back to Blantyre, before heading towards Dedza. We passed Blantyre and started to climb a bit more above the rift valley. After going over the Shire River (much further downstream) the site of clouds below you while you can see the floodplains further below is something else. I wish I had photo to show, but trust me; it’s like being on a plane and looking at the world below. The drive along to Dedza was full of these views and as we left the edge, we had Mozambique to our left. After a few hours we roll into Dedza and head towards the pottery café and I decided to get Mum a teapot and a couple of cups to go along with it. While they started to wrap that up for export (extra bubble wrap and so on), I went to grab lunch where I had some Chombe tea, a ploughman’s & a homemade cheesecake with a fresh jam and then topped off with fresh cream. While the food was decadent, the view was breath taking as one just enjoyed staring at the mountain surrounded by green hills. Not bad, if you ask me. After a quick tour of the factory, I was back on my way to Lilongwe. Home in time for tea and fresh mogo. It’s hard to beat this life.

Not a bad view for lunch

With dinner, there were plans to spend more time travelling around Malawi, but I after some lengthy discussions (some about Haile Selassie), I decided that I could spend the last few days travelling, but then I wouldn’t have the time to spend with the family, which was the reason I came to Malawi.

Feet up or not

So now I decided that was staying every night in Lilongwe I should look at doing some day trips around Lilongwe, with the aim to visit the Lake at least one more time. With the limited amount of days, I decided that I would have a day at home, one back in Dedza to look at the rock paintings, visiting a local market and the other going to Salima to have a dip in the lake, before flying off.

Pygmies’ painted this?

Our first site

My first major trip was back to Dedza to see the rock paintings. Now there are some rock paintings that have been designated as UNESCO heritage sites and without a guide, honestly, I would have missed them. Also, they would make no sense. The first few sites are near a Livingstone Camp site and with the guide an insight to Chewa culture that I was not exposed to for the whole of my trip. Talking about the bull festivals, fertility rituals and how they would decorate their homes. As we moved to the next sites, we went past a church set up (and still in use) by Livingstone and it’s a reminder of the influence of this man. I mean, he is considered to be the main person end slavery in the region.

We got to the building where the UNESCO man is and told that next site is a 20min climb into the mountain. I said no problem, I always hiked as a kid in the Drakensburg. These look like nothing in comparison, plus we weren’t going to the top. The first ten minutes was totally fine, could have walked on that sort of terrain for a couple of hours. The second half was a different monster. Everyone step forward was two steps upwards. Also, the notion of a path, became less and less visible. When the entourage of children who joined me were struggling, then I knew that I might have been overconfident. We got there, after a couple of breaks and sharing water in the heat. The view from the top was worth it. Stunning. The site there is full of the different animals in the region around 2-3,000 years ago. As we headed back down, I was able to take in the breeze and fresh air. We went to the next few sites and got to a cave where you had these extremely tall red paintings which were made pygmies and all I could think was how the hell have these guys made it up 5 meters and not even have a ladder system? Then to think that these paintings are dated 10,000 years ago, how have they survived in such good condition is quite spectacular.

Life in Lilongwe

Now I was able to spend some time catching up with the rest of the family and saw some of the local restaurants in Lilongwe and trying the local food. Honestly, nothing outside was spectacular and nothing compared to the food at home (the burgers Hafsa made were outstanding for example), but it was still nice to go out and see more of the town. The main thing I noticed was the amount of times we sat outside. Nearly every meal I had there was outdoors and I realised that this was the same I had growing up in Durban. Surrounded by trees and flowers, adds to one’s meal. I was able to visit the monthly farmers market and while there was nothing spectacular there (I was able to pick up some presents) it was full of mzungus and I saw some monkeys for the first time (outside Liwonde). It’s a nice place, but I can see why people prefer the bustle of Blantyre.

Note to self, get a fountain in the wall

Salima

Salima was a day trip where Ali, Hafsa and I went on bullet trip to lake for lunch at the Sunbird. The scenery, as it has always been on this trip, was wow! Racing through the escarpment, we got to see these mountains full of greenery and clear sky. To think that this all disappears in the dry season, is a concern about deforestation in the region, but not in scope for this blog post. We got to Salima in a time far faster than estimated. However, the time it took the food to get to our table we probably could have gotten back to Lilongwe! I had some local veg and nsima which is essentially the Malawian version of pap. We had some monkeys wandering around and they did come onto the tables to nick some food. They did and after those shenanigans I headed for a dip in the lake. Unfortunately, the water was quite dirty here due to the rains (debris coming from rivers) and I wasn’t able to just jump into the lake. It was such a gradual decline I had to lie flat to be covered by water. After some photo’s I headed back to land and we raced back to Lilongwe. Salima was far warmer and if the dry season meant that there would be no debris in lake, I definitely see myself going back for a visit.

Homebound

My time in the warm heart of Africa is over for now, though I can definitely imagine myself visiting in the future. For such a poor nation, it was surprisingly developed and while I’m not sure if I could settle there, I do hope that might change in the future. If you are thinking of visiting somewhere new, I would recommend Malawi. It’s not cheap, but it’s beautiful. While it develops on at rapid rate, if you love seeing jaw dropping scenery then now is the time to go before the commercialisation.

I headed home. Back to Umhlanga, with a little faith, that my village now is still the paradise that I grew up in.

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